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Project Intentional Reading: January Checkin

As I mentioned, my goals this year include monthly requirements intended to diversify my reading. January is done, and it was a resounding success.

#OwnVoices

The first category I dove into was #OwnVoices, that is, stories written about characters of some minority background, by authors of that background. January’s Own Voices read fulfilled both my own reading goal and a work challenge.if-i-was-your-girl

Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a young adult novel following protagonist Amanda Hardy as she adjusts to a new school, makes friends, and falls in love. She’s also transgender. Now, I tend to like YA problem novels, filled with angst and feels… and this… wasn’t. It was a sweet story of friendship and first love that didn’t ignore the threats facing trans women, but it also didn’t focus on the angst. I was pleasantly surprised by this, heartened that a book like this exists for teens who may previously have not seen their experiences reflected in novels, or perhaps worse, only seen them cast in the light of tragedy.

 

 

New or Forthcoming

when-dimple-met-rishiBookRiot lists are dangerous for my to-read list, and this list of “Faces of Color on 2017 YA Books” made my to-read pile explode. From this list, I was able to get Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, courtesy of Eidelweiss. It doesn’t come out until May 30 of this year, but I can’t wait to squee over it with other readers when it does. The story deals with a topic that I haven’t seen much in YA lit—that of two Indian-American teens whose parents try to throw them together in an arranged marriage. Needless to say, this does not go over well with heroine Dimple, who faces uphill battle enough being taken seriously as an aspiring STEM professional without her overbearing mother focusing on her marriageability; Rishi is more open to the suggestion, old-fashioned and romantic without being conservative. The “arranged marriage” conceit may raise some eyebrows, but Dimple’s consternation at it will quickly draw in sympathy, and the day-to-day concerns of their shared summer program project are familiar ground for the genre. I did find myself wishing the secondary characters had been a bit better developed, but on the whole, this book left me smiling.

Non-typical Genre

true-gritOf all the categories, this one had me dragging my feet the worst, and really, it was my own fault, locking myself into what exact book it had to be. My library’s winter reading program theme this year is books-to-movies, so I decided to read Charles Portis’s True Grit for both the program and this category, since westerns are emphatically Not In My Wheelhouse. I’d started listening to the audio book a few years ago and got maybe halfway done, so this was going to be the year I did it, I vowed. And… it was pretty good. I don’t really like westerns, but I do love stories with fierce female protagonists, and Mattie Ross has moxie in spades. Her droll, driven voice made this revenge quest quite enjoyable, and I’m glad I got back around to it.

 

That was month one of my personal reading challenge done. February is well under way, though again, I find myself flying through #OwnVoices and New/Forthcoming categories and balking at atypical genre, so I think that area needs a bit more effort on my part.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes; Or, Almost There

Barring any screw-ups of my part or sudden and bizarre roadblocks from the universe at large, this is my last semester of MLIS coursework. In some ways, this will change a lot, and in others, it’s a blip on a radar. I’ve been here before though, on the cusp of graduation, and I have to say, this time is much, much, much better.

Last time I was poised on the brink of graduating, I was terrified. OK, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and in the throes of a full-blown existential crisis didn’t help things too much either. Who would hire me? What could I actually do with a master’s degree in English? Who would I be once school no longer defined who I was? Besides being good at school, what could I offer the world? To say nothing of the personal things I was also sorting through. That semester was marked with panic attacks and frequent tears, and you could not pay me to relive that time. In hindsight, that probably had a lot to do with being 22 and in the midst of Sorting Shit Out, but it felt like being a butterfly  emerging from a cocoon and finding that my wings were still wet and crinkled, not enough to take flight with, with the ground looming up fast.

Truthfully, I didn’t hit the ground, but I spent years hovering in a holding pattern of a good-enough job and a good-enough life. Until neither were enough anymore. Things started changing. Continue reading

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Review: The Walk

Some readers want nice, gentle reads with happy endings. Others like the darker stuff. I’m of the latter persuasion, so while I know it’s good for me to read some gentle reads and inspirational fiction, it’s not at the top of the list of things I was looking forward to. That said, I have done my best to give Richard Paul Evans’ The Walk a fair chance.

The Walk is the riches-to-rags story of Alan Christofferson. Alan’s life is an enviable one at the beginning—he’s married to McKale, his childhood sweetheart, has a successful career in advertising, and wants for nothing. There’s a spot of money trouble due to his and McKale’s poor money management habits, but nothing catastrophic. Until McKale is in a terrible car accident, and Al’s partner stabs him in the back by stealing away their top clients to start his own firm. At rock bottom, Al considers ending his life, but a voice, at first possibly God’s but then sounding like McKale’s, tells him to live. When his home is repossessed, Al makes a drastic decision: to take to the road and walk to Florida, as far away on the map as he can get from Seattle. Along the way, a la Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, his life intersects with and is affected by the people he meets.

This reminded me a lot of reading Nicholas Sparks—lots of melodrama. It seems a strange choice for inspirational writing at first, as the first third of the book is comprised of things getting steadily worse, but the walk is indeed a healing one. No doubt there are worse ways to deal with grief than hard physical exertion. A word of caution: readers interested in this tale will be committing to a series, as this one leaves off only partway through the planned journey. The books are, however, very quick reads that could each be devoured in a dedicated evening of reading.

Now then, my own cynical issues with this: like Sparks’ writing, I found the dialogue stilted and characterizations bland. I found the protagonist fundamentally difficult to identify with: even at his most broken and desperate, he had a friend sell off his remaining assets and put the money in an account, leaving him well enough to put a down payment on a smaller house in certain parts of the country. While he considers himself, down, out, and “homeless,” the truth of the matter is that he can stay in a hotel when he needs to and eat well on his way, a privilege many do not have; moreover, most people for whom tragedy strikes don’t have the luxury of just walking away from everything and not worrying about finances. Certainly, he went through a lot and deserved some time to heal (and the feeling of having his whole world taken out from under him by the loss of his beloved spouse is not something I contest at all), but there’s an implicit privilege to the manner in which he does it that I just couldn’t get past.

…and somehow I went from inspirational fiction to critiquing class and privilege. See? Not the genre for me.

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Review: Bonk

Making love. Gettin’ it on. Knocking boots. Doing the deed. The euphemisms for sex, that most primal urge, are numerous. The fact that I felt compelled to start this review this way tells me that I am probably not mature enough to be writing it, but here goes anyway!

In Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach turns her attention to the scientific research into this often-taboo topic. After stumbling across an article studying human sexual response, Roach was intrigued to realize that even sex can be put to scientific study, at the risk of the researchers being suspected of perversion or voyeurism, and thus, the idea for Bonk emerged. The book covers topics ranging from early forays into sex research, to research focused on arousal to treatments for impotence to masturbation to pheromones. Along the way, readers get delightful forays into quirky information like patent history of sex machines and research into the role of polyester on sexual activity. Also present are the delightful footnotes that add entertaining, albeit sometimes tangential, details. Through interviews and firsthand visits to laboratories carrying out sex research, Roach sheds light on the weirder side of science.

Fans of Mary Roach’s other writing will find her irreverence and humor in fine form here. Bonk is not serious, somber, or necessarily a comprehensive history. The examples definitely skew toward the weird and sometimes discomfiting, and that is fine—readers looking for the drier stuff can peruse the bibliography for further reading. Bonk is also not for those faint of stomach; like Roach’s previous work, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, some of the descriptions can get a bit gruesome (one section, on attempted surgeries to address erectile dysfunction had me wincing on behalf of equipment that I don’t even have, due to the details involved). For those with the curiosity and fortitude, though, the read is worth it.

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Review: Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook

Fans of Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove stories have a new element to experiencing the stories: food, by way of Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook.

Given the role of food and family in the stories, a cookbook is another way to bring life to the stories. The recipes are arranged by types of food (appetizers, breakfast, holiday-themed food, etc.), and each section is associated with a particular character and location within the books. The beginning of each section is preceded with an introduction by protagonist Charlotte Rhodes talking a bit about the characters and their cooking (with some spoilers for the books). The recipes themselves are simple, wholesome fare, with little notes and tips included (and sometimes entertaining notes from the characters themselves, as in the case of the Hearty Bran Apple Muffins: “My friend Helen claims these will keep you regular as clockwork”).

Quite a few of the recipes looked tempting, from the Sunday Sour Cream Coffee Cake to the Fresh Summer salsa. This has plenty of simple, delicious recipes and would work as a good general recipe book, but the only major value added from a general, Betty Crocker-esque cookbook is the connection to the novels. Those novel tie-ins would make it a great Christmas present for a foodie who loves the Cedar Cove novels. It might also be good for book clubs discussing the novels.

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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and when it proves true, the result is absurdity too weird and hilarious to make up. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson, better known to her fans as The Bloggess, is by turns hysterically funny and poignant. Mostly hysterically funny, though.

While few people can claim childhood traumatic incidents involving taxidermy and never would have dreamed of artificially inseminating a cow in high school as Lawson did, many readers will find something to identify with in this rollicking memoir. Some experiences are just universal: panicking over blurting out the wrong thing at a social event, losing a pet, getting annoyed at a spouse’s repeated behavior like not picking up the wet towel off the floor. It’s always comforting to realize others have experienced the same struggles—and can turn them into comedic gold.

As I was not, prior to this book, a reader of her blog, it took me a bit to get used to the rambly, tangential style, but once I did, I frequently found myself giggling aloud. And the madness is not entirely without method—it is, for the most part, a chronological series of stories that can be read in short installments for busy readers with limited dedicated reading time. I most appreciated the later entries grappling with being an adult when everyone else seems to have it together because, wow, could I identify; this would fit well with other new adult reading, I think.

This is not necessarily a book for everyone—people with delicate sensibilities who are averse to lots of swearing will most emphatically disapprove. Those offended by casual and frequent discussion of genitalia would also do well to walk away from this book. (Possible trigger warning: one chapter does also deal with the heavy topic of miscarriage.) Do pick it up if you have a) ever had such a strange childhood that you are dying to know someone else had it just as rough, b) are grappling with being a mature adult and not losing a sense of humor, or c) read and enjoyed the likes of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs and are looking for something equally entertaining.

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Review: Watchmen

This week ticks off another box of my “books I’ve been meaning to read for a while” list: Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Confession: having now read it, I feel daunted by the prospect of talking intelligently about it as I’m still wrapping my mind around its conclusion. But here goes.

This influential graphic novel, set in an alternate 1985 where the world is on the brink of war, begins with a murder. Edward Blake, otherwise known as The Comedian, a former member of a vigilante justice group, has been murdered. The only remaining active member of the group, Rorschach (who narrates large portions of the story through his journal entries) investigates, re-establishing contact with the other members as it becomes clear someone has it out for them. The rise and fall of masked superheroes (culminating in the 1977 Keene Act which outlawed masked vigilantism) plays out on the pages, interspersed with other subplots that initially seem unrelated, like the pirate-comic within the novel being read by a peripheral character that increasingly begins to coincide with present-day events. It is difficult to concisely summarize this one, which is probably why many blurbs and reviews don’t even try.

This is a dense read, both in terms of word-to- image ratio and concepts. The watchmen themselves are complex characters; Rorschach’s nihilism is particularly intriguing, but so too are the others as they are revealed: Doctor Manhattan’s almost clinical awareness of things as they occur and have occurred and have yet to occur, simultaneously; The Comedian’s cynical militarism; the original Silk Spectre’s self-loathing; Ozymandias bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. They each have their own private motivations for acting as they do, and they do so consistently if not always altruistically.

The bleakness and heaviness of the subject matter do not make this a quick read; indeed, it took a good third of the way in before I felt I had a grasp on how the various storylines fit together, so this is not necessarily a graphic novel to hand to a reader new to the genre. Interspersed between chapters are brief sections containing book excerpts, memos, and newspaper clippings, each further developing backstories and current events. After some of the unmaskings and revelations, the desire to go back and re-read to catch the foreshadowing is strong.

Fans of conventional superhero comics will not necessarily automatically like this. If Superman and Captain America give the reassurance of black and white, good and evil, Alan Moore’s palette is more one of greys—many, many shades of grey. Squeamish readers may also be put off by the violence and mature content. Readers looking for something dark and thought-provoking, however, will devour this.

I’m curious to read some more Alan Moore now, perhaps some V for Vendetta… after a suitable interlude of cute, fuzzy animals and fluffy escapism.

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Review: Mockingjay

Readers and non-readers alike are now familiar with Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, and even non-readers are probably familiar with the events of the second book, Catching Fire thanks to the movie. Mockingjay brings the trilogy to its conclusion.

Peeta has done what he does best—protect Katniss, and as a cost, he has been captured by Capitol forces. Katniss, between the trauma of two Hunger Games and not being able to save Peeta, is a broken shell of herself. Meanwhile, safe behind rebel lines, she finds herself once again used as a political chess piece, this time by the rebel forces who want her to become their Mockingjay, the symbol that will ignite the flames of revolution. But will Katniss be content to be somebody else’s pawn? Or is she too broken to care anymore?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. This is the first time I actually finished reading it, having previously started it and then wandered away from it due to a slow start. Katniss is not terribly likeable in the beginning; she is understandably upset, but it’s difficult to reconcile the proactive “I volunteer as tribute” Katniss with shell-shocked “I should be dead” Katniss. The love triangle persists in the earlier part of the book as well, and I found it frustrating to see our protagonist send such mixed messages and then get upset when others are confused by the signals.

And then, right around a third of the way into the book, it got better—though certainly no lighter. I have to give YA authors credit when they let their works go to dark places where characters are in danger and nobody’s happy ending is assured. There’s a weariness to the rest of the book as choices are made and consequences follow. Terrible things happen in war, and some good people die, while others make decisions that are morally questionable in the name of the greater good.

I’m honestly not sure how they’re going to translate some of the material into the movies (yes, every YA-based movie adaptation must now apparently end with the final book being split in two). I can guess where they might make the break, but I question whether they will be able convey some of the events without significantly lessening the horror of what transpires to maintain an appropriate rating.

Obviously, Collins’ trilogy is probably the most well-known of the YA dystopic fiction trend, but if there are still any newcomers to the genre or series, they should start at the beginning with The Hunger Games (the strongest installment by far) before jumping in with this volume. The closest read-alike to come to mind is Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, with another strong female lead and a movie adaptation due out later this month. For further dystopic picks, I recommend perusing Goodreads’ YA Dystopia list; with over 500 entries, there should be something for every taste.

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Review: The Martian Chronicles

For my second science fiction read, I chose a novel from my lengthy “things-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-for-a-long-time” stack: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t quite it.

The Martian Chronicles reads a lot like Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, if the latter involved space travel—lots of short vignettes that rather loosely tie together into a cohesive whole. Martian Chronicles is a lot darker, though. The first few sections begin in 1999 with Martians themselves, but already things are beginning to change as space ships arrive, bringing humans. The stories are arranged chronologically and follow the events that transpire as the inevitable near- eradication of the original inhabitants occurs and subsequent colonization takes place. This is all told in somewhat lyrical, dreamy prose though there is a bleak, almost fatalistic feel to it overall.

Some of the sections stood out to me; the August 1999 section, titled “The Earth Men,” begins humorously with a rocket crewed by humans landing on Mars and failing to find their arrival heralded as the momentous event they feel it should be. Another section, “Usher II” is a dark homage to the works of those weird writers, especially Poe, whom enforcers of the Moral Climates have since outlawed and destroyed (censorship being a theme more famously addressed in Fahrenheit 451). A few of the stories do refer to characters from previous ones, but while the chronology does lend a narrative arc to it all, many of the selections can be read independently as short stories about the future of humanity; indeed, some of the selections were previously published in pulp magazines). Overall, this was a strange and unsettling read, and while I found it interesting, I’m not sure that I found it enjoyable. It seems, alas, entirely too probable that humankind, given access to another planet hospitable to humans, would quickly exploit its resources and destroy the landscape trying to re-form it in a familiar earthly image.

This would be a good foray into the science fiction genre for readers who prefer a more “literary” feel to their genre reading. For similar themes explored in short-story-collection form, try Patricia Anthony’s Eating Memories. Bradbury contemporary Theodore Sturgeon is likewise known for science fiction and fantasy short stories exploring human nature, and his collection Selected Stories contains several Hugo- and Nebula-winning stories.

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Review: Rosemary and Rue

Some readers like their fictional friends kept safe, never truly in harm’s way, despite immediate apparent dangers; you just know they’ll make out just fine in the end. I am not one of those readers—I like it when happy endings are not guaranteed, and the protagonist gets knocked around a bit.

And hoo boy does October “Tobey” Daye, protagonist of Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue get knocked around. A lot. The half-Fae private investigator was once a knight of the fae court, until she lost fourteen years of her life in the line of duty; now she wants nothing to do with them. Unfortunately, she gets pulled right back in when a death curse binds her to solve the murder of Evening Winterrose, one of the oldest and most powerful figures of fairy nobility in San Francisco. It’s going to take all Tobey’s resources to form alliances and avoid getting killed, assuming the binding curse doesn’t kill her first.

I like my urban fantasy dark and gritty, and this fit the bill nicely. The Fae are delightfully treacherous, the stakes are high, and the suspense holds strong throughout. It’s very much a mystery with magical trappings, a la earlier Dresden Files installments. I had my suspicions of the culprit, but I was still guessing until the big reveal. The “urban” factor is also there, though, as the landscape of San Francisco also plays a role in the events as they unfold.

One of the appeals of urban fantasy, like its predecessor fantasy, is the variety of magical systems and beings authors choose to flavor their worlds with. Faeries—the scary, trickster-ish, fickle type, not the cute Disney-fied constructs—add an interesting dimension, and McGuire has done her homework to come up with a diverse range of magical entities, ranging from Redcap hitmen to Selkies to haughty Cait Sidhe. These are beings with long lives and memories, and as readers, we only see a portion of the Fae machinations; Rosemary and Rue is the first of a series, roviding enough closure of the main case to be satisfying but leaving tantalizing threads dangling for future resolution, and this is a series I intend to continue reading.

This would appeal to Dresden Files fans; it has the mystery focus of earlier installments combined with the darker tone of later ones. Readers looking for another tough female lead, though, may want to try Laurell K. Hamilton’s earlier Anita Blake novels.

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