Books About Books

I was lovingly describing Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind to a friend the other day. She seemed a bit unimpressed with my elevator pitch for one of my favorite books, and said, “You really like books about books.”

This is very true. I love books about books. I have a GoodReads shelf devoted to them. According to this list, I’ve read six books about books this year. I push them up to the top of my reading list.  BookRiot runs an irregular series called Genre Kryptonite, in which readers discuss genres or tropes they have a weak spot for. Books about books are one of my biggest genre kryptonites. Today, I’m going to write mini-reviews of the four I’ve read most recently.

Also, you should read Shadow of the Wind.

84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

book cover: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffAuthor: Helene Hanff
Rating: 5 stars/3.5 stars
Genre: Epistolary/Memoir
Length: 97 pages/144 pages

The very slim volume of 84, Charing Cross Road has been sitting on my bookshelves for two years, ever since a lovely book friend gave me her copy when she was moving and told me all book lovers should read it. The book sits on my shelf at eye level, and has been calling my name ever since. “Look at me!” it called. “I’m very short. I’m charming. I’m a book for book lovers.”

I finally picked up 84, Charing Cross Road last week, and it was wonderful. It is a collection of letters exchanged over twenty years between Helene Hanff, a script writer living in New York city, and Frank Doel, a bookseller at a used bookstore in London (located at 84, Charing Cross Road). Helene, who has a specific taste in books, is witty and sarcastic and overdramatic at times. Her outlandish letters are a stark contrast to Frank’s responses: formal, polite, and reserved.

The two start off corresponding after Hanff begins ordering books from the store. However, hearing about the food shortages and rations in post-WWI UK, Helene begins sending the bookstore baskets of gifts, including many hard-to-find items. A friendship slowly grows between Helene and Frank, conducted solely through letters. It’s understated and real and heart-warming.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road. The publication of 84, Charing Cross Road makes it possible for Helene visit the UK. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the journal she kept during the trip. While it is nice to see Helene finally visit England, it seems much more self-aware and planned than 84, Charing Cross Road, which consisted of letters that weren’t written for anyone else to read.

5 stars to 84, Charing Cross Road and 3.5 stars to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The Moment of Everything

book cover: The Moment of Everything by Shelly KingAuthor: Shelly King
Rating: 2.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pages

The Moment of Everything had, well, everything going for it. A young woman loses her job and reinvents herself while working in a bookstore. There’s quirky bookstore workers and a cranky bookstore cat. She discovers the record of a romance between two unknown bookstore customers who don’t know each other, but left notes for each other in the margins of an old, used book.

I’ll start off by saying this is a fine book. It reminded me a bit of the set-up for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (another book about books that you must read if you haven’t yet): an unemployed young tech worker/graphic designer in Silicon Valley looking for some sort of direction in life discovers something unusual or secret while working in a bookstore. It’s a perfectly enjoyable book.

Yet, the book just didn’t quite ring true for me, especially the characters. I didn’t really click with Maggie, the main character, or bought into her relationship with Rahjit. And to my disappointment, the romance blossoming between two characters who only know each other through the notes they leave in the margins of the book turned out to be a minor plot point.

2.5 stars.

I received an advanced copy of The Moment of Everything from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

book cover: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinAuthor: Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 260 pages

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reads like a giant celebration of books and reading and stories and second chances, along with a good helping of little book/publishing jokes and references.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The premise of the book is this: A.J. Fikry runs a bookstore. He’s irascible. He doesn’t much like people. His store is struggling. And he isn’t doing so well personally since the death of his wife, who kept the bookstore running and also was the people-person of the pair.  Also, he’s a bit of a book snob. Here he describes his tastes:

“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.”

The two things happen. His valuable edition of Tamarlane by Edgar Allen Poe, which is meant to fund his early retirement, is stolen. And a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep. The contents of this “mysterious package” are completely different than what I imagined, and it sent the story somewhere very different than I had imagined. I had read a bunch of reviews, so kudos to everyone for keeping that under wraps.

The books was loads of fun to read, as well as being a heart-warming tale. 4.5 stars.

P.S. If the judgmental quote about reading annoys you, rest assured A.J. does not feel the same about books by the end.

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Ancillary Space

cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieTitle: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword
Author: Ann Leckie
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 409 pages, 359 pages

Synopsis: Breq used to be a starship. She was the AI for the ship Justice of Toren, able to directly command hundreds of bodies, known as ancillaries. Now, this former spaceship has lost almost everything. Reduced to one body (the former One Esk Nineteen), Breq has her mind set on one objective–finding a weapon that will allow her to kill one body of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who she believes is responsible for her current condition.

Ancillary Justice is interwoven with scenes from the past. We learn the heart-breaking tale of what happened to Justice of Toren during a planet annexation that goes horribly wrong. Specifically, we get to better understand the singing One Esk Nineteen, who served and cared deeply for Lieutenant Awn.

Ancillary Sword picks up a week after the end of Ancillary Justice. We are no longer jumping back and forth in time, having learned the secrets that lead to Breq’s reduction to one body. Breq is made Fleet Captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr, whose former captain trained the crew to act as ancillaries. Breq is joined by Seivarden and the “baby lieutenant” Tisarwat, and sent to guard Athoek Station, a far-reaching system known mainly for cultivating tea. Of more importance to Breq, Athoek is the home of her beloved Lieutenant Awn’s younger sister. Once there, Breq immediately begins investigating several outside threats as well and a few internal inconsistencies that point to something not quite right at Athoek Station.

Several things make Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword unique. First, the book is written from the point-of-view of a former starship AI that used to control thousands of bodies. The point-of-view is unusual and strange, as readers sometime get glimpses of multiple events happening simultaneously. Second, Breq’s language does not have any concept of gender, so Breq struggles to identify who is masculine and feminine. She uses ‘she’ by default, as well as feminine words such as daughter and sister to represent child and sibling. In many cases, the reader never learns the sex of a character (most character do not seem to have a preferred gender, either). These two qualities make both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword a very unique reading experience.

Review: I’m glad I read Ancillary Justice before I knew that there was a lot of hype surrounding this book.  Ancillary Justice has (deservedly) won multiple awards. Around the Internet, people are also raving about the books (The Book Smugglers, Tor, NPR, io9). When I read it for class this summer, however, the response in class was not positive at all. Because of this, for awhile Ancillary Justice felt like my own little secret–an awesome sci-fi book that only I knew about or appreciated.

That’s ridiculous of course. We’ve since seen Ancillary Justice win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke, so apparently I’m not the only one that loves these books after all. They don’t need my loving protection.

Because of the unusual perspective of Breq (spaceship AI in a culture that doesn’t differentiate genders), reading Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword can be a bit disorienting, but in the best way possible. If you’re someone who needs to be able to visualize characters, these books might be frustrating. In most cases, you’ll never figure out the biological sex or the gender of the characters. Reading the book really challenges you to think about how you think about gender. (Side note: as another win for the book, a majority of characters, if not all, are people of color.) Also, Leckie has some spectacular pieces of writing, particularly during flashbacks, where she tries to capture what it might be like to be one consciousness experiencing multiple situations through multiple bodies. It’s absolutely stunning.

Aside from the two defining features of these books, the stories themselves were very interesting. In fact, I’m writing this review right now instead of working on schoolwork because I could not stop thinking about Ancillary Sword. The books move at a slightly slower pace than most sci-fi and are rich in detail, but tackle a lot of interesting issues: identity, colonialism, culture and language, systemic inequality, etc. I especially love the explorations of whether a starship AI can care about and form attachments to the people on the ship as well as the nuances of what happens to an ancillary’s personality when they are made into an ancillary.

Breq is a unique narrator. She comes off very distant and unemotional, even cold (due to the fact that she is an AI). Breq experiences everything in a strange dichotomy–very closely (Breq can often read the emotions people are feeling as the Justice of Toren or by linking in with Mercy of Kalr) accompanied by a strange emotional distance due to the fact that Breq does not understand everything the way you or I would.

What really drew me in, besides the unique narration, were various relationships between characters: particularly One Esk Nineteen and Lieutenant Awn, Breq and Seivarden (particularly in Sword–Seivarden annoyed me a bit in Justice), and Breq and Tisarwat. I also loved the small details that enriched the characters and the world they inhabit. One example is the singing. Breq has a habit of collecting songs and constantly singing or humming to herself without knowing. She acts this way even as an ancillary that is part of a ship, which individualizes her (and also raises questions about how the former identities of people influence the ancillaries they become). Once in command of the Mercy of Kalr, some of Breq’s crew pick up the habit and start singing as well.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (named after the ships, by the way–Justice of Toren and Sword of Atagaris) are definitely worth a read if you enjoy sci-fi. Sadly, Ancillary Sword was just published, which means I’ll have to wait ages for the final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy!

5 stars for both.

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Historical Fiction
Length: 368 pages

Where do I even begin? I loved this. Pure and simple love. Which might seem like the wrong emotion when thinking of the subject matter and how  truly difficult it was to read, but I just wanted to gather everyone of those poor kids and hug them. I kept wanting to just shout “Ok, bring it in” and throw my arms around them and hug them. This book gave me the chills, made me want to cry, and yet I could I couldn’t stop reading!

I think overall I preferred the narrative from Sarah’s point of view, but it was nice to see the growth in Linda from her point of view. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that dealt with race issues the way this book does. Page one it begins, there is no tiptoeing around the issue of desegregating the schools we jump into the first day of school for these 10 kids that are thrust into an all-white school that is, shall we say, less than pleased to see them.

Lie #1
There’s no need to be afraid.

As they approach the school everyone is waiting from them outside and they are shouting at them. They are jostled, elbowed, tripped, and they haven’t even made it inside the building. It was like a train-wreck that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. I felt embarrassed for the south, the United States, and the people that were forced to endure that kind of humiliation.

“We’re inside.
It’s done. We did it. We’re in the school.
But the white people are still staring at us. Shouting at us.
They’re all around me. And they still look hungry.”

“We haven’t been sitting ten seconds when everyone else who was sitting on the front row stands up, all in one smooth motion, and files out.
For the second time this morning, I wonder if the white people rehearsed that.”

Every time a group of people changed seats leaving one of them alone just broke my heart. It made my chest hurt. My throat just burned, either with sadness or with anger, or both. I just couldn’t settle on one emotion. I can’t imagine treating people this way and I am thankful that I was not raised to treat anyone as though they don’t matter or that they are different than I am so I treat them differently.

I can understand why some of the kids that don’t hurl insults don’t help, they would then become a target, but the teachers blatantly ignoring it just fills me with rage. I’m sure there was pressure from higher ups not to interfere unless they had to, or even in some places that would have cost a teacher their job because they didn’t agree with the majority opinion. But..every adult that stood by and let it happen made it me want to cry or break something. While I am very non-confrontational, I hope that I would say something or do something if I saw such cruelty. I hope that I am never faced with making that decision, because if I chose wrong I don’t know that I could forgive myself.

The other main issue at hand in this book is the fact that Sarah finds herself attracted to another girl and can’t stop beating herself up about how wrong that is. Now not only is she one of ten black students in a newly desegregated school, but she is also a lesbian with no way of dealing with all her pain. AND on top of that her new crush is white. This girl just can’t catch a break from herself or the world.

There was also a lot of religion questioning that I found interesting. Sarah did a lot of praying and talked frequently of her church, but she would question why God would allow them to go through this or why if he was watching over them that he had to do his job from so far away. That broke my heart all over again.

I was slightly disappointed that Linda didn’t grow as much as I wanted her to, but she definitely made some giant leaps in the right direction. The amount she changed was very believable, anything more would have seemed outrageous due to length of time the book spans, but I just wanted everyone to realize how wrong they were and get some karma for how horribly they acted. Just punch them all in the face, repeatedly, and call it a day.

Chuck. For some reason my heart went out to him the most. Maybe because he was supposed to be the protector of the girls, the younger boys, and also try to survive this new school with his head held high. He also had a lot to lose because the was most likely to be ganged up on in a fight with the assholes from his new school. I worried about him and I found myself actually flinching when I thought something bad was going to happen to him…..he actually made me cry a bit.

This book is not necessarily easy to read. There is no shying away from what people call them and the language itself may be too offensive for some, but it’s pretty damn accurate for what these people were forced to endure. The idea that anyone could be treated that way just kills me.

I highly recommend this book. I’ve never read a book quite like it and I don’t think I ever will again.

The Shadow Hero

book cover of The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen YangTitle: The Shadow Hero
Author: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Graphic Novel
Length: 169 pages

Verdict: Gene Luen Yang and Sony Liew breathe new life into story of Green Turtle, a short-lived comic book hero from the 1940s who was also the first Asian-American superhero.

Synposis: Hank’s parents met in the US after immigrating from China. His father runs a small grocery store while his disillusioned mother dreams of ways to improve her family’s position and achieve the movie star lifestyle she once dreamed of. After her life is saved by another superhero, she latches on to the perfect plan to make something out of her son. She sews him a costume, tells him he’s the Green Turtle, arranges martial arts lessons, and sends him off to fight crime, with slightly disastrous results. 

Thankfully, Hank’s father has an old friend, the tortoise spirit, that he helped leave China for the US. As Hank navigates life as a first-generation American and faces several injustices, including his family’s troubles with a local gang, Hank might just be able to become the hero his mother dreams of, with a little help from his new shadow.

Curious? Check out the book trailer for a better taste:

Review: The Shadow Hero was great. I read Yang’s Boxers and Saints earlier this year and enjoyed them. I wasn’t disappointed with The Shadow Hero. This was definitely a lighter read than Boxers and Saints, although it doesn’t avoid tough subjects either.

I love the idea of reclaiming a short-lived superhero from the Golden Age and reinventing him, giving him a backstory. This particular backstory was charming in some respects. I especially loved that it was Hank’s mother who wanted him to become a superhero and essentially strong arms him into it. And then proceeds to interrupt him whenever he’s trying to do superhero-y tasks and even has to save him at times.

Hank's mother presents him with the superhero outfit she made for him

 

Recreating the Green Turtle is a great way for Yang and Liew to explore life in 1930’s Chinatown. I liked what Yang wrote about superheroes and the experience of immigrants:

“I’ve loved superheroes all my life.  Superheroes are about all sorts of things, but at their core superheroes are about America.  They were invented in America, they’re most popular in America, and at their best, superheroes express America at its best.

Superheroes are also about immigrants. Take at look at Superman, the granddaddy of them all. His parents sent him to America in search of a better life. He had two names, one American (Clark Kent) and the other foreign (Kal-El). He wears two sets of clothes and lives in between two cultures. He loves his new home, but a part of him longs for his old one.” –Gene Luen Yang

Highly recommended.

I received an advanced copy of The Shadow Hero from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

How to Fall….off a cliff?

 How to Fall

Title:  How to Fall
Author: Jane Casey
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Length: 
352 pages

Synopsis:

 Jess Tennant is a little less than thrilled about being hauled to a small English town by her mother to visit family they’ve never met and her mother doesn’t talk about. Jess is even more surprised to learn that her cousin Freya died in what appears to be a freak accident and could be her long lost twin. As she copes with meeting new family, and shocking a town with her appearance, Jess begins to delve into the world that Freya lived. Soon Jess begins asking questions that no one seems to want answers to such as, did Freya kill herself, did she just happen to fall by accident, or was it something more sinister? It seems that the people of this sleepy town have a lot to hide.
Review:

All in all I loved it. Jane Casey is one of those authors on my “Read Everything They Publish” list. She writes some great mysteries that I can’t stop telling people about. I absolutely love her and this venture into YA is right up my alley combining two of my favorite things: murder and young adults!

I loved the creation of Jess and felt that she was very believable. I didn’t feel as if her fascination with Freya was far fetched. All the characters had the right amount of personality where they could have been real. I couldn’t help picturing this as a tv show and easily visualizing everything that was happening and all the characters.

One thing I quite enjoyed was the sort of uninterested, slightly aggressive flirting. Jess would act as if she cared less about Will, but then she would find herself thinking about him and admiring him, then chastising herself.

One problem I had was that I didn’t find the killer to be believable. It seemed a little far fetched, so that lead me to dropping it down from 5 stars. Typically, I am right there with Jane Casey, but she kind of lost me on this one.

I really was hoping to get more out of the situations with Will’s dad. There seemed to be a lot of potential in that story and almost as though the author was hoping to explore that avenue, but maybe in another story? Perhaps that tale wasn’t right for this one, I could see that. I am hoping that the situations involving him are explored more in the next book, which I am so excited for!

In the grand scheme of things, this was a great read and I recommend it for those that like their mysteries, but perhaps aren’t into the ones that are super dark and want some young adult elements.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of How to Fall from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

For Logophiles or Technophobes

book cover for The Word Exchange by Alena GraedonTitle: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 384 pages

Verdict: The Word Exchange has a wonderful premise with a less-than-wonderful execution, hindered by overly pretentious characters.

Synopsis: Twenty-something Anana Johnson’s life is like most people her age: she works for her father at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), is more addicted to her Meme (an evolved smart phone that can do things like call cabs, order food when we’re hungry, or remind us of words without us telling it to do so) than her father is comfortable with, and is trying to get over a recent break-up with her former boyfriend, Max.

In this near future, the Meme has all but replaced the printed word. Words themselves have been commodified on the Word Exchange, which address that tip-of-the-tongue sensation by providing the word you’ve forgotten for a small fee. Our technology is smarter than ever, and there are rumors of a new device on the way: the Nautilus, which will be even more connected to our brains than ever before.

Of course, there are some people who opt out of all this technology, such as Anana’s father, Doug. Editor of NADEL, anti-meme, and a member of the Diachronic Society. NADEL is one of the last dictionaries to hold out against being purchased by Synchronic for use on the Word Exchange.

Shortly before the publication of the 3rd Edition of NADEL, Doug disappears, leaving only a few obscure clues before, including a code name for Ana he said he’d use if he was in trouble. To make things worse, something called Word Flu is springing up among Meme users–people are replacing common words with nonsense words without even realizing it.

Review:

The Word Exchange is an example of a book with such an amazing premise–words, dictionaries, books, technology, the WORD FLU. It’s like the book was written for me. However, what the book has in a great premise falls flat on actual delivery. I really had to push myself to get through The Word Exchange. In fact, if there wasn’t the promise that the Oxford English Dictionary was going to be involved somehow at the end, I probably would have given up. (My love for the OED is deep and lasting, what can I say?)

Of course, there were some parts of The Word Exchange that I enjoyed. The story is told from two points-of-view, Ana’s and Bart’s (her father’s protegee who harbors a crush on Ana). Ana’s chapters were more interesting to me. She was easier to relate to and had a more convincing character voice, especially when she was talking about her relationship with her father, who was another great character. The near-future world Graedon builds is really interesting. And, once the Word Flu storyline finally started moving, I found the story and the fear of a virus that can spread through language equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Also, Graedon obviously dedicated a lot of thought to word choice and stylistics, and when it works, the writing is great. When it doesn’t, it feels a bit like the author spent a bit too much time flipping through the thesaurus.

However, I really, really, really struggled with Bart’s chapters. He was a completely insufferable and snobbish. Also, I don’t care about Hegel. I just don’t. The first half of his chapters were like a combined unrequited love letter to Ana and Hegel written in the worst academic prose possible, and the second half were a struggle because Bart gets a bad case of the word flu and you can hardly tell what he is trying to write.

Overall, The Word Exchange is built on some really intriguing concepts, but it missed a lot of opportunities to be great. The story does get better in the second half of the book, earning it a solid 2.5 star rating.

I received an advanced copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Time-Traveling Serial Killer Alert!

book cover for The Shining Girls by Lauren BeukesTitle: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Genre: Mystery/Suspense
Pages: 375 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Synopsis:

The trailer for The Shining Girls is stellar. Seriously. I usually don’t like book trailers and I liked this one. It seems like a movie trailer and also gives you a great sense of the book.

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