My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenThis was kind of a sneak-attack book for me — I had heard good things about Jo Walton when her book Among Others came out but never got around to reading it, and then suddenly this book was out and I was like, sure, maybe I’ll read that one, and then I had a gap between books I needed to read for one book club or another and this book sitting on my desk and it was obviously fate.

Which is an appropriate sentiment for this book, actually. The story starts off with a woman named Patricia stuck going senile in some old-folks home in England with only her family’s visits to break the monotony of the building. Except that it’s not just one family that visits her, but two. When one set of children visits her, she can’t imagine how she ever thought there were others, but in between visits she remembers both sets, and her respective lives with them, equally well. She starts to wonder — why does she remember two separate lives? Where did her life split apart?

And then she remembers.

The book from there cuts back and forth between Patricia’s dual lives as Pat and Trish (and other name variations, too). In one life, she experiences a happy and fulfilling personal life but lives in a horror show of a world; in the other the world is a progressive wonderland but her personal life is a shambles.

Both lives are equally compelling, though, and I was just as happy about the small gains in Trish’s life as I was about the great gains in Pat’s, and even once I figured out that there wasn’t terribly much plot to the book I absolutely had to know what happened to both of them. Walton’s worldbuilding is amazing as well, especially for worlds that are basically the one I live in. Brief mentions of current events here and famous people there let me know that neither of these worlds is exactly like my own, which I thought was a smart touch. And it’s interesting what really struck me about the different worlds — moon bases are awesome, sure, but in one world there isn’t wifi in Patricia’s nursing home! How can she possibly survive?

And oh my goodness, Walton knows how to stick a landing, with both of Patricia’s lives slowly but surely unraveling into her state at the beginning of the book in only a slightly less terrible way than in, say Still Alice and then a Big Life Question asked and [spoiler not spoiler] totally not answered except that I know what I think the answer is and I don’t like it on an emotional level but on a rational level it makes perfect sense but hmmph. It’s a book that’s kept me thinking about it for weeks now.

Jo Walton, where have you been all my life?

Recommendation: For fans of alternate universes and life-encompassing stories, and those who wanted to like Life After Life but thought it was too complicated.

Rating: 10/10

Lock In, by John Scalzi

Lock InA few months back I wrote about Unlocked, the companion/prequel/whatever to Lock In. Unlocked was a cool oral history thing, and it was followed by the first chapter of Lock In, which was not an oral history thing but which made me really really really excited to read the book.

I may have been a little too excited, possibly? But it’s a really fun book nonetheless.

The premise is really cool — the book takes place post-This Thing That Happened (the explanation of that left mostly to Unlocked) that left some number of people entirely immobile but still capable of thought, and then some enterprising inventors created robot bodies that could interface with those people’s brains and which could be used to allow said people to wander around and do more or less human things, provided that someone was around to feed the paralyzed body and keep it from dying of sepsis or whatever. It’s a bit complicated.

Our hero, Chris Shane, is one of these so-called Hadens and also a newly minted FBI agent with a non-Haden, cynical, self-destructive partner called Leslie Vann. On Shane’s first day on the job, Shane and Vann are called to a murder scene where the suspected murderer is still there, but not entirely sure he did anything wrong — turns out his job is to act as a human version of the robot bodies Hadens use and that someone else may or may not have been in control of his body at the time. It’s… very complicated. And awesome.

It is definitely a Scalzi book. There’s politics and intrigue and odd humor and a plot line that was drawn with a spirograph and quotes for all occasions, like the ever-useful “Not all of my ideas are going to be gold.” There were certain points at which I found myself feeling a bit of Scalzi overload, with too many characters all sharing the exact same sense of humor and political leanings (and those traits matching the ones I see every day on Scalzi’s blog), but the plot kept on moving right along and I was able to let it drag me away from thinking about it too much. And oh, that plot. Intrigue! Machinations! An ending that probably doesn’t hold up well to strict scrutiny but whatever it’s awesome!

Scalzi also does a fancy thing that I am going to spoil, in the real sense of the word because it’s actually way cooler when you figure it out for yourself so go buy the book and read it and then come back here and we can talk about this. Done? Okay. So, Scalzi, by writing in the first person and having his main character walking around in a robot body thing, manages never to use a gendered pronoun in relation to Chris Shane, which I kind of realized while reading the book but which was hammered home when my husband started talking about Shane and what she was doing and how cool she was and I was like, dude, Shane’s a dude. I think. I’m pretty sure. I don’t think it said so in the book, maybe?, but it said so in Unlocked. Orrrrr I guess it was just a weirdly worded sentence. Well. Huh.

So Scalzi deftly tackles gender roles and gets in some good digs at prejudice in general (see: robot bodies not being allowed to sit in chairs at restaurants because humans who actually eat food need those chairs), although he glosses over the class issues that I thought could have been really interesting but hey, you can only fit in so much social commentary between gunfights and chases and cross-country body swaps. It’s still quite impressive.

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from this world, and when we do I will be there with bells on.

Recommendation: For fans of Scalzi and/or certain dearly departed sci-fi buddy-cop television shows.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

It feels a little strange writing a “shorts” post about two entire books, but, I mean, I read them both over the course of about two hours. Graphic novels are weird like that. These two books are sold as a boxed set and are companions to each other rather than a series; one tells of the Boxer Rebellion from the the Boxer side and one from the Christian side, with the main character in each also showing up in the other book. I definitely recommend reading them one after the other, and probably in the boxed set order.

BoxersThis book tells the story of Little Bao, a regular kid with bossy older brothers who gets caught up in the rebellion when the Christians/foreigners/Chinese leaders (it turns out the Boxer Rebellions is super complicated) come to destroy his town. The other fighting-age boys train with a travelling martial arts master, but said master sends Little Bao off to meet an even stronger master who helps Little Bao harness the power of the Chinese gods to fight the invaders. Eventually he and his band of warriors take to the countryside and, um, kill everyone who does not stand with them, which is super not cool.

SaintsMeanwhile, a girl who is given the after-after-afterthought name of “Four-Girl” and who is unsurprisingly ignored by most of her family, discovers Christianity in a way that I will not spoil and devotes herself to the religion and the people who practice it. Where Little Bao has his Chinese gods, the renamed Vibiana gets to hang out with Joan of Arc, which is way cooler, and she turns to Joan for guidance throughout the story. She works to protect her fellow Christians from the roaming terrorists but of course that doesn’t work out as planned for either side. Saints contains a bit of a coda to Boxers that probably won’t have the same impact if the books are read in the opposite order, but you can let me know if I’m wrong!

Both books provide a fantastic overview of this whole Boxer Rebellion thing that I know so little about, what with my established antipathy toward all things history. My knowledge is a lot better now that I’ve read these books and done some cursory Internet searches, so three thumbs up for learning things! I love that Yang shows “both” sides of the story, Boxer and Christian, but also shows that each side has its own good and bad guys and that history and life are super complicated.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAnother month, another library book club pick selected because I needed an excuse to get around to reading it! This book has been out for a while and shows up on my radar every few months or so when someone gets mad about the book being taught to poor innocent high-schoolers or whatever the case is at the time, and of course I am intrigued by books that make people mad (which is probably not what those angry people are going for), but I’d never managed to actually find out what the book is about, which is an important component in my book selection process. So I figured I’d find out, with some nice patrons along for the ride!

The main character, Arnold, is an Indian kid on a reservation outside of Spokane who also happens to have some physical problems, from a lisp and stutter to giant feet to seizures, that make him an outcast on the reservation. He has one best friend who hangs out with him and protects him a little bit, but that friendship becomes strained pretty quickly once Arnold decides he wants to go to school off the reservation.

That’s pretty much what this book is about — a kid leaving what he knows and doesn’t necessarily like very much to go do something new that he might like better. I had sort of presumed from Arnold’s self-description that this would be a book about overcoming physical impediments and realizing that everyone is as messed up as you are, but that’s really not the case. In fact, after those problems are listed at the beginning of the book, they almost never come up again. Arnold is, outside of his looks and his speech, a regular teenage dude who draws comics sprinkled throughout the novel, tries to figure out how to balance his home life and his school life, and, most importantly for the angry people above, thinks about sex.

What actually drives the novel is that second part, the disconnect between life on the reservation and life in the lily-white town of Reardan outside the reservation, where Arnold notes that he and the mascot are the only Indians. Arnold has to beg rides or hitchhike or walk 20 miles to get to and from school. His family is poor and alcoholic and becomes depressingly smaller over the course of the book. His friends and most of the other Indians on the reservation consider him a traitor for leaving. When he scores a personal victory by helping the Rearden basketball team beat his old school team, he quickly realizes that a white victory over Indians is not something he really wants to celebrate.

I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed this novel, which lacked the plot and character development that I was hoping for (that’s my bad) and had a sort of meandering diary-style narrative that left me confused at times, but I found it absolutely fascinating in its portrayal of Indian life, which I think we’ve established I don’t know too much about, and its portrayal of teens as kind of boring humans, which I don’t see all that much amidst my pile of dystopian YA trilogies. It’s definitely brain food rather than brain candy, and I will likely be seeking out more from Alexie in the future.

Recommendation: For those looking to learn more about Indian life and those looking for a more-realistic-than most tale of teenagerhood.

Rating: 7/10

Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King

Ask the PassengersA long time ago, I read King’s book Please Ignore Vera Dietz largely because I once shared a name with the protagonist but then it turned out to be super awesome and included a flow chart so even more awesome. Then King’s next book came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then this one came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then her next book came out… point is, I’ve put off reading her books long enough, so I am embarking on a quest to catch up. But not too quickly, or what will I have left to read?

I’m glad I waited this long to read Ask the Passengers, because as it turns out it is the book that I had thought or hoped that Speak would be, and it would have sucked to read Speak second. Both books deal with a girl with a secret (not the same secret), but where Anderson’s narrative is removed from the main character and we don’t really know what’s going on in her head, King’s gets right up in Astrid’s brain and gives us all the good thinky thoughts.

So Astrid is a New York City girl living in Podunkville, PA after her parents moved the family for reasons. Her small town is nice and all, but everyone is all up in everyone else’s business because that’s the traditional small town sport. Astrid’s more or less made her peace with this, but it does put a kink in her burgeoning relationship with another girl. Astrid’s girlfriend wants Astrid to come out as a flag-flying lesbian so they can date in the open, but Astrid isn’t even sure if she likes girls, plural, or just this one particular girl, or even this one particular girl, so could everybody maybe just give her a minute to decide?

I really loved this book, which pretty well encapsulated my teen angst over… every single thing that ever happened to me. I like that Astrid is smart enough to recognize all of the gossip and curiosity as the shenanigans that it is, but that, realistically, that knowledge is not as super helpful as it really should be. On the plus side, Astrid has old dead philosophers like Zeno and Socrates to turn to (the latter in an oddly literal way), as well as the titular passengers who fly over her town and who get their own brief narrative interludes as Astrid sends her love to them and they hear or otherwise receive it. It’s no talking pagoda but I’m still intrigued.

I absolutely love the way King writes her teenagers and even their parents, absent as they may so far be, and her way with words still keeps me somehow both glued to the pages and flipping through them as fast as I can to find out how things are going to play out. I am really excited to keep poring over her backlist, though come come October you’ll probably find me gushing about her upcoming book, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, which, with a name like that, I could not possibly turn down.

Recommendation: For anyone who has ever been an over-thoughtful teen and fans of John Green who want a little more magic in their lives.

Rating: 9/10

My Drunk Kitchen, by Hannah Hart

My Drunk KitchenI was an early lover of My Drunk Kitchen, starting somewhere around episode 4, which features both champagne and cookies(-ish) and is therefore awesome. If you’re unaware of this series, it does what it says on the can: Hannah Hart drinks all the drinks while attempting to make a food. Some of the foods are successful, most are not; all are lacking an appropriate amount of cheese. The episodes are eminently quotable and surprisingly insightful about both cooking and life, and although I stopped watching MDK pretty early on in its run because of reasons, I was hopeful that this book would be as awesome as those episodes I loved.

Spoiler: it is, and in pretty much the exact same way. My Drunk Kitchen, the book, is ostensibly a cookbook but pretty much all of the “recipes” are either absolutely ridiculous (Pizza Cake, Stir Fries), just barely recipes (Adult Lunchables, Olive Stuffed Brie), or not at all recipes (String Cheese Theory, Sad Thai). I mean, some of them I’m totally going to make, but the recipes aren’t really the point. The point is the part between the recipes, where Hart talks about life and adulthood and relationships and being a good person using the terribly awesome recipes as incredibly strained metaphors for whatever she’s talking about. There’s lots of rambling and tangents and places where you know Hart’s editor was like, uhhhhhhh, and Hart was like, no, seriously, leave it in, the people are going to love it.

And I did, quite a bit, and am very nearly inspired to dive back into the My Drunk Kitchen/Harto empire except that that sounds like effort. If you’ve got any particular favorite episodes, though, you should send them my way and I will totally watch them.

Recommendation: Find this at your library and borrow the heck out of it, and then maybe buy yourself a copy if you need to know how to make sushi out of tortillas or shots out of hash browns.

Rating: 8/10

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

Bad FeministA few months back, I read Gay’s An Untamed State and did not like it very much at all. It was a tough read in several ways, and I just couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the reading experience. But I liked Gay’s writing and I knew this book was coming out and I kept my fingers crossed that it would be good.

It was pretty good!

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, as I’m not the widest reader of essay collections, so I just dove right in and hoped for the best. Gay starts off the book talking a bit about the state of feminism and the state of her own feminism, which is, like mine, somewhere along the lines of “I’m a lady and ladies are awesome and we shouldn’t put down ladies for the sake of putting down ladies.” She’s willing to expend a little more effort than I am in getting the “ladies are awesome” word out, as evidenced by the collection of feminist-y essays that follows the introduction.

Gay’s essays are primarily about the intersection of women and pop culture, from Girls to Sweet Valley High to The Hunger Games, and how pop culture needs to get its act together because it’s not cool to make a really awesome rap song for Gay to blast with her windows down and then have all the lyrics be about abusing women. There are also several essays about race and politics and general public discourse on feminism, and some closing essays reiterating Gay’s feminist stance or lack thereof.

I think my favorite essay from the collection is one near the beginning that is also available on Gay’s tumblr, in which Gay details the steps women can take to be better friends. These include not belittling other women, not being mean for the sake of being mean, not believing that women suck (something it took me several years to figure out between high school and college), telling the truth, and enjoying a friendship for what it is. Really, it’s a good primer for embarking on any kind of relationship, and you should share it with all of your friends, especially those of the adolescent variety because I just read another book where the lack of this knowledge caused a murder and yeah it’s a fiction book but YOU NEVER KNOW.

Ahem. Anyway. There’s also an essay about Scrabble that follows shortly after the friends essay which baffled me a little at first because it is in no way obviously about feminism, but it’s a fun essay and if you read enough into it you can come away with some good metaphors about feminism, so that’s a win.

All of the essays are written in a very personal style — I think at least a few of them come from her tumblr and others are opinion pieces from various media outlets — and while it’s fascinating getting into Gay’s head and learning more about her personal opinions and beliefs, it turns out that she is juuuuust a little bit prone to run off on tangents. They’re not uninteresting tangents, but sometimes the connections are jarringly tenuous, as in her essay that is about either Miss America or Sweet Valley High or fitting in at school or the terrible writing in Sweet Valley Confidential, which left me wondering more than once if my ereader had skipped a page or seven accidentally.

But overall I found this book a fun read, reinforcing a lot of my already-held beliefs and introducing me to some new ways of thinking about race and privilege that will hopefully lead to me being a better person in the future. Not bad!

Recommendation: For those who want to spend some time thinking about social issues and also terrible teen book series.

Rating: 8/10