Thursday, October 29, 2015

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth-Barbara Neely

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth-Barbara Neely

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 232
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 1995
novel

Blanche White is a domestic worker who is dedicated to providing her children the best education possible which means going to an exclusive school. When they are invited to the exclusive resort, long the bastion for the rich black community. Blanche is an outsider, both in race (her skin is darker than anyone else there) and class and yet gets embroiled in the solving of the two mysterious deaths that have occurred.

Well Blanche, I would like to hang out with you (though part of me fears I'd be too light for you). Though this is a mystery story, the mystery plays a background role to what Neely is actually interested in exploring which is race and class relations. Blanche experiences her race in way that makes it at the forefront of her life. She confronts it from white people as well as from the talented tenth (as Du Bois defined the leadership of black people-later this term has been conflated with those that can pass more easily i.e. have lighter skin) and then the kicker, her children who she watches learning the shame of dark skin. That this book was written in the 1990s and is still highly relevant today is an indictment of American society really. I'd say that Neely is perhaps too fervent and direct about her true objective in writing (seriously, there is a mystery story somewhere in here but you'd easily forget that) but I was fascinated since I genuinely liked Blanche.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Swell-Ioanna Karystiani

Swell-Ioanna Karystiani

the facts
satisfaction: down/side
pages: 272
gender: F
nationality: Greece
year: 2010
novel in translation

Mistos Avgustìs is a revered sea captain who has not been back home in decades, not even to know his son. This is the story of his last journey where he confronts a major storm and the trepidation of returning to land.

Had I not been stuck on a plane, I would not made it even halfway through this. Karystiani just writes on and on in this manner that feels so self-consciously pretty. There's a sort of detachment to her prose that keeps the reader a further distance from the plot. I couldn't really tell my traveling companions what the book was about while I was reading. I was just overwhelmed by how bored I was. I think that this detachment was intentional because the main character, Mitsos the sea captain, was so self-isolating. By the time the novel finished off and we learn the defining aspect of Mitsos's life, I summoned some admiration but I'd been so at arms length that it didn't really make a difference.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Sex and the Founding Fathers-Thomas A. Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past- Thomas A. Foster

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 232
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, history

An academic text examining the ways that the American public redefines the Founding Fathers to be in accord with the morals and ideas of the time.


So, you're a typical student in the USA, what do you learn about the Founding Fathers? Oh, they were impeachable men-good in every way and by the way, you should trust politicians, they know better. You hit middle school and there's schoolkid giggling over Jefferson's potential mistress but you know what, Washington remains impeccable and Adams was silly in love and by the time you hit high school, you don't even care anymore because you've heard it all before (or at least, that's my story). This is a book about why that is true. Foster exposes all the fiction in the narratives we're taught because let's face it, the Founding Fathers were actual human beings who wrote things and lived full lives. But now, centuries after their victories, they had to be rewritten, never doubted and this is what Foster is really considering. To be proper heroes, they have to be purely masculine ideals so Washington becomes muscular (instead of "awkwardly put together") while also skirting around the American tendency to prudishness (unless it happened in France, like in the case of Franklin who had a lot of sex for a 70-80 year old, but you know, the French). If you want to actually know about the sex lives of the Founding Fathers, you're welcome to try to read between the lines of their correspondence and come to your own conclusions (inevitably colored by your own perceptions) just like every previous biographer has done as Foster points out in each chapter dedicated to an individual Founding Father including one you may not remember (Morris).

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dumb House-John Burnside

Dumb House-John Burnside

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 198
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1990
novel

Luke is obsessed with the question of whether language is innate or learned and doesn't flinch from repeating Akbar's experiment.


Okay so I was expecting something like Burnside's fellow countryman, Iain Banks (whose Wasp Factory cast a pall over the sunny picnic I read it at). Something well written but ultimately a bit too unnerving and twisted. Burnside's prose however, is just amazing. He takes what is a truly twisted character-a man who is conducting science experiments to see if children develop language even if they are not exposed to language-and with his prose makes it all somehow dreamy. I was riveted, I could barely take my attention away which was amazing considering I read this on Scotsrail. I need to read more Burnside as this is one of my favorite of the year. Morbid, twisted, like a train wreck with a main narrator who is utterly impenetrable and unlikeable yet clothed in just the pitch perfect, focused prose. I'm reminded of the morality explorations of  the movie, Saló and Robbe-Grillet's A Sentimental Novel but while those literally made me feel a bit ill and unwilling to think about them, Burnside made me think about it all.

I actually carried the physical copy of this book through a trip where I slept in 6 different beds/couches back home in order to reread it soon. On the same trip, I read and discarded 8 other books. If that doesn't tell you how much I loved this, I don't know what will.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Bones of You-Debbie Howells

The Bones of You-Debbie Howells

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 320
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

The daughter of a friend disappears and is found dead. This is the story of Kate's determination to be a good friend and to know.


A bit derivative to be honest with far too much reliance on stereotypical tropes. The idyllic town where you learn that you don't truly know what is happening behind the neighbor's doors and the disembodied voice of the dead teenager interspersed with real events are tropes that have become overdone and therefore too obvious. Syrupy prose with an astonishingly naive narrator, it was a bit too heavy handed with the foreshadowing. I don't know, I could see what was coming from like a mile off and so much of the journey was like a soap opera with such over dramatics. Yet, I found it charming in its own way anyway. Maybe it was the horses, though idealized, they provided a steady antidote to the over dramatics of the rest of the novel.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Around the World in 50 Years-Albert Podell

Around the World in 50 Years-Albert Podell


the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, travel memoir

Podell has traveled to every country on earth (yes, even Angola, Somalia, and those tiny Pacific islands), survived, and this is his book about it.


Well this was interesting but not particularly evocative? I mean to say that Podell has gone to every country on earth including ones that no longer exist and others that are active war zones. Not every country nor trip is described in this book (thank goodness, that'd be like 3000 pages) so obviously, the book covers the less visited countries (mostly Africa). Unfortunately, Podell primarily describes them as charmless choosing instead to tell us about his sexual escapades-particularly his interest in 20-somethings (even when 60+) which I definitely did not appreciate. Otherwise, it felt very realistic, like me telling stories about places I've been-some good compelling stories, a bit of local flavor, a hefty dose of bad luck, horrible airport stories etc. However, I like my travel writing to be a bit more evocative of local environments so it would have gotten hard to keep myself going had Podell not written thematically. I think the problem is that Podell had too much to talk about so we only got the most vibrant memories which psychology tells us are rarely the best ones. Had this been solely about Africa or the Pacific Rim, I probably would have been more charmed but unfortunately, this might have been too ambitious to fit into one book.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Monster-C.J. Skuse

Monster-C.J. Skuse

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel, YA

Around Bathory boarding house roams the Bathory Beast and this Christmas, Nash has to deal with the beast (who may be responsible for deaths), a missing brother, responsibility of fellow students, and losing out on Head Girl.

So at its heart it was rather transparent. We have the somewhat neurotic over achiever who, for personal growth, must fail at her task coupled with some external pressure. The rival, the rebel, the weird and creepy one, and the one who needs protection. We have the love interest, the danger interest, and of course, the red herring. Isolation and the removal of parents is the final piece of the typical YA set up. Yet Skuse sold me this novel. I ended it feeling somewhat charmed, like I'd spent some time in surprisingly pleasant company. I could have been rolling my eyes throughout but I ended up on the pleased side of the balance. The love interest handling is cringe worthy and the boarding school interactions were full of stereotypical slut shaming and catty drama but Nash, the main character, does act with sense otherwise. It's never a horror story per say but rather stays in the thriller category with many ironic nods to the horror genre. I enjoyed how Skuse takes you through the various monsters in plain sight-the mythical and real.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Cutting Season-Attica Locke

The Cutting Season-Attica Locke

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: USA (WoC)
year: 2012
novel

A body is found in the fields next to a former plantation, now tourist attraction, overseen by a daughter of the owners' cook and descendant of a slave who had worked the plantation fields.

Locke writes really well exploring the disquiet of modern African American identity. Her main character, Caren, is an excellent device for exploring race relations-the daughter of the cook now public manager of a plantation set open to the public. The threads of history stretch back to the Civil War. I don't actually know if I'm primed by fiction to constantly see the South of the US as haunted by the Civil War or whether it truly is but Locke offers an intriguing multi-dimensional character for the reader. The tensions on the plantation, both historical and between the current management vs actors in a tourist show, echo the tensions in the community at large (the small farmer vs the corporation, local vs immigrant) and of course, race is present throughout. There are a lot of parallelisms running throughout the novel-the undocumented victim, the slaves, the class difference between owner and worker-and sometimes Locke does lose the plot a little. The mystery is well set up and the prose is articulate and careful.
There was something though, that somewhat fell flat. I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I don't know what to blame really, I can only talk about a few bits and bobs that stick out. One is that Caren is the protagonist and is inadvertently tied up into the murder mystery but is never interested in investigating or finding out the truth. Instead, like in her own life, she lets herself be buffeted by the dangers and uncertainties while flailing in panic. She is almost numb except when she makes mindbogglingly bad choices and since we spend so much time in her head, following her, the slow pace lets you fully become irked by her.
I will definitely be trying Locke again, just you wait.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Age of Misrule-Mark Chadbourn

Age of Misrule-Mark Chadbourn (World's End, Darkest Hour, Always Forever)

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 1613
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2000-2002
novel, fantasy series

The world of the Celtic mythologies and Arthurian legends return to our modern day England. Dreadful creatures called Formorii, shape shifting nausea inducing hive mind warriers, want to wipe out the world while the Celtic gods may not be gods and they have their own agendas. Five ordinary people are told they are the Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon by a sixth human who was born in medieval Scotland and oh, yes, they have to save the world while acquiring many powers innate in them.

I  read all three books of this series in the same physical edition and it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that it was published in three parts, not as the 1000+pg beast I held in my hand so I am reviewing them all together.

Well. I have so many feelings about this trilogy that I'm not entirely sure where to start. I did really enjoy it, finished it in tears, but you know, there were so many flaws.

I so enjoyed the myths and fairytales as allegories-the connections made are delightful-in a world where they held the germs of the truth needed to navigate this new England as the fairies and dragons emerge into the real world once again and our technology disappears slowly. I thought the end of the world was handled really realistically which is something strange to be writing about a fantasy/science fiction series. It really was though-the secrecy, the generosity, the uncertainty, the living in the moment-all rang true. The fantasy battle scenes drove me crazy though-I'm actually not into big massive fantasy battles though so this is possibly just a personal pet peeve but when the swords do the fighting for you without any actual hard work I get cranky.
I loved the characters though. They were all flawed in just the right ways and sound bewildered, just like my friends and I do when we talk about how we're adults(o.O)...except that of course, the 5 in this book are finding out they're Brothers and Sisters of the Dragon and therefore the heroes of the land. But somehow, they traverse huge tracts of land in what seems like too little time while also doing really hard stuff. Chadbourn gives them a few days of recovery time here and there but seriously, sometimes it seemed like they'd driven and fought their way from the Highlands to the Peaks in less than the time it took me to take a train from Glasgow to Sheffield this summer-no technological failures along the way. Still, the bond they form (along with their guide-the 6th main character) is unmistakably real even as they become superhuman.
I'm a sucker for maritime fantasy books so when this showed up in the final book (?), I was delighted and rewarded. But then Chadbourn adds in these totally annoying and completely unnecessary hints that maybe this is all in Church's head and I grimaced so hard my friend asked if I was ok. I hesitate to recommend this series whole heartedly.

I enjoyed it despite the flaws but I also couldn't take it too seriously...

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The White Nile Diaries-John Hopkins

The White Nile Diaries-John Hopkins

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 256
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
non fiction, memoir

The diaries of an affluent white man in the 1960s traveling along the Nile with his friend and his love, a motorcycle.


Maybe I didn't really have enough context going into this book because I thought it was going to be like a travelogue-like a travel story with introspection and adventure. I mean, let's not get me wrong, there was loads of adventure but it was told in short staccato, brusque entries. I think I liked the book mainly because it was structured the way I structure my own travel 'writing'. I write down, daily, the basics of what I've done, where I've been, and sometimes I go into more detail. It works well for me because I can picture, from the sketchy details, the outlines of what I've done. Hopkins is more wordy than me but it felt the same? So there's a sort of intimacy which I was not expected. Also, much shorter than you'd expect and definitely worshipful of their motorcycle which admittedly did really well on quite an epic journey. Yes, staccato and intimate is how I'd describe this book....In addition, Hopkins is traveling during a period when many of these countries are actually still under colonial rule with tensions between whites and blacks uncomfortable. He interacts primarily with the white people, the army, and settlers, but is respectful of the blacks. He rarely succumbs to the poor black folks or savages talk that pervades much of the writing from this time and is instead a fair observer of his surroundings.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Alex Crow-Andrew Smith

The Alex Crow-Andrew Smith

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 304
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
novel

No summary possible for this novel.



Certainly weird and absurd-I loved it. The open ended ending was such a good choice and before that. Oh boy, there are the resurrected extinct animals with death wishes playing a small role (enough to give you an idea of the type of person their creator is) and a melting man who is going distinctly insane while being yelled at by Stalin and having his life narrated. The main protagonists are stuck at a summer camp wholly unsuited for them-the camp is meant for weaning technologically obsessed boys off technology-being paranoidly studied by a psychologist who makes her baseline of normality the abnormal boys and thus finds the 'normal' boys baffling. Oh, and Ariel, the survivor stuck in the middle of all of this.  That's really not all-there are a whole lot more subplots here. There are a lot of sharp corners and menacing people in this novel, lots of things briefly explained and left to fester, which was perfect for me. It's difficult to tell you what was going on but there was a lot and most of it was wickedly funny and surreal. Whirlwind too-when this finished, I felt like it was my first breath in awhile.