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.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreI bought this book at my favorite beachside bookstore a couple years ago, after asking for recommendations that I clearly didn’t take seriously enough. It had been sitting on my bookshelf ever since, so when someone recommended it as a good book club pick, I was like, thank goodness, now I’ll actually have to read it! That is one of my favorite reasons to book club, and most of my fellow clubbers fell into another of my favorite reasons: what a great book I never would have picked up if you didn’t tell me to!

And it is a great book. I really had no expectations going in, but after just a few pages I found myself Instagramming a paragraph of amazing text, to wit: “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.” I might have taken photos of other excellent sentences, but I was too busy devouring them whole.

So, the words are great, but what about the story? It is delightful. If you stop and think about it too long, you’re like, wait, what?, but while you’re reading it, with those beautiful sentences leading you along, everything is just fine. The story starts with a recession-hit millennial-type, Clay, taking a job at San Francisco’s strangest bookstore, one that’s open 24 hours a day but has few popular books and even fewer customers. Those customers mostly spend their time in the “real” bookstore — stacks upon stacks upon stacks of leather-bound books peculiarly cataloged in the store’s database and accessible only by rolling ladder. The owner is strange but friendly and pays Clay decently enough, so Clay mostly lets the weirdness go… until he and a few savvy friends start putting two and two together (kind of literally) and discover a whole other world (not really literally) beyond the bookstore.

That’s as much as I’ll say about plot because so much of this book is about reading the story and letting it sweep you away, but I will note that I delight in the fact that there’s a legit Quest that takes place in this book and that an eerily The Circle-like Google plays a role.

Also awesome about this book is that it has this partially timeless quality to it; the book came out in 2012 and references Kindles and Google and various other techie things, but you could tell me that the book was set in 2016 or 1995 or 1970 and except for those references to our actual reality I would believe you. It helps that it takes on that Quest attitude and also that it embraces that high-tech versus low-tech argument that has been waged since time immemorial, with only the definition of “high” tech changing.

Speaking of high tech, according to the back of my book the audio edition has extra stuff in it, which is a) not fair and b) suuuuuper interesting within the context of the book. A couple of my book club mates listened to the book but apparently there’s nothing denoting the extra material, so now I’m going to have to acquire the audio and listen to it with my paperback in hand to discover ALL THE SECRETS. Or something.

As a book club book, well, it’s not the greatest due to the aforementioned “don’t think about it too hard”-ness, but we did get a decent conversation about quest stories and immortality and technology and the Death of Print (TM) going and I’ll count that as a win.

Recommendation: For those who like a good quest story and who have a few hours to kill curled up under a warm blanket.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesHey, look, another book club book! This one turned out much better than the last one, thank goodness!

I picked this one for my in-person book club off of a list of suggestions I got from my online book club friends, because man, I am so out of book ideas. (Do you have some? Let me know! Ahem.) I had heard enough of it to be like, “Oh, is that the one where the Earth’s spin slows down?” but not much else, but that sounded like a pretty good premise and something to talk about so I put it on the list.

Sometimes with these apocalyptic-ish books you get a story where it’s heavy on the plot and the Big Event is super important, and sometimes you get a story where a Big Event is happening but that really doesn’t matter at all except for setting. This book was, kind of surprisingly, right in the center of those two styles. We have a super important Big Event, but the focus is on the humans and how they’re reacting to the Event, both as humans do and possibly as is caused by the Event itself.

What happens, of course, is that the Earth’s spin starts to slow for no apparent reason. Scientists are like, WTF, but for most people it’s not a hugely big deal that there are now a few more minutes in the day. Except that the spin keeps slowing, and soon there are a few more hours in the day, and eventually a few more days in the day, and of course this insane day and night pattern takes its toll on the Earth and its plants and animals, especially those emotional humans.

What makes the book most interesting to me is that it’s told in the past tense, so we know that people are going to survive but we’re not quite sure how, and also that it’s told from the point of view of a young teenager, giving us the double uncertainty of adolescence and apocalypse.

It helps, too, that the sort of Big Conflict laid out in the story is so unexpected to me, this completely baffling conflict between the people who choose to live “on the clock”, following the standard 24-hour day regardless of what it looks like outside, versus those living off the clock and following the sun for their days and nights. You’d think it would be as simple as ignoring the people doing what you think is a crazy thing, but if you’ve lived in this world for any amount of time I think you can guess how ridiculous the tension between the groups gets.

Outside of that Big Conflict, the rest of the book is really a look at relationships and how they function under big stresses and little stresses and the everyday realities of life, which is a book I can totally get behind.

It’s not a perfect book, sadly, as the characters end up being a bit simplistic and certain actions and events are more cliché than I wanted them to be, but I think it does such a great job with its premise and elsewhere that it’s worth your time, especially if you have some people to hash out the details with.

Recommendation: For fans of quasi-apocalyptic books, weird science, and teen protagonists.

Every Day, by David Levithan

Every DayIt may not surprise you to learn that as a child I loved me a show called Quantum Leap. Scott Bakula, wacky person-in-a-different-body hijinks… to my elementary-school self, it was the greatest. Today you could not pay me to watch an episode as it can only have aged poorly, but I will cherish my childhood-tinged memories forever.

So of course I was intrigued by the premise of this book, in which a 16-year-old kid (entity? being?) we’ll call A wakes up every morning in a different body — always has and presumably always will. This is life for A, and A is more or less happy to put up with it, until the day A falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of A’s current body. A can’t get Rhiannon out of their head and breaks all of the rules they’ve made for themself to try to make a relationship with Rhiannon work.

I found this book incredibly interesting at its premise — it does a really good job making you think about identity (gender, most obviously, but other forms of identity as well) and how it is all completely constructed by ourselves and the people around us and how uncomfortable other people are when these constructions are challenged. There’s also some intriguing talk (spoilers? ish?) about how A exists and what happens to the people in the bodies A briefly inhabits and what would happen if A never left.

But that romance plotline? Ehhhhhhh. I was more or less okay with it when I read the book, as I was focused more on the stuff noted above, but as I talked about it with my book group I started to like it less and less. It’s a weird and creepy relationship that is hugely selfish and places Rhiannon in an impossible situation and potentially hurts many other people in the process and it’s just, again, weird and creepy. Full disclosure, though, one book-club-mate found it super incredibly romantic, so it’s possible that if you are or are temporarily inhabited by a 16-year-old you will feel the same way?

Other book-clubbers had issues with an odd B-plot storyline wherein a kid and later a pastor become obsessed with A and it leads to some half-formed revelations about A’s existence and possibilities that would have needed their own entire book to become fully formed. I didn’t mind that we didn’t get any closure on some of those things, but it was definitely a bone of contention at book club.

There’s a companion novel to this, called Another Day, that tells the same story from Rhiannon’s point of view, and I’m kind of interested to see if her side of the story helps fill in some of the weird blanks left in A’s story but I’m worried it will just make those gaps even larger. I don’t know. I’m pretty content leaving this story where it left itself, and moving on to better things.

Recommendation: For anyone who thrives on improbable romance stories, slightly less for anyone who is interested in one author’s take on identity politics.

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: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10