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.

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?

Weekend Shorts: Hoopla Trades

I talked about the awesomeness that is hoopla about a month ago, but really mostly about the wonder that is Lumberjanes single issues. I had indicated that I was going to read ALL THE COMICS on hoopla and report back, but of course best laid plans and all that.

However, I did use some of my monthly allotment to grab up various trade editions, so now I can tell you what it’s like to read in volumes rather than issues, and the answer is, well, basically the same as with their print counterparts. The biggest difference I found between the digital and print volumes is that in digital, my brain and thumb are poised to skip over all the non-essential pages, so sometimes I found myself in a new issue unexpectedly, or hit a switch in storyline and wondered if I’d missed the issue break somehow. Note to self: SLOW DOWN.

But otherwise I continue to highly recommend hoopla for your free-comics needs! I’m even strongly considering a tablet purchase in the near future so that I can read these comics in closer to full-size glory. But don’t worry, local comic shop, I’m also considering buying a lot of really pretty comics in the future now that I’ve seen them all tiny and loved them. It’s a win-win!

Here’s some of what I’ve been devouring:

iZombie, Vols. 2 & 3, by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred
iZombie, Vol. 2iZombie, Vol. 3I picked up the first volume in this series last summer when my beloved show was on summer break, and I liked it actually way more than I was expecting. I meant to read more, but I never got around to buying them. How convenient to get them for free!

Having them for free was probably a great thing, though, as I wasn’t as excited about them as I’d hoped. The first volume is so interesting and ends on such a weird note, and then the second volume starts off with a standalone backstory issue and when it gets into the main story again does a lot of rehashing of the premise that I found very boring. Then we get into Gwen’s backstory via Gwen having to interact with people who think she’s dead, which should be fascinating but is somehow just… not. I was disappointed in the second volume.

If I wanted crazy, though, Volume 3 delivers, giving us more strange things to worry about in the form of monster hunters and Dead Presidents (probably not exactly what you’re thinking…) and zombie hordes and a Big Bad who wants to do, I don’t know, bad things, and it doesn’t lack for twists and turns. It’s a little much, but I have to say that I am clearly loving the action in this series more than anything else, so it worked for me.

I’m intrigued to see how this is all finished up in the TEN ISSUE Volume 4 (that is an insane number of issues, fyi), but something that enormous is probably going to have to wait a while.

Giant Days, Vol. 1, by John Allison and Lissa Treiman
Giant Days, Vol. 1I never read the whole thing, but for a year or two in high school I was obsessed with the webcomic Scary Go Round, written and drawn by John Allison. When I heard about Giant Days, I was intrigued; when I realized it was written by Allison, I was hooked; when I saw it on hoopla I devoured Volume 1 immediately.

And it is the best. Most of the comics I read are like iZombie — fantasy or sci-fi or just generally weird. Weird is so much fun in comic form. But this is that other kind of weird that I like, the kind that is quirky and sarcastic and just so wonderful.

The comic follows a group of friends at university (not college, ’cause Britain is weird) who are, as mentioned, quirky and sarcastic. They probably go to class, but we see them in the in-between periods, hanging out and being friends and making new friends and living in that strange bubble that is college, where everything is just so important. If you want to feel some serious college nostalgia, I very much recommend this book.

I love the three lady protagonists (especially Susan!) and I love how their escapades are things like attempting to stay drama-free or survive a terrible flu but also things like writing a feminist screed that gets a little out of hand. I am so excited to see what these ladies get up to next, and so glad that single issues are current on hoopla. Once more unto the breach!

Weekend Shorts: Moar Audiobooks!

I really am liking having more time to do the audiobook thing now that I’ve killed off a few podcasts (and some have killed themselves off, sniff sniff). But I am going to run out of books I know I want to listen to soon, so if y’all have recommendations for memoirs (preferably funny ones) or nonfiction (preferably fact-filled and with a sense of humor), tell me tell me tell me!

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
Unfamiliar FishesA few years ago, when I had a job at which I could listen to audiobooks all day long, I went on a quick Sarah Vowell bender and listened to three of her books all in a row. I loved her writing and her voice (literary and literal), but the binge was too much, I guess, and I never read her again. Until now!

This is another of her focused histories (like The Wordy Shipmates), and in it she talks about the history of Hawai’i and the white inhabitants who took it over. I didn’t know much about Hawai’i except that it’s, like, an island, and a state, so it was fascinating to find out that there have been Americans there since 1820, first doing the missionary thing and then totally taking over.

I learned many fun facts while listening to this book, most of which I promptly forgot, but I did come away with the sense that if I ever manage to make it out to Hawai’i, I’m going to end up forgoing the beach for trips to old missionary houses and obscure museums. I mean, let’s be honest, I’d probably do that anyway, but now I kind of want to go just to do that!

One note on the audio: there are a large number of guest voices on the audio, and I was excited to see how they would be used, but weirdly they are used only to read quotes from various historical figures. Each actor gets a few people to “be”, but then there are other people that Vowell has covered, and it was just kind of weird. Perhaps knowing this in advance will improve your listening experience?

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae
The Misadventures of Awkward Black GirlI don’t know what’s wrong with me. I hate memoirs, or I thought I did — apparently, listening to memoirs read by their authors is like the coolest thing ever. So even though I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in except that she’s apparently a funny YouTube person and that a friend of mine thought the book was pretty okay (I assume that’s what 3 stars on GoodReads equals), I was all for it.

And then I started the book, and I was like, holy crap. Turns out that Rae is the same age as me, and after listening to so many memoirs of people at least a few years older than me, it was sort of weird to hear someone talking about a childhood with computers. She starts off the book talking about writing stories on the computer and printing them off on dot-matrix paper and getting the Internet and being obsessed with chat rooms and learning how to stretch the a/s/l truth in PMs and I was like, um, I thought that was just me. So, fantastic start.

Her childhood seems very different from mine on a large scale, with her stories of moving cross-town, cross-country, and cross-world, and of growing up black in variously diverse neighborhoods. But of course it’s also similar, as she navigates friendships and school and being a super-awkward teenager. She writes about her parents’ failed marriage and how it affected her own relationships, and about chopping all her hair off and the freedom she felt with it gone, and about coworkers and how much they can suck. It’s not a particularly focused book, but it’s super fun and often hilarious and I am definitely going to have to check out Rae’s various webseries in the hopes that they will be the same.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenThis book and I have a bit of a history together. I first heard about it before it came out, when John Green (a college friend of Riggs) was spreading massive love for the book around the internets. Then it came out, and there was tons more love all over the place, but I was busy doing who knows what and didn’t get around to reading it. Then I was at my favorite beach book store maybe a year ago, and I was like, I want to buy books from you, what should I buy. This book ended up coming home with me but remained unread until my book club picked it to read. (Technically, my copy is still unread as I started reading the book on my Kindle and never switched over.)

And so maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known about this book and its fans for so long, that perhaps I had built up the awesome in my head too far, that I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to, for sure. It’s a book with a precocious kid who essentially finds out that magic is real, and also there’s bad guys and time travel, and really this book seems like a slam dunk. But it just… wasn’t.

If you also haven’t managed to read this book, the plot is thus: precocious kid has a grandfather who told him wild stories about his childhood that turned out to be pretty obviously made up when kid became teen. Grandfather becomes senile, thinks monsters are after him, dies horribly at the hands of what teen sees as, in fact, monsters, kid goes into therapy, therapist recommends a visit to the island grandfather told teen to visit with his last words, teen goes, discovers hidden time pocket where grandfather’s stories are true and grandfather’s childhood friends are still living as teens themselves, bad guys discover same pocket, teen and very old teens work together to defeat the bad guys.

This seems great! In fact, like Scarlett Undercover, my teen self would probably have devoured this book in minutes and loved it.

But cranky adult me sees what Riggs is doing and wishes he had done it better. The driving force behind this book is a set of pictures that Riggs collected that show mostly kids doing weird things — floating, lifting boulders, looking much older than they are, etc. These pictures became the titular peculiar children, and the pictures are actually printed in the book, which is cool but also annoying because you know every time a picture is coming because Riggs says something like, “I remember this girl, there was that picture where she was holding a chicken and there’s a long drawn-out explanation why she had a chicken so let me tell you what that is,” and I just don’t care. I don’t care why this girl is holding a chicken, I care about the fact that chicken girl and everyone else is in a time loop and also in trouble! This plot is interesting, let’s talk more about it!

The writing is also kind of confusing, with conflicting information given about the kids’ powers and the rules of the time loop and whatever, and everyone that’s not the main kid and his crush object get short shrift on character development. The dad is especially a letdown, since you can see where he could have been really integral to the plot but instead he gets left behind to drink all the beer while his kid goes off and has adventures.

Basically I think this book would have been better if it were Hollow Earth, which has weird stuff well explained and lots of characters with actual character. But again, teen me would have loved it anyway, so there’s clearly no accounting for taste.

Recommendation: For readers seeking weirdness that comes with pictures and those who appreciate the “kids with absent parents” part of most children’s books.

Rating: 5/10

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

The UncouplingYou guys, I was so excited when a fellow book clubber announced this book as her pick. I had heard nothing but great things about The Uncoupling and about Wolitzer’s work in general, but had just never gotten around to reading any of it.

And I think I may have to just pretend that that’s still true in case I ever want to read another Wolitzer, because this book… uggggh.

I was not alone in this — I don’t think anyone in my book club actually liked this book. It was a quick and easy read, and the words themselves were perfectly nice, but the way they came together into a story absolutely did not work for our group of late-twenty-something females. Clearly we were not the target audience.

What happens in this novel is that a high school drama teacher picks Lysistrata for the school play and over the next couple of months leading up to the performance, a literal cold wind sweeps through town and causes the ladies to stop wanting their men. No sex, no cuddles, no intimacy if there’s a penis involved. The novel looks at all the different relationships in the town, from rock-solid marriages to rocky marriages to benefits-only relationships to high school romances, and shows us what happens when the women stop wanting the men.

And that’s a solid premise, which is part of why my friends and I were so upset at how the premise played out. Note: It’s pretty much complaints from here on out.

One big problem that I had was, simply, why. At the end you find out that this spell has been cast more or less purposely and for the purpose of strengthening relationships, but more than one relationships seems to be worse to me after the spell. And, okay, so, that’s on the spell caster and her weird priorities and maybe Wolitzer’s not saying that withholding sex is a winning relationship strategy, but she’s not not saying that either.

Another problem I had was, like, the core concept. In Lysistrata the women withhold sex for a reason, but in The Uncoupling it is withheld from them just as much as from the men. The men go a bit silly without their sex, and it seems like we’re meant to think that men can’t survive without sex or whatever, but it’s notable that none of them (that we see, anyway) leave their wives or girlfriends of their own volition. They’re all trying to fix their relationships, which from their perspective (I assume; we don’t actually get a male perspective) have been suddenly and irrevocably changed for no apparent reason. That would make me a little crazy, too.

It would be great if that were part of a nuanced story, but there’s an official publisher discussion question that reads, “Dory and Robby seem to be the perfect couple at the start of the book. How does the author signal that there might be problems beneath the surface?” She signals it by creating a giant problem beneath the surface! Come on!

So I just can’t even with the plot, is what I’m saying, and outside of main couple I didn’t particularly care about what happened to any of the characters. The sentences that made up the story were well written, and there was enough good in that to keep me reading and the book in one piece, but the ending was so completely unsatisfying that making it to the end wasn’t even consolation!

But the woman who picked this book assured us that at least Wolitzer’s The Interestings was completely different than this book, so there’s hope that Wolitzer and I can be reconciled and that I can figure out what all the hullabaloo is about. Just not anytime soon.

Recommendation: For… fans of Lysistrata? Women who are considering sex strikes? Other… people…?

Rating: 4/10

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

City of BohaneFile this one under: Books I would never have gotten past page five of except that they were being read for book club.

Also file under: Books I don’t really understand why anyone would bother to read past page five of.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that on the Style-Plot-Character triangle, I tend to be swayed toward plot and character, and this book is like 99 percent style. Check this opening paragraph:

“Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.”

That’s not just some fancy opening. That’s the style of every paragraph of this book. Usually I’m reading on my lunch break and trying to figure out how to squeeze in two extra minutes to get to the end of a chapter when I’m reading, but with this one I found myself stopping early and giving my brain a rest with games on my phone. The book is flowery and dense and all about that dark, gritty atmosphere, and it just wasn’t for me.

Usually I try to lead with what the book is about, but I really just don’t know in this case. There’s this dude, like, and he’s the head of the mob equivalent (the Fancy) in Bohane, and he’s got this wife, and there’s this other dude who used to date said wife and also I guess run the town and now he’s back in town after 25 years and everyone’s freaking out? But as I said, there’s not much plot to the book and what it’s really about is getting into various characters’ heads and getting a sense of this city of Bohane and, I don’t know, stuff.

And that’s fine, as it goes. I’ve certainly read and at least appreciated books that are mostly style (see: Flavia and also Jasper Fforde’s entire oeuvre). But what was really weird about this book was that when I got to book club, there were discussion questions that put a heck of a lot more thought into the book than I did. Questions looking at motivations and reasons for settings and actions that I probably couldn’t answer even if I read the book again looking for those answers. So I don’t know what is going on here.

Barry mentions in his afterword (see that link above) that one of his influences for this novel is Cormac McCarthy, which makes a lot of sense as I literally did not get past page five of The Road even though that one was a book club book as well. But I know a lot of people who loved that book, so obviously I am the problem here and you should not discount this book just because I didn’t like it. Unless you dislike similar things. Then you should probably listen to me.

Recommendation: For people who LOVE style and grit. (Not me.)

Rating: 5/10