Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read: 8 March, 2017

This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

Buy Between the World and Me from Amazon and support this blog!

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

Buy Welcome to Night Vale from Amazon and support this blog!

The Naturalist by Alissa York

Read: 11 February, 2017

After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

Buy The Naturalist from Amazon and support this blog!

Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Read: 30 January, 2017

“It was a dark and stormy night.” 

I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

Buy A Wrinkle in Time from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

Buy Jubal Sackett from Amazon and support this blog!

The Magicians #3: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Read: 15 January, 2017

With this third and final book in the series, we find a Quentin in exile, and a dying Fillory.

Despite getting a good portion of The Magician King to herself, Julia is almost entirely absent. I guess Grossman felt that her story was done, but it was disappointing. In many ways, her journey seems at least as important to the series as Quentin’s – giving us the two paths of magic, the academic and the wild. I wanted more of her, I wanted to see her adventures on the other side (we’re told that she’s made queen of the dryads or some such, but I wanted to see that happening!). Instead, she’s replaced with Plum, who was an interesting character, but who seems to just fall off Grossman’s radar toward the end, and doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention she deserved either.

Janet, on the other hand, gets quite a bit more weight. In the first and second books, she seemed rather hollow – a plot device with bitchy one-liners. While she doesn’t get too much more in the third, she does get her own arc (narrated by herself after-the-fact, as with Julia), and she gets to have her own adventure. It’s not much, but I enjoyed it, and it made her feel a little more real.

After turning into a niffin in the first book, Alice makes a comeback. I struggled with this. At first, I was worried that Grossman would just gloss over her experiences and she wouldn’t get an arc of her own. But then she had such complicated and unexpected feelings about being saved, and that was great! And Quentin was caring for her and accepting responsibility for his part in what happened to her, and that was also great! And then they bone and that whole plot line just disappears. Nothing like the healing powers of sex magic, I guess? It was disappointing, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a character, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a person. And, suddenly, I had to wonder just how much Quentin really had learned.

Quentin’s main foible has been his ennui – his inability to feel satisfied, no matter how amazing things are in his life. He’s always messing a good situation up because he’s too busy chasing a better situation. For the most part, he seems to have change – he’s still clearly depressed, but he seems willing to make the best of things when he returns to Brakebills. He’s not happy, but he does seem content to treat water for a while, which seems to be exactly what he needs.

Then he gets this opportunity to create his own land, and that seems to be a very direct test – did his growth take? Will it withstand a little temptation? And… I’d say mostly yes. He does still go ahead with his attempt to create a land, but it lacks the desperation of his previous choices. He seems to be doing it because it interests him, rather than because he needs to escape. That worked well, I felt.

All in all, the ending felt earned. There are things about the series that I don’t like, and I didn’t like them in Magician’s Land either, but that’s no surprise. But, overall, it worked.

Buy The Magician’s Land from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy Let’s Pretend This Never Happened from Amazon and support this blog!

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.

Buy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks from Amazon and support this blog!

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.

Buy The Spiderwick Chronicles from Amazon and support this blog!

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.)

Buy The Magician King from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading