The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a very last-minute pick for my library book club, with the conversation going something like this:

A: “What’s the next book?”
B: “I don’t know, you haven’t told me.”
A: “We have a list somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
C: “I read a book about a potato society once and it was really good.”
B: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I have heard good things about it.”
A: “Okay, that’s our next book!”

This is how all the best decisions are made.

Well, actually, this was a pretty good decision. The book is lovely and perfect for book clubbing, following The Nightingale‘s note that World War II books are prime book club fodder.

Like The Nightingale, this book also covers a geographical area I’d never considered before in relation to World War II, the Channel Islands. Part of the Commonwealth but not of the UK proper, and located rather closer to France, these islands were occupied by German forces and their Todt slave laborers but their inhabitants were apparently, comparatively, left alone to weather out the fighting. I learned all sorts of new things reading this book!

I also rather enjoyed the story part of the story, which is told in the epistolary style I adore so much. Our main character, Juliet, finds herself in correspondence with a man on Guernsey who picked up a book she used to own in a used book store and wrote to her to learn more about the author. As… you do? I don’t know, I didn’t live in the late forties. Anyway, Juliet is a writer looking for a new book idea, and her new pen pal turns out to have a fantastic story. He and his neighbors put together a sort of book club on the island to hide some illicit activity, and that club helped a lot of the members through the war. Throughout the book Juliet writes to these people and they write back to share their stories, and we get these great little vignettes of the war from several different viewpoints. Well, “great”. Most of them are terrifically sad, especially the sort of through-line through everyone’s stories about a neighbor lost to a concentration camp. Nazis are awful, I think it is safe to say.

There’s also a love story, but I cared about that very little except that I am satisfied with how it ended. There’s also also some sly social commentary that may or may not be historically accurate but I will happily believe that it is.

I liked the book quite a bit, and my sister-in-law and my book clubbers all seemed to absolutely love it, so I think I can readily recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, sad but happy, history-teaching novel.

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Weekend Shorts: Human Division Extras and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The Human DivisionFrom The Human Division: “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today”

If you’ll recall, I read The Human Division in serialized e-book form, so when the official print compilation came out and had extras, I was like, hey, wait a second. Those extras have since been made available for free on the internets, but since I am apparently too lazy to make the required account and also since I happened to see the hardcover come into cataloging at my library, I figured I’d just grab the book and read the extras there.

“After the Coup” I have actually read before, when it was maybe on tor.com at some point, but I was more than happy to read it again. This story takes my good friends Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and puts them in a diplomatic situation that is really more humorous and disgusting than it is political. Wilson, the one with the genetically engineered body, finds himself recruited to an exhibition match in an alien martial art against one of said aliens, a sort of amphibious creature whose martial arts skills are a combination of awesome and totally cheating, but of course Wilson makes the best of it.

“Hafte Sorvalh” etc. was new to me, and differently interesting than “After the Coup.” This one is definitely political; the gist of it is that the resident Conclave (the bad guys, more or less) diplomat sits down to eat some churros which end up going cold while she explains herself and her race and the Conclave and the potential for upcoming war to some inquisitive schoolchildren. I like the explanations Sorvalh gives, and I like the way it sort of sets up what I assume will be the next set of stories in this universe.

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastFrom The New Yorker Fiction Podcast: “Reunion” by John Cheever and “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

I’m finally catching up on my previously months-long backlog of podcasts, so of course it’s time to throw a new one into the mix! This is not a bad one to do that with, either, since the episodes are comprised of a short story and some commentary and thus take less than twenty minutes, at least so far. It is also helpful in my new quest to read more short stories, because a) I don’t have to actually seek any stories out and b) I get to listen to stories I wouldn’t have known existed to seek out.

“Reunion” (scanned copy here) is the very first story on this podcast, read by Richard Ford more than six years ago (I have a little catching up to do, yes). It is a very short story about a kid, probably late-teenage, stopping in New York City on a train layover to meet up with the father he hasn’t seen in three years. The father takes his son around some nearby bars, generally being an ass to all the wait staff and not generally getting a drink out of them, and the son realizes that maybe three years wasn’t long enough to have been away. I loved the way Ford read this story, making the father’s exclamations and insults both hilarious and depressing, and Cheever certainly nailed that awkwardness of seeing a person for the first time in a long time and not getting what you expected.

“How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (nicely formatted version here) is a story that I probably would not have read on my own, and it still kind of isn’t. It stars a kid who, as you might guess, is explaining to someone (probably himself) how to date a girl, with contingency plans in case she’s white or black or local or an “outsider” or whatever. It’s an interesting look into the complexities of dating in a community I’m not familiar with, in a time — 1995 — that is so different from my own dating time, but with, in the end, a very familiar truth of what being a horny teenager is like. This story was read by Díaz himself from an older recording, with discussion by Edwidge Danticat afterwards, and I’m defnitely going to have to seek out work from both of these authors.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

Little BeeThis is one of those books where I have no idea what to say about it right after reading it, so I decide to wait until inspiration strikes, and then it doesn’t and then I’m like, I should really write about that book before all I can remember about it is its title.

And it’s hard to have anything really substantial to say about a book that all but has FIRST RULE OF LITTLE BEE: DON’T TALK ABOUT LITTLE BEE emblazoned on the cover, especially when I found myself disappointed by the book partially because I did know a Thing in advance that took a lot longer to get to than I had assumed, and so I spent lots of time being like, when is that darn Thing going to happen?

Maybe if we just talk in generalities? Let’s see if we can do that. The book fits a bit with the last book I read for this particular club, A Walk Across the Sun, in that it deals with white privilege and foreign girls who have been through terrible ordeals. But I think Little Bee does it better, focusing on the After part of the terrible things happening and digging more into the relationships between the characters and less into what happened to them.

The book’s narrative style, which bugged the heck out of me at first, really helps to do that by taking chronological order, shuffling it, throwing it up in the air, and then picking up only half of what fell. We go back and forth between two main characters in the narration, but sometimes we’re in the present and sometimes we’re in the recent past and sometimes we’re in the way past and sometimes we’re in all of them. It’s really confusing, but it also lets Cleave point out Things and then either go ahead and resolve them or dangle them in front of us tantalizingly/frustratingly, so I totally dig it now that I’m not trying to read it.

One thing I’m not sure about, though, is the fact that I kind of hated every character in the book except for Batman. It wasn’t the fantastic hate of A Confederacy of Dunces, but more just a dull throbbing exasperation with the whole situation and everyone in it, and so on the one hand I hope that’s what Cleave was going for but on the other I feel like it shouldn’t have been, because exasperating.

Is that general enough? I hope so. This book is old enough that you’ve probably already read it if you were interested in doing so, and if you weren’t I probably wouldn’t recommend it outside of a book club or something similar — it’s certainly not terrible but there are lots of other books I’d rather have read first.

If you have read it, let me know what you think, because there is a lot of stuff going on in that book! Comment away!

Rating: 6/10

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogOh, book club, you make me read the weirdest things. I only wish I had remembered how astonishingly weird the French are before I, you know, finished this novel.

I think I can be forgiven for this oversight, as the first half of the book is resolutely not weird, it is in fact academic and philosophical and pretentious and really just boring. Then it gets less pretentious and more interesting and even a bit intriguing, and then the weird French-ness kicks in and I am like… oh boy.

So there are these two protagonists, and they both live in this fancy-pants apartment building in Paris. One is the middle-aged concierge who works really really hard to be the most concierge-y concierge who ever was a concierge. Except secretly she’s a lover of culture and philosophy and academia, except even more secretly she enjoys grocery-store mystery novels and action movies. Layers, you see. The other protagonist is a twelve-year-old who lives in the building and who is overly precocious, though she often pretends not to be. Oh, and she’s planning on killing herself on her next birthday more or less because she’s got nothing better to do with her life. As one does.

They do their stuff, blah blah blah, and it may not surprise you to find out that the best part of the novel happens when their paths cross. There are some small interesting bits up to that point — interactions with family and friends and some backstory to spice things up — but of course it’s all leading up to the two meeting.

I must say that even though I enjoyed this part of the novel, and would probably read just that part again, it is apparent that I did not read this book correctly. Someone brought in the publisher’s book group questions and for one, they were all just as snooty sounding as the first half of the book. So we had some trouble discussing those. For two, some of the questions asked questions that made no sense or directly opposed what I thought about the story or the writing. (Particularly, spoiler alert?, one question talked about what a life-affirming book this is, whereas I found it utterly depressing and a bit cynical.) So… yeah. Don’t trust my word on this one?

Also of note is that like Room before it, I half read and half listened to this book, and also like Room the child narrator was so much better rendered in audio than in print. I should probably just start these precocious-kid books in audio from the start, yes?

Recommendation: Good for a book club (lots to discuss!), perfect for college students who need something to discuss at 3am.

Rating: 6/10

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (22 September — 23 September)

Aaah I love this book!

That’s what I wrote as a placeholder for this entry before I started it, but it’s so true. This is one of those books that is thoroughly entertaining but sneakily makes you think about societal status quos and your own personal set of norms and it’s all sociological and anthropological and fun. Well, if you’re into that sort of thing, anyway.

Plot: Frankie Landau-Banks is an average teenager, starting her sophomore year at her not-so-average boarding school in Massachusetts. Things are going really well — she’s taking fun classes, she’s rooming with a good friend, and the boy she’s been crushing on forever (well, teenage forever) totally asked her out! Yay! But she soon realizes that Matthew and his gang aren’t really as into her as she is into them. Also they are part of an all-male secret society that Frankie’s father was in, and Frankie’s not too thrilled about that. She decides to start thwarting some of those aforementioned status quos, and it’s pretty awesome.

The book is full of sociological- and psychological-type talk about feminism and classism and ageism and fitting into the society inherent in a New England boarding school. Frankie’s not exactly a sympathetic character; she plays the same games that Matthew does and isn’t the nicest person. But you can definitely understand why she does what she does, and I at least was totally rooting for her and wishing I had the ovaries (because balls is a masculine construction, as Frankie’s sister points out) to pull off some of the pranks she does.

Oh, and there’s some bonus Wodehouse love, and you can’t beat that.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)

See also:
The Bluestocking Society
Persnickety Snark
Book Nut
Library Queue

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.