Thursday, November 26, 2015

How I Killed My Best Friend-Amanda Michalpoulou

How I Killed My Best Friend-Amanda Michalpoulou

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 258
gender: F
nationality: Greece
year: 2003
novel in translation

Maria and Anna are both outsiders in their school and become best friends. This is the story of how that ended up so dysfunctional. Note: no actual murder.

This is a bit of an intense book. Set at a time when many Greek families were returning to Greece to reaffirm a monoculture, these two girls, one from Africa and the other from France, are drawn to each other while young. Then with the sinister pull of puberty, their friendship morphs and twists into a dysfunctional and abusive relationship. Many girls have found themselves in such friendships at one point (at a different intensity-my experiences were certainly mild) and Michalpoulou really captures the interdependence of destruction. They are set against the environment of ideology and political clashes-a hard to express environment for me though I trip over it on a daily basis-which is specifically Greek which lends a lot of authenticity and depth to already well-developed characters. Well written with good pacing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Riccarton Junction-W. Scott Beavan

Riccarton Junction- W. Scott Beavan

the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 244
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

Kikarin is upset about moving to the middle of nowhere Scotland but thankfully she has a project about a disappeared town to occupy her mind.


This may have been the worst book I've read this year. I'm not even sure where I can start to describe how and why I hated this so much.

Okay, my main problem was just how creepy and voyeuristic the book was. While the main character, Kikarin, is talking and swearing that she is a feminist and an intellectual and such, the prose is so entirely male gaze I wanted to vomit. There is a weird obsession with how she looks, how good she looks, how her legs in her skirt are looking, and how everyone just looks at her wanting sex. EURGH! I felt like I was inside the head of a man who would defund planned parenthood while saying that he has no problem with a woman having sex. I mean, great, thanks for saying that but let's have your actions support your talk and honestly, even at puberty not EVERY single interaction has something to do with sex! And don't get me started on how insisting that your main character is sexy BUT YOUNG is a creepy thing to repeat over and over.

Next main problem was the prose. I have edited documents written by people whose fifth language is English whose prose flows better than this does. Stilted, short sentences without any segues or flow are the rule of the game here. We are treated to the tritest, minute and mundane details in excess. She wore this BRAND NAME green shirt, and these BRAND NAME trousers, and went downstairs. She put on this BRAND NAME jacket. I wanted to shout SHUT UP. Whole scenes occurred where I could not perceive why they were included. They gave me no background as to why I should like her (except that maybe it's just that she's pretty) or care about her project (oh! I forgot, she's pretty AND smart so automatically I care about her project). Every step is accounted for it would feel and yet. YET. things would happen and you'd be blindsided by them. No build up, no increase of tension so when things happened, it was like a sucker punch. Suddenly something weird was happening and characters ceased moving at the pace of treacle. They were, also, about as short as a sucker punch  because the 'climax' would happen, you'd blink and you were back in the world of Kikarin talking about how she opened the window and then did some dishes using some dish soap. 'Traumatic thing happened' Kikarin would say and you'd be like, huh? I was there and didn't see it?

Truly awful reading experience. Should have spent more time editing and shorn off some of those 'subplots' that were underdeveloped and just confusing.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Tightrope-Simon Mawer

Tightrope-Simon Mawer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel (sequel)

Marion Sutro is now no longer a spy. She's a normal person. Well, not really. Here she tells her story of her civilian life during the Cold War. Simultaneously Sam tells us about this heroine he knew all his life, named Marion Sutro.

A very entertaining read-Mawer tends to write historical fiction about women undercover in WWII that ends up almost light hearted (I felt the same way after finishing The Girl who Fell from the Sky). It's hard to describe but while the reading experience is enjoyable, it's not because it's particularly revelatory. Perhaps, there's just something very familiar about the story-the difficulty of a spy to adjust back into civilian life? That's not to say that Mawer skimps on his research because he has not met a detail he does not include. This can mean that sometimes there's too much detail and the middle did seem to drag on a bit as I was absorbing all that detail about the development of atomic weapons but Mawer does write strong female leads who belong to the period he is writing in. So Marion is progressive and unlike most other women for her period (as the narrator, Sam points out regularly through juxtaposition) but she is never anachronistic which is a very difficult balance that Mawer strikes well. To be honest, I was sort of annoyed by Sam and his hero(ine) worship at first but as the book progressed he won me over and redeemed himself as Mawer shifts through events as felt by Marion and witnessed from the outside to produce what is in the end an intriguing biography of an interesting woman who moves from youthful optimism to something more adult while refusing to directly fit in.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Seed Collectors-Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collections-Scarlett Thomas

the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

There is a seed pod left behind to each of Oleander's heirs. It may belong to the species that killed their mothers and each heir has a different life and reaction to their shared pasts.

The last Thomas I read I sort of enjoyed but hated the ending. I figured I'd give her another try as she has quite a following and boy do I regret it.
I hated pretty much every character in the novel. I know it's not really a requirement to like characters in literature and I have loved reading some truly terrible people but these characters are not people-they're stereotypes. Instead of actually developing characters and having them develop as the time goes on in the novel, Thomas instead takes archetypes and one dimensional cardboard cut outs and then pretends they are interacting with each other instead of being pieces of cardboard thinking solely of cardboard. I mean, really, one of the female characters worries she is fat and so we're treated to pages and pages that are just pure calorie counting and the typical hypocrisies of the dieting. YAWN.
And then there is the plot. The interminable, slow plot where everyone is basically an asshole to each other and the 'secrets' are well known to everyone involved. Now, I have known families like this-the open secrets, the visible money, the ennui of the upper class pretending they are not rich and the cultural appropriation and so I know this is not Thomas's invention but goodness, it did not make for good reading. Everything was just so...dull? done a bazillion times before? The professor justifying his obsession with a student, the lovers who cannot be together. And the brand names. Really. Now Atwood too does brand names but at least she makes them up while after page of page of Thomas's writing, I was worried that this was not a novel but rather a collection of dull paid-for advertising writing bits thrown together.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How We Learn-Benedict Carey

How We Learn:the surprising truth of when and how it happens-Benedict Carey

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non-fiction

Science reporter Benedict Carey gathers together multiple threads of current learning research to cover all of the bases.


Accessibly and clearly written. Whenever Carey quotes from dense text, he then proceeds to explain it in a different way and that makes all the difference between this being a dry primer to learning research to what is what actually an engaging primer. Now, I am the sort of person who has always been the type of student Carey describes with jealousy (I never study and retain what I read without much fuss in addition to being a good test-taker) so much of the results really don't surprise me unlike what the subtitle promises. Much of what Carey suggests to optimize your learning, I do instinctively but nevertheless I enjoyed it and that is down to Carey's clarity of writing. This is the type of book that you can read easily and it bleeds into your ideas about how to train that new person at work whose learning style is not your own. To the subtitle's promise, it does clearly demonstrate why you should not study in large long blocks in quiet environments (the students who live in the library who I've always sworn were doing it wrong were indeed doing it wrong *cue superiority complex*) and concisely summarizes the really confusing recent sleep research (something I've struggled to get a real handle on beyond the vague stages theory).
Seriously, are you a teacher, liable to be responsible for training someone at a job or simply someone who wants to optimize your non-fiction reading? Take a look at this.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Landfalls-Naomi J. Williams

Landfalls-Naomi J. Williams
the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 351
gender: F
nationality: Japan
year: 2015
novel

A fictionalized account of the failed French scientific journey that meant to challenge Cook's expedition.


When you hear that this is the story of a failed sailing journey you think you know what to expect. Sailors, scholars, and officers setting off in optimism, not knowing, as you do, that they are sailing to their death with all the melodrama you can handle.

This is not one of those novels. No, what Williams does is much more subtle. She doesn't focus on the overall tragedy, she instead takes you on a journey via numerous narrators who all experience their own tragedies. These tragedies are big and small, personal and collective. Instead of an account of desperation, Williams is writing a series of stories about missed connections. From the beginning story of the expedition engineer picking up equipment to the final story about a ship checking the maps made, you get the sense of things that could have been gained but were lost. Friendships and partnerships that could have been and aren't, friendships that must end because duty decrees it, partnerships that fail to support those in it, and friends who support each other despite their disagreements but are rent asunder. As such, this book worms its way inside in a way that a more typical historical fiction writing style simply would not. The voices of the narrators are different and the people they encounter are varied and unpredictable but this is a story of trying to make connections even with those with whom you cannot communicate and as such it becomes timeless. Yes, there is a lot of French pride and superiority and a strong colonialist bent to the mission but still, the struggle to connect could be in any setting.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lost Art of Sinking-Naomi Booth

Lost Art of Sinking-Naomi Booth
the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 137
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novella

A girl romanticizes the perfect arch of her back during a faint and seeks the perfect audience for her greatest arched back.


I liked the way Booth writes. It is like a gently burbling brook, a languid prose perfectly suited for the subject matter of fainting. Nothing is really jarring and it just laps at your toes.
I hated just about everything else. I spent the entire reading of this thankfully short book (137pg) railing against the utterly weak and pointless life of Esther. She does things that are inexplicable but not in an interesting way and is so totally unaware of a 'secret' that is so obvious from the start that really just beggared belief. I hated her mother's character-the sheer vanity really removed any sympathy from my reading and therefore Esther was just more pathetic seeming. I mean, the blurb talks about obsession but really this book was about surrendering and passively floating through life like it doesn't exist. Her actions are empty, her relationships superficial and I really wanted to beat her up. I kept hoping the pace would pick up and then /something/ would happen but thankfully the book ended instead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Star Side of Bird Hill-Naomi Jackson

The Star Side of Bird Hill-Naomi Jackson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 304
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2015
novel

2 sisters find themselves under the care of their grandmother, an obeah, in Barbados following their mother's mental illness in Brooklyn.


An absolutely lovely coming of age tale. Jackson deftly moves back and forth from Barbados and Brooklyn weaving in the two worlds and the two sisters, of vastly different age experiences, together with prose that is strong and lyrical. I use lyrical because there is such a flow to the narrative that is sometimes interrupted by the dialogue-much like an internal narrative is jolted by reality and the conversations it cannot control. Well done. Both girls are strong characters-Dionne who took care of her sister while trying desperately to fit in and Phaedra who embraced her own difference and watches to see how to handle things. Hyacinth, the grandmother, has reactions to the actions of her charges that seem so natural and that is due to the strength of Jackson's prose. This novel lingers. I also definitely enjoyed this because it's not often a perspective we find in literature-poor West Indian that does not dwell on the poverty or the history but rather captures a more contemporary, 'insiders' viewpoint. Jackson avoids archetypes-Hyacinth is going through issues of her own, Dionne makes you want to shake her to her senses-and shines an unflinching light on their lives.
But also, Phaedra. I fell in love with that girl.