The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina HenrĂ­quez

The Book of Unknown AmericansFor some reason the universe didn’t want me to be able to talk to my book club about this book — we managed to get rained out two weeks in a row and for my neighborhood’s sake I didn’t want to try for a third. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to talk about it, but then I remembered that I still have you guys! Yay!

This book has so many of the things I love in it, including multiple narrators, gorgeous writing, quirky characters, a peek into a culture I don’t know a lot about, and teens rebelling pretty tamely against their parents. It also has a thing I hate in it, which is plot points that wouldn’t have happened if people would just TALK to each other, but the book recognizes and points out this fact and so I ended up liking even that part!

The narrators here are people in a small Hispanic neighborhood in Delaware. The main characters we meet are from a family that moved to the neighborhood from Mexico so that their brain-damaged daughter could attend a special-needs school that the mother hopes will bring her daughter back to normal, or as normal as possible. We also meet their close neighbors, a family from Panama with a son who at first dislikes but eventually takes an interest in the aforementioned daughter, and a few of the other neighbors from various countries.

The plot focuses on the two kids, Mayor and Maribel, and how Mayor comes to like and then like like Maribel as he gets to know her past her extreme shyness and mental problems. But of course making friends can’t be easy, and both sets of parents end up having issues with the friendship in addition to and as a proxy to the issues they’re having in their own lives.

It’s a hard book to describe without giving a lot away — this is the kind of book that isn’t spoilable, exactly, but in which not knowing things definitely makes the reading more interesting. But trust me that it’s worth the read if you’re looking for a book that will remind you how fallible humans are and that will make you a little bit sad when you’re done with it.

Recommendation: If you like Everything I Never Told You, this is not a terrible way to pass the time until Ng’s next book. (In September! I cannot wait!)

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleConfession time: I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon version of this book back when it first came out, and then a few months back I thought I would start it up again, since I’d be reading the book for book club. Ten minutes into the episode, I realized I had pulled up episode three of the second season instead of the first. Ten minutes of watching, just slightly baffled, not sure why the show seemed so off.

As you may guess, that’s kind of how I feel about this book. Part of this is because the book and the show are not the same at all, except for the very basic premise, and part of it is because the book does such weird things with that premise that I could barely keep up with what was going on.

The basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War II, and Germany and Japan have divided up the United States, east and west, respectively.

In the book, we stay on the Japanese side of the States, where lots of things are going on. There’s a guy who sells pre-war American merchandise to wealthy Japanese collectors, and who wants very badly to sell nice things to one couple, and also maybe sleep with the wife? Then there’s another dude who works in a factory that makes counterfeit collectible merchandise, and he leverages his knowledge of that illicit fact to start a business creating fancy post-war American jewelry, which is not in any sort of demand but he hopes it could be. Then there’s yet another dude who is some sort of German spy type fellow who wants to make a deal with some high-powered Japanese, but when his Japanese contact is held up he has to decide between making some potential waves or losing the deal entirely.

Also, meanwhile, in a DMZ area between the two halves of the States, there’s a chick who gets involved with a dude who is a little obsessed with this book that everyone else in this book is also obsessed with, in which that author posits what would have happened in a world where the Allied powers won the war, which is not what actually happened in our world but is not a terrible approximation of what could have happened, I guess? And so they go to meet the author, but weird things happen, and weirder things happen when the woman arrives, and this whole plotline is so strange, I can’t even.

This book, the one I read, is far more interesting academically than entertainingly. I like what Dick does with the ideas of class and race and what it’s like to live as a second-class citizen in what used to be your own dang country. I also like how he uses the I Ching to talk about ideas of destiny versus free will. There’s a lot of thinky thoughts to have while reading this book. But as a story, as something with a beginning and middle and an end and a plot and characters and all that? Eh. It’s all right. It kind of makes me want to go watch the show, which takes a much more story-focused tack from that basic premise, but then I remember those ten minutes and I’m like, eh.

Recommendation: Eh. Unless it’s for book club, in which case there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about and it gets a solid “Yeah.”

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

ArcadiaI read this book a couple months ago for book club, but due to scheduling issues I didn’t get a chance to talk about it with them until just a couple weeks ago. I had hoped that our meeting would give me a better understanding of the book or at least an upgrade in emotions from “…meh.”, but sadly, we were all more or less the same amount of baffled by this book.

It seemed promising-ish in the beginning. The book is divided into four parts, and the first two take place in Arcadia, a hippie commune where our protagonist, Bit, lives with his parents. Bit was born in the commune and so sees it as a totally normal existence, but as outsiders we can see that some of what he sees has a very different meaning than he thinks it does. Life on the commune is tough but bearable, and we come to learn why various people have decided to live there and why some decide to leave. It’s an interesting viewpoint to think about, certainly, though the writing to get there makes very slow reading.

Then we move on to the third part, which skips from Bit’s adolescence on the commune at the end of the second part to his adulthood and the disappearance of his wife and how he’s surviving as a single parent and photography professor. It is… just about as boring as it sounds. My book club was in agreement that we would much rather have had the part that Groff skipped over, where Bit is introduced to non-commune life, even if that’s a more obvious way to go, because it at least would have been amusing in some way.

The last part, which takes place in the near future and sees Bit’s parents in their old age, is also a jarring jump in the narrative, and serves only, as far as I can tell, to tell people that ALS is a horrible terrible disease that no one should ever have to live with. Was there more to this part than that? Maybe, but I can’t remember over the awfulness that is ALS and the cuddles that I am requiring of my cats just thinking about this right now. Ugh.

Ugh.

So… yeah. This was a book, it had words, ALS is bad, communes are not utopias, sometimes bad things happen to Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But even though I was not enamored of the plot, I did feel a certain fondness for something in Groff’s writing which makes me interested in checking out her other books, which everyone I’ve talked to about this has assured me are much better.

Recommendation: Yeah, just skip this one totally.

The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

The Family PlotRIP is almost over, but you’ve got plenty of time to read this book before (or during!) Hallowe’en. I picked this up late on a Saturday night, spooked myself until I fell asleep, and then woke up and finished it on a Sunday in the light of day. Good life choices?

I don’t even remember why I picked this up — it must have been on a list of creepy reads somewhere and I saw “house” and “ghost” and “American Pickers” and then magically the book was on hold for me! Man, if only I did have a ghost that picked out my books, that would make life super easy.

Or super scary, I guess. The premise behind this book, as you may have guessed above, is that a merry band of pickers set off to spend a week in a creepy old house while they gut it for dollars. Things are weird from the beginning, with weird footprints in the floor dust and doors randomly locking and unlocking themselves, and then the actual ghosts come out in full force. That’s right, there’s no wondering here; this house is haunted and it would really like you to know that. Our Fearful Leader decides that her picker band can totally weather the ghosts for a few days because Arbitrary Reasons for Not Getting the Heck Out of There, and things get much worse before they get better.

I had a lot of issues with this book, starting on the first page when I thought the writing style might make me roll my eyes so hard they’d become ghosts haunting the editor’s house. It’s very… faux-noir, can’t decide if its homage or satire, super casual but also kind of formal… it’s weird. But, I wanted to see some ghosts, so I kept going.

The ghosts were pretty okay; as I said on Goodreads, there’s this running creepy shower business that had me seriously contemplating skipping the shower that Sunday morning, but my respect for others’ noses won out. Flashes of yellow dresses and small children running around are most sufficiently creepy.

But then I ran into the same problem I had with Heart-Shaped Box, wherein I went to bed right at the spookiest part and so my second sitting with the book was like 75% less creepy. Dang it! Don’t get me wrong, there was some pretty weird and scary stuff in that second part, but in the morning light it just wasn’t the same. Also, spoilers?, the ending of the book is super anti-climactic and a little too explainy for my tastes, so I didn’t leave with a great impression.

BUT, for all that I’m down on the book now, I really did enjoy reading it and probably would have enjoyed it much better if I could have consumed it in one sitting, in the dark, with one of my husband’s creepy video games providing background noise. If you, like me, heard “house”, “ghost”, and “pickers” and your ears perked up, you’ll probably have a decent time with this book.

Weekend Shorts: Post-Hurricane Comics

Hey, look, a theme! And this is really a double theme, as my pile of comics reflects the fact that we’re in RIP season with mystery and spookiness abound! I enjoyed these comics outside in the lovely post-hurricane weather that approximates fall in Florida, and I’m hoping that weather sticks around but not the hurricane stuff. I don’t think my heart can take another one this year!

Goldie Vance, #1-4, by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Goldie Vance #1I put this series in my pull list basically as soon as I heard about it, back when it was just a four-issue thing. I actually have #5 in my house, as this series, like all the other miniseries I’ve subscribed to, is now ongoing, but I figured let’s take this one arc at a time.

It’s not quite what I was expecting; it’s advertised as along the lines of Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars and other Girl Detectives, and it… is, but it isn’t. It lacks the depth of mystery found in those stories, proooobably because it’s a comic and it’s intended for tweens and how much space do you have in those 20-something pages, anyway, and I found myself rather baffled and a bit disappointed in the ending.

But, on the other hand, you have delightfully fun characters. There’s Goldie, who wants nothing more than to solve ALL THE MYSTERIES; her friend Cheryl, who wants to be an astronaut; Walter the beleaguered actual detective who wants nothing more than to be left alone and maybe meet a hot chick; and Goldie’s dad and mom, hotel manager and mermaid-costumed entertainer, respectively. Did I mention this book is set in 1962, in Florida? And that most of the main cast is not white, and that so far that’s not a plot point? And that Goldie Vance is apparently a race-car driver with a crush on the hot record store chick? The mystery might be the weirdest, but I’ll stick with this cast for a little while longer and see what they’re up to.

Beyond Belief, #2-3, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #3I thought these would be perfect RIP reads, until I got to the end of #3, realized there was a #4 to be had, scoured my shelf to find it, couldn’t find it, and then took to the internet to discover it CANCELLED. Who cancels what I presume was already the final issue??? Gah, comics publishers are the worst.

Right, so, anyway. Frank. Sadie. Reluctant monster hunters. In issue 2 they take on the incredibly creepy imaginary friend of the moderately creepy imaginary friend of a little girl who used to have under-the-bed monsters which Sadie is very sad not to get to meet. After besting this beast, Sadie’s friend Donna from issue 1 is kidnapped, leading to…

Issue 3! In which Frank and Sadie take on a literal tree with a literal cult following that seems to be doing evil but might actually be doing good but it is VERY HARD TO SAY BECAUSE THERE IS A CLIFFHANGER ENDING THAT I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FINISH THANKS IMAGE. I might be be overly upset about this, but, I mean, seriously. I really enjoyed these two issues, which have a perfect blend of weird creepy story and Frank and Sadie banter and truly amazing artwork that captures the over-the-top quality of this series.

What’s that? If I put my mad librarian skillz to use I can actually find issue 4 available for purchase online? Excuse me a second…

[$3 and several minutes later…]

Beyond Belief, #4, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Aha! So. Yeah. The literal tree was being sort of a good guy, as he was trapping a big evil. Meanwhile, two detectives get in on this case and one of them becomes a ghost and the other one becomes Donna’s husband (I mean, later, not in this issue, there’s no time!), and all the good things I said about the previous issues still hold.

I do hope, whatever caused this shenanigan aside, that there can be more Thrilling Adventure Hour comics (Sparks Nevada too!) in the future, because they are sooooo good. I mean, I’m still getting sporadic radio shows in my feed long after the podcast “ended”, so anything can happen!

Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

The Trespasser, by Tana French

The TrespasserGuys. Guys. Guys. My love for Tana French is, I believe, well-documented on this blog, so it should come as no surprise to you that I broke down and read the book a full month before it came out because I couldn’t wait any longer. What might be more surprising, if you give any thought to my Goodreads activity at all (which, if you do, you might need a new hobby…), is that I broke my completely arbitrary rule against posting thoughts to Goodreads before posting them here to post the following spoiler-tastic review: “!!!”

How do I feel a month later? I’m definitely still at least three exclamation marks in love with this book. It is super good, guys. Super good.

In our last outing with the Dublin Murder Squad, we hung out with Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran at a posh boarding school. In this installment, we get to hang out with the both of them again (yay!) at Dublin Castle as they investigate a weird-looking murder. It’s the kind of murder that should be an open-and-shut case, but Conway and Moran have a bad feeling about both the case and their colleague’s seeming insistence on closing the case as fast as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, we spend a not-altogether-comfortable amount of time in Conway’s head, which is full of the calculus of interpersonal interaction, worries about which of her colleagues is going to be nasty to her today, and a seemingly endless bag of fuck-it-all to throw at anything that bothers her. Conway’s got one of those chess-playing minds that sees everything three or four steps ahead, although in this twisted case it’s hard to tell if she’s seeing the right three steps ahead or not.

I want so badly to talk about the ending of this book, but it’s one of those endings that, while not necessarily spoilable, is best read on its own terms, so I will zip my lips except to say that I love the way that French plays with my expectations in all (welllll, most) of her books and this one is no different.

Instead, I will talk about how much I love French’s writing and how I’ve decided that if I ever make it to Dublin my first stop is going to be Dublin Castle because I have to know if it lives up to her descriptions of it. And also how I love how tightly plotted her mysteries are without being only tightly plotted mysteries. And also how I can’t fathom how it’s possible that I simultaneously still want to know what happened to Rob Ryan, don’t care because Conway is my new favorite, and am looking forward to ditching Conway for whatever character gets top billing next.

If you’ve not gotten into this series, they’re all pretty good standalone books, though I think you should read The Secret Place before or after this one for the full Conway-Moran package. And then you should read In the Woods. And The Likeness. And Broken Harbour. And probably Faithful Place; I really ought to give it another try someday. And then you can wait impatiently with me for book number seven. [insert impatient emoji here]

Recommendation: Reeeead it!

Locke & Key Volumes 4-6, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez

Locke & Key, Vol. 6I managed to spread the first three volumes of this series out over the span of four months, but then RIP started and I love this series and I couldn’t help myself and read the last three over the course of 24 hours. As you do. I can’t say I’ve finished the series, thankfully, as I have been made aware of both an audio adaptation of the series and some one-shot comics in the universe that are not yet free to me but which might need to be purchased anyway because yes.

In these last three volumes, things get pretty intense, which is quite a feat for a series that started off with a violent murder. We finally get the backstory of Keyhouse and just how all those keys came to be in existence, and we find out how Dodge came to be, well, Dodge, and what he’s willing to do to make his evil dreams come true. Terrible things happen to people we’ve just met and people we’ve (I’ve) come to love. Awful truths are told and inevitable truths are encountered. Things go very very poorly, but, spoilers, things also turn out all right.

I obviously love the insane premise and plot of this series, with magic keys and evil schemes and spooky wells and mean shadows and supernatural enemies everywhere. But what I think makes this series so perfect is that Hill and Rodríguez depict all of this happening to actual real human beings with actual real human emotions and flaws (except when said emotions have been removed but that’s a whole other thing). Our kid heroes deal with kid problems and also adult problems that kids run into — making new friends, navigating relationships, dealing with an alcoholic parent, taking on adult responsibilities when no one else will. They also deal head-on with societal prejudices of race, class, disability, sexual orientation, and more, and force the reader to look at their own assumptions, like my very serious assumption that the dude with ridiculous facial hair was obviously going to be a bad guy (spoilers: somehow not at all?).

And, of course, the art is amazing. I’m much worse at describing my love for comics art than prose, but I think it’s right when I say that the drawings — the shapes, the facial expressions, a flip of hair — and the colors perfectly exhibit the emotions of the characters and the world around them. There are some interesting similarities in the way that some characters are drawn that I at first took for a mistake but may, looking back, be part of a larger story, and I love that I can see that in this book.

There are problems in the series, of course, from overly simplistic characterizations to completely unlikely dialogue to too-easy answers to the slightly-too-happy-for-me ending. But there is so much good in it that I am willing to let that slide, and then to seek out all the everything ever set in this universe, so clearly I am head over heels for this thing.

Are there any comics or stories in general that make you feel this way? What other series are the complete package like this one?

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'dIf you’ve been around the blog a while, you’ll know already that I have a love/hate, love to hate, hate to love relationship with Flavia de Luce, which is weird ’cause she’s twelve and also fictional, but what are you gonna do. It’s been an uneven series from the start, and the seventh book was really really terrible, but still as soon as I saw this eighth book up for grabs I was like, well, okay, I’ll read that.

Things that I love about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s precocious and a know-it-all and I might possibly have some experience with that and I like to imagine that my younger self could have gotten up to some serious Adventures if only, well, many things.
2) Bishop’s Lacey. I love this little town and all the people that Flavia bothers on the regular and I like that the characters change along with Flavia’s perceptions of them and become far more interesting as the series goes on.
3) The page count. These books are very short, 300 undersized pages or so, and they read fast, so you can get your fill of murder mystery and then move on with your life.

Things that I hate about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s often incredibly wrong and insufferable about it, and also she has aged only a year during these eight books when it reads like she’s aged about five.
2) Buckshaw. I like Flavia’s sisters all right, but they’ve been sort of cast off from the stories of late, and I used to like Flavia’s dad until he got weird, but really the awful person here is Flavia’s mother — who leaves an estate to an actual child and thinks that things will still be all right at home?
3) The body count. Did I mention that there have been more than eight murders in this town (and Canada, I guess) in LESS THAN A YEAR? And no one seems to bat an eye? Is this how Jessica Fletcher got her start?

This book really takes the cake on the murder thing, too, with a dead body that reminded me of the one in The Silkworm, all hung upside down and awful looking. Flavia, of course, finds this body and starts investigating and gets in all sorts of trouble for what, in the end, turns out to be a very strange and anticlimactic solution.

It also wins for the most dysfunctional home life storyline, as Flavia returns home from Canada to find out that her father is sick in hospital and unable to receive visitors, and somehow in the four seconds that she was in Canada her sister has become unengaged and both of her sisters can’t even work up the ability to properly hate her and so of course it’s no wonder she becomes obsessed with a murder case, I guess, but also, seriously, I have no idea how Mrs. Mullet and Dogger have been left in charge of this mess without Child Services stepping in.

The Canada shenanigans, surprisingly, make for the most interesting part of this book when Flavia calls upon Miss Bannerman to help with her murder investigations in London. Very little of the top-secret-hush-hush-whatever stuff is involved, just two chemists hanging out solving a mystery, which is much of what I initially enjoyed about the series.

I kind of wish this book had been more terrible, so that I could give up Flavia for good, but instead it was just about fairly decent and I’m going to have to wait for Bradley to end this series before I can stop reading it. At least they’re very short books.

Recommendation: Oh god don’t even start this series it is a roller coaster of emotions. But if you’re caught up in the series, you’re probably going to read this one no matter what, so go ahead.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.