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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: 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: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Fans of the Patricia Highsmith novel Strangers on a Train or the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name will recognize the initial set-up: a random encounter between two travelers leads to a murder plot. In The Kind Worth Killing, author Peter Swanson uses this familiar starting point to launch into a twisty and unsettling tale worthy of Patricia Highsmith herself.

Ted first meets Lily in an airport bar in London. A few gin martinis and the anonymity of international travel lead to a very frank conversation about Ted’s recent discovery that his wife Miranda is cheating on him with their building contractor. When he admits that he would like to kill his wife, Lily isn’t shocked or horrified. If anything, she’s encouraging. When they both end up seated in first class on the same flight back to the United States, they make an agreement to meet again if Ted decides he’s serious about wanting to go through with the murder.

At this point in the book, I was enjoying the vivid characters but I also felt reasonably sure I knew where things were going. Nope! The story takes one unexpected turn after another and the suspense and tension build throughout.

As a protagonist, Lily Kintner follows in the footsteps of Tom Ripley and other sociopath anti-heroes. She has her own strange moral code, but no trace of a conscience. It’s always unsettling to realize you’re almost rooting for someone so cold-heartedly lethal, and the author plays on that ambivalence as Lily teeters on the edge of discovery. That unnerving tension continues right up until the satisfying conclusion.

Genre: Suspenseful, deliciously twisty psychological thriller.

Read it if: You loved The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Swanson’s first book; you are a fan of Patrician Highsmith and/or Alfred Hitchcock; you are particularly fond of anti-heroes and unexpected twists.

Skip it if: You like to feel unambiguously supportive of your main character; you only like thrillers when you can successfully guess the ending; or you are cheating on your spouse and nervous about your life expectancy.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!

 

 

Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

First, some trivia: wrestlers mentioned in passing in this novel, which first appeared in 1966, are named Ruby and Python, just like the two coding languages. Coincidence? Maybe, but it would make sense if computer language developers were inspired by this book considering the subject matter: the eponymous Babel-17 is a uniquely efficient language, unlike any other known to the Alliance. Transmissions in the mysterious language have been detected at the sites of several acts of sabotage. Because the Alliance is at war with an enemy coalition known as the Invaders, they need to quickly and quietly resolve the mystery.

They turn to Rydra Wong, a linguist with an uncanny gift for mastering and comprehending languages. She also happens to be a famous poet and a certified ship’s captain. Rydra wastes no time putting together a crew and, with the full support of the Alliance, she sets out to find the next targeted site and prevent the attack.

As she bonds with her crew, the density of Babel-17 as a language continues to amaze her. In just a few words, the language conveys an extraordinary amount of specific information. It changes the way she perceives the world when she thinks in it. This idea, that the nature of a language can shape the nature of perception, is further explored when Rydra meets a man called Butcher, who lacks any understanding of the words “I” and “you.” Drawn to Butcher, Rydra uncovers the secret truth about Babel-17 and its import for the future of the Alliance.

The future envisioned in Babel-17 combines old-school technology like radio and flashing lights with “discorporate” (i.e., dead) crew fulfilling essential functions on the ship and institutionalized polyamory. Some of these details are interesting, but it’s the language aspect that held my attention. Rydra’s efforts to understand Babel-17 and trace it to its source lead her to finally solve the enigma of her own strange gifts. It’s also kind of awesome that she essentially has rock star status as a poet.

Genre: Science fiction with a xenolinguistic spin.

Read it if: You speak Klingon or Dothraki; you would like to see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explored in a science fictional setting; you want to read all the books mentioned in Jo Walton’s brilliant novel Among Others.

Skip it if: You only read books from this century, no matter what century they’re set in; you have a worm phobia; you think everyone should just learn English.

Movie-worthy: It’s probably too late for that.

 

Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Where did I get this book? From the library.

Where did I get this book? From the library.

I checked out a copy of this book at my local library after an exciting plot twist in my own life: I had passed the online Jeopardy test and been invited to audition for Jeopardy. So I didn’t read this with the distant objectivity of a reader, but with the fervent attention of a student seeking knowledge from the master.

Bob Harris mostly delivers. He describes his rise to champion status after a five-time win in humorous and self-deprecating terms, and he doesn’t hold back on the initial shame he felt after a major crash and burn at his first Tournament of Champions. Interwoven with details of his Jeopardy experience are elements of his personal life: the memory of his late father, the health struggles his sister faces, the ups and downs of his career as a stand-up comic, the fate of his relationship at the time of his most intense Jeopardy study sessions.

More than anything, I was amazed at the intense and methodical nature of Harris’ efforts to mentally prepare himself for Jeopardy. He spent long hours and weeks cramming knowledge into his brain, using quirky mnemonics that often involved vivid off-color imagery to keep it locked in.

At first this strategy struck me as absurdly elaborate. After trying my own scaled-down version of it, though, I have to say it really works. (Go ahead, ask me an African capital! I’ve finally got them down!) The key for me seems to be a simple visual cue that I can associate with the correct answer (e.g., a bright red Santa hat in the center of New Mexico, to remind me the capital is Santa Fe.) They are also very idiosyncratic; a picture of Bam-Bam from the Flintstones and a baby girl to remind me that Bamako is the capital of Mali (my baby niece is named Molly.)

While Harris has a slightly cornball sense of humor, his deeply personal account of his Jeopardy experience makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Now on to the audition! It’s happening this Tuesday–I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kitten Seeds of Evil

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

Normally I just use this blog as a way to record my thoughts about books I’ve read, but an article in today’s Washington Post got me sufficiently fired up to veer off onto the subject of politics–and the slippery slope to book banning. Specifically, the object of my rage is proposed Virginia legislation that would allow parents to review and potentially block books deemed “sexually explicit” from reaching the vulnerable eyeballs of their children. Here’s how the Post describes it:

“The bill would require K-12 teachers to identify classroom materials with ‘sexually explicit’ content and notify parents, who would have the right to ‘opt out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to study.”

The bill, approved on Thursday by the Senate education committee, was inspired by a parent who tried and failed to keep Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved out of Fairfax County classrooms in 2013. Now, I realize Beloved is an intense book. It doesn’t shy away from difficult, painful subject matter: slavery, sexual assault, murder. It’s also a powerful and important part of American literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

First of all, who gets to define what “sexually explicit” means? And second, why would a parent attempt to restrict the reading material of their high school senior anyway? At that age, kids are one step away from independence and adulthood; preventing them from reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (two other books mentioned by the outraged parent in question) will not keep them in a bubble of ignorant safety forever. Personally, I will be THRILLED when my kids start reading such challenging, engaging and profound works of literature. (My oldest is currently halfway through The Catcher in the Rye. Good times!)

More importantly, this type of legislation could easily lead to teachers shying away from controversial literary works and sticking with more anodyne choices to ensure that no kids have to opt-out. Ultimately, the state’s curriculum could be skewed away from reading assignments based on merit to books chosen for their innocuous content. As a parent in Virginia and a life-long reader, this prospect is chilling.

Parenting is about instilling values and judgment in your kids, not putting blinders on them, and certainly not diluting the education of children across the state.  I would suggest that parents who have concerns with what their children are learning take a close look at the materials assigned over the course of the year, actually read the books, and then discuss them with their child. Imagine what opportunities that sort of ongoing conversation could provide!

Unfortunately, however, not all of the state senators who voted the proposed bill out of committee have even read Beloved. Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico admitted he’d only read excerpts, and he had this to say in the Post article:

“Evil is just–when you plant the seed, it’s a kitten,” he said. “You feed it, it becomes a lion and it eats you.”

That’s right. The Virginia state senate is here to protect our children from the kitten seeds of evil. I feel so much better now.

 

Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

TifAni FaNelli, the distractingly capitalized protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive, has worked hard to reinvent herself. At 29, TifAni (now known as Ani, pronounced “AH-nee”) has a successful career as a magazine writer in New York. She’s engaged to a good-looking guy from a wealthy family, and she diets (i.e., starves) herself into the most fashionable outfits with ruthless dedication and an eye on her wedding dress.

Despite her success, Ani’s fashionable veneer hides a black hole of bitterness and cynicism. It gradually becomes clear that something in her past damaged her in a way that she believes is irreparable. The cause of that damage, the events that occurred at her high school during her freshman year, will be the subject of a documentary, and Ani plans to use the opportunity to finally tell her side of the story.

The novel alternates between Ani’s increasingly shaky grip on her life as the start of the documentary approaches, and 14-year-old TifAni’s brutal introduction to the cruel realities of the social hierarchy at her new private school. It is difficult to watch as TifAni makes terrible choices in her pursuit of the popular kids’ approval. As it turns out, this is only a prelude to the true tragedy at the heart of TifAni’s transformation.

Ani is not an easy character to ride along with. She can be profoundly unpleasant and manipulative to the extreme, so focused on winning the admiration of others that it seems uncertain she even knows who she really is or what she would want if no one else could see her. She hopes to show the world how far she’s come by participating in the documentary, but ultimately, she reveals more than she intended.

Genre: Suspenseful dark fiction.

Read it if: You think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep would have been better with more violence; you are a fan of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places; you really hated high school and would like to imagine how it could have been even worse.

Skip it if: You are sensitive to depictions of sexual assault, gun violence, or eating disorders; you prefer likable protagonists; you were hoping the title meant this was a light, cheerful read (hint: it’s ironic!)

Movie-worthy: Honestly, it would be hard to watch.

 

 

 

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it's GORGEOUS!

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it’s GORGEOUS!

Set in the world of post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first foray into the world of fantasy. While it’s true that ogres, pixies and dragons play pivotal roles in the story, The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel in the same way that Never Let Me Go is science fiction; Ishiguro’s exquisite skill as a storyteller ultimately makes the question of genre irrelevant.

Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, resolve to leave their subterranean village and undertake a journey to see their son. They have become increasingly marginalized by the other villagers, taunted by children and reduced to spending their nights in darkness when their candle is taken away. More troubling, however, is the mist that seeps through the region, clouding and erasing memories. Axl and Beatrice can recall only that they love each other; details of their past together, even of their son, are scant and difficult to retain.

When the two shelter at a nearby Saxon village, Beatrice seeks out a wise woman, hoping to get help for the pain in her side and perhaps learn more about the cause of the mist. Her friend advises her to travel to a monastery to find a monk reputed to be a healer. Axl agrees to the detour, even though it means a more arduous climb, and soon they have acquired a pair of unexpected traveling companions whose fates become intertwined with their own. It becomes clear that there may be a way to lift the mist and recover what they have forgotten, but will they want to remember?

The Buried Giant displays the  gorgeous, heartbreaking subtlety that makes all of Ishiguro’s novels so deeply affecting and powerful. Axl and Beatrice are pulled toward the conclusion of their quest by the enigmatic power of dream logic, their lost memories an irresistible unknown.

Genre: Fantasy quest with surreal elements and existential resonance.

Read it if: You loved (and/or were permanently scarred by) Never Let Me Go; you enjoy movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or books like Kafka’s The Trial or Harvest by Jim Crace; you are intrigued by the unreliable nature of memory.

Skip it if: You dislike ambiguity, fantasy elements, fairy tales or stories weighty with meaning; you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure story; you prefer your protagonists young and spry.

Movie-worthy: I don’t know if it could be done. I never saw the movie they made of Never Let Me Go because a) it sounded too emotionally painful to contemplate and b) it seemed impossible for a movie to even approach the level of the book.

 

Review: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, is a Horatio Alger success story–raised by a single mother after his father went to prison, he dabbled in crime but found discipline and purpose in the military. His hard work pays off big time:  while pursuing dual degrees in law and politics at Harvard, he earns a coveted spot at the Davies Group, a firm with legendary influence in the world of Washington power.

Soon Mike has the respect he’s yearned for, along with more money than he could have imagined. Until, of course, he discovers that his new bosses are into some nefarious activities and that he’s expected to participate. Henry Davies, the founder of the Davies Group, believes that everyone can be bought. It’s just a matter of finding the right price, the perfect pressure point, the secret sin.

If this sounds an awful lot like The Firm, you’re not wrong. The plot trajectory is similar, but The 500 takes place in a distinctly Washingtonian milieu. (It was especially fun for me when the characters roamed around the northern Virginia suburbs, my new home since last summer.) The author previously wrote for The Atlantic and has a flair for authentic detail. Mike’s distinctive voice and the novel’s fast pacing make for an entertaining read, even if some of the wilder action sequences require a certain suspension of disbelief.

Genre: Politico-legal thriller with DC street cred.

Read it if: You harbor deep suspicions about the integrity of our country’s leaders; you really loved The Firm; you’re looking for an action-packed, fast-paced read.

Skip it if: You thought this was the sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100; you prefer to believe in the honesty and incorruptibility of lawmakers and law enforcement; you are a big fan of the artist Dan Flavin.

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see that movie.

Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Where did I get this book? I bought it.

Where did I get this book? I bought it.

No one brings history to life like Erik Larson. He has written some of the best works of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read, including The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.

In Dead Wake, he relates the tragic story of the Lusitania, the British luxury ocean liner torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine during World War I. Nearly 2,000 passengers and crew died in the disaster, while only 764 survived.

Among those boarding the Lusitania as it prepared to depart New York were Theodate Pope, one of the first female American architects; Charles Lauriat, a dealer in rare books carrying unique works by Thackeray and Dickens to London; Richard Preston Prichard, a medical student from Montreal; Alfred Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune; Nellie Huston, a British woman returning home; and Leslie and Cliff Morton, brothers who signed on as crew in New York. The tension builds as the ship nears its destination and the impending attack becomes increasingly imminent.

Meanwhile, U-20, the German U-boat destined to sink the Lusitania, cruised the seas around the United Kingdom, looking for potential targets. Submarine captains had almost complete autonomy to fire on ships and received credit for the tonnage they sank. Walther Schwieger, captain of U-20, had already demonstrated his willingness to target ships regardless of the flag they flew or the casualties involved.

Larson brings out the personalities and day-to-day lives of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and vividly evokes the hazards and hardships of a tour in a German submarine of that time period. He also puts the ship’s journey within the wider context of World War I, including the impact of British intelligence breakthroughs on the war and the personal travails of President Woodrow Wilson as he sought to avoid American entanglement in Europe.

Reading this book brought home the true human tragedy of the Lusitania; somehow learning about it briefly in history class back in the day never evoked the enormity of that loss.

Genre: Narrative non-fiction that brings history to life

Read it if: You enjoyed any of Erik Larson’s earlier books; you love history when it’s readable and genuinely fascinating; your favorite movie is Titanic.

Skip it if: You prefer happy endings; you would rather stick with fiction, even if in this case nonfiction is just as gripping; you have a shipwreck and/or submarine phobia.

Movie-worthy: Sure, only this time Leonardo di Caprio could play Captain Turner and Kate Winslet could be Theodate Pope.