A Christmas Party

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)
Georgette Heyer, 1941

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

Premise: When the far-flung Herriard clan comes together for Christmas, sparks fly. It's a classic locked-room mystery with the death of a wealthy patriarch and a house full of suspects.

Even though this felt like deja vu, (how many times have I read/seen this plot?) I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because the characters were so interesting.

The characters are more colorful and complex than I've found in many mysteries of this style. Joseph the affable aging actor who's masterminding the party, his stolid wife Maud and her obsession with reading biographies, Paula and the aspiring playwright she drags to the party. We spend the most time shadowing cousin Mathilde who's stylish and practical, down-to-earth and gently sardonic in the face of ludicrous situations.

I spotted the murderer right away, (seriously, have I read this story before?) but there was enough fun in watching the characters play out their suspicions and the police piece everything together. There were a few subtleties I missed that had good reveals.

Recurring themes (beside money and the inheritance thereof) include theatricality/acting, with multiple characters with experience on the stage, and marriage/gender roles. Stephen, the heir, is engaged to a woman he doesn't much like, who doesn't much like him; Paula, his sister, invited a man to the party who she insists that she is not romantically interested in; and no one understands the emotional Joseph's long marriage to the quiet, dull Maud.

Overall, it could have been trimmed back to be a little shorter, but it was a mostly satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Jingle Belle - The Whole Package

Monday, December 19, 2016

Jingle Belle - The Whole Package
Paul Dini, et al., 2016

Premise: Santa’s got a daughter, and she’s been a rebellious teenager for longer than most humans live.

Apparently Paul Dini has been writing short adventures starring Jingle Belle, Santa’s spoiled teenage daughter, off and on since 1999. This thick volume collects nearly all of them: 28 short pieces according to the credits pages.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by some of the early stories - despite being very slapstick on the surface, Jingle’s mix of anger, mischief, caring and defiance often felt like a fairly honest representation of a teenage girl.

Jingle’s been a teenager for a long time, too. Her mother is queen of the elves and her father is Santa, so she’s been “sixteen” for many years. She doesn’t have patience for holiday sappiness, and she’s usually lazy, thoughtless and out for herself. She’s eternally frustrated that no one in the world at large knows about her. When she does try to be “good,” it often backfires.

The supporting cast that comes and goes includes rivals and friends, including magical animals, elves of various types, and other magically inclined teenage girls.

The art styles vary wildly through the book, as at a quick glance almost twenty different artists worked on these twenty-eight stories. The writing varies as well: sometimes it’s funny and satirical, sometimes full of adventure and heart, sometimes… sometimes it’s boring.

Same thing with the art, really. I was prepared going in for cheesecake in these designs, and I was generally able to look past it. Unfortunately, there were a few stories that even when I knew it was part of the joke (there’s one where JB tries to make money by replacing street-corner Santas with women in skimpy outfits), I found it unpleasant to read.

Overall there were more hits than misses, though. Highlights include a story where Jingle convinces the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to fill in for a department store Santa and one late in the book where she finds Frankenstein’s monster frozen in the Arctic and bring him back to the North Pole. The story with Krampus is really solid, and some of the frenemy-rivalry between Jingle and Tashi the (anthropomorphic) snow leopard is fun.

This volume is a bit much for a casual reader (it took me a long time to get through it), although the short story format means you can read it off and on. However, the lack of page numbers on the contents page makes it hard to find any specific story.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)
Donna Ball, 2011

Christmas crossposting!

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: Raine Stockton runs an obedience school, or she would if the contractors would finish upgrading her facility. She trains dogs, keeps dogs, and sometimes that means she follows their noses right into trouble.

This is another cozy mystery that’s more what I would call romantic slice-of-life with a pinch of mystery. Raine’s friends, job, and trouble with men are, if not interchangeable with others I’ve read, certainly of a type.

The mystery isn’t much of the story - someone is stealing nativity Jesuses and some puppies are abandoned. Also a teenager’s abusive father turns up mysteriously dead, but Raine and company only briefly feel like they are in any danger, and she only gets involved because her trained search dog is helpful for the small-town police.

A lot more of the book concerns Raine and her well-off boyfriend moving to the next level, including Raine befriending his daughter (after several false starts).

Most of the Christmas connections here concern giving presents, and a real baby abandoned in a nativity scene. It was a fine popcorn read, but I’m not going to be hunting down more by this author in a hurry.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

A Big Sky Christmas

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Big Sky Christmas
William W. Johnstone* and J.A. Johnstone, 2013

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

*As I discovered at the end of the book, this was one of many books written from notes/unfinished manuscripts by another after this author’s death.

Premise: Famous frontiersman Jamie McCallister hadn’t intended to get involved, but someone had to get the pilgrims to Montana by Christmas.

I told Erin I read a Western. I said it was boring. He said, “Yup, then it’s a western.”

This book wasn’t terribly written, I guess, but I found it quite dull. All the characters are either good or evil. All the evil characters end up dead, mostly after surprisingly short, not-very-tense action scenes. All the obvious plot hooks are followed up with almost no surprises.

It must be odd, to write a Western today. If someone’s just writing a straight Western, I wonder how many are caught in the weird space like this one -- the language and philosophy has to be somewhat dated or you’ll never make it through a plot with a bunch of characters going out to “settle” land where people live. But it can’t be too dated, you need a female character with spark (but she’s still a good girl, just an adventure-seeker) and some supporting characters who are Native American and Jewish, so that the white male main characters can prove how open-minded they are.

As I said, all the characters who are straight-up villains turn up one after another to be killed by the unstoppable skills of the main character. None of these characters seem to have any motive other than “be a one-note villain.” All the characters who are more just nasty (bigoted, sexist) end up dead as well, but by other hands. Technically we don’t know whether all the Native people who end up dead after fighting with the characters were villains, because unlike the white villains, they didn’t get any point-of-view passages.

I started reading faster and faster in the middle, as I realized that I didn’t really care whether any of the characters lived or died, or got where they were going. I did make it to the end, though, so I can report that the wagon train is saved from a fire by a Christmas Eve snowstorm. Also, earlier there’s a bit where a Jewish rabbi and a Cheyenne medicine man understand each other sort of because religion is magic.

Again, it’s not bad on a technical writing level, but it was really, REALLY not for me.

1 Star - Didn’t Like It.

Murder in Christmas River

Monday, December 5, 2016

Murder in Christmas River
Meg Muldoon, 2012

Christmas crossposting!

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: Cinnamon Peters is determined to win this year’s gingerbread house competition. It’s good press for her pie shop, and showing up her rival is just icing on the proverbial cake. But when one of the judges turns up dead behind her shop and an old flame cruises back into town, she’ll have more than a contest to worry about.

This is one of those cozy mysteries that’s closer to the romance end of the spectrum, but I think it works.

Cinnamon is a likeable protagonist: emotional without being too sappy, short-tempered at times, snarky but overall kind. Other characters include her friend Kara, her grandfather she’s looking after, her rival in the competition, her new/old crush, her jerk ex-husband, and other townsfolk. They are each interesting without being too unbelievable.

Is this great literature? Of course not, but it has what I’m generally looking for in a cozy mystery: a good-hearted but realistic protagonist who stands up for herself and others, a mystery which is solved by the end in a satisfying manner, a cute setting, and a happy ending.

As I said above, this one is heavier on the romance and the interpersonal relationships and lighter on the mystery. I did really like Cinnamon’s relationship with the ultimate villain; she was able to see the other person’s position and sympathize in a way that humanized the whole story.

The very end is heavier on the sappiness, but it wasn’t too bad.

It’s harmless fluff, but enjoyable enough that if I see more of this author’s work on sale, I’ll probably pick some up. It’s a perfect commuting read, or a comforting brain break from holiday stress.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Also, this author is supposedly coming out with an even more explicitly Christmas cozy mystery soon, so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for that.

NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville

Friday, December 2, 2016

NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville
Jim Shelley, Haigen Shelley, Anna Liisa Jones, 2016

Premise: Santa’s daughter and the princess of the yetis go on an afternoon adventure to save Christmas.

This sweet comic book from Action Lab Comics is a digital-first release this year, planned to be a gift-ready hardcover next year.

The story isn’t anything more than it appears to be, but it’s a cute, well-done tale. The art is clean and bright and the writing is clever. Some of the little details and tweaks on holiday lore were things I’d never seen before and quite liked.

Holly Claus meets Frostina under parental pressure, but they hit it off immediately. During a quick tour of Santa’s workshop, they run into a goblin who reports (in crayon-drawing speech bubbles representing a language barrier) that Krampus is interfering with the goblins who prepare the Christmas coal.

The girls travel under Snowville to investigate, facing harvest-themed straw men and a snow dragon on the way. The adventure never feels particularly dangerous, but that fits the story and the writing is charming and funny.

Good triumphs, of course, and the girls return to the workshop for a snack. I recommend this little holiday tale for fans of quality all ages media (while not quite as subversive as Action Lab’s most well-known title, Princeless, this is in a similar adventure/humor vein) and kids who like fantasy humor.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Ho-Ho-Homicide

Monday, November 28, 2016

Ho-Ho-Homicide
Kaitlyn Dunnett, 2014

Christmas crossposting!

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: When Liss’ old friend Gina blows into town with a request concerning an inherited Christmas tree farm, Liss thinks it’s a good opportunity for a casual vacation. It’s been years since she stumbled into a murder investigation, after all.

This is a perfectly serviceable mystery novel. The characters are fine, the writing is good, the plot is interesting even though the villains are too obvious.

The best part is the fact that it is set on a Christmas tree farm.

It actually takes place in late November, and Liss and her husband are tasked with figuring out whether Gina can turn a profit that year, and eventually with figuring out what happened to the previous owner and an unknown man killed on the property years ago. Some of the minutia of growing and selling trees is addressed. I enjoyed the minor character Andy, a young woman who used to work there as a teenager, who has been caring for the farm while no one lived there.

Everything else is just another cozy mystery - people who dislike the main character are villains, quirky small town characters are mostly who they appear to be, and the main characters all espouse the modern middle-class values of the author.

Liss’ husband even is modeled after the author’s husband, to the point of building the same kind of custom jigsaw puzzle tables. From the book, I thought these were inlaid with puzzle patterns, but they are actually tables specifically for doing puzzles on. Okay, I guess there’s a market for almost everything.

It’s an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, but not much more.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga)

Monday, November 21, 2016


The Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga)
Lois McMaster Bujold, 1990

Hugo Winner - 1991

Premise: Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Imperial Service Academy and gets his first assignment: Weather Officer at a remote, unhappy base. Later, foiling plots and surviving the complex intrigue of interplanetary warfare should be easy.

In the internal chronology of the series, this book follows The Warrior’s Apprentice (and the Hugo-winning novella The Mountains of Mourning). However, it was written after several additional novellas and a novel which take place later.

This isn’t one that I re-read as frequently as some others in this series, but reading it again now, perhaps I should revise that habit. The story mainly concerns a series of adventures and misadventures in the Hegen Hub, a crossroads in space held between four planetary powers, each jockeying for position, spying on each other, and nervous about increased tensions.

The beginning isn’t the strongest part. Miles is shipped off to his ill-fated meteorological assignment, and while it’s a great little interlude, important in the formation of Miles’ character and his career, it’s sort of stressful to re-read. The second half is more fast-paced and frankly more fun.

But the heart of this book is motivation, service, and what you fight for. The various characters, heroes and villains, are pulled in many directions by personal, professional, and moral convictions. Miles is trying to find a way to serve his planet, despite a predilection for insubordination and a mania for control. General Metzov from the arctic base says a lot about honor and service, but his moral compass is a bit… askew. Cavilo fights only for herself; Tung wants his command back but has firm moral codes; Oser’s morality tends toward pragmatism. Elena and Baz are struggling with their duties to the mercenary fleet and their duties to themselves and each other.

I think this is one of the first times, but not the last, that it is stated in this series - the idea that to be Vor (of the military aristocracy of Barrayar) is to serve. The Vor Game pokes at all the nuances of that service, from Miles’ nascent career to Emperor Gregor’s dissatisfaction with his own role.

That’s on top of memorable characters, action, escapes, emotional turmoil, and grand schemes. Bujold packs a lot into a book.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016



I have two reviews in queue, but I don't feel right posting anything yet.

I'll just leave some old links here, shall I?

The Handmaid's Tale

Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine (Volume One)

The Feminine Mystique

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Monday, November 7, 2016


Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
Gabrielle Hamilton, 2011

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a food memoir

Premise: Gabrielle Hamilton has a successful restaurant in New York City, but she’s always trying to capture an experience of food that you don’t normally find in the food industry. In this memoir, she traces her life from her quirky childhood through her unconventional attempts at education to her unusual marriage and the relationship with food that runs under it all.

I struggled with finding a book for this challenge. I started one and dropped it, perused a lot of lists and nothing called to me. Then I saw this book on several lists of great food memoirs, and it was available from the library as an audiobook on a day when I needed a new audiobook.

It must have been fate, because I really liked this one.

And it’s only partially because it contains some of the best descriptions of my alma mater I’ve ever heard, and I wasn’t expecting that at all.

“It was the most ill-conceived - not to mention expensive - education model I ever could have imagined for myself, this one in which you spring loose totally aimless eighteen-year-olds on a campus designed much more like graduate school than undergrad, and then watch all but the most serious and exceptional of them flail and falter.”

She is one of the many “alums” of Hampshire who did not graduate from that institution, although she did (only half-ironically) appreciate what she learned in the time she spent there.

Her attempt at Hampshire was after dropping out of another school, after lying about her age to be a cocktail waitress in New York, after going through her parents’ (one artistic, one high-strung) divorce.

I loved her story not because the scenes are beautifully captured, the metaphors apt and biting, the gritty reality of working in the food industry spelled out in gory detail, although the book has all of that. I loved her story because she’s honest and prickly. I loved her humor and her stubborn, sometimes illogical opinions. I liked how sometimes unlikeable she seems.

I love her relationship with food. I don’t agree with all of it, but I love her passion for feeding people, what it should mean to satiate hunger. She has no patience for fads or chic, fancy food for its own sake.

Her marriage is fascinating. She loves her husband’s family, loves her sons. She sometimes gets along with her husband, but always feels unsatisfied with their relationship, yet neither of them are inclined to change their situation. It’s difficult to describe or understand except at length, and the biggest fault with the book I found was that it ended before any final resolution from that quarter.

It’s an unusual life, laid out in all its ups and downs, pettiness and lies, love and anger and illogical selfishness. Life, in other words.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Murder of Mary Russell (Mary Russell, Book 14)

Monday, October 31, 2016


The Murder of Mary Russell (Mary Russell, Book 14)
Laurie R. King, 2016

Premise: Mary Russell is home alone when a visitor with an old grudge comes calling. But this stranger’s issue isn’t with her, or with Holmes, but with… Mrs. Hudson?

After being sometimes underwhelmed by some recent entries in this series, I put off reading this one for a while. Now that I have read it, I’d say it’s fine, but nothing outstanding.

Most of the book takes place out of sequence. After a dramatic opening which sets up Russell’s possible demise, the narrative jumps into the past to tell the secret history of Mrs. Hudson, occasionally jumping briefly back to the present to follow the investigation into what happened to Russell.

This series has always lived in that space between pastiche, homage, and fanwork. This volume in particular pulls more from the Holmes canon, drawing connections between various stories and slotting in an expanded dramatic backstory for a minor female character.

As that, it’s perfectly fine. I enjoyed the book, although I found some of the revelations/resolutions off-putting. The past story is a perfectly nice historical fiction before it ever strays into Holmes connections. Russell herself is in very little of the book, although I quite liked her scenes.

This makes the book an odd duck - lacking in the central character of the series overall, but not divorced from it enough to stand alone for fans of other Holmes pastiche/fanfiction.

I personally have little patience for Watsonians - that particular brand of Holmes fan who tries to give every inconsistency or coincidence in the original stories an in-world explanation. I just find it cutesy and irritating. There are continuities in which I enjoy in-world explanations, but Holmes is not one of them.

Connecting disparate stories through a coincidental reused name treads close to that irritation, but I still enjoyed this story.

I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I would a Russell/Holmes story.

3 Stars - A Good Book



The Empress Game

Monday, October 24, 2016


The Empress Game
Rhonda Mason, 2015

Premise: Kayla and her brother have been hiding or on the run since their home planet was attacked by troops from the galactic empire. She’s made a new, bare-bones life by fighting in a backwater gladiatorial arena. Now she has the opportunity to get them either safety or in a lot more trouble when she’s asked to double for a princess competing to marry the heir to the empire.

I remember seeing a strong recommendation for this book, so I picked it up when it was on sale. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The book isn’t terrible. The writing is fine, and some of the world-building (the psychic society that Kayla comes from) is intriguing.

But the plot is silly on the surface and doesn’t improve with execution. This highly technical galactic empire has a physical contest where prospective empresses attempt to beat one another into submission. It makes no sense, to the point that Kayla actually attempts to lampshade the situation in-world.

If I had connected with the characters and their motivations more strongly, really felt them, then I could have overlooked the silliness of the setup. (Not to mention the rigmarole about why Kayla’s planet is on the outs with the galactic community, which is supposed to seem politically complex and morally nuanced, but struck me as poorly explained and often convenient for the purposes of DRAMA.)

The book starts to pick up once the focus shifts to political infighting and a tentative alliance between Kayla and the woman she’s doubling for. However, for me it soon started to fall flat again as the villains are more and more villainous, and Kayla’s situation more and more of a soap opera.

The coincidental opportunities for her to help her planet by pretending to be this other woman became sillier as the book went on. The romance plot isn’t as shoved-in as it could have been, although it’s overly dramatic for my taste.

Then there’s some excitement with some last minute danger, but finally the book just sets us up for future installments instead of resolving anything.

In the end, I didn’t buy into the world or the characters, and I won’t be picking up the next volume.

2 Stars - An Okay Book


The Hidden Brain

Monday, October 17, 2016


The Hidden Brain
Shankar Vedantam, 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about science

Premise: “How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.”

This is a fascinating survey of research around unconscious reactions, and when they can and can’t be overridden by our conscious minds.

There is a lot about bias. In some cases, no matter how tolerant and fair-minded we may be consciously, the biases we pick up from society may override our intentions. There was one particularly interesting piece of evidence that people found it easier to react without bias after having sugar.

There are details about the invisible currents caused by gender biases. This section includes more detailed stories from a few prominent transgender researchers I’ve heard of before and their unique perspectives on society and privilege.

There is a fascinating chapter on herd mentality, group-think, and disasters. This was probably the most disturbing section of the book. It explained how easily people can make decisions in stressful situations based only on the attitudes of the group. The chapter following that explains common threads behind people who become suicide bombers.

I’ve heard a lot about many of these subjects before, but I enjoyed the systematic way the various areas were dealt with and the details about supporting research.

It’s a solid, quality survey of information that uses personal stories to keep the reader engaged.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Hamilton: The Revolution

Monday, October 10, 2016


Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a play (Yes, I'm cheating a little.)

Premise: The complete annotated libretto of the smash musical Hamilton, along with short articles about the writing, production, and cast.

I loved the cast album for Hamilton, but I wasn’t planning on reading this book anytime soon until it occurred to me that I could use it for the challenge. It does contain all the words spoken on stage, so I think it counts as a play.

First: the style of the book is lovely. It’s full of photos, big color production shots and candid dressing room black and white snaps. The design of the book itself evokes the duality in the show. The articles - about hip-hop, about the writing of the show, about President Obama’s visit - are each introduced with a header in the style of a pamphlet or a newspaper from the 1780s.

The book contains both photos of composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s working notes and photos of letters and documents written by Alexander Hamilton. History is present in more than one way.

The content is equally amazing to go through. Each article is a perfect little story about a particular actor or a particular moment, and together they describe the process of bringing this project from idea to the first few partial trial performances, to the Off-Broadway run at the Public, to the Broadway run.

Each song is peppered with Miranda’s annotations about lines that were cut or rewritten. Sometimes he explains why this or that choice was made in adapting the historical facts. Sometimes he just shares a personal experience from performing the song.

The book made me cry the same way the music does, but it also gave me a clearer understanding of both the power of the show and the reality of the history it’s based on.

(Also, I learned that the associate lighting designer was someone I’ve worked with. Cool.)

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Cyteen

Monday, October 3, 2016


Cyteen
CJ Cherryh, 1988

Hugo Winner - 1989

Premise: You live, you make enemies and friends, you work, and you die. But what happens to a child who inherits your enemies. Your friends. Your work. Especially if the child is a clone...

This is a hard book to talk about, particularly because I listened to it as an audiobook.

A 37-hour audiobook.

It was less reading a book and more drowning in 20 years of an alternate reality.

At the beginning, Ariane Emory is more than a hundred and twenty years old, councilor for the Science bureau, a political power in and out of Reseune. Reseune is an independent, highly advanced science facility on the planet Cyteen. It supplies longevity treatments and cloning. Reseune also provides “azi,” people who are heavily engineered genetically and mentally to be suited to particular purposes.

No one has been able to clone a “special” (exceptionally talented person) like Ariane, not in an exact way. You would have to recreate both nature and nurture. That isn’t going to stop them from trying after she’s killed.

Much of the book follows Ari, the young clone, as she grows up and tries to figure out who she is, given that context.

On one level, this is the story of two families. One is Ariane: the elder and the younger, her extended family, and her personal bodyguards. The other is the Warricks: Jordan (Ariane the first’s sometimes rival), Justin (his son, also a clone, but not an attempt at an exact replica), and Justin’s companion Grant (an experimental cloned product of Reseune). The arc of the book is 20 years of politics, planning, and maneuvering from the two groups, both in opposition and alliance.

Cherryh, as usual, presents a fascinating world, full of nuanced, flawed people and a complicated social and political structure. The book touches on the ethics of childrearing, of cloning, of military might. It deals heavily with a technology that affects the mind, and the ethics of programming people and societies.

It reminded me a lot of Fascimile, in parts of the theme.

It was not an easy read/listen, though. It’s emotionally taxing, involves mental and sexual assault and a major character with long-term PTSD, and I’m not sure I understood the end. (To be fair, I think a lot of the point is that there are mysteries that the characters, for all their intelligence and power, will never solve.)

It was really, really well done. Just exhausting.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

Summerlong

Monday, September 26, 2016


Summerlong
Peter S. Beagle, 2016

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Abe and Joanna like their life. He’s retired, she’s finishing out her career. She has her place in Seattle, but they spend plenty of time at his place on Gardner Island. It’s a quiet, normal life until they meet Lioness.

This is not the first book I’ve read set in Seattle since moving here, but it is the most evocative. The city and Puget Sound are beautifully and accurately described.

The descriptions are the best part of this book, and they are truly lovely. The picture of the places, the feelings, the people, are all gorgeously nuanced.

Lioness is a mysterious young woman who appears working at a restaurant on the island. People are drawn to her, trust her without thinking. Mysterious things happen around her, flowers bloom, animals and children react to her. Joanna’s grown daughter Lily is immediately in love.

It’s a melancholy, thoughtful book about the effect impossible, mythic beings have on normal people. It’s about going after what you want, and what you give up when you do.

It is lovely, and it has a very boring reveal in it.

It’s unfortunate, really, because I do like the book and I think it’s very good, but I just found the reveal of who Lioness is… boring.

It’s still lovely, and it has possibly the best description I’ve found about how I feel about walking through crowds.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Feed (Newsflesh Book 1)

Monday, September 19, 2016


Feed (Newsflesh Book 1)
Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a horror book

Premise: Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are too young to remember a world without zombies. Their job: to go out and report on it.

This has been the summer of Seanan McGuire for me, as I try a little bit of everything. Here writing as Mira Grant, she’s presenting a sci-fi horror story in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. Society changed forever, but there are still politics and conspiracies and news.

And there are bloggers.

The three main characters: Georgia, the narrator, her brother Shaun, and their friend Buffy are a blogging team that goes into dangerous territory and reports on what they find. They are part of a community providing both news and entertainment to a population mostly hiding in fortified homes and enclaves.

The story follows them as they get a huge opportunity: follow a presidential hopeful around. They jump at the chance and follow the story, even as things get more and more dangerous.

My main complaint was with the build-up to the final climax. There was a lot of off-screen information gathering and otherwise hand-wavy explanation, and I didn’t fully understand the catalyst for the climax, even when it was explained. The villain is too obvious, although the resolution worked well for me.

That said, I loved the style enough to offset my minor complaints. Georgia’s narrative voice was just right for the world and the story, and the interspersed online posts were just enough foreshadowing and additional character development. The author’s extensive research showed through all the careful nuances of the world. I really liked all the little details about human behavior changes or law changes based on the presence of the zombie virus.

Overall, a solid story that punched me in the feelings. (It’s a zombie story, you know not everyone gets out alive.)

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life

Monday, September 12, 2016


Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life
Edited by Liesa Mignogna, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a collection of essays

Premise: 22 authors write about their relationships with comics and superheroes.

Happily or unhappily, the worst piece in this collection is the first. I was so dismayed to read a pale, pathetic piece about how Batman inspired some well-off guy I’m not familiar with to be a writer. There’s a better piece later in the book with the same thrust - superheroes inspired me to be creative.

And that’s fine.

But boring.

The second piece is a raw, passionate, beautifully written essay from a woman whose rage causes her to connect viscerally with the Hulk, and how she eventually walks away from an abusive, toxic family life.

The essays are overall interesting and often funny, but there is a bright line between the ones that are about the creative process, or even one I quite liked about a love for Spider-Man and a love for Manhattan, and the ones where connection to a heroic story may have literally saved someone’s life.

My favorites also include one about Iron Man and heart defects, one about emotional distance and Rogue, a sweet ode to the lovability of Nightcrawler (again, in the face of childhood abuse), and a piece connecting Thor’s unique place in Marvel to the experience of being different from the other kids.

The weakest (besides the first) are the reprints of earlier pieces by Neil Gaiman and Jodi Picoult. The third piece that wasn’t original to this volume is by Brad Meltzer, and it’s actually a cute and very geeky exploration of the impact of reading a specific storyline as a kid.

Overall, this was fine to read in chunks, and the parts which were good were VERY good. It does suffer from being a compilation, though, because it’s so uneven.

3 Stars - a Good Book

Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book 1)

Monday, September 5, 2016


Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book 1)
Seanan McGuire, 2009

Premise: Half-faerie Toby Daye has been trapped by a spell for 14 years while the world went on without her. When an acquaintance calls her for help, her first response is “no,” but Countess Winterrose is not taking no for an answer, and Toby needs help whether she wants it or not.

I have been interested in reading more by McGuire since I saw her speak at Emerald City Comic Con, so I’m diving into her urban fantasy series with the first book. This was a really solid read.

I really liked the world a lot: the various courts and aspects of faerie society. There’s no info-dumping, you just glimpse the edges of much larger subjects as they arise. There is one scene that deals with a formal presentation to a ruler, and the writing for that is incredibly beautiful.

I liked Toby (October); she isn’t unique among paranormal/urban fantasy heroines, but she’s snarky and tough and fun to follow around.

My favorite aspect of the book actually is a bit of a spoiler, but I really want to address it. In non-spoiler terms: a common element in many urban fantasy stories is heavily subverted here, giving the book more emotional weight and resonance.


[Spoilers:::: After the prologue, Toby is alone, like many modern heroines - the world seems against her, dark and menacing. But when she’s forced to go to various characters for help, no one is angry with her. Everyone she goes to is either happy to see her, cares that she’s alright, or at least means her no harm. (Okay, one turns out to be the villain, but that’s another part of the story.) There is a whole society of people who are willing to reach out to her, if she’ll only reach out to them. It was a really moving portrayal of how someone can succumb to depression and self-loathing and not even notice until things change, and it’s never directly addressed in the text. :::::End Spoilers]


The villain and all of the minor characters are intriguing and unique. When I’m sad about a minor character’s death because I think the character has potential for more, that’s a positive sign about the writing.

While it doesn’t tread exceptionally new ground, this is an enjoyable start to a series, and a world I’d like to visit again soon.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (Heartstrikers, Book 3)

Monday, August 29, 2016


No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (Heartstrikers, Book 3)
Rachel Aaron, 2016

Premise: Julius is on top for the moment, but political turmoil in a dragon clan brings out a lot of opportunists. Sequel to Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another.

Oof. I was so looking forward to this book, that I think it really suffered from my heightened expectations. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just not what I wanted.

It’s still well written, in an interesting world. I liked the new characters and the new things we learned about established characters. But I also got two things I wasn’t expecting from this author: realism over story and book six syndrome.

In the first case, the book is bogged down by a lot of machinations and conversations and plot points that don’t really progress the bigger plot enough. I felt like a number of the twists and happenings weren’t essential, even though they were things that would have happened in ‘reality,’ given the set-up as it was.

It isn’t a lack of action, it’s the presence of repetitive action: this person says or does something very similar to the last three attacks/arguments/etc.

I also didn't know, going into this book, that it is not the end of the story. In fact, this book is more of a cliffhanger than books one or two. So I had one problem, which was that for some reason I was expecting a trilogy, and it’s annoying that I still have to wait to get to the actual end. The other problem was the aforementioned book six syndrome.

I call it that because it’s more likely in long series. (See: Song of Susannah, Half-Blood Prince) It’s when the penultimate book in a series is spent lining up all the characters to where they need to be for the end of the plot (or the next part of the plot, if the next book isn't the last). It’s sometimes necessary action, but it leaves the book in question thin and frustrating.

I’ll still turn in for part four, because I do really like this world, I love the characters, and I trust the author, and maybe I'll like this volume better on some future reread, but for now I’m a little disappointed in it.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

Monday, August 22, 2016


Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Julia Serano, 2007, 2016 (new edition)

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender

Premise: Scholarship and personal perspective on the interrelationship between attitudes around femininity and discrimination against trans women.

I borrowed this book from the library and got only a few chapters in before I decided that I had to buy my own copy so I could highlight all the best passages.

I’ve been looking for a book like this, one that articulates so clearly the need to empower femininity. In feminist and liberal spaces, we already question the idea that women can be equal to men only if they act like men (but not too much like men). Yet somehow many of us tend to miss that so much of this attitude can be connected to dismissing girls, along with denigrating traditionally feminine attitudes, interests, and practices.

Getting a fantastic analysis of issues facing the transgender population is just icing on the feminism cake. Serano uses her personal experiences, her conversations with others in the trans, queer, and lesbian communities, and extensive scholarship to explore the many facets of gender and types of sexism.

This book was originally written in 2007, so some of the terminology she uses is not what is most common today, and some of the issues are already changing. These elements are acknowledged in the preface to the 2016 edition.

Some of the most enlightening chapters for me explored the sexism inherent in most media representation of trans women and the double-bind in terms of gender expression that faced (and may still face) those seeking to transition.

Serano’s personal account explores the nuanced possibilities surrounding how much our gender expressions and sexual selves are shaped by hormones, intrinsic inclinations, and/or socialization. Overall her book is impressive in stating a firm, strong position for holding a nuanced, subtle view of gender and sex.

The only criticism I have is that a few of the chapters late in the book are jarringly different in tone. They aren’t bad, just different than the rest.

The book begins and ends with the call to empower femininity and for those who consider themselves feminists to dismantle attitudes which damage all feminine people - whether those feminine people consider themselves male or female or other.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Every Heart a Doorway

Monday, August 15, 2016


Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire, 2016

Premise: Nancy found the place she belonged. The place she loved more than anything. But she isn’t there anymore, and her parents have sent her to this school, because they don’t believe her when she tells them where she’s been.

This fantasy-horror novella is lovely, both heartbreaking and uplifting. The story is about outsiders and belonging, about ideas of good and bad, about compassion and fanaticism. All in under 200 pages.

Eleanor West runs a school for children who have returned from journeying in other realms. These latter-day kin to Alice and Dorothy don’t want to adjust to “real” life, they want to go back to the fairylands and underworlds.

Each character is intriguing; they each have a reason they went traveling and were changed by their experiences. The ideas and abilities that followed them back to Earth are only part of what makes them different. Nancy can go still as a statue and subsist on little food due to her travels, but she was out of place in the world before she ever left it.

We mainly follow those students who came through darker, more dangerous worlds, although every glimpse we get of any of the kids’ experiences is fascinating. The inciting plot is violent and gruesome, hence why these kids are the best-suited to handle it.

I’ve been dancing around it, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that Every Heart a Doorway features LGBTQA representation in a delightfully matter-of-fact style.

It’s overall a wonderful read, and while it’s the right length for this story, I would love more in this world.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


The Goblin Emperor

Monday, August 8, 2016


The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison, 2014

Premise: There’s been a terrible accident. Maia has never lived at court and hasn’t seen his father since the death of his mother a decade ago. And now they expect him to be emperor.

The Goblin Emperor was a runner-up for the Hugo and on more than a few best-of-the-year lists. So it went onto my TBR pile, and there it sat, even months after I picked up a copy on sale last December.

I finally read it, and it was marvelous - just a joy to read start to end.

I think this is going to be a book I return to, to savor the little details and enjoy subtleties that escaped me on the first read.

I adore Maia; he’s an honestly good person muddling through a difficult situation. I love the cast surrounding him, each feels like a real person with a complicated history and motivation.

The book deals in highly complicated naming conventions, which would normally drive me up the walls. However, in this case I feel that they fit tonally with the overwhelming situation Maia is up against.

I loved that while there is some mystery and some danger, this is fundamentally a book about politics and society. It’s the magic and the elves and goblins that make it a fantasy world, not the plot. There’s no epic fate or dragon to defeat; riding herd over the fractious nobles of the Elflands is enough trouble.

It’s an old-fashioned society quietly moving toward transformation. [Minor characters include lady scholars, progressive inventors, and LGBT folks.] While nothing is changing quickly, it’s a book full of hope.

If a half-goblin can rule the elven empire, after all, what else could happen?

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Feminine Mystique

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes

I don’t make it easy on myself sometimes. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s important and it’s fascinating.

If you only know a little about The Feminine Mystique, you might know that it was a big catalyst for aspects of the female liberation movement in the 60s and 70s. You might know that it’s about the unhappiness of housewives: the “problem with no name.” If you haven’t read it, you might not know that it’s less a polemic than it is a dissertation.

That’s not to say that it isn’t passionate and full of the anger at the forces in society that convinced a generation of women that they could only be fulfilled as a wife and mother. It’s just a balanced, banked anger that I wasn’t expecting. Friedan wasn’t sure how many people would be on her side; she backs up her points with extensive quotes and cited sources.

Parts of it are definitely dated. She spends a chapter taking apart the gendered assumptions created by the then-popular acceptance of Freudian theory, then later uses pieces of Freud to support some odd declarations about parenting. And trust me, it’s better if you just skip everything related to homosexuality. Yes, it’s mostly concerned with the problems of middle-class white women.

That all said, parts of it are not dated at all. The conviction that no matter what you choose it’s wrong, especially when it comes to parenting. The call for a balance between motherhood, career, love and purpose. Most of the section on homosexuality is cringeworthy, but she makes the connection between homophobia and misogyny.

She questions claims for biological instincts related to gender roles and makes a case that to be human is to have a purpose beyond oneself, and to reach one’s full intellectual capacity.

The most interesting parts for me were the parts that really clarified how society has both changed and not changed since the book was written. Some trends have reversed (some more than others) and some have merely metamorphosed. One great chapter was full of quotes from sales consultants about their strategies to convince women to be, not just housewives, but exceptional housewives, so they could sell them ever-more-time-consuming THINGS.

Some of the quoted language around why some people believe women don’t need x (where x is the vote, schooling, jobs, self-determination…) wouldn’t be out of place in the “reverse sexism” claims among certain people in the men’s rights movement of today.

The idea that if you care too much about ideas or your career, that you’ll never get married? That idea hasn’t fully left us.

Overall I found this book dry/academic and inspiring by turns. Although my favorite part may have been the afterwords. I have the 50th anniversary edition, and it includes both a heartfelt afterword by journalist Anna Quindlen and a reflection by Friedan from 1997. This final word from her recounts how her life changed after the book and shares her account of the foundation of NOW and the women’s strike of 1970. It chronicles how far she thinks we’ve come, how far we have to go, and what the next great hurdle would be.

She was right again, because we’re still facing that hurdle today: it’s breaking down the masculine mystique so that rather than growing ever more frustrated at the loss of power, men can work toward authenticity and self-determination alongside women as equal partners in humanity.

4 Stars - Not perfect, but important.

Also! Friedan noted that part of why women in her time were vulnerable to these messages and cultural constructs was that women forgot what their mothers and grandmothers had fought for (the vote, etc.). It’s easy to take the past for granted. I highly HIGHLY recommend the recent documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, for first-hand accounts of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. Available on DVD and streaming.

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book

Monday, July 25, 2016


The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling, 1894, 1895
Disney’s The Jungle Book, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better

Okay, I may have done the challenge slightly backward, in that I saw the new live-action movie and then wanted to re-read the book. I have read the book before, but it’s been a few years. Of course, years before I read the books the first time, I saw the Disney animated movie, and the Chuck Jones specials (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal). But I read the Just So Stories before that... does that count? I guess the timeline is sort of a wash.

Anyhow, none of that is the point. The point is that I adore these books, nearly unreservedly.

I say nearly, because a few of the short stories contain slightly awkward, outdated phrasing or attitudes, but VERY few, considering when these were written.

I don’t know what to cover. I guess first we should talk about Mowgli.

Mowgli is the central character of eight of the fifteen stories that make up the two volumes. (I’m not counting the fifteen connected poems at the moment.) Taken over these stories, his arc is complex and intriguing, and very little of it ends up in either Disney movie. The main points of the first three stories are the only aspects touched on: Mowgli’s adoption, his kidnapping by the monkey tribes, and his (first) fight with Sher Khan.

You think you know this story, about the man-cub raised by wolves, but do you know that he grows up to rule? He is the master of the jungle, and one with nearly all the peoples there, but never truly belonging. He himself uses the bat, caught between rodent and bird, as a metaphor for how he is neither animal nor man.

He receives guidance from wise mentors, but none of them can teach him to be human, only help him along the way and tell him that eventually he will leave. The kid in the new movie does a great job with the story he’s given, but it’s not a complicated story.

I should mention – in case you didn’t know, the new live action movie is an adaptation of the Disney animated movie from 1967. The new film is more nuanced than the animated movie, incorporating more elements from the books, but it’s still missing a lot of what I would want out of a true adaptation.

Let’s discuss a few of the other characters who show up in the movie.

Bagheera, the fierce, protective panther, is the closest to the version in the text, although a key point of his character is omitted - he understands Mowgli’s essential internal tension because he was born in captivity but knew he belonged in the jungle.

King Louie, who is a lot of fun in the new movie, was invented for the original Disney animated film. In the book, the Bandar-log (the monkey people) have no leader, and are scorned for their foolish behavior by most of the jungle peoples. They are part of a pattern - in many of the stories the most foolish or destructive animals are described as behaving like humans.

Sher Khan is fierce and frightening in the film, and murders other animals. In the book, he is dangerous to Mowgli, and he’s a predator, but he is more sneaky and nasty than dangerous to most of the larger creatures. I like that most of his villainy is accomplished not through blunt force, but through manipulating others and exploiting convention.

Kaa and Baloo are both entertaining and interesting characters in the new movie. I personally far prefer their original versions.

In the book, Kaa is not an enemy to Mowgli. The great snake’s wisdom and ferocity save Mowgli many times, even as his hypnotic powers make him a dangerous ally.

Baloo is much less funny in the books. He takes his job (teaching the young wolves the ways of life in the jungle) seriously, and tries to take advantage of Mowgli’s intelligence to teach him everything he can absorb, whether the boy wants it or not.

That’s a major thematic difference from the new film: in the movie, most of the animals object to Mowgli using his human intellect or ability to make tools. In the books, this is not an issue. If it helps, great, whatever it is. There are rules around pack behavior, and not spoiling the hunt for other hunters, but there are no rules against using whatever advantages you have. Bagheera even tells Mowgli to use fire, because it is the weapon of Man.

I want to be clear, I liked the movie. I liked it quite a bit, but in emotional impact, violence, environmental commentary, character complexity, and sheer visceral impression, I find the movie a pale shadow of the book.

And I haven’t even touched on Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and how amazing that story is, or many of the other stories. The White Seal could be studied in the same breath with Watership Down. The Miracle of Purun Bhagat is a subtle, beautiful tale. What the stories have in common is a deep respect for the animal world and the diversity of life and a poetry that speaks directly to my soul.

5 Stars – A Personal Favorite

Paper Girls

Monday, July 18, 2016

Paper Girls
Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, et.al., 2016

Premise: Erin delivers the paper in the early morning, but the morning after Halloween isn’t a good time to be out on the streets. There’s teenagers causing mischief, cops looking for teens to bust, and… monsters from another time? Four paper girls team up in this comic that’s part horror, part adventure, and totally 80s. Collects Paper Girls #1-5

I was really intrigued by an excerpt from this book, and of course I’ve enjoyed Vaughan’s work before, so I snapped this up in trade.

I really like how firmly set in its time period it is. The fashions, the (offensive) language, the technology, everything is right. The plot is surreal, mysterious, and potentially really screwed up - so basically what I expected. The dialogue of some of the antagonists is very cleverly written.

Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mackenzie are an appropriately diverse group for a piece written today and loosely inspired by the boys-adventure movies of the 80s. Their characters are sketched out quickly but well, and the art style is a perfect match for the writing.

I’ve appreciated Chang’s art before, but I loved it here. The color pallette works perfectly to build the tone, and all the little details are right to build the world.

Overall I enjoyed this quite a bit, I felt it hit the important emotional beats and made me curious to what will happen next. However, there is nothing resolved by the end of Issue 5, just more questions. For all that I did like it, I’ll probably wait for reviews to help me decide whether the story is worth it to keep reading.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Christmas vs. the Fourth of July

Monday, July 11, 2016


Christmas vs. the Fourth of July
Asenath Carver Coolidge, 1908

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book under 100 pages
Another bonus review on Mainlining Christmas! This week, read about a weird little book from the early 1900s.

Christmas in July Special!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


No normal review today. Instead, I have a snarky book post up over at Mainlining Christmas, as part of our Christmas in July special event! Enjoy!

The Uplift War (Uplift Series)

Monday, June 27, 2016


The Uplift War
David Brin, 1987

Hugo Winner - 1988

Premise: The inhabitants of the colony on the damaged planet of Garth know they are in danger. They don’t know why Galactic strife is focused on the species of Earth, but humans, chimps, and alien diplomats prepare to defend their colony from a larger societal struggle they barely understand.

This book is technically a sequel to Startide Rising, but this is a completely separate story taking place very far away from the prior book. The events of the prior book have an impact on this one, but there is no need to read this series in order or in its entirety to comprehend the story.

To recap the setting, these books take place in a future in which the sentient species of Earth (humans plus the genetically modified neo-chimps and neo-dolphins) have recently joined a greater galactic civilization. One of the major principles of this civilization is uplift. A recognized species can “uplift” a pre-sentient species into a spacefaring race, which then enters into indentured servitude to the older patron race until they become fully fledged members of galactic society. Humans are a bit of a scandal because they burst onto the scene apparently without a patron race.

The Uplift War has a lot of the same positive elements as Startide Rising, in different proportions. The portrayal of various Galactic races is more nuanced, as there are major characters of non-earthling species. The Gubru who attack the colony have a fascinating theory of government based on a three-part balance, and it affects everything about their lives, even their sexualities. I loved learning about the empathic, playful Tymbrimi who are sympathetic toward the humans even when they don’t understand them.

The neo-chimps play a much larger role in this book, and I really liked getting more about how they struggle with their place as a young race - what do they keep from their more “primitive” days? What would it be like to look at living members of your species who were at a very different level of sapience, and how much say would you want to have in how your species changed in the next generation?

The story is full of adventure and action, but the star of the book is really the world-building and the character growth. It’s an interesting thought experiment mixed with an environmentalist message. The author’s note at the end states the question outright: “Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last...Some day we may be judged by just how well we served, when alone we were Earth’s caretakers.”

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

World War Z

Monday, June 20, 2016


World War Z
Max Brooks, 2006 (audio edition 2007)

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award

Premise: After the end of the Zombie War, journalist Max Brooks travels around the world to collect the stories of survivors, to keep alive the memory of an unprecedented struggle.

Look, I finished an audiobook! It helps that a) I have a new commute that takes a long time, and b) this book is basically ideal to record as an audiobook. The structure of multiple narrators and interviews is perfect for this full-cast format.

I can also understand both why Hollywood snapped it up for a movie and why the adaptation was reportedly terrible. This would be a fantastic fictional documentary, or a series of short films. It would not work as a single-character adventure vehicle.

I really enjoyed listening to this book, although I went back and forth on how realistic I felt it was. The immediacy and detail of each account was nicely nuanced, and the voices and passion of the narrators suck you into each personal story. I loved how many different cultures and perspectives are represented, although it does occasionally lapse into tropes. (Spoilerish: a blind samurai fighting zombies in the forest... really?)

I did at some point realize how few of the voices were female, which diminished my enjoyment somewhat. This edition was abridged from the book, however, so maybe there is a greater range of voices in the original (or the extended audio!)

The multiple perspectives keep the story from feeling too obvious. As you piece together the narrative, you find a skillful portrayal of global bureaucracy set against individual struggle. I liked the subtle touches, for example, the different slang for zombies used by different characters, and the various terms for different major phases of the war.

I liked each individual story, but by the end of the full book, I barely remembered the beginning. For me, this is one of the main drawbacks of audiobooks - how much longer they take. I might try another one given my commute, but I’m not in a hurry.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Inside Out and Back Again

Monday, June 13, 2016


Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai, 2011

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a middle grade novel

Premise: Hà is just a girl when she must leave her home, her country, and seek a new life in America. Follow her family’s journey through a series of poems chronicling the year 1975.

This was recommended by a friend who is studying children’s literature, and I can see why. It’s approachable and an easy read, but emotionally, culturally, and historically complex.

Lai is writing directly from her own experience, as she fled Vietnam with her mother and siblings at the end of the war. I think the author fully succeeds in her aim to convey the emotional reality of being a child going through that experience.

The narrative voice is shaped by the form, and the short, evocative phrases of the poems make tangible Hà’s ambivalence, her anger or sadness or worry, her hesitancy. They give the book immediacy in all the description of small details as well as a formal quality at times. That rhythm puts me in mind of the ceremonies the book opens and closes on, and the sound of some speakers who learned English as a second language.

Hà goes through a seemingly impossible transition, having to abandon everything and go from being a good student in a culture she loved to a refugee who doesn’t speak the language. She can only report what she observes and feels and knows, but it’s enough for an in-depth picture. I imagine that this book is a good way to talk to children of many backgrounds about what it feels like to be different.

It’s a beautiful little book with a lot of sadness in it, but some hope and optimism as well.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book