Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

RazorhurstI read my first Justine Larbalestier book, Liar, a million years ago and meant to read more of them, but then she didn’t write anything that seemed nearly as exciting for a while. Then I heard Larbalestier was writing a historical fiction novel, and I was like, uggggh, come on, but THEN I heard she was writing a historical fiction novel set in Sydney and involving ghosts and I was like, oh, yeah, count me in.

And that is this book! Our hero, Kelpie, is an orphan of indeterminate age who lives in a super shady Sydney suburb that is part of a larger neighborhood called Razorhurst. Razorhurst is, as the nickname might suggest, full of razor-wielding gangs and, necessarily, a lot of ghosts. Kelpie can see those ghosts. Most of them are pretty awful, but some of them have helped her survive on the streets without getting picked up by child services, so when one of the more in-the-middle ghosts points her in the direction of food, she crosses her fingers and goes to find it. Instead she finds Dymphna Campbell, “best girl” to the head of one of two competing gangs; Jimmy Palmer, the super annoying ghost of Dymphna’s dead boyfriend; and a whoooole world of trouble.

I mean, if that doesn’t intrigue you, I cannot help you become more interested in this book. There’s running and jumping and also talking in measured tones and avoiding the gaze of ghosts. There’s a little bit of romance, but not much, and there is a lot of overthinking next moves and then just going for it and hoping for the best.

I really liked the way Larbalestier handled the ghost business. On an individual ghost level, there’s Kelpie having to juggle listening to Jimmy’s advice and then figuring out how to give it without looking highly suspicious, or, alternately, how to ignore the advice completely without sending Jimmy into a tantrum. But even more interesting is how the ghosts aren’t all of one mold — some haunt people, some haunt places, some just kind of exist, some are quiet, some are loud, some are obnoxious — and how Larbalestier puts some thought into where a bunch of ghosts might hang out in 1930s Sydney. So there are ghosts, sure, but they don’t seem terribly out of place in an otherwise historically accurate (I presume) novel.

The humans, on the other hand… I just didn’t click with them that well. I didn’t quite understand how they were all interacting with each other or what emotions they were supposed to be feeling about things or what emotions I might be supposed to be feeling about things that happened to the humans. There were a few times where I could tell that I was supposed to be surprised or upset or something but it just wasn’t going to happen.

But, on the plus side, I am kind of obsessed with Australia, and was actually in Sydney for a few days last year, and so it was neat and also kind of super creepy to realize that I was not very far at all from some very ghost-filled places. I’m kind of disappointed now that we spent most of our time on the opposite side of Sydney from Surry Hills/Darlinghurst. If only this book had come out a few months sooner, I could have had some very interesting vacation photos!

Recommendation: For people who saw gangs and ghosts and 1930s Sydney and were like, tell me more.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend… Meme?

Happy Friday, everyone! I haven’t read enough books this week to have one to talk about today, so here, how about I answer some questions about books I might someday read?

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

So I have three TBR piles, really. There’s one that’s literally a pile of books, mostly that I’ve checked out of the library, that I should probably read before they’re due back. That one I keep track of by, again, having a literal pile of books on my office desk for the reading.

Then there’s the invisible TBR pile, which is made up of all the books I have on my Kindle: mostly galleys (read: books not published yet which I get through librarian-fu) but also some ebooks I bought on sale. I keep track of the galleys (as you’ll see a couple questions from now), but everything else just kind of sits there. I’m working on it.

Finally, there’s the giant imaginary TBR pile, the one made up of books that I want to read but that I don’t have in front of me, and that one lives on the Internet. Generally, if I hear about a book and I am near a computer, I pop that sucker onto my Goodreads “to-read” list, where it then languishes until I end up with a copy of it somehow and it gets put on one of the other piles.

2. Is your TBR mostly print or eBook?

Well, I mean, it’s mostly imaginary, so it could go either way? Of the books that I could conceivably read right this minute because they’re on my Kindle or my desk, the pile is mostly digital because it’s basically all galleys.

3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

Hey, remember the other day when I said I had a totally not metaphorical reading schedule? Yeah, that’s how I roll. I like to use my librarian powers to read ahead, so my schedule has all of the galleys I’ve obtained and their publishing dates. Also on the list are books I need to read for my book club and the date that the book club is meeting. When it’s time to pick my next book, I look at what’s first on that schedule and decide if I’m going to read it, and if I am, I do. If there’s a big gap, like right now, where I have a couple of weeks before the next galley I want to read is going to be published, I’ll fill in the gap with a book off of my literal pile or sometimes a book that I’ve decided I just can’t put off reading any longer.

4. A book that’s been on your TBR list the longest?

Aside from the books that Goodreads put on my imaginary TBR when I opened my account five or so years ago, the first book on that list is Touch Me, I’m Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You’ve Ever Heard, by Tom Reynolds, which is a book I had totally forgotten existed and which I will proooobably never read.

5. A book you recently added to your TBR?

A couple hours ago I added to the imaginary list The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, which I’m surprised hadn’t made it there already.

6. A book on your TBR strictly because of it’s beautiful cover.

Boneshaker, another one I’ll probably never read because I’m not actually a steampunk person, though I very much wish I were one!

7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading.

Aside from the two above, Rebecca, which I promise to read on a regular basis and then I get six pages in and am like, “Nope.”

8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for.

A God in Ruins, which is the sequel to Life After Life and which is very happily on my invisible TBR to be read very very soon!

9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you.

That everyone has read? The DaVinci Code. Another one I’ll probably never get around to.

10. A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you.

The Fellowship of the Ring. Technically it’s not to be read as I did read about 130 pages of it once, but I just can’t get past Tom Bombadil.

11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read.

Aside from A God in Ruins, I would say Stiletto, which is the sequel to The Rook and which I am very disappointed is only on my imaginary TBR. Review copy I want you!!!

12. How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

As of right now, 639. I might get around to them, someday?

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsEverything I heard about this book in the last few months indicated that it was a sort of spiritual (haaa) successor to The Sparrow, which I think we’ve established is my favorite book and is super awesome and therefore I was like, well, gotta read The Book of Strange New Things, then.

But what’s really fascinating about this book is how completely unlike The Sparrow it is. It has the same basic premise — dude goes to space on a mission trip to hang out with aliens — but that’s basically the only thing it has in common. So come at this book without all those preconceived notions, or you’ll find yourself fighting the story the whole time.

So in this story, a fella called Peter is chosen after rigorous interviewing to become a Christian missionary to a place called Oasis. He doesn’t know much about the private company, USIC, sponsoring his trip; he doesn’t know much about the aliens he’s going to meet; all he really knows is that he’s leaving his wife behind on Earth for a few months in exchange for an amazing missionary opportunity and lots and lots of dollars.

On Oasis, Peter finds his job both easier and weirder than he expected. The aliens already know about Jesus and are in fact clamoring to hear more stories from what they call the Book of Strange New Things. But Peter can’t figure out why his new congregation is so super into Jesus or how to tell these fetus-faced (his words!) aliens apart or whether said aliens have any emotions that he can work with in his ministry. And when he goes back to the USIC base, things are strange there, too. The place has almost no locks on any door and the technology is primitive and the workers communicate solely face-to-face and the magazines have any useful information about Earth ripped out and it’s just weird.

Meanwhile, Peter is getting messages from his wife, Bea, that indicate that life on Earth is not going well at all, with natural disasters and supermarket shortages and public services becoming completely ignored. And speaking of ignored, Bea is getting more and more irritated that her long and descriptive messages about her life are being met with simple responses or, more often, no response at all. Peter knows that he should care more about Earth and Bea, but he is just so far removed from everything except his aliens that anything else seems unreal.

And that’s the whole story, really. With all the mysteries and oddness in the space part of the book, I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — that USIC was actually some nefarious corporation, that Oasis was something more akin to Area X, that Bea’s notes to Peter were totally faked, something. But this particular story is just about a guy who goes on a dangerous mission and finds out that not going might have been the more dangerous option. Which is pretty cool, actually.

Also cool is just the way that Faber writes. He gives his aliens an accent by replacing some English letters with unpronounceable symbols, his descriptions really make you feel the difference between the sweltering but open outdoor living of the Oasans and the climate- and everything-controlled living of the humans, he writes the letters between Bea and Peter in such a way that you know exactly what is going to be misconstrued and how, and it is all so lovely. I will definitely be checking out his other book, The Crimson Petal and the White, as soon as there’s an opening in my reading schedule (a totally not metaphorical thing that I have).

Recommendation: For people who want to think some thinky thoughts about life and love.

Rating: 9/10

Firefight, by Brandon Sanderson

FirefightMy reaction upon getting the email from my library that my hold on Firefight had finally come in: “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

But of course, I was in the middle of another book, so Scott got to read it first, and when he stayed up way too late two nights in a row reading it I knew it was going to be good. When it was finally my turn to read it, I finished it in an afternoon (I might read just a touch faster than my husband does).

And it’s pretty dang good, guys. Not as great as Steelheart, but I’ve read enough series to know not to expect equal greatness from sequels. But if you’re looking for the action, intensity, and amusingly awful metaphors of the first book, Firefight does not disappoint.

In this go, we are in a post-Steelheart Newcago, where the Reckoners are working to protect the city from harm. Unfortunately, a bunch of non-Newcago-an Epics keep showing up and trying to kill off the Reckoners, and it soon becomes clear that they are being sent by somebody. That somebody is Regalia, the Epic running the waterlogged city of Babilar, formerly known as Manhattan. Our metaphor-challenged hero, David, travels to Babilar with Jon Phaedrus, the Reckoner leader, secret Epic, and former friend of Regalia, to see what’s up and what they can do about it. But David’s not really on board with the mission — he’s more interested in figuring out a way to keep former Reckoner, formerly secret Epic, and crush-object Megan/Firefight from becoming the kind of evil Epic that all Epics seem to eventually become.

Soooo there’s more of that gross swoony love stuff than I would particularly prefer, but it’s actually pretty well integrated into the regular storyline so I can forgive it. Sanderson does a great job breaking out the world-building again for Babilar, a city supernaturally covered in water and somehow growing phosphorescent plants inside the abandoned buildings, including some trees that grow fortune cookies for reasons that are actually pretty cool. And he brings in more backstory to the world as a whole, explaining more about how the Epics came to be and the source of their powers and weaknesses. Sanderson also breaks out my two favorite things, suspense and intrigue, as the various players in this story maneuver against each other in ways I wasn’t always suspecting, with real motives only realized at the last second or sometimes even later.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s super entertaining and my only regret is that I have to wait until “Spring 2016″ (according to the end of the book) to find out how it ends! I will keep my fingers crossed for another Mitosis-style ebook to tide me over.

Recommendation: For lovers of Sanderson, Steelheart, superpowers, suspense, other things that start with s…

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Rat Queens and The Woods

Comics comics comics. I have lots of comics. Let’s read some!

Rat Queens, Vol. 1: “Sass and Sorcery”, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
Rat Queens, Vol. 1I had heard decent things about this comic from people I trust, but the concept — dwarves and elves and stuff going on quests — is one that I tend to like in theory more than in practice, so it wasn’t on the top of my reading list. Then I got stuck in a long line at my comic shop and this book was hanging out on the counter, and one flip through the artwork had me sold. It is super pretty, guys.

And then I read it, and the story is equally as awesome, as it is closer in tone to that Terry Pratchett style of fantasy that I find enjoyable despite myself. Rat Queens isn’t quite a parody, like Pratchett’s work, but it does play around with the source material in fun ways. To start with, our main heroes are all ladies with distinct personalities and looks (coughxmencough), and then also they’re all pretty aware of the fantasy tropes they are following, and then also they are violently and excitedly gouging out goblin eyeballs, which is super gross but fascinatingly realistic. Well, “realistic”.

In this volume our Rat Queens are one of several raiding parties who are sent out on generic goblin-killing, loot-gathering quests that quickly turn out to be ambushes. The Rat Queens survive their ambush (with goblin eyeballs to show for it!), but not everyone else can say the same, and so the Rat Queens set out to figure out who set them up and why. There’s intrigue and subterfuge (my favorite things!) and also shapeshifting and sibling rivalry and an adorably tiny kick-ass Sherlock Holmes and love and sex and mystical religions and um, when does the next volume come out?

The Woods, Vol. 1: “The Arrow”, by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Vol. 1Now this one I had just seen mentioned on a blog somewhere, and I wrote down that I wanted to read it, and then by the time I got to the comic shop I had no idea why I had wanted to read it but I bought it anyway, trusting my past self even though her short-term memory is terrible. Plus, again, the artwork is awesome, so I figured it couldn’t be all bad. And… it wasn’t! Two for two!

This book is much much darker than Rat Queens, though. Here we have a bunch of teenagers and teachers in a school that somehow gets transported somewhere that is proooobably not Earth. The air is breathable but the animal population is less than friendly, and so most of the humans are content to stay inside the school. A small faction, led by a kid who has apparently spoken to a mysterious statue, go off into the woods to see what they can find there, but of course it’s super dangerous. Sadly, it is not much more dangerous than staying at the school, as an ex-military current-egomaniac sportsball coach has made himself de facto leader of the school and is installing martial law and convincing impressionable teen sportsball players to help him keep the rest of the students in line.

It is a terrifyingly appropriate metaphor for high school — damned if you follow the status quo, damned if you don’t — and you know I like those. And I am super curious about how and why the school is in its current location, and what any of these guys are going to do in a week when all the frozen pizza and chocolate milk cartons are gone. And now I am thinking about exactly what is going to happen when the chocolate milk is gone and I am very very worried for those kids. Uh-oh.

What comics are y’all reading that I should be adding to my list?

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI hadn’t intended to read The Sparrow so soon after my last read of it, but I ended up having to fill an emergency book-club slot and I wanted to make sure I had a winner of a book. Of course, shortly after I announced this as the next book, I started hearing horror stories all across the internet (by which I mean one horror story on a podcast) about someone else’s book club where no one liked The Sparrow.

Luckily that’s not actually possible and that person was clearly lying, as my second book club reading went just as fantastically as the first!

There’s just so much greatness in The Sparrow, starting with the chilling-on-a-re-read last line of the prologue — “They meant no harm.” Seriously, chills. Then there’s the competing Before and After plotlines that don’t seem like they can come together until they rush headlong into each other just exactly like Sandoz rushes headlong into Askama to start this whole narrative. And there’s the worldbuilding, which, in a present very close to the present of the story (2015 to the story’s 2019), seems oddly prescient about some things and very very happily completely wrong about others. Hooray for iPads and a lack of institutionalized slavery! (Though as one book clubber pointed out, not a lack of slavery in general.)

But I’ve talked about all that before (see link above), and I will talk your head off about it if you even tangentially mention this book in my presence. What was cool about reading the book this time was that Scott and I chose to listen to it on our road trip up to Cleveland, so we got to experience a very different re-read together. There was much pausing and discussing of the book while we drove, and it was really fun to see how we took parts of the book very differently.

And, of course, it was cool to hear the book. The narrator, David Colacci, was maybe not a master of accents, but he put on a good show, and I realized for the first time how ridiculously multicultural (still pretty white, but multicultural) the characters are. I mean, I knew there were Texans and Italians and Puerto Ricans in the book, but let’s be real, they all had Cleveland accents in my head. So it was neat to hear how they “really” sounded. Colacci also did a good job with tone and volume, putting a lot of emotional depth into Sandoz’s pain and Sofia’s reticence and the narration about everything awful that happens to everyone in this book. At first I was a little put off by this, because it can be really hard to hear those quiet parts while driving without losing an eardrum to a normal speaking voice, but since I already kind of knew what was happening it turned out pretty okay after all. I will definitely be seeking this narrator out for future audiobooks.

I will also keep recommending this book to everyone. I knew my first book club would love it because I know them pretty well, but I was really nervous about this second book club because the members have wildly varying ages and religions and viewpoints and I was worried that like two people would show up. But the ten of us who came all at least appreciated the book, and we had a great discussion about fate and belief and responsibility without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, and several people said they would be seeking out the sequel, so I’m glad to get more people on the MDR train.

Recommendation: Um, go read it, obviously. If you’ve only read it once, read it again.

Rating: 10/10, perpetually, always