Thursday, December 31, 2015

Annoying: the science of what bugs us

by Joe Palaca and Flora Lichtman

This book is really annoying. Everything that is wrong with some popular science books is wrong with this book. All the things.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Full Rip 9.0: the next big earthquake in the Pacific Northwest

by Sandi Doughton

Waited too long to read this book, so the experience was tainted by The New Yorker's alarmist and misleading article and associated internet click bait. The introduction is quite melodramatic, but the human stories threaded throughout the narrative are nicely told. Good science for the most part and okay writing, though you can tell she's more a journalist than a long-form author. At the time I had some specific quibbles but can't recall them now; they were pretty minor.

Most important take-away: yes, it will be terrible when the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake happens, but it's not as overdue as it's often made out to be. 'Course, it could happen any time....

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Wicked Bugs: the louse that conquered Napoleon's army & other diabolical insects

by Amy Stewart

Well, ya know, I could've sworn I read the author's other book, Wicked Plants, but I guess not. We seem to be in pre-saved reading history territory, so maybe I'll never know.

Whichever book I read, I recall that it was pretty good in that science-lite sort of way. I wouldn't have minded more science details, but this book is no science slouch. It's done catalog style, without an over-arching narrative structure. Many bugs are covered, and some get more attention than others. Reviews are suggesting the book has a sense of humor, which I vaguely recall now that I've been prompted, but it's not the most striking feature. The focus, not surprisingly, is on bugs' effects on humans, from painful stings to parasitism and from the personal to the historic.

Being a "toilet book" (small, lots of short bits easy to read sporadically), Wicked Bugs could be a cute gift book, either for someone who's into insects, or in jest for someone who hates bugs.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Grave Mercy

Dark Triumph

Mortal Heart

by Robin LaFevers

Dogs "bay," donkeys "bray." A tremble or shiver is a "shudder," not a "shutter." A cloud can't really "scuttle" because it can't move furtively, but it's quite common for clouds to be described as "scudding." (Errors and/or editing deficiencies from the third book; I also saw four or five typos, mostly toward the end, which suggests rushing toward a deadline.)

Now that I've got that off my chest... I really liked these books — like, an embarrassing amount. I read the His Fair Assassin series over a span of three years, so not all at once, but I never doubted I would read them all. I stayed up too late reading each one.

The series has excellent ingredients: young adult fiction, strong female characters, danger, political intrigue, a bit of supernatural, and thrilling romance. The first book came out in 2012, when everyone was still looking for or trying to be the next Hunger Games, so I'm kind of surprised that the series seems not to have gotten all that much attention. Could be the late Medieval setting wasn't a draw for some people, but it's sort of Game of Thrones-y and therefore even more attuned to the zeitgeist. Also, the covers are very pretty and dramatic (even cinematic) looking. Go figure.

I actually think the setting of the books in Brittany at the very end of the Middle Ages was one of the best things about the series and really set it apart from other books that imitated Hunger Games by featuring young women and deadly combat. The author uses figures and events from actual history (though she does take artistic liberties), and makes great use of the period's pagan Celtic beliefs, which were waning in the face of Christianity but persisted longer on the Breton peninsula than they did in most of mainland Europe.

This book series could make an excellent television show. It offers plenty of room to be creative with costumes and sets and filming locations, and the multiple lead characters have overlapping but not strictly concurrent storylines that would translate well into a weekly show.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


by Naomi Novik

Thinking about this book and how to review it, I'm reminded of a quote from Lindsay Hill's Sea of Hooks: "Grief keeps coming back with the same things in its hands--Grief comes back again, its hands full of the same things arranged differently" — at first, simply because the writer of Uprooted manages to take elements common to many fantasy/magic stories and arrange them in a fresh way, but the more I consider it, the more ways I see this quote is applicable: the protagonist, a hedgewitch of sorts, and her wizard foil use the same magic but manipulate it in different ways, and grief is at the root of the immense evil they must fight against together.

I liked this book more than I expected I would. I almost didn't even read it, and now I can easily say it's one of the best books I read in 2015, an exciting book that kept me up late reading. Though I may not be qualified to say so, I feel as if the main character is more feminist than some of the popular strong/bad-ass female characters of recent years. (Yes, Katniss, I'm talking about you.) Uprooted has a dash of romance, too, and a conclusive yet not entirely resolved ending that is open in a way that suggests future possibilities for the characters without being obvious groundwork for a sequel.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Kind of Intimacy

by Jenn Ashworth

I don't remember what sold me on this book, but it is published by Europa Editions, which always will get me to at least consider a book. In any case, though it's been a while since, I remember this book being not too shabby. Not great or truly memorable, but entertaining enough and not a slog at all.

Sometimes I don't think I really understand what "psychological fiction" is — and that's one of the subject headings for this novel. As is "overweight women," which is kinda weird. I mean, I guess I remember the main character being described as, and considering herself as, overweight, but that fact wasn't really integral to the plot. The book's not about her being overweight, though I guess it does factor into her mental state, which is the "psychological" bit, then. She's had some kind of trauma and goes into something resembling a fugue, but maybe she's just a sociopath and a pathological liar — or is she?! — or isn't she?! — or is she?!

Looking back it reminds me a bit of a slightly sinister and suspenseful version of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, without the triumphal ending. But maybe I'm just stuck on the obesity thing. Probably more like a sinister and suspenseful version of The Dive from Clausen's Pier.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Prepare to Die!

by Paul Tobin

I think someone told me this author lives or lived in Portland, or at least somewhere in Oregon, which sort of pushed me over the edge when I was on the fence about reading this book. Also, I think I saw it on a list made by some library staff.

In any case, the book didn't thrill me. It's definitely nowhere near as good as Soon I Will Be Invincible — in fact, I'll just say it: this book isn't any good at all. I've read worse, but I almost didn't finish it, which is a big deal for me. The premise of a super-hero who wants to retire is interesting, but I had some issues with the writing, both on a technical level and artistically. I remember groaning a lot and being annoyed at stupid turns of events or character actions.

Monday, December 21, 2015

News from Home: stories

by Sefi Atta

I don't remember being wowed by this book, but it's a solid collection of short stories about Nigerians, both at home and abroad. The author's prior book (her first novel?) won some sort of award. If you like to read contemporary fiction by non-American, non-British writers, this one's definitely worth a look.

Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever

by Tom Neeley & friends

The annotation I wrote for this book (in a list of books that originated as zines) might be my best annotation ever: "Like a metal-punk version of Mad About You, this collection lays bare the domestic life of an imaginary couple, who just happen to be rock gods."

I'd read several of the zines, but now I've finally read the whole amazing book. It's a mix of short graphic stories about the fictional relationship of the titular couple, Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig. Being an "& friends" kind of thing, quality varies a bit, but overall it's very good. Humorous, obviously, and sometimes actually quite sexy. Hall & Oates make regular appearances as well. Lots of one-page portraits of the couple are interspersed, some in full color but mostly black and white.

Verdict: simply delightful. I almost want to own it, which is a very high bar for me.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How to Speak Brit: the quintessential guide to the King's English, Cockney slang, and other flummoxing British phrases

by C.J. Moore

This book was a disappointment. Not that it's bad, it just wasn't what I'd imagined it would be. I have Anglophile tendencies and occasionally aspire to incorporate more Britishisms in my vocabulary. I'd especially love to be facile with the Cockney rhyming slang, but usually I struggle to think of an example or explain how it works, let alone deploying it conversation or making up new rhymes on the fly. This very slim book isn't any sort of overview of British English, it's just a very selective alphabetical list of some Brit-speak with cheeky explanations. Fine for what it is, but don't get your hopes up.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Priceless Honey

by Shiuko Kano

A nice yaoi-ish collection of erotic manga by a great author, whose work I've praised here before. The stories are about young men in the twink age range, with various combinations. The centerpiece story has a high school janitor moonlighting as a gay escort to earn extra money for his demanding girlfriend. The stories are all inventive and nicely detailed, despite being short, and the naughty bits are pleasingly explicit (but also pixelated).

Luck in the Shadows

Stalking Darkness

Traitor's Moon

by Lynn Flewelling

Such sweet agony!!!! Reading the Nightrunner series is simultaneously thrilling and maddening. So much build up and so much action left until the last 50 pages, the plotting of the stories could drive one crazy. But that's the hook, isn't it — that slingshot ride, along with the two characters in whose lives I've become so invested. (Okay, maybe I'm  a little in love or lust with one or both of them.)

In some ways, the series is fairly typical fantasy stuff: magic people, not-magic people, in-between people; queens, kings, horses, ships; war, intrigue, enemies; the lovable rogue and his protégé; etc. Good world-building, as they say in the fantasy biz, along with intricate plots and discreet foreshadowing.

But this book also has a special appeal for me, one that I almost don't want to mention. Hints are dropped early on, but the super–slow-burning tension takes almost two whole books to ignite, in a tender moment so perfect I wept with joy (and posted on Facebook about it). In book three, the relationship is obviously passionate but always tasteful and never explicit.

On the one hand, I'm tempted to tear through the whole series; on the other, doing that might make me nuts. I just checked out the next book, but I'm hesitant to jump back into this world without a break. Also, there are now even more books in the series since I last looked: Shadow's Return (checked out today), The White Road, Casket of Souls, and Shards of Time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Prince's Boy

by Paul Bailey

A short and somewhat melancholy romance set in interwar Paris. A young Romanian man with literary aspirations is sent off to have a Bohemian summer. Instead of writing, he falls madly in love with an older man. Circumstances keep them apart for years, but ultimately they build a life together. (How lucky to have one's first sexual experience also be one's soulmate!) They live happily, more or less, but not ever after. This book is the young man, now grown, recording his mate's rags to riches story, and telling his own story in the process.

Well-written, not long, not sad enough to make you cry, erotically charged without being explicit.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Rain: a natural and cultural history

by Cynthia Barnett

Books by journalists aren't always great, even if the journalist is an excellent journalist. This book is full of fascinating information, but the narrative and thematic arrangement was not what I wanted it to be. I have a co-worker who disagrees; as the Dude says, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

I took longer to read this book than I expected. As fascinating as the information is, I felt swamped by the digressions and wanted a bit more science. The author truly delivers on the cultural history (mostly European and North American) promised by the title, and I started to enjoy that aspect more when I re-started reading after stalling out for close to a week. Could be that I'm judging this book too harshly because I wasn't in the mood for it, or something.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


by Alex Lemon

An outgoing athlete popular with the ladies, Alex Lemon could have had four idyllic years at college. Instead, he had a stroke, and then another, and another; some of the depression and hard times that followed were direct effects of this brain injury, but his disappointment and difficulties led him into drug and alcohol abuse, alienation from friends, and other antisocial behavior. Eventually he had surgery and recovered with the help of a nurturing mother. He's won some poetry awards.

I don't remember the recovery and redemption part very much. Reviews and/or the publisher's description refer to the book's "honesty," "unexpected humor and sensuality," and "Technicolor sentences." I remember it being bleak, morally un-enlightening, and not particularly inspiring.

Anyway, it's short. Could be a good recommendation for someone into memoirs of illness, or that sort of young-adult-off-the-rails memoir.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Fly Trap

by Fredrik Sjöberg

A lovely wee book that's as much a pleasure to hold (and behold) as it is to read. A rambling memoir/meditation of sorts by a Swedish entomologist, the narrative meanders through myriad subjects, always looping back to insects and those who collect and study them, in particular René Malaise, who sounds made up but isn't. If it's a trap, it's a luxurious trap, a honeytrap.

Describing a book like this one is always a challenge. It's about something, but it's also about everything and nothing in particular, about the journey as much as the destination. Certain writers can start on a subject and artfully pick apart or weave together such disparate threads, with the reader barely noticing. Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness (among others), is one such writer. Somewhat stylistically similar books that I've reviewed might be The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and About a Mountain.

Monday, November 16, 2015

More Happy Than Not

by Adam Silvera

Time was, I couldn't get enough young adult fiction. As a kid, I skipped from Encyclopedia Brown right to Stephen King, so maybe I was making up for lost time. (Okay, I did sneak-read my sister's Sweet Valley High books.) But what happened? Too much dystopia, too many vampires, too many covers with pictures of white girls. Also, I got burned by a few gay teen novels that weren't very good. I'm much more selective now in my forays into YA.

This book is part of a genre that I suppose could be called "new dystopia" or "dystopia lite," in which the world, instead of being radically changed or post-apocalyptic, seems more or less the same as now — except for that one thing. (A convenient, efficient, and probably sometimes lazy way to explore a particular aspect of society and the human condition.) The reviews were good, and it has a gay theme, and points for diversity. I figured I'd give it a try.

Reviews mentioned the twist ending, which kind of ruined it for me, since it wasn't that hard to guess. Maybe it would have been more effectively twisty if I hadn't been expecting it. Overall, I give it a "meh," but I can see why it got positive reviews, and I do think teens would like it. The urban and low-income setting is convincingly rendered, and the main characters are mostly believable. Struggling to come to terms with one's sexual identity is rich territory for teen fiction. The story is somewhat sad and not completely resolved at the end.


Bitter Eden

by Tatamkhulu Afrika

I fully admit that I was mainly attracted to the cover...

...of the 2014 edition, which continues around the spine; I doubt I would have glanced twice at the 2009 edition...

...which isn't bad, but certainly less striking and not as obviously erotic.

And erotic this novel is, in its way, though it's more "gay vague" than actually gay. The story, which takes place in a series of WWII POW camps, has some minor openly gay characters — mostly objects of derision and disgust, occasionally grudging and reluctant respect — but the two main characters are at best situationally homophilic. In the end, however, the characters' actions raise some questions as to whether it could have been more in different circumstances, or if the intensity of the original circumstances created some lingering confusion and misplaced yearning.

All in all, it's a pretty solid book and an interesting look at the psychology of an all-male POW camp. The language is occasionally a bit old-fashioned, but don't worry about the slang (WWII, UK, South African), you can mostly skip over it or deduce its meaning. I don't know if this book is meant to be semi-autobiographical, but the author did spend time as a POW, and he had an interesting life besides.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things

by Randy O. Frost

I've seen the Hoarders television show a few times. I think there might even be more than one TV series about hoarders. Even though gawking is the main point of such shows, they do convey a sense of the tragic nature of hoarding disorders. Where they fail is the therapeutic process, which they do very badly and also try to rush dramatically to create a narrative for the show.

This book is good for someone with a genuine curiosity about hoarding, but it's not for someone (such as a hoarder, or a relative or friend of a hoarder) with something at stake in the disorder. Its approach is more journalistic than scientific, and it discusses potential treatments in a general sense without purporting to provide any. So, yeah, if you read this you'll be gawking a little too, but in a much more dignified and respectful way.

Words of Devotion 1 & 2

by Keiko Konno

Meh. I usually like the "mature 18+" yaoi from this publisher, but this set was so-so. Full disclosure: I bagged and didn't actually read the second volume. The art wasn't great, pretty standard but with weird mouths. The story had potential but didn't seem to go anywhere, and the sex parts were rather tame. The first book also had a few side stories, unrelated to the main story, which I tend not to like unless they're really good.


The Story of Buildings: from the pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and beyond

by Patrick Dillon, with illustrations by Stephen Biesty

Being a children's book, this sampling of interesting buildings is brief and far from comprehensive. It is, however, an insightful and thoughtfully detailed look at not just the engineering aspects of architecture but also the social needs and aspirations represented in the structures we build.

The illustrations by Biesty are, of course, delightful. Some are large enough to require fold-out pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Good for kids grade 4 and up, as well as adults, with an interest in architecture.

Monday, November 09, 2015


by Matthew Stokoe

Not sure how I came across this book. Perhaps it was one of those times I was combing through the items on the library's website that were recently reviewed by other patrons. Somehow the descriptions of brutality and grossness and murder and talking cows caught my fancy instead of repulsing me.

I'd meant to copy the blurb off the back cover, which sums up this book so succinctly and better than I could, but I forgot to do so. The story is about a young man who has long suffered under the watchful eye of his horrible mother. He wants a life like the ones he sees on TV but doesn't know how to achieve it. He gets a job at a slaughterhouse (with a strangely lackadaisical attendance policy) and discovers a road to self-actualization through murder — and also talking cows, and bestiality.

The book is mercifully short. Not that it's poorly written, it's just really intense and rather disgusting. It isn't gratuitously or jokingly disgusting, however, like The Baby Jesus Butt Plug. This book is more along the lines of Chuck Palahniuk, perversity and depravity in the service of something literary.

The Yacoubian Building

by Alaa Al Aswany

I think I probably read about this book in the New York Times Book Review. I didn't read it immediately, but the review intrigued me enough that I did get around to reading it a couple years later.

Using the voices and stories of a variety of fictional residents in a real apartment building in downtown Cairo, the novel explores facets of Egyptian society that were/are considered taboo, such as homosexuality, and the open secrets of corruption and hypocrisy. It's initial publication caused a bit of a stir in the religious and relatively conservative country.

Though the book came out more than a decade ago, and the Arab Spring was five years ago, I imagine The Yacoubian Building still serves as a pretty accurate picture of contemporary urban Egyptian life. For that matter, though it's Egyptian in its details, it's also a pretty good picture of human nature, the (often hidden) complexities of modern life, and the diversity that lurks within seemingly homogeneous cultures.

Writing this review all these years later has solved a riddle of sorts for me. A while back, I was given a reader advisory practice question to suggest a book for someone who enjoyed Let the Great World Spin. One obvious approach, I figured, was to look for books that also have a variety of first-person viewpoints.  I couldn't come up with anything in the moment, and it's nagged at me for years. If I could have remembered The Yacoubian Building, it would have made an excellent answer to the challenge.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

I feel a little weird saying so about this modern classic tale of mental illness and attempted suicide, but I found it to be a quick and breezy read. Sylvia Plath's only published novel is of a modest length, but the subject matter (based somewhat on her own experience, which is why she never meant for the book to be published in the United States) is intense and convincingly depicted. The easy readability must come from the protagonist's casual, conversational, relatable voice, which is also a factor contributing to the book's verisimilitude.

If I owned more books, instead of just borrowing them from the library, I'd put The Bell Jar on the shelf next to The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. Both are about young people struggling to understand their place in the world and to reconcile their own feelings and aspirations with society's expectations. Despite being written in 1946 and 1963, respectively, neither is dated (except in some details) and both speak to the angst and alienation felt at one time or another by most young adults.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Misbehaving: the making of behavioral economics

by Richard Thaler

I consider myself a pretty intelligent guy, but understanding economics has long been a struggle for me. A major sticking point is theory versus reality, which, in a nutshell, is where behavioral economics comes in. When people appear not to be acting as the perfectly rational agents (surprise) presumed by classical economic theories — for example, when they don't save for retirement even though they know they should, or make a rash gamble on a gameshow instead of going for the sure money — behavioral economics tries to find out why they don't. (And, as explained more thoroughly in the author's other book, Nudge, its insights can be used to craft government policies and business practices that make it easier and more likely that people will do the right thing.) People aren't always rational, so emotion needs to be taken into account, and people aren't all awesome at math (particularly statistics), so our false intuitions and misleading biases affect our behavior too.

Very unexpectedly, I laughed aloud while reading this book. I guffawed over the theory, devised by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, that young people will (naturally, instinctively, rationally) calculate their lifetime wealth and earnings and make judgements about how much to spend, and when to spend or save, so that they won't run out of money and might even be able to make bequests!

This book doesn't have any practical advice per se, but you could garner some strategies for recognizing and maybe correcting your own financial and economic misbehaviors. It's also not a deep study or even a catalog of the findings of behavioral economists. The author spends a fair amount of time talking about the people who are the scientists and economists, and about his own personal journey and career, which I suppose is meant to increase the appeal to the lay reader. For some readers it will; for me, I kinda wish I'd read a long (but much shorter than this book) article in a magazine such as Harper's or Atlantic Monthly.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Plastic: a toxic love story

by Susan Freinkel

Well, you can imagine how depressing a book like this can be. We're killing ourselves and the planet with our addiction to cheap plastic throw-away things, it might be too late to do much about it (even if we wanted to do so), and all we got was this demonic-looking deformed plastic Easter bunny from China.

But this book is also full of fascinating scientific and historical details and anecdotes, and it actually strikes a much more hopeful note than I've implied. (The pessimist is I, not the author.) Plus, plastic can't be all bad. Many modern marvels, such as life-saving medical devices, would not be possible without it. The writing quality is adequate to the task.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Men Undressed: women writers and the male sexual experience

edited by Stacy Bierlein, et al.

The premise of this book, women writing male characters in sexual situations, intrigued me. Doesn't take much effort to think of any number of counter-examples, male authors portraying female sexuality; nor does it take much imagination to guess at the ways male authors might project male sexual fantasies onto female characters and fail to present authentic female experiences of sex and desire. So, turnabout is fair play.

It's a collection of short stories and excerpts from longer works, so you get a couple gems, a few turds, and most in the middle. As a collection, I don't think it captured the best and most successful efforts by women writing male sexuality, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone with a casual curiosity. As a man, I found some of the characters' emotions or actions unconvincing, perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the authors — as I'm sure many women react to some instances of men writing female characters. If you want to take a more academic or critical look, however, a range of styles, scenarios, techniques and degrees of quality can be viewed as an asset for a book of this sort.

I wish I had a better memory of which stories I really liked... Best as I can recall, some of the good ones (IMHO) were "Mating in Captivity" by Nava Renek and "The Gift" by Kim Addonizio, but you'll have to judge for yourself.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why I Killed Peter

by Olivier Ka and Alfred

This graphic novel about surviving childhood sexual abuse and confronting one's abuser was a bit of a disappointment. The storytelling and artwork are good, but the story itself somehow felt a bit hollow or something.

Supposedly the process of creating this work was part of the author's effort to purge a lot of negative emotion and come clean, so to speak. I couldn't help wondering, though, if he didn't hold back the whole truth of what happened to him. The experience he describes is very wrong and shouldn't have happened, of course, but it comes across as more creepy and uncomfortable than as something violently or violatingly sexual that would haunt someone as an adult. But I don't know what it's like, and I try not to begrudge anyone their emotional reactions to the things they experience. I just felt that, if he did hold something back, the omission or incomplete confession would undermine the stated mission of putting it all out there and letting it go.

Also, his attempt to confront his abuser as an adult was anticlimactic, apparently even for him.

Also, no one gets killed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Big Machine

by Victor D. LaValle

I like when novels are about Big Ideas, but not if the story isn't up to snuff. I remember having mixed feelings about this story's paranormal and redemptive themes. Trying to remember it now puts me in mind of the television show American Horror Story, which is visually cool, has complicated characters, and richly detailed plot lines — but what for? What's my payoff for watching/reading?

I just looked up a summary (probably from the publisher, maybe the book jacket) that calls Big Machine "a fiendishly imaginative comic novel about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us." I do not recall it being funny, but the rest rings true. The protagonist is a former addict and hustler questing for a raison d'être (not the meaning of life, just a meaning for his life).

I expected this book to be more like something by Colson Whitehead (I've read The Intutionist, and I've always meant to read Apex Hides the Hurt), and I got a whiff of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, but it just wasn't as good. Or I didn't like it as much. Definitely headed in the right direction, but didn't quite take me there.

[Sidebar: Is it a micro-aggression if I only compare him to other Black authors? (Is that capital B another micro-aggression?) Although not entirely successful, in my estimation, this author is aiming to be in the company of Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and other literary luminaries.]

The Martian

by Andy Weir

Loved-loved-LOVED this book! A gripping and exciting story combined with a tough, smart character who has humor and heart. I stayed up late and got anxious about the fate of our hero while reading this book about a guy marooned on Mars.

I've heard that some people found the science details to be boring or too difficult, but I felt they added a lot to the story and my sense of how difficult it was for the character to survive alone in a truly harsh and unforgiving environment. And if you don't like those parts, you can easily skim over them; it's not as if you need to check his math to understand the story.

I don't want to say much about the movie, but I'm really glad I read the book first. Not surprisingly, many things had to be left out of the film, and it did have some Hollywood schmaltz that wasn't in the book.

All in all, definite seal of approval for this smart, entertaining, enthralling book. Other than some cuss words, it is youth-friendly. I could see adolescent and teen boys really digging it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

by Jennifer Tseng

I probably only saw one review of this book, so I can't say for sure it's overrated, but it's definitely not a modern-day Lolita (another overrated book, IMHO). Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness does have some brilliant moments, but it's inconsistent and, at times, annoying. I did finish it, though, so ... B-minus?

The story is about a 41-year-old librarian in a cold, loveless marriage who has an affair with a 17-year-old library patron, whom she only ever calls "the young man." (At the end of the book, a big deal is made of her not saying his name.) She simultaneously befriends, or is befriended by, the young man's mother.

Personally, I found the coldness and loveless-ness of her marriage unconvincing, as it was only briefly explored; I guess the reader is just supposed to take her word for it, which seems problematic when we know the narrator will soon be on shaky moral ground.

Another weakness is the abundance of imagery used to describe Mayumi's emotional states and view of the world. I expected a more constant motif from a poet turned novelist. The switching between naturalistic and man-made imagery initially had me intrigued, hoping something interesting would develop from the juxtaposition, but it didn't pan out. The rather obvious ocean/island theme (she lives on an island, she feels adrift, she is and island) takes over.

Two-thirds through the book, an interesting twist occurs, forcing the reader and protagonist to re-evaluate her transgression. In a way it's just a minor detail, but the revelation surprised me enough that I exclaimed to an empty room. Ultimately, though, the effect on the character's sense of guilt is less than I expected. And another twist follows shortly, bringing things to a head and also cutting things off abruptly. Better to end an affair with a bang then a whimper, I guess.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Bone Clocks

by David Mitchell

A classic tale of good vs. evil, with Mitchell's trademarks of plot complexity and interwoven multiple narratives, reprising themes of immortal souls and reincarnation from Cloud Atlas. The thrilling plot is at times excruciatingly, exquisitely drawn out and had me reading late into the night.

Unlike the more suggestive Cloud Atlas, in this book the reincarnation (and discarnation, if that's a thing) is explicit, so the story is less realistic — not that Cloud Atlas was all that realistic, but perhaps its imagined futures and pasts were more superficially plausible. Mysticism might be a good description for what's happening here, but nothing typically religious or New Age-y, though one important character/plot point does have ties to organized religion.

At times I almost wished I were reading an e-book so it would have been easier to re-trace the references from later in the book to things I remembered from earlier chapters. A lot of hints are dropped, and the author keeps quite a few balls in the air, so it could be a challenging read, but it's also very satisfying.

I don't recall if I'd realized it at the time, but just now reading a review of another of Mitchell's books, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I realized that it and The Bone Clocks both have the same character named Marinus. I'm sure there must have been sly links to Cloud Atlas as well, and I'd like to think I would have detected them, but imperfect memory is one of the pitfalls of not writing reviews right away.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Cure for Suicide

by Jesse Ball

An imaginative story, rather sad and melancholy, but also beautifully written. Like one of my favorites from 2013 (Sea of Hooks), it's a novel by a poet. Seriously, I almost cried, and some passages I had to re-read and savor several times.

When I first read a little review and synopsis, it sounded too far out there, but on second look I decided to give it a try. As an object, this book is strangely attractive: a simple cover of lovely blue with thin white lettering and a subtle leaf design, and it's not quite as wide as a standard hardcover book. (At least, I remember it being slim; I'm doubting my memory...)

The story seems to take place in a vaguely dystopian or maybe post-apocalyptic future, mainly because the first part unfolds in an isolated Village, part of a strictly ordered environment used to rehabilitate people from an unknown ailment that renders them in some ways childlike but with skills and understanding that are slowly recovered from a previous life.

As the reader starts to piece together what's happening through several iterations of Village life, the perspective shifts to another story, one that came before and explains how one character entered the Process of Villages. This part is a tale of heartbreak and immense sadness, and it recasts the earlier part in an even more tragic light. Finally, a coda of sorts returns to the Process of Villages and a series of fateful choices.

Definitely in my Top 10 of 2015.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Imperial Cruise: a secret history of empire and war

by James Bradley

Great for history buffs, and I was really into it when I read it (about five years ago), but looking back the subject seems dry and unappealing: the United States government's shady dealings in the Pacific that helped set the stage for WWII — sigh. Have we ever not been a dick to the rest of the world? Teddy Roosevelt and his "big stick"; future president Taft, who was Secretary of War at the time, floating around the Pacific in a vessel that must have been much larger than the one in which he legendarily got stuck.

So, yeah, if you love history, this well-researched book gathers a lot of details that you'd miss in a basic history textbook or in an interwar or WWII history of broader scope. Must be decently engaging writing, because I don't remember it as a slog.

Cooking with Fernet Branca
Amazing Disgrace
Rancid Pansies

by James Hamilton-Paterson

I stumbled across Amazing Disgrace and read it first, not realizing it was in a series. I was initially intrigued because it's published by Europa Editions, and I've enjoyed a number of their other books. (Old Filth, for example, and they published The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I haven't read but which was a big hit back when.) Their books have a distinctive look, which is how I noticed it.

Cooking with Fernet Branca came out first, in 2005, and Rancid Pansies came out in 2008. Assuming I read Amazing Disgrace close to when it was published in 2006, I took nearly a decade to read all three. No matter! The character at the center of all three books, Gerald Samper, is so memorable and so particular that one can jump right back into his world after a few years absence and not miss a beat. He's absolutely the sort of person I'd like to have for a friend.

He's a middle-aged British queen living in self-imposed exile in Tuscany. He's pompous and scathingly humorous toward others, but a jolly sort whose insults are (mostly) all in good fun. He's aware (but pretends not to be aware) of how ridiculous he himself is, while simultaneously being utterly certain of how exceptional he is. He's sarcastic and brilliant; he's me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Little Life
The People in the Trees

by Hanya Yanagihara

I absolutely loved A Little Life. The story is really intense and sad, but the characters are so well-written. It's on the long side, but I read it pretty quickly; I really cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen. A lot of bad things happen to good people in this book, so overall it's rather bleak. You will feel as if you've been gut-punched more than once.

One review I saw talked about the author straining credulity with how much trauma can be endured by one person, how long that person can cling to his suffering without breaking, and how many people around him can remain so open and caring for so long in the face of his refusal to heal. All true, but the author pushes everyone — characters and readers alike — to a point at which horrible seems somehow normal, which is an interesting feat to attempt.

I've described A Little Life as veering into Oprah's book club levels of tragedy, and at times I felt as if the author were piling on the traumas as a cheap or lazy way of firing the reader's emotions. Normally that would turn me off, but it's one of my top reads so far in 2015. It's also short-listed for a bunch of different awards, so I'm not the only one.

On the other hand... The People in the Trees came out in 2013, to some acclaim. I remember reading the jacket copy and not being into it. I reconsidered in light of how much I loved A Little Life, to my chagrin. No likable characters are in this book: the narrator of the wrap-around story (a foreword and afterword to the "memoir" that constitutes the bulk of the book) is underdeveloped and, frankly, baffling. The rest of the story is tightly focused on a monster of a character who's not even appealing in the way a dark anti-hero could be. The only thing that kept me reading was the slim hope that he might not be so despicable after all. No such luck.

I had wondered, with a bit of unease, while reading A Little Life what made the author come up with such twisted tortures for its main character. After reading The People in the Trees, I seriously asked myself what the hell is wrong with this lady? Little bit of a spoiler: don't read either of these if child sexual abuse is a "trigger" for you.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Captive Prince
Prince's Gambit

by C.S. Pacat

I heard about these books from a friend who likes to read "gay relationship porn for mommies" — at least, that's the description I remember. They're stories of erotic tension, stressing the slow-burn and clashing of wills and building of tension, maybe with dominance/submission under- or overtones. She reads a lot of this sub-genre that's published online.

I never got around to reading this series she recommended until I saw the actual books come in at my library. I'm not too keen on e-books, and I always have some physical book(s) coming due and dictating what I read next, so I probably never would have read them online. Even having gotten my hands on the actual books, I didn't read them until they'd reached the maximum number of renewals.

But, oh, I'm sooo glad I finally read them — and I'm anxious for the third book to come out in early(?) 2016. I'd steeled myself for some bad writing that I was prepared to ignore if I felt like the story would be hot enough for my taste, but I was pleasantly surprised by decent writing and a solid story. I sailed through both books and got to some very rewarding sexy bits toward the end of the second. The main characters, both princes, are well-developed and are building an interestingly complicated relationship, calling into question the futures of both their kingdoms. What will happen in the third book?! It's simultaneously ridiculous and thrilling.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Dinner

by Herman Koch

An enjoyable* and quick read about two couples having dinner and deciding what to do about an unfortunate situation involving their two sons.

*I hesitate to use the word "enjoyable" because this book has layers of creepiness that peel away to reveal worsening layers of sociopathy. The narrator initially presents himself as a good guy with an insufferable older brother. Soon you begin to realize he may be an unreliable narrator... and the dread keeps building until you realize he's not even the only monster in this story.

So maybe "compelling" is a better word. The writing is good enough to stimulate the suspense and feeling of sick fascination that propels the reader to the end, despite the realization that perhaps none of the characters are redeemable. But what wouldn't you do to protect those you love most?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

by David Orr

I'm not a huge fan of poetry, but every now and then I come across a poem that astonishes me. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" astonished the eighth-grade version of me, but it turns out I fell for the popular and mostly incorrect interpretation of the poem.

Frost was a tricky guy, but his folksy farmer-poet image is still how most people see him. His most famous poem has a similar image problem. "The Road Not Taken" is not (or, is not only, is far from only) about taking the "road less travelled" because you're a maverick and a rugged individualist (special, American). A close and thoughtful reading reveals that the poem is more about the fraught moments of decision and the stories (and lies) we later tell ourselves about what those decisions meant and how they affected the course of our lives.

The title of the poem points to the road not taken, whereas the popular idea of the poem focuses on the road that is taken by the speaker, which is understood to be the road for special people, the one not taken by everyone else. Meanwhile, the speaker of the poem very clearly judges the two paths to be about the same, something the common misconception of the poem completely ignores. And that's just for starters.

Anyway, a definite thumbs up for this fascinating book about a poem that's much more complex, interesting and ambivalent than most people realize. Not very long, easy to get into. I found the last two sections less interesting than the earlier parts of the book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


by Kou Yoneda

Yaoi-ish manga collection, with one high school story, one about organized crime, and the best one of all: a series about an auto mechanic and a car salesman falling in love, even though neither has been attracted to men before. A little choppy in places, but the high school story is sweet, and the mechanic-salesman story is really sweet.

 Not at all as explicit as the warning on the cover would have you believe. There is out-and-out sex that happens, but it's drawn very discreetly compared to a lot of other yaoi labelled as "explicit."