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.

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

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.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraI had picked this book up to read because, well, elephants, but then I wavered on reading it because it seemed like it might be a cozy mystery, but then I read a very complicated book that I will talk about here soon and it broke my brain and I was like, hey, I like elephants.

Do you like elephants? Do you like quasi-cozy mysteries? Do you like people making terrible life decisions that end up having no consequences? This is totally the book for you.

I like the first one, obviously, and am sometimes down with the second, so for the most part this was a pretty fun book. We meet the titular Inspector Chopra on his last day with the Mumbai police, from which he is forced to retire after a heart attack. He is all set to at least try to enjoy retirement, but a woman and her dead son — and the police force’s reticence to look into the latter — catch his attention and he decides to pretend to be an inspector for just a bit longer. Like, literally pretend to be an officer. Totally not kosher. (Is there a Hindu version of kosher?)

Meanwhile, Chopra’s uncle has left him a baby elephant, as one does, and while Chopra is hunting down leads and information and potential killers he also is trying to figure out what elephants eat and why this one is so sad and where he can send it because the homeowner’s association lady is totally shitting a brick over the elephant in the apartment complex.

Also meanwhile, Chopra’s wife is not terribly pleased with the fact that she’s seeing her husband even less after his retirement, and she’s sure he’s up to no good with some hot young ladies, and Chopra is definitely keeping a secret buuuuut it’s probably not hot young ladies. Or is it?

So, it’s pretty cute. I love the elephant, of course, and his propensity for chocolate bars, and how Chopra is totally down with taking the elephant around town with him as he investigates because that’s totally not conspicuous at all. And the mystery itself is pretty decent, with the requisite number of twists and turns to keep things interesting.

But as you may have guessed, I really dislike thing number three above, and there’s a lot of that in this book. Chopra doesn’t want to go to the actual employed cops for help with his case because they’re disinterested and also because he doesn’t want to ruin his reputation by going crazy upon retirement, which, fine. And then when things start getting legitimately dangerous, Chopra is like, I should totally get help but I’m just not gonna. Which, not fine. But don’t worry, reader, Chopra’s innate luck and his new elephant friend are apparently all he needs to escape regular danger and also certain death. Ugh.

Escaping death is important, though, as this is apparently the first in a whole series of adorable elephant mysteries, which I kind of still almost want to read because elephants, guys. Who doesn’t want a crime-fighting, butt-kicking elephant sidekick? I know I do. Perhaps things will calm down for Chopra in these future installments? I can only hope!

Recommendation: For readers with easily suspended disbelief and also elephant lovers because adorable!

Rating: 6/10

Love is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Love is the DrugI had picked this book up as an advance copy at last year’s ALA conference because, I mean, that cover, but it went straight into the teen giveaway box and not into my grubby little hands. But after the umpteenth time the internets told me good things about it, I was like, fine, internets, I will read this book.

And I’m glad I did! I was disappointed that the book wasn’t quite the suspenseful thriller I was promised, but when I eventually figured that out, I started liking it a lot more.

See, what happens is, a teenage girl called Bird goes to a fancy-pants networking party at a classmate’s house, talks some dangerous talk around some CIA-type dude, and then wakes up eight days later to find out that she apparently got both super drunk and super high and got herself in a car accident. CIA dude, Roosevelt, is rather pointedly wondering if perhaps she remembers anything from that night, and in fact she does — but what she remembers doesn’t quite match up with what he’s telling her.

So Bird starts asking around, trying to figure out what really happened, while meanwhile a terrorist-spread flu virus is taking down city after city around the world and her drug-dealer friend is hiding from the cops because he’s accused of giving Bird whatever made her so high and also Bird is just trying to make it through senior year in the hopes that there will be a college for her to go to next fall.

Oh, and, love triangle. Ish. It’s not a terrible one but it still made me roll my eyes quite often.

I enjoyed the story a lot, and I very much wanted to know what Bird knew and why anyone wanted to know it as well and what exactly was up with her parents and their top-secret everything. I liked the DC setting a lot, including the juxtaposition between Bird at fancy private school and Bird at “home” with her uncle in the decidedly-not-fancy part of DC and Bird with her various rich and scholarship friends at school. There’s a definite focus on class and race and especially what it means to be Black and how much presentation matters in being taken seriously.

Things I didn’t like include the ending, which is practically epilogue-ish in its efforts to tie everything up in a pretty bow, and the fact that so much of this entire story could have been avoided if only people would just freaking talk to each other. On the plus side, the lack of communication is actually well done and feels different depending on who is failing to communicate. Bird just really really needs to get new friends. And parents. And probably enemies.

So, all around, a pretty good book! I’ll definitely be checking out more from this author in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of teens solving problems and getting into fairly dangerous situations in the process.

Rating: 7/10

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.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth SeasonAfter reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at the beginning of the year, I knew I was going to end up reading more of this amazing author, but I also knew it would take a while because her books require some serious thinky thoughts, both for the content and the style. I had thought to just read her books in chronological order, catching up to her current book sometime in the next decade, but when I saw the advance copy of this one I just couldn’t help myself.

Let’s just say it’s a really good thing I’ve got almost the entirety of Jemisin’s backlist to go through, because otherwise I might die from the wait for the next book in this series. Give it! Give it now!

There is a LOT going on in this book, so if you’re like my coworker whose eyes glazed over after I got to, like, the third plot point, you may want to just skip this post and move on with your life. Also, a lot of the magic of this book is the fact that you know almost nothing at the beginning and then Jemisin parcels it out to you as necessary, so if you want that experience, skip this post and then go read the heck out of this book and then come back and talk to me about it.

For everyone else, I will do my best to explain.

The world: I guess it’s Earth, definitely a future Earth if so, where there’s one giant continent that everyone lives on that is full of seismic activity. The shakes caused by all this do the normal damage we’re used to from earthquakes, but also every once in a while a huge shake will cause a fifth season, during which the sky is covered in ash and the world is messed up for a good long while before things get back to normal. Also in this world are people who can sense and control seismic activity, and they’re called orogenes or, if you’re feeling offensive, roggas. Most non-orogenic people feel offensive.

The plot: The world is ending, due to one very disillusioned dude. A woman named Essun comes home to find her son murdered by her husband and her husband and daughter nowhere to be found. She sets off to find them. A girl named Damaya, who is an orogene, is given up by her parents and sent to the Fulcrum, a sort of military school for training up dangerous orogenes (read: all of them) to be useful members of society (read: slaves). A woman named Syenite, who is a member of said Fulcrum, is sent off on a dual mission with a much more powerful orogene — first, to clear out a harbor, and second, to get pregnant and make another powerful orogene for the Fulcrum’s use.

The deeper meaning: This book is, as you may guess, about systematic oppression. The dedication in my advance copy is “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” It’s some heavy stuff. If you can’t sess the race metaphor inherent in the orogene’s lives, don’t worry, this world is also obsessed with literal race and looks, with much commentary on how people look and whether they conform to breeders’ specifications (no, really).

The writing: I love it. I love it so much. About a third of the book is written in the second person, and I was iffy about that in the beginning, but you (ha) get used to it pretty quickly. As I said before, Jemisin dishes out most of what I told you very slowly over the course of the whole novel, through the chapters from each of the three women and also through some interruptions from the narrator to explain a few things, although these bits explain nothing and just leave you with more questions. Which is awesome.

Can you be an author fangirl after only reading two of her six books? If not, no worries, I’ll just be over here reading everything this woman’s ever written.

Recommendation: For fans of Jemisin, high-concept fantasy, books that make you think all the thinks.

Rating: 10/10

Weekend Shorts: Audiobook Edition

After going through a heavy podcast phase, I did some culling of my playlist and realized that I could probably squeeze in an audiobook in the dead times between my remaining podcasts. Huzzah, more books! But of course, with my podcast-trained ear I am now terrible at listening properly to audiobooks so I can’t really give them full, proper reviews. So here, have some short, improper ones!

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba
The Boy Who Harnessed the WindI knew I needed nonfiction for my first book back in the commute-listening saddle, and it turns out that the library I work for has approximately no nonfiction audiobooks on OverDrive. On the plus side, that made it easy to pick this one, which I had meant to read years ago and which also fits my diversity requirement. I had a bit of trouble with this one as I hadn’t quite worked out the podcast/audiobook balance and ended up listening to it over almost two months.

It was a great listen anyway. What I knew about the book was that it was about a, well, boy who built windmills in Africa. But the windmill-building is actually a very small part of the book. Most of the book detailed William’s life as a kid growing up poor in Malawi, dealing with limited food and money, a year of famine in the country, and his inability to go to school because it required cash and so did buying food.

But William made the best of it, as you do, and spent his time not in school getting science books from the library and scavenging for supplies to build a windmill which not only gave his family electricity to work with, but got him noticed by people on the internet who were able to get him school, funding, and his own TED talk. It’s a great book if you need some inspiration to keep moving, or, alternately, if you need to feel like a failure at life because you are so much older than this kid. Either way!

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Yes PleaseUm, yes. Please. This book is delightful and wonderful and kind of amazing. I’ve heard rumblings from people who didn’t like this book because they were expecting this or that, and I think that I loved it because I had basically no expectations. I’ve seen Amy Poehler in things, but I’ve never been an SNL person and I never made it past the first episode of Parks and Recreation, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

But, again, it’s amazing. Poehler talks about various pieces of her life, from childhood to the Upright Citizens Brigade to SNL to Parks and Rec to motherhood to divorce, and she does it all with sarcasm and dry humor. And, for the audiobook, she invites other people to come read things for her, including Seth Meyers reading a chapter he wrote for the book but also including Patrick Stewart reading haiku about plastic surgery. As Patrick Stewart does, apparently.

There was plenty that wasn’t really for me, like the chapter extolling the virtues of Poehler’s Parks and Rec co-stars, but regardless it was all fun to listen to and sometimes surprisingly emotional. I highly recommend this book, especially the audio version, for anyone who needs a good, solid, sarcastic laugh.

Life in Outer Space, by Melissa Keil

Life in Outer SpaceI’ve been in the mood lately for a cute, quirky, romance book like Attachments, but I cannot for the life of me find anything remotely like it. Attachments is basically an adorable YA romance except starring adults, and this is somehow not a thing and I need someone to get on that, because I will give you all my dollars. Well, my library’s dollars. But dollars nonetheless!

Anyway, Goodreads offered me Life in Outer Space as a “Readers Also Enjoyed” to Attachments and I was like, nerd boy, Warcraft, Australia, you can stop there I’ve already started reading this book. It’s not the same — it’s an actual YA novel with teens and stuff and it doesn’t tug the same unrequited-love heartstrings — but it’s pretty darn good.

Our protagonist, Sam, is a teenage boy who more or less has high school figured out. He’s got his friends, he’s got his enemies, he’s got a place to eat lunch that isn’t the lunchroom where his enemies eat, and he’s pretty sure he can coast on this for the next couple years. But then, of course, new girl Camilla comes in and completely upends Sam’s life. She’s super popular right from the start, and therefore an enemy, but she plays Warcraft and likes spending time with Sam and his friends, so she’s… a friend? This is clearly way too complicated. Even worse, the rest of Sam’s life refuses to stay the course, leaving him with friends and family drama that was absolutely not part of his schedule for the year. Luckily Camilla’s there for him, all the time, whenever he needs her. She’s a great friend, but totally just a friend. Totally.

I am surprised that I hadn’t heard about this book earlier, because it is so completely in the John Green oeuvre that is super duper popular these days. Sam and his friends are nerd kids who use big words and wax moderately philosophical on a regular basis, Sam’s love interest is an enigmatic new girl prone to grand gestures and with problems of her own, and the various parents of the book are around and dramaful themselves but don’t get much in the way of the story. It is also comprised of several wildly improbable elements held together with just enough realism that you think, yeah, I totally want my bff/quasi-love interest to orchestrate for me a weird scavenger hunt from another continent. This is a thing that will happen.

It’s a ridiculous book, and I found myself so often being like, no, stop it, this is seriously ridiculous, what are you doing, but it was still super fun and decently cute, love-story-wise, though that part doesn’t happen until way late in the novel. And I loved the author’s sentences, even the crazy ones, so I will definitely be on the lookout for the US version of her second book, which seems like it should be even cuter and nerdier than this one. Score!

Recommendation: For John Green fans, nerds, people pining for Australia.

Rating: 8/10

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsI didn’t know much about this book going in, but as soon as I got through the first few pages, in which a seventeen-year-old kid called Eddie uses the bloody stumps where his hands used to be to drive a stolen car from BFE Louisiana to Houston and eventually to Minnesota, well, I was hooked. Why did this kid have no hands? What was he escaping from? Why did he leave his mother behind and why wasn’t he in any hurry to go back and get her?

Luckily this is the kind of book that answers all of the questions it asks, even if it takes its sweet time doing so. After the tense and urgent opening we travel back in time to nicer days, when Eddie’s mother, Darlene, was a young college student sweet on her sorority sister’s boyfriend. As all sorority girls know, this never ends well, but Darlene takes things in stride, doing the best she can until the absolute worst happens and she finds herself broke, crack-addicted, selling herself, and being a terrible mother to her son. When the Delicious Foods minibus rolls up with the offer of a great job with housing, it doesn’t take much for Darlene to say yes, leaving Eddie to fend for himself. But as you can probably guess, the job is not great, and in fact the workers are basically slaves to the family that runs the company.

As the story goes on, the narrative jumps between Eddie and Darlene, or, well, Eddie and “Scotty”, which turns out to be a street name for crack cocaine. Yes indeed, half this book is narrated by a controlled substance. But that’s actually pretty cool — you can see how Darlene’s thoughts are affected and pushed around by Scotty to become the thoughts that eventually win out or turn into speech. Scotty is almost a completely reliable narrator, in that regard, and it is going on my list of favorite book characters for its honesty and sass.

Also pretty cool is the way that Hannaham portrays the farm and the mentality that keeps all the workers working there even when it is obvious even to them that they have the strength of numbers to get out. Why would they leave a place that offers a poorly maintained roof and questionably nutritious food and 98 percent impure crack cocaine? Where would they go? What would they do? At least they know what they have if they stay.

Less cool is the ending, which wraps things up in a saccharine blanket. I would have preferred the book end a bit more ambiguously, but I know a lot of people like that whole closure thing and will appreciate the sappiness as well. I’ll just be over here ignoring the quasi-epilogue, as usual, and appreciating Hannaham’s fascinating story and lovely sentences.

Recommendation: For those who don’t need a strong plot, those intrigued by people who take scam jobs, and anyone who can survive chapters narrated by narcotics.

Rating: 8/10