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?

Weekend Shorts: More Volume Ones

I feel like I read a LOT of Volume Ones these days, and then I just, like, forget to read the rest of the series. And it’s not like I’m reading a lot of terrible series; it’s just that there are so many new ones to try that the good ones still get lost in the shuffle.

But, whatever, here are three more Volume Ones to add to the collection!

Descender, Vol. 1: “Tin Stars”, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender, Vol. 1I read the first couple of issues of this series in my catchup binge a couple of months back, and I was like THIS SERIES HAS A ROBOT BOY YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID. Which still stands, really, but I’m a bit less excited about it now.

These six issues lay out some very interesting backstory with the promise of intrigue and subterfuge, which are things I am a big fan of, in the present. But the intrigue is less about strategy and more about brute force, which gets boring pretty quickly. I’m really not clear what is up with all the people trying to find my Robot Boy, and I’m not sure the book is either, what with all the trips into Backstory Land that are much more interesting than the main story.

I do have the second volume on hand, purchased at half price before I had finished the first one, and so probably maybe someday I will continue on with the series. But there will be dozens of other Volume Ones ahead of it, probably.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls, Vol. 1This one, on the other hand, I’m regretting reading only because the next issue JUST came out and therefore a Volume Two is still in the distant future. Which is appropriate to the content of the book, I suppose.

The first issue promised me aliens in Cleveland, so of course I was all over it, but what we get is even stranger — time travelling teenagers in some kind of war with a different set of time travelling people, with dinosaurs, and Apple products, and I don’t even know what’s going on but man Cliff Chiang’s art is the prettiest.

This volume could almost have fallen into the same “too much brute force” category as Descender, but there’s enough subtle intrigue with the time travelers (and such a smart cliffhanger ending) that I am happily looking forward to more.

Preacher, Book 1, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher, Book 1I guess this isn’t technically a “Volume One”, as it collects a few more issues than the official Preacher, Vol. 1, but it’s got a 1 on the cover so it counts!

I read this because the people at my favorite comics podcast did a show on it and while I usually skip the shows about things I haven’t read, the discussion was interesting enough to keep listening. That sounds like a vote for a series in my book! And then it was free on hoopla, so it was clearly fate.

But, well, I definitely won’t be reading more of this. Not because it’s not interesting, which it is, with its concepts of gods and religions and hate and fear-mongering and all sorts of other fun human stuff. And not because the art’s not gorgeous, which it is, with incredibly detailed drawings and lovely colors.

What it is is that the story and the art are both just too gruesome for me. There’s this crazy scene that I had to show my husband, because I couldn’t be the only one to see it, with a guy whose face has been flayed and, like, tacked back on, and it is objectively a fascinating panel and an intriguing bit of story, but the fact that it’s only marginally weirder and grosser than other bits of the story means this book is just not for me. I’m really wondering how this has been turned into a TV show, but I really don’t think I want to watch it to find out!

World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters

World of TroubleIt seems like a million years since I read the first two books in this series, but in fact I read them in March and June. It just seems longer since this particular book has been staring at me from the shelves of my library since it came out, puppy dog eyes and all. I had been excited to read it when I ordered it, but after Countdown City left me a bit disappointed I was worried this one would leave me even colder.

Spoiler: it did, mostly.

See, I really really really loved the conceit of the first book, which involved a policeman doing his job well when all of his coworkers were phoning it in due to impending apocalypse (aside: I had no idea that the actual definition of apocalypse is “disclosure of knowledge.” BORING.) But in the second book, and even more in this one, there are no more coworkers because, you know, an asteroid is coming to end the world and people have better things to do than be detectives. Except for Palace, who is adrift in this new unordered world and just wants some dang answers.

Which, fine, whatever, but I don’t have to like it. In this go, Palace has left the relative safety of the Police House where a bunch of police-types are waiting out the asteroid that’s on its way in a week. He is headed to Ohio (yay!) to catch up with his sister, who he has pieced together from witness interviews is hanging out there waiting for the scientist fellow who’s going to fix this situation with some last-minute science (science!). Palace and his companion Cortez show up at, what else, a police station, to find no one there… except for a girl lying out in the woods with her throat slit but somehow not dead. Palace takes it upon himself to figure out her deal, the deal with the police station and its sealed-off basement, and of course the deal with his sister who may or may not have raided the vending machine of said station.

It’s an interesting conclusion to the series. There is definitely something to be said for Winters’s ability to convey the absolute uselessness that Palace feels in the face of certain doom, and his struggles to get everything he can in order while it’s still possible. It was also fascinating and a little heartbreaking to peek in on a little community living out its last days in a slightly different way than everyone else, and to see how some people are happy to be assholes to the very end. I liked that we got some solid answers to the questions brought up throughout the series, though some of those answers were a little too convenient, but of course the one big question does not get answered satisfactorily, which, how could it.

I kind of wish I hadn’t read this book, because I knew it wasn’t going to be what I wanted and I read it anyway and it was just as okay as I thought it would be, but at the same time there was no way I wasn’t going to read this book in the hopes of getting some of those answers that I did actually get, so I guess overall it was a win? At least it’s a quick book!

Recommendation: For readers of the rest of the series, but if you haven’t read any yet you can read the first book and then stop if you want.

Rating: 6/10

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

The Whore of Akron, by Scott Raab

Right, so, as I’ve mentioned seemingly a lot lately, I call Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown. I grew up right in the middle of Cleveland and Akron, and I’m just about the same age as LeBron James, so even though I’ve never been a basketball person, I’ve been annoyed with LeBron James seemingly forever.

Not as annoyed as Scott Raab, though. I was promised that this book contained hate and vitriol, and whoever promised me that was absolutely not wrong. I think the title of the book is probably dropped into the text at least two or three times per chapter, and it is not the worst thing that Raab calls James.

What’s interesting and terrible about this book is how much I agree with Raab. Wait, hold on, I’m not talking about that last paragraph when I say that. Nor am I talking about the weird squicky parts of the book when Raab is getting, um, a hand, if you will, from his wife. Yes, that happens multiple times in Raab’s narrative, and no, I have no idea why anyone would write about something like that. But.

But. There is a large part of the book where Raab is simply talking about what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan — not a Cavs fan, not a Browns or Indians fan, definitely not a fan of LeBron James, but a Cleveland fan, and I am right there with him. Raab, with some extra profanity and grossness, paints a picture of what it’s like to root for a city, one that refuses to win a championship in any major sport and therefore win at being a city. It’s depressing and a little pathetic, sure, but it’s not something that can be turned off and it baffles Cleveland fans when people from Cleveland are Yankees fans (like LeBron) or, god forbid, Steelers fans (like my friend Steve). And sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that other people feel the same way I do, and it’s definitely nice to know that there are people who are batshit crazy and that I am not one of them. I think that’s the real takeaway here.

I inflicted this book on my book club, too, and I think everyone felt basically the same way — it was an okay book that suffered from being too much about Raab (it is technically a memoir, as James would obviously not sign off on this book) and not enough about its putative subject. But at the same time, I think I would have gotten sick of the hating on LeBron had there been nothing to dilute it. Meh.

And, just for the record, there’s “exercising free agency” and there’s “being a giant tool about it.”

Recommendation: Read this if you’ve ever been a little obsessed with something that really doesn’t matter, or if you haven’t had enough anger in your life lately.

Rating: 6/10

The Man from Primrose Lane, by James Renner

The Man from Primrose Lane…Why did I wait so long to read this?

I mean, I know why; it’s because I had it worked up to be too awesome in my brain and I had to chill out a minute. And this was very good, as it was a bit of a different book than I anticipated and I might not have liked it had I read it a month or two ago. But still! I am so glad I finally got around to it!

So baaaasically this story is weird. It looks like it’s going to be a normal mystery story, with a murder and an investigation and some depressing backstory and all that. And it’s a good mystery story, too! There’s a serial killer or two, and a reporter guy who gets his story and his day in court and his eleventy-billion dollar book deal, and a new murder for the reporter guy to write about that turns out to maybe or maybe not be tied to said guy’s wife’s untimely suicide… oh, I like it. Twists and turns and fun stuff. And all the while, Renner is dropping hints about things that are going to happen, and they’re good hints, the kind that let you know the what but not the how and it’s all very intriguing.

Somewhere along the way a sci-fi element pops in and then maybe two-thirds of the way through the book the mystery story is like, I’m outta here, you take over from here, sci-fi story. And it’s an abrupt change with Renner suddenly telling you the how of everything but not the why and the info dump is a bit tedious but once you get back around to the why part it’s pretty fantastic. So… be prepared.

And I suppose I have to admit that part of my love of this novel is that it’s set in my greater hometown area of Northeast Ohio, with cameos from my alma mater and PBL and Coventry and Mac’s Backs and Tommy’s and oh my goodness how soon ’til I can get back to Cleveland? Ahem. I’m not sure how Renner’s love of Akron and Cleveland would translate to a wider audience, but I think at least some of you reading this post (you know who you are) would be interested.

Recommendation: Read this if you’re in the mood for something weird and baffling and possibly not scientifically sound.

Rating: 8/10

When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were StrangersIt’s a bad sign for a book when I have nothing to say about it at book club. It’s even worse when I have nothing to say about it after book club. Plenty of people at the table were all, “This book is excellent!” and, “Wasn’t this part excellent?” and I was just sitting there, eating my food, thinking, “How long ’til I can go read a better book?”

Well, okay, there’s a start. This wasn’t a bad book, not by any stretch of the imagination. The writing was good, the premise was solid, and the characters were interesting, if not sympathetic. I just… didn’t care about the book.

So there’s a girl called Irma, and she lives in BFE Italy, where her mother has always told her she must stay, or else die with strangers like all of the other people who’ve left for greener pastures. But then Irma’s mother dies, and her father gets all weird, and her aunt is sick, and everyone’s like, hey, it’s the late 1800s and therefore you should go to America, land of plenty, and send us back all the dollars. And so she goes, and she meets people along the way who are cool and not-so-cool, and she takes a crappy job and learns about how mean people can be, and other nice and horrible things happen to her, and then she American Dreams her way to a better life. Spoiler?

I’ve certainly read books like this before, books with no discernible plot other than “life happens” but that are still awesome because of the characters or the writing. But they have to have awesome characters and writing, and this book just had pretty decent characters and writing.

Others in my book club praised the historical fiction aspect of the book, which is something I’ve never really gotten into, and the sense of culture and culture shock that Irma experiences. I’m not sold. But I will praise the American Dream aspects, especially in our current non-dreamy recession time, because it’s always nice to see a person with no money and no job raise herself up with nothing but hard work and dedication. Maybe some of that will rub off on me!

So… yeah. Have any of you read this? What did you think? Can you explain what I’m missing?

Rating: 5/10

The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett (25 August — 27 August)

I love the blurb on the cover of this book:

“By far Leigh Brackett’s best novel to date and comes awfully close to being a great work of science-fiction.” — New York Times

When I saw that, I thought, “Hmmm. What does that mean? Is this just an okay work of science fiction?” And I’m still not sure what the Times reviewer was thinking fifty years ago when he wrote that, but I can certainly make a hypothesis.

The only real science-fiction-y aspect of the novel is the fact that it takes place in the future, after a World War III nuclear holocaust has destroyed all the cities in the world. After this catastrophic event, the government has outlawed cities (too much of a target) and pretty much everyone has taken to being a New Mennonite and living just like the Amish do today. Part of the new religion preaches the comfort of being ignorant, thus keeping people from wanting to invent another nuclear bomb.

But a couple of kids in the Youngstown, Ohio area (not sure exactly where they’re meant to be, but I recognized a couple of city names nearby, Andover and Canfield) are more curious and less mindful of their parents than they should be and end up hearing about and lusting after a forbidden city called Bartorstown, where men are purported to be able to learn things and to be allowed to remember what the world was like 100 years ago, before the bombs and terror and whatnot. These kids set off to find the city, but since no one talks about it for fear of being stoned to death, and they can’t even really be sure the place exists, the quest is a little harder than they expect.

I rather enjoyed this little book! It has just the right combination of adventure and reality, and the main character, Len, is really easy to relate to. The novel is really more about Len’s physical and emotional journey rather than his destination, and there’s a lot of really good commentary about the human condition. And, for a dystopian novel from the fifties, the writing is pretty darn clear and concise. Good marks all around. (Also, Brackett’s a chick and worked on The Empire Strikes Back, which is like plus ten more points.)

Rating: 7/10

See also:
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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Sworn to Silence, by Linda Castillo (14 August)

All right, a thriller I mostly enjoyed! Hurrah! Well, except for the totally unnecessary (but happily brief) romance part. And the weird ending. But whatever.

The story: Kate Burkholder is the female, formerly Amish, rather young chief of police in Painters Mill, Ohio, the town she grew up in. Her world is doing okay until the night she gets a call about a dead girl in town — not just dead, but murdered, and not just murdered but murdered with the same MO of a serial killer that was active in the same town just sixteen years ago. Did you hear that toppling sound? Right. But the twist here (well, the beginning-of-the-book twist, anyway, totally not a spoiler) is that sixteen years ago, a fourteen-year-old Kate killed the Slaughterhouse Killer in self-defense and he’s been buried in a grain silo ever since. Kate has to tread lightly on this case (as she reminds the reader about a jillion times) because she doesn’t want any other cops digging into the past and figuring out what she did all those years ago.

Castillo does pretty well with this plot, except for the aforementioned bit where she likes to beat facts into the reader’s skull, and the other aforementioned bit wherein Kate has the sex with a cop brought in from Columbus who has even more problems that I don’t care about than Kate does. This is apparently the first in a series, and also Castillo apparently also writes romances, so I’m guessing there will be more of the unnecessary sex-having in the future. So I’m probably not going to read those. Oh well.

The other thing I didn’t like about the plot was that unlike a good mystery, wherein the killer is revealed at the end and you’re either like “I knew it!” or “Ohhhh, now I totally see it!”, this is done bad thriller-style and you’re like, “Oh, hello, person I would not have suspected until I read the last two pages, wherein it was proved conclusively that the killer is you.” So. You know.

Nonetheless, it was a fun and happy time (well, as happy as murders can be) after the tear-fest that was The Time Traveler’s Wife, so good on Castillo for that.

Rating: 7/10

See also:Back to Books

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (9 September − 13 September)

Read this book. Seriously.

The Sparrow mostly follows the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who, through coincidences (or God’s work?) ends up on a mission to a just-discovered planet near Alpha Centauri. The book follows two timelines, one starting when Sandoz returns to Earth, as the last surviving member of the crew, several years after some very embarrassing and horrifying information about Sandoz has made its own way back. He is to report on the mission to his superiors, but has to get over what happened to him before he can face the other priests.

The other timeline starts back at the beginning, with the events leading up to the discovery of the planet, then details the mission and what happens after the crew lands on Rakhat. This second timeline slowly fills in the large number of blanks left in the first, and helps make Sandoz’s alleged crimes understandable.

I don’t want to be too specific here, because a lot of what I loved about the book was the way Russell would bring in a fact without explanation, causing me to say, “What? When did that happen? Why?” and then a little while later the narrative would answer my question.

I loved this book a whole ridiculous bunch. It’s an interesting take on what would happen if we found life on another planet and went out to meet it, and if meeting that life would go just how we might expect it. I’m a big fan of the dual timeline, and Russell uses this to her great advantage.

The one thing I didn’t like terribly much is that the ending happens so fast − you spend a lot of time leisurely following the stories and then all of a sudden Russell is throwing in forced exposition in order to tie up the story. I would gladly have read another hundred pages (the book is about 400); the rushed ending was unnecessary and made the religious tie-ins at the end seem a bit trite.

Rating: 9.5/10