Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Hello my lovelies! It’s been such a long time!

I would apologize for being an absentee book friend for…well, forever, but we both know I don’t actually feel bad about it, and I respect you too darn much to lie to you, ya piles of Goddamn excellent.

However! I have missed y’all, and this, quite a bit, and it does feel good to get back into the saddle. It’s just unfortunate that this had to be the book to get me there.

I hate to rate this book so low, because generally I like Margaret Atwood a lot. She’s a really gifted and beautiful writer. The Blind Assassin was one of the first big literary novels I ever read, part of my transition away from only ever reading Fantasy, with a light smattering of Scifi (which are still, admittedly, my favourite and most frequently visited genres), and I loooooooved it. That, and the general hype around this story, actually had me pretty excited to dig into another hefty, thick Atwood book. I was prepared, I was willing, I was able.
But HOLY MOTHER OF GOD WAS THIS BOOK BORING.
I mean…yeeeeeeesh. Who would’ve thought that a story about a possibly insane “murderess” in pre-american civil war era Canada could be suuuucccchhhh a slog. I’m all about slow burns, in fact I love it when stories take their time, and I’ve happily read books that really didn’t do much other than give a little insight into a particular time or way of life, but there was something about this book I just kept knocking my head against. I actively avoided having reading time in order to not have to pick this up again, that’s how much I didn’t want to read it.
Listen, sentence by sentence this book is as well written as anything she’s ever done, but stitched together…I dunno. There’s a lot of y’all out there who like it, it’s got a great Goodreads score and lots of praise in the reviews section, so maybe it’s just me, but…I dunno. Maybe just this once I think it might actually be you, overly long book full of miserable and unlikeable people, and not me.
Aaaaaanywho, I guess I would recommend this book for people who like plain toast, dull grey skies, and reading the instruction manuals for remote controls cover to cover.


VBR

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Yeeeeeeeeeeeesh, what a book.

I don’t know why it took me this long to get to this. It was the buzz book a few years back, and I’ve been hearing about it periodically ever since (the peeps over at Bookriot are constantly singing it’s praises, even now). There’s even regular copies of it at the used bookstores I go to (Pulp Fiction in Vancouver! Go there!). I think I was just under the (completely and entirely wrong) impression that this was a soppily dramatic YA novel, a la John Green, about a murdered girl and all her angst. This isn’t the first time that that’s happened, I made a snap judgement about a book and was way off base, but I think this may be the most wrong I’ve ever been.

I can’t believe this is Celeste Ng’s debut novel. There are writers out there (lots of them), good, competent writers, who have whole careers where they never produce something this insightful, this subtle, this good. It’s so beautifully written and she manages to fit so much stuff in such a small package. At it’s most basic this is the story about a girl’s death, how and why it happened, and what happens after. But it’s also about love and want and loss. About racism and family and the weight of expectations. And above all that, or maybe beneath it, it’s about miscommunication. How hard and complicated it is to be human, how complex our feelings are, how impossible it can be to convey what we really mean. So often we miss the point of another person’s actions or words or gestures because we’re too busy seeing it through the filter of our own flaws and insecurities. We see jabs aimed at our most vulnerable points because that’s what we’re afraid people we love are going to do, or we end up striking other people in their’s because we’re too busy licking our own wounds to notice the damage we’re doing.

This book may not have been the overly dramatic teen soap that I was expecting it to be, but it was an emotional, difficult read. There’s a lot of ugliness and at times the book can be pretty bleak and heartbreaking, but it’s not all tears and misery. There’s genuine love and affection, hope and good people doing good things, insight into the human condition. Basically gals what I’m saying is hold on to your butts, because it’s a bit of a ride.

Recommended for people who like crying, and being sad, and learning stuff about what it is to be human, even if it isn’t always the easiest stuff to admit to or see.

Buy it, ya chumps!

VBR

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Ugh, you gals, this book broke my heart.

I had a whole stack of books to write about saved up on here. December was a great reading month for me (I treated myself to my very first N.K. Jemisin experience, and it was everything everyone said it would be), and the first two books of the year were nothing to shake a stick at. But as soon as I opened Call Me By Your Name, as soon as I read the first page, I knew that I wasn’t going to write anything else until I’d talked about it.

I haven’t been this moved by a love story since A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which I read early last year and which remained one of my favourite reads of 2017. Granted, I’m a sucker for a gay love story. I’ve spent so much of my life starved for them that, even if it’s mediocre, I’m still going to devour it (likely over and over again). If it’s bad, I’ll probably still like it. If it’s good, I’ll love it. If it’s as touching and insightful and beautiful as this? Well, I’ll probably cry while finishing it on a train full of strangers and feel like a total weirdo after.

I just…it’s been a long time since I’ve felt so connected to a main character. Elio felt like me (minus the super rich, European genius thing, obviously) as a conflicted gay teenager. There were so many parts that were just so spot on. The way he moved around men that he wanted, the way that he thought about them. The way he lay awake at night seesawing between hoping that they would come to him and praying that they wouldn’t. The way he knew that his parents would accept him no matter what, but that he feared telling them or talking to them about it anyways. He dreaded that moment of hesitation from his father, that slight twitch of the face, even if he knew that what was coming afterwards was love and acceptance. There was a portion of the book where Elio is thinking about Oliver and his broad shoulders and how nice they are, when he starts to wish he had shoulders like that, and it makes him think, Do I desire to touch them, or to have them as my own? Am I admiring them just because they’re admirable, or because I want to nestle inside them, hold them, have them hold me? Is there a difference? I read that and felt like Aciman had cracked open my skull and scooped out a memory from my youth. It was the lie I told myself for years as a teenager in order to avoid confronting my gayness. I don’t want them, I want to be them. That’s the reason I had all those GQ magazines under my bed. That’s the reason my eyes always lingered where they did.

It’s a beautiful love story, but at it’s heart, for me, it’s a story about confronting oneself, of finding oneself within another, and of finding acceptance in that other person. Elio knows what he is, he spends almost none of the book trying to deny it (he’s so immediately smitten with Oliver that there’s little chance of that), but he still wrestles with it. The scene after the first time they make love, where Elio feels shame and self-disgust and doesn’t want to be around Oliver at all, I know that feeling. I remember it. Even when intellectually I’d decided that I was going to act on my feelings, that there was nothing wrong with them, there was still all this pent up, festering homophobia that I’d swallowed from my culture and environment. That was the hardest hurdle to get over, and I’ve never seen that reflected so accurately on the page before. It broke my heart to experience another person going through something like that, but it gave me comfort too. I said this about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad a few weeks ago and if anything it’s even more true about this: reading this book made me feel less alone about my experience of life. Not to get too cheesy on you, but that’s a rare and precious thing.

So all that is to say, this book gave me feelings. Like, a bunch of them. Probably all of them. I loved it, I still love it, and I’m probably going to reread it in like a month. So…I dunno, get on it!

Recommended for people who aren’t idiots, who have good taste in things, and who don’t want me to judge them for not having read it (because I will, and already am).

VBR

 

Ps. As a side note, this book was such an emotional experience for me that I didn’t really get into any of the technical aspects of it in the review. Suffice it to say, Aciman knows what he’s doing. The book is not only beautiful, but beautifully written.

 

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy By Douglas Adams

I liked this!

This is gonna be an itty bitty one because I’m not really sure what to say about this other than that. Everybody and their mom looooooves these books. There’s so much universal love and acclaim for them that when I finished this one and just liked it, I felt a little…weird about it. I felt like I’d missed something. Was it because I’ve read all the other books that have been inspired by this, the ones that have turned original thought and humour into tropes? Was it because absurdist, madcap humour and scifi don’t really mix that well with me? Or maybe it’s just one of those things, where something that works for almost everybody in the known universe just didn’t quite hit it for me.
Who knows?

Either way, I did still enjoy myself. There’s humour here, and originality, and fun. I definitely didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time or anything, it’s just not something that’s going to leave a big impression on me or my reading life.

Recommended for those who are looking for something light and easy, something to make them laugh, and anybody that’s in the mood for a spot of fun.

VBR

Manhattan Beach (And Also, Sort of, Mostly, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan can do no wrong for me.

I read A Visit From the Goon Squad when it first came out and absolutely loved it. As well as just being an outstandingly written and engaging book, it struck a really specific chord with me. I was in a weird, complicated place in my life at the time. I had already come out of the closet, but was still wrestling with the idea of being gay, the fact of it. I’d admitted it to myself, I’d let people know about it (I’d sort of gotten to the point where hiding it was not an option anymore), but I was having a hard time acting on it. I didn’t know what to do or how to be and I was still struggling with a little internalized homophobia. I wanted to sleep with men, but I didn’t want to be the type of man that slept with men (which, trust me, I know how fucked up and wrong that is. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I had swallowed some of the mild, background homophobia of the environment that I grew up in, and even longer to purge that vile shit from my system).

So anyways, I was in this weird and vulnerable place, thinking that nobody in the world understands me or where I’m coming from, that yeah there are lots of gay people out there, even lots of gay people in conflict with themselves, but I’m some specific and unique type of person that, in the entire history of angsty as fuck semi-adults, has never ever existed before. And then I read this book, and there’s a character in it who’s struggling with himself a lot, uncomfortable and unhappy in his own skin, and it mostly has to do with the fact that he’s gay and not allowing himself to act on it. We weren’t exactly the same (he was some highschool football jock and I was suuuuuper not that), but I saw a lot of myself in that character, in the way he pulled against himself and tore himself up trying to avoid something that he, deep down, didn’t really want to avoid. It was a relatively small portion of the book, but Egan fucking nailed it. It’s such a specific feeling, being pulled, both against and not against your will, towards a version of yourself that you’re afraid of becoming, that you want to become, that you know you can’t avoid. I have such respect for her as a writer, for her insight, because of it. It gets the highest compliment that I can give a novel: I read this book and I felt less alone.

Now! Manhattan Beach didn’t have quite the impact on me that A Visit From the Goon Squad did (it’s hard to imagine how it could), but that has less to do with the writing and more to do with the subject, I think. She still has her sharp insight, her craftsmanship when it comes to specific and engaging characters, who not only seem like real people, but feel like them. And I did dig the setting and the subject a lot, women workers during the second World War, diving, gangsters, merchant seaman, the pressures and consequences of social expectation during that period of time. All those things are super awesome and interesting, and she tells them really well. I may not have connected with the characters in that same way I did in her previous novel, but that’s not really surprising. I’m not a gangster, I’m not a father who abandoned his family, and I’m definitely not a woman pushing against a society that is set up not to trust or respect me. The commonality that I had with these characters was more in a “we’re all human beings” sort of way, rather than anything specific. Still, Egan is a master of her craft and I got wrapped up in these people, absorbed by them. This isn’t a little book, somewhere around 450 pages, but I shot through it in two or three sittings and, even though I really liked the ending, was disappointed when it was done. I liked these people (most of them anyways), liked learning about and being around them. I was sad to see them go.

Anywho, all of this is to say that this wasn’t my favourite of Egan’s books, but I still loved the pants off it, and it was a damned sight better than I’d expect from most other authors.

Recommended for anybody who’s looking for historical fiction rooted deeply in the lives of the people of the period, those who want finely crafted character studies, and anybody with an interest in World War II era underwater welding, but that (like me) doesn’t really want to spend that much time on the war itself.

VBR

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

Hello my dears! How’s this rainy, cold, delightful, hopefully blanket-wrapped afternoon treating you (also, if you’re not wrapped up and/or snuggled with a pet on a day like today…what is your life like and why did you make it that way?).

David Grann just might be my favourite non-fiction author. I loooooved The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon sounds amazing (I’m waiting for it to get released in soft cover though, cause I don’t make that Hardcover money). He’s just got such a good ear for a compelling story. I think it has something to do with his obsession with obsessives (which I touched on a little, in my review for Z), his drive to figure out what drives other people to dive into a subject to the point where it consumes them, where it’s detrimental to their health and well-being. There’s just something about how wrapped up people get that I find really fascinating.

I was a little nervous about this one because it’s a different format, a collection of long pieces rather than a full, book-length story, which is a different beast. I was worried some of the stories would seem condensed, that there wouldn’t be enough space to get into the nitty gritty of a good tale of madness and obsession. But it’s where he started out, where he cut his writers teeth (that’s a weird saying, right?) and you can tell. He seems at home with the form, comfortable with it, and all the stories are just the right length for the medium. So comfortable, in fact, that even though I had intended to read this in piecemeal between other novels, as a sort of palette cleanser, I ended up just binging right through it.

Before I wrap this up I will say that normally with a collection of an author’s shorter works, there are a handful that I don’t connect with, and one or two that I skip altogether, but in this collection I read through and really enjoyed them all. The closest I came in this book was probably the story about the dude who’s hunting giant squids. It was still really interesting, but not quite as up my alley as the one about the man who collected Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries right up until the day that he ended up in one himself, or the Aryan Brotherhood’s stranglehold on American prisons, or a post-industrial ghost town in the States that’s mostly run by the mob.

Recommended for lovers of good, well-researched investigative journalism, people who are looking for a quality, diverse book binge, and anybody that digs a good story about people who tumble a little too far down the rabbit hole.

VBR

Comicbook Corner 2: Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe

I once had this comic described to me as “the d&d game you and your friends wish you were playing” and while I wouldn’t go that far (my d&d crew is both great and good), I will say it’s the d&d story I wish I was writing. It’s bawdy, it’s fun, it’s fast-paced. The art is gorgeous and imaginative. The stories are clever subversions of regular fantasy tropes, self-aware tales told by a guy who obviously loves the genre just as much as you do (maybe more), but isn’t blind to its quirks and flaws.

The thing that really puts this comic up there with the greats for me though, is the characters. At first they seem fairly simple, ladies built by layering a modern archetype over a traditional fantasy one: the sensible friend/good cleric, the stoner/goofy rogue, the dependable friend/stalwart fighter, and the bad one/reckless wizard. But as the stories progress and they move through their (increasingly banana-pants) world, these characters open up and expand in really interesting, thoughtful ways. On the surface they may be all brash and ballsy and easy to read, ladies looking for the next drink/fight/fuck, but beneath they’ve got rich interior lives and complicated motivations for their actions. None of them are exactly who you think they are.

If you’re squeamish when it comes to violence and sex and cursing, or you’re in the mood for something dark and serious, this probably isn’t the comic for you. If, on the other hand, you’re down for a fast-paced, filthy, funny, balls-to-the wall comic, with some surprisingly keen insights on human nature and relationships, I think this might just be the one for you.

Enjoy  ❤

VBR

Frantic Scramble to Catch Up

Hello my lovelies!

It’s been so long! How are all ya’ll doing? Anything new and exciting happening?

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything. I have been reading, just not a ton, and for a little while it was a lot of stuff that I either didn’t like or felt kinda meh about. I didn’t really have anything to say about any of them and I didn’t want to waste your time with a bunch of “this was pretty good I guess! You might have fun reading it maybe”. So instead of writing a bunch of middling posts I just decided to give it a rest for a week or so, and then a week or so become two weeks or so, and then that became a month. And here we are!

So there’s a bunch of stuff that I’ve read over the last week or two that I did actually like, and instead of writing one article for each of them I’m going to give you a quick run down of some of them. There’s one I LOVED, which I’m saving for an article for later (I’ll give you a hint, it’s a Historical Supernatural Mystery/Gay Romance novel and it’s also the best thing), but we’ll get to that when we get to it.

Okay! Here goes!

The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales

I haven’t read anything this fast and fun and fucked up since The Library at Mount Char.  But whereas the Library starts out weird and then amps up into actual insanity, this one kind of goes the other way around. It starts out at 11, a Torchwood/Buffy the Vampire Slayer hybrid on a bad meth high, with tons of big action and the big bad boss fight over and done with in the first chunk of the book. And then it shifts. The book doesn’t get less weird, there’s still semi-robot ladies/assassins/super-powered young girla/people who get magic powers from maybe a meteor or a radioactive accident, but it does slow down a bit, get a little more human. The end of this book is insightful and touching in a way I wasn’t expecting, and it changed the way I felt about all the bits that came before it. It’s like eating a bunch of rich, delicious chocolate cake, and then finding out that the whole thing was made from vegetables. It doesn’t change how much you enjoyed the cake part, but it does make you look back on it and go “huh”.

As a side note before I hop on to the next thing, this was the book that pulled me out of my slump. If you’re in that spot right now, it might pull you out of yours too.

 

The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

I’d heard a lot about this one before I picked it up. Tons of people were talking about how crazy and all over the place and fun it was, and since that had worked so well for me with the last book (and, if we’re being honest, always works so well for me. The weirder the better!) I thought I’d continue the streak. And they weren’t wrong about the banana-pants part of it. I don’t normally do lots of plot stuff, but let me set this up for you: (*takes deep breath*) This book is about a South African Demi-Goddess who works in a nail salon that decides to go back to her fear and pain eating ways, a girl from a small rural village who’s also a Demi-Goddess, a young gay couple with some father issues who discover they have psychic powers, a pre-transition politician/singer with the power to persuade people (and who’s mother also might be a tree?), and a famous singer who discovers she has a rather strong appetite for pain (but not in the same way as the evil demi-goddess from before. Hers is a good thing, and also it helps her sing?). While I  didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as The Regional Office (and I know, it’s not really fair to compare the two. They’re their own thing. But I read them back to back, so what can you do?) I still really liked it. I had fun with it, I loved the imagination of it, the setting, the world. I just thought it was a little more…haphazard in it’s frenzy. Like maybe it was trying to do one too many things. There were a few weird bits of side character storyline that easily could’ve been cut and wouldn’t have effected the story at all (the part where the politician murders one of their campaign managers and then he just comes back to life and they forget it ever happened. Or when the singer is kidnapped by her crazy father and then escapes with no consequences or impact on the story). Also, everybody who was singing the praises of this book was talking about how much they loved the main villain, Sydney, and I just thought…I dunno, she was okay. Maybe the people talking about how much they loved her raised my expectations to unfair levels, but really I didn’t find anything particularly memorable or fresh about her. She wasn’t a bad villain, I liked her well enough, she’s just not going to stick with me.

 

Head Lopper by Andrew Maclean

Yet another fast and fun fantasy book. This one is a graphic novel send-up (and also a bit of a love letter) to Beowulf, Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons and Dragons, and all the other campy major fantasy epics. This is going to be the shortest of these write-ups, because I don’t have a ton to say about this other than that I really liked it. It’s not deep, or introspective, or surprising. It doesn’t have much to say about the human condition or what it is that separates man from monster. It’s about a dude called the Head Lopper who chops off a bunch of heads. The art is great, the monsters are cool, the writing is fun, and the story goes just about exactly how you’d expect. If that sounds like your thing, you’re gonna have a blast.

 

Anywho, that’s not all the books that I’ve read over the last little while, but that’s a few of them. You’ll get a post with a couple more in a day or two. Hope ya’ll have been well.

VBR

American War by Omar El Akkad

Hello my lovelies!

I’ve been pretty busy over the last little bit, so this is going to be a quick one, but this book was too good for me to not write anything about it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I went through a bit of a thing with literary post-apocalyptic fiction (I’m just going to call post-apocalyptic PA from this point forward, because I think that might actually be the longest genre descriptor of them all) not too long ago. It seemed like something I should like, the world building of PA mixed with the language use and more nuanced, restrained look at humanity that usually comes along with a literary novel (I know, I know, that was really pretentious. I’m King Snoots of Doucheville and I’ll make no apologies for it!). But I had two in a row, Gold Fame Citrus and California, both of them critically acclaimed and well-beloved, that just didn’t do it for me. At the time I thought that maybe it was the literary aspect of it, the toning down of the intensity of some other PA fiction that I’ve read, that might be the problem. I like bonkers fiction, out there and unbelievable stuff set in a world that I myself couldn’t have come up with. Maybe these novels just lost something by trying too hard to remain grounded and realistic.

After reading American War though, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. It’s incredibly realistic, sometimes unsettingly so, with characters that feel like actual people, put into situations that you could easily see arising out of the current political climate. But here the realism doesn’t blunt the edges of the drama or tension, it enhances it. Because these situations and characters felt so legit (I have no idea what the refugee experience is like, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are people out in the world right now going through exactly the things that these people go through) I got really invested in them. I didn’t always like them, I rarely ever agreed with them, but I felt like I understood them. I sympathized with their points of view and genuinely cared about whether they lived or died.

Speaking of which! Sort of spoiler alert? I know I just told you that it’s really easy to get invested in these people, but…try your best not to, okay? Because no matter who you get behind in this book, they are probably not going to make it. I mean, the book opens by telling you that most of the population of the country was killed by a bloody war, followed by a terrible plague, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I figured I would warn you anyways. 

This book was soooooo brutal you gals. And super, duper fucking sad. And harsh. And bleak. It takes an honest and realistic view of war and what it costs, and it doesn’t stint on body count or emotional trauma. Everybody pays, again and again and again, often until they have nothing left. As rewarding as this book is, it can also be pretty hard to read at some points.

Hmmm…I feel like the last part of this review is coming across as me trying to convince you not to read this, but that wasn’t my intention. This book is good as hell and (if you’ve got the stomach for it) you should definitely check it out.

Recommended for people who’ve got thick skin when it comes to watching characters you like being tortured, physically and emotionally, pretty much to death, those of you who are into scarily realistic and dark visions of what could happen to the US over the next fifty years or so, and anybody that’s been having trouble with literary PA fiction up until this point and thought that maybe the problem was with them and not the books, but actually it’s not you at all. Because you’re great.

VBR

 

Ps. As a sidenote I know this novel doesn’t reaaaaally fit into PA. It’s sort of halfway in between Dystopian and PA, but I didn’t want to type out “sort of Dystopian, sort of PA literary fiction” that many times, so I didn’t.

 

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