Monday, October 30, 2017

Books 2017: Quarter 3

Friends, it is fall. And fall is definitely the best time for talking about books.

As you probably already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore. You can find my past reviews by clicking on the "books" tag at the end of this post, or be my friend on Goodreads. (You can also just go to the site & hunt down my review feed without being my friend, if that's more your speed.)

ICYMI, the classics I selected to read in 2017 are here.

On to the reviews!


July: Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001, 351 pages). 4 stars. In 1935, precocious-yet-juvenile 13-year-old Briony Talis, budding novelist and playwright, sticks her tortured artist nose where it doesn't belong; a series of terrible misunderstandings ensue, resulting in her 23-year-old sister Celia's love interest Robbie being accused of rape and imprisoned. Written in three parts plus a sort of epilogue, the book follows the lives of the three thereafter, exploring the short- and long-term consequences of Briony's mistake and her attempts to atone for it. I enjoyed this book. It isn't exactly up my alley (I tend to really, really not enjoy WWII books and a large chunk of this one happens during that time period) and I didn't find it earth-shattering but it was creative and well-written, and I spent the whole thing not irritated and interested in what happened next, so win.

August: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813, 279 pages). 3 stars. Ugh. You guys, I hung in there, but man, what a slog. I felt like I was watching a Victorian episode of Gossip Girl. Like. I just cannot bring myself to care who is crushing on who and who is telling what stories about who behind whose back in order to sabotage whose relationship. Fifty pages in and my eyes were already glazing over. I feel like I kind of have to give it at least three stars, because it's a classic for a reason, but ye gods. Parlor books are just not my bag.

September: Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence (1928, 376 pages). 5 stars. This is such a beautiful, sweet book that gets at so many complex & intertwined themes (love, marriage, sex, and classism, sure, but & in particular, the role of women in each of these arenas during this particular time period) and if you're just reading it to skate from one Victorian sex scene to the next, you're missing out. Yes, the discussions and depictions of sex are frank and explicit, but they are always tasteful and in service to the story and character development rather than intended to titillate & shock. At the time I assume it was considered pornographic simply because everything is so explicit, but it did not strike me while reading it as pornographic. Funny, I read this one right after Pride and Prejudice, and about 3/4 through I kind of found myself laughing and thinking, "Lol, this is totally Pride & Prejudice for grown-ups." Similar themes and some overlap in character archetypes, but richer, more complex, and a lot less juvenile.


I've read a lot of stuff this quarter but have not done a great job with keeping up with all of it (leaving out anything I gave two stars or less, of which there were unfortunately several this quarter). So here's what we've got.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain , by Lisa Feldman Barrett. (2016, 448 pages) 5 stars. For the psychology/neuroscience geeks in the room. Essentially, a really well explained, civilian-friendly look at the cutting edge understanding of what emotions are (hint: probably not what you think), how we develop them, and the implications for everything from child rearing to the criminal justice system to pet ownership. As a certifiable psych/neuro geek, I ate it right the heck up and learned all kinds of amazing things.

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. (343, 1998) 3 stars. For the most part I've enjoyed the Culture books. I read this one out of order, but they don't really go in a particular order, so that didn't much matter. It's kind of funny because the Culture books are generally sci-fi, but while this is a Culture book, it's...weirdly not particularly sci-fi-ish. The book goes back and forth between two stories that both take place on the same (non-Earth) planet: That of foreign lady doctor Vosill who has somehow gotten herself into the position of personal physician to the (objectively awful, revoltingly misogynistic) King Quience of Haspidu, and DeWars, always-vigilant bodyguard to (gregarious and somewhat blustering) Prime Protector UrLeyn, of Tassasen. At the beginning of the book, the writer hints that in time the connection between the two stories will become clear, but until then, just go with it. I thought both stories were interesting and well written, but I have to admit that I finished the book still unclear on what the relationship was between the two that I was supposed to pick up on.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi. (2012, 320 pages) 5 stars. If you've watched much Star Trek, you will immediately recognize the title reference--low-rank and often unnamed crew members who accompany the leads on an "away" mission, only to be cruelly cut down by some terrible alien threat or other unsavory circumstances, inevitably clad in a red uniform or "redshirt." The story follows the adventures of Officer Andrew Dahl, who could not be more thrilled to be assigned to the Starship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union. Alas, Dahl and his fellow new Intrepid assignees soon notice that a) there are an awful lot of away missions where three high-ranking crew members always get super banged up but dramatically survive, while some low-ranking crew member suffers some gruesome death, and b) lower ranking Intrepid crew members spend an awful lot of time and energy avoiding getting sent on said away missions. Dahl and his buddies begin to investigate what the heck is going on exactly, and hijinks ensue. Brilliantly and hilariously written, yet still three-dimensional and moving. I would have been happy with a fun fluff read but this ended up being so much more.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. (2017, 336 pages) 4 stars. Hey, as long as I'm on a Scalzi kick, might as well read the latest! However many hundreds of years into the future, humans have left earth and spread out across the galaxy thanks to the discovery of The Flow, which, to grossly oversimplify, is kind of a network of wormholes that have "in" ports near some planets and "out" ports near others. It's this intricate "Flow network" that holds human civilization--The Interdependency--together in a kind of economic ecosystem. But a physicist and close friend of the Emperio (head of The Interdependency) has discovered via the Powers of Math and Science that the Flow is in fact unstable, and one by one the portals that connect vastly distant parts of the galaxy together are about to disappear. And because that's not dramatic enough, the Emperio is dying, and his carefully-trained-and-painstakingly-prepared heir has mysteriously mysteriously died in a mysterious mysterious accident, leaving only his very very NOT trained and prepared bastard daughter to ascent to the Emperio-ship. Politics, plotting, and machinations ensue. Also, did I mention the many kickass female characters? THERE ARE SO MANY AWESOME KICKASS FEMALE CHARACTERS!

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemison. (2015, 468 pages) 5 stars. As one person described it, there are a lot of fantasy books in the world that are all about "Yeahhhh let's go save the worrrrld!" but not a whole lot that are more "Oops, well, we didn't." And that's more this one. I don't know how to even begin to introduce the story, but it takes place on a very hostile, very volatile land ironically called "The Stillness," which has just been "broken" via orogeny, the system of earth/land magic that underlies the whole book. The story alternates between Essun (a small-town school teacher who has come home to find her husband has murdered her three-year-old son and fled with her older daughter), Damaya (a young girl just beginning her training in orogeny), and Syenite (an ambitious, somewhat accomplished young woman orogene). It's hard to get too much into the story without getting into paragraphs and paragraphs of explanation, but let me just say this book was absolutely brilliant in the richness and detail of the world-building, the depth and dimensionality of the characters (including multiple awesome women! And multiple awesome not-white and/or not-straight people!), and the complexity and multi-faceted-ness of the story itself. A crazy ambitious premise, crazily well executed. Can't wait to finish the trilogy.

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemison. (2017, 337 pages) 5 stars. Not sure what else to say about this one that I didn't already say about The Broken Earth here. Brilliantly written; unique and fantastically executed premise; rich world building; diverse and compelling characters that suck you in. Whatever your feelings about Book #1, you're in for more of the same.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. (2017, 453 pages) 5 stars. You guys, if I could, I would give this book ten stars. Twenty stars. Basically, all possible stars. The story is told by sixteen-year-old Starr Carter who lives in poor, mostly black Garden Heights but goes to school at suburban, mostly white Williamson, and has spent most of her life carefully balancing her two different lives. Her life is turned upside down when her friend Khalil--unarmed, not breaking the law--is shot and killed by a police officer in a routine traffic stop, with Starr in the passenger seat. Suddenly her two worlds come crashing together, with Starr doing her best to navigate issues of race, privilege, and justice in virtually every arena of her life. To testify or not testify? To date the sweet cute white boy or not to date him? To overlook the casual racism of a friend or ignore it? Emotionally demanding? Yes. Gut wrenching and hard to read at times? Absolutely. But it was so brilliantly and honestly written and the characters were so real and so thoughtfully created that it never descended into hopelessness or violence for the sake of violence. For me, this one's up there with To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of its power, relevance, and characters. If I could make everyone in the US read one book this year, it honestly might be this one.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. (2014, 320 pages) 5 stars. Another book that's long been on my 'to-read' list but that I kept putting off because I just had this feeling it was going to be super serious and depressing and just leave me feeling kind of hopeless. I could not have been more wrong! I mean, yes. A lot of the subject matter is serious stuff, as Gay's essays cover topics like sexism, sizeism, racism, rape, etc., but she handles them all in such a brilliant, multi-faceted way that things are never soul-crushingly dark for too long. You might cry a bit, but you'll also laugh a lot, and above all you'll probably have to think really, really hard. The title comes from Gay's own conflicted relationship with gender and feminism--the way that she often feels like hell yeah, she's bona fide, card carrying feminist, but not a very good one, because does a good feminist enjoy shaving her legs and getting pedicures and dancing to music with hair-raisingly misogynist lyrics? Probably not, Gay sighs. Which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Yes, she discusses serious issues, but she's also clearly a pop culture guru, so a lot of the discussion of those serious topics are hilariously situated within, say, commentary on the Sweet Valley High books that Gay was obsessed with as a girl, or her uncomfortable fascination with the Twilight series. Yes, I felt sick at her description of being gang raped as a young girl, but at other points in the book I laughed so hard my side hurt. So if you want some really smart, really entertaining, really real talk about feminism and other "serious" social topics, you could do a lot worse than Bad Feminist. Recommended for: Basically, everyone. (Okay, maybe not children.)

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Currently Reading:
By the Smoke and the Smell
, by Thad Vogler

Currently Listening To:
La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)
, by Philip Pullman

Up Next:

And who knows, whatever else tickles my fancy. (Taking future suggestions as always!)

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