Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticTrue story: the other day I was looking at my calendar to see what was up for the week, and I noticed a bright red appointment labeled BOOK CLUB! the next evening. I said to myself, oh, crap, I have book club tomorrow?! and dashed to the shelf to make sure I had even obtained the book. Luckily, I had, and even more luckily, the book is only 129 pages long, so I settled in on the couch with plans to read it in a couple of hours.

Several hours later, I was done, not because the pages were secretly printed in tiny font or because I wanted to savor the words, but because I kept stopping every chapter or so to go do ANYTHING else. Make dinner? Sure! Play an hour or two of video games? Yes, please! Read this book? Ugh, fine, but only because I have book club in less than thirty hours.

It is possible, well, probable, that I came at this book very poorly. If I had read it knowing anything about it, I would have had a better mindset for the unconventional narration style and maybe wouldn’t have been annoyed nearly as much.

See, the book is written in sort of a first-person-plural point of view, but not quite exactly that. The narrator says “we” and “us” all over the place &mash; “We had long black hair”, “We often wondered: would we like them?”, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto” — but it’s a general, vague, hypothetical “we” instead of a specific one.

And of course there’s a reason for the broadness — the book is telling the general, vague, hypothetical story of Japanese women who came to America as brides in the years before World War II, and the point of view says both, yes, we are all doing different things but our cultural story is the same and yes, we all come from the same place but none of our lives are exactly the same. It’s fascinating and it makes you think about how many details of these women’s lives match your own, and but for happenstance this could be your life. The narrative stretches all the way to the departure of the Japanese for the internment camps, and the last chapter of the book abruptly changes point of view from the hypothetical we of the Japanese wives to the hypothetical we of the mostly white people left behind, and you can see the stark difference that those people didn’t think about how similar their lives were to their neighbors, that they took for granted that this wouldn’t, couldn’t happen to them.

So, fascinating. And sobering, if you’re, like me, a person who too often takes things for granted. But as a work of fiction? Sooooooooooooo boring. Those tiny details take up pages and pages of repetitive sentences and paragraphs and most of my breaks to go do something else came after me shouting, OKAY I GET IT, either in my head or out loud to my husband.

As a book club book, it was equally meh — it’s not a book that lends itself to strong opinions so we (we! augh!) were mostly like, yeah, it’s pretty okay. I think everyone else liked it a little better than I did, although I liked the switch-up in the last chapter more. I did find out during book club that the author has written other books with similar themes but different narrative styles, so we’ll see if I’m curious enough to read more.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a book club book, or as a last-minute read in general, but I do recommend it as a book to read when you want to get your thinky thoughts on and maybe one to get your bookish BFF to read and talk about with you.

A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of ShadowsI read the first book in this series a couple months ago and liked it a heck of a lot, so much that I grabbed up the next book and started it almost as soon as it was in my possession. I’ve been having a spate of reading apathy, so this was a delightful distraction. And, awesomely, I think this book might have been better than the first.

Last time, I told you about all the Londons and the magic and the bad magic and the fancy magician and the totally-not-a-Mary-Sue protagonist and how I liked all the stuff but the ending should have been a cliffhanger. Which is not a thing I say, and in fact when the end of this book was a bit of a cliffhanger I was like, ARE YOU SER— oh, right, I said that was okay, didn’t I?

Anyway, in this go, our magician, Kell, and our wannabe pirate, Lila, are doing their respective things in Red London, Kell’s home. Kell is more or less on house arrest after the events of the first book, but with the upcoming Triwizard Tournament (I am too lazy to look up what this is actually called) he and his sort-of brother hatch a plan to get Kell out of the house and into the tournament.

Meanwhile, Lila is finally getting her pirate on as crew of a government-owned totally-not-a-pirate-ship ship with an intriguing captain who is equally as intrigued with Lila. We get to see more of the Red London world through Lila’s eyes until the ship comes back to Red London so that the captain can participate in the Triwizard Tournament — at which point Lila hatches her own plot to participate.

Meanwhile, in White London, the Dane siblings have been replaced by a very familiar face and a sort of familiar soul, and these two familiar beings have designs on both Red London and Kell himself, if they can just find a way to get him away from the castle.

The plot seems pretty predictable on its surface, and, well, it mostly is, but there are a few bits here and there where things go differently than I thought they might, and also the writing to get to these points is delightful and I can’t help but like it. Things I don’t like include the continuing lack of the Big Reveal that I am sure is coming and the not-quite-sudden inclusion of a Love Story that makes not very much sense and why can’t people just be friends, dang it? Things I do love include the mechanics of the Triwizard Tournament, even if I refuse to remember its name, and the machinations of our friends in White London, which I presume we will see the best of in the next book.

Speaking of which, I am so glad I came in this late to the series, because that next book will be out in less than two months and I am SO EXCITED. If you’re the type that wants a completed series, this is the one for you come March. Or now. It’s not that long to wait. Except that I can’t wait. Hurry up, end of February!

Recommendation: Read the first book first and then this one and then come tell me all your feels.

The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet DeadI’d been hearing this book kicked around Book Riot for a while, including when the author guested on my favorite book-listing podcast, Get Booked, so this ended up in my giant pile of potential RIP reads when that came around back in September. I didn’t end up reading it for the event, but I was happy it was around when I found myself flailing for a new book to read in November.

When I first started the book, I was confused — the story makes lots of references to things that have happened previously in the way that you would in a second or third or fourth book, but after a couple of double-checks I was reassured that yes, this is indeed the first book in a series. We’re just picking up the characters in the middle of their stories, which is pretty cool.

Our protagonists are Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, two Canadian police officers assigned to a sort of special task force called CPS that deals with the Muslim community in the wake of a very bad (and very real) police bungling of a terrorism case. They pick up a weird case — a man fallen to his death off a neighborhood cliff — that doesn’t seem like a CPS case on the outside, but Khattak knows more than he’s telling even his partner. Over the course of the novel the tie to CPS becomes rather more clear, but our officers are still left to figure out if this death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder.

I didn’t like this book maybe as much as I hoped I would, largely because the “who killed this dude” plotline takes a backseat to lots of other bits of the story. Khattak is trying to reconcile with a friend, Getty is dealing with crazy family issues, and, spoiler, the CPS connection has to do with the Bosnian War and we get lots of side bits from the point of view of people trying to escape with their lives.

The mystery does come to a satisfying conclusion, if an easy and obvious one, and even some of the side plot comes together in the end. I liked that I could sort of see how certain things were going to go, but others were completely opaque to me until the author said, hey, here you go, here’s some resolution on that thing. But I really only finished the book to find out who killed that dude, and had to power through a lot of the rest of the story.

I think that these characters could do some interesting things, so I might give them another chance, but they’re not at the top of my list right now. If you’ve read more and they get any better, let me know!

Recommendation: For readers looking for diverse mystery stories that focus less on the mystery and more on the people.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI had intended to read Bird Box during RIP but didn’t get around to it in time. I thought I might save it for next year, but then a spooky mood came over me and I started reading it right before a camping trip. Perfect, I thought, a creepy read in a creepily lit tent!

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite the way I intended. The beginning parts were indeed sufficiently creepy, and I ended up reading most of the book before I even left for my camping trip. The story, if you’ve missed out on it, is that in the near future a Terrible Thing happens and people start killing themselves or going on murderous rampages and then killing themselves, all because of a Something that apparently lives outside. If you see it, it makes you go insane, so nobody knows what it is to go kill it or whatever. So, that’s terrifying.

Also terrifying is the main character’s decision to take herself and two small children into the outside, for reasons that are explained later, down a river on a boat with the Something potentially RIGHT NEXT TO THEM OMG.

More terrifying are the backstory scenes that lead up to this big decision, wherein you find out why this woman is living with these two kids, alone, in a house covered in blood. Spoiler: people are just as creepy as unknown Somethings, sometimes.

So, sufficiently creeped out, I snuggled into my tent to read the last parts of this book by lantern-light, only to have my lantern, with its four heavy D batteries, fall right on my face. After ascertaining that I hadn’t chipped a tooth or bled all over the place, I decided that the camping gods really just wanted me to go to sleep, so I did. Then I got up with the sunrise and decided to read while I waited for my husband to wake up.

And so, not unlike The Family Plot before it, I found myself reading the end of a spooky book in the calmest, quietest, most tranquil setting possible. Which is a terrible way to read a horror book, let me tell you.

It also didn’t help that the story changes a bit toward the end; where at the beginning it’s all questions and creepiness and Bad Things and whatnot, the end is full of answers (well, not the big answer) and resolution and possibly no more Bad Things, which, boring. I literally do not want to know whether or not these people survive. And I guess I don’t, but I have a pretty good idea.

But, on the other hand the writing is really good and the horror is largely psychological and I certainly did want to avoid going outside while reading this. I’m still not a fan of the ending, but that’s not really unusual for me. I would definitely recommend this if read only with spooky mood lighting at midnight in an empty house et cetera.

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub

Modern LoversIn the spirit of using book club to read things I wouldn’t have already read, I voted against this book for my online book club, saying I’d probably read it anyway. Then I didn’t read it, and then another book club member picked it a few months later, and I was like, well, now this is the book club pick that forces me to read things, so my Book Club Taxonomy (TM) is still intact. Excellent.

This book has so many things going for it. It’s about a group of friends that have known each other since college, who went to college at Oberlin (near where I grew up), who are grownups with practically grownup children who are clinging to their own childhoods in vain, and also there are SECRETS.

I love a good SECRET, and I was quite taken with this book, as well. On the surface, it’s about this group of friends who used to be in a mostly terrible band together, but then the band broke up and one of the members, Lydia, went on to be a mega-star with the band’s one great song before joining the 27 Club. Now Hollywood is making a movie about it but needs the rest of the band to sign off, and although Elizabeth and Zoe are all in, Elizabeth’s now-husband, Andrew, is dragging his feet about it. (Spoiler: because SECRETS.)

As Elizabeth tries to convince Andrew to sign off, we find out that this story is also about Rich People Problems, as all three remaining band members are living comfortably in gentrified Brooklyn off of royalties from their song as well as trust funds and other parental monies. These RPPs take the form of Andrew’s not-gonna-sign-for-the-movie-inspired midlife crisis, which leads to him joining a weird yoga kombucha cult; Zoe maybe possibly finally divorcing her wife, with whom she’s been in a rut for years; and Elizabeth straddling the line between friend and real estate agent while also thinking, if she’s getting a divorce, should I get one, too?

Meanwhile, their high-school children are coming of age for the first time, trying to shed their childhoods rather than hang on to them and getting into mild legal trouble while they’re at it. As you do.

As a person at an age right between this book’s children and adults, I think I may have been in the sweet spot to get hit right in the feels with this novel. The kids’ plot reminded me more or less of my high school days, but especially of the feeling that you’re not the person everyone expects you to be. The adults’ plot goes the other way and gives me future nostalgia for my current happy days, and also gives me more things to tell my husband not to do; i.e., don’t join a yoga cult, don’t forge my signature on legal documents, don’t get bored of me but be so apathetic that you can’t leave me.

Also, and this is something I never say — I loved the epilogue. Instead of “and then all these people did all these things the end”, we get newspaper clippings, which, one, newspapers yay!, and two, I love that the viewpoint of the epilogue is completely disconnected from the very close viewpoint of the rest of the novel. Learn from this, other epilogue writers!

I have already recommended this book to the members of two of my other book clubs (out of four these days, sheesh), and I recommend it highly to you if you are a fan of Rich People Problem books with a slightly silly sensibility.

Weekend Shorts: Science! on Audio

Ahhhh, science (science!). I love it. It is inescapable. It is fascinating. But, especially after reading the second book I’m going to talk about today, I am so glad I’m not a professional scientist. Armchair science is so much more fun! Let’s find out why…

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
GruntMary Roach is my favorite pop-science writer, so I had to pick up this book even though I have very little inherent interest in military anything. Luckily, this is why Roach is my favorite pop-science writer — she assumes that you have no interest in her topic and finds ways to make you interested.

In this book Roach covers a zillion different science-y military things, some of which you will find absolutely fascinating (the fact that IEDs blow off more than legs, and the science behind the penis transplants that are becoming more routine for men hit by said IEDs), and some of which are just regular interesting (the fact that an actual fashion designer is employed by the military to design uniforms). To me, the best bits are what I consider quintessential Mary Roach — sex, poop, and farts. They’re everywhere!

This was not my favorite of Roach’s books, but I’m definitely glad I listened to it and am looking forward to seeing what topic she tackles next.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Lab GirlThis was a book club pick in the category: “Books I pick for book club so that I will actually get around to reading them.” I had heard good things, including from book clubbers, and we hadn’t read a not-fiction book in a while, so, sold!

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir of both her personal life and her science life, and often both at the same time. I’ll admit here that I preferred the science and lab stories to the personal stories, but of course you really need both to understand either.

Jahren is currently a pretty awesome, award-winning earth scientist, but this memoir is about the times when she was a pretty awesome but largely unrecognized and unfunded earth scientist. She had to build labs from scratch and with begged and borrowed equipment, she had to subsist on almost nothing and pay her research assistants even less, and she had to somehow do enough awesome science to keep getting just enough funding to keep going. This is the part of academic science that is just awful.

But in the midst of all that horribleness, Jahren managed to have a life and a lab and some very exciting adventures, from the good and weird excitement of an impromptu 8-hour-one-way-side trip with students from a lab site in Georgia to a monkey habitat in Miami to the terrifying excitement of a completely avoidable car accident in the mountains of Colorado while on a penny-pinching trip to a conference. Jahren has a knack for telling these stories in a way that makes you wish you had been there and very glad you weren’t.

The unexpected star of this memoir is her perpetual lab assistant and obvious BFF(aeae) Bill, who is that weird science guy that does science for the sake of it and for barely any monetary compensation, and who is willing to live in a car that doesn’t reverse and can’t be turned off at gas stations or in a closet in the college lab building and drives 50 miles per hour and has long hippie hair until he suddenly doesn’t and who is willing to put up with all of Jahren’s crap for unknown reasons. My book clubbers were very disappointed when they got to the part of the book where Jahren meets her husband and said husband is not Bill, but I’m pretty sure the three of them are all fine with how things turned out.

I’ve been on a celebrity-funny-lady-only memoir kick of late, and this was a good reminder that other people have interesting and often amusing lives as well.

What are you guys reading this week?