Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

The one with elections, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and #NonFicNovember

November 5, 2020

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening – we no longer recognize time here at Casa de Katie, because I’m pretty sure it’s been Tuesday for almost 72 hours now.

But if it isn’t actually Tuesday the Third, then that means it’s Thursday. And on Thursdays, we review books we’ve read! And since I’ve been both blogging and reading when I haven’t been voting, let’s talk about books.

I’m not sure if #NonFicNov – or #NonFictioNovember in its longer form – is still a thing, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s still a thing in my heart. I never seem to wander past the New Releases section of my library, so designating a month for a concentrated effort in non-fiction is a good thing.

Since I’ve only read two books so far this week, I might dip back into recent reads for an extra review or two, but it’ll be recent, I swear. So let’s go…

Just the Funny Parts: And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, by Nell Scovell (Dey Street Books, 2018, 320p). The thing is, right now I find Hollywood gossip very, very attractive. Or maybe I should say distractive. It’s helping me forget about the recession, and every job I interview for but lose out to someone else, and stress that’s piling up, and yes, even the election. Because I read it all on Tuesday afternoon when during what I call Project Being Patient: Day 1. Nell Scovell is obviously an incredibly talented writer, and she is aces at being funny. She’s so smooth with the transition, like all of a sudden you’re trying not to pee your pants and wondering where the hell that came from. She’s written for an untold number of hit shows on television – of which you’d all know most of the names – and sadly, she reports on the ugly underbelly that goes with all of the happy-funny stories. (Except for The Muppets. YES, she wrote for them, too!) I wanted to hear more of the “Funny Parts” – the account read like a warning for every aspiring Hollywood writer, and that’s fine. It’s an important story to be recounted out loud. I just wish Scovell had flipped tHhe title so I knew what I was getting when I sat down to distract myself, is all. (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf Publishing, 2017, 304p). I just finished this book this afternoon. I had such high hopes for it, and really wanted to read it every time I saw it on my TBR…but kept forgetting to actively seek it out. On my mission this week to surround myself with non-fiction, I found this gem at the library. Yes, I said gem. The book is divided into, as promised, 17 stories. A childhood illness. An encounter with a murderer (I’m not kidding). Incredibly poignant and vulnerable stories about her daughter’s own journey – and Maggie O’Farrell’s as her mum. It was hard to put it down. I mean, it was so good that I forgot about the election while I was reading. That good. O’Farrell’s writing is like if Cheryl Strayed and Anne Fadiman had a little story baby.I highly encourage you to seek this collection out. It’s philosophizing mortality and the goodness of a sunny afternoon while just, you know, writing a quick thing you might tell you dinner partner – honest, compelling, but not gushy or emotional. Gah! Just go read it. (5 of 5 stars.)

Uncensored, by Zachary Wood (Dutton, 2018, 272p, read Oct. 2020). This review makes me feel a bit uneasy. Imma just just in. I’ve read a lot of books about race relations, racism, classism, the politics of social constructs, the politics of America, memories written by minorities living in America, and African American culture. I have a minor in African American Studies. I’m not by any means saying I’m an expert; I’m no where close. I’m just saying, I’ve read a lot. So when I say I am not a fan, it’s not because I think Zachary Wood doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or his experiences aren’t valid, or that he’s a poor writer. Although, okay, yes, a little bit the latter. I’m just saying I have a deep pool of other reading experiences to which I can compare my reading of Uncensored. Here are my problems with the book. First, Wood has an incredibly inflated opinion of himself. Every person he met, talked to, wrote about – he explicitly compared every single one to himself, and found them all wanting. Not once did he self-critique or offer up vulnerabilities or ways he might need to improve. Similarly, while Wood constantly pleaded for others to not judge him – which, okay, valid ask – he always judged others around him! It was so omnipresent, it was painful to witness. Secondly, the tone was depressing. There was no mechanism to elevate himself (well, in a constructive manner, not speaking of raising his status as others’ see him, which he was interested in). He was always woe-is-me. He survived a terrible childhood, his home life wasn’t great, they certainly were poorer than poor. But like, here’s a good example: while his family was financially destitute, Wood opted to not seek a job to earn money for himself or for his family for the stated reason that he wanted to read more. To explore academic pursuits. It’s great to have dreams, baby, but that’s a luxury. And if you don’t want to see it as such, you can’t paint it as an example of how bad life is, and how broke you are. I was left wondering: So what? Yes, Wood certainly deserved to have had a better childhood, a better educational system, a better sense of supportive community, and it’s amazing that he was able to graduate from college given his experiences. But his writing never focused on any one thing. I honestly don’t know if even Wood knows why he wrote the memoir, unless the chief goal was to have a book – any book – published. The “so what” feeling at the end of a book is not something you want a reader to be left with, not if there was any other purpose. (1 of 5 stars)

So there you go. I know I used to have more, but three reviews is a lot more than I’ve been publishing on Thursdays as of late, so I’m going to quit focusing on my failures, and instead be grateful that I’m reading, grateful that I’m writing, grateful that I’m creating – and sticking to – structure in my life. (And also that it kept me from staring at a map for even just a little bit.)

Book reviews: The one with the delusional gunman, delusional grandmas, and a soldier who knew how to stand up for us all.

June 20, 2019

Just because I’ve been quiet lately doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. My goal is 250 books this year, and I might not make it, but so far Goodreads says I’m on pace. (Barely on pace, meh meh meh.) The thing is, it doesn’t feel like that because so many of the books I’ve read this year have barely made an impression on me. They’re bland. Or stupid. Or so not my thing.

Despite all my whinging, I’m pretty sure I can find a few to review for you.

A Small Revolution, by Jimin Han (Little A, 2017, 208 pages, digital, Kindle Unlimited). I’ll confess: the reason I was first drawn to Han’s debut novel was because it featured a shooter in a college setting; the way I process these atrocities is to submerse myself in fictional reiterations so I can play it through to the end and find the answers. It’s whack, I know. But it’s one of my solutions. This short, compact novel was both jam-packed with details, beautifully authentic college-aged vignettes filled with things two people of that age, who were in love, would say to each other. It examines the “third wheel” scenario in Yoona Lee and Jaesung’s love story, and why Lloyd – poor, delusional, cuckoo-in-the-membranes Lloyd – insists holding Yoona and three of her friends hostage is how to solve his problem. His problem? Dead Jaesung isn’t dead. It’s a lot of information, but Jimin Han handled the nuances with aplomb found usually not until the author is far more experienced. The way Han bounced between flashbacks of how the three (Lloyd, Jaesung, and Yoona) met in South Korea, and scenes of the tense stand-off led by the crumbling madness of Lloyd and increasingly terrified hostages. I ripped through the pages, rushing towards the present. Maudlin and tense, intense and beautifully care-free and innocent. And yet, full of violence.  4 of 5 stars.

Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press, 2018, 240 pages, paperback. Middle-grade readers). I picked this up during my Mother’s Day splurge because it had a beautiful cover. The barrette, like the ones my sister and I used, it sealed the deal. The plot: a girl (Louisiana by name) deserted by her Granny in a town off the map (but really in Georgia), somewhere between Florida (home, where Louisiana must return!) and Kansas, where their family’s curse originated and must be broken. Lousiana’s grandma sounded pretty YaYa, the way she stuffed Lousisana’s head full of colorful stories – like that her parents performed in the circus! and how they met and fell in love! and, and, and – only all of the stories Lousiana’s grandma told her turn out to be Not True. Louisiana had to figure out if this mattered and changed who she is – or not. DiCamillo poured so much magic and grace into her characters, and a bucket of spunk into Louisiana. Questioning who she is and who she wants to be is a question many kids handle – and DiCamillo snuck lessons into her characters’ adventures the way parents sneak nutrition into their kids’ food. The result is as wholesome, full of laughs and heart bumps along the way. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping out of Line, by Ryan Leigh Dostie (Grand Central Publishing, 368 pages, digital library loan). Wow. What a gut punch. I had to stop for a minute and just breath. Dostie’s memoir is proof of how women are punished severely for doing, saying, even looking at or like someone at the wrong time. We aren’t in charge. Not only are the assholes who are raping us sending this message home; it’s also the Chinese handcuffs set like traps throughout the system that men set up to report when men (or anyone else) stepped out of line. Dostie saw this. And was brave enough to step out of how she was supposed to act, yanked her finger out of the chinese handcuffs, and said to hell with this. I WAS RAPED. AND MY GOVERNMENT, MY COMMAND, MY POST, MY MILITARY – NO ONE CARED. No one stepped up to help her. She stood up. Helped herself. And spoke up. It was one way to help battle the PTSD she suffered from on the outs. No one seemed to be in her shoes. Reading about Dostie’s journey filled me with so many emotions – admiration, awe, shame, anger, anxiety, triggered, wanting to fight. Good stories do that, and Dostie’s narrative had me from the first page to the last. Trigger Warning, obviously for rape, for PTSD. But if you want to read a story about a soldier who deserves every bit of admiration and support – Formation is a damn good book to start with. 5 of 5 stars.

What books have you been reading? Send me your best recommendations – I’m feeling  a little antsy to mind my Next Great Read, something that will light me on fire the way YaYas did, or Evelyn Hugo did with all seven of her husbands. Tell me! And I’ll be back next Thursday to tell you about a few more of mine.

Book Reviews: The ones with suspects and prisoners, strippers and school shooting survivors.

February 28, 2019

Morning, peeps! (We should all be so lucky to be marshmalloy shapes covered in gobs of colored sugar…) Today I have quite a few books to choose from because: 1) I’ve been killin’ it with my reading pace lately, and 2) because I haven’t done my book reviews in awhile! So let’s get to it!

MarsRoomThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner (2018, Scribner, 338 pages, digital loan). I picked up The Mars Room because it’s a contestant in this year’s Tournament of Books, but I’ve read The Flamethrowers, which I remember hating the cover of, wanting desperately to love, and then putting down a thousand times because I just couldn’t quite enjoy the telling of. So you’d think once I remembered that, I wouldn’t have been so keen on Mars Room. I loved the cover, by the way, and fell just as hard for the pitch: unreliable narrator Romy Hall is in prison for two consecutive life terms, away from the city of San Francisco, which bound her in a way much different than her young son Jackson. The storytelling was smartly done: I loved watching Romy navigate life at women’s prison, broken and cursed. I kept thinking the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black meets Breaking Bad with the grittiness of a Leonardo DiCaprio or Jack Nicholson film. Only the difference here is that Romy got thrown in jail for being one of the other poorer characters, not Piper or Alex, but she navel-gazes like she was Piper. That could be a little distracting, I do have to admit. As much as I loved seeing the reality of prison laid bare before the readers, I loved even more – surprisingly – the way Kushner showed readers what a cursed dystopia San Francisco is to those who can’t keep swimming fast enough and are drowned by the tide. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

ParklandSpeaksParkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories, by Sarah Lerner (editor) (2019, Crown Books for Young Readers, 192 pages, paperback)
Parkland: Birth of a Movement, by David Cullen (2019, Harper, 400 pages, hardcover). I bought these books on their publication dates (just a week apart) because, like many of us, I was so strongly drawn to the lessons of hope and of activism these high school students have fought so hard to teach us. Ridiculously, this is what feels like the thousandth school shooting in collective memory because there is no clear cut answer – at least that the country can agree on. That’s where the argument seems to stall. The survivors of Parkland say that’s not enough. Parkland Speaks is catharsis bound between a beautiful soft jacket cover. Essays, poems, cartoons, artwork – it is the collective hope of the students, teachers, and others impacted by the tragedy, edited by Ms. Sarah Lerner, an English teacher who watched events unfold from an uncomfortably close perspective. The collection is intimate and gorgeous; one that will help us not just pinpoint the moment the revolution was born, but also reflect on our own losses as well as love those still around us.
ParklandParkland: Birth of a Movement was written by the same journalist who penned the go-to book about the school shooting at Columbine, giving him a unique perspective for his newest project. Whereas Columbine ushered in a horrifically new era and kind of mass shooting, you can’t help but feel that Parkland might usher in the answer for the same. The reason you feel that way is because of the hope these students embody, as the world has borne witness, but also a mighty, present kind of activism MSD students have rolled out with a roaring battlecry: NEVER AGAIN. If you think 400 pages of politics and activism sounds a bit thick, you haven’t read anything by Cullen; he captures the day-to-day – sometimes moment-to-moment – activities of the students and their families so closely, intimately, powerfully that you feel the wind of the carousel as it whips you around. How many times after a school shooting have you thought Stop this ride, I want to get off? Parkland convinces you these kids are going to show us how. 5 out of 5 stars; highly recommend as paired reading.

TheSuspectThe Suspect, by Fiona Barton (2019, Berkley Books, 416 pages, hardcover). I purchased this book as a Christmas gift for myself. So many good books were published in the beginning of January by authors I’ve come to love and rely on. Fiona Barton was one. I stumbled upon her debut, The Widow, at the library. I had no idea it was her first book. It’s your basic psychological thriller: the story is set up, you get hooked, there are twists and turns, and then BAM! the surprise ending. There are bad ones, and then there are good ones. Barton wrote very good ones. Maybe not Gone Girl good, her books are a little formulaic, but good enough to keep me guessing. I love the way the point-of-view shifts, and the way that even I, after alllll these books I’ve read in my life, can’t guess the big reveal. Ooh, and also that while the books are all linked through the reporter, Kate Winters, each book is truly a stand-alone. (I’m not kidding; there was such a gap between when I read the first book and the second that I forgot Kate had been in both til halfway through!) At least, that’s how the first two were. The third one – The Suspect – was set up the same way. Only this time Kate’s son is the title character, unfortunately. The dynamic is shifted a bit, and that was a bit muddy. I found it a bit confusing, along with all of the pov shifts that I normally love. And there was something about the story just I just couldn’t hook into. Normally I race through Barton’s books – that’s why I finally just bought the third one. This time, of course because I bought the hardcover, it failed to catch me. I kept checking the page count and found I was reading fewer and fewer pages each time I sat down. I finished it in the end, but I was very disappointed. Even the big reveal was a bit dodgy and meh. So. Would I recommend? Maybe not this book. But I’m definitely still watching for the next in the series. Barton’s allowed the sophomore slump…even if it took a bit to catch her. I have hope. 2 1/2 of 5 stars.

So there you go – the books themselves are all over the place, from Cali, to Florida, to D.C. and across America, to London, and Thailand. But somehow we’ve all centered around crime. Crazy, huh? Reading is magical. And full of hope.

Book reviews: The ones without any hearts or snoogly faces.

February 14, 2019

Happy Valentine’s! Or not. There’s no snoogle bunnies or flying babies with harpsichords hanging out at my house today. On the other hand, I did get the girls very nice sterling silver necklaces with their initial on it. Ooh, and chocolates. But enough of that mushy stuff, let’s get on to the books.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018, Penguin, 289 pages, library loan). I was a huge fan of Moshfegh’s debut Eileen. Her way to get inside a woman’s head and transform all of her onto a page, the living, breathing, mushy, uncomfortable bits – it was amazing. Rest and Relaxation does the same thing, only Moshfegh pYearOfRestAndRelaxationulls everything inside and slows it way. the f*ck. down. Slower. No! Even slower. Moshfegh shines a mothereffing brilliant bright spotlight onto her main character’s addiction to sleeping pills and benzos (and just about everything else, really) as a way of shining the light clear through her to society’s addiction to portraying women’s need to be perfect, and their addiction to society’s depictions of them. Yeah, it was just that philosophical. The way Woman is put up as a commodity is gobsmacking. We consume beauty products, wellness products, organizational gimmicks, magazines, commercials – wait, that’s it. Commercialization and consumerism. We’re addicted to the way they constantly pitch themselves at women. So Moshfegh fed them to her narrator and gave her a year off from work and a nice, dark apartment in New York in order to slow everything down to the most microscopic moments so we could see their effects on the narrator, her relationship with her best friend Reva (that’s a whole different bottle of Whoa Things Aren’t Right Here), and with her kinda sketchy Wall Street boyfriend. Moshfegh’s brilliance shines in both microscopic and macroscopic ways. Pretty much I want to give her Netflix and Sandra Bullock and ask her to do a story of my last five years and see how rich she makes me. If you guys are into Lit Fic, and you’re not in love with Moshfegh, you need to change that situation right the flip now. (4 of 5 very dark stars.)

The Golden State, by Lydia Kiesling (2018, MCD, 304 pages, digital library loan). This was a book I read for the Tournament of Books, and most probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. Daphne is, essentially, a single mom. Her husband was forced back to his country of origin, Turkey, because of immigration issues. The forced GoldenStatereturn has put an enormous financial and emotional strain on Daphne, who then leaves her pretty good job (even though it, too, was crushing Daphne), takes her toddler, Honey, and heads for the hills. Literally – Daphne has a trailer home in the desert where she can collect herself. Only Daphne finds herself embroiled in one mess after another in what was supposed to be her calm new life. And see that’s where I would have abandoned ship – I don’t do deserts. They don’t appeal to me, even in the fictional realm where the analogies practically feed and water themselves. But Kiesling’s strong hold on language pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to know what happened to Daphne. I cared, even after just a page or two. That’s not so easy to do. Golden State offers sharp insight into big, human problems in one tiny 10-day window. I predict it’s the next big book club story once paperbacks hit the shelves. (3 of 5 stars.)

The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2018, Little, Brown & Co., 336 pages, digital library loan). This might be my favorite to win the Tournament of Books. The ToB loves big, sweeping generational dramas, and you can’t help but fall in love with the Mexican- (not Mexi-can’t, as Big Angel would say) American de la Cruz familia. Big Angel, who rules the roost, is dying, and don’t you know his own mama steals his spotlight. His family gathers for a weekend of mourning, giving us an opportunity to peek in on everyone and watch Big Angel’s thoughts about hiHouseOfBrokenAngelss family slosh and spill about. Urrea has such a genius for pinning how big families really work, fighting over bathrooms and grumbling from the mouth but not the heart. I wanted to quote every single line in my book journal – as soon as the paperback hits, I’ll be underlining and highlighting like a college frosh. I had to laugh at Broken Angels, though – there are quotation marks, but no paragraphs! It because Big Angel’s importance and separation from his family is running out and getting all smooshed. Urrea’s wording and phrasing is gorgeous, like I said. All grown-up and plain, but evocative. I love the dual citizenry of the de la Cruz familiar rolled into one language, not in a YaYa way, but the way it truly would be spoken at home, spilling in and out of Spanish and English in the middle of sentences. Urrea perfectly captures family life, squished and compressed, but chock fulla love. Seriously, you guys: I’m in love. (5 out of 5 stars.)

That’s it for this week. My review for Darius the Great Is Not Okay will have to wait for next week. Til then, send me your recommendations on what I should read next once I finish the ToB shortlist!

Book Reviews: The ones with separation because the world died and total immersion in your own little world.

February 7, 2019

That’s a much better title than, Book Reviews: The ones with hardly anything to say. because that was straight up what I typed at first. No, really, it was our working title for a good paragraph until I realized that was a little much.

But… It’s still true.

It was a slow reading week for me. Just two books. I slept for most of this past weekend – still working on getting my anti-insomnia meds just right – and I spent a lot of time reading a book by an author I usually devour, but this thriller just isn’t thrilling. I like when the main character is a reporter outside the story, not so much in it. Anyway. You’ll hear more about The Suspect next week. For this week, we have…

SeveranceSeverance, Ling Ma (2018, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 304 pages, library loan). Severance was starred in my Little Black Book since I penned it in. It’s a The Stand plot-alike, with the world decimated by illness after getting sick from some mystery illness. See? Sounds great, right? Except while the story opens on the office where our main character (a 20-something coughMillenial Chinese daughter of immigrant parents who is delightfully awkward and dedicated to her job despite loathing it) is in the middle of an office scene, a problem that our MC describes in painstaking detail. [I have to add, too, that Severance sounds at times like it’s narrated by Velma from Scooby Doo and at times like Meg Ryan’s typewriter-loving boyfriend in You’ve Got Mail.] Rather than wrapping up the office-y bits, the story stalls there. Rather than let the office bits give us a basis for who our characters are and inform their later choices while sojourning from their origin to the meeting point after the apocalypse, Ma chooses to flip the drill. The apocalypse informs the office novel. She jumps between scenes from the office, and scenes from the journey, which I found terribly confusing, trying to get my bearings. The settings were obviously easy to figure out, but the characters, and where in the MC’s growth, and WHAT was going on – all confusing. Exacerbated by the fact that there were no quotation marks – a problem half my books from last week had too. Ugh. Sooooo, I’d say overall I liked Severance okay, and the idea to flip the script was different and cool, it just wasn’t the book I was trippin’ over myself with excitement to read. 3 of 5 stars.

DictionaryAnimalLanguagesThe Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka (2018, Scribe, 320 pages, digital library loan). This was another Tournament of Books selection, and honestly another book I only would have read because of that contest. It is gorgeously written, the language is like the world’s most comfortable bed you can sink into, surrounded by pillows and down comforters in blues and greys. Lush, but overcast in tone. That’s the best way I can describe this book: I could tell it was expertly done, that the quality was top shelf…it just wasn’t for me. It should have been – I love war stories, lives interrupted or formed in the cracks of what must be and what is happening all around them in WWI and WWII Europe. It’s fascinating! So this should have been a book for. Perhaps it was the wrong time. I just couldn’t engage, skimming and surface reading, never connecting with any of the characters or plot points. I didn’t care about older Ivory, out there in Siberia by herself (well, with Skeet), so I couldn’t care about her earlier Ya-Ya life. Or how she could possibly have a grandchild without a child of her own. I have no idea how to rate it. 2 out of 5 because a story should grab you? or 4 out of 5 because the writing was gorgeous and I think I picked a bad time to read it? Gah. It gets both. I can’t even compromise on 3 of 5 because that jumps it in the middle without explanation.

What is everyone else reading? I mentioned I’m halfway through The Suspect by Fiona Barton (that I pre-ordered for Christmas). I’m reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by the crazy-talented Otessa Moshfegh. And I have a riot of books I bought – Becoming (technically a gift), The Bear and the Nightinggale (a re-read so I can read the rest of the series), On the Come Up (gooooooo! Angie Harris!!!!!!!), CJ Tudor’s follow-up horror novel, and all. the. library books! Ugggggh, I need to not be sleepy so I can read!! Activate Reader Superpowers!

Thursday Recaps with allll the ‘Tournament of Books’ books.

January 31, 2019

Good morning, starshines! Today is Thursday (right?), and you know what that means… book reviews!

Since I’m catching up still, and I haven’t posted on Thursday since the new year has started, I have quite a few books to choose from. 17 books in fact! (I read double that number last year, but let’s cut me a break this month, considering what I had going on. Mkay?) I’ll just grab a couple of them and see how this goes…

A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tehereh Mafi (2018, HarperTeen, 320 pages, Hardcover library loan). I know Ms. Mafi from reading her bestselling novel Shatter Me, which seems to have started a well-to-do series. I expect a series soon and I am here for that!!! For those who haven’t read it, briefly, Shatter Me is a dystopian horror/romance in the same vein of Divergent and Hunger Games. It was fantastic! When the plot felt a little shaky, Mafi’s voice was there to rescue it, strong enough to carry everything asked of it. Given that, I was curious how Mafi would handle teen romance. Expanse is about Shirin, a bright, sarcastic, nearly-mute, Iranian, Muslim girl whose family moves constantly, so Shirin never puts down any roots or tries to talk to anyone at school. It would be pointless. Until this year. It’s just after 9/11, Shirin’s having to navigate alllll the hate that – if you remember – was even more terrifying and devastating than ever before. Shirin and her brother also start a breakdancing club at school. I loved that Mafi was breaking stereotypes by letting a strong female lead enjoy an activity we typically see associated with men. Mafi drew on her past experiences to do so, and I loved the social commentary bit…but the actual talking about breakdancing was a little boring for me. It either needed to be the entire focal point of the book and just go there, or else the technical aspects needed to be trimmed. Otherwise, a very strong showing. 4 of 5 stars.

Call Me Zebra, by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, Digital, Tournament of Books finalist). Ohhhhh I so much don’t even want to talk about this book. Zebra has lost every around her, but that doesn’t matter anyway (hmpf!) because she’s a booklovin’ atheist anarchist on a mission to retrace the journey from Iran to the states that she and her dad took waaaaaay back in her childhood. (Pretty hand, huh?)  Dude = there was so much philosophical bullsheep that I couldn’t even barely make it halfway. This book was WAYYYY NIOT my cuppa. So I’m putting that out there. 2 of 5 stars – I could tell there were flashes of brilliance (probably more than a few) even if it wasn’t my thing.

My Sister the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018, Doubleday, 226 pages, Hardcover library loan, Tournament of Books finalist). This book is hot, hot, hot right now and I’m so glad it made the cut for the ToB, even if it’s as this year’s Hot YA Book That Will Make Us All Think. My Sister is about two sisters, Korede (our narrator) and Ayoola, the title character. Korede feels like she’s the smart, ugly sister who is constantly bailing out her beautiful, dumb sister – I mean, she has had to help her sister cleanup after quite a few messes. Even though My Sister is a slim book, it packs a wallop, and I thoroughly enjoyed unpacking everything Braithwaite had to say about sisters – these two, and others. I mean, look at the title – even there, one can’t exist without the other: Korede is unnamed, only seen because she’s claiming her sister, but she gives her sister the big lights as subject and object. It’s glorious! The rest of the book is like that, quick little jabs in short chapters you’ll swallow whole – all the way to the sucker punch ending! 4 of 5 stars.

Census, by Jesse Ball (2018, Echo, 241 pages, Digital loan, Tournament of Books finalist). I have to be straight with you: I hate Jesse Ball. I hate him so much that I thought I would need to leave this book for last – that kind of hatred and judging the book by its author. But let me tell you this, too – I’m glad I read it, Census, because it was actually a really good book! It tells the story of a father who has found out he is dying. His wife has already passed. And he has a son he loves fiercely, a son with Down Syndrome. Clearly the only answer is to help the government take roll call. Adventures throughout England’s gorgeous countryside ensue, and if you don’t need tissues, knowing how everything will wrap up, well…you have a sterner constitution than I.  3 of 5 stars.

That’s all for this week! Have you read any other Tournament of Books finalists? I’ve also read The Parking Lot Attendant (3 1/2 of 5 stars) A Terrible Country (2 of 5 stars), and America Is Not the Heart (2 of 5 stars). I’m still looking for that one book… Every year the ToB gives me one book that surprises me and I fall in lurrrve!!! That hasn’t happened yet, but I’m patient. (Crazy idea, I know.) Give me your recs!

Book reviews: Tournament of Books style

January 25, 2018

In my attempts to get my crazy whacked life back on track, I’m making more of an effort to blog every morning [Have you noticed? in, like, my two attempts?] and if you remember, Thursday was for books! The reading bug has bitten me once again (THANK YOU JEEBUS) so I have quite a few books to choose from. I’m sorry: I can’t review all 23 in one column.

The Tournament of Books finalists have been announced, and I’ve been reading like crazy so I could catch up with them. I had only read four (The Book of Joan; Exit West; The Idiot; and Lucky Boy), so I had a few to catch up on. Don’t worry – I’m on the case!

HomeFireHome Fire, by Kamila Shamsie (Riverhead, 2017, 276 pages, library loan). Okay, guys, I’m already cheating. Home Fire isn’t in the TOB, but it should be! This was my first read of 2018 and it was pure. fuel. Isma leaves her semi-grown younger siblings behind and immigrates to Amherst, Mass. where she’s attending college and learning from her mentor. But her younger sister won’t forgive her for abandoning them, and Isma’s brother has left to join ISIS. It’s an extraordinary novel about responsibility, the tug between self and family, about outside-in-the-world self and which parts we keep to ourselves. The pace keeps rocketing and the plot kept exploding – I seriously couldn’t put this down. Who doesn’t love reading one of your best reads of the year right off the bat? 4 of 5 stars.

DearCyborgsDear Cyborgs, by Eugene Lim (FSG Originals, 2017, 163 pages, e-loan). This book is a perfect example of why I love borrowing Kindle books from my library – and why I adore the library system to have such a wide selection. I was attracted to this story about two Asian boys, outcasts in a stereotypically small Midwestern town, who bond over comic books. Meanwhile, there’s an actual band of superheroes throwing down and discussing philosophy. It’s a book about resistance, evil, and what it means to live in, push again, and be the “bad guy” in a society that’s totally jacked up. Kind of like how we’re living now. The problem is that I never felt the warmth or connected with any of the characters. So while I clinically appreciated the aim of the book, I couldn’t get into the story at all. It just wasn’t for me. 2 of 5 stars.

SingUnburiedSingSing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2017, 285 pages, library loan). This is one of the contenders I would love to see win the TOB rooster. I mean, Jesmyn Ward, you guys! I would read her grocery list. Because you know it’s going to scour the earth with well-deserved social criticism and yell at us in a way like our grandma’s did, making us want to stand up straighter and be better. Uh…can you tell how much I love Unburied? It starts from the perspective of a teenage boy, Jojo, who has to care for his younger sibling because his mama is a crackhead and his daddy’s in jail. His grandparents are raising him, but they’re dying (and oh, that will crush your heart). So how does Jojo grow up? Why is everyone the way they are? The point-of-view changes throughout the book and while it was jarring because I wanted to stay with Jojo, Ward handled the voices carefully and wielding their words like arrows. Because of course she did. 5 of 5 stars, you guys – I ain’t playin’.

GoodbyeVitaminGoodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong (Henry Holt & Co., 2017, 208 pages, library loan). That was a good library haul. I didn’t think I was going to like this story, but I got sucked. in. Ruth is a mess, contemplating mid-life with her failures (and few successes) as she moves in – temporarily, she swears – with her parents because her father is suffering from the not-so-beginnings of dementia. This was a hard book to read because so much of it struck raw nerves, with my mom’s dementia and the mess my life is in right now. But Khong’s sneaky ninja voice keeps you turning pages, needing to find out what happens next. She’s not flashy, but she is exactly what you need in that moment. And she perfectly GETS all of the complexities of so many real-life struggles. TW if you are dealing with a loved one with dementia, otherwise: read it! 4 of 5 stars.

PachinkoPachinko, by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 496 pages, e-loan). Ughhh, I hated this story. Everyone else raves about how amazing it is, but I just couldn’t stand any of the characters. Pachinko follows several generations of one Korean family, examining their choices in spite of what fate hands them. There’s a lot of shady hook-ups and farmings and business and talking about familial obligations. I just – you guys, no. I only finished it because I had to. 1 of 5 stars.

I hate to end on a bad note – and I have other books to rave about, but I’ll save them for next week. Although, oh dear, the 24-in-48 Readathon is this weekend, which means I’ll have a metric book-ton of books to tell you about next week, and…I’m never going to catch up, am I? Never fear – we shall try.

Have a good day, everyone! Send me your favorite reads!

Book Reviews: The MeetCutest, A Book NOT about Wolves, and Black Hair Love.

June 15, 2017

Morning, all! Just a few books to talk about this week, because I had some re-reads not worth re-hashing am thiiiiis close to finishing my daytime book and my nighttime book. (You know I have my reading groove back when I’m making excuses for a low number!)

So what do we got? Let’s look!

DimpleWhen Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon (2017, Simon Pulse, 380 pages, ebook). This book is the book to read this summer and believe me when I say Sandhya Menon is the new John Green – YA Whisperer Extraordinaire! I hope she’s half as prolific because I can’t wait to get my hands on her next story…and I just finished her first! The story is about two American teens whose (uh, somewhat) traditionalist Indian parents have arranged for them to be married – if all goes well when they meet. Dimple kicked herself for not realizing why her parents suddenly caved and allowed her to go to computer programming camp, and Rishi just about wants to kill himself for blurting out his intentions to spend the rest of his life with Dimple the second he meets her. Turns out Dimple wasn’t aware of the deal-io. And on it goes. It’s the meet-cutest, even if it does feel annoyingly teenagery at times, and a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing. It all balances out, though, because Dimple and Rishi click from (almost) the first moment, and its in the funny, laugh-out-loud moments that Menon’s writing really shines. That, and she really knows how to write secondary characters – not a skill you really hear talked about, partly because not a lot of people really know how to excel at it. All in all, it’s wonderful debut novel and I will definitely be following Menon’s career with interest. 3 1/2 of 5 stars. (That cover, though! 5 of 5 stars for cover art!)

HistoryOfWolvesHistory of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund (2017, Grove Atlantic, 288 pages, used hardcover). Trigger warning for sketchy-as-hell student/teacher relationships, and child abuse. In small town Minnesota (the book flap describes it further as being part of the lakes region of Minnesota, but is there part of Minnesota that isn’t the lakes region? Seriously?), Linda/Maddie lives with questionable parents in a hut that is part of a counter-culture left over from her maybe-parents commune days. History was so hard to read because relationships were never clearly defined – between characters, places, causes, nothing! It wasn’t even clear whether this was by design. So I wasn’t sure if Linda’s blurry AF relationship with her parents and miserable home life was responsible for why she kissed her teacher, or was jealous when a fellow student started rumors that she had gone all the way with their history teacher – an awkward man who later fled because they found out he was fired from his last job in California for pedophilia. As that story line was falling apart, Linda is hired by the weirdo neighbors across the lake to babysit for their toddler, Paul. You know from the beginning that something horrible is going to happen to Paulie – and I thought from the teacher story line that it was going to be sexual abuse – but it wasn’t, and the No Good, Terrible, Horrible Thing was a bit of a let down when I finally found out what happened. I mean, it was awful, sure; it just wasn’t the shock it was built up to be. Yeah, this novel was a hot mess, through and through, in need of a much stronger editor. Solid ideas, they just all fell to the earth and fizzled. 2 of 5 stars.

YouCantTouchMyHairYou Can’t Touch my Hair, by Phoebe Robinson (2016, Plume Books, 285 pages, library paperback). This was nominated as a Goodreads Choice for Humor last year, and YOU GUYS! I am both bummed it didn’t win, and horrified it had to go up as humor! Yes, Robinson is a comedian, and yes, she glossed all her essays with humor, but I think that’s all mostly because there isn’t anything close to “I’m Laughing Because It’s All Funny Because It’s So True It Hurts” – in either an awards category or life profession. There were essays about hair and beauty as the title suggests, but also how Robinson is too black to be white, and too white to be black. She’s the post-Soul aesthetic defined, and I LOVE it. I love her! I can’t believe I hadn’t run across so much as her name before. Bottom line: you should all read her book, see her in person if you can, and help me track down any- every- thing else she has done. 4 of 5 stars.

InvisibleLifeOfIvanIsaenkoThe Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, by Scott Stambach (2016, St. Martin’s Press, 326 pages). Lauded as the next coming of The Fault in Our Stars, I was so excited to sit down and read Ivan! I knew it was going to be sad, but Holy Moses. Ivan is beset by every mean trick the universe could bestow. He was born without both legs, without his right arm, and with only a thumb and the first two fingers on his left hand. He has a connective tissue disorder, making it hard to talk, and leaving his features flat, making him not only hard to look at, but like he’s even more handicapped than he is. Oh, and when another person at Mazyr’s Hospital for Gravely Ill Children (in the Ukraine that cares for 30 children crippled by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) dares to fall in love with Ivan, SHE DIES TOO. We know this from the first page – a choice that rankled with me every step of the way. I wanted to hold out hope, no matter how foolish. I needed to believe. Without that bit, even with Nurse Natalya who is the only friggin ray of sunshine in a thousand mile radius, everything was so. unflinchingly. bleak. I’ve read a lot of bleak stories, you guys. I can handle a lot. If I have hope. This…it was interesting. I wanted to change the outcome. So even though it was bleak, there was an undeniable intrigue and sneakery and brilliance that crackled throughout and drew me to the story. I couldn’t put it down because of it, and, honestly, it’s what kept me turning page after page. Without it, I’d have ditched. So…I guess brilliance trumps hope. Who knew? 3 of 5 stars.

There you go! What are YOU reading this week? What do I need to add to my shelves this summer?

Book Reviews: Found legends, all the nonfiction, and a quiet SK story.

June 8, 2017

It’s been ages since I’ve posted book reviews! Since I’ve finally found my reading mojo, I have so many books stacked up to choose from! Rather than try to squeeze them all in, I’m going to pick and choose…

JaguarsJaguars Ripped my Flesh, by Tim Cahill. (1987, Vintage, 320 pages, eloan). It’s a catchy title, I have to admit. And a jaunty little adventure book, if you’re looking for very short stories into the wild. But don’t expect high-faluting, serious-minded forays into the jungles. The title is meant to be funny and ironic; a nod to when men’s magazines all went overboard with their tabloidy stories. Cahill argued then (and then demonstrated via his books) that what men really wanted to read were honest-to-god travel stories. No fanfare needed. Okay, so I’m not the intended audience, but still – meh. 2 of 5 stars. And that’s generous.

GirlFromEverywhereThe Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Helig. (2016, Greenwillow Books, 464 pages, ebook). This was a deal of the day, and I’d been hearing good things from reliable YA crowds – the ones who read what I read. So I gave it a whirl. And it was decent – not phenomenal like the Daughters of Bone series I had just finished, and that probably didn’t help much – nothing was going to be “good” after finishing that. I can see how the voice here would draw people in and plenty would like Helig’s writing style and the flow of the story. The characters were interesting and well developed. The plot – a ship that can sail anywhere, anywhen if it can follow a map it’s never used before – is brilliant. For me, it was just lacking that oomph to make it special. 3 of 5 stars.

SeriouslySeriously, I’m Kidding, by Ellen DeGeneres (2011, Grand Central Publishing, 241 pages, used hardcover). I’m glad I read it – I love seeing how celebrity’s books translate from their physical world of acting to the medium where your ability to communicate in words (and negative spaces) rules the day. It’s an interesting shift. Ellen managed quite beautifully, as I’d suspected and hoped, but…her stories, while amusing, seemed surface-y to me, and were on the extremely short side. Each story took me about two minutes to read. Not exactly the in depth memoir I’d wanted. So I’m glad I tore through this one, but mostly for the experience of having done so. 2 of 5 stars.

FoundlingThe Foundling, by Paul Joseph Fronczak (2017, Howard Books, 368 pages, ebook). I bought this ebook on a whim after seeing it advertised and recognizing it from my TBR. It’s the story of a couple whose newborn was stolen from the hospital, and of another little boy who was abandoned half a country away, on the sidewalk in front of some stores. The FBI decides the toddler was that newborn, the family is reunited and all was well. Except all was not well, because that boy grows up and discovers not only his story, but that he was not the baby they thought he was. Genealogical mystery unraveling ensues. And you know me – I’m a huge genealogy nut! This book was so my jam. It was written well; well-paced, interesting, yes – a little whiny at times, but I thought Fronczak had good cause. I tore through it, wanting to know how it played out. Definitely worth the money I shelled out. If you’re into true crime, this is definitely worth your time and your dollars. I highly recommend. 4 of 5 stars.

AmiableAmiable with Big Teeth, by Claude McKay (2017, Penguin, 352, hardcover). I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a fair review. One of my two bachelor degrees is in African American Studies, so I was beyond pleased when I found out I was selected to win the new novel based on the manuscript by Claude McKay found in 2012. McKay was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the greatest periods of creativity this country has ever had the joy to behold. That’s not to say a lot of the pieces produced during that time were joyful in nature; many focused on the need for African Americans to rise up, become financially mobile, break free from the tyranny of social injustice, both here and abroad. Amiable is the story of the Harlemites in-the-know working to help liberate Ethiopia, after Mussolini has invaded. The book is a satire and fun is poked at the political machinations of the different factions, fighting over  a piece of the pie, and arguing loudly over the “right” way to fight for it. If you like The Sellout by Paul Beatty, or pieces from the post-Reconstruction era, this is what you want. 3 of 5.

GwendyGwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance Publications, 175 pages, hardcover). I was a little wary as I started; I wasn’t a big fan of Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, and I haven’t read anything else by Richard Chizmar. But this, a Castle Rock novella, ended up being…well, if not exactly classic Stephen King, pretty close. From a world next door, if you like. It’s a quiet story, one filled with dread and a slow build to the finale. I’ll tell you how quiet it was – I could have read this at full dark and not been afraid. It’s the horror of what the human race will do to each other…with a little bit of magic thrown in. The ending was a bit anticlimatic – given events that happened at the start of the novel, I was expecting something a bit grander. But, I suppose it will do. I’m glad I read it. I’m not sorry I spent both my money and my time on it. But I can’t say the story changed me one way or another. 3 of 5 stars.

Book reviews: The week with all the balance – two must-reads, two huge misses.

January 12, 2017

Rumor has it that The Morning News is releasing their Tournament of Books finalists this morning! I tried working my rooster tee into my work ensemble today, but since things are kinda shaky at ThePlaceThatShallNotBeDiscussed, I decided to go a safer route. Which is to say you can imagine both my excitement (PARRRTAY!!!) at the imminent prospect of having a shorter list of books to focus on, and saaaaadpanda that the list wasn’t out when I started drafting my post. Instead of geeking out, I’ll tell you about the books I read this week.

shrillShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West (2016, Hachette, 272 pages, digital copy). I had been hearing good things about this book since long before it was published. Which is why I probably had such a hard time getting my hands on a copy. I jumped when I saw it come up as a deal of the day right around Christmas. (Merry Christmas to me! I got allll the digital books!) West has all the cultural criticism acumen of Roxane Gay and the creativity of Tina Fey, plus the whip smart advantage all my favorite people have of being able to call it like she sees it in such an undeniable way. For those who are seeking to empower their best selves, or maybe just looking for a little hope, a little cultural criticism right now, this is what you need to pick up. As in, I will be buying a full-price copy to loan out to everyone. THAT kind of No kidding, I mean it. 5 of 5 stars.

ihateinternetI Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek (2016, We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages, e-loan). I picked this up because it was on the TOB longlist. In many ways, it’s a novelization along the same lines of Shrill – speaking out against the needless hate and bigotry swamping our culture – but it focuses on the Internet as Vehicle Supreme, the inevitability that foiling it will fail, and, well, does it all in third person. I couldn’t find my footing. The entire thing felt hopeless. I have enough hopeless in Real Life right now, Kobek, I don’t need another heaping plateful. It felt gimmicky and cheap as opposed to a sardonic wake-up call that I think it was supposed to be. 1 of 5 stars.

abundanceThe Abundance: Narrative Essays, Old and New, by Annie Dillard (2016, Ecco, 304 pages, digital). This was another Deal of the Day grab, and I was so looking forward to it. Personal essays are some of my favorite indulgences; they can go in any direction and seem so much freer than any other writing – even fiction, at times. I’d read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and thought maybe I’d enjoy Dillard’s non-fiction more. So now I’m left hoping I like Dillard’s non-fiction about writing, specifically, because I still have one of those books on my TBR at home, and nothing else seems to be working for me. Her writing is sparse, and yes that’s a stylistic choice that can work…but not here, and not for me. When I read books about nature, I want to feel connected. It’s especially frustrating for me as a reader if I know the author was there, in that actual scene, and limited themselves to these few words. I feel everything and write so much of what first comes to mind; I have a hard time understanding why people won’t use 50 words instead of 10. Nature writing…that particularly seems to me like the point is immersion itself. How are we so understand the scene if what we get is “The hill was tall and bare.” So the subject matter was interesting, in a fashion, but Dillard’s writing style was rather frustrating for me. 1 of 5 stars.

uglywonderfulthingsAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood (2016, Thomas Dunne Books, 346 pages, digital). YOU GUYS. THIS BOOK. So many feelings! It’s not going to be for everyone, I get that. (There’s a bit of a Lolita angle that could be read in places.) But for me it was one of those magical reads that I couldn’t suck down fast enough. Greenwood created characters so believable and real that I just couldn’t get enough. It read for me as less Lolita and more of a Bone Gap setting, meets Constellation of Vital Phenomena heartbreak and spectacular, detailed characterization, and the survivory feeling of Homecoming. All some of my favorite books, so you can see how this just blew my socks off. My one hang-up was the way the Wavy-and-Kellen drama stalled a bit three-quarters of the way in. There was a lot of the same-old going on, and I needed either a bit to be excised, or some movement added. Kind of like how The Office was at its best when it was a comedy that used all of its talent for a variety of sketches, before it turned into the Jim-and-Pam show, I liked the story so much better when it showed the resourcefulness of Wavy as she faced all of her challenges, before it settled into the Wavy-and-Kellen show. Not that that kept me from reading as fast as I could, delighting in the sense of foreboding that never once left. 5 of 5 stars.

Okay, have I stalled long enough? Will the TOB brackets be posted…? And whose job is it to keep me sane until they do? HALP!