Bragan reads more books in 2018, Pt. 2

Dies ist die Fortführung des Themas Bragan reads more books in 2018, Pt. 1.

ForumClub Read 2018

Melde dich bei LibraryThing an, um Nachrichten zu schreiben.

Bragan reads more books in 2018, Pt. 2

Dieses Thema ruht momentan. Die letzte Nachricht liegt mehr als 90 Tage zurück. Du kannst es wieder aufgreifen, indem du eine neue Antwort schreibst.

1bragan
Apr. 4, 2018, 11:06pm

(Ahem. Now posting this to the actual correct group. D'oh!)

Welcome, Club Readers, to my second thread for the year, continued from here.

The first quarter of 2018 was fairly good for me, reading-wise. There were some great books and some not-so-great ones, and maybe I didn't get through quite as many as I might ideally have liked, but overall it's shaping up to be a decent reading year so far.

And with that, I will move right along to the second quarter:

32. Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson



I've enjoyed all of Steven Johnson's quirky explorations of history and technology, and this one is no exception. I think the subtitle may actually be a little bit misleading, though, as he's using "play" in an extremely broad way. There's only one chapter devoted to what we'd normally think of as games or sports (including chess, Monopoly, gambling, early computer games, and bouncing balls). The rest of the book looks at a wide range of human activities and inventions that are pleasant and interesting, but not especially useful for survival, from music to zoos to hanging out in bars and coffeeshops.

While a few of the topics covered here seem to be included simply because they're interesting, in general they work towards an overarching thesis: that despite the common wisdom that necessity is the mother of invention, it's often completely unnecessary, even seemingly frivolous pursuits that end up driving history. For instance a fondness for soft fabric which could be dyed in pretty colors and patterns, with a little help from the rise of shopping as a recreational activity, led to the explosion of the cotton industry and thus to slavery in America and everything that came with it. And without humanity's incredible hunger for spices -- which may be tasty and interestingly exotic, but have little or no nutritional value -- the map of the modern world would look unimaginably different.

It's a thesis worth thinking about, and one that also makes for a nice excuse for an entertaining ramble through history, with lots of interesting facts, odd anecdotes, and opportunities to appreciate the vast, chaotic, interconnections that underlie so much of what we take for granted in the world.

Rating: 4/5

2bragan
Apr. 5, 2018, 12:44am

33. Monstress, Volume Two: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda



The second graphic novel collection of the dark fantasy comic Monstress. Much of what I have to say about this one is pretty much the same as what I had to say about the first one. The artwork is still absolutely gorgeous. The story is still full of magic, gore, and horror. And the worldbuilding is still rich, dense, and complex.

In fact, my only real complaint with volume one was that it was so dense and complex that I had some trouble following it. Well, I'm still not sure I understand everything, but I was at least on surer footing going into this one, which meant I was no longer so overwhelmed trying to figure everything out and was able to relax and enjoy the story a lot more. Which is nice, because it was a pretty good story, with some interesting revelations. I'm definitely intending to continue on with this, once volume three is out.

Rating: 4/5

3auntmarge64
Apr. 5, 2018, 9:24am

Glad you found the right group

4bragan
Apr. 5, 2018, 11:47am

>3 auntmarge64: Thanks for putting me right!

5dukedom_enough
Apr. 6, 2018, 12:44pm

I've read most of Poul Anderson, but not Harvest of Stars and its sequels. Sounds like he put in more of his libertarian stuff than usual. I think he went downhill in the 90s.

6bragan
Apr. 6, 2018, 5:33pm

>5 dukedom_enough: Yeah, I don't remember there being that much of it in the other stuff of his I'd read.

7janeajones
Bearbeitet: Apr. 10, 2018, 11:32am

Thanks for your earlier review of The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I enjoyed it.

8bragan
Apr. 10, 2018, 10:01am

>7 janeajones: I'm glad you enjoyed it!

9bragan
Apr. 10, 2018, 9:37pm

34. Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt



In this odd, experimental novel from Finland, seven women find themselves together in a featureless white void, presumably after having died.

It's well-written, certainly as far as the prose goes, in a way that's a credit not just to the author, but also to the translator. And the characters are well realized, although some of them get a lot more attention that others. Really, it's mostly about Shlomith, an anorexic performance artist who starves herself and goes on stage naked to deliver lectures about Judaism, with the others' stories sort of dipped in and out of whenever we emerge from hers. She's not particularly enjoyable to read about, or at least she wasn't for me, but she is certainly well realized.

The structure and overall shape of the novel, though... Well, like I said, it's experimental. It wanders, abruptly changes voice or point of view or format, slips into long lectures, and skips back and forth in time. All of which is potentially interesting, and I found at least some parts of it involving, in their own odd ways, but I have to say that, as an experiment, it wasn't, for me, an entirely successful one. It brings up lots of topics, and touches on lots of themes -- feminism, religion, death -- but never really brings them together into anything that feels like a coherent whole, and never really got to me in any kind of deep way. There are things that I appreciate about it, but it just never quite snagged into my brain the way it feels like it's meant to, and I confess that I sometimes had trouble motivating myself to pick it up again after I'd put it down.

Rating: It's hard to rate something like this, but I'll call it 3.5/5. It probably deserves that much just for the prose quality.

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

10avaland
Apr. 13, 2018, 5:19am

>9 bragan: Sounds like an "interesting" attempt at something.

11bragan
Apr. 13, 2018, 8:51pm

>10 avaland: It is one of those books where "interesting" seems like the only word you can really use to describe it. :)

12bragan
Bearbeitet: Apr. 18, 2018, 3:32pm

35. A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard



Kevin Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT and paramedic, and in this memoir he shares the entire course of that career with us, from unfocused newbie to burned-out veteran. It's a job I've always wondered about but was pretty ignorant of, right down to not knowing the difference between a paramedic and an EMT, or what kind of training either of them gets. Well, now I know, and while it's clear you can never fully understand what the job is like without doing it, I feel like I've gotten an interesting glimpse inside it.

Mostly, I was expecting to hear some interestingly gruesome stories, and there certainly are some of those. I don't necessarily recommend reading this book while eating. More disturbing, though, than any of the gory or violent anecdotes, are the reminders of just how human the people we rely on to keep us alive when the worst happens to us are. They are, after all, just guys doing a job, and, as in every workplace, there are always goof-offs, and people who aren't as fully trained as they're supposed to be, and people having an off day. Even the good ones are, like most of us, just muddling along trying to do their jobs and get through the day (or, as the case may be, the night).

Hazzard is very forthright, as well, about his own thoughts and attitudes, strengths and flaws, the times when he's been too cocky or too indifferent. I suspect he's not the sort of person I'd enjoy hanging around with in real life. He's a bit too much of an adrenaline junkie, with a sense of humor that runs to dumb stunts, a jock to my nerd. But I did appreciate the honesty of his self-evaluation, and was glad to have the chance to spend a little while inside both his ambulance and his head.

Rating: 4/5

13valkyrdeath
Apr. 17, 2018, 8:59pm

Wonderland sounds like something that would appeal to me. I've actually got the first two volumes of Monstress now too, though I'm still unsure as to whether I want to start them yet until I know there's an ending in place for me to work towards. I enjoyed your review of Oneiron, which sounds like one of those interesting books that I'm starting to realise I find more interesting to read about than to actually read.

14bragan
Bearbeitet: Apr. 18, 2018, 3:25pm

>13 valkyrdeath: If you haven't read any of Steven Johnson's books, I recommend them. How We Got to Now is even better, I think, if you're interested in the quirky history of technology and everyday things.

Waiting for Monstress to be complete, or at least to have an end in sight, is probably a good call. I really should have learned to do that with comics collections by now, honestly.

And, heh, Oneiron being more interesting to read about than to actually read is probably why I ended up with it in the first place. The description was so intriguing!

15bragan
Bearbeitet: Apr. 18, 2018, 3:12pm

36. Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore



A novel about artists in late 19th century Paris, an ancient Muse who can be anyone, a creepy little guy known only as the Colorman, and a shade of blue with supernatural powers.

I've really enjoyed some of Moore's other novels, and this one has, I suppose, a similar off-the-wall plot and irreverent sense of humor to those, but I'm afraid it mostly left me cold.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that I don't have any familiarity with, or interest in, the 1890s Paris art scene. I can't help but feel, though, that with the right approach the story might have drawn me in and made me interested. But while Moore is no doubt trying to do that, he doesn't really succeed. (I did, by the way, appreciate the fact that pictures of many of the paintings mentioned or alluded to in the text are included here. That did help. But, while I have no doubt that it was economically necessary, reproducing paintings in black-and-white to serve a story that is all about color seems downright perverse.)

Anyway, it's not just my lack of connection with the subject matter that kind of put me off. More than that, it's how utterly focused the story is on the way its male characters see and experience women: as objects of lust or sentiment, as models, as useful tools, as delights for the senses, but always -- and I use the word deliberately -- two-dimensional. And as fundamentally interchangeable, an idea that's baked into the entire premise of the plot. It's basically Male Gaze: The Novel.

Now, one could no doubt start a lively and reasonable debate about whether Moore is embracing these attitudes or sending them up, but I find I just cannot bring myself to care enough to do so. The truth is, I don't find it provocative in any sense of the word, I just find it kind of tedious. I'm sure many people, possibly up to half the population of humanity, might happily read all day about the play of sunlight on the nude female body and what one might like to do with said body when not painting it, but I am really not one of them. Entirely aside from the question of whether it's done offensively or not, it's just dull.

All of which suggests that maybe this is just a case of the wrong reader for the wrong book, and in cases like that I try not to judge too hard, but this time I can't help but feel that it's not just me, that the author could have written this in such a way that I would have enjoyed it more, and that it would have been a better book in general -- not just for me -- if he had.

Rating: I can't bring myself to give this more than a 2.5/5. I just can't.

16NanaCC
Apr. 18, 2018, 3:15pm

>15 bragan: I’ve found Christopher Moore’s books hit or miss for me. I think I’ll pass on this one based upon your comments. Lately, I’ve taken the premise that I’m only reading books that I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy. That’s why CR is so great. I’ve a pile of books that I know I’m going to enjoy. :)

17bragan
Apr. 18, 2018, 3:20pm

37. Star Trek: The Next Generation Cats by Jenny Parks



This is a followup of sorts to Jenny Parks' Star Trek Cats, which re-imagined characters from the original Star Trek as -- you guessed it! -- cats. I found that one unexpectedly delightful. I mean, I sort of expected it to be delightful, as I'm a big fan of both Star Trek and cats, but it delighted me even more than I was expecting. I expressed a hope, at the time, that she might go on and give us a TNG version, and I was very happy to learn that she had obliged!

This one was perhaps slightly less delightful than the first, just because I went into it knowing what to expect, but it's still a lot of fun. As in the first one, she gives us cat-ified versions of lots of entertaining and iconic moments from the series. I'm particularly impressed, this time, by some of the aliens and minor characters, including an imposing Cardassian and an utterly perfect Ensign Ro. And, honestly, I don't think my life would have nearly as complete without the chance to see a stressed-out hairless cat screaming "THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!"

Now, dare I hope she'll go on and do DS9?

Rating: 4/5

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

18bragan
Apr. 18, 2018, 3:24pm

>16 NanaCC: Yeah, I can't recommend it, even for people who've enjoyed some of Moore's books.

19bragan
Bearbeitet: Apr. 23, 2018, 1:18pm

38. Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wang



The unnamed protagonist of this short novel is a graduate student in chemistry who is struggling with, or perhaps avoiding, a number of problems: her growing dissatisfaction with life in the lab, intense pressure to succeed from her demanding Chinese-American parents, the difficult legacy of those parents' dysfunctional marriage, and a deep-seated terror of saying yes to any of her fiancé's many marriage proposals.

This is all told not so much as a story, but as a slightly disjointed internal monologue, a technique that works really well because the character's internal voice is readable and interesting, with some appealing touches of dry humor. I was particularly pleased by it because it's really very rare that a literary author even tries, much less succeeds, at getting inside the head of a science-y kind of person. Ian McEwan does it superbly, but I'm hard-pressed to think of another example... except for this. The narrator here is a strange person, a messed-up person, and a person with a very different background from me, but her internal voice somehow felt instantly recognizable to former-physics major me. It felt very right.

The structure of the novel did throw me just a little at first, only because it uses present tense consistently whether the narrator is thinking about events in her present or things that happened far in the past. This was a bit confusing for a while, or at least it took some getting used to, but eventually I almost stopped even noticing it. And an interesting thought occurred to me about this narrative mechanism about fifty pages in, when the protagonist is contemplating the degree to which she thinks in Chinese vs in English. I don't speak any form of Chinese, but I have been told that it lacks a grammatical marking for past tense, instead relying on context to pin down when a particular event happened (or happens, or is happening). Which is exactly what the prose here is doing in English. And I rather like that thought. It makes something that at first looks like a simple stylistic quirk feel instead like an expression of character.

Anyway, I enjoyed this one. My only regret is picking it up when I was kind of busy and had to keep putting it down, because it feels like it would work best if read almost straight through, something that should not be too difficult if you've got a couple of hours to spare.

Rating: 4/5

20valkyrdeath
Apr. 22, 2018, 6:21pm

>15 bragan: Sounds like the 2.5 was fairly generous considering your review! Do you have any recommendations for a good Christopher Moore book to read? I've been meaning to try something by him for some time but it certainly sounds like it shouldn't be this one.

>17 bragan: These books do look really fun. I would love if she actually did do a DS9 one, since, to my mind, it's easily the greatest of all the Star Trek shows.

21bragan
Apr. 22, 2018, 7:25pm

>20 valkyrdeath: Well, 2.5 usually means I thought it was mediocre at best, not really worth my time, and probably not at all well written. Often if I wasn't really into a book but think it has redeeming qualities or that maybe it just wasn't the right book for me, I'm more likely to be kinder and give it a 3. But I just couldn't bring myself to be that generous.

I remember really enjoying Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, but of course how much one is likely to enjoy that depends on one's comfort with the subject matter, especially the mixing of religion with humor. Personally, I thought it was irreverent but not at all offensive, but not being religious, I'm probably not the best person to judge.

I also remember very much liking Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, although it's been long enough since I've read that one that I do wonder how well it would hold up now.

And I agree that DS9, in so many ways, is the best of the Treks. It doesn't hold quite the nostalgic place in my heart that the original, or even TNG does, but it was far and away the most sophisticated and best-written, and I admire it on that level above all the others. I don't know why it never got the kind of popular attention the rest of them seemed to get.

22NanaCC
Apr. 22, 2018, 10:40pm

>20 valkyrdeath:, >21 bragan: I seem to remember liking A Dirty Job, but so long ago I remember nothing about it. :( I hate when that happens.

23bragan
Apr. 23, 2018, 1:45am

>22 NanaCC: I know. I think I really have forgotten more books than most people read. :(

I sort of remember thinking A Dirty Job was not bad, but not as fun as I remembered Bloodsucking Fiends being.

24RidgewayGirl
Apr. 23, 2018, 10:21am

Interesting insight into Chemistry: A Novel. I really enjoyed this one and I'm happy it passed muster with someone with a scientifically-minded brain.

25bragan
Apr. 23, 2018, 11:49am

>24 RidgewayGirl: I'm always ridiculously pleased, somehow, when literary fiction passes muster with my scientifically-minded brain. :)

26bragan
Bearbeitet: Apr. 24, 2018, 10:55pm

39. A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction by Terry Pratchett



This collection of short fiction spans essentially Terry Pratchett's entire career, and includes several stories from the Discworld series.

Short stories never really came naturally to Pratchett, something he admits in the introductions to a couple of these pieces, and, truthfully, many of them are very slight and not terribly memorable, especially when compared with his novels. A few of them are really just random bits and bobs that barely qualify as stories. But even those are at least mildly entertaining, and some of the more substantial stories are really good. Among others, there's a sort of Christmas horror story that's just delightfully bizarre, and a couple of the Discworld ones are flat-out terrific, enough to make the collection well worthwhile all by themselves. (Only Pratchett could write a story that's funny and melancholy at the same time and make it deeply successful at both, but the Cohen the Barbarian tale manages it. And nothing on any world, round or flat, will ever be remotely as terrifying as Granny Weatherwax deciding to go around being nice at people.)

Some of these, also, are interesting glimpses into different facets of Pratchett as a writer. There are a couple of surprisingly straightforward science fiction stories. There are also a couple of stories that were later expanded into novels. (One story is in both of those categories: "The High Meggas," which eventually became The Long Earth, written with Stephen Baxter.) There's even a couple of poems, including an utterly charming one about picking up hitchhikers on the way to Glastonbury in the 70s.

The collection also contains an interesting curiosity: the first story Pratchett every wrote and had professionally published, at the age of thirteen. Thirteen! And while it's clearly unpolished, it's amazing to me how very Pratchett it already feels. It's certainly enough to make me wonder what the heck I was doing at thirteen.

Rating: 4/5, although that's mostly on the strength of a handful of the best pieces.

27valkyrdeath
Apr. 26, 2018, 6:10pm

>26 bragan: Nice review of the collection. I find even the most minor Pratchett works are always fun to read. I have all sorts of different anthologies on my shelves that I got to collect the various Pratchett short stories, so I was really glad when that book was released to get them all in one place. I think The Sea and Little Fishes on its own makes the book worthwhile! Reading it also brought back memories of solving the puzzle he'd hidden in Death and What Comes Next on an old puzzle website called Timehunt. I even still remembered how to solve it. I really need to get to his non-fiction collection.

28bragan
Apr. 26, 2018, 7:15pm

>27 valkyrdeath: Yes, even his slightest stuff might not be terribly memorable, but it's always at least kind of fun. And I do have to agree, just "The Sea and Little Fishes" by itself would, indeed, have made the whole thing worth reading, but it did have some help!

I'd never even heard of he Timehunt thing until I read Practhett's introduction to "Death and What Comes Next" here, and I'm kind of fuzzy on how it even worked. Do you remember what the line in that was supposed to be the hidden clue was? I was really curious, but found myself unable even to make a guess.

His non-fiction collection is already on my wishlist. I really should get to it, myself.

29valkyrdeath
Apr. 26, 2018, 9:27pm

>28 bragan: Timehunt was quite complex and full of lots of different types of puzzles, and the answers would usually then feed into another puzzle. It was supposed to be a contest but the last part of it never got properly finished annoyingly. The clue in the Pratchett puzzle is the title itself though, and (I'll hide it just in case anyone is randomly still wanting to solve the puzzle)you take the first letter of every word in the story that comes after the name Death to spell out a phrase.

30bragan
Apr. 26, 2018, 9:50pm

>29 valkyrdeath: Thanks! I think I'm going to have to go back and look at that story again now. :)

31bragan
Apr. 26, 2018, 10:14pm

40. Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich



I've only read a couple of Louise Erdrich's novels (so far), but I've really loved both of them, so I was interested to check out this slim work of non-fiction from her. It's mostly an account of a trip she took with her very small daughter to some islands in the Lake of the Woods, a little north of the US-Canada border: the land of her Ojibwe ancestors. But I'd say it's almost more of a meditation than a travelog, full of quiet little personal thoughts and reflections on Ojibwe history and culture.

Erdrich feels like a very different person from me, with different experiences, a different cultural background, and different perspectives on life, although we do share a deep point of connection in our mutual love of books. It was interesting to spend a little time looking in on the mind and the life of someone simultaneously so different and so familiar, and equally interesting to be given some glimpses of Ojibwe ideas and traditions, of which I knew, well, pretty much only what I'd learned from Erdrich's other books. Even if they really are only very small glimpses.

And I'm left at the end feeling like I really, really want to go and browse through the bookstore she owns in Minneapolis.

Rating: 4/5

32avaland
Apr. 27, 2018, 6:14am

Just catching up on your reading. The Erdrich specifically sounds very interesting.

33bragan
Apr. 27, 2018, 12:39pm

>32 avaland: It's a very small book, and a very small glimpse into the author's world. But it was an interesting one.

34bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 5, 2018, 5:07am

41. The Albuquerque Turkey by John Vorhaus



This is a sequel to The California Roll, and although I think it's entirely readable on its own, I definitely recommend reading that one first if you're interested at all, because the whole setup for this one is a spoiler for that one in a fairly big way. I'll just say that it focuses on the same character from the first book, a con man with the unlikely name of Radar Hoverlander. In this one, Radar has retired to Santa Fe in an attempt to finally go straight, but that proves increasingly difficult when his long-lost (or, more accurately, long-absconded) father, the man from whom he inherited his criminal ways, shows up on his doorstep supposedly in need of help.

Like the first one, it's a lot of fun. Radar is an entertaining character, and the slightly over-the-top first-person narrative voice he presents us with works better than it almost seems like it ought to. The plot, again like the first one, is convoluted and ridiculous, and sometimes a little hard to keep up with, but never feeling remotely sure of exactly what's going on and who is playing whom is part of the charm.

I did have one small disappointment in it, which is that, since I live in New Mexico, I was looking forward to seeing Radar Radaring it up around my state. But most of the real action in the book takes place in Las Vegas (not the one in New Mexico), and it's fairly clear that, while Vorhaus may have some tourist experience of Santa Fe, he doesn't really know the area well. I mean, it's cute that he thinks we have an Ikea in New Mexico. I know someone here who once drove to the nearest Ikea to buy a bed. It was about a twelve-hour round trip. But, oh well. I enjoyed the story enough that I'm willing to forgive him for that!

Rating: 4/5

35bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 5, 2018, 5:08am

42. The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss



In the wake of her mother's death, Mary Jekyll finds out some disturbing things about her father, investigates a series of gruesome murders with Sherlock Holmes, and becomes friends with several other women who were also the daughters and/or test subjects of various mad scientists.

It's a really fun concept. Yes, the mashup of various pieces of 19th century literature -- this one also features characters from The Island of Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, and Dracula, as well as the less well-known story of Rappacini's Daughter -- has been done before, fairly often. But centering the story on female characters who were mostly left out of the original narratives is something of a fresh take, and a worthwhile one. There's also an interesting narrative conceit, in which one of the main characters is supposedly writing the story herself, while the others chime in semi-regularly with comments on how she's written them. It's a bit gimmicky, but in a fairly clever way, and it gives us a good feel for all of the characters even before we meet them in the narrative. Overall, it makes for a quick, reasonably entertaining read.

And yet, I can't help feeling slightly disappointed in it, because while it's decent, it seems like it should be really good, and it's just not, quite. To begin with, things don't wrap up in an entirely satisfying way, apparently to leave room for a sequel. I imagine this might have bothered me less if I'd realized going in that it was meant to be the first book in a series, but even if I had, I suspect it would still have felt a bit too much as if things just sort of petered out at the end. There's also a lot of scope for some really rich and interesting thematic stuff about the Victorian era's attitudes towards science and women, but it never quite seems to materialize properly. More annoyingly, the Victorian London setting never feels quite authentic or convincing. It feels like the author is trying to capture some of the flavor and setting of the works she's riffing on, but not really trying very hard. The language in particular never feels quite right, sprinkled as it is with 21st century Americanisms. (Seriously, Victorian English teenagers did not go around saying, "Gross!" and "Awesome!") Come to that, Holmes and Watson, who are fairly major characters in the story, never quite felt like the characters as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote them, either.

In the end, it's not that I didn't like this novel, it's just that I really, really wanted to like it much better than I did.

Rating: 3.5/5

36bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 9, 2018, 7:50pm

43. Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind by Kitty Ferguson



I've had this sitting on my shelves since shortly after it was published, in 2012, and with the recent (or recent-ish) news of Dr. Hawking's death, I figured it was time to finally get around to reading it.

This is a biography of Hawking, but the primary focus is on his work, and Ferguson manages a reasonably good layman's account of the science involved. She also gives us a good feel for Hawking as a human being: a brilliant but human guy with a great sense of humor and the ability to rise to some incredibly substantial challenges. So if you're interested in reading about Hawking's work and personality, it's definitely worth a look.

There are some things about it that bothered me a little, though. There are aspects of Hawking's personal life it declines to get into, which is something I respect, but in places -- such as the very brief mention of allegations in the early 2000s that Hawking was the victim of domestic abuse -- the writing sort of feels like it's shading from respectfully silent to annoyingly coy.

That's pretty minor, though. More irritating to me was Ferugson's recurring desire to talk about God and religion: Hawking's attitude towards these subjects, the extent to which his scientific formulations leave room for God and religious belief, etc. I suppose some of this is inevitable when you're talking about cosmology and the search for the origin of the universe, but as someone who doesn't believe religion has a place in science, I think she puts way too much emphasis on this subject. She's clearly trying very hard to be objective about it, but I nevertheless get the strong sense that she's projecting her own religious sensibilities onto things a bit too much, and I think she gets entirely too far into the philosophical weeds with it in the last chapter.

Rating: I sort of wanted to rate this one higher, because I don't have a problem recommending it, really, if you want to read about Hawking and his ideas. But the intrusion of the author's religious concerns irritates me just enough that I feel compelled to knock it down half a star. Obviously, that's not going to be an issue for everyone, but this is me rating it, so I'm giving it a 3.5/5.

37bragan
Mai 11, 2018, 7:01am

44. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith



Book 13 in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This one features an exciting surprise visitor, some shady contractors, and a very rough time for both Mma Potokwane of the orphan farm and Fanwell the mechanic's apprentice.

As usual, it's all very low-key, although it almost feels like maybe it's just a little more focused on the plot stuff than usual. Which isn't saying much, really, as the plots are never the selling points in these books, anyway.

In any case, I will say this this definitely isn't my favorite of the series, although that just means that it was only a very quick, pleasant read that made me smile or laugh from time to time, rather than giving me a ridiculous all-over case of the warm fuzzies.

Rating: 4/5

38NanaCC
Mai 18, 2018, 11:27am

>37 bragan: Smile or laugh from time to time is good. This wasn’t my favorite either, but I will eventually read the next which I think I have on audio.

39bragan
Mai 18, 2018, 4:06pm

>38 NanaCC: This was the last one I had on the TBR shelves, but I definitely need to get the rest of them eventually.

40bragan
Mai 20, 2018, 1:02am

45. The Newford Stories by Charles De Lint



This is an omnibus collection containing Dreams Underfoot, The Ivory and the Horn, and Moonlight and Vines, which together make up a series of linked short stories from the 1990s. Generally each story stands on its own, but many of them feature some of the same characters, often weaving in and out of each other's lives, and all are set in the fictional city of Newford.

The characters are mostly artistic types -- painters, writers, musicians -- or the downtrodden and marginalized -- street people, victims of various kinds of abuse, gay people in the time of AIDS, the desperately lonely -- or both. And all of them experience encounters of one kind or another with the fantastic or the mysterious in the course of their urban existence. They encounter spirits, or dream powerful dreams, or meet creatures out of myth. Sometimes the results are sad, sometimes hopeful, sometimes bittersweet.

The writing is good. De Lint does some odd things with POV, often switching back and forth between first and third person in a way I can imagine some readers finding annoying, but it worked fine for me. Sometimes the stories do feel a little dated, but not in a particularly bad way. And they capture a feeling of magic in the midst of mundanity very well.

But while I'd say they range from decent to very good, I can't quite shake the feeling that they're trying to be something a bit beyond that, something that crawls into your brain, bypasses your rationality, and makes you feel that sense of enchantment on a deep level. And, while one or two come close, for the most part they never quite got there for me. I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it's because there's a strong, repeated theme that magic is something you have to believe in without proof, and only then will you see the parts of the world that are hidden from you. That's an idea that can make for good fantasy, but also one that bothers me when I encounter it in the real world, and perhaps these stories feel just grounded enough in the real world to give me a slightly uncomfortable feeling about it.

Still, if you like short, dreamlike lyrical fantasy with one foot in our world and one in some much stranger realm, and are okay with some occasionally very dark subject matter, they are worth a look. Even if 800 pages of them at once may perhaps be a little bit much.

Rating: 4/5

41bragan
Mai 20, 2018, 11:12pm

46. Doctor Who: The Doctor's Lives and Times by James Goss & Steve Tribe



This is an entertaining look over the Doctor's history up through the Eleventh Doctor's run. The conceit is that it's a collection of documents compiled by Madam Kovarian and River Song for a dossier on the Doctor, and the authors do some fun things with that idea. It's a very visually rich book, with lots of little odds and ends that supposedly come from the Doctor Who universe (some actually taken from the show and some completely made up), from newspaper articles to advertisements to bits of folklore. There is, for example, a bit of a souffle recipe in the Eleventh Doctor's section, a card with a recall notice for plastic daffodils in the Third Doctor's, a poster for the Psychic Circus in the Seventh's, and so on -- just lots of little references that hardcore Who nerds will get and appreciate.

Each section also features a longer piece that sort of recaps that particular Doctor's adventures in the voice of a character from the show, using a variety of clever formats: interviews, diaries, letters, villain monologues... The authors clearly have a very good feel for the characters' voices, and some of these are just absolutely delightful. One or two even made me laugh out loud, such as the transcript of the Master's trial in the Third Doctor's chapter. I do maybe have a quibble here or there, as with the fact that poor Sarah Jane Smith is really not represented at her best (although it is kind of hard to blame her for being kind of snarky after being abandoned in Aberdeen!). But in general, it's just great fun.

Each chapter also includes a few pages that drop the conceit and give us a glimpse into the real world of Doctor Who as a TV show with behind-the-scenes pictures, interesting soundbite quotes from people involved in making the show, and short, thoughtful reactions to specific episodes from various people connected to the history of Who.

Overall, it's an enjoyable little treat for the long-term Doctor Who fan. Whether more casual viewers or people who came on board with the modern series and lack much familiarity with the classic episodes will get as much out of it, I don't know, as there are a lot of jokes and references you really do have to be a pretty hardcore fan to get. But perhaps they might find it an interesting glimpse into the Doctor's history, too.

Rating: 4/5

42bragan
Mai 21, 2018, 1:04am

47. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith



This is a kids' picture book written by acclaimed literary author George Saunders. Or maybe it's just a George Saunders story cleverly disguised as a kids' book, because while it's perfectly suitable for kids (or at least for ones with decent-sized vocabularies), it delighted this particular adult as much as any of Saunders' stories ever has. It's hilarious and weird and sly and relevant, not to mention wonderfully illustrated, and I had a big grin on my face through pretty much the entire thing.

Rating: 4.5/5

43chlorine
Mai 21, 2018, 12:44pm

>47 This seems like something I would like! I'm wondering if the title is intelligible to a native English speaker?

44bragan
Mai 21, 2018, 5:16pm

>43 chlorine: Well, "Gappers" and "Frip" are basically nonsense words. Gappers are weird imaginary creatures, and Frip is a place. :)

45valkyrdeath
Mai 21, 2018, 6:55pm

>40 bragan: I've got a Best Of collection of Charles De Lint that I picked up when it was given away for free on Kindle a while back, but didn't know anything about him. Sounds like it might actually be worth checking out judging by your review of this book.

>42 bragan: That one sounds a lot of fun. I've just started reading Tenth of December, my first book by Saunders, and I'm really impressed so far.

46bragan
Mai 21, 2018, 9:25pm

>45 valkyrdeath: I do think De Lint is worth reading. Maybe I don't necessarily recommend reading 800 pages of him at once, though. :)

Tenth of December is actually the only short story collection of Saunders' I've read -- though I have also read Lincoln in the Bardo and I think a few random stories in anthologies -- but it was enough all by itself to convince me that Saunders is some kind of literary mad genius. I find him super impressive. I really must read, well, probably everything else he's ever written.

47ELiz_M
Mai 21, 2018, 10:33pm

>46 bragan: Weeeeellll......I found Pastoralia disappointing after the amzingness of Tenth of December.

48bragan
Mai 22, 2018, 12:10am

>47 ELiz_M: OK, maybe I'll try to keep that in mind, and not expect everything else he's written to be even better. :)

49bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 22, 2018, 2:17pm

48. Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich



After seventeen-plus of these Stephanie Plum novels, I'm getting a little tired of reading them, and it's hard to escape the feeling that, by this point, maybe Evanovich was getting a little tired of writing them. It does feel like she's reaching a bit for wacky situations to throw in here. It also feels like she's trying to make up for the plot of this one being even thinner than usual by throwing in more sex. (And, yes, even more really skeevy behavior from men to make me feel increasingly uncomfortable, too.) It did at least have some mildly amusing lines, maybe even made me chuckle just a little once or twice, so it's not awful, but overall... meh.

Rating: 2.5/5

50chlorine
Mai 26, 2018, 6:13am

>44 bragan: Thanks for the explanation! The title makes more sense to me now. :)
I'm also quite interested in the variety of styles that Saunders seems to have and am really interested in discovering his work (I've only read a short story by him).

51avaland
Mai 26, 2018, 8:06am

>36 bragan: Enjoyed your review of the Hawking biography, probably much more than I would like the book itself.

>49 bragan: Interesting comments on the Evanovich. It's sad when a perfectly good series begins to go downhill. I'm sure publishers and fans push for another and another when perhaps it really had already run its course. It's kind of how I felt about the latest DCI Banks novel. What have I read—20 plus—and this last one was kind of "meh." Banks is ruminating over growing old and being alone...(perhaps as a character he wants its done, ha ha)

52bragan
Mai 26, 2018, 1:39pm

>50 chlorine: I find Saunders' style impossible to pin down in the best possible way.

>51 avaland: I think part of the thing with the Stephanie Plum series is that all the books follow a silly but rather entertaining formula that can't help getting less entertaining once you've repeated it enough times, part of it is that you know nothing's ever going to significantly change -- the stupid love triangle is going to remain perpetually unresolved, no matter how often Evanovich tries to pretend Stephanie's about to make some kind of choice -- and a lot of it is that after a while it becomes impossible not to feel like the author is just going through the motions of telling the same story, over and over and over, because it's a huge cash cow for her. Not that I begrudge her the success or blame her for doing what pays, but by this point it just feels a lot less fun for everyone involved.

I think most long series to reach a point where they start to feel really tired and should probably stop, generally well before they actually do stop. The only clear, shining counterexample to this I can think of is Pratchett's Discworld.

53bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 26, 2018, 2:14pm

49. Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep by Michael McGirr



I picked up this book by doing something I don't do nearly often enough anymore: browsing through the shelves in a physical bookstore and buying books I'd never heard of just because they looked interesting. In this particular case, that may not have been the best idea, because I ended up with a completely wrong impression of what this book was about. I believe it was in the medicine or science section, and I expected it, by and large, to be an examination of what we currently know about the science of sleep.

It's not. It's really just the sleep-related -- sometimes very tangentially sleep-related -- musings of a guy who has some interest in the subject, as he was a) diagnosed with sleep apnea and b) is the father of twins, so he knows at least a little about sleep deprivation.

In many chapters, he just talks about his own life -- he used to be a Jesuit priest but left for reasons he never specifies -- and about his kids. In others, he talks briefly about literature or philosophy or history, often on the basis that Author X mentioned beds a few times in their work, or Historical Figure Y didn't sleep much.

It's mildly interesting, and the writing is pretty good, with the occasional very nice turn of phrase. But most of it feels really, really shallow, as if he's skimming over the surface of potentially interesting subjects, but never really getting very far into them before turning back to his musings on his own life again. And while there's nothing at all wrong with those musings, I just don't find them terribly compelling.

But maybe that's just me feeling disappointed because it's not the book I expected it to be, and not quite what I wanted to read just now. Possibly it's also me being a bit uncharitable because I read too much of it while sleep-deprived. As the author himself points out, "Exhaustion. . . is seldom a good listener."

Rating: Charitable or not, I'm going to call this a 3/5.

54avaland
Mai 26, 2018, 4:22pm

>52 bragan: I could not have said that better myself.

55valkyrdeath
Mai 27, 2018, 9:18pm

>52 bragan: I think Pratchett got away with a long running series by the fact that he just created a world that he could set any type of story he wanted to do in. It seems quite a rare thing to have a series that's got that much scope to it.

>53 bragan: I've seen that book in the popular science section of a local bookshop and I had the same impression of what it was too. The book is certainly presented that way.

56bragan
Mai 27, 2018, 11:59pm

>52 bragan: Yeah, that has to have really helped in keeping it fresh. Plus, it was multiple series in one, and he was always able to go and start up a new one when he wanted to, or to write a stand-alone if he had an idea that didn't fit. Plus, the guy was a genius. Obviously. :)

>53 bragan: It really doesn't do the book any favors. I can't help wondering if I would have liked it better if I went into it with the right set of expectations, and not when I was in completely the wrong mood for the kind of book it turned out to be.

57bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 28, 2018, 11:20pm

50. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers



This is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Well... sort of. Part of it takes place right after that book, and part of it twenty years earlier, with the two (very much connected) stories alternating chapters. And it doesn't feature the same characters, or, rather, it centers on two characters who appeared only briefly in Small Angry Planet. One is an AI who has been downloaded into a very realistic (and very illegal) android body and is passing for human but having a lot of trouble adjusting to her new circumstances. The other is a girl who was created as genetically altered factory slave labor but escaped to freedom, in a very slow, very difficult way.

Unlike Small Angry Planet, there's really not even the pretense of a grand over-arching plot. It's very much a character-based novel, a story about found family, about finding or making your own purpose and identity, about learning to feel comfortable in your own skin (synthetic or otherwise), and about figuring out how to be in the world -- complicated, imperfect, wonderful place that it is.

It's not exactly fun the way a lot of the previous book was. But much as I loved that one, I think this one is even better. The characters are terrific. The world is big and engaging. And the story is thoughtful and smart and compassionate and sometimes unexpectedly moving. There may have been a moment or three towards the end where I found myself actually getting a little choked up.

Rating: I think I'm just going to go ahead and give this one the seldom-bestowed 5/5.

58bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 30, 2018, 6:30pm

51. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips



Joan is spending an afternoon at the zoo with her four-year-old son Lincoln when, just before closing time, she hears a burst of what she only belatedly realizes is gunfire. Then things quickly get nightmarish for her as she finds herself running and hiding, desperately trying to protect herself and her kid.

This isn't a particularly complex or intricate thriller, but it's a nicely effective one. I will admit, I wasn't sure for a while just how well it was going to work for me, as it seems quite deliberately designed to play on the fears, instincts, and emotions of parents, which I most definitely am not. And despite Phillips' use of a lot of really wonderful little details that make this woman's relationship with her son and her experience of being his mom feel very real, my own initial feelings were less a distressed "OMG, child in danger! He must be protected!" and more of an annoyed, "Aaargh, this is the problem with little kids: they have no sense of perspective, and even in an actual life-or-death situation, you can't get them to shut up! What a liability!" But Phillips does such a good job of getting into Joan's head, and of building the tension as the story goes along, that even hard-heartedly non-maternal me got sucked into things, so much so that I ended up delaying some important errands just so I could finish the last fifty pages.

Rating: 4.5/5. Because, hey, any book that makes me that unwilling to put it down surely deserves that much.

59RidgewayGirl
Mai 30, 2018, 7:34pm

I've been seeing Fierce Kingdom all over the place and now you've made me want to read it. Excellent review!

60bragan
Mai 30, 2018, 8:21pm

>59 RidgewayGirl: Thanks! I was honestly a little surprised, as I didn't expect to like it nearly as much as I did.

61NanaCC
Mai 30, 2018, 11:15pm

>58 bragan: Very tempting, although it sounds a bit disturbing. I love a book that is hard to put down.

62bragan
Bearbeitet: Mai 30, 2018, 11:32pm

>61 NanaCC: It's not terribly gory or anything, at least, but I'd say it's potentially pretty disturbing if you're particularly sensitive to small children being in danger or being put in horrible situations. As well as being disturbing in the way it parallels all-too-common horrific real-world events, of course.

63bragan
Bearbeitet: Jun. 3, 2018, 3:44pm

52. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren



Hope Jahren is a geobiologist, which, in her case, seems to involve doing a lot of studies on plants, and a lot of mass spectrometer experiments designed to figure out things about plants and their environments using isotope ratios.

In Lab Girl, she talks about various aspects of her life and her career: growing up in a family who seldom spoke to each other; the painstaking care with which she goes about doing science and the careless neglect that seems to have characterized much of her personal life; the struggles of scientists to get funding and her particular difficulties as a woman in science; her struggles with bipolar disorder; her somewhat strange but very deep connection with her lab assistant/bff; her love of plants; and the ways in which she has grown in her life.

She intersperses all of these personal musings with short, sometimes rather poetic descriptions of how plants grow and survive and reproduce. These chapters generally reflect in a metaphorical fashion on things in her own life, but she never pushes that so far it starts to feel artificial or cute. And they're kind of fascinating. I know they got me thinking in slightly new ways about the trees I pass every day on my way to work, almost without seeing them.

The writing is good, but a little odd, in a hard-to-describe way. It somehow feels simultaneously intimate and distancing, but maybe that's appropriate, because it very much reflects the sense you get of the author and her self-image. She does come across as a bit of a weird person (and her aforementioned research partner/best buddy even more so), but in an interesting way. Sometimes she made me laugh -- she and the people she surrounds herself with seem to be masters of expressing affection via humorous shit-talking -- and sometimes she made me roll my eyes at her a little -- seriously, lady, you should not need to experience a bad accident to know you should wear a seat belt! -- but she's definitely not boring. Even if she does capture very well the un-glamous tedium that is such a large part of scientific research and so seldom acknowledged.

Rating: 4/5

64bragan
Bearbeitet: Jun. 6, 2018, 8:54am

53. Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen



This is the first book in a YA series based on the legend of Robin Hood, centering on the thief Will Scarlet, who, in this version, is actually a woman in disguise. (Although that's an incredibly poorly kept secret, it seems, as almost everyone in the novel seems to know about it.)

I had some trouble getting into this one, to be honest, and I feel a little bit bad about that, because it's a perfectly decent YA story, with a fair bit going for it. I think there are three main reasons why it didn't feel much like my sort of thing. (Well, four, if you also count that I was maybe just in kind of a grumpy mood.) Unfortunately, it got off on the wrong foot with me from the beginning, because the dialect style it's written in didn't quite work for me. It doesn't, thank goodness, go in for an annoying faux-medieval style, but what it does instead is a very generic sort of lower-class English voice that just felt slightly artificial, somehow. Slightly off. Although it did bother me much less as it went on, and I will admit that I'm not sure exactly what the best way of writing a first-person story in this historical period actually would be.

Then there's the fact that it's YA, so apparently even when we're re-writing Robin Hood, there still has to be a damn love triangle, and I am just utterly sick and tired of those. And while the romance isn't ultimately too badly done, it does come with a good-sized helping of the main character being profoundly oblivious to her crush's blindingly obvious feelings for her, which is another trope I find more than a little annoying.

But, more than any of that, there's also the fact that, while I enjoy retellings of folk tales in general, I've never actually found Robin Hood to be at all interesting -- something I only remembered once I started reading this. I'm not exactly sure why Robin Hood leaves me cold. Maybe it's just that highway robbery seems to me like a particularly crude way to address the problem of wealth inequality.

The truth is, though, that this story does a good job of depicting Robin and his band's relationship with the people they're helping, notably in the way their heroism lies as much in their ability to provide a caring word and a bite to eat as in feats of derring-do. Not that there aren't such feats, of course. There's a fair amount of action and drama, some very nasty (if not very complex) villains, and an interesting backstory for the protagonist. None of which is badly done, despite the fact that I found myself wavering back and forth a lot between enjoying it and having a hard time keeping my attention on it.

I do think that it's likely to be a fun read for those who enjoy Robin Hood stories, who are perhaps more squarely in the YA target demographic, and who have not yet evolved my own grumpy response to the standard YA romance conventions.

Rating: I think I'm going to call it 3.5/5. That seems fair.

65bragan
Jun. 8, 2018, 4:32am

54. Cocktail Time by P.G. Wodehouse



This appears to be book three in Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred" series. I hadn't read the first two, but my experiences with Jeeves & Wooster led me to conclude that Wodehouse novels probably aren't something you really need to read in order, and I wasn't wrong about that. After a few pages, I felt like I already knew Uncle Fred pretty well.

Uncle Fred (aka Lord Ickenham), it turns out, is an eccentric and high-spirited fellow. One day he decides he needs to rise to the challenge of knocking someone's hat off with a slingshot and a brazil nut, and the next thing you know he's started a chain of events that will lead to stunning literary success, blackmail, hijinks involving a very important letter various people are trying to get their hands on, and the overcoming of romantic obstacles for several different couples.

I didn't find this one quite as funny as I have some of the Jeeves & Wooster books, but all that means is that I intermittently found myself smiling or chuckling very quietly to myself, rather than suffering embarrassing uncontrollable laughter in public.

Rating: 4/5

66NanaCC
Jun. 8, 2018, 11:27am

I have the complete works of Wodehouse on my kindle. I think I’ll have to dip into more of them soon. You’ve reminded me how much I enjoy his humor.

67bragan
Jun. 8, 2018, 9:26pm

>66 NanaCC: Wodehouse has written so much, and I've read comparatively little of it, but he's always worth coming back to.

68chlorine
Jun. 9, 2018, 2:54am

Lots of very interesting reviews! I've caved in and wishlisted The long way to a Small, Angry Planet, because I've read lots of good reviews and your review of the second one make it seem so tempting.

69bragan
Jun. 9, 2018, 3:10am

>68 chlorine: I was honestly surprised by how much I liked it. I hope you enjoy it just as much, if and when you get to it!

70valkyrdeath
Jun. 9, 2018, 6:37pm

>63 bragan: I've had Lab Girl on my list for a while so good to see another positive review of it. I'll look forward to getting to it!

>65 bragan: I've still never read any Wodehouse despite having meant to for years and having had him recommended to me all over the place. I need to get that rectified and somehow fit one of his Jeeves books into my schedule.

71bragan
Jun. 9, 2018, 7:02pm

>70 valkyrdeath: It seems like it took me way to long to get to him, too, despite also hearing him praised all over the place! I really need to read more of him, too.

72bragan
Jun. 10, 2018, 9:50pm

55. The Trouble with Testosterone by Robert M. Sapolsky



Robert M. Sapolsky is a biologist and neuroscientist who's spent much of his career studying stress in our relatives the baboons, something that unquestionably has things to tell us about ourselves. In this collection of essays, he talks a little about some of that work, and also about things like how hormones affect our aggression levels, whether animals might use plants to medicate themselves, ways in which aspects of personality can be linked to brain conditions like temporal lobe epilepsy, and even a controversial essay about possible interactions between mental illnesses and the evolution of religion.

Interesting topics, all, and I've really liked the other two books by Sapolsky that I've read (A Primate's Memoir and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers), but I have to say that I didn't find this collection nearly as satisfying as I'd hoped. Most of the essays feel rather slight to me, and do rather too much mixing personal speculations with actual scientific findings, often in ways where the difference isn't nearly as clear as it should be. Not that what's in here isn't worth reading or thinking about. But I'd say a lot of it should be taken with a grain of salt, and none of it does more than scratch the surface of any particular topic. Also worth noting is that since this was originally published in 1997, it's definitely a bit dated -- in the references it makes, for sure, and probably also in the science.

I recently picked up a copy of Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, and I'm hoping he comes back to some of these topics in it. I have the feeling maybe he's just better when writing at length than in short pieces.

Rating: 3.5/5

73LolaWalser
Bearbeitet: Jun. 11, 2018, 10:12am

>72 bragan:

Have you seen Cordelia Fine's excellent--and recent--Testosterone Rex?

It's a truly necessary antidote to the infernal pseudoscience and pop mythology built around the hormones and T especially. (Comes with a terrific annotated bibliographic section too.)

74bragan
Jun. 11, 2018, 3:48pm

>73 LolaWalser: I haven't seen that, no. Might be worth checking out.

Sapolsky makes an effort to counter some of the more simplistic ideas about testosterone in his title essay, but, again, it felt kind of shallow to me.

75bragan
Jun. 14, 2018, 7:13am

56. New Jersey Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates



An anthology of dark-themed stories (as well as a few poems) set in various parts of New Jersey, from the manicured campus of Princeton to the desperate slums of Camden.

This is actually one of a long-running series of "noir" collections set in different cities, states, and regions. I'd previously read USA Noir, a compilation of some of the best stories from the installments set in the United States, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, so I figured I'd check out one of the others. Sadly, there isn't one for my home state of New Mexico -- which seems like a real oversight! -- so I settled for the New Jersey one, since that's where I spent most of my childhood.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of the stories in this one is a lot more variable than those in the best-of collection. The best of them are very good indeed -- I was particularly impressed by Bradford Morrow's "The Enigma of Grover's Mill" -- while others just kind of left me cold. I'm also left slightly bemused by how many writers seem to have equated "noir" with "characters who smoke immense quantities of pot."

Rating: It's uneven enough that I'm going to give it a 3.5/5.

76bragan
Jun. 15, 2018, 7:52am

57. Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings by Jez Burrows



Well, this is an odd little thing. The author has written a series of tiny stories, poems, lists, and other hard-to-classify snippets of text composed entirely (or almost entirely) from example phrases and sentences he found in dictionaries.

This seems like it must have required a lot of obsessive effort, and I have to say, I feel oddly tickled to know that there are people in the world willing to spend their time on clever-but-ridiculous exercises like this one. My feelings about the results are a bit more mixed, though. Some of these are nifty little gems of humor or weirdness, with many the best of them using the incongruities you inevitably get from stringing sentences together this way to good, and funny, effect. But not all of the attempts to construct something more serious work all that well, and the novelty value of the whole thing does wear off pretty fast.

Rating: I'm not sure how to rate this. I think I'm going to give it a 3.5/5. The half star may just be for the glorious audacity of the whole thing, but if so, I think it's earned.

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

77chlorine
Jun. 15, 2018, 2:42pm

>57 bragan: This sounds like fun! Too bad it didn't deliver to its promise.

78janemarieprice
Jun. 15, 2018, 7:28pm

>67 bragan: Sounds like it would work better as a daily blog.

79bragan
Jun. 15, 2018, 9:16pm

>76 bragan: Well, I think it delivered on as much promise as it actually had. I think it's one of those ideas that's maybe more charming in concept than in practice. What the guy did with it was kind of fun; it was just never going to be quite as much fun as it sounded. :)

>78 janemarieprice: I think it originally started out that way. And, yeah, it may be the sort of thing that works best in small doses, rather than read all at once.

80RidgewayGirl
Jun. 15, 2018, 9:26pm

>75 bragan: The Akashic Noir books tend to be really uneven. I like them for places I've been or for far-away or obscure locations because the stories are written by locals.

81bragan
Jun. 16, 2018, 12:26am

>80 RidgewayGirl: I really do wish they'd do one for my area, because I think it would be interesting to see. You can certainly do interestingly dark stories set in the sun-drenched Southwest (I mean, look at Breaking Bad!), and I'm sure we have local writers who would oblige.

I was a little disappointed in the NJ one, actually, in terms of enjoying a familiarity with the setting. There was a story set in the town I lived in as a teenager, but it was set on the other end of town from where I hung out, so not actually places I was very familiar with. :)

82lisapeet
Jun. 16, 2018, 7:55am

>80 RidgewayGirl: There's a Bronx Noir, which I found a bit disappointing—mostly uneven, as I remember, with the standout story being by Marlon James, who has written some good standalone stuff. I don't remember it in much detail, though, and don't have it anymore because I did an exchange with a friend in Boston—we each read our "Noir" collections and passed them to each other, and were going to then read the other person's and do a joint blog post review. But he had cancer and got too ill for us to finish, and I still haven't read Boston Noir out of inertia and a little sorrow. I have the feeling it will be a better read than the Bronx's version, though, having more strong writers in the Boston area to choose from.

83bragan
Jun. 17, 2018, 8:44am

57. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley



This fairly short, but ambitious, book is basically an exploration of fiction, what it is, and how we relate to it.

I confess, I found myself slightly frustrated with the first couple of chapters, in which Oatley discusses the idea of fiction as a sort of simulation that we can accept into our minds and how it engages the "theory of mind" that we develop as children, as he seemed to be circling around some ideas that seemed very obvious to me based on my own personal experience of fiction, but in a way that never seemed nearly as clear and direct as it ought to be.

Fortunately, he settles into the topic much better after that, and I found the next chapter, about the interaction between readers and stories -- the collaboration between what we bring to a text and what's there on the page -- to be, if not exactly revelatory, engaging and rather well-expressed. He then goes on to talk about such interesting things as the difference between the events of a story and the plot, the ways in which images in a film can be juxtaposed to evoke emotion, differences between inexperienced and expert writers in the process of creating a story, and psychological studies on whether reading fiction makes you more empathetic. I think there are some really good insights in here, and some slightly mushy speculations, but overall it was thought-provoking and definitely worth reading

It did, however, feel to me somewhat limited in its subject matter. Unsurprisingly, although he claims his subject is fiction in general, Oatley is mostly focused on literary fiction, with some brief dips into filmmaking and some incidental discussion of things like detective stories. He doesn't snobbishly dismiss genre fiction out of hand the way too many literary types do, despite making a point of drawing a distinction (reasonable, I think, if very fuzzy and subjective) between books that qualify as art and ones that simply aim to be entertaining. But he's not really talking about fiction in nearly as broad and sweeping a way as he seems to think he is. (Heck, he completely leaves out television and comics/graphic novels in his list of things that qualify as "fiction," which I'd say reveals a significant blind spot.) But then, there are probably quite a few ways in which he's barely scratching the surface of what there is to say about fiction, and a book that tried to say everything about every form of fiction would be unreadably long.

Rating: Thanks to some slightly mixed feelings, I'm going to call this one 3.5/5

And many thanks, by the way, to Lois for being kind enough to send me this one after I read her own review of it and said it was going on my wishlist! I think you liked it more unreservedly than I did, Lois, but I did find a lot worthwhile in it and was very glad to have the chance to read it.

84avaland
Jun. 18, 2018, 4:15pm

>83 bragan: You're welcome (be careful what you wish for!) I do remember that bit around the "theory of mind" being less clear than some of the other parts. Your review is excellent and your paragraph about his mostly literary fiction focus is intriguing. Beyond genre, he doesn't take up bestsellers either (only a fraction of which will become literary fiction). This is why I also read books about popular fiction, genre fiction...etc (currently reading one on Scandinavian Crime Fiction), although they are more cultural and literary studies.

>55 valkyrdeath: Too bad about the Sapolsky, I was sorely tempted by those early few sentences. Not that I don't have a large pile of TBRs in front of me.

85bragan
Jun. 18, 2018, 5:39pm

>84 avaland: Thanks!

I do think it's perfectly reasonable to write about the psychology of literary fiction, and Oatley does a decent (if still not entirely comprehensive) job of it, but that's not actually the same thing as writing about the psychology of fiction, which is a much broader topic.

I think this is something I've become kind of sensitized to. I read so widely, myself, and for such a wide variety of reasons, that it's become terribly obvious to me when people start talking about why we read, or what books do (or should do) for us, or what fiction is, but are really only talking about why they read the very specific kinds of things they do and what specific things they like those books do for them. There are unquestionably interesting things to say about every kind and genre of fiction, from Shakespeare to sitcoms, and anyone who doesn't think so isn't sufficiently familiar with the category in question or hasn't bothered thinking very deeply about it.

As for Sapolsky, I'd definitely recommend one of his other books instead.

86bragan
Jun. 21, 2018, 12:36pm

58. Provenance by Ann Leckie



This novel is set in the same universe as Leckie's Ancillary series, but in a different part of it, with different characters, sometime after that series ends. The main character is Ingray Aughskold, who, in an attempt to impress her mother and have a better chance at being named her heir, hatches a scheme to free a prisoner from a penal colony and get their help to recover some valuable artifacts they supposedly stole. It's a terrible, terrible plan, and it very quickly goes in directions Ingray could never have anticipated, eventually involving politics from the local to the interstellar, strange aliens, and murder.

I didn't think this was quite as good as the Ancillary series, but that's a very high bar indeed. Instead, it was just a good, fun story with a likeable main character, and some excellent world-building. I do hope Leckie keeps writing stories set in this universe, because I definitely want to keep reading them.

Rating: 4/5

87bragan
Jun. 26, 2018, 8:03pm

59. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke



Despite the ill-explained absence of her mother, 12-year-old Meggie is happy living with her father in their house full of much-loved books. But one night a mysterious man shows up calling her father by a very strange name, secrets begin to come out, and Meggie discovers that it is possible for stories to become uncomfortably real.

At well over 500 pages, this felt a bit slow for a kids' book, especially towards the beginning. But once we learned what was actually going on and the story got rolling, I started to quite enjoy it, and I just kept enjoying it more pretty much all the way through. Of course, the fact that it's carefully calculated to appeal to a book-lover's soul helped a lot! (Even if it did lose some book-lover's points for having horrible, horrible things happen to books over the course of the story. Shudder.)

There are two sequels to this, which I happen to already have, and I'll definitely be continuing on with them at some point.

Rating: 4/5

88bragan
Jun. 30, 2018, 12:56am

60. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy



A collection of humorous bios of famous people from history. It's from the 1940s, so it does seem a bit dated, with a slightly musty feel about some of the humor, giant blind spots about things like white people doing anything remotely unpleasant in colonizing the New World, and a few misogynistic jokes that honestly leave me entirely unsure whether Cuppy is satirizing sexist attitudes or embracing them. The style is also rather disjointed, with lots and lots of footnotes, some of which are relevant and some of which aren't. I found the humor a bit variable. There are some moments of real satiric brilliance, some that raise an amused chuckle, and some where it all starts to wear rather thin. I suspect it is one of those books that works to best effect when dipped in and out of, rather than read straight through until you get tired of it.

It's also hard to know how seriously to take any of it. I mean, in general it's clearly not meant to be taken terribly seriously at all, but apparently Cuppy actually did to a lot of very real research on his subjects. So I imagine a lot of what he includes is more or less historically accurate, but you never do quite know what's established fact, what's mere rumor, and what's just been thrown in because it's funny.

This volume also features some droll cartoon illustration and two additional pieces about various royal personages: one involving humor and pranks, which I didn't find all that entertaining, and one about their eating habits and food preferences, which I kind of did.

Rating: It's honestly quite hard to rate this. There's a fun, oddball charm to it that makes me want to be kind to it, but I really did find the humor value variable. I guess I'm going to resist the urge to be extra generous and call it 3.5/5.

89avaland
Jun. 30, 2018, 7:56am

>85 bragan: Well-said.

90lisapeet
Jun. 30, 2018, 8:49am

>88 bragan: I have that somewhere, inherited from the parents' bookshelves. Never read it—it justifies taking up space as more of a humorous outward-facing title than anything else.

91bragan
Jun. 30, 2018, 2:00pm

>89 avaland: Thanks. This is apparently something I can get into quite a little rant about (albeit a mild one) if I let myself. :)

>90 lisapeet: It's worth picking up and browsing through, I think, even if I don't necessarily recommend reading it straight through.

92bragan
Jul. 3, 2018, 3:00am

The thread is continued for the third quarter of 2018 here.