Review: The Status of All Things by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke

Where did I get this book? My local library!

Where did I get this book? My local library!

This engaging novel, written by two best friends, explores the consequences that arise when a jilted bride has the chance to rewrite her own history–on social media.

After her fiance Max breaks the news at the rehearsal dinner that he can’t go through with their wedding, Kate is crushed. She doesn’t know how she can possibly explain what’s happened to all the people posting congratulatory messages on her Facebook feed, especially when she doesn’t understand what’s happened herself.

When Kate posts a status update wishing she could go back and do the past month over, she gets an unexpected second chance at saving her relationship with Max. It’s not surprising that her efforts have unintended consequences, but the story has enough twists and turns to keep it fresh and interesting. The book’s real strength lies in its depiction of strong and lasting friendship, as Kate’s friends Jules and Liam do their best to support her even after she throws them for a loop with her crazy tales of time travel.

In the end, The Status of All Things serves as a good reminder that the lives we see on Facebook are rarely as effortless and perfect as they appear.

Genre: Female friendship fiction with a time travel twist.

Read it if: You love the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, the collected works of Jennifer Weiner, and/or Landline by Rainbow Rowell; you spend too much time looking at your friends’ perfect lives on Facebook; you have always dreamed of a do-over button.

Skip it if: You have difficulty suspending disbelief when confronted with Freaky Friday style plot devices; you really can’t stand Facebook; you are squeamish about occasional use of profanity and very mildly naughty bachelorette parties.

Movie-worthy: This definitely has potential–its success would depend entirely on casting.

Best enjoyed with: A mocha from Starbucks or shots of Pappy van Winkle.

Review: This Town by Mark Leibovich

Where did I get this book? A thrift shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

Where did I get this book? A thrift shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

Published in 2013, This Town opens with the funeral of Tim Russert, legendary host of Meet the Press. The gathering draws big names from all of D.C.’s key elements: journalists, government officials, politicians, and lobbyists.

With a dry sense of humor and a somewhat jaundiced eye, Leibovich proceeds to show how incestuous and chummy the power ecosystem in the nation’s capital really is. Power, hierarchy, relationships, and insider information are the metrics by which everyone is judged. The anecdotes shared in this book are as dismaying as they are amusing.

Genre: Dishy political nonfiction

Read it if: You regularly watch Morning Joe, Meet the Press, or C-SPAN; you are considering a career in politics; or you want your worst fears about Washington insiders confirmed.

Skip it if: You have never heard of Paul Ryan, Politico, or Ben Bradlee; you are already sick of this election and don’t want to think about the last one; you prefer to maintain a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” vision of our government.

Movie-worthy: Not necessary. Just watch House of Cards, Scandal, Veep (or Brain Dead!) instead.

 

Category: Reviews

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Where did I get this book? I bought it. It’s a keeper!

Harper is a school nurse when the first cases of Dragonscale appear. The deadly fungal infection spreads rapidly through the population, and the infected have a terrifying tendency to burst into flames. While many seek to ostracize those with Dragonscale, Harper volunteers to work in a hospital dedicated to their care, where her caring and kindness first attract the attention of the titular Fireman, John Rookwood.

When Harper develops the strangely beautiful gold-flecked black markings that herald a Dragonscale infection, her husband Jakob turns on her, convinced she’s responsible for infecting him as well. Fleeing Jakob’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior, Harper, now pregnant, finds refuge with a group of infected who claim to have discovered a way to live with Dragonscale. Instead of spontaneously combusting, they seek communion with each other and with the fungus that has invaded them. Although the Fireman leads Harper to this refuge, he holds himself strangely apart, until events force both John and Harper to choose sides if they want to survive.

In this extraordinary novel, Joe Hill explores the ways that social groups can elevate or destroy us, the heightened sense of connection that can be attained in both communal prayer and communal violence. It was a spectacular read, deeply moving, suspenseful, and ultimately as compassionate as Harper herself.

Genre: Thrilling dystopian SF awesomeness.

Read it if: You love end times books like The Stand, The Road, The Passage, etc.; you love dystopian speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale; you love tense, vivid storytelling.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence and/or profanity; you try to avoid big giant books that temporarily take over your life; or you have a pathological fear of spontaneous combustion.

Movie-worthy: This would make an amazing movie, or maybe even a series. It’s stunningly visual.  David Tennant would be perfect as the Fireman. Someone make this happen!

Best enjoyed with: A nice pot of lapsang souchong for that wood smoke flavor, or alternately, a generous portion of Tennessee Fire whiskey.

Review: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Where did I get this book? I bought it. It's a keeper!

Where did I get this book? I bought it. It’s a keeper!

Is there anything more bittersweet than the final book in a series you love? I’ve been eagerly anticipating The Raven King, the fourth and final book in the Raven Cycle, but once it was in my hands I had a flash of ambivalence. If I read it, it would be over, and I didn’t want it to be over!

Needless to say, I read it anyway. (Stop here if you haven’t finished the first three books!)

It has been nearly a year since Blue first saw Gansey’s spirit walking on the ley line with all the others destined to die. She and Gansey have kept their relationship a secret from Adam to spare his feelings, and Blue has resisted the temptation for a kiss that could prove fatal to her true love.

Ronan tries to dream something that will save Gansey, with unexpected results. Soon he and the others realize that a sinister darkness is overtaking Cabeswater and infiltrating Ronan’s dreams, a force that’s even capable of possessing Noah. Ronan and Adam, as the Greywaren and Cabeswater’s magician, work together in a dangerous effort to stop the destruction. In the process, Adam learns more about Ronan’s secrets and starts to rethink his own vision of the future.

Gansey places all his hopes in finally finding the tomb of Owen Glendower and using the promised wish to save them. The one person who might be able to provide answers, Blue’s long lost father, Artemus, maintains a frustrating silence on this question, although he must know more than he’s saying. When he does open up to Blue, his revelations help her understand herself and why she’s always felt so out of place.

Maggie Stiefvater’s love for her characters shines through in every page, which only increases the tension as the end approaches. How can this possibly end well for anyone? Rather than spoiling it, I’ll just say that the resolution is satisfying without taking any shortcuts that might feel like cheating after the four-book build-up.

I will really miss these extraordinary characters, the lush atmosphere of magic, the teenage limbo of longing for the future while fearing the loss of everything you cherish in the present. In their own way, these books truly are magical.

Genre: Magical YA that even a jaded middle-aged adult can love.

Read it if: You love stories of transcendent friendships and prophecies fulfilled; you have ever wished you could live inside a tree; you read and loved the first three books (obviously.)

Skip it if: You dislike teenagers, magic, nature, etc.; you haven’t read the first three books.

Movie-worthy: At this point I think it would have to be a TV series rather than a movie. No way could you cram all this into a couple of hours. It certainly has the potential for some gorgeous visuals (and I would love to see opening credits based on the author’s cover art.) Okay, can someone make this happen please?

 

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Where did I get this Advanced Reader's Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Where did I get this Advanced Reader’s Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at the local college, he has a wife he adores and a well-adjusted fifteen-year-old son. If he sometimes feels regret for the research career in quantum physics he abandoned when his then-girlfriend Daniela told him she was pregnant, it’s only a momentary emotion.

Unlike most people, Jason gets to find out what life would have been like if he’d made a different choice. After a masked attacker abducts him on his way home one night, he awakens in an unfamiliar world where he never married or had a child, where his research on quantum superposition has led to a world-changing breakthrough. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the blurb!)

As Jason races to reclaim the life he lost, the implications of each decision he makes take on new and urgent meaning. Part breathless thriller, part SF cautionary tale, Dark Matter manages to create genuine emotional impact while it hurtles toward a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion. It will leave you pondering your own life choices, and where all those other roads might have taken you.

Genre: Science fiction techno-thriller with philosophical implications.

Read it if: You love Michael Crichton’s books but always wished his characters had a little more emotional depth; your favorite ’90s show was Sliders; you like inventive thrillers that demand to be read in one gulp.

Skip it if: You couldn’t care less about Schrodinger’s cat; you only like hard science fiction with all the science-y details fully explained; you categorically reject the concept of the multiverse.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please! I would see this movie in the theater, preferably in IMAX 3-D.

 

 

Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Where did I get this book? The library.

In this dystopian novel, Chang-Rae Lee depicts a future where economic and class divisions have become formalized in separate communities. The story revolves around Fan, a young tank diver in a fish farm. She is a quiet and hard-working member of her community, B-Mor, where order and family come first. B-Mor is a facilities settlement, established to provide agricultural products to the wealthy Charter villages.

The Charters hold significant power over B-Mor, determining the residents’ access to medical care and the minimum occupancy for their communal residences. A tiny percentage of students pass a test allowing them to leave for a presumably brighter future in the Charters, but ambitions are modest at best for most of the population.

When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears after a mandated medical check-up, Fan slips away from B-Mor. Their love and their fates beyond the boundaries of the settlement become the subject of a communal obsession among those they left behind.

If at this point you are imagining a breathless first-person present narrative featuring a young, action-star heroine on a mission to save her lost love, I’m going to have to stop you right there. This story is told primarily from the collective perspective of the B-Mor residents, a choice that sometimes renders the story frustratingly opaque and emotionally distant.

That being said, Fan’s journey is a compelling one, revealing a landscape marred by inequality and self-interest. Outside the safe walls of the facilities and the Charters lie the counties, where lawlessness and violence prevail. Fan uses her youthful appearance to pass for a child and demonstrates remarkable presence of mind in the face of numerous threats. Somehow she retains a quiet, centered gift for compassion that the world in all its cruelty cannot touch. Whether that will be enough remains uncertain, even in the book’s final pages.

Genre: Literary dystopia.

Read it if: You enjoy speculative fiction by literary novelists; you enjoy dystopias that explore potential outcomes of current societal trends; you like stories that raise more questions than they answer.

Skip it if: You dislike first-person plural narrators; you object to ambiguous endings; or you prefer your dystopias fast-paced and action-packed.

Movie-worthy: Maybe. It would be an unsettling indie film, for sure.

 

Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the unusual title and lovely cover of this book to pick it up; it was only after I was half-way through that I noticed the superlative blurb on the cover: “Funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.” –URSULA K. LE GUIN

Okay, if I’d needed any additional incentive to start reading, such stellar praise from one of my favorite authors would have done the trick.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat deserves the praise.The story opens with Josephine, a young woman in desperate need of a job, interviewing with an unnervingly faceless bureaucrat. Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have been hard hit by an ongoing economic crisis, and jobs are scarce, so she is happy to take any job, even one as monotonous as this position appears to be.

Her sole duty is to enter apparently meaningless strings of letters and numbers from a paper file into a corresponding record in a computer database. It is mind-numbing work, and as someone who once did data entry as a temp back in the day, I can confirm that Phillips perfectly captures the emotional ups and downs of performing a stupefying function, the little treats and breaks that become essential to staying sane.

In Josephine’s case, sanity is under considerably more threat than usual. The walls bear the smudges of past employees’ fingerprints, and it would seem, the scratch marks from their nails. Josephine’s quest to get answers to the simplest of questions–where is a vending machine?–proves truly Kafkaesque as she encounters misinformed doppelgangers and endless identical floors. Worse still, she’s not allowed to speak to anyone about her job as a condition of employment, even as her misgivings grow.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Joseph becomes strained, smothered under the weight of unspoken secrets. They moved to the city together from their childhood home in the “hinterland,” optimistic that their love would see them through despite the skepticism of their families. They have been trying to have a baby, without success. As they move from one sad sublet to the next, Joseph begins to disappear without explanation. Josephine fears that someone is following her and somehow, missed delivery notices appear on the doorstep of each place they live, even though she’s given no one the address.

The tension and suspense continue to build throughout this strangely lovely story, and the author brilliantly balances the realities of young love, tedious work, and financial insecurity with the surreal existential logic of a recurring dream.

Genre: Surreal literary fiction.

Read it if: You enjoy Kafka, pomegranates, and novels set in the workplace; you know what it’s like to be young, broke, and in love; or you are willing to take Ursula K. Le Guin’s word for it that this is a really great book.

Skip it if: You have a deep-seated fear of bad breath; you prefer strict adherence to logic over surreal office work; you are pretty sure “beautiful bureaucrat’ is an oxymoron.

Movie-worthy: Totally. I was picturing Tilda Swinton as Josephine’s faceless boss the entire time.

 

Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Imagine the chance to find a group of like-minded people who welcome you with open arms, people who just get you, who understand what you mean before you even say it. In The Affinities, author Robert Charles Wilson conjures a future in which taking a series of tests offered by the company Inter Alia can open up a whole new world of social harmony. Adam Fisk, unhappy with his unsatisfactory friendships and dysfunctional family, makes the decision to give the testing service a try, with remarkable results.

Adam discovers a social network that offers support and comfort unlike anything he’s experienced before. Others in his affinity group, the Taus, offer him a place to live after his family cuts him off financially, and hire him when he needs a job. He develops a fierce and lasting loyalty to the Taus and works to defend his group against the machinations of their increasingly powerful nemesis, the Hets.

Not everyone who takes the Inter Alia tests is so lucky. Only about 65% of those who try the service are actually assigned to one of the 22 affinity groups named (somewhat randomly) after the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. As the affinities take on greater importance in society, opposition to them also grows. Meanwhile, those who belong to an affinity group increasingly cut themselves off from outsiders, even finding it difficult to communicate with them on the most basic level. Adam loves his fellow Taus, but he never loses his empathy for those outside his group, and this eventually leads to conflict.

I love science fiction that focuses on society and The Affinities is an excellent example of the genre, taking a current societal trend to its potential extreme. People increasingly tend to seek out the company and opinions of others who share their views and outlook on life, but what are the potential consequences of this preference for similarity? What happens when you exclude from your social circle anyone whose perspective differs from your own?

The author resists the temptation to spell out all the specific characteristics that make you a Tau, a Het, or one of the other affinity groups, and in fact doesn’t even describe most of them. That means no chance to guess which affinity you belong to, no sorting yourself into Candor or Abnegation. While the technology to assign people to affinity groups doesn’t yet exist, we’re already sorting ourselves on Facebook, Fox News and Farmers Only.com. Would we jump at the chance to make it scientific? I’m guessing we probably would.

Genre: Social science fiction.

Read it if: You are intrigued by fiction that explores ongoing social trends; you dream of finding people who truly understand you, preferably with the help of an algorithm; you enjoy books like The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Skip it if: You are looking for the next Divergent; you prefer your science fiction more hard than not; you categorically refuse to read books set largely in Canada.

Movie-worthy: Sure, why not.

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I know Felicia Day primarily from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Joss Whedon mini-masterpiece Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, her web show The Guild and guest turns doing things like bowling with Chris Hardwick. She always seemed like an incredibly well-adjusted super nerd, living the super nerd dream. In reality, she has suffered her share of ups and downs, and worked incredibly hard to forge her own unique path to stardom.

In this engaging and sometimes hilarious memoir, Day describes her highly unusual childhood. Haphazardly homeschooled from an early age, she had the freedom to pursue her interests and the help of a series of tutors to cultivate her talents as a singer and violinist. She also had virtually no social interaction with kids her own age. In a way, this was freeing; basically, she could be as weird as she wanted with little feedback from her peers to shut her down. On the other hand, it was lonely and isolating, until she found internet friends through one of the first online fantasy games, Ultima.

Day entered college at 16 on a violin scholarship and double-majored in violin and math. She still lived a largely sheltered life throughout her college years, because she was younger than everyone else, lived at home, and spent all her daylight hours either practicing violin or studying. When she graduated, she went to California to pursue a career as an actor, and for the first time her work ethic and superstar grades were no help. She was making a living, but not achieving her dream of success.

That’s when her brother introduced her to World of Warcraft. She quickly went from playing the game as a fun stress reliever to obsessively devoting all her waking hours to it. Her addiction cost her a significant amount of time and emotional energy but in the end she was able to break free, and she used her experience to write a pilot for The Guild, about a group of hardcore WoW gamers. When TV execs passed on the script for the pilot, Day recruited friends and volunteers to make the show happen.

Although the show enjoyed several years of success, when it finally came to an end, Day had difficulty accepting the inevitable. She recounts her struggle with burn-out stress, depression and suicidal ideation. When she finally sought help, it turned out that her problems had at least some physical basis: an undiagnosed thyroid condition, fibroids, and an unpleasant esophogeal problem. She notes how messed up it is that she was willing to see a doctor for physical problems when she’d ignored her emotional and mental health for so long. The good news: she is feeling much better these days and is back to her old creative self (hence this book.)

As an epilogue, Day addresses some of the horrific bullying and harassment that have taken place as part of the whole GamerGate nightmare. I am no gamer myself, but it is bizarre to me that anyone would seek to exclude people from an activity they enjoy or try to create an atmosphere of fear in what should be an inclusive community.

Day is a deft and engaging writer, willing to relate even the most awkward and embarrassing anecdotes. And Joss Whedon wrote the foreword! Reason enough to read it right there.

Genre: Geek celebrity memoir.

Read it if: You’ve ever faced major obstacles to achieving your creative dreams; you’ve ever felt like the biggest geek in the room; you’ve ever become a little bit too dependent on the internet (I still miss you, Farmville!)

Skip it if: You have never heard of Joss Whedon, World of Warcraft, Nichelle Nichols, Supernatural, or ComicCon; you dislike curse words and/or fun with Photoshop.

Movie-worthy: Mmm, no. But maybe someone should start a “Behind the Geek” bio series, like “Behind the Music” but with more cosplay. I would totally watch that!

 

 

 

Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.