Dirty Job

“Don’t be ridiculous, Charlie, people love the parents who beat their kids in department stores. It’s the ones who just let their kids wreak havoc that everybody hates.” (Dirty Job by Christopher Moore)

I have a vague feeling that I used to read better books. Perhaps its nostalgia for simpler times, but I think not. I just seem to be choosing books that don’t work for me more frequently these days, and then obstinately sticking with them to the end (though I resolved to do the opposite less than a year ago). Here’s my theory: where I used to read exclusively in print, I now read almost all ebooks. The reasons are highly practical and all having to do with the demands of motherhood, but I have come to believe that the process for selecting a book online is just inferior to browsing for a book on a shelf.

When browsing books in a library or at a bookstore, you’re confronted with all the possibilities at once. You can only narrow your search to a specific letter of the alphabet, so the selection process happens with a certain amount of serendipity. You walk down the shelves and a cover attracts you, or you recognize an author’s name someone recommended long ago. You see authors from all genres shoved together unceremoniously, so you’re forced to intuitively make a selection rather than choosing by a preconception about your preferences. When searching, however, you limit your choice with parameters before you even have a chance to think or get inspired. You may find e-books that coincide with your stated preferences, but you’ll get fewer books that surprise you – which leads to less enjoyable reading.

Dirty Job emphasizes atmosphere over every other quality; It feels more like a bunch of bizarre coincidences and one-liners stitched together by a thin over-arching plot than a cohesive novel. Though I input ‘comedy’ as my search criterion to arrive at this selection, I apparently failed to tell google that I mostly find humor in 1920’s British novels, not supernatural thrillers. I laughed only once throughout the entire book. Next time, I’ll be more careful with how I phrase my search. Or better yet, I’ll find a way to toddler-proof my library books so I can read them safely throughout the day.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 405
Ending: Main character dies
Further Reading: The atmosphere of this reminded me of No Bad Deed or the Dresden Files.

Powder Mage Trilogy

“I would die for my country. But I’d rather kill for it. Ready your troops. We march!” (Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan)

The Autumn Republic CoverMy methods for finding books have degraded from carefully browsing bookshelves to hasty google searches. After The Autumn Republic popped up as a good fantasy series, I checked it out on Overdrive and started it without a second thought. I described the book to people as ‘dropping you right in the middle of things’, which impressed me because most fantasy authors are known for agonizingly slow world building. Yet, after McClellan summarized an absurdly complicated backstory in a half-paragraph, I checked the cover again and read the fine print (it was fine print, at least, on my phone): book three of the powder mage trilogy. I had read half of the book without even noticing that it was the finale of a trilogy.

Although this mistake doubtless says a lot about my state of mind lately, it also is indicative of the whole series’ strengths and weaknesses. The trilogy features phenomenal fight and war scenes that one can picture in matrix-like slow-motion detail and that push the reader quickly through the story line, but its recapping is so redundant that you could literally pick up the book anywhere and not be lost. McClellan also succeeds marvelously in building an original magical system, but he then feels the need to remind you of how it works in every scene. I tend to prefer fantasy that respects my ability to remember its rules and plots over the course of a few pages.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 1,888
Ending: Abrupt, over-explained
Incidental Learning: In this new ‘flintlock’ fantasy genre, you learn more about industrial-revolution type inventions
Further Reading: If you like the war aspect, I’d go for Blood Song next. If you like the flintlock aspect, try Mistborn

Memory Man

“Her face held the wonderful enthusiasm of youth as yet unblemished by life. That age was a nice time in anyone’s life. And it was necessary. To get through what was coming in later years. If we all started out cynical, what a shitty world that would be.” (Memory Man by David Baldacci)

memory-manEvery now and then, life calls for a bestseller. It may happen when you’re particularly busy or stressed out, or on the contrary, when you’re bored and need to fill a spare group of hours. Perhaps it’s not every now and then, perhaps your life is always a life that calls for a best seller, and that’s OK too. Best sellers aim to please, they’re not demanding, they don’t require you to dress up in your intellectual best, but merely to come as you are, hot mess and all.

Of all the reading lists I keep stored in the back of my mind, on post it notes, and in various digital files, one of them is made up of bestselling authors. I’d like to read a Roberts, a Baldacci, a Grisham and a Patterson as if they were each their own particular genres. Yet, like many projects, this is not one I have tackled head-on. Instead, I read them here and there. Of Baldacci, I can now say: exceptional pacing; unexceptional plotting. While Baldacci paced the book so fast that I almost didn’t have time to notice, some rather large plot holes (especially in the second book) were unmissable at any speed and, in the end, took away from my overall enjoyment of the series.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: Memory Man: 509 pgs; The Last Mile: 560 pgs
Ending: too sentimental for a man who supposedly has no sentiment
Further Reading: Bestsellers tend to have these same strengths and weaknesses: they move you along, but don’t always make perfect sense. If you liked this one, you’ll have a lot to choose from.

East of Eden

“The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it – how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have.” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all”(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

I believe in a clean first read. I believe that each book should stand on its own, and that secondary criticism and biographical information can come later, after your personal impression has been formed free and clear. However, I had to break my own rule with East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to find out where it fell in Steinbeck’s bibliography. I was certain it had to be a more amateur work than The Grapes of Wrath – it’s meandering, unevenly paced, occasionally obvious, and a whole main character feels flat – but I was entirely wrong. Not only was it a later work, but Wikipedia claims Steinbeck believed it was his best work. Factual bibliography notwithstanding, Grapes constantly won my mind’s Grapes V. East of Eden battle; the former always seeming a more mature, experienced work even though technically written 13 years earlier.

For those who haven’t read it, East of Eden is partially a biography of Steinbeck’s own extended family (he himself is a character as a child) and partially an account of a fictional family. The real family is abbreviated and summarized, packed up nice and tidy, while the fictional family wallows in intricate details that never quite serve to give the sheen of realism Steinbeck seems to be striving for. Yet, even for its flaws, it’s still Steinbeck. It’s still brilliantly written (I attempted to shove no fewer than 25 quotes into this post), still vacillates between the intimate family story and the greater American story, still contains unimpeachable insights into the human soul. Still entirely worth starting and impossible not to finish. And yet, the images that linger in your mind after the book has been shut and returned to the shelf are not as pristine as Grapes, they are marred by the book’s flaws and, perhaps, a slight hint of trying too hard.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 691
Ending: Attempts to pull some themes together. Felt far too moral and symbolic to be satisfying to me. Anyone else get that feeling?
Incidental Learning: history of Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s extended family
Further Reading: Grapes of Wrath 

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

“New readers, as they say, start here; the old lags familiar with the Wooster family setup might like to practice a scale or two on the piano while I bring the tyros up to the mark on…” (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks)

“This book is intended as a tribute – from me and on behalf of any other show don’t think it falls too lamentably short of the mark – to P.G. Wodehouse: a thank-you for all the pleasure his work has given. I have been reading him with joy and admiration for over half a century.” (Author’s Note by Sebastian Faulks)

I’ve checked out Jeeves and the Wedding Bells from the library on four separate occasions, always finding a reason to return it unread. I felt both that reading a Jeeves and Wooster not penned by Wodehouse would be bit of a betrayal, and also that a new one could never help living up to the original, so why bother? And yet, every so often I would hear a positive review and my curiosity would lead me to the library once more. In the end, the author’s note won me over. In it, Faulks admits that he’s merely writing fan fiction, and dares to hope merely that his work will bring a new readership to the old books. How could one take issue with such a timid, polite ambition?

After reading it, one cannot help but feel that Faulks’ assessment of his work was spot on. He doesn’t imitate Wodehouse perfectly – there are too many heavy handed historical references and muddled plot lines for that – but he does succeed in the summoning the essential Wooster reading experience of delight and lightheartedness. He also gives lifelong fans the happy ending denied them in the original series: a conclusion to Bertie’s seemingly life-long bachelorhood.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Happy!
Incidental Learning: way more about cricket than you ever cared to know
Further Reading: THE REST OF JEEVES AND WOOSTER. It’s in caps because I’m yelling it. If you haven’t read them, now’s the time.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)

CoverThere are few things I love more than a well-executed understated plot. So many books revolve around a marriage plot, a world-saving plot, or a grand mystery unraveled that one gets sick of all the escapades. How many events that dramatic happen in one’s own life? Eventually it becomes impossible to relate to them except as a method of escapism. In this book, no one changes except perhaps the secondary characters, and nothing happens that is more exciting than a train ride to London.

In spite of the circumspect plot-line, Haddon uses his first-person narrator – an autistic teen – as a springboard to discuss subjects as far ranging as advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics in language so straight-forward and clear that it becomes poetry. You come away from the book both with the intimate comfort of insignificant things and the mind-expanding thrill of learning something new. A lovely combination, and an exceptional read.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 226
Ending: So hopeful and brave that you have to shed a tear, even though there’s not one particle of sentimentality in the whole book
Incidental Learning: Classic mathematical problems, facts about space, Sherlock Holmes references, etc, etc, etc
Further Reading: I’d suggest moving on to more adult/children’s books, like Neil Gaiman, perhaps.

Booklion Birthday Awards: Year 7

Time amasses. We make choices about what to do when we’re young, and if they stick, all of a sudden we’ve been doing them for 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 of our lives. Seven years ago, I started writing about the books I read. I remember thinking ‘it’d be neat if I could keep this up for a year or two’ – I envied blogs that had been around that long; that had the authority of time behind them. I never thought that blogging would become a habit so deeply ingrained that nothing, not having a kid, not moving three times in a year, not going to school or working full-time would shake.

I don’t even like the word ‘blog’; it feels old, diary-esque, has-been. It reminds me of myspace and Livejournal and did you know that Dr. Seuss draws a undulating monster called a Blogg in the shape of me and other stuff? Blog sounds a fitting name for a funny-looking thing. Yet, here I am, loving this blog, loving the work that has gone into it, planning on going for another seven years, then another seven after that. Perhaps the medium will change, I might migrate to another format in 2030 (hopefully one with a more elegant name), but I will still be reading, and still be writing about what I’ve read: of that, I am certain.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 7 Book Lion awards:

Best Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Most Bookmarked: Big Magic

Weirdest: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Funniest: The Sellout

Most Anticipated: Harry Potter 8