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'ĂȘtre (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."