Tag Archives: BOTM

Wrap-up 4.18

April has been a mixed month for me and books. The numbers show I did a fair amount of reading, but I didn’t love much of what I read. I am glad that I read from a good range of topics, and I also liked how unique some of my books this month felt. But I don’t have that feel-good reading vibe a good month brings.

Personal Trends:

  • I read a higher number of Book of the Month Club selections than usual in April. Unfortunately not all of them came from my personal stash, so I still have a sizable backlog to work through. I was really disappointed this month with how long it took to receive my BOTM box (3 weeks). It was the first bad experience I’ve had in over a year with BOTM so I was pretty bummed that it happened in my birthday month.
  • I’ve been working a lot on my writing project this month, and the progress I’m making there feels great. But I think spending more time writing is probably why I spent less time reading. Apparently it’s true when they say “you can’t do it all.” I wish I could.

Book-to-film adaptations I watched:

  • I read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in August 2017 and rated it 4 stars, and now I’ve watched the new film adaptation. The movie was easier to immediately engage with, but I preferred the book. I felt like I had more of a handle on what was happening and could sift through the clues and explanations to make my own guesses in the novel, whereas in the movie I felt like I was just along for the ride.

Books I finished reading:

  1. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer.newmoon No rating. I’ve been rereading the Twilight saga for close to a year now, by reading only one chapter per day on only the days that I feel like it. This one took me over six months to finish reading. I’m doing this as a sort of way to explore my reading growth over the last ten years. Follow the linked title for my rereading experience and updated (spoilery) thoughts on the book.
  2. The Power by Naomi Alderman.thepower 3 stars. I liked the concept better than the story with this one. I’m glad that I read it, but I wish I would’ve found the time back in October and gotten this one out of the way sooner; it’s a better fit for that time of year and it was not what I was looking for in my reading this month. Alderman has some great ideas, but I found the execution somewhat disappointing here.
  3. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. goodbye,vitamin4 stars. I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, and even having loved it it’s hard to explain why. It was just such a light and easy read that still felt important. Alzheimer’s is something that  worries me (it runs in my family), and I found this such a great humorous/serious approach to it. Books like this are why I continue to appreciate BOTM so much, and why I keep trying with their selections even after some of them haven’t worked for me.
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. sing,unburied,sing3 stars. I love Ward’s writing but still haven’t found a favorite now that I’ve finished another of her books. There are some beautiful and important ideas about race, justice, and history wrapped into this novel, but the reading experience just wasn’t as enjoyable or powerful as I was hoping. I’m glad I read this one, and I loved Ward’s writing all over again, but I’m still waiting for one of her books to really impress me the way it seems that they have the potential to.
  5. Illuminaeby Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.illuminae4 stars. I haven’t read a lot of YA sci-fi, but I like certain sci-fi aspects and certain YA aspects and lots of interesting formatting, so I couldn’t pass this one up. It was a great ride, as promised. I usually can’t stand zombies, and space stories are hit or miss for me, but even with both of those elements featured this book did not disappoint. Teenage me would’ve been all over this trilogy and adult me found plenty to appreciate.
  6. I Stop Somewhere by T E Carter.istopsomewhere4 stars. I also still like YA contemporaries that deal with social issues, and this was a good representative of that type. It reminded me a lot of The Lovely Bones, which I read years ago and… (loved? enjoyed?) regarded highly. I love books that tackle difficult topics in an un-put-downable way, and especially when they’re made accessible for young readers. This wasn’t my favorite YA rape culture book, but it definitely had some strong and worthy attributes.
  7. Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall. ourkindofcruelty2 stars. This really wasn’t a bad read, just boring. It felt so familiar, like every aspect of this book came out of another book I’d already read. But it wasn’t difficult to read and there wasn’t anything actually wrong with it. Something the author said in her author’s note about this book being a jab at the patriarchy made me feel a little better about the story even though I didn’t see evidence for that side of it while reading.
  8. Origin by Dan Brown. origin3 stars. I started reading the Robert Langdon series in high school with my best friend, and at that time I loved these books. By the time I started book 5 (Origin), I was starting to worry I had outgrown them– and indeed I think I have. I still love the messages and ideas behind these books, but the narration reminds me of Hallmark movies and this time I could hardly get past the writing to enjoy the plot. I appreciate having read these, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any future books in this series. Full review will be up tomorrow.

Some Stats:

  • Fave book this month = Goodbye, Vitamin
  • Least fave book this month = Our Kind of Cruelty (yes, even lower than New Moon, though that’s a tough call. I think if I had been reading New Moon purely for entertainment it would have won this category hands-down, but because I was using it to learn about myself it scraped by.)
  • average monthly rating = 3.3 (low for me)
  • books hauled = 12
  • owned books that I read for the 1st time this month = 3 (my TBR shelf grew by 9 books this month)
  • total books read in 2018 = 41 (12 books ahead of schedule for my Goodreads reading goal)

A small wrap-up this month. 8 books isn’t bad at all, but without any 5-star reads this month I am left a bit disappointed. I wish I had enjoyed more of what I read this month. But my biggest regret is that my TBR shelf grew again by 9 books, which is a trend I was hoping not to see this year. I love getting new books, but I need to be reading them more promptly so that my unread shelves aren’t as full as my read shelves. That’s not a pretty sight when you know you’ll only be accumulating more.

Have you read any of my April books? What did you think of them?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Book Haul 4.18

April is my birthday month, so I didn’t bother expecting to stick to my 3-book buying rule. (So far I’ve met that goal only once in 2018, but there’s still time.) It’s been fun picking up way more books that I needed this month, but it has also reminded me of why the 3-book rule is in place: I’m starting to feel overwhelmed again about the unread books on my shelves. I think May will be a very different sort of month for me as a result, but before we get there, these are the new books on my shelf in April:

  1. In March I bought (and read) 6 books from the new Penguin Modern collection, and loved them enough to buy 6 more in April. I have not read any of this new batch yet, and all I know about them is: most of these authors were familiar to me, they cover a range of fiction and nonfiction topics, and they’re about 60 pages each (which is why I’m counting all 6 as one book here). I’ll provide more info in my upcoming reviews, but for now I’ll just list my new titles: Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell, Lance by Vladimir Nabokov, The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier, Vigilante by John Steinbeck, Food by Gertrude Stein, and Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry.
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. A classic, a birthday gift, and a recommendation from a friend. It’s been years since I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and lately it’s bothering me that he has other great works I haven’t checked out yet. This one focuses on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, a piece of American’s history that has always interested me.
  3. Origin by Dan Brown. Another birthday gift. My grandma has been sharing the books in this series with me for years, and I think part of the reason she was so eager to pick this one up for my birthday is because she wants to read it herself. I’ve already read this one so I can pass it on to her. This one is typical Robert Langdon, but while I still enjoy the plots of this series I am outgrowing their narrative style. A mixed-thoughts review will be coming soon.
  4. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The last of my birthday gifts. I’ve heard some interesting things about this book over the years, but all I remember at present is that Stephen King recommends it. I’m a big King fan so I thought I’d give this one a try. I think it’s supposed to be kind of creepy, so I’m planning to read this one in October.
  5. I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman. I’m a sucker for discounts and Barnes and Noble exclusive editions. This is the third B&N exclusive that I bought in March, though it didn’t arrive until April. It’s been years since I’ve read a Gayle Forman book, but I have liked what I’ve read and this newest novel features four lost souls helping each other find their way.  Plus the cover looks perfect for spring, and now that the snow is finally gone here it finally feels like spring.
  6. Circe, by M Miller. I’ve heard some great things about this book and I do love Greek mythology. I caved and bought the beautiful UK edition, which is possibly the prettiest book on my shelf to date. I was hoping to read this one within the month but it just arrived days ago and I haven’t had time yet. I’m planning to get to it in May.
  7. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Here is one of my April Book of the Month selections. I let myself break my one-BOTM-book-per-month rule for 2018 because birthdays only come once a year and what better (self-)gift than books? This one is a memoir, a genre I’ve been especially enjoying this year. This one follows an African girl through disaster in Rawanda and eventually to the US as she tries to move on from the war in her past.
  8. Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall. My second April BOTM selection is a Gillian Flynn-approved thriller set to release in May. I like early finished copies and I loved Flynn’s books, so this seemed like an obvious choice. But I read this one already and didn’t actually like it much. It’s about a weird sex-game gone wrong, but it was more than the plot that went wrong for me with this one. (Click the title to see my full review.)
  9. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule. And this is the April BOTM selection I was most excited for, a sci-fi drama about a man who wakes up one morning with certain prophecies about the future. I’m really bummed that I didn’t read this one within the month, but my BOTM box arrived so late in April that I only picked up the one that I thought would be the fastest read, and I decided to save this one for a time when I could read it more leisurely. I’m hoping that’ll be really soon now.
  10. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. I mentioned in March’s book haul that I’ve been in a mood for some YA fantasy, and while I haven’t actually read much of that lately, this craving has still been influencing my book buying. Here’s a first-in-a-series YA fantasy that I know absolutely nothing about other than the series has been getting pretty high reviews. Also it’s won an award, which seems promising.
  11. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. I don’t know much about the premise of this book either, but I do know it’s a completed trilogy that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and it’s becoming a movie soon. This is probably the next YA fantasy I’ll read, and hopefully that’ll happen soon because I feel a bad habit in the making, of buying rather than reading when I’m in a certain reading mood. That seems counterproductive.
  12. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake. Same fantasy-craving reasoning, although I do know a bit more about the premise of this one. Three princesses must battle each other for the throne of their kingdom. I believe these sisters possess different kinds of magic, and they’re trying to kill each other subtly rather than the usual brutal duel-to-the-death stuff. This is the first book in a trilogy that’s going to end later this year, so I’m hoping to get on board before the final book is released.

bookhaul4.18

And that’s a wrap. 12 (technically 17) new books living with me now, and I’ve read 2 of them. I wish that I could have read every single one of these books in April because these are the books I’ve been excited about lately (and also because my TBR is feeling out of control again). But April was kind of a disappointing reading month for me (wrap-up coming tomorrow) and these new books are just staring me down now, making me feel guilty for buying more than I could handle. New books are exciting, and I’m ending the month 90% happy with my purchases, but… also with renewed determination to stick to my 3-book goal next month so I can read as I go instead of letting things pile up.

Which new books did you buy or read this month? Have you read any from this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

I’m still waiting for my April Book of the Month box to arrive, but it’s taking so long that it’s throwing off my reading. Instead of spending this extra time reading more from my BOTM backlog, I’ve been checking out library copies of past BOTM selections that I don’t own. First Goodbye, Vitamin and now Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was also a contender for BOTM’s 2017 book of the year.

sing,unburied,singAbout the book: Jojo, Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live in Mississippi with Leonie’s parents. Leonie isn’t well-equipped for childcare, so Jojo takes care of his baby sister Kayla, and their grandparents make sure  both children are fed and housed and shown some kindness and attention. Leonie’s boyfriend, the father of her children, has been in jail for three years but he’s getting out now. Leonie plans to take her bad-news best friend (who also has a boyfriend in the same facility) and her reluctant children to retrieve him. Jojo doesn’t particularly like his father, Kayla has never met him, and their grandmother is very sick at home. They don’t want to make the trip. But Leonie gives them no choice, and there’s a bit of destiny involved. At the prison, they pick up an extra passenger– a ghost that only the children can see, a stuck soul with ties to their family.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

I’ve read one of Ward’s works in the past: her memoir, Men We Reaped. I loved her writing style and the concepts she worked into that story, but in the end I felt like she had just scratched the surface, like she could reach the meat of the story but was trying too hard to make it elaborate and some of its potential was lost in the process. It was the sort of book that left me feeling like she maybe hadn’t quite gotten into the swing of things yet and I should check back in with a later publication. So I picked up her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing; a lot of people seem to love it and it was nominated for plenty of awards. But ultimately I had the same experience as with Men We Reaped: I loved the ideas behind the story and I’m so sure that something Ward writes will be a strong favorite for me, but Sing, Unburied, Sing wasn’t it.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

The main plot of the book (this is premise, not spoiler territory) is Leonie (and crew)’s trip to the jail to retrieve her boyfriend. So much of the main story line takes place in the car, or on the stops they have to make during the journey. Although a few interesting things do happen during that trip, it’s the least exciting part of the book. It doesn’t give the reader much new information about the family, except for some of the backstory and ruminations that surface at that time which could have been written in other ways without that long trip.

The point of the journey, from a plotting perspective, is the encounter with Richie. Richie was a friend of Jojo’s grandfather, and is a ghost at the time of Jojo’s story. Richie’s is one of three first-person perspectives in the book (along with Jojo’s and Leonie’s), but the strongest parts of his story are the parts we see through other characters’ eyes. Richie’s backstory was the most impactful part of the book for me, but his perspective chapters also seemed the most bland and/or unbelievable. I like a supernatural twist, usually. My problem with Richie wasn’t that he was a ghost, but rather that he spent so much time trying to convey what it felt like to be a ghost though none of his description seemed new or surprising as far as ghost characters go.

The supernatural aspect was not a total wash for me, though. By the end of the book, when Jojo sees birds in a tree and is beginning to understand the lingering nature of wrongs done to African Americans, I felt all the sadness and creepiness and outrage that it seemed I was supposed to, though the otherworldly life/death/magic details near the end were stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. The image of the birds in the tree is strong enough on its own, in my opinion, and the points Jesmyn makes with it saved the story for me after the crossing-over chaos nearly ruined it.

Though parts of the book seemed boring or unnecessary, I was reminded right away in the first chapter why I was trying again with Ward, and why I’ll probably pick up another of her books in the future: her writing is visceral and beautiful, her insights sharp and her emotions radiant. Though very little actually happens to Jojo throughout this book, he’s extremely sympathetic and easily my favorite character. His grandparents are unique and fascinating, with a wealth of history to share. Even Leonie (and her boyfriend, though we don’t see as much of him) who we’re not meant to like, is humanized in a way that helped me understand her questionable motives even when I did not remotely agree with them. Ward has talent, especially with character.

“But I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.”

And the best part is the culture she captures so vividly. There is better representation in American literature with every passing year, but Ward’s voice still stands out. She shows the significance of familiar history in new and evocative ways.

But after convincing me that the past is important, I wish she had ended Sing, Unburied, Sing with an eye toward the future, to leave me with more to think about after closing the cover on this book. I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything but the image of the birds in the tree pretty quickly, though as long as that sticks with me I’ll know I have the most important piece.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The writing style in this book kept me engaged, even in the places where I doubted the story. I still feel that Ward has so much potential, but I think Men We Reaped has already stuck with me longer than Sing, Unburied, Sing ever will. I will probably try again with a future publication of Ward’s, assuming there will be one. I’m so sure that I’m going to love one of her books eventually, but it wasn’t this one. She has important things to say, and I can see why it’s been a popular choice, but I didn’t find as much here as I hoped for.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for another novel from a writer of color about the current impact of a long history of racism, try Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which features a modern family torn by injustice and jail time minus the focus on ghosts and magic. This is a great choice for someone looking to read about social issues of race without the magical realism element.
  2. If, like me, you appreciate the messages that Sing, Unburied, Sing has to offer more than the way they’re offered, let me recommend Ward’s Men We Reaped. Although this book is a memoir, it reads as easily as fiction and its messages are emphasized by the truth behind them. This book focuses on recent deaths and despair as a result of past racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!

goodbye,vitaminAbout the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.

Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.

“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”

Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.

“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”

I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.

As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.

“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.

Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Power

While I’m (still…) waiting for my April selections from Book of the Month, I decided to dip into my backlog from last year again. As glad as I am that I’ve finally read Naomi Alderman’s much-discussed novel, The Power, I really wish I had found the time to read this one back in October when it was new. From the colors and sci-fi details on the cover to the otherworldliness of this story, this would’ve been a perfect Halloween read.

thepowerAbout the book: All over the world, women begin to develop the power to conduct electricity through their hands. From a wide range of reactions– panic, discouragement, anger– emerges a new world order. Women upend religion, politics, and social norms as they take back their right to live without fear, although in relatively little time equality is not enough and the women seek to reign supreme. Men are afraid to leave their homes, to speak their minds.  As the world becomes more and more unstable in the face of such a sudden and incontrovertible shift in the power dynamic, a major war looms on the horizon, the result of which will determine who will write the laws and enforce order.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The Power is narrated in the third person, in chapters that follow four main characters and a few minor ones. The major perspectives are vastly different, focusing on a mayor interested in climbing the political ladder, a newly independent foster child with an abusive past and a penchant for religion, the illegitimate daughter of a gang lord, and a college student who begins reporting/documenting the change in power dynamic after a confusing sexual experience. The first three of these characters are female, and all four are from different corners of the world. The minor characters are friends/relatives of the major characters. All of the chapters are labelled by character name until their stories start to intersect at the end of the novel.

And all of that is interspersed with drawings of “artifacts” with historical descriptions that depict life “thousands of years ago,” which is actually our near future. The whole story is bookended by written correspondence between the fictional man who has  written this historical novel and Alderman, a friend and early reader.

What worked and didn’t: the character chapters are easy to follow, though occasionally the narration slips from the chapter’s titular character to someone nearby. The artifact drawings interested and amused me, especially after I read Alderman’s explanation of their realness and significance at the end of the book. They seem randomly placed and only abstractly relevant to the overall story, but I liked them. The correspondence between fictional Neil and Naomi was hit-or-miss: in the beginning it confused me, but at the end, it helped explain the story and give a framework that made certain details more significant. And it ended on a great note about publishing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender in order for your work to be “taken seriously.” I’ve never been more sure about using my own name if I get published.

“There are no shortcuts. Not to understand and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone into a box. Listen, even a stone isn’t the same as any other stone, so I don’t know where you all think you get off labeling humans with simple words and thinking you know everything you need. But most people can’t live that way, even some of the time.”

There are several great lines about power and gender in this book. The concept of the story is fascinating. But in all honesty, I wish I had just read a 5-10 page sample with the concept outlined and the great quotes listed because I think the benefit would’ve been the same. Most of the book was a boring and even unpleasant reading experience for me.

Here are some reasons why: It’s very episodic, and the tension just isn’t there for me when the plot hops around so much. Most of the characters are pretty meh; I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t really like them either. The whole story is very political, which can feel a bit tedious when the politics are hypothetical dystopian projections of real world politics. There’s a lot of violence that I found uncomfortable to read at times, including limbs torn from bodies, multiple rapes, painful electrocutions; a lot of these things are done for the sake of cruelty and/or sadistic sexual pleasure.

“Power doesn’t care who uses it. […] It just says: Yes. Yes, I can. Yes. You’ve got this.”

The worst aspect , in my opinion, is the feminism. That sounds blasphemous. I know “feminism” means equality for all genders, not empowerment for females. And there are some great lines and points made in this book toward general gender equality. But a lot of the novel takes female empowerment to extremes; it became painful to read about how women would turn the world into a chaotic violent mess if they had the choice to do so. It didn’t feel much like a reason to advocate for more female rights in the real world. None of the main female characters in this book are selfless or gentle or particularly kind, and even when I sympathized with them the thought of making them leaders was concerning.

But the biggest problem for me with the feminism in this book is that it seems like it’s trying to tackle too much. It’s trying to show how harmful to society a dominant gender can be, no matter which gender. It’s trying to show what the world might be like if women were in charge, both in peace and wartime. But the world of The Power is not the same as our modern world, and while it was trying to show these new possibilities, it does so with an eye toward more familiar injustices by pushing (unfortunately common) cases of today’s female victimization to their opposites. And the balance of real and imagined gender issues just don’t quite match up into one coherent picture.

“One had done the thing to a boy because he asked her to: this story holds much interest for the girls. Could it be that boys like it? Is it possible they want it? Some of them have found internet forums that suggest that this is the case.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And I did like parts of it. But in the end it was the sort of book that I liked being able to think about in the aftermath more than during the actual reading process. It’s a great concept, upending the gender power dynamic to demonstrate the need for gender equality, but The Power felt more like a thought experiment than a polished story. I can see why it’s been getting the attention it has, and it deserves the credit for the conversations about equality it starts. But I wouldn’t say I had a fun time reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight is another recent release that turns familiar gender dynamics around to put women in power. This one is also sci-fi, but it’s a lot more adventure-driven than political, and it’s a lot more fun.

Do you have any great feminist fiction reads to recommend for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Rainbirds

It’s so weird that I’ve read my Book of the Month Club pick early. Somehow I got into the habit of saving it for the last few days of the month, but now March is only half over and I’m done reading my March book, but it’s still too early to start anticipating what the next selections will be. I have plenty to read in the meantime (including some backlogged BOTM books), but still. It’s weird. This month I chose Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds.

rainbirdsAbout the book: Ren Ishida’s sister, Keiko, has died. Due to an estrangement with her parents, Ren is the one who goes to Akakawa to collect her belongings and make inquiries with the police. She was clearly murdered, and though there seem to be no leads, Ren decides to stay in town for awhile and uncover what truths he can by virtually stepping into his sister’s life. He takes her job and living accommodations on a temporary basis, makes friends and acquaintances, and jogs the route along which she was killed. He learns a lot about his sister’s life, but at such a pivotal moment in his own career and love life his time in Akakawa is sure to change Ren’s life too.

I chose this book because I’ve read so little fiction set in Japan and I wanted a glimpse of that culture. Also the cover is bright and beautiful and perfect for spring. But ultimately I chose it because I’ve been in the mood for some contemplative literary fiction lately and I’d heard that this book was supposed to explore the grief of a man who had just lost his sister. I did find that here, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

My first surprise was that there’s an element in this book that’s a little… paranormal? Magical? Ren has dreams about real people who are not actually present in his life. The dreams are maybe trying to tell him something, but in the end I found them more tone-setting than revelatory. Some of the details of these dreams are not at all realistic, and they don’t always seem directly symbolic, either. But they do have their place in Ren’s journey to the truth.

I suppose I would say Rainbirds fits into the mystery genre more than any other.  Though most of the clues are stumbled upon or gifted to Ren, he does the work of piecing them together himself. This book is full of surprises and the reader spends much of the tale trying to piece together what happened right along with the characters. But that element felt more like a background intrigue in a deeper story of self-discovery. Ren is grieving, recovering, and growing in this book, and though he is focused on his sister, it is a focus centered around saying goodbye and moving on with his own life. He never intends to stay in Akakawa indefinitely.

“She would never call me again, so I didn’t want to hear the phone ring. I closed my eyes. What was I doing here, all by myself in this town?”

Unfortunately, so much of this story centers around emotion, and I just didn’t feel it. Ren’s narration is thought-provoking and completely readable– once I’d picked the book up I couldn’t put it down, and the chapters flew by– but his reactions are so mild that mine were, too. I expected outrage and devastation from Ren’s confrontations with the murder suspects and the new insights into Keiko’s life, but I found only tepid wariness and surprise. When he considers that he might be in love, his attention shifts to his “urges” rather than any hint of excitement or pain. He speaks bluntly on occasion, but the only indications that he is as affected inside as his outward speech suggests are simple things like a refusal to drink his coffee, or a desire to stand out in the rain. There can be power in a quiet book, but with this one I needed more fire. As much as I enjoyed this plot and these characters, I know I’ll forget them quickly because they lacked the spark that would give them importance in my character-driven book-loving heart.

“There are enough single people in Japan to form a colony. There’s no need to involve me.”

On a smaller note, I found it a little confusing and conflicting that Ren could to care so much about his sister but doesn’t want to keep any of her things. I save everything, but I know not everyone does and there’s nothing wrong with either option. Still, I was left a little cold at the burning of some of Keiko’s belongings, the selling of her most personalized possessions at a bad price just to be rid of them, the requesting that his friend dispose of the urn after the ashes are scattered because Ren’s got other plans. I guess I just wanted to understand his reasoning better than the phrase “I don’t need these things” allows.

“I loaded my belongings into the trunk of the car. ‘I don’t know how I ended up with more things.’ ‘That’s always the case,’ Honda said with a laugh. ‘As time goes by, you get more and more baggage. It’s why we do spring cleaning every year, isn’t it?’ “

I was also a little put off by some of the male characters’ attitudes toward women, incluing Ren’s. There are times he’s very respectful toward certain women, but other times not. He recalls early experiences with sex as “conquests,” he lies about his identity to pick up women with his friends, he’s relieved to be caught cheating on one particular occasion because he’d been wanting to break up with his girlfriend and just didn’t know how to do it. Luckily, these were mostly small details woven into the backstory rather than major plot points, but I just don’t enjoy reading about women being perceived that way.

Despite my hangups, Rainbirds was one of those books that stuck inside my head to the point where when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly thinking about what would happen next and how the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. So I spent a couple of days reading more than I planned, and sped through the whole book. It wasn’t just the mystery that kept me wondering, but the new relationships Ren was forming, and the revelations being unearthed from his childhood. I was hooked on the characters all around, even if I did know that interest would wane when I reached the end of the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had fun reading this book, which I think explains my rating. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I didn’t feel like it was the sort of book I should have fun with. I just didn’t connect with the grief and loss and love at the core of this story, though I did enjoy reading about Japanese culture and the characters’ unique backstories. I’m glad I read this one. But I know I’m going to be looking for something very different in next month’s BOTM selections.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Philosopher’s Flight

I was in the mood to read something unusual this month, and Tom Miller’s new release (also a February Book of the Month Club selection), The Philosopher’s Flight, absolutely fit the bill.

thephilosopher'sflightAbout the book: Robert Weekes is a male sigrlist in a world of female sigilrists. No one knows why, but women are the dominant power in Empirical Philosophy, a brand of science condemned by many as a sort of evil magic because its drawers of sigils can do cool things like fly. Robert grew up in the shadow of his war-hero sigilrist mother and three practicing sisters who told him he was good– for a boy. But now he’s 18 and wants to join the Rescue & Evacuation division of the Corps. It’s 1917 and he wants to join the war effort as the first male Corpswoman. To do so, he’ll have to prove himself a million times over, as a student at an all-girls college, as a hoverer who can pull his weight, as a medalist in the General’s Cup, and so much more. He makes new friends, finds new causes, falls in love– but is a happy life as a good siligrist “for a boy” enough to make him give up a dream he could lose everything chasing?

” ‘Everyone ought to have a dream, Mr. Weekes,’ Addams said. ‘But the time comes when you have to put childish things away and face the world as it is.’ “

This is one of a very few episodic stories that I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. For some reason the narrative style of stringing together lots of small adventures rather than one major plot arc just hasn’t been jiving with my reading preferences in a long while, but every now and then I still stumble across one that’s addictively compelling. The Philosopher’s Flight was one of those.

“I’ve never killed a man. But I have separated many an enemy from a fresh supply of oxygen and allowed him to breathe himself to death.”

The book starts from a future perspective, and each chapter starts with an excerpt from relevant (fictional) political writings that relate to current plot points or emotions. These details give away some answers; for instance, the reader knows who will survive the year when the characters start appearing in writings from future years. But, as with many episodic tales, the excitement is in the journey rather than the destination.

Those excerpts, despite their revelatory nature, are a great touch in Miller’s world-building, as is the appendix at the back of the book with further info on certain sigils that come into play in the narrative. I always check the page count of a book before I start, which is how I noticed that appendix, but I’m glad I did; I liked reading those sigil sections as they became relevant to the story rather than all at once after finishing the book. There aren’t reminders to match the chapters of the story to the sigil info in the back, so I had to shuffle back and forth a bit, but those extra details really made the story feel more credible, more complete, even as bizarre as the world is. Though it takes place in historical US, so much of the history is different with the addition of Empirical Philosophy that it doesn’t feel much like the real world, and every detail helps.

This book is… wacky, to say the least. It’s a little magical, a little scientific, a little historic, dips into modern social issues, and tackles every angle with a mix of humor and thoughtfulness that leaves the reader chuckling without removing some more serious undertones. The reader never knows what to expect, and Miller is clearly having his fun with creative license.

“We were a couple of dull young people in love, besotted, barely conscious of the hubbub around us. But that’s just the sort of moment when the gods decide they ought to lay you low.”

But under all the zany details, this is a book that flips the gender dynamic (women are most powerful) and keeps the reader thinking about the ways gender bias still exists in our real world. As interesting as I found that angle throughout the story, I was constantly on the fence about its effectiveness. There are some great lines that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s something I’m so used to in today’s society that I’ve hardly even noticed that it’s a problem,” but there were other lines about Robert fighting for recognition as a man that disappointed me, like even in a world when women have the advantage, the man we’re supposed to be sympathizing with is pushing to get to the top. In the end, I do think this story is advocating for gender equality rather than giving anyone an edge, and I know that’s a narrow line to walk, but there were instances when I thought it skewed a little too far one way or the other. Some of the women seemed unreasonably cruel, and Robert faces prejudice for being a male sigilrist that feels at times more like a challenge for real women to dive into the unfair aspects of a male-dominant world and fight through them, rather than an acknowledgment that such prejudices do exist and that there should be effort made on all sides of the problem.

“Devastatingly handsome men such as myself had to be on guard against city women, who were known to be brazenly forward in their attempts to corrupt the flower of American youth.”

” ‘Well,’ Ma said. ‘Maybe he’ll find himself a rich wife out there and support me in my old age. At any rate, it sounds like a grand adventure.’ “

But as doubtful as I occasionally was about the way Miller tackled the gender gap, I never came across any statements that actually turned me away from the book, and coming so close to the edge as it does kept me constantly thinking about what’s okay to accept from other people and what’s not, which is a worthwhile result for any novel.

“It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would definitely read a sequel, but I have no idea if there will ever be one. This was such a fun read, but not the sort of fun that’s insubstantial. This is the kind of book that makes me appreciate Book of the Month Club– I probably would not have heard about this book otherwise, I chose it on a whim, and it was a quality read. Weird, but in a good way. I can’t wait for next month’s selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shares a lot of similarities to Miller’s new book; if you’re looking for a bizarre but engrossing novel about a magical branch of science with its own schools and applications, try Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It takes place in the modern rather than historical world, and it’s full of plot twists and unexpected changes of direction for the reader who’s a fan of the unpredictable.

Do you prefer fantasy/sci-fi stories full of imaginative details, or more contemporary stories that relate to the real world? Some combination of both?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant