Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
and
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

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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.

Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken KingdomsI read the first book in this series, and Jemisin’s first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a little over a year ago, and liked it pretty well. I thought the premise was interesting and the writing very cool if kind of weird to follow sometimes. Then I followed that up with Jemisin’s most recent novel, the first in a completely different series, The Fifth Season, and I loved that book SO HARD. I have no idea when that book’s sequel is coming out, so until then I’ll be over here reading through Jemisin’s decent-sized backlist.

I was a little worried coming back to this series, since I loved the later book so much more, but this book falls solidly in between the two on my Line of Adoration that I just made up. It’s technically a sequel to the first book, but I barely remember the details of that book and I did just fine here. All the stuff from the first book that’s important is mentioned when needed, and anything else is just window dressing.

And, luckily, this follow-up gets rid of the weird interludes of the first novel that made it so hard to read. This narrative is much more straightforward, but it still has a bit of a twist in that the protagonist is blind. Sort of. I mean, yes, she’s blind, but she can “see” magic and the things that magic touches, and there’s a lot of magic in this book. So the narrative is filled with a lot of description of touching and hearing and smelling and so forth, but then also sometimes with some unexpectedly complex descriptions of seeing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but then this is a Jemisin novel and that’s just what you’re getting into when you read one.

Aaaaanyway, in the story proper our protagonist, Oree, is living a more or less simple life as a blind artist and vendor, while also hanging out with godlings (the gods’ kids) and housing a very strange sort of being who doesn’t really talk to her. This is all fine until a godling she sort of knows ends up dead, which is not, so far as anyone knows, actually possible, and Oree ends up a prime suspect due to her relationships and her not-so-well-hidden magical talents. As Oree tries to figure out what’s going on in all quarters, she learns some very interesting things about the gods and the government and the way their strange world works.

And I loved it. I am officially a Jemisin fangirl, not to be stopped, and I am very much looking forward to continuing in her backlist. I love the worlds she creates and her characters and their adventures and the fact that she can develop so much drama and action and emotion in a relatively normal-sized novel — 400 pages is not nothing, but it’s easier to handle than certain other series I could name!

Recommendation: For lovers of fantasy and mythology and gorgeous sentences.

Weekend Shorts: Weird-Pants Comics

Let’s embrace the weird this weekend, from teenage superheroes to zombie gravediggers. What are you reading?

Hawkeye, Vol. 3: “L.A. Woman”, by Matt Fraction and Annie Wu
Hawkeye Vol. 3After the super weirdness that was Volume 2, I was a little bit worried about this one. Luckily, this is a far more straightforward set of stories! We pick up with the human version of the Pizza Dog story, wherein Kate Bishop yells at Clint Barton and then packs up her stuff (some of which has been adopted by Clint) and Pizza Dog and heads out to Los Angeles to get a fresh start. However, it’s not quite the fresh start she might have liked, as she quickly gets herself cut off from Daddy’s money and, possibly worse, runs into Madame Masque, who is really not thrilled about being bested by a teenager. Kate manages to escape the bad guys but not her lack of money, so she sets herself up as a private investigator to earn a few bucks to feed a picky cat (is there any other kind?). Except she’s actually pretty terrible at investigating, and of course her investigations just lead her back into the world of Madame Masque and her evil evil plans.

I like this volume quite a bit because Fraction does great things with Kate Bishop and her moody teenager-ness. I love the way she tries to set herself up as an Avenger, but quickly backs down to Young Avenger and then to Person Who Is Pretty Decent at Archery. I also like one bit in which Kate make a really terrible decision and you can see her inner, smarter voice arguing and then being slowly worn down to acquiescence. She knows she’s being an idiot, but she literally cannot help herself. I didn’t really get the bad-guy storyline, which is rather convoluted and only just barely maybe makes sense in the end, but that was okay because I was happy to sit back and enjoy the fun art and the fun characters. I am curious to see if, when I get my hands on the next volume, some of this will make more sense, as I know that these issues are not collected in chronological order. I guess I’ll find out in August?

iZombie, Vol. 1: “Dead to the World”, by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred
iZombie Vol. 1So, true story, I am madly in love with the iZombie television show. It was one of the few shows I watched this season that I loved beginning to end, and I cannot wait to see where it will go next season. So, of course, I had to check out the source material during the summer break.

I was very happy that I knew going in that the show is completely different from the comic, but somehow I didn’t expect “completely different” to be… so different. Literally the only thing that is the same between the two is that there is a girl who is a zombie and when she eats brains she temporarily gets the memories of the person whose brains she ate. That’s it. The setting is different, the background story is different, the friends are different, the bad guy is different, the style is different, the everything else is different.

And it’s great! Our hero is Gwen Dylan, a zombie gravedigger who uses her job to get sustainably sourced brains rather than, like, eating random people. She is friends with a ghost and a werewolf — sorry, were-terrier — and they just kind of… hang out. In the first issue, we are introduced to a strange fellow who is doing creepy things to some poor guy, who ends up being the brains that Gwen eats later, and as she tries to figure out what was up with dead guy’s life she ends up drawn toward his killer. Meanwhile, there is a gang of vampires doing the usual vampire bad stuff to lonely singles in the area, and a team of monster-hunters comes to town to put a stop to them and any other shouldn’t-be-undead person around. This is bad news for Gwen & Co., especially after Gwen gets all flirty with one of the hunters. Then Gwen finally meets that weird guy from the beginning, and things get even stranger.

There is a lot of worldbuilding in this first volume and not a lot of actual plot, but I kind of liked that because it helped me to absolutely differentiate this from the story I thought I might be getting. I like Gwen just as much as I like Liv, so that’s helpful, and I am super intrigued to see what’s going to happen with her with regards to hot monster hunter and also creepy monster dude, who insinuates that Gwen is way more than she thinks she is. I will definitely be hunting down the next volume of this series soon!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsOne thing that is alternately very useful and very pathetic in my 2015 quest to read more diversely is the fact that my Goodreads TBR is pretty much full of diverse books and authors that I could have been reading this whole time. Case in point: this almost-five-year-old book that has been on my TBR list practically since it came out.

To be fair, the fact that this is a fantasy series didn’t particularly help it top Mount TBR all these years. I love the idea of fantasy series, but I am rarely willing to commit the time to read ALL THE PAGES, even in this series of three 400-600-page books. That sounds like effort, guys.

But it turns out that, as you may have guessed, that effort was totally worth it. I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book, but I liked it a lot and found it absolutely fascinating and full of really interesting ideas and I am totally going to read the rest of this series but probably not immediately.

So there’s this chick called Yeine, and she’s the leader of a nation called Darr and also the granddaughter of the dude who rules, um, everything. All the nations. As you do. Yeine is called to Sky, the city and castle her grandfather rules from, and she quickly finds out that a) her grandfather is dying, b) there’s going to be a literal fight to the death to replace him, and c) he has thrown her name into that fight, along with her cousins Relad and Scimina. Thanks, gramps!

Now, when I say fight to the death that makes it sound like this book is going to be action-packed and full of intrigue and subterfuge and daggers and all that good stuff, and that’s certainly what I was expecting. But it turns out that this part of the story is about politics, actually, and the ways in which people can fight without even having to see each other, which is pretty darn cool in its own right. This quieter intrigue and subterfuge plays out slowly over the course of the novel, leaving lots of room for what I thought was the more interesting part of the story, namely Jemisin’s worldbuilding.

So there’s this world-encompassing government that I’ve already mentioned, and you might be like, hey, how does someone run an entire world for any length of time without, you know, being overthrown twice on Tuesday? Turns out it’s pretty easy if you’ve enslaved your gods. All the gods. As you do. The ruling family, of which Yeine is a part, has the ability to command the gods to varying degrees, with grandpa Dekarta wielding more or less full power. Throughout the novel Jemisin parcels out information about the gods in their current state and the widely held beliefs about how the gods got there and also the actually true facts about how they got there and how they might get themselves out, which of course involves Yeine.

Oh, and, meanwhile, Yeine is trying to use her limited time left in this world (she has no illusions about her chances in the fight to the death) to help her homeland of Darr and to sift through the widely held beliefs and actually true facts about her mother’s life and recent death, and whether her grandfather had anything to do with the latter.

There’s a lot to the story, and it’s almost all really well done and intricately plotted and again, absolutely fascinating. But I have to admit that the ending was absolutely baffling to me, with all of the various threads of the story getting snarled in one big mess of a climax that probably has a logical explanation if only I could understand it. I mean, I understand the results of the crazy stuff, but I don’t really get how we got to the crazy stuff in the first place. Luckily the next book, at least from the preview pages I read, is going to move away from that weird stuff and give me different weird to look forward to.

Recommendation: For fans of epic fantasy and worldbuilding and big ideas.

Rating: 8/10

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CitySo a while back I read Beukes’s The Shining Girls and thought it was brain-exploding but also pretty darn good, and then the Internet was like, yeah, well, we liked Beukes before she was cool when she wrote a little thing called Zoo City. And I was like, yeah, well, Internet Hipsters, I owned Zoo City via a Humble Bundle before I knew that I was going to know that Beukes was cool, and then my brain exploded again.

I actually started reading this back in October, but fate and forgetfulness meant that I didn’t finish it until, uh, February (who’s behind on her book posts?). Luckily, the book is just bonkers enough that I didn’t have to start over.

But it is bonkers. See, it takes place in this alternate present where criminals somehow (insert hand waving here) end up with Animals who hang out with them for the rest of ever, like Mice and Mongeese and in our hero Zinzi’s case, a Sloth. Said criminals also get a magic power, which can be almost anything; Zinzi’s power is to be able to find lost things.

Aside from the cool things (well, not sure about the Animal thing), Zinzi’s life is… not great. She lives in a Johannesburg slum called Zoo City where, as you may guess, lots of other people with Animals are stuck living, having been rejected from better places. She is also in debt to her drug dealer and repays him by writing scam emails à la those nice Nigerian princes and sometimes pretending to be the people she writes about in those emails when the potential benefactors come to call.

Is this bonkers enough yet? Because it keeps going — Zinzi gets involved in a lost item case that nearly gets her arrested, and then she gets recruited to find a missing pop star and then there’s this whole thing with Animals and an Undertow and… there is a lot going on here.

But in a good way! It helps that Zinzi is a really interesting character, super flawed but generally trying to be a good person in a bad situation, and the other people she meets are equally difficult to peg as good or bad, which is part of what keeps the mystery going. And the world that Beukes created is amazing — she includes between story chapters little snippets of books and news stories and the like that talk about when Animals started showing up and what the prevailing theories are and how people are using them for fame and this sort of second storyline does come into play at the end so don’t skip these seeming extras. The ending is, as I am coming to see is “as usual” for Beukes, crazypants enough to make perfect sense, once you’ve overthought it enough.

So if, like me, you’ve had this book sitting on your ereader since that long-ago Humble Bundle, or if it crosses your path at the library or bookstore, you should definitely give it a shot.

Recommendation: For fans of alternate realities and hand-wavey magic and books that force you to think real hard about things.

Rating: 8/10