Friday, March 23, 2018

Books 2017: Quarter 4

Soooo I've been working on getting my "Books 2018: Quarter 1" post together & suddenly realized that I never posted 2017 Quarter 4! Whaaat?? Such incompetence.

Anyway, here it is. Better late than never, amirite?

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Nothing like logging out of work email for the year and curling up by the fire with a good book! The holidays were busy with various family & social events and all kinds of travel, but I still found some time to knock out a few tomes.

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.

2017 Classics: Quarter 1

2017 Classics: Quarter 2

2017 Classics: Quarter 3

On to the reviews!


October: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939, 231 pages). 2 stars. Private Detective Philip Marlowe is summoned to the home of dying general Sternwood to look into a bizarre case involving the kinda-sorta-maybe-not-quite blackmail of one of his two (troublesome & problematic) daughters. To say hijinks ensue would be putting it lightly. I'm glad I read it because it's interesting to get a sense for the books that commenced the whole noir genre. On the other hand, I fount it slow going and not that interesting for the most part; although it was less than 250 pages it still took me nearly the entire month to read because I just could not get into it. The plot is a bit confusing so when I found my eyes glazing over from boredom I often had to go back and re-read in order to follow what was going on. The 20s/30s slang is also a little tough to understand at times, and yes, I get that it's a product of its time, but I still found it incredibly hard to overlook the sexism and homophobia. (The way the female characters were written was particularly upsetting.) So, okay in terms of the historical interest, but not particularly entertaining, and I spent most of the book asking myself why the heck I should care about any of these horrible people and their exploits.

November: Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (1874, 433 pages). 4 stars. Oh, man. I feel like I could write a dissertation on my experience of this book, but since we don't have all day here let me just say that it makes *such* a difference how you frame this book in your mind. A few chapters in, I started reading the heroine (young farmer Bathsheeba Everdeen) as a long-suffering Victorian lady who cannot for the life of her get free of tiresome self-important dudes, a la Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History:

hi hey
what are you doing over here all by yourself
i’m just
enjoying the view

but you’re facing the wrong way
you’re not facing the party
you can’t even see me talking to you
i know

But seriously, a good book, and a reasonably enjoyable read, if only because most of my thoughts were "O GOD BATHSHEEBA I FEEL U GIRL" and/or "Tiresome dudes: Ruining ladies' perfectly okay days since forever."

December: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952, 601 pages). DNS. Guys, I rolled into December on fumes, took one look at that 600+ page tome & scurried off to read some guilty pleasure YA (see below). Maybe I'll try again next year.


I've read a lot of stuff this quarter, but here's the best of it (leaving out as always anything I gave two stars or less):

The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli. (2017, 336 pages) 5 stars. Becky Albertalli is my new Young Adult spirit animal. In spite of twenty-six secret crushes, 17-year-old Molly has never so much as held hands with a boy, a fact thrown into sharp relief by her sister and a few other close friends who all seem to be moving right along the flirting-dating-relationship curve. This summer she finds herself in the throes of two distinctly different new crushes while her friends navigate relationship challenges of their own. There are so many things I love about Albertalli's style of YA stories. They feel really real, in terms of the characters, the issues they have to navigate, and how they talk and interact. The author pulls no punches in these areas and those looking for "good, clean, wholesome" YA (read: completely unrealistic & sanitized) should look elsewhere. But, her books are also realistic in the sense that they aren't melodrama, and aren't characterized by OMG the worst possible things that can happen to teens. Yes, there are tough (and sometimes cringe-worthy) situations and conversations, but they're also hilarious, light, and soul-filling. See also: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater. (2017, 311 pages) 5 stars. In Bicho Raro, Colorado, the three Soria cousins care for pilgrims, broadcast pirate radio from the desert, and perform miracles. Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, will grant the first miracle to any pilgrims who come asking, but all Sorias know two things for certain: 1) You must never help a pilgrim to perform the second, transformative miracle, and 2) Sorias must never perform miracles for other Sorias, or God help them all. All the Crooked Saints is a story of the Sorias and those they help--the things they want, and and the things they fear. Poetically and gorgeously written, spinning family-oriented magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, with a bit of modern, youthful flair. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude, When the Moon Was Ours, Bless Me, Ultima, and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender will enjoy.

By the Smoke and the Smell, by Thad Vogler. (2017, 352 pages) 5 stars. Part memoir, part survey of independent spirits, all poetry from Vogler, respected barman and proprietor of two well-regarded San Francisco restaurants. I have been fascinated by interesting and unique spirits for years, so I really enjoyed reading about his experiences traveling the world looking for ways to distill the singular charm of tasting with an independent producer into something he can pour for patrons in his restaurants. It's as much a swashbuckling travel log as it is an atlas of independent spirits, entertaining and educational by equal measures, and just beautifully personal to read. If you're new to the world of spirits but curious, you'll surely find it a friendly and approachable introduction, and even a seasoned spirits nerd will likely gain a new perspective or two on the industry.

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. (2017, 512 pages) 5 stars. I knew I wanted to read this from the time I heard it was coming out, but the 2016 election took a lot out of me, and it was a while before I felt ready. As you can imagine, there are some really tough parts. But, there are also a lot of really beautiful, inspiring, hopeful parts, along with a ton of political history and biographical stuff that I didn't know and a lot of the 2016 election details that I never really followed that closely. Politics aside--As a smart, ambitious, somewhat socially awkward female who has been accused of being shrill and intimidating boys and more than once gut-punched by the "I-don't-know-why-but-I-just-don't-like-her" billy club, I can't help identifying with the Hil-dog a bit. If you're already a Hillary/Clinton hater, it's doubtful that anything in this book will change your mind, but if you're at all sympathetic (or even just curious), it's worth a read. I laughed, I cried, and to be honest, I kind of developed a whole new perspective on the amazing HRC.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman. (2003, 286 pages) 4 stars. Orphaned as young girls, Sally & Gillian Owens were raised by their two witchey aunts in an old, bleak witchey Massachusetts mansion. The aunts aren't much on parenting so logical, practical Sally takes it on herself to raise free-spirited, mischievous Gillian while the aunts traffic in love spells various & sundry with the town women. Wanting nothing more than a normal non-magical life, the two girls eventually flee their town and aunts, but now circumstances are drawing them--as well as Sally's own two young daughters--back into the witchley life. I enjoyed this book, but not for the reasons I expected. I saw the Sandra Bullock movie when it came out years ago, and as I recall it was cute and entertaining and reasonably well done so I sort of expected the same from this book. There is a good bit of overlap in the story, yes, but the book was much darker and bleaker and more emotionally raw. The movie is mainly about the two grown-up sisters, while in the book Sally's two daughters play a much more prominent role, as does their relationship with their aunt. Really well written and neatly threading the line between fantasy and magical realism.

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman. (2017, 464 pages) 4 stars. So, first things first, if you haven't read Pullman's Hist Dark Materials, I'm not judging you but really, what have you been doing with your life. As I understand it, The Book of Dust is a new trilogy that explores both the years preceding HDM as well as those that came after. La Belle Sauvage takes place when Lyra is an infant and is about how she came to live at Oxford. It was super interesting and well written, fleshing out and further exploring some central ideas from HDM (most notably the human/daemon relationship) & shedding light (and mystery) on some familiar characters, such as Lyra's parents. There was a section in the middle that dragged on a bit and maybe could have used some editing, but by & large it was great & I enjoyed it & will definitely read the rest of the trilogy, because Philip Pullman.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. (2013, 486 pages) 4 stars. Don picked this one up at our local sci fi/fantasy book shop and I picked it up because it was nearby when I finished something else. Chava is a realer-than-real golem whose unscrupulous master died after rashly bringing her to life on a sea crossing and then suddenly dying; Ahmad is a centuries-old jinni with no memory of the wizard who trapped him in human form indefinitely. In early 20th century New York City, the two forge an unlikely friendship, until a dark threat from the Old World shows up in their new home. Urban/period fantasy is not generally my thing, but this was a well-written story with interesting, well-written characters, so I still enjoyed it.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. (2012, 436 pages) 4 stars. Low-key disgruntled, 28-year-old, stay-at-home-mom of three, Appalachian farm wife Dellarobia Turnbow has her life turned upside down when thousands upon thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate not to tropical Mexico for the winter but to her family's failing sheep farm; a team of butterfly research scientists soon follow with their warnings of climate change and soon finding themselves butting heads with religion, family finances, unprincipled journalists, and more. People keep recommending Barbara Kingsolver to me but every time I would read the description of one of her books I couldn't help feeling like, "I dunno, guys, this sounds a little hard-hitting in the gritty reality department for me." And, I was right; it wasn't exactly up my alley and I found it a bit slow going at times, but it is still a really smart, well-written, beautiful book that covers a lot of oft-ignored facets of an important topic, and I think a lot of people out there will really enjoy it.

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King. (2017, 702 pages) 4 stars. For reasons no one understands, women all across the world are falling asleep and generating silky white cocoons from which they don't awake. And if you do try to wake them, you are likely to find yourself horrifically mutilated or dead. At the same time, a mysterious, beautiful, naked woman has appeared in the small Appalachian town of Dooling, and it's slowly becoming clear to the town residents--from the Police Chief and her husband the prison psychiatrist, to the prison warden and her charges, to the young lady reporter and the town's hot-tempered dog catcher--that Evie Black, as she calls herself, is somehow linked to the bizarre "Aurora" sickness. Women struggle to stay awake; some men frantically protect their sleeping womenfolk while others pursue a cure at any cost. Stephen King-ishness ensues. What I was not prepared for in this book was how it'sactively feminist. There are many prominent women characters! Who are strong! And do stuff! And aren't one-dimensional tropey stereotypes! They are diverse, satisfying gritty, and given real agency throughout the story, rather than serving mainly as plot points for the stories of men. I give the Kings an awful lot of credit for confronting and wrestling with a whole lot of prickly topics around patriarchy and power dynamics between men and women in general. Just being able to write a book like this which basically centers around the relationship between men and women, writ both small and large, and actually pull it off, says quite a lot to me about the character of the men who wrote it.

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Currently Reading:
, by Jeff VanderMeer

Currently Listening To:
Empire Games
, by Charles Stross

Up Next:

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

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