sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Foulsham," the 2nd book in the Iremonger trilogy by Edward Carey. The series is set in an alternate Victorian-era London, where the Iremongers are a family that lives in "The Heaps," a walled off part of the city that is home to London's trash, and all have "birth objects" that come from the heaps. Clod Iremonger can hear the voices of objects and knows something is not as it seems with his family and the surrounding city of Foulsham. In the second book, the servant girl Lucy befriends an odd character from the heaps while Clod determines he needs to be brave and stop his family from turning the poor people of the Heaps into objects that can easily be disposed of. This one ends on a cliff-hanger just like the first book. They're quirky and fun, and Carey's black and white illustrations really add to the creepy but fun atmosphere of the books. I'm looking foward to reading the conclusion soon.

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"The Secret Place" by Tana French, as an audiobook. In the Dublin Murder Squad novels, the first book starts with Rob Ryan as the protagonist, and in each book afterward, a minor character in the previous book becomes the main character in the present book. She breaks the chain somewhat by bringing back two characters from an earlier book in Dublin Murder Squad #5. She also breaks with her tradition of having one first-person narrator. The chapters in "The Secret Place" alternate between a first-person narrative from Stephen Moran with a series of third-person flashbacks told from the viewpoint of the girls at an all-girls boarding school who are under suspicion of knowing more than they're telling about the death of a boy named Chris Harper from a nearby all-boys school. I thought this was another really masterfully-told tale by Tana French, althought I didn't necessarily care for the fact that she introduced some possibly paranormal elements into the story. It didn't bother me too much, because I saw it as a metaphor rather than taking it literally. I also, like other reviewers, thought it could have been tightened up a bit and the pace improved, but overall, I liked it. I am looking forward to getting a hold of the next book in the series.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead. The novel is set in an alternate universe during a time when elevators and the Elevator Inspectors Guild are a huge influence in big cities, when black people are still called "colored" and integration is still a novel idea. Lila Mae Watson is the first black and female elevator inspector. She only wants to keep her head down and do a good job, but she gets caught in the political intrigue of the Guild, largely a war between the "empiricists" who insist on checking every mechanical detail and "intuitionists" who use indirect methods including meditation and almost Buddhist-like ideas such as "feeling the elvatorness of the elevator." When an elevator that Lila has recently inspected crashes, both sides use the incident as a football in their machinations. About the same time, there's a discovery that the founder of the "intuitionist" school of thought had  left behind a blueprint for a "black box," or the perfect elevator, and Lila becomes involved in the search for the black box as well as clearing her name of wrongdoing. It's a compelling read that works as commentary on race and on disruptive technologies. I plan to read more by Whitehead.

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"The Monster of Florence: A True Story" by Douglas Preston, with Mario Spezi. The story is, ostensibly, about a serial killer terrorizing young lovers in the countryside around Florence in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is as much about judicial and police corruption in Italy as it is about the murder case. Preston is an American who comes into the case late in the game, after Italian journalist Spezi has been working on it for nearly 2 decades. They both get arrested for obstructing the official investigation and Spezi is even accused of possibly being the monster or being in league with the monster. If you're interested in the case but don't want to read the whole book, there's a Dateline episode avaialable on YouTube. I do recommend the book, though. It includes a lot of context for the case and its implications for freedom of the press in Italy.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Heap House," the first in the Iremonger trilogy by Edward Carey. This is a fun, illustrated YA novel set in an alternative reality/fantasy London. The Iremonger family lives in Heap House, a mansion made of refuse and surrounded by monstrous "Heaps" of trash from London. Lucy Pennant arrives at the house as a new servant and encounters Clod, an Iremonger who can hear the voices of the objects. Together, they begin to unravel the dark secrets of Heap House. The illustrations definitely add a lot to the kooky-but-menacing atmosphere the novel creates. I liked it and am planning to read the rest of the trilogy.

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"Air" by Geoff Ryman. Mae lives in a remote village in a fictional Asian country in the near future when it's announced that a new technology called "Air" will be made available to the whole world. A test that basically broadcasts the internet into everyone's head goes disastrously wrong and people end up hurt or dead. Mae is nearly driven crazy by it and has to fight both the country's bureaucracy and the superstition and suspicion of her fellow villagers to show them how the new technology will destroy their old way of living but might also possibly bring good, new things into their lives. You'll be rooting for Mae to succeed despite adversity. Highly recommended.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored" by Mary Gabriel. Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first woman to run for president (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate). She was the first woman to address the U.S. Congress and to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She also came from a fairly shady family and was a spiritualist. Her focus wasn't solely on winning the right to vote but largely to lessen the misery of both men and women by making it easier for women to marry for love and to divorce if the marriage was abusive or just highly unhappy. Her unconventional views on romantic love got her maligned as a prostitute and con woman. She was far from perfect but also passionate about social reform and helping the downtrodden. I liked that the author lets the original source material speak for itself and quotes newspaper articles by and about Victoria and Victoria's own speeches at length. Highly recommended.

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"Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home" by Sheri Booker. Booker, a sheltered child of a police officer father and a school principal mother, begins working at a funeral home in inner-city Baltimore at age 15, shortly after her beloved Aunt Mary dies, and ends up staying there for nine years. She learns about love and death, how not to cry, and the toll that holding back your tears can take. She talks about the ins and outs of the funeral business, and the rise of black-owned funeral homes. She tells humorous or scary anedotes about things that happened during her nine years at the funeral home. Her writing is NOT PC. There are a couple unkind cracks about fat people, and the way she talks about transgender women seems naive if not borderline offensive. However, this sort of unfiltered way of writing about her experience makes it feel like you're one of her girlfriends and she is gossipping with you over coffee about the weird things she encountered at work, and that's a lot of what makes it entertaining. I liked this a lot and recommend it.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
My goals for 2017 are:
-Read at least 50 books
-Read at least 4 books from a list of "classics" that's culled from The Lifetime Reading Plan
-Make nonfiction at least 30 percent of books read this year
-Read at least 12 books by non-white authors
-Read at least 2 books by disabled authors
-Read at least 4 books by LGBT authors
-Keep my gender ratio of authors close to 50/50
-Investigate some reading challenges and use them to add books to my "to read" list

My first book for the year was the third and final installment in Cixin Liu's "Three-Body Problem" trilogy, "Death's End." I felt this was the weakest book in the trilogy, but fortunately, some of the weakness derived from Liu's ambition to write a truly epic series that spans the universe and all of time to boot! I'll take an ambitious novel with some weak spots over a slick novel that doesn't take any chances. In this installment, the Trisolarans have the upper hand and humanity is in deep trouble. The story follows Cheng Xin, a rocket scientist from our era, who is revived from artificial hibernation half a century in the future and who becomes a major player in several incidents between humans and Trisolarans. A special project of the government dreamed up shortly after the Trisolaran threat was first discovered has been forgotten but comes into play in the near future as well. I appreciated Liu's attempt to tackle a story on this grand a scale even when I feel he doesn't always succeed. This trilogy is well worth reading as a look into how other cultures "do" science fiction.

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"Brat Farrar" by Josephine Tey. The prose is deceptively simple but dazzling in that simplicity, and Tey doesn't give two figs about the normal conventions of mystery writing, which make her novels feel fresh. In this novel, an orphan named "Brat" Farrar runs into a man who mistakes him for Simon Ashby. When the stranger realizes that Brat is the doppleganger of Simon, a young man who is shortly to inherit a fortune, he talks Brat into pretending to be Simon's long-lost brother Patrick. Brat decides to give the deception a go less for the money and more for the challenge of trying to pull it off, but develops deeply mixed feelings after he is treated warmly and kindly by all the Ashbys except Simon, who is the only one still suspicious of Brat's claim to be the long-lost brother. I really enjoyed this book a great deal and will be reading more by Tey.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
My final book of the year, #89, was "Under the Tuscan Sun," a memoir by Frances Mayes. After the dissolution of her long marriage, she and her new boyfriend decide to buy an Italian villa and restore it to use as a summer/vacation home. She tells about the remodeling process, the history of the Tuscan country-side, and the best peasant dishes she learns to make.  I really enjoyed the sensual delights of this book, full of tasty recipes and descriptions of sun-soaked Italian olive terraces while reading it at the start of Michigan's long, cold winter. If you like books that give you insight into life in another country, accompanied by recipes, you might like this book a great deal. Don't judge the book based solely on the movie adaptation, either -- I haven't seen it, but it looks kinda cheesy.

My full list of all 89 books I read this year, plus an analysis of what I read and a list of my favorites is available here, at the 50 Book Challenge community.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
This brings my total for the year to 88 books so far. I have 2 more books in process, but I might only complete one of them, or possibly neither of them, depending on how much time I have to read between now and Saturday. I'll do an analysis of my list and reading goals around Jan. 1.

"Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol. Published in 1842, the book concerns a Russian named Chichikov who wants to use the Russian love of bureaucracy against the system and goes around the country buying up "dead souls" to inflate his prestige. In Russia at the time, serfs are like property of the landowners and can be bought, sold and traded and are accounted for on a landowners tax registries. Chichikov has a scheme to buy dead peasants who are still on the tax rolls, relieving the landowner of the taxes he'd have to pay while also making himself look like a rich landowner himself, which he hopes will help him actually establish himself as minor nobility. There were things I liked about this book, like the humor and some of the descriptions of nature. On the negative side, I found the pace a bit slow and the episodic nature of the plot doesn't necessarily drive you forward to find out what happens next. I'm glad I read it, but it wasn't one of my favorite "classic" novels.

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"Flight" by Sherman Alexie, as an audiobook, read by Adam Beach. The main character is a 15-year-old, half-Indian foster kid with such bad acne that everyone calls him "Zits." The novel opens with Zits running away from yet another foster home, ending up in jail, and making friends with a white kid named Justice. Justice convinces Zits that he should try the Ghost Dance and kill some white people. But while he's getting into trouble, Zits is pulled out of his body and goes on a time-traveling, body-swapping adventure, into the body of a corrupt FBI agent persecuting Native Americans in the 1960s, into the body of an Indian child whose tribe is being attacked by white soldiers, into the body of a flight instructor whose student has intentionally crashed a passenger plane, and through several other lives, all touching on interracial hate and violence. At 4 discs on audiobook, I'd call it a short and easy read, except it's so bloody and violent that it's really *not* an easy read. It's good, and I'd recommend it if you like Alexie's other books.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by David Levithan and John Green, as an audibook. The book takes place from the viewpoint of two teenage guys named Will Grayson who live in the greater Chicago area. One is gay, closeted and depressed. The other is straight and best friends with a very out and very large gay teenager named Tiny Cooper. In a fun twist, the gay author writes the chapters with the hetero Will and the straight author writes the chapters with the gay Will. The life of the two Will Graysons intersect in the middle of the novel, and their life trajectories are changed forever. I don't want to say too much to spoil this book, but I LOVED it. Not only does Tiny Cooper give a little fat-acceptance speech that totally warmed my heart, but the book also has a positive portrayal of a straight teenage boy being best friends with a gay teenage boy that you hardly ever see in YA fiction. Highly recommended.

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"Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel" by Michio Kaku. I was wondering if it'd be worth reading since science changes so fast and this was published in 2008, and I found it *is* a little bit outdated - some things he's mentioned coming up in 2009 or 2016 have already happened, for instance. Overall, though, it was wonderfully fun. Kaku divides the "impossibilities" into three categories, ranging from technologies we're just on the cusp of developing ranging up to the third category with things like precognition, which violate the known laws of physics. You get a primer on basic physics, quantum theory and string theory along the way. Kaku doesn't *just* know his physics, he knows his classic and modern sci-fi really well, and gives lots of fun examples of how ideas that were once considered science fiction inspired real scientific developments. I loved this and plan to seek out some of Kaku's more recent books.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"The Conference of the Birds" by Farid ud-din Attar, 12th century mystic Sufi poetry. This book takes the form of a journey, with many parables illustrating spiritual ideas throughout. All the birds gather together to talk about who will be their king, and make the hoopoe the leader of their quest. They decide to go on a pilgrimage to see the Simmorgh. Before they leave, many of the birds have misgivings and excuses why they can't go, and the hoopoe counters each one, with little anecdotes that illustrate the moral. Then, he describes the way they will travel, through 7 valleys, and, again, each idea is illustrated with parables. There was WAY more sex, including homosexuality, in this than I would have expected, along with scatological humor, like the anecdote about the proud sheikh humbled by his donkey's fart. The Penguin Classics translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis does a great job of helping the reader make sense of the poem and concepts from Sufism that suffuse the book. I was amused and I'm glad I read it.

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"One Kick" by Chelsea Cain. Kick Lannigan was once a missing girl, kidnapped and exploited, and after she gets rescued, she learns martial arts and how to handle weapons. On the anniversary of her rescue, she is approached by a mysterious man named Bishop who wants her to help him solve another missing child case that could have links to Kick's past. When people talk about a book you have a hard time putting down, this is the sort of book they're talking about, from the adrenaline buzz of the very first pages all the way through the climax. Kick is wounded and messed up, but you're cheering for her all the way through. I'm definitely going to be reading more by this author.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"California" by Edan Lepucki, as an audiobook. Frieda and Calvin are living in a near-future U.S. where the environment has gone to hell, the economy is collapsing, big cities have devolved into chaos, the rich have built walled communities, and terrorist groups have staged violence to protest the growing inequality. Frieda and Calvin decide Los Angeles is too dangerous and have moved out to the country to live off the land. Things go reasonably well for them for about two years, but then Frieda begins to suspect she is pregnant, and becomes anxious about the thought of giving birth and raising a child alone in the wilderness. The couple sets out to find a community they've heard of and are welcomed at first, but find out the community has its own dark secrets. The book iss less a near-future dystopia and more a meditation on marriage and the secrets people keep, even from the ones that we love most. I recommend this book but I'd read it as a paper book instead of listening to the audiobook if you're picky about your audiobook readers, because I didn't love Emma Galvin's narration.

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"Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco. The author died earlier this year so I bumped up this novel on my "to read" list and am glad that I did. The premise of the novel is that the protagonist and his friends at a publishing house in Milan start specializing in authors writing on occult and obscure topics, and the three begin to make a game out of creating their own conspiracy theory that they call "The Plan" by mish-mashing cabala with Rosicrucianism and mystical strains of Islam, witchcraft, Knights Templar and other bits of arcane knowledge. They think of it as a joke, but they realize someone is taking their Plan seriously when people start to go missing. The man's novels are NOT easy reads, but I didn't mind it. Sometimes I want a challenging read. I enjoyed this and plan to read more by Eco.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"The Secret History" by Donna Tartt.  This book is shelved as a mystery at my library, but it's not a "Whodunnit" -- you know who died, roughly who did it and roughly how it happened in the first few pages. The suspense comes from finding out what series of events lead to the murder and what would happen to the protagonist, Richard, and his friends, after the murder. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but in the end I really liked it and would like to read more by Tartt.

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"Mississippi Sissy," a memoir by Kevin Sessums. Growing up in the south in the 60s as a young sissy boy is tough, tougher still when your father is a retired pro athlete and a coach at the local high school. Sessume later goes on to be a celebrity and entertainment journalist, but the book mainly covers his childhood and young adulthood up to about age 19, when he is out as gay and ready to get out of the South. In between, he's the target of predatory older men who sense he's a young gay man on the brink of discovering his sexuality. Luckily, he also has some wonderful mentors along the way and gets to party with southern novelist Eudora Welty. Possible trigger warning for some readers: While I loved this book, I found the explicit description of his sexual abuse to be pretty squicky. Overall, though, highly recommended, as entertaining as a novel.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"The Raven King" by Maggie Stiefvater, the last of the 4-book Raven Cycle. The final book wraps up many, though not all, the loose threads from the first three books. Each of our main characters finds something important out about themselves and each is put to the test as it seems Gansey's quest to find a magical dead king is almost at an end. In this last novel, I feel the theme is about what it means to be a "king," but really any kind of real, leader, what it means to take charge of your own life. There were moments where I could have felt let down that things didn't play out as a reader might expect, but other moments that surprised me, and ultimately, I did find this a satisfying and fitting end to the series.  It doesn't surprise me that, in an interview I read with the author, she mentions being influenced by Susan Cooper's Welsh-inspired YA novels (The Dark is Rising sequence), which I loved as a kid. Stiefvater has caught magic on the pages of these books, and I feel I will be blathering on about them to anyone who will listen for a long time.

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"Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel is a beautiful, lyrical near-future novel, going back and forth from approximately the present to about 20 years past a flu pandemic that kills off 90 percent of the population and consequently wreaks havoc on civilization. It opens with the death of Arthur Leander onstage the night people first realize how serious the pandemic is, and then follows all the people who touched his life who survive into the post-disaster world, including a traveling symphony and acting troupe that tours around Michigan, performing Shakespeare and classical music. They run into a Prophet who threatens to disrupt and possibly ruin forever the tentative peaceful routine the traveling symphony has managed to create in the two decades after the flu pandemic. This has gotten lots of raves and nominations for prizes, but it is not over-hyped. J. and I have a little two-person book club (The Infidels' Book Club) where we pick a book to read out loud to each other, and this was our most recent read. I loved it and recommend it.

My full comments on both books here:http://50bookchallenge.livejournal.com/13603009.html.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity," a collection of essays edited by Matt (Matilda) Bernstein Sycamore. This collection of essays touches on various types of "passing" -- whether it's passing as a specific gender or as a specific racial/ethnic identity or as disabled or able-bodied, and often by authors dealing with a variety of different identities and group affiliations that may or may not be in conflict. They address issues such as being trans while traveling or being in prison, how claiming an ethnic identity informs claiming a gender identity, and more. I loved the intersectionality going on in these essays. I found the collection challenging and yet readable. Highly recommended to anyone interested in social justice, gender identity and LGBT issues.

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"Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons. This classic humorous novel is funny from the foreword, which touches on Gibbons history as a newspaper writer before switching to prose and poetry. The story concerns Flora Poste, a young woman who becomes orphaned at 19 and goes to live with relatives in the country. Instead of them helping the poor orphan girl, she ends up as the village busybody helping everyone on the farm, from young Elfine whose wild girl ways are keeping her from marrying a young Lord, to old Aunt Ada Doom who was driven crazy by seeing "something nasty in the woodshed" when she was two. Though I found this a tad dated, it was a funny and easy read, not at all a dry and deadly dull "classic" novel. The movie adaptation (with an adorable baby Kate Beckinsale, a cheerfully oblivious Stephen Fry, and minor roles filled by Sir Ian McKellen and Rufus Sewell, among other casting gold) is also quite fun.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex" by Eoin Colfer  as an audiobook (read by Nathaniel Parker, who I adore). I love this series but felt like this book was a weak link. Artemis has big plans to make the world better, but while he's convened with his fairy friends, they're suddenly attacked by an unknown enemy who tries to drop a space probe on their heads. However, Artemis is less help than usual in a crisis, suffering from a mental malady caused by guilt, "The Atlantis Complex." I found it a little disappointing that Artemis "isn't quite himself" for almost the entire book, since his Semi-evil Genius plots and hijinks are much of what make the books fun. On the plus side, I like that characters grow and change over the course of the series despite it being mostly a silly, light entertainment. I'm looking forward to listening to the final installment of the series soon.

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"The Comfort of Strangers" by Ian McEwan. This slim novel (129 pages in paperback) is packed full of creepy and disturbing but beautiful writing. Mary and Colin are an English couple on holiday in Venice, Italy.  While exploring the city, they run into Robert, a friendly and charismatic man who owns a bar in the city. He introduces them to his wife, Caroline, who has a chronic bad back and is virtually a prisoner in her home, and tells them strange stories of his domineering father and sadistic older sisters. Mary and Colin are both intrigued and a little frightened by the other couple, and things do not turn out well. I'd read "Atonement" by McEwan earlier this year, and it's a more mature novel, but a lot of his trademarks are already in place in this short, earlier novel -- finely drawn characters with intricate and perverse motivations, beautiful prose, descriptions that are sharply drawn with just a few words or phrases, and loads of atmosphere. I really admired this book and want to seek out even more by McEwan.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi. In this future, agricultural megacorps have loosed gene-hacked plants and bugs on the world, causing famine and wrecking the global economy. Thailand seems to be an oasis where existing strains are thriving and old once-thought-dead plants are being brought back to life. Scientists have also created a race of lab-grown humans called "New People" or windups. One of those windups, Emiko, was treasured in Japan but, abandoned in Thailand, is scorned for being a non-natural organism. I enjoyed this book but found it somewhat flawed, including being short on likeable characters. I also wasn't crazy about the way Emiko's sexual degredation is handled and believe a woman author would have treated it differently. On the plus side, it's chock full of interesting ideas, playing out the potential consequences of gene-hacking that's being done today, and I felt like I learned something about Thai culture. Overall, though, I liked this well enough that I'd be interested in reading more by the author.

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"The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage" by Sydney Padua, a graphic novel (part fiction, part nonfiction). Padua starts with the real story behind two of the earliest parents of computer science, Charles Babbage and Ada, Countess of Lovelace (and daughter of Lord Byron), and then imagines what they might have done if they'd lived long enough to actually build Babbage's "Analytical Engine." It also contains a wealth of anecdotes about other scientists and eccentrics of the time. I loved, loved, loved this and recommend it highly. See a sample on the author's web page.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Blue Lily, Lily Blue" by Maggie Stiefvater, 3rd book in The Raven Cycle, as an audiobook. In this installment of the series,Blue's mother has disappeared, attempts to find her and Owain Glyndwr's tomb are frustrated at every turn, and it's getting harder and harder for various characters to keep secrets from one another. The stakes are very high in this book, but it still has its trademark moments of humor. Each of the main characters and many of the secondary ones are growing and changing over the course of the series. While this does feel like a lead-up to the final book in the series, it's quite satisfying on its own, like the previous two in the series. I love this series so hard. I think Maggie is an all-around good writer: characterization and character growth, scene-setting, plotting are all good to great and the prose is lovely. I also dig Will Patton as the reader for the audibooks in this series. I'm both excited for the last book and sad that my time with these characters will be coming to a close. Here's a trailer for the first book in the series.

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"Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence" by John Hockenberry. Hockenberry's book is primarily about his life as a working journalist (NPR, ABC, etc.) who happens to be in a wheelchair. The book is both funny and angry. In some ways, Hockenberry is the prototypical crip with a chip on his shoulder, but he's so insightful about disability issues in general and his own foibles and flaws that he's very sympathetic. Some of the politics in the book are outdated by now (it was published in 1995), but overall, it is an exceptionally interesting and fun read.


My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Ash" by Malinda Lo, a retelling of the Cinderella story. When Ash's mother, who is a believer in magic and may have consorted with fairies, dies, her father remarries and then also dies shortly afterward, leaving her with a cruel stepmother who forces her to be a lady's maid for her two daughters. Ash is torn between the love of a fairy prince who once courted Ash's mother and the love of the king's huntress, who treats her as an equal. The prose is absolutely gorgeous in this novel. Highly recommended, and I'm interested in reading more by Lo now.

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"The Female Man" by Joanna Russ. I tried to read this back in 2009 or 2010 and was so disgusted with the clunky prose by the third page that I put it down and decided I wasn't going to read it. After Russ died in 2011, I decided maybe I would give it another try, since it's well respected both by people I know and other authors I respect (Dorothy Allison has a blurb on the cover saying she wishes everyone would read it). I found myself infuriated with the book the second time around as well, but perhaps that was Russ's intent. The book follows 4 women in different timelines: Joanna, who lives in our timeline in 1969; Jeannine, who lives in 1969 in a parallel timeline when the Great Depression never ended; Janet, who lives in an utopian all-female world; and Jael, a warrior woman from a timeline where men and women form two tribes at war with one another. When Russ is doing straightforward narrative, I mostly enjoyed it, though it still felt somewhat didactic. I got frustrated with her literary experiments and injection of her politics. It's really a treatise on gender and feminism disguised as a science-fiction novel. I felt intensely angry through much of the book because I felt like Russ was holding the reader in contempt, and treating science-fiction and the form of the novel with contempt. I LOATHE it when an author seems to feel they are "above" a certain genre but enjoy using the tropes from it for their own agenda, and anti-novelists anger me something fierce, like who are YOU you pissant to think you're above writing a conventional narrative? FUCK YOU!!!! So, I guess I'm glad I read this book, but I would only recommend it if you're up for reading experimental fiction or you just find her politics interesting enough to read it. If you're looking for a science fiction novel with a conventional structure, this would not be the book for you.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"A Gathering of Old Men" by Ernest J. Gaines. The book opens with a Cajun farmer dead, and a young white woman and an older black man both claiming to have done it. More and more older men from the sharecropping community in Louisiana show up claiming they did it, to the bafflement of the local sheriff. The white woman, Candy, and the old men are protecting their own from the sheriff and from the lynching they expect the Canjun man's family to head up. Each chapter is told by a different person in the community, so you get multiple viewpoints on what happened and background on why each person in the farming community is bitter and has reason to hate the dead man. It was also surprisingly funny in places, and the plot doesn't go exactly where you're thinking it's going. I finished this in two days and found it to be a quick read that drew me right in, and I adored the storytelling. I'm interested in reading more by Gaines now and possibly watching the TV movie that was made from it, starring Holly Hunter and Lou Gosset Jr.

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"Ancillary Mercy," the final book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy. This series is marketed as space opera, but there is more than science, big ideas and world-building -- the character development and change in relationships over the course of the book are also extremely well done. In this final installment of the trilogy, Breq, an AI in a human body who used to once be an entire spaceship with an "ancillary" crew of human bodies, is trying to save one planet and space station from the civil war triggered by the Lord of the Radch, who inhabits multiple bodies, which have broken into warring factions against themselves. Breq must deal with back-stabbing by the Lord of the Radch, competing factions on the space station and figuring out just what role the alien Presger might be playing in the conflict. I ADORE this series and recommend it highly. People who are tired of female under-representation and who appreciate someone challenging gender norms (everyone in the series is referred to with the pronoun "she") will especially appreciate these books.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey, considered a classic of nature writing, with spectacular pen and ink illustrations. Abbey was known as a novelist and nature writer, primarily with an emphasis on the American southwest. This book came from his experience as a park ranger in Utah's Arches National Monument park. I loved his rhapsodic prose about the rock formations, plants and animals of the desert and the changing of the seasons in the desert, and the kooky stories he told about treks he took by himself or with a friend. I liked it better when he stuck to personal anecdotes and observations about nature and enjoyed his political rants less, though I do agree that a balance has to be struck between making the parks accessible to citizens and protecting our natural assets and that the park system doesn't always get it right. Recommended, but be prepared to be offended by some of his views, whether you're on the left or right ends of the political spectrum.

and

"The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures" by Christine Kenneally, as an audiobook. The book is about genealogy and DNA and how DNA is informing genealogy. I learned a LOT of cool stuff, including more about Australia's criminal past, the tri-racial Melungeon's of Appalachia, and how our understanding of DNA and inheritance has become more nuanced over time. I recommend this highly.

My full comments on both books here.
sarahmichigan: (kitty)
"Orlando" by Virginia Woolf. I'd seen the movie adaptation but had never read "Orlando." It's about as weird as you'd expect for a novel about a noble person who lives for 400 years and changes gender without explanation. It's more funny than you might expect, and explores themes of gender, changes in society and fashion, and what it means to be a writer. I am interested in reading more of her work.

and

"Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages. I read this novella bound as a tiny little book. It tells the story of four generations who are influenced by the mysterious waters of Wakulla Springs in Florida, from watching Johnny Weismuller film Tarzan movies there and the Creature from the Black Lagoon swimming around in the springs to future generations who worry about the development of the wilds around the spring. There are moments of wonder, and many of the characters think they *may* have heard or seen a monster or mythical beast, but the story isn't explicitly supernatural. The full text can be found here.

My full comments on both books here.

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