Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnYou know, I’m not really sure why I bother try to find other books like Rainbow Rowell’s books, when Rowell’s books are amazing and wonderful and I could probably read a couple of them thirty-six more times each and have the next few years of my reading life covered.

Carry On comes out of one of those beloved books, Fangirl, in which the main character is writing an epic fanfiction called Carry On, Simon, about a Harry-Potter-esque wizard and his Draco-Malfoy-esque nemesis/crush object. Carry On is unfortunately not that fanfiction, which I presume would never have gotten past the editors, but is instead Rowell’s version of what the last Simon Snow book might look like if indeed Simon and Baz discovered their true feelings for each other.

Confused? Don’t even worry about it. The whole book is just so dang adorable you will forget that you have no idea what’s going on.

I won’t summarize the plot, because it’s basically “Insert Standard Harry-Potter-Esque Story Line Here”, but I will say it takes that SHPESL and does some fun stuff with it. The wizarding world gets to have vampires but it doesn’t get Quidditch, instead having the wizards play soccer like normal people. The spells in this world are the best, all based on commonly-used phrases and catchphrases like “some like it hot” “Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you!”, and also you have to watch out that your spells don’t go too literal and, say, set everything on fire.

It also does some dark stuff with the SHPESL, giving us a Dumbledore of dubious trustworthiness and also a Big Bad who is far more existentially terrifying than any Voldemort. My bestie and I, who bonded over the Bartimaeus trilogy and its better-than-HP ending, agree that Carry On‘s ending is also obviously superior and obviously more depressing, just as it should be.

And then, of course, there’s the Simon/Baz romance, which is just so perfectly teenagery with the longing and the missed connections and the misunderstandings and the complete insecurity and although I do not miss those days my teenage heart is happy to relive them from the comfort of the future. There is just a little bit of angst over whether Simon is gay or gay for Baz or what, and it’s kind of nice that Rowell mostly gets that out of the way and lets everyone get back to stalking vampires and solving magical mysteries.

Basically, I loved this book, which I read in one sitting, curled up inside on a perfectly nice day. The only problem is that now I’m caught up on Rainbow Rowell again and I don’t even know when her next book will come out!

Recommendation: For fans of Rowell, Harry Potter, and adorable fan fiction.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: The Obligatory Running Post

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningIf you’re a friend of mine, on Facebook or IRL, you’ve probably heard that I’ve taken up that dread sport called running. Well, jogging, really, or as my husband’s uncle recently said, “fast walking,” which I don’t think is entirely fair but uncles weren’t made to boost your ego.

Anyway, regardless of how fast I’m moving, running is my new thing. I sort of half-heartedly started up in the spring with some very short jogs that could probably fairly be called fast walking, then I made a point of doing said jogs on a regular schedule, and then in September I found the Hogwarts Running Club and things got super serious.

In May, if you had told me I would run a 5k by the end of the year, I would have been like, “Sweet! Good job, me!” It’s absolutely baffling to me that I’ve run 10 5k or greater distances in the last two months, I ran 5 miles last Sunday, and I’m planning to run 6.2442 miles on Thanksgiving for a Hogwarts Running Club virtual race. And that 6+ miles isn’t even daunting. I’m looking forward to it!

To bring this back to books, I’ve been meaning to pick up another Murakami book since I liked that novel of his I read for book club, and it turns out that he wrote a whole memoir about running! And I needed a new nonfiction/memoir audiobook to listen to! It was kismet, obviously.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
Of course, it turns out that this book has almost nothing in common with his novels, which, why would it, as far as I can tell he writes nothing but bonkers fiction and this is a relatively straightforward memoir/travelogue. Blast.

Also, I’ve been spoiled by great audiobook narrators lately and this guy’s flat affect and snooze-inducing tone just did not make me super interested in what Murakami had to say. So it’s possible this book is absolutely fascinating, but I just missed out on it?

Unfortunately, my own takeaways from this memoir are basically, like, do your best and then do better but if you fail at least you tried and you can try harder next time or you can try something new and get better at that, whatever, you do you. Which does not a 5-hour audiobook make. The rest of the space is filled with Murakami’s training for various marathons (spoiler: he runs a lot and then runs some more), his insecurity over losing his speed as he ages, and his newfound interest in triathlons to make up for said loss.

It’s… I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s not unlike anyone you know talking to you for five hours about anything. He repeats himself a bit, he says things that don’t seem terribly important, and he lacks a focus that could have kept me more interested.

If you’re into running, I feel like this is one of those things you have to read just to check it off your list. But I’ll be sticking to my funny people memoirs in the future, I think.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Ladies in Comics

Yep, it’s time to talk about ladies again! These ladies, the fictional ones and the real ones who invented them, are all super awesometastic, but these books are very very different. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them both to you at the same time, but hey, I liked them a lot, so you might, too!

Let’s start with the happy book:

Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: “Friendship to the Max”, by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen
Lumberjanes, Vol. 2On the one hand, I am really glad that my many years of Girl Scout camp never involved mystical, fantastical, and/or evil creatures. On the other hand, how do I become a Lumberjane because they’re so cooooooool.

In this volume, we get to meet a few more of the Lumberjane campers as they make friendship bracelets and play a very serious game of capture the flag. Some dinosaurs and a nosy bear show up at camp, but they are easily dispatched, though certain secrets form a rift between our favorite cabin-mates. Luckily, they reunite just in time to work together against some meddling Greek gods by solving puzzles and making serious sacrifices. Also, Jen is the best.

Now the less-happy book:

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: “Extraordinary Machine”, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
Bitch Planet, Vol. 1I read the first issue of this series a while back and liked it quite a bit. It’s got amazing art, a fascinating premise, and some serious deep-thinking plot lines.

After that first issue, which sets up the idea of Bitch Planet, a space jail for “non-compliant” ladies, we get into a story line involving some kind of dangerous sportsball game that our prisoner friends are being pressured into playing. It’s a terrible idea, really, but on the jailers’ side it’s easy money and on the prisoners’ side there’s a chance of doing some damage to the system that is holding them. As the team trains up we learn more about the ladies in the jail (including a great issue all about Penny Rolle, the largest and awesomest of the prisoners), about the jailers, and about the business interests that affect both of these groups. It’s a pretty bleak world all around, and it’s interesting to see how various people work to make the best of it. I’m totally in for wherever this series goes next.

And, after that downer, a bonus happy:

Agent Carter #1, by Kathryn Immonen and Rich Ellis
Agent Carter #1I picked this up on a whim at my local comic shop as part of a huge series of one-shot #1s Marvel did for its 50th anniversary. I was like, “Are there any good ones?” and the comic guy was like, “There’s an Agent Carter…” and I was like, “YES. SOLD. PUT IT IN MY HANDS.” And then I read it while walking home.

This is a cute little comic, if fairly predictable. In it, not-yet-agent Peggy Carter is hanging around SHIELD, firing guns and shooting the breeze (and some birds) with Dum Dum Dugan, who tells her that they’re trying out a new SHIELD operative and could Carter offer some assistance? Carter is less than thrilled that the newbie in question is Lady Sif, of Asgard fame, but she gamely hangs out with her anyway and partakes in some delightfully literal banter until all hell breaks loose.

Super fun all around, but really what this comic did best was make me miss the Agent Carter television show. How long ’til that comes back?

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Ladies on Audio

Why Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling
Why Not Me?Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? on a solo drive a while back and enjoyed the heck out of it, so I was happy to find her new book available when I needed a new audiobook. This edition of Kaling’s memoirs focuses on being a lady, being a lady in Hollywood, and dating cute boys. It’s not super memorable several weeks later, but I definitely enjoyed the listen on my drives and runs.

Awesome essays from the book:

“How to Look Spectacular: A Starlet’s Confessions”, full of advice of varying practicality for regular people. Have lots of hair! Get spray tanned! Tailor everything! Don’t pose the same way in every darn picture!

“Player”, about falling in love with a new friend to the exclusion of everyone else, and how that’s really never a great idea.

“One of the President’s Men”, in which Mindy meets a hot dude and has approximately the most frustrating relationship with him.

“A Perfect Courtship in my Alternate Life”, which is a made-up story told through emails about Mindy Kaling the Latin teacher and, well, a suuuuuper cute courtship.

This was a super fun audiobook and if you’re a Kaling fan or a fan of chicks with opinions in general, you’ll probably like it.

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson
Furiously HappyAnother excellent second book to follow up an amazing first book. I love Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, whose blog is the most ridiculous and wonderful thing I read on a regular basis. She’s never met a tangent she didn’t want to go off on and she has a way of purposely misinterpreting the world that makes her life, and our lives, better for it.

Lawson writes amazing essays about things that happen to her that start off mundane (going to sit in a cemetery) and end up insane (finding herself accidentally attending a funeral in said cemetery), and also things that start out insane and keep going (corralling her husband into couples therapy because she wants him to get regular therapy and then fearing all the things he might possibly tell the therapist while he’s there without her). This book also includes several essays on the topic of depression, anxiety, and various other mental illnesses that I found really touching and important to listen to as a mentally okay person and that are probably way more empowering for the people who share Lawson’s mental states. This is definitely a book everyone needs to listen to, not leastly because Lawson’s narration is almost funnier than her stories.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day
You're Never Weird on the InternetThis is Day’s first book and it is uh-mazing. I loved this book the most out of all the books in this post, and that is saying something. The best part is Day’s narration, which, like Lawson’s, feels more like swapping stories with a friend than listening to a performance. It’s full of awesome voice acting and nervous laughter and when Day tells embarrassing stories you can hear that embarrassment in her voice and it is awful and wonderful at the same time.

Also awesome is just hearing the story of Day’s life, from her childhood as a weird hippie homeschool kid right after homeschooling was legalized (Day notes that she doesn’t have a GED but does have a 4.0 double-major college degree) to being the wildly internet-popular chick from The Guild and Geek and Sundry that she is today. I have never been homeschooled or had internet-only friends or been addicted to WoW or started a web video company, but now I basically don’t have to because I’ve felt all the associated feels.

I was surprised to find that Day’s memoir contained pieces on anxiety and mental illness, which she talks about very frankly and smartly and between this and Lawson’s book I’m thinking a lot of internet-savvy ladies will be getting their brain chemistry checked out soon. Yay for healthy brains! I was not surprised to find a chapter on the whole GamerGate/misogynist internet dudes debacle of the last year, although Day admits she almost didn’t write it because who wants to go through that all again, and I was thrilled that she lays out the beginnings of the movement clearly for people like me who only caught the tail end of the blow-up. As she says, she’s not going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, but maybe people will be a little more moderate in their reactions? On the internet? We can hope?

Overall, an amazing book and one I couldn’t wait to get back in the car to finish listening to but at the same time that I didn’t want to listen to obsessively because then it would be over and what could I possibly listen to next?

Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night ValeI have mentioned before in this space my love of Welcome to Night Vale, the super weird and wonderful podcast that takes place in a subtly Lovecraftian world where the weirdest and creepiest of things are just another boring day in Night Vale.

If you’ve also been listening to this podcast, even on just a semi-regular basis, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you haven’t been listening, but you like stories that are bizarre and a little creepy and that seem to pluck new details out of thin air, both the podcast and this book are worth a shot.

I think the biggest draw of this book for podcast listeners is that while Cecil and his radio show make appearances in the story, the narrative is led by two Night Vale residents, Jackie and Diane, and we actually get to follow along in their adventures rather than just hearing about how everything was solved during the weather break. Jackie is a 19-year-old pawn shop owner, and has been for decades, and Diane is an office worker and mother to a shape-shifting teenage son. So, completely normal by Night Vale standards.

What is strange for Night Vale is the presence of the man in the tan jacket, who has made appearances on the podcast in the past and who is impossible to remember. But in this story, Diane does remember him, or at least a version of him, and Jackie can’t help but remember the name of his town, King City, which has been written on a note that Jackie is incapable of dropping or even destroying. Also weird is the reappearance of Diane’s ex-boyfriend, Troy, in several places around Night Vale, and his reticence to talk to either Diane or Jackie. Diane is curious and Jackie is obsessive about both Troy and the King City note, and they end up working together to find out what the heck is going on.

I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit, primarily because so much of it has subtle or completely blatant callbacks to the podcast, and because I got to see what the people of Night Vale think of the radio show that I enjoy so much. It’s cute and fun and there’s a whole scene set in the library, the most dangerous place in Night Vale, and how can I not love that? Impossible.

It does get a little slow in places, which is to be expected, I guess, when you turn a half-hour radio show into a 400-page book, but these slow parts had enough bemusement density to see me through. I’m not sure a person brand-new to the show and its concepts would be able to make it quite so easily. But who knows? Stranger things certainly happen in Night Vale.

Recommendation: For fans of the show and of slow-burning Lovecraftian horror.

Rating: 7/10

Ghostly, ed. by Audrey Niffenegger

GhostlyUm, ghost stories? Audrey Niffenegger? I was so obviously sold on this collection, even after I realized that Niffenegger didn’t actually write all the stories in it. There’s one of her stories tucked in there, and she wrote the introduction, and some shorter introductions before each ghost story, so there’s a lot of her in the book, but it’s possibly more awesome that my attachment to Niffenegger has now led me to some other amazing authors.

Now, Niffenegger makes a point at the beginning of the book that it is not diverse or representative but just full of stories that she thinks are cool, which, I mean, okay, I guess, but it’s kind of weird you brought it up, you know? I have not checked the diversity credentials of the authors in this collection, but when it turns out it’s all white dudes and chicks I will not be surprised. If you’ve got a more diverse collection of ghost stories for me, let me know!

But I can see why Niffenegger thinks these stories are cool. The first story in the book is “The Black Cat”, by one Mr. Poe, which I have read several times for fun and school, but every other story in the book was completely new to me. There are some classics, including the Poe and “They”, by Kipling, and then some newer works by Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. They all have ghosts in common, or sort-of-ghosts, though the best ones, in my opinion, make you sort of doubt whether there are ghosts at all. Uncertainty is weirdly terrifying.

My favorites of the collection: “The Beckoning Fair One”, by Oliver Onions, in which a writer decides to move into part of a strange old house and finds that his writing is completely stymied and his friendships falling apart, and also there are some strange things happening inside the house but surely that’s just a coincidence. Also “Playmates”, by A.M. Burrage, in which some weird dude adopts an orphan as, like, a social experiment, and is kind of disappointed when she makes friends with ghosts, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, by Kelly Link, in which some kids learn the difference between playing Dead and, well, you can probably guess.

I was actually not that excited about Niffenegger’s own story, “Secret Life, with Cats”, but it was one of the ones that lacked any sort of questions or ambivalence, so if you like your ghost stories wrapped up nice and neat you will probably like it very much.

Overall, this is a solid collection, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more from these authors, like that young upstart Poe but also like Link and Onions. I wish my reading experience hadn’t been tainted by that note on diversity, but on the plus side it will make me seek out the collections that have it. There’s still time for more ghost stories this year, right?

Recommendation: For fans of ghosts and stories.

Rating: 7/10

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body ProblemI feel almost embarrassed to have waited over six weeks to talk about this book, but, see, here’s the thing: this book is bonkers. And not just bonkers like I usually mean it, where it’s weird and strange and requires a lot of brain power to make it through, although all of those are certainly true. But bonkers like, there was so much going on and the narrative was so all over the place that my brain just went ahead and jettisoned all of my memories of it. I listened to it for 14 hours with my husband on our pilgrimage to Cleveland and honestly the thing I remember most clearly is the narrator saying “REEEEEHYYYYYYYDRAAAAATE” like some kind of health-conscious Dalek.

Obviously, there’s more. The book starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with the government decrying heretical things like physics. There’s a looooooong bit with a physicist being persecuted for SCIENCE and lots of boring talky talk, and I was like, “I swear to god this book is supposed to be about aliens. If I had data signal right now I’d double check that.”

Then there’s more stuff with the physicist’s daughter getting caught up in more anti-Chinese things and getting sent off to do, um, stuff, I have no memory of any of this, and then there’s a dude in the near-future-day taking pictures with weird ghostly time stamps that no one else can see or take a picture of and cue me being like YES ALIENS but no, no aliens yet, just super weird science and shadowy government organizations and a weird video game with dehydrating people and chaotic eras and winter is coming.

When we finally get to the aliens, this does not solve the problem of the book making only 5 percent sense. The aliens are weirdos, the people who like the aliens are weirdos, the people who hate the aliens are weirdos, there are two mysterious protons that have a backstory that is highly amusing if you are a complete nerd (our amusement level: fairly), and I still have no idea what any of that was about.

So, like, you know The Martian? You know how it’s got all that awesome science that is super cool because it’s explained in pirate ninjas and whatnot? Okay, take that, but instead of space engineering this has theoretical physics and instead of pirate ninjas this has no useful explanations whatsoever. And you can’t just kind of skim over the science parts, as you can with The Martian, because the whole dang book is science parts.

But the thing of it is, the author and narrator do a great job of telling this story. I may not remember the actual story, but I do remember that I had more than one book downloaded and ready to listen to and Scott and I chose to keep listening to this one. It’s weird and crazy and makes no sense when you’ve had six weeks to forget all of it, but in the moment it’s kind of awesome and fascinating, if you’re into that theoretical physics thing.

There’s two more books in this series, and the second one just came out, and it’s definitely going on my list of road-trip audiobooks because I need to know what’s up with these aliens but I will never find out if I don’t have Scott around to commiserate with when the book inevitably goes completely off the rails. I’ll try to remember that one better, but no guarantees!

Recommendation: For science nerds and wannabe science nerds ONLY. Do not attempt this book without at least a passing interest in theoretical physics.

Rating: 6/10

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and TechnoI read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book club a few months back and it was such a surprisingly awesome novel that I absolutely had to snap up this follow-up. More of Marra’s Chechnya? Extra Russia? That cover? I was sold.

This novel is one of those fancy linked-short-stories books, where the stories could conceivably be read on their own and still make sense, but where the combination of the stories makes everything so much better.

The first story was, for me, the strongest in that stand-alone sense. In it, the main character is a Russian art censor whose job it is to “fix” paintings so that people who shouldn’t be there, people who are non-entities, are no longer in those paintings or that people who should totally obviously be in paintings can take their rightful place. His story opens with a trip to his sister-in-law’s house to get her to scratch her dead husband out of some photographs and to impart some wisdom to his nephew, and then later centers on his poorly thought-out half-censorship of a painting of a prima ballerina. You can’t censor by halves, it turns out, and the story shows us just what exactly happens to people accused, rightly or wrongly, of treason against Russia. It is a fascinating and moving story, and I could have read just that and been happy.

That’s not to say that the rest of the novel wasn’t excellent, but that the rest of the stories in the novel rely heavily on references to the other stories to get their heft and depth across. After the censor’s story, we move on to the story of the prima ballerina’s granddaughter, and to the stories of people in the village where the granddaughter grew up, moving forward and backward in time to pick up the history of that corner of Russia (near Scandinavia) and of Chechnya. It is an incredibly bleak history, but it has its delightful moments, most especially finding out that the Chechen president used to have an apparently amazing Instagram account, with photos of him and various adorable animals. Why did I not know this when I could have followed it??

On the whole I quite enjoyed this novel, if enjoyed is the right word for all that depressing awfulness. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. But still the book lacked whatever qualities made me love Constellation so hard and so it suffered by comparison. It’s still definitely worth a read, but maybe lower your expectations first?

Recommendation: For fans of Marra, Russian history, and books that will give you feels, but not too many.

Rating: 8/10