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Obligation reading

Published July 23, 2014 by Shannon

I’ve been having an issue lately. Though I don’t have many books I’m obligated to read, there are certainly some. And I’m not reading them. This even includes voluntary obligations, like the Rifter.

I took on running a book club this year for an organization I’m passionate about. I should not have done this, for a variety of reasons that aren’t related to anything except my personality.

So I’m feeling really rebellious. There are books I should be reading, even books I have promised to read, and I just don’t want to. At all.

I will get a Rifter post up soon. But it falls under the category of obligation for me. Luckily, it is the shortest of my latest batch of obligation books, so I’ll probably finish reading it first.

I think what makes this batch of books harder to get through is that many of them I’m anticipating to be horrible. The book club I shouldn’t have volunteered to lead is reading something that is marked as religious fiction, which I do feel somewhat obligated to at least attempt. The one I go to for work next month is reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which, if it is secretly awesome, I would love to know that, but basically it looks like a giant pile of things that annoy me. And our Book Hoarders book, though it was my suggestion, has not grabbed me yet.

In the meantime, I plan to keep with the strategy I’ve used before-mix in pleasure reading with the obligation stuff and hope the “I don’t wannas” go away.

Announcing the Rifter Book club

Published May 24, 2014 by Shannon

The other day I was thinking aloud, on Twitter, as one does, about how I’d like to do some kind of book club posts on my blog. Immediately Liz Mc2 and Sonoma Lass jumped on board, so this is happening.

Our first project is to read all of The Rifter by Ginn Hale. I picked this one because one fine day Liz Mc2 and I bought the whole 10-part serial and its sheer size is somewhat intimidating. Plus, unlike the last time I tried something like this, I fully expect I’ll enjoy the book, because I like epic fantasy, I like people-from-our-world-go-to-another sorts of stories, I like M/M books, and I like the thought of serial fiction, particularly when it’s all completed.

Here is the synopsis of the first book, to let you know what this is all about:

When John opens a letter addressed to his missing roommate, Kyle, he expects to find a house key, but instead he is swept into a strange realm of magic, mysticism, revolutionaries and assassins. Though he struggles to escape, John is drawn steadily closer to a fate he share with Kyle—to wake the destroyer god, the Rifter, and shatter a world.

My plan is to post a reaction post on every Friday starting June 6 for each of the parts of the serial. I understand the serials clock in at about 100-150 pages each, so I think that should be reasonable. After that, I’ll leave the comments open for discussion.

Each of the parts runs about $2.99, but the whole thing is available at a discount if you click on the Blind Eye books website above. I wish I’d done that instead of buying my copies through All Romance Ebooks, since their ebook buck program seems unnecessarily byzantine.

Anyway, I hope this experiment turns out to be fun. I hope you’ll all join me on the 6th!

Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Published March 12, 2014 by Shannon

The Other Typist

Ever since my friend Meka (whom you may remember from such blog events as our attempt to read The Last Hour of Gann) started reviewing books more frequently, we have had occasion to have the following conversation at least twice.

Her: “I hated everything about this book. I hated the characters. The plot was dumb, and the writing style was pretty much like word vomit on a page.”

Me: “So you’re going to give it an F?”

Meka: “Oh… No. I mean, it wasn’t *that* bad. Maybe I should give it a D.”

Me: “But you hated it. Smoke is coming out of your ears as you talk about this book. It’s an F book.”

I had reason to remember this conversation when I went to write up a review for Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist. I had prepared to call it a D book, but I can literally think of nothing positive to say about the hot mess that was this novel. Congratulations, Ms. Rindell. I had to create a category for F reviews, just for you.

But before we get there, here’s the synopsis:

New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin.

Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.

But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.

But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?

Sometimes when I read book club books (and it was my turn to attend the Seattle Low Vision book group that meets every other month) I’m glad I had the experience of trying something new. This month, though, I entertained fantasies of informing my boss she couldn’t make me go to another meeting and furthermore entertaining fantasies of defenestrating the next person who suggested I might enjoy a particular book club.

My personal taste doesn’t tend to run toward books set in the 1920’s. I haven’t enjoyed any of the books I’ve read set in that era. Even, say, Libba Bray’s much-lauded The Diviners which is exactly the sort of book I like, failed to work for me. Maybe there are books set in the Prohibition Era that are right up my alley, but The Other Typist certainly wasn’t one.

My problem with The Other Typist is simple: I loathe unreliable narrators. It’s not that I’m too stupid to get what the author is doing when she uses that technique. It’s simply that I can think of exactly one book where the unreliable narrator didn’t drive me batshit by the time I was done. (For the record, that book was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, which come to think of it was also set during Prohibition Times. But the narrator of Loos’s book isn’t evil and psychotic, merely shallow and self-obsessed, and Loos is laugh-out-loud funny, so that makes all the difference.)It becomes clear early on that Rose isn’t nearly as reliable as she would like you to think. Even if she had been, I loathed being in her headspace. She is a self-righteous snob with a tendency to belittle everyone else around her, particularly other women. Ugh. When Odalie comes to work for the police precinct at which Rose is a typist, Rose’s obsession with her begins immediately. It’s easy to read Rose as a queer woman, though Rose herself denies there’s anything sexual going on where Odalie is concerned, but like I said, unreliable narrator.

Odalie herself is painted as an evil slut and a sociopath, so it’s not like I have any sympathy for her, either. In fact, I felt the two of them deserved each other. The evil lesbian should totally be paired off with the sociopathic slut. I wish them joy of each other. I just wish I didn’t have to read all of Rose’s creepily obsessive thoughts about Odalie in the process.

What really cinched the book for me, though, was the ending. Fairly early on, the hammer of Foreshadowing strikes with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head, and I knew there would be a Major Twist. (TM). Indeed, there was. The problem with major twist endings is that, once revealed, the reader should be able to look back on everything she’s read and think, “Oh. Yeah. That totally puts a whole different light on this conversation.” This didn’t happen. I kept trying to go back through the text to see if I could figure out if Rindell had dropped any clues leading to the big reveal. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t, and the reveal left me aware of massive inconsistencies and plot holes. I felt manipulated by the author, and that’s not a good feeling.

So yeah. Unreliable narrators. Ambiguous endings. Awful characters. Those are not deal breakers for everyone, but they are for me. Ugh.

Grade: F

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Published March 11, 2014 by Shannon

Shanghai Girls (Shanghai Girls #1)

I first heard of Lisa See when my mom and sister read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I can remember them waxing poetic about how awesome that book was. I’m sure they hit on many of the book’s stellar qualities, but my mind fixated on one of them talking about the gruesome process of Chinese foot binding, and that was about the time I got on board the Nope Train, next stop Nopeville. Oh, the book ended up on my TBR, and I think it survived the massive Goodreads shelf purge of 2013, but I told myself I was simply waiting to get into the right headspace to read something so harrowing. Then my boss at work announced that for our quarterly book club at the library, we’d be reading Shanghai Girls. I was not excited about this prospect and went into the book expecting it to be full of graphic torture scenes and lots and lots of pathos. To my delight, however, I found an engaging story that, while it does contain plenty that is harrowing, also features one of the best depictions of sister love I’ve read in a while.

Here’s what Goodreads tells us:

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

First off, reading books like this makes the case for why white readers should read more diversely. I know nothing about Chinese history, and I guess in my headChina went fromThe Good Earth to amazing world power overnight. I was shocked to learn what a cosmopolitan city 1930’s Shanghai was. Pearl and May are beautiful girls, living a modern and carefree existence. May is the pretty one, and Pearl the smart one, or so it seems. Then their father announces that his business has failed and he’s marrying the girls off to a couple of brothers who live in America. Pearl and May are horrified, and protest, but they’re forced into it. Still, they figure they’ll just live as they always have while their husbands return to America.

Then the Japanese invade China and everything changes. Their father disappears, and their mother marshals the resources to get them out of Shanghai. After a grueling journey through the Chinese countryside, they end up on a ship bound for America. After being detained on Angel Island the girls eventually end up in Los Angeles, where they find themselves trying to carve out a new family for themselves.

I loved these characters. Pearl and May had my heart from their first appearances. As I said above, See writes about the bond between sisters in a way I found beautiful and poignant. I have a deep and fierce loyalty to my sister, but my sister and I can say the exact right thing to hurt each other. That’s the dynamic See plays with here, and certainly Pearl and May endure quite a lot more than most sisters. I loved their unwavering loyalty to each other, and I loved how it was made clear that they both saw the same events rather differently.

The rest of the characters were lovely as well. Sam, Pearl’s husband, is a particular favorite of mine, with his steady, gentle nature and his determination to do right by his family. The love that gradually develops between Sam and Pearl isn’t one of deep passion, but they worked hard for it and the two of them shared some incredibly sweet moments.

There are other characters as well. Joy, Pearl’s daughter, is the subject of the sequel to this novel, and I can’t wait to read her story. Pearl’s mother and her mother-in-law were both women of great strength and convictions. Even Old Man Louie, Pearl’s father-in-law, who starts the book as something of an antagonist, is more layered the longer one reads.

The plot was fascinating. The story has the feel of a saga, only in a much shorter page count. There were a few horrific scenes, as I’d feared, but I found them presented tastefully. The end is a lead-up to the sequel, Dreams of Joy, which I found to be somewhat off-putting, as I hadn’t realized this wasn’t a standalone story. And now that I’ve read something by Lisa See, I’m definitely willing to rescue Snow Flower and the Secret Fan from TBR obscurity.

Final Grade: B

Review: War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Published October 22, 2013 by Shannon

Yet another short review originally posted on a mailing list I’m on. What can I say? This is a short book, and short stories are a challenge to review properly. Nonetheless, let us persevere.

I was excited to read War Dances by Sherman Alexie. We’re discussing it at this month’s Seattle low vision book club, and I loved Alexie’s young adult novel, The
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
. Alexie is a local author, and now that I live in Washington state, the plight of the Spokane Indians seems more relevant to my interests. However, this book seriously underwhelmed me.

I always feel that I should read more short stories than I do, because sometimes the short story is so perfect at capturing a small but significant moment. Of course, sometimes the short story perfectly captures the navel-gazing of the writer who writes it, but you take the good with the bad. My experience with short story collections is that usually there are a few great stories, some unmemorable ones, and a few duds. In that way, War Dances runs true to form. Here are a few of my favorites. The title story, which explores the complicated relationship between a father and
son, and touches on death and sickness and dying, was lovely and poignant. “The Senator’s Son” is a beautiful story about forgiveness which I liked even more considering the fact that the main character wasn’t a particularly nice person, which usually means I’d have dismissed it out of hand. “Salt” deals with the way we treat old people, and how we remember the dead. It was especially moving for me since most of the people I talk to on a daily basis are old people, and it was a nice, gentle nudge for me to be a little more compassionate.

Most of the poems were simply OK. I don’t remember any of them enough to write critically about them. Then there were the stories that didn’t work at all for me. “Fearful Symmetry” seems to have been a fairly autobiographical piece, and I didn’t click with it, because I knew it was autobiographical but I didn’t know what parts were. The prize for my least favorite, though, was “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless”, in which I think I’m supposed to feel sympathy for the loneliness of a middle-aged man who has separated from his beautiful wife who he no longer sexually desires and who creepily stalks a woman wearing red pumas through various airports. It felt overly long and self-indulgent, and I am not a middle-aged man, so I didn’t care about the poor misunderstood woobie who just wanted to make some connections and who could apparently not do that without being a creep.

So, overall, meh. The meeting is in two weeks; I’m not sure I’m going to remember any of these stories enough to discuss them coherently. If you like short story collections, this one isn’t long and you’ll probably find something you like. For me, it’s a solid C.

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Published October 21, 2013 by Shannon

I originally posted a draft of this review on a listserv to which I belong. I am reposting it here because it’s either that or post about how the insanely popular YA book I’m reading right now is seriously overrated. Oh, wait. I’ll probably post that anyway, once I’ve finished the book.

We all know the myth: If a person works hard enough, they can rise above their humble circumstances to become someone special, someone famous and driven and talented. The fact that you and I are not doing this means we are simply not trying hard enough.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses this myth and proves that there are other factors involved. He examines the lives of successful people, such as Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and a successful corporate lawyer in New York. He points out that all of those people got to be brilliant in their fields because they put in at least ten thousand hours of
practice. He also shows that a person’s birthdate and the time and place in which they were born correlate with their chances of success.

Gladwell’s writing is easy to read, with chapters divided into short
sections, facilitating starting and stopping whenever I had a few minutes to read. He’s clearly aiming for a popular audience, but I never felt that he dumbed things down. It’s easy to see why Gladwell is a bestselling author of nonfiction.

We read this for the Seattle low vision book club, which my fellow Reader’s Advisor and I alternate attending. I didn’t go to the
meeting where we discussed Outliers, but I understand it was a hit with the participants. It was a hit with me, and I was reminded of how much I generally enjoy Gladwell’s work.

Final Grade: B