The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez

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!)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

Weekend Shorts: Picture Books

It’s been a little while since my last Weekend Shorts post, which is weird because I have a lot of things to tell you about briefly! Let’s start the catchup process with the shortest of shorts — picture books!

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, by Julia Sarcone-Roach
The Bear Ate Your SandwichBack in October my library participated in the Read for the Record event, in which libraries around the world read the same book on the same day and count up all the people who read or listened to it. Pretty cool, right? I ended up being the person to do my branch’s mini-storytime, which was nerve-wracking, but it turned out all right!

The book itself is super cute, with gorgeous artwork that shows us the story of a bear who leaves the wilderness, finds itself in a nearby city, happens upon your lunch, eats your sandwich, and then hitches a ride back to the forest before you even notice your sandwich is missing! Then, in a stunning plot twist (spoilers!), it turns out this story is being told to you by your little dog, who looks suspiciously like it might have just eaten a delicious sandwich. Dun dun! The little kids I read this to thought it was hilarious, so that works for me.

Edward Gets Messy, by Rita Meade and Olga Stern
Edward Gets MessyThis one I didn’t read to anyone but myself, in the workroom, while I was checking in the day’s new books. I don’t generally read the new picture books, but this one was written by a Book Riot contributor so I’d been hearing about it via my BR podcasts, including one that had an interview with her about the process of writing it.

Because of the podcast, I was looking at the book a little differently than I might a random picture book, trying to figure out which parts were original and which edited, looking at the pictures and thinking about how the author and the illustrator never spoke and wondering what that illustrating process was like.

But! The book was suitably adorable to keep me from thinking too hard about that stuff. This one is about Edward, a little pig who does not like getting messy. He avoids anything that might even remotely cause a speck on his cleanliness, and so of course he misses out on all the things. But then he accidentally gets a little messy and realizes that sometimes messy is a good thing!

My first thought after reading this was, I bet there’s a kid out there making a giant mess in their house because of this book. “Edward says it’s okay to get messy!” Probably you should only read this to your weirdly spotless toddler?

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by Matthew Inman
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long DistancesThis one might be for adults, but it’s definitely a picture book! I picked this book up ages ago, back when I was still a running person (stupid injuries), largely because it’s by Matthew Inman.  If you’ve ever read his comics at The Oatmeal, you’ll know both the art and humor styles.

You find out pretty quickly that the main titular reason is that Inman doesn’t want to be a fat kid anymore, which seems a little self defeating, but then again, I’ve read The Oatmeal.  But then he goes on to say that you can’t become a runner for vanity reasons, because you’ll get giant legs, so.  Hmmm.

Inman talks about a lot of the fun and horror of running, from the obsession to keep doing it, the mental clarity you get while running, how to run your first marathon, what to eat as a runner, and how to get into the sport the “right” way.  It’s a little all over the place, but it’s got enough truth nuggets to be appreciated by any runner type you might know.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI had intended to read Bird Box during RIP but didn’t get around to it in time. I thought I might save it for next year, but then a spooky mood came over me and I started reading it right before a camping trip. Perfect, I thought, a creepy read in a creepily lit tent!

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite the way I intended. The beginning parts were indeed sufficiently creepy, and I ended up reading most of the book before I even left for my camping trip. The story, if you’ve missed out on it, is that in the near future a Terrible Thing happens and people start killing themselves or going on murderous rampages and then killing themselves, all because of a Something that apparently lives outside. If you see it, it makes you go insane, so nobody knows what it is to go kill it or whatever. So, that’s terrifying.

Also terrifying is the main character’s decision to take herself and two small children into the outside, for reasons that are explained later, down a river on a boat with the Something potentially RIGHT NEXT TO THEM OMG.

More terrifying are the backstory scenes that lead up to this big decision, wherein you find out why this woman is living with these two kids, alone, in a house covered in blood. Spoiler: people are just as creepy as unknown Somethings, sometimes.

So, sufficiently creeped out, I snuggled into my tent to read the last parts of this book by lantern-light, only to have my lantern, with its four heavy D batteries, fall right on my face. After ascertaining that I hadn’t chipped a tooth or bled all over the place, I decided that the camping gods really just wanted me to go to sleep, so I did. Then I got up with the sunrise and decided to read while I waited for my husband to wake up.

And so, not unlike The Family Plot before it, I found myself reading the end of a spooky book in the calmest, quietest, most tranquil setting possible. Which is a terrible way to read a horror book, let me tell you.

It also didn’t help that the story changes a bit toward the end; where at the beginning it’s all questions and creepiness and Bad Things and whatnot, the end is full of answers (well, not the big answer) and resolution and possibly no more Bad Things, which, boring. I literally do not want to know whether or not these people survive. And I guess I don’t, but I have a pretty good idea.

But, on the other hand the writing is really good and the horror is largely psychological and I certainly did want to avoid going outside while reading this. I’m still not a fan of the ending, but that’s not really unusual for me. I would definitely recommend this if read only with spooky mood lighting at midnight in an empty house et cetera.

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?

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

AuthorityHmm. This book. I was prepared to be all sorts of excited about it, but my reaction when I realized this was next in the queue to be reviewed (to wit: “Ugh, that book?”) shows approximately my level of actual excitement at reading the thing.

Authority is one of those novels that I probably would have put down “except”. In this case, “except” was a… let’s call it an unplanned and very depressing vacation, and let’s call Authority a terrible book to read during such a vacation, especially when surrounded by lots of other books that could be read. But I didn’t have the brain power to pick a different one, so this was it.

So… yeah. In my review of the first book in this series, Annihilation, I mentioned that I had a lot of questions and no answers and I hoped the other two books would give me some of those answers. On the plus side, this book is chock full of answers. So many answers. I kind of hate answers now.

This is possibly by design, as the book is almost a love letter to bureaucracy. The story takes place just after the events of the first book, but from the point of view of the Southern Reach rather than its scientists. After the very strange return of the first book’s scientists, the Southern Reach wants its own answers, so they send in a new guy to take over the office and get them. But you soon come to find out that the new guy is more or less terrible at his job, that he has no idea what’s going on, that no one else has any idea what’s going on, that Area X probably doesn’t know what’s going on, and that nonetheless there are people to report to and paperwork to file. Exciting?

The interesting bits of the story are our new guy’s interactions with the returned biologist, who is acting oddly even for the Southern Reach and who creates the few intriguing questions this novel contains. I wanted to know so much more about her story and so much less about basically anyone else, but no, of course I can’t get the answers I want out of this series. Siiiiiiigh.

The answers we do get are less exciting, as they largely pertain to the overall scope of the Southern Reach and to the running of the outpost and to the history of new guy who I sooooo didn’t care about.

And yet, I do still want to read the third book in this series, which I think is largely attributable to VanderMeer’s writing, which is lush and poetic and lovely even when it’s actively not be used to tell me anything of value. So rude. I did cheat and check the description of the next book, and it does not seem to have anything to do with bureaucracy, so I will probably, some day, eventually, get it from the library and move on with my life. If it’s more like the first book than the second, it’ll probably be worth it.

Recommendation: I hate to say skip it, but I really probably would unless you’re reading the whole trilogy in one sitting. And definitely don’t read it if you haven’t read Annihilation.