Bragan's 2020 Reading, Pt. 4

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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Bragan's 2020 Reading, Pt. 4

lokakuu 3, 2020, 11:33am

Well, we've finally made it to the last quarter of 2020. Which means, that's right, a new thread for the remainder of the year's reading! I'm not going to recap the year so far, but you can find my posts for the previous quarters here, here, and here.

Right. Onward into October, and whatever the rest of the year brings. Starting with:

88. Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around by Cheryl Wagner

The author, a bit of an artsy hipster type, recounts her experiences attempting to rebuild her New Orleans house after the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Unsurprisingly, it's a pretty depressing story, full of loss, violence, and disillusionment, but also a love of the city and a drive to rebuild.

It's interesting to get a look at what life was like for affected people in New Orleans even after it stopped making the nightly news, and there are moments here that are genuinely touching. But I have to admit, I never found myself nearly as engrossed by this memoir as I had hoped to be. Part of that probably had to do with the writing style, which I found a little disjointed. But, to be honest, probably some of it is just that this wasn't the right book for me at the current moment. Any other time, I could maybe view Wagner's experiences with a certain kind of slightly detached sympathy, but in the constant cesspit of stress that is 2020, I think my brain just does not want to engage at all with the thought that my, or anyone's, home, livelihood, complacency, and life may only ever be one natural disaster away from destruction.

Rating: 3.5/5

lokakuu 4, 2020, 8:31pm

89. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 edited by N. K. Jemisin

This is the second of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy collections I've read -- the first being the 2015 edition, which was also the first of the series -- and based on these two samples, I'm damned impressed. Enough so that I went and ordered the ones I was missing before I even finished reading this volume.

Admittedly, some of the stories here worked better for me than others, but even the ones that didn't so much were still extremely interesting, and the best of them were very, very good. It does feel like there's a strong unifying sensibility here, with an emphasis on good, literary writing, social commentary (perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a lot of concern with issues of gender and sexuality, among other things), and originality. But at the same time, the stories draw from quite a lot of different places for their inspiration, including other genres and the religion and folklore of various cultures. Taken all together, they add up to a strange and satisfying reading experience.

Rating: 4.5/5

lokakuu 8, 2020, 4:15pm

90. Worlds Collide by Chris Colfer

So, I have finally finished the sixth and final book in Chris Colfer's Land of Stories series of kids' books. I'm a little sorry to see it go, as I ended up enjoying it much more than I thought I would at the very beginning. Although, that having been said, I didn't think this was one of the best books in the series. There's a little too much of characters explaining the story thus far too each other, and an ending that, after lots and lots of action, finally gets wrapped up in a manner that's just a little too quick and deus ex machina-y. Plus, as the title indicates, in this one the fairy tale and real worlds are coming together, and I'm afraid the plot silliness that works so well in Colfer's imagined fairy tale world is a bit harder to accept when he's writing something a little closer to home.

But, honestly, that's probably far too much dwelling on the negative! Because even if this wasn't quite as enjoyable as the previous couple of volumes, it was still entertaining and had a fair number of moments that made me laugh out loud. It also briefly revisits one storyline from earlier in a way that I wasn't expecting, but which I quite liked, and has some decent and good-hearted themes.

So, even if maybe it could have ended a little stronger than it did, I still do recommend the series for kids, and for adults who occasionally like to pretend to be kids again.

Rating: I'm going to stingily give this volume a 3.5/5, but the series as a whole is still a solid 4/5.

lokakuu 12, 2020, 2:23am

91. Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions by Nancy Atkinson

First off, if you're looking for a general history of the Apollo program, complete with details of all the missions and descriptions of what it's like to walk on the moon, this isn't the book you want. (I always recommend Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon for that.) But if, like me, you already have a shelf of books on the subject, this makes a nice addition. It focuses primarily on some of the more technical and the "behind-the-scenes" stuff that had to happen in order to get the first human beings to the moon, including things like the design of the test facilities and the development of the communications systems. It also features reminiscences from some less commonly heard-from people who worked on the project, and lots of photos.

It is a bit dry in places, especially in the earlier chapters, but overall I did find it interesting, and while there is much in here that was fairly familiar to me after having read through that shelf full of books on the subject, there was a surprising amount that was new, as well.

Rating: 4/5

lokakuu 14, 2020, 11:05am

92. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian is living in her unpleasant mother's attic working dead-end jobs at grocery stores when she gets a call from her best friend from high school, a woman with whom she has a very complicated history. Madison is now married to a senator and lives in a big, fancy mansion, and she has a job offer for Lillian: looking after her husband's two kids from his previous marriage. The kids, it turns out, are a bit of a handful, kind of wild and weird. But that's okay, maybe, because so is Lillian. Oh, and also, when they get emotional, they tend to catch on fire.

I'm a little amazed by how well this works. It's zippy and readable, with situations and characters that feel wonderfully, realistically messy and some entertaining, slightly dark humor. And the catching-on-fire thing, somehow, feels like the most natural and easy-to-accept thing in the world. Yeah, sure, the kids catch on fire sometimes. Of course they do. Hell, my suspension of disbelief was a lot more tested by the presence of a character named Madison who would have been born in the 1960s -- the story is set in 1995 -- when that basically didn't exist as a girls' name until 1984. Everything else, I was completely on board for.

Rating: 4/5

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 18, 2020, 11:42am

93. Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Book sixteen in the story of Harry Dresden, wizard (although by this point in the series, he's a lot more than just a wizard). As the title suggests, this one features a set of peace talks between the world's various supernatural factions, but, of course, nothing can ever stay peaceful around Harry for long.

And this one was... okay.* At the very least, there's a really interesting confrontation between Harry and his grandfather. But mostly, it feels like this whole volume is just a lot of setup for the next one. And even the big event that happens towards the end, which will undoubtedly be resolved in the next installment, feels less like it comes organically out of all that setup, and more like a big, weird curve ball from out of nowhere. So not exactly satisfying on any level, really, but then since it's clearly only half of the story, it's probably not fair to judge it yet. I do now see, though, why this volume and the next one were published so close together this year, after a long hiatus between novels.

* Except for a bit in the very first chapter that I found really off-putting. Dear Mr. Butcher: The sane, humane response when a character reveals that his girlfriend is pregnant but the pregnancy has a distressingly high chance of killing her is not a conversation that boils down to, "Don't worry, you'll make a great dad!" Seriously, what the hell, man?

Rating: 3.5/5

lokakuu 19, 2020, 11:33am

>6 bragan: My bookseller said he heard that Peace Talks and Battle Ground were originally one novel but was too long and so it were split. Might explain the ending.

lokakuu 19, 2020, 1:24pm

>7 rhian_of_oz: Yeah, I heard that, too. After I finished reading Peace Talks. Kind of wish I'd known beforehand, really. Although personally I think I would have prefered if they'd kept them as one long novel. Peace Talks really was no kind of satisfying on its own, and shouldn't have been expected to be.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 20, 2020, 10:04pm

94. The Reign of Wolf 21: The Saga of Yellowstone's Legendary Druid Pack by Rick McIntryre

The author has spent decades observing wolves, including twenty-five years studying them in Yellowstone National Park. And, it turns out, he has a whole ongoing series describing his observations of the Yellowstone wolves, of which this is the third book. I kind of wish I'd known that going in. This one is perfectly approachable on its own, but it might have been nice to start the saga of these wolves at the beginning, and I'd have been interested to know if McIntyre had any general introductory information about wolf behavior he might have wanted us to know at the start.

In any case, this one describes a period of several years during which the Druid Peak wolf pack was lead by a particularly impressive alpha wolf, the strong but good-natured Wolf 21, and his mate, Wolf 42. Mostly, the book reads as if McIntyre has basically transcribed his field notes: Wolf X approached Wolf Y and did behavior Z, that sort of thing. But he intersperses this with some of his own thoughts and interpretations, involving the wolves' personalities and motivations and his feelings about them. There's a time or two when I think he's in danger of anthropomorphizing them a bit much, but there's no question he has a strong understanding of these wolves.

The bare-bones field notes style, while it works better than I might have expected it to, does get a little bit tiresome to read after a while, something that's really not helped by the fact that all the wolves have numerical designations (or sometimes shorthand physical descriptions) rather than names, which makes it a bit hard, sometimes, to keep track of who's who. But the animals themselves are really fascinating, and I did appreciate this as a look into day-to-day wolf existence, which includes a lot of hunting, yes, and some struggles for dominance and territory, but also an awful lot of playing happily with puppies. And there are moments that are genuinely touching, especially McIntyre's description, at the end, of the old wolf's death. I mean, that actually did choke me up a bit, if only because McIntyre himself was clearly so moved by it.

I'm not sure, honestly, whether I have any great desire to read the other books in the series, but I'm glad enough to have read this one. Although I think I would have been gladder if it had also included some pictures. I kept wishing I could see these wolves, as I read.

Rating: 3.5/5

(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)

lokakuu 21, 2020, 1:42pm

Hi. Just finished a long catch with your thread, long enough to where I can just now tell you that I really do hope William B. Irvine reads your review, or at least the last paragraph of your review of A Slap in the Face. Anyway, enjoyed your thread as always. And I do hope that when we solve the car problem, we don't overlook the middle of nowhere New Mexico.

>9 bragan: several years ago there was a pack of wolves that crossed the park lines into private property. They were immediately shot as the crossing was foreseen and planned for and the private property owners were of some kind of insane evil sort. Anyway, the loss of the wolves also set back also to the wolf research. Wondering if Mcintyre touches on that.

lokakuu 21, 2020, 6:19pm

>10 dchaikin: Ha! Thank you. We can hope that Irvine someday has the pleasure of reading my well-aimed insults. I am sure they will be as character-building as he insists they should be. :)

McIntyre doesn't talk about that particular incident in the wolf book, but the events he's covering there are from the early 2000s, so it was probably outside the scope. He does, if I recall correctly, mention people having been known to shoot wolves, and he clearly regards it as a major duty of his to educate people about wolves and how they don't deserve the evil reputation they have in some circles, no doubt in part in hopes of preventing that sort of thing.

He does also cover an instance or two of wolves ranging outside the park. There is a particularly interesting story that involved one wolf that went wandering and was found caught in a coyote trap a couple of hundred miles away in Utah! Although the person who found him, being much less evil, called the appropriate people, who rescued him, gave him medical treatment, and returned him to Yellowstone, where he eventually found and rejoined the pack.

lokakuu 21, 2020, 7:17pm

The comments on Irvine just make me smile. That’s pretty fascinating about the lone wolf. (Has me thinking of Ducks, Newburyport)

lokakuu 25, 2020, 9:43pm

Time for a bit of Halloweeny reading.

95. Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

This collection of stories (including one longish novella, "The Mist") was first published in 1986, although some of the individual stories are significantly older.

As with most story collections, the quality here is a little variable, but I think the least interesting or well-written ones are mostly also the shortest ones, so that works out well enough. And overall, it's a pretty solid collection. I'm not sure if any of the pieces quite rise to the extreme heights of creepiness or sensitive storytelling that King is capable of at his very best, but some of them might come close, and most of them are at the very least engaging and do basically what you want a Stephen King story to do for you. And I'm actually pretty impressed by the way in which he repeatedly takes basic ideas that were hardly fresh and new in 1986 -- people trapped somewhere isolated by monsters, a creepy doll that reappears when you try to get rid of it, a murderous companion who turns out to be all in the main character's head -- and somehow makes you forget for the course of the story just how cliche they might be.

Although I do have to say, while these tales in some respects don't feel particularly dated at all, in others they feel like dispatches from a strange and uncomfortable past world, a world in which things like drunk driving, domestic abuse, and casual racism were much more easily accepted, or at least tolerated and ignored. And so was the practice of writing female characters who are nothing more than ugly or annoying stereotypes cut from the flimsiest variety of cardboard. Alas.

And "The Mist," I'd say, has aged weirdly in an entirely different way as well. In King's notes, he describes that story as having a deliberate sort of cheesiness to it, and imagines the reader watching it in black-and-white at a drive-in theater. But I think reading it through two layers of nostalgic remove -- 50s B-movies filtered through 80s Stephen King as viewed from the perspective of 2020 -- makes it feel stranger, cheesier, and more off-kilter than it was probably meant to. That being said, though, it's still one of those stories that does a surprisingly good job with an old-fashioned trapped-by-monsters plot. It also gave me a mildly unpleasant dream a couple of days after I read it, and it's a very rare horror story, indeed, that I can say that about.

Rating: Despite its flaws, I'm going to give this a 4/5, if only in honor of the fact that it did kinda-sorta manage to give me a nightmare. I mean, that's got to deserve some kind of recognition.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 25, 2020, 10:26pm

96. Never Flirt with Puppy Killers and Other Better Book Titles by Dan Wilbur

A small collection consisting of images of book covers where the books have all been given irreverent alternate titles that are humorously descriptive of their contents. "Never Flirt with Puppy Killers" is, of course, Of Mice and Men. Other titles include things like "One of My Best Friends Is Black" (Huckleberry Finn), "Skipping Dinner Is Like Dropping Acid" (Where the Wild Things Are), and "All Right! Fine, Asshole! I Didn't Use the Word 'Quixotic' Right!" (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Really, there's not much to it, but it's good for a brief laugh, at least for anyone well-read enough to get most of the jokes.

Rating: 4/5, just because it made me chuckle enough times.

lokakuu 28, 2020, 10:32pm

97. Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

This novel is set immediately after the famous confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, and features two men in pursuit of an American criminal who may be poised to take over Moriarty's crime operation in his absence.

I really enjoyed Horowitz's previous Holmes novel, The House of Silk, but found this one kind of lackluster in comparison. The plot is okay, and does feature an element or two that feel as if they would have been right at home in one of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, but it never engaged me nearly as much as House of Silk did, and in the end the whole thing hinges on a twist of the plot that was in theory pretty clever, but just didn't 100% work for me. Also, it turns out that watching a minor character from the original canon running around trying to play Holmes isn't anywhere near as interesting as actually watching Holmes himself.

Rating: 3.5/5

lokakuu 29, 2020, 7:59am

98. The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

This is a biography, in graphic novel format, of Rod Serling, from his traumatic experiences in WWII, through his television career and struggles for creative control over his material, to the stressful price of his success. It's all told by means of a framing story in which Serling is sharing a long plane flight with a stranger and telling her his life story... but, of course, there's a twist at the end. It's a conceit that works well enough, as does the black-and-white artwork that captures a distinctly Twilight Zone-y sort of feel. I don't know that it goes quite as deep into Serling's creative imagination as I personally would be happy to go, but it's a nice biographical overview that gives you a good feel for the man, and I'd recommend it for fans of his work.

Rating: 4/5

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 10, 2020, 7:55pm

99. Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

This is the continuation of the story that began with Butcher's previous Harry Dresden novel, Peace Talks. I've heard that the author originally wanted them to be released as one volume, and I have to say, I think that would have been a good idea, even if it would have resulted in a much longer-than-usual installment of the series. Neither book stands on its own, and releasing it separately really didn't do Peace Talks any favors, as the whole thing just felt like a lot of not terribly interesting setup followed by an out-of-nowhere cliffhanger.

Whereas this half of the story was a lot more interesting. It's mostly one big, long battle between powerful supernatural forces, and it's genuinely kind of epic. I often get bored of fight scenes, or find them hard to follow, but I stayed engaged and interested all the way through, even when it was mostly just one fight scene after another. The well-timed touches of Harry Dresden's usual smartass humor helped with that, too.

Mind you, it wasn't flawless. There's a plot development or two here I'm not super thrilled about, just on general principle. And emphasizing how the events happening here are going to make it harder for the world to ignore the supernatural only serves to remind me how hard I find it to swallow the "people ignore the supernatural stuff all around them because they don't want to believe in it" trope at the best of times.

Overall, though, it was enjoyable, and I remain interested in finding out where things might go next.

Rating: 4/5

marraskuu 2, 2020, 11:42pm

100. Star Trek: 50 Artists 50 Years

This volume was published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in 2016, and, as the title suggests, it features Trek-themed art work, in a variety of different styles and media, by fifty different artists. It also includes very short interviews with each of the authors, in which they were asked about the creation of their pieces and their relationship with Star Trek. Honestly, I didn't find most of the interviews all that interesting (although a few of them were fun), but the art itself was delightful. There's lots of big, bold creative stuff here, much of it with wonderful touches of whimsy, and the oversized format of the book shows them off to excellent effect.

I think characters from pretty much every Trek series get a look-in here, but the focus is mostly on the original series, and, to a lesser extent, the Next Generation. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of Spock, in particular. Because who doesn't love Spock? And many of the artists mention having heard the news of Leonard Nimoy's death while in the process of working on their pieces, so in addition to a celebration of Star Trek as a whole, there's also a feeling that much of the book stands in tribute to him, as well.

Some artists here have chosen to depict as many characters, major and minor, as they can possibly squeeze in -- and I have to say, I could happily stare at those all day, taking in all of the little details -- or to capture the feeling of the series as a whole in some fashion or other. Others have chose to focus on particular characters, episodes, scenes, or moments. (Kirk fighting the Gorn, it turns out, is a very popular subject.) But they're all tons of fun, and the collection as a whole is very, very cool. Definitely recommended for anyone who is or has been a fan of classic Star Trek.

Rating: 4.5/5

marraskuu 3, 2020, 6:14am

>14 bragan: Clever stuff, and amusing, it seems. Tempting if for no other reason than those chuckles...

marraskuu 3, 2020, 11:56am

>19 avaland: You can also see some of them here.

marraskuu 10, 2020, 7:45pm

101. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell's latest novel tells the story of an English folk/blues/psychedelic rock band from the 1960s, and gives us glimpses into the lives and minds of each its five motley bandmates (and, to a lesser extent, their manager).

It's impossible, I'm afraid, to resist the urge to compare this with Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & the Six, which I read just a couple of months ago, although I don't know how fair that is to either book. They have a lot of similarities, as they both follow a band from its formation through its rise to stardom, and both do some interesting things with structure (an "oral history" format in Daisy Jones' case, and a non-linear narrative for each chapter in the case of Utopia Avenue). But Daisy Jones, I'd say, is a zippier and more emotionally satisfying read, whereas Utopia Avenue is more complex and contemplative, with more flashes of literary brilliance (and, sorry Ms. Reid, better song lyrics). But it's also a lot more flawed, in ways I find all the more frustrating because it was also so good in so many ways.

My biggest problem with it is in the part of the story that focuses on bassist Jasper de Zoet, which probably forms the closest thing to a plot the novel has. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jasper seems to have some kind of ghost buried in his mind trying to possess him, and the truly weird supernatural shenanigans surrounding said ghost just feel deeply, deeply out of place in this otherwise realistic novel. I like supernatural shenanigans a lot, in the right context, but this was absolutely not it. And while you can maybe try to chalk Jasper's hauntings up to psychosis instead of treating them as real, that fails to work, either, for a whole host of reasons. It also doesn't help that Jasper's story is clearly meant to tie in with a couple of Mitchell's other novels, which I have not yet read. (I have them on my ridiculously overfull TBR shelves, but I felt I ought to read this one first, since I got a free review copy and needed to, well, review it. Silly me, I didn't thank that would be a problem!) But while I probably would have gotten a bit more out of those story elements if I had read the earlier books, I very much doubt it would have helped all that much. And it's a bit sad, really, because Jasper is a good character and I can't help feeling he deserved a story I could actually believe in.

I also had problems with the ending, which I felt was abrupt, contrived, and unsatisfying, as well as some lesser issues, such as the way many of the celebrity cameos felt a little too awkwardly wink-wink to me.

And yet, despite all that, I can't help feeling this was a good book. It engaged me. I liked the characters, and found their world and their lives and their personalities interesting and worth spending time with. Mitchell's writing is often beautiful and insightful and emotionally resonant. But god damn, do I wish I could read the book it seems like it could have been, instead.

Rating: I'm giving this 4/5. Because it's a truly excellent novel burdened with some maddening flaws, which I guess knocks it down to just "good." And four stars works for "good." But I feel like there ought to be some kind of asterisk on that rating.

(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)

marraskuu 10, 2020, 7:52pm

>21 bragan: I thought that this might have been a more interesting novel had Mitchell written de Zoet as schizophrenic, but clearly he made his own choices and he's having a great deal of fun with his world-building.

marraskuu 11, 2020, 6:10pm

I am falling behind with David Mitchell, enjoyed your review.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 11, 2020, 7:32pm

>22 RidgewayGirl: Yeah, I personally think it would have been a lot more interesting to read about him just dealing with actual schizophrenia/psychosis. (Although that might also have some issues. I'm not sure quite how I'd feel about him being both schizophrenic and (as we would say today) on the autism spectrum. Not that one can't be both of those things at once, but I'd think one would really want to avoid giving any impression that autism and psychosis are connected, or somehow the same thing).

>23 baswood: I am so far behind with him! The only thing of his I've read is Cloud Atlas, but I've still got three or four of his other books staring at me forlornly from the TBR shelves. My mixed feelings about this one aren't going to discourage me from reading them at all, but I have no idea when I'm going to find the time.

marraskuu 14, 2020, 4:28pm

102. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

The reasons why I felt this 2017 book on the influenza pandemic of 1918 and its impact on the world was relevant to read in 2020 are... Well, probably they're pretty obvious. Although I'm not sure it gave me a whole lot of new perspective on our current, non-flu pandemic, other than to reinforce in my mind that old saw about those who don't learn from history being doomed to repeat it.

Overall, I can't say it was quite what I was hoping for in a book on this subject. Spinney tries to take a truly global approach, which is good. But I think she dwells a little too much on random details at times when I would have preferred a clearer sense of the bigger picture. And her brief attempt to analyze the impact of the pandemic on art and literature is just odd, as it seems to be based on nothing but the thinnest excuse for speculation. The sections on our medical understanding of the virus, then and now, are good, though, very clear and informative.

And I did find it interesting enough, overall. If nothing else, it's done a very good job of bringing home to me just how staggering a toll this disease took. Which maybe seems like it could be something of a comfort at the moment -- hey, look, it could be worse! -- but is mostly just terrifying, really.

Rating: 3.5/5

marraskuu 15, 2020, 6:14pm

103. Wishing Well by Trevor Baxendale

A Doctor Who novel featuring the Tenth Doctor and Martha, in which our heroes wander into a tiny English village looking for a spot of tea and end up having to deal with an alien monster that lives under the town's historic wishing well.

This one was... okay. The first hundred pages or so, honestly, were pretty dull. Way too many of them seemed to consist largely of people standing around talking about how great this well is and what a wonderful tourist attraction it's going to make, and, come on, guys. It's a well. Minus the monster, it's really just not that interesting. And there's a lot of focus on the guest characters, who also aren't quite as interesting as the author thinks they are, either, but who are, y'know. Okay.

We do get a decent bit of mild creepiness, though, when the Doctor finally gets himself down that well (which you know he's going to). And the confrontations with the monster towards the end have some fun or slightly dramatic moments, in ways that do feel much like an episode of the show, only maybe with better special effects on the page than we might have gotten on screen.

Still, none of it is particularly memorable or anything. If it was an episode of the show, I suspect it wouldn't be one I'd bother re-watching much, although it wouldn't be one I'd go off and complain about on the internet, either.

Rating: 3/5

marraskuu 16, 2020, 6:36pm

Just catching up on your threads from being months behind on everything here on LT. Enjoyed reading through all of your reviews.

>16 bragan: I enjoyed that book when I read it a while ago. I always loved The Twilight Zone but knew pretty much nothing about Serling himself and it certainly made me feel I'd like to know more.

Noticed you mentioned on your previous thread having programmed something to pick random books from your wishlist, and I'm happy to see I'm not the only one to do that! Sometimes I just can't decide what I want to read, and I want to get to those neglected books buried in the middle of my to read list.

marraskuu 16, 2020, 10:00pm

>27 valkyrdeath: I'm utterly, utterly terrible at the moment at keeping up with any threads here other than my own, or at commenting on them when I do finally catch up. But I'm pretty sure I actually saw your comments on that book and that's what put it on my radar. I definitely remember seeing someone talking about reading it here, anyway. I'd seen some interviews with Serling (which there were specific references to in the book), and I always found him really interesting and to have some worthwhile things to say about television as a medium. Plus, I have eternal love for The Twilight Zone. So it was very much a book for me!

As for the random book picker, I haven't really used to it decide what to read next, although my processes for making that decision honestly often seem to be nearly that random, anyway. But it's been really great as a way to kinda-sort surprise myself with books from the wishlist I hadn't even remembered wanting.

marraskuu 18, 2020, 6:18pm

104. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

This mystery/thriller/ghost story is told in two alternating narrative streams. One, set in 2017, features a young woman named Carly who has come to a small town in upstate New York looking for answers about the mysterious disappearance of her aunt Vivian during a night shift at the seedy Sun Down Motel, 35 years before. The other, set in 1982, tells the story of Vivian herself as she investigates the murders of several other women, one of whom is still around in the form of a ghost haunting the motel.

It's a fairly clever structure, with the two linked stories unspooling simultaneously, and the ultimate answer to the mystery of what happened to Vivian is better than I expected it to be. But despite all that, I still feel a bit meh about the novel as a whole. The writing is readable, but not great, and there's just something about it all that I found unconvincing. Not the plot, which was decent enough, and not the ghosts, which I was happy to suspend my disbelief for (although they were never quite as spooky as I might have liked). No, it has more to do with the way the author clearly wants all her characters to be complex, rounded people with their own motivations, and yet they all somehow end up feeling like they exist solely to hand out relevant clues at the most appropriate times.

Rating: 3/5

marraskuu 22, 2020, 11:33am

105. Space 2069: After Apollo: Back to the Moon, to Mars, and Beyond by David Whitehouse

This is a book, more or less, about where the next fifty years of space exploration may go. Space is a topic of perennial interest to me, but I have to say I found this one a bit disappointing. It feels very... unfocused. And the things it ends up concentrating on turn out to not be the things I was expecting or hoping it would.

Things it does include, at various lengths: a list of all the changes in the direction of US space policy with new presidential administrations since Apollo, detailed descriptions of what various places on the moon look like through a telescope, a look at of some of the engineering possibilities for building a base on the moon, a discussion of the medical difficulties of a mission to Mars, a vaguely imagined fictional crewed Mars mission of the future that the author occasionally throws in references to at odd moments, a thorough (if oddly judgmental) accounting of all the real spacecraft that have so far been sent to explore Mars, and a survey of the various other interesting places to visit in the solar system (none of which we are, however, likely to be visiting with humans in the next fifty years).

Things I was hoping and expecting it to include, but which it does not, at least not in any satisfying depth: the current state of the Artemis moon program, what steps have already been taken towards its crewed moon-landing goal, how realistic the time frames that have been talked about for it actually are, and what it will actually look like if and when it happens.

Rating: 3/5

(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)

marraskuu 22, 2020, 2:51pm

106. Monstress, Volume Four: The Chosen by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

This fourth collection of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda's lush, violent dark fantasy/horror comic Monstress features a number of reunions, family and otherwise, and a looming war that may well result in truly unimaginable destruction.

I don't know that I have much to say about this volume that I haven't already said about the previous three. It's absolutely gorgeous, visually. The world-building is deep and rich. And the plot is complex and intricate enough that I suspect it might take real care to be able to follow it completely even if weren't for my fallible memory. I'm sure there are things I'm missing, or half-understanding, or losing the full impact of, just because I've forgotten far too many important details in the gaps between volumes. And yet, even given that fact, I'm still finding it pretty compelling.

Well, at least I am reaping a benefit from the fact that I was extra-slow to get to volume 4, because I already have volume 5 in my hands. Time to read that one while I'm still fresh from this one!

Rating: I'm giving this a 4/5, but if I ever do what I really should do, and go back and read the whole story in one go once it's complete, I strongly suspect my ratings of it all will go up.

marraskuu 23, 2020, 4:15pm

107. Monstress, Volume 5: Warchild

Volume 5 of the collected Monstress comics. This one has a lot of fighting, with a desperate attempt to defend a city under attack. It's brutal, and complex, with moments of horror and poignancy, and a few more revelations about the past for good measure. I'm still not sure I'm even following all the intricacies of the plot, but I'm still kind of fascinated by it, anyway.

Rating: 4/5

marraskuu 24, 2020, 5:44am

>25 bragan: Nice review on the influenza pandemic. In the past I have read books on various diseases (TB, Aids), and this book might have interested me were it not for our current pandemic.

>30 bragan: Will mention this one to the hubby, although he might find your review sufficient :-)

marraskuu 24, 2020, 7:32am

>25 bragan: Have you read John Barry's The Great Influenza? I read it back in the spring and it definitely gave me a better overview of what a pandemic does, how it works, and how the 1918 flu differs (and doesn't) from the novel coronavirus. It's long, but a good read in general.

marraskuu 24, 2020, 1:06pm

>33 avaland: I have these weird push-and-pull impulses when it comes to reading about other pandemics right now. On the one hand, I want to think about anything else besides pandemics. On the other, I can't not think about it, and when I keep thinking about something, I always want to read books about it.

As for Space 2069, it's entirely possible that someone coming into it with different expectations than I did might like it more, but I still want to read the book I thought it was going to be, dammit!

>34 lisapeet: I haven't read that one. It sounds like it might be more the book I was hoping Pale Rider would be (even though I did find that one worth reading, anyway). I may keep it in mind for next time I can't rid myself of the urge to read about a pandemic.

marraskuu 26, 2020, 9:03pm

108. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I've been a longtime listener of the 99% Invisible podcast, which explores odd and sometimes surprising stories about the human-built world around us and how it got that way. So, of course, I had to pick up this book, and I'm pleased to report that it did not disappoint! It's full of bite-sized tidbits about all kinds of weird, quirky, important, and overlooked stuff to be found in and around cities and roads. False building facades concealing ventilation shafts, skyscrapers with extra-high towers at the top just so they could claim to be the world's tallest building for a brief moment, coded signs in Hollywood that point to movie shooting locations, brick thieves in St. Louis, spikes on sidewalks to keep homeless people away, parking spaces repurposed into mini-parks... And on and on and on.

The whole thing is engaging and fun to read, whether you want to dip in and out or read it straight through, and whether you actually live in a city or not. And the book itself is a nice, solid, rather attractive physical object. With the holiday season coming up, it occurs to me that it might make a really nice gift for the sort of person who likes non-fiction books that make you want to go around saying, "Hey, did you know...?" to people.

Admittedly, a fair amount of it was already familiar to me from the podcast -- more than I was expecting, to be honest -- but I found I didn't particularly mind. It's still interesting the second time, and they're never just transcribing stories verbatim from the podcast. Plus, there's plenty that was new to me, too.

My only dissatisfaction with it is that I really wish it had photographs. There are lots of black-and-white line drawings, which have a certain charm, and which do help to illustrate some of the things that need illustrating, but it was occasionally frustrating not to be able to just see real examples of the things the book was describing.

Rating: 4/5

marraskuu 27, 2020, 8:32am

>36 bragan: I'm a fan of the podcast but haven't listened that extensively, so this may be a good book for me. I love info like that.

marraskuu 27, 2020, 11:36am

>37 lisapeet: Yeah, if you like the sort of thing the podcast does but aren't already familiar with a lot of the stories they've covered, I think the book would be just about ideal for you.

marraskuu 27, 2020, 9:04pm

109. Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

This is the fourth novella in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. As with the previous installments, I thought the action-y plot was okay, but not especially memorable, and in this case it really only gets at all exciting towards the end. But, oh, the main character just owns my heart. I love that awkward, sarcastic, violent, TV-loving sweetheart of a cyborg to pieces, and every time they experience a nascent stirring of emotion or a human connection they're not sure what to do with, I find myself grinning like an idiot.

Rating: 4/5

marraskuu 28, 2020, 12:00am

110. Dave Barry's Gift Guide to End All Gift Guides by Dave Barry

It's Black Friday, so clearly it's time to read a holiday shopping gift guide! Right? This one features items we're told are actually available to buy (or were in 1994 when the book was published) and which might mean you never need to have to worry about exchanging gifts again, because you'll be off everybody's list. Some of the selections here are genuinely, intriguingly bizarre. (A service that will pack your dead loved one's ashes into a bullet so their hunting buddies can shoot animals with them?!) Others are just ordinary and not especially interesting novelty gifts. (Reindeer antlers to put on your pet's head? You don't say?) Some just had me staring at them in honest confusion. (Was composting really so unheard of in the 90s that a book on the subject was considered that weird and mockable?)

It's sporadically amusing, but... Well, I sort of hate to say this, because I've been fond of Dave Barry since sometime in the 1980s, but overall this particular offering feels like a rather uninspired novelty item itself. Much like those "Old Fart" slippers that make farting noises when you walk.

Rating: an apologetic 2.5/5

marraskuu 28, 2020, 11:46pm

111. The Odyssey: A Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds

I enjoyed Gareth Hinds' graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad, so I was looking forward to reading his version of The Odyssey as well. Especially as The Odyssey always seemed more like my kind of story. There's some really great character stuff in The Iliad, but, boy, do you have to read through a hell of a lot of fight scenes to get it. Whereas The Odyssey is full of gods and monsters and adventures and a hero who solves his problems by using his tricksy brain, all of which captures the imagination wonderfully well. Mind you, while reading this version I found myself remembering what I always seem to forget about The Odyssey, which is that there's actually way more stuff about those annoying suitors back home in Ithaca than there are cool seafaring adventures.

But, hey, those seafaring adventures are still pretty darned cool, and Hinds brings them to life nicely, with colorful artwork and some excellently monstrous designs on the monsters. Overall, it makes for a very nice way to revisit the story, when you're more in the mood to look at some pretty pictures than to read 400 pages of epic poetry.

Rating: 4/5

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 12, 2020, 5:41pm

112. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This excellent book centers around a devastating fire that occurred at Los Angeles' massive Central Library in 1986, damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of books. It doesn't just tell the story of the fire, though, but weaves a great many related subjects around it: the history of the the Central Library and of the Los Angeles library system going back to the 1800s; the period of recovery from the fire and the salvaging of an astonishing number of books; the library as it exists today, including a look at its day-to-day operations, the variety of services it provides, and the experiences of the librarians who work there; the role of libraries in communities in general, and the author's personal relationship to them; the life of Harry Peak, who was accused of starting the fire, but never convicted; and even the disturbing history of book-burning.

Orlean jumps around between all of these subjects from chapter to chapter in a way that seems like it could have felt disjointed, but instead feels engaging and natural . Her writing is really, really good, full of lots of very thorough factual material, but also a great deal of emotion, personal engagement, and thoughtful, intelligent consideration. As a book-lover, I found the whole thing deeply interesting and resonant. Although, also as a book-lover, I found parts of it very upsetting, as well. It says something about how utterly, mercilessly vivid her description of the burning library is that I genuinely felt a little nauseated while I was reading it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 12, 2020, 5:43pm

113. Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist

The first book in the Riftwar series, in which a fantasy realm is invaded by a different fantasy realm from another dimension.

The inter-dimensional conflict is a concept with a bit of potential, but overall I have to say this was just really not a very good book. The version I have is the "author's preferred edition," and based on the explanation of the in the author's introduction, it seems one of the changes in this version is that some discussions of the history of the fantasy kingdom that were initially cut out by the editor have been restored. Alas, I can only think that the editor probably did him a big favor by cutting them out in the first place. It seems like at least a third of this novel is nothing but exposition already, and none of it is interesting at all. I can't help feeling that it reads as if Feist read The Lord of the Rings, with its long passages of worldbuilding and its slow journeys, and its big battle scenes and thought, "Hey, I want to do that!" but failed to grasp anything of what made Tolkein's world or his story so mythically resonant and so compelling. Which, in fairness, may actually be true for a lot of this kind of fantasy.

Oh, well. On the positive side, while the plot itself is ponderously slow, the actual pages often went by pretty fast. So it's a fairly readable novel, as not-very-good novels go.

I already have the second installment, which presumably picks up where this one leaves off, as nothing is resolved here at all. And I do intend to read it, if only out of some sense of completion. But I can't say I'm in any great hurry.

Rating: 2.5/5

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 15, 2020, 10:07am

114. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

A memoir written in verse, in which the author looks back on her childhood in the 1960s and 70s, including the experience of living a life split between New York City and North Carolina (where racial segregation remained a fact even after it was no longer a law), and her discovery of a lifelong love of stories and writing.

Apparently this was marketed as a book for "young readers," although that's not something I necessarily would have guessed. The simple, plain language of Woodson's poetry doesn't feel at all as if it's deliberately written to be accessible to youngsters -- although I'm sure it is -- but rather like the most appropriate, most elegant, most expressive way to tell this story of her child self, something she succeeds at very well.

Rating: 4/5

joulukuu 14, 2020, 11:58am

I really loved brown girl dreaming. Woodson has the poet's skill of crafting sentences that carry so much in them.

joulukuu 14, 2020, 1:15pm

>45 RidgewayGirl: She does, and the fact that they're so quiet and simple just makes them more impressive.

I think I probably should have rated that one higher than four stars, to be honest.

joulukuu 15, 2020, 6:14am

>44 bragan: I also loved that book.

joulukuu 15, 2020, 10:06am

>47 kidzdoc: I may need to look for more of her stuff at some point.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 26, 2020, 12:51pm

115. Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

This is set in an alternate reality in which apparently the last ice age never ended, but instead got worse and worse, so that now the winters are far too harsh to easily survive, and humans have evolved to hibernate through them. The story is told from the point of view of young Charlie Worthing, who takes a job, almost on impulse, as one of the few people designated to stay awake trough the winter to watch over the hibernating populace, only to get drawn into a complicated conspiracy plot involving dreams and hibernation drugs and kind-of-sort-of zombies.

None of which remotely captures just how weird this novel is, although if you've read some of Jasper Fforde's other stuff, you might have an idea. One thing I find particularly interesting about it is that there's clearly been a lot of thought put into the details of how this world works and how this alteration to human biology and society would affect all kinds of things -- the author really seems to be having a lot of fun with that -- and yet, the story also features mentions of or appearances by real-world historical figures and celebrities and various (slightly altered) works of culture. This is an approach that bugged me when Fforde used it in the fantasy world of The Last Dragonslayer, but it actually worked for me just fine here. Possibly because everything else in the novel is so weird that it's easy to just shrug and say, "Sure, why not." Plus, really, a lot of the story and worldbuilding elements in this thing feel like a very, very deadpan joke, which, somehow, all works much better than it seems like it really ought to.

And, hey, the plot is a lot of fun, too.

Rating: 4/5

joulukuu 18, 2020, 4:55pm

>49 bragan: I haven't read any Fforde since his first three books way back in...the early otts? I enjoyed the first, less the second and by the third I'd decided they weren't something I wanted to read on a regular basis (same with Pratchett). All that said, though, I really enjoyed your review!

joulukuu 18, 2020, 4:58pm

>49 bragan:

Well, "a Fforde novel" is an acceptable synonym of the word weird so...

>50 avaland:

You cannot read him in large doses but I've found that if I read a novel every year or so, Fforde actually works for me just fine. Pratchett I can read like popcorn - a lot of it and very fast... :)

joulukuu 18, 2020, 5:23pm

>43 bragan: I always mistrust books where the author's name on the cover is bigger than the title.

joulukuu 18, 2020, 6:31pm

>51 AnnieMod: So noted, but....

joulukuu 18, 2020, 6:39pm

>53 avaland:

Oh, I understand. I was just sharing :) Apologies if it sounded as an attempt to convince you to change your mind :)

joulukuu 18, 2020, 7:18pm

>51 AnnieMod: Yeah, I agree that Fforde is definitely not someone to read in large doses. Whereas the very concept of "getting tired of Pratchett" genuinely does not compute for me.

>52 stretch: I used to feel that way, but it seems to happen these days as soon as the author gets any real notoriety, so it started to feel a bit pointless to complain about it. The problem still is, of course, that having notoriety isn't always remotely the same thing as being good.

joulukuu 20, 2020, 7:41am

116. You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane

The "artificial intelligence" referred to in the subtitle is, specifically, machine learning. That is, computer algorithms that are trained on specific sets of data and learn to do things with that data through trial and error, for instance, identifying images or generating intelligible (or maybe semi-intelligible) text. Janelle Shane covers how these programs work, what they're used for, what they're good at, what they're bad at, and the various ways -- some hilarious, some disturbing, some just plain weird -- in which they can go wrong.

It's all extremely readable, even fun. Shane, I think, gives readers a very good sense of how this stuff works without ever getting dry or technical, and keeps a charming sense of humor throughout. The little cartoon illustrations she uses are extremely cute, and sometimes genuinely illuminating. I found it fascinating, thought-provoking, entertaining, and more than a little bit worrying. Definitely recommended for anyone at all curious about this strange new technology and where it's taking us.

Rating: 4/5

joulukuu 25, 2020, 10:42pm

117. Murder for Christmas & Three Other Great Mysteries by Agatha Christie

An omnibus volume consisting of four Hercule Poirot novels:

Murder for Christmas: A nasty old man gathers various family members -- some long-lost or estranged -- together for Christmas, messes with their minds concerning their inheritance, and then turns up dead in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

Honestly, I didn't think this one was very well-written. There's way, way too much of people awkwardly explaining things they already ought to know to each other. And most of the characters are awful in ways that I think probably seem worse to modern readers than they would have at the time, particularly when it comes to their attitudes towards women. But the plot was entertaining enough, with some ridiculous but kind of fun twists.

The Hollow: Now, this one was very well-written! And the characterization is wonderful, with a cast of complex, strange, and interesting people. Honestly, I think I could have happily read an entire novel just about these folks and their weird love polygons, even without the mystery. Which may be just as well, as it actually takes quite a while for the murder to happen. But, once it does, it also turns out to be interesting, with a solution I genuinely didn't expect, but which made perfect sense in retrospect.

You know, from the handful of Agatha Christie novels I'd read so far, I have to say that I never entirely understood her reputation. Her stuff always seemed to me, at its best, to be clever in a reasonably diverting sort of way, but hardly a shining beacon of brilliance. With this one, though, I feel like I'm beginning to understand the acclaim. Which is odd, because this isn't one I'd ever even heard of before, let alone seen touted as one of her best.

Murder in Retrospect: In this one, Poroit is engaged to re-examine a murder that happened sixteen years ago, because the convicted murderer's daughter is convinced she was actually innocent, and is looking for the real truth.

This was another really good one. I'm seeing an entertaining pattern with these, where I'm quite convinced I've figured out whodunnit and why, and it turns out I'm almost right, but there's an extra layer on top of that which ends up meaning that I wasn't actually right, after all. And that's done really well here.

Thirteen at Dinner: I ended up skipping this one, because it turned out I'd already read it before, in a different omnibus volume. I vaguely remember thinking it was all right, but it obviously wasn't terribly memorable, and I wasn't feeling any great inclination to re-read it.

Rating: I'm not sure I can give an accurate rating to this one, given how I skipped the fourth novel, but I'm going to call it 4/5, anyway, based almost entirely on the strength of the middle two.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 26, 2020, 12:57pm

118. Spurious Correlations by Tyler Vigen

A collection of graphs that appear to show correlations between absurdly unconnected things, like Morgan Freeman's film appearances and the number of women receiving cosmetic nose surgery. It's all complete coincidence, of course, abetted by the use of graphs that exaggerate small fluctuations by not showing the zero line.

There's an actual important point to it all -- correlation does not equal causation! don't be fooled! -- and a few of the graphs are mildly amusing. (The correlation between sharks and tornadoes did actually make me laugh.) But most of them just seem entirely too random to be really funny, and it all wears thin fairly quickly. Fortunately, the book is saved from tedium by the addition of vaguely related quirky facts under each graph, because quite of few of those genuinely were interesting and entertaining.

Rating: A slightly generous 3/5

joulukuu 26, 2020, 12:33pm

>49 bragan: I skipped over your review of Early Riser because I am reading it now! I will check back in after I'm done and have written my own review. I'm a Fforde enthusiast, to put it mildly, and 60 pages in enjoying Early Riser quite a bit.

joulukuu 26, 2020, 12:50pm

>59 rocketjk: Glad you're enjoying it! No spoilers for the review, but I enjoyed it, too. :)

joulukuu 26, 2020, 5:50pm

119. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

As you could maybe guess from the title, this is the third collection of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comics. That's right, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl! She has the powers of a squirrel and the powers of a girl, and she's here to eat nuts and kick butts!

I have to admit I've never really been a huge fan of superhero comics (something which, I'm aware, means I'm probably missing all kinds of Marvel references and in-jokes in these), but if more of them were like Squirrel Girl, I'm sure I would be, because these are just tons of fun.

This particular collection features a rather slight one-issue story in which Squirrel Girl befriends a nihilistic brain in a jar/cyborg, and a delightfully ridiculous multi-part story featuring time travel and supervillain Doctor Doom. There is also a two-part crossover with Howard the Duck. Which... Well, hey, ducks, squirrels, sure. Why not?

Rating: 4/5

joulukuu 30, 2020, 11:45am

120. Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances by Leland Melvin

Leland Melvin has led a pretty amazing life. After a short stint in the NFL, he worked as an engineer for NASA, then as an astronaut. During his training, an accident that badly damaged his hearing threatened to ground him permanently, but eventually he recovered and went on to make two flights on the space shuttle. After that, he became NASA's Associate Administrator for Education, and spent a lot of time working to provide opportunities and encouragement for disadvantaged and minority kids to pursue success in STEM.

All that having been said, I do have to be honest here and say that this isn't exactly the most gripping astronaut memoir I've ever read. Some of that is no doubt due to the fact that he spends comparatively few pages talking about actually being in space. Some of it probably has more to do with me than with the author, though. Unlike Melvin, who perfectly straddles the classic jock/nerd divide, I am apparently incapable of being interested in football even when there is a connection to the space program. Also, Melvin's reflections on the reasons for his success and his attempts to inspire others center very firmly on two things: "grit and determination," and the power of his Christian faith. As an atheist, myself, that second thing can't help but fall a little flat for me.

But there is certainly no doubt that the grit and determination have served him well. How many people could possibly ever say things like, "Oh, my NFL career didn't last? No problem! Fortunately, while training to play professional football, I also somehow found time to get a graduate degree in engineering, so I guess I'll just go work for NASA instead!" Not that he puts it that way, I hasten to add. He's much more modest than that. Plus, he actually didn't even think about working for NASA until a recruiter approached him about it at a job fair. But, still. Leland Melvin is definitely the kind of person who makes you wonder what the heck you've been doing with your own life.

Also, gripping or not, this memoir provides a perspective none of the other astronaut memoirs I've read so far have. Because they've all been written by white guys, none of whom have had anything like the experiences Melvin had growing up in Virginia as an African American, attending a school that had only recently been racially integrated, dealing with everyday racism, and not exactly having the opportunity to see many people who looked like him going into space. All of which gives him a very keen appreciation of those before him who broke racial barriers to make important contributions the the space program, as well as of the importance of enabling the next generation of kids to go further.

Rating: an only very slightly generous 4/5

joulukuu 30, 2020, 12:25pm

Great review of Chasing Space, Betty. I'll be on the lookout for it.

joulukuu 31, 2020, 9:04pm

>63 kidzdoc: Despite my slight mixed feelings about it, I do recommend it for anyone who feels interested in it.