TalkBragan Reads on in 2019, Pt. 4

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Bragan Reads on in 2019, Pt. 4

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1bragan
Oct 2, 2019, 10:59pm

Somehow, we seem to have made it to the last quarter of 2019. So here's my final thread for the year, continued from here.

As is usual for me, I'm just going to jump right into the reading:

77. During-the-Event by Roger Wall



This is a post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel, centering on a young man named During-the-Event ("D.E.") Perez. As a baby, he was rescued by his grandfather from the destruction of their town by government forces -- the "Event" commemorated in his name -- and was raised alone by the old man, who was attempting to live by the traditions of the local Native American tribe. After his grandfather dies, D.E. goes off in search of his parents, who he believes may still be alive.

It's a very readable novel, and even though it's kind of meandering, I found it a fairly quick read. I can't say that, as an example of this particular subgenre, it really stands out for me, though. I think I kept wanting it to give me a little more... something... than it ever quite did. Maybe just a little more detailed worldbuilding, or more emotional heft.

Mind you, I can't really help comparing it a bit to The Dog Stars which I just read a couple of months ago -- it has some broad similarity to that novel, even if it's very different in details -- and that's really not at all fair, as The Dog Stars was damned impressive, and most things are going to suffer in comparison.

Rating: 3.5/5

My slightly lukewarm response notwithstanding, many thanks again to Lois and Jean (avaland and nohrt4me2 ) for passing this one on to me!

2bragan
Edited: Oct 5, 2019, 12:03am

78. Looking for Group by Rory Harrison



Dylan has recently made a seemingly miraculous recovery from a cancer that was expected to kill him, but that doesn't mean he's really doing okay, physically or otherwise. He's dirt-poor and his mother is a neglectful piece of crap. When he tries to re-register for high school after his stint in the hospital and is told it can't be done unless his mother shows up in person -- which she won't -- he kind of snaps. Instead of going home, he drives off to find his World of Warcraft buddy, Arden. Arden is from a rich family, but she's got problems of her own, including a father who refuses to accept that she is, in fact, a "she." Together they go off on a ridiculous road trip, or possibly a quest.

YA is a very hit-and-miss genre for me, and I was afraid, going in, that this one had all the elements of a "miss." Making the main character a cancer survivor could have felt emotionally manipulative, and the road trip is very much the kind of dumb teenager stunt that usually has me rolling my eyes. But I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The writing is engaging, the characters are believable, and the teenage dumbassery actually had me feeling sympathetic and remembering a few minor dumbass stunts from my own youth. The romance was really sweet, too, and I say that as someone who is kind of a hard sell on teen romances.

Rating: 4/5

3bragan
Edited: Oct 5, 2019, 2:37am

79. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi, with illustrations by Alejandro Giraldo



This very short volume contains one-page descriptions of various logical fallacies people make in arguments, accompanied by whimsical illustrations in which cute animals play out the fallacies.

I'm afraid I like this idea of this book a lot more than I like the execution. The descriptions of the logical fallacies often aren't as clear as they could be, especially given that they're supposedly aimed at readers for whom this subject is new, and the examples Almossawi uses are sometimes kind of odd. And the illustrations are charming, sometimes even delightful, but some of them are a lot more apt than others.

Rating: 3/5

4avaland
Oct 9, 2019, 6:55am

>1 bragan: And how many dystopias are set in North Dakota, eh? Enjoyed your comments.

5bragan
Oct 9, 2019, 8:50am

>4 avaland: My uncle was stationed in North Dakota for a while, and the way he described it sounded pretty dystopian already. But I think that was mostly just the weather. :)

I did like the North Dakota setting. I'd love to see more such stories set in neglected places like that.

6bragan
Oct 10, 2019, 8:22am

80. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin



It's the 12th century, and in Cambridge, England, small children have gone missing only for their bodies to turn up later, mutilated. The local Jews are blamed, because of course they are, and the King isn't pleased, because he was collecting a lot of taxes from those Jews, who are now holed up in hiding and not doing any business. So he sends for an expert to examine the bodies and hopefully figure out who killed them. He gets Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, who was educated in Salerno, Italy, the one place where women are trained to be doctors.

I have kind of mixed feelings about this one. The medieval murder mystery plot is interesting enough and there are some fairly likeable characters. It could perhaps have done with some editing in the earlier parts of the novel, as I feel like we're too often given the same information more than once, but overall it's a decent read.

But I kept being distracted by my utter inability to suspend my disbelief for the way medieval medicine is treated. I don't necessarily have a problem with the idea that the main character is ahead of her time in being an unusually scientific thinker. But there's no sense at all of the context in which she's operating, in terms of the world's understanding (or misunderstanding) of medicine at the time. There are things she's ignorant of, but nothing she's wrong about, and no sense that 12th century medicine was fundamentally any different from 21st century medicine. And, while I'm no expert in history, I'm pretty sure it was. Given how much historical detail the author includes in other areas, this seems particularly odd, and I found it jarring and a little hard to get past.

Rating: 3.5/5

7bragan
Oct 16, 2019, 5:01pm

81. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik



This tale of a Jewish moneylender's daughter and the ruler of a wintery fairy kingdom is heavily inspired by, and makes frequent reference to, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but it's not a retelling of the fairy tale. It's something much more original and fascinating, and I say that as someone who dearly loves a good fairy tale retelling.

It's also the best fantasy novel I have read in recent memory. The writing is marvelously assured, the characters are complex and strong and clever, the worldbuilding is subtle and excellent, and the plot utterly gripping. And every time I thought I knew where it was going, it surprised me, in ways that felt utterly right. I did find it a bit slow, but not remotely in a bad way, rather in the way that makes you want to stop and savor it and not let it be over too soon.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Rating: Yeah, slightly to my surprise, I'm giving this one the elusive 5/5.

8rhian_of_oz
Oct 20, 2019, 10:52am

>7 bragan: I don't read much fantasy any more but your review has encouraged me to read this one.

9lisapeet
Oct 20, 2019, 10:54am

>7 bragan: Hmm... I'm so not into that kind of fantasy, usually, but that makes it sound very tempting. I do like to branch out from what I usually read, and that sounds like a fun change of pace (and my library has the ebook).

10bragan
Oct 20, 2019, 1:34pm

>8 rhian_of_oz: I read a lot less fantasy than I used to, too, but this was the kind I'm still very glad to read. I hope you like it as much as I did!

>9 lisapeet: I think it might actually be a pretty good fantasy read for people who aren't normally big fantasy readers. I'd be interested to see what you might think of it, too!

11bragan
Edited: Oct 20, 2019, 4:57pm

82. It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston



Honestly, this book didn't so much have me exclaiming "Oh no, it is even worse than I think!" so much as it had me muttering "Yeah, no duh" a lot. There were some things that were new to me here -- mostly involving some fairly complex economic subjects -- but I think you'd have to either be willfully ignorant or to have been living under a rock not to know most of it. (I myself often do hide under rocks when the shitstorm of US politics gets to be too much for me, but apparently I've at least crawled out often enough to get all the basics of how bad it is.)

Still. It's nice -- if that's quite the right word -- to have all the ugliness laid out in an organized and coherent fashion. Well, all the ugliness up until sometime in 2018, when this book was published, anyway. There have certainly been new revelations and developments and reasons to bang one's head against a wall pretty much daily since then, so it is a little dated already.

For the most part, it's all pretty clearly presented. I did find some of those fairly complex economic subjects a little difficult to follow, but, unlike Trump, I've never presented myself as an expert in economics.

I will say that while I appreciate how fervently Johnston makes his arguments -- which include not just laying out all the reasons why Trump is bad at his job and bad for America, but also why it feels like he's setting an extremely worrying precedent -- I think there are a few times throughout the book where he can't resist taking what seems to me to be a slightly cheap shot. It's a temptation I understand, but in the case of Trump, it's hardly one that's necessary. There are so many perfectly legitimate shots to be taken at him instead, after all.

Rating: with slight reservations, I'm giving it a 4/5.

12dukedom_enough
Oct 21, 2019, 6:39am

>11 bragan: I had started this when it was new, put it aside, and was thinking it'd be too dated to pick up. Sounds like it's not, yet.

13bragan
Oct 21, 2019, 11:17am

>12 dukedom_enough: It is dated, certainly in that there's lots of things not to be found in it that would be included if it were being written now, but not, I think, dated in ways that make it not worth reading.

14bragan
Oct 25, 2019, 1:29am

83. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes



While I was in the middle of this one, a co-worker asked me what I was reading.

"It's about a time-traveling serial killer," I said.

"Oh," he replied wryly. "There's an idea that hasn't been done before."

It has, of course. But this novel, about a man from the 1930s who commits gruesome murders across the next six decades and the survivor of one of his attacks who is trying to track him down without knowing his crucial secret, feels fresh enough that it's easy to forget that fact.

And I'm very impressed with how easy it makes its complicated premise and even more complicated structure work. We move rapidly back and forth from one time to another, from one perspective to another, in a decidedly non-linear fashion. Causes and effects are out of order, jumbled up, or folded in on each other until there's no telling them apart at all. There's no carefully laid-out exposition of how the time travel works and what its rules are, and only the barest hint of an explanation as to why it happens at all. And yet, it all reads clearly and easily and never remotely seems difficult to follow. I'm not at all sure how Beukes pulls that off, but my hat's off to her.

I'm also slightly impressed by how she depicts the killer's POV, with his utterly matter-of-fact sociopathy. Impressed, but a little disturbed. As, indeed, the whole thing is disturbing, and, I admit, I can't entirely decide whether it's disturbing in a good or a bad way. It feels unpleasantly voyeuristic, watching this guy cut up women throughout recent history, and while there is a nice little supernatural twist at the end that I liked, I'm not sure there's ultimately a payoff to it all that makes me feel like I watched all that happen for a reason. Then again, maybe the complete lack of reasons (or causes) is part of the point. I'm not at all sure.

Rating: The stuff that impresses me definitely impresses me enough to give this a 4/5, despite any lingering uncertainties.

15bragan
Oct 28, 2019, 12:58am

84. A Wodehouse Bestiary by P.G. Wodehouse



A collection of miscellaneous P.G. Wodehouse stories, all of which feature animals in some capacity. Sometimes they're the main focus of the story -- there's even one that's from the POV of a dog -- and sometimes they're pretty peripheral. One of them, for instance, involves a racehorse that is much discussed (and much bet upon), but who never actually appears in person in the story.

I'd already read a few of these elsewhere, but one of the nice things about Wodehouse is that he's very re-readable, because you really don't read his stuff to be surprised by the plot. You read it for the fun, frothy silliness and the witty language, and those never get old. Although I suppose it is possible that a 330-page semi-random sampling of his stuff might be a little bit much to imbibe all at once. Still, this is a nice cross-sectional sampling of his work that I'd think might work fairly well as a first introduction, except that it's a bit obscure to seek out for that purpose.

Rating: 4/5

16rhian_of_oz
Oct 31, 2019, 9:34am

>14 bragan: I read this six (!) years ago and my comments were "I thought this was a ripper of a book. Serial killer with a twist. It's told from multiple viewpoints which are all brought together well. It's quite shivery and Harper is quite chilling in his banality."

17bragan
Oct 31, 2019, 12:01pm

>16 rhian_of_oz: That sounds like a pretty good assessment to me! I don't know if I found it quite as much of a ripper as you did, but it certainly held my attention, and I'd say everything else is on the money. Which really is impressive.

Have you read her Broken Monsters? I really liked that one. It was even weirder than this one, though.

18bragan
Nov 2, 2019, 12:42pm

85. The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher



This is a history of the investigations Harry Houdini and others conducted of supposed psychic mediums, and in particular (and in great detail) of their investigations of one Mina Crandon (known in the press as "Margery"), who claimed to be able to raise the spirit of her dead brother and have him do all kinds of impressive tricks.

It's a very interesting subject to me, but I'm afraid the execution of it didn't capture my attention nearly as well as I'd hoped. I didn't really get along with Jaher's writing style from the beginning. It struck me immediately as disjointed and overwrought. It did settle down eventually, fortunately, but it settled down into something I found a bit slow and not terribly engaging. I'm also a little annoyed by the way Jaher seems to want to keep open the possibility of real psychic phenomenon here. Objective reporting of the ambiguities in the researchers' conclusions or of the Spritualists' rebuttals are is a good thing, but I think he goes a bit beyond that, and even includes one short, final, irrelevant chapter in which he seems to be slyly implying that, hey, maybe, just maybe Houdini himself had magical powers (which is something that mystically inclined types sometimes did say at the time). And, I mean, come on.

Rating: I'm giving this a 3/5. I'm rating it that high mainly just because I do find the subject matter interesting, and because there is a lot of information about the investigation of Crandon for anyone who is specifically interested in that.

19bragan
Nov 9, 2019, 12:40am

86. Wizard and Glass by Stephen King



Four books and at least a couple of thousand pages in, and I'm still not at all sure what to make of the Dark Tower series.

This one starts out with the resolution of the previous book's cliffhanger, and... It's silly. Possibly self-consciously silly, but still. Silly. In a way that, I think, really brings home the fact that this whole series, for all its flashes of creepiness or grittiness or interesting weirdness is just ridiculous.

And in the midst of this ridiculousness, I made a decision. Fine, I told myself. I give in. However weird or nonsensical or disjointed or arbitrary-feeling any of this is, I'm gonna just try to sit back and enjoy the journey for the surreal old road trip/quest narrative it is. And hey, at least it feels like we're finally making progress! I like the feel of that. Let's get on with it! (Or as someone who asked me about the book while I was reading it put it, in a turn of phrase more hilariously apt than she could possibly have known, "Let's see where this crazy train goes!")

And then... And then, the story and the journey just stop completely dead as we abandon it all for a solid 500 pages of flashback to some stuff that happened to our central character when he was fourteen. Eventually, that story becomes fairly interesting and seemingly relevant, at least as far as anything in this story makes sense enough to feel relevant to anything else, but boy, it is slow getting there, and I spent a long, long chunk of this installment fighting a real sense of frustration and wondering why the heck I was expected to care about any of this past history at all.

This is the last volume of the series I had sitting on my To-Read shelves, so now I have to make the decision as to whether I want to seek out the rest of it and finish it. It's a surprisingly hard decision. While it has its moments, and while it does evoke a certain amount of weird fascination, I can't say I'm loving it. On the other hand, having come this far, I really dislike the idea of giving up. I feel like I really do want to finally make it to that damn Tower. It's just that it still seems so very, very far off...

Rating: I no longer have any idea how to rate any of these. I'm going to call it 3/5. That may or may not be extremely generous.

20ELiz_M
Nov 9, 2019, 7:48am

>19 bragan: I thought the writing/story became less interesting after W&G. And the conclusion pissed me off, basically ruining the whole series for me. Mind I don't know, after thousands of pages of build up, what a better ending would be. Just not.....that one.

21rhian_of_oz
Nov 9, 2019, 10:49am

>20 ELiz_M: I *loved* the ending.

>19 bragan: Having said the above, I don't know whether to recommend you continue on. If you'll excuse the language, King disappears up his own arsehole a bit in the later books.

22bragan
Nov 9, 2019, 12:17pm

>20 ELiz_M:, >21 rhian_of_oz: Well, now I think I have even more mixed feelings about continuing!

23baswood
Nov 9, 2019, 5:20pm

How long does it take you to trundle on through a book like that. I am assuming a bit of skimming goes on?

24bragan
Nov 9, 2019, 5:24pm

>23 baswood: No skimming, although there were certainly some bits I read through more quickly and with less attentiveness than others. This one, at 700 pages, took me about six days.

25baswood
Nov 9, 2019, 6:02pm

>24 bragan: Thats about my speed just over 100 pages a day.

26bragan
Nov 9, 2019, 6:25pm

>25 baswood: If I'd found it more engrossing, I suppose I might have gotten through it faster.

27valkyrdeath
Nov 10, 2019, 8:34pm

>14 bragan: I don't think I've come across The Shining Girls before. It's got me interested but I can't decide whether I actually want to read it or not.

>18 bragan: A shame this wasn't done better, since it's something that would really interest me too. It's always frustrating when the writing doesn't live up to the subject.

>19 bragan: I don't think I purposefully stopped reading Wizard and Glass but I got through about 50 pages of that flashback and was finding it so dull and irrelevant that I just never got around to picking it back up again. I keep going back and forth on whether I want to go back and retry the series again.

28bragan
Nov 10, 2019, 8:38pm

>27 valkyrdeath: I did like The Shining Girls, but it's hard to know whether it's the sort of thing I'd recommend to anyone or not.

And, man, I do not blame you for bailing on Wizard and Glass. I kind of wanted to at about that point, but I'm stubborn and entirely too prone to completism, so on I went. I am glad it did pick up again after that, but I still don't know if it was worth it or not.

29bragan
Nov 12, 2019, 7:52am

87. The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry



In this absurdist take on the detective genre, a clerk for a very large and slightly surreal detective agency finds himself unexpectedly promoted and thrown into events he doesn't remotely understand, events which take him through constantly rainy city streets, dreamscapes, and the grounds of a traveling carnival that doesn't travel.

This type of weirdness is something I often quite enjoy, but for some reason I was left feeling pretty lukewarm towards this one. There were a few moments where I intellectually recognized that it was doing something mildly clever, but I just never really engaged with it very much, and often found myself feeling impatient when I maybe should have felt charmed or pleasantly bemused or something. I really don't know whether that's the novel's fault, though, or if I turned out to just not be in the right mood for it. Because this probably is the sort of thing you have to be in the right mood for.

Rating: I'm going to call this 3/5. I'm pretty sure that's either over- or under-rating it, but I genuinely can't tell which.

30dchaikin
Nov 12, 2019, 1:21pm

>19 bragan: if you’re going to read all the books anyway, you’ll certainly have to continue sooner or later, no?

I’m sadly just catching up on your whole part 4 thread. Always enjoy your thread and seeing where you’re going.

Re David Clay Johnston - he drives me a little nuts, in person and in text. He’s so arrogant and proud of himself, he seems to maybe undermine himself. So, I’m not reading that one or his next (hopefully on the road to impeachment?)

Noting Naomi Novik.

31bragan
Nov 12, 2019, 9:38pm

>30 dchaikin: Yes, I suppose it's just a question of which of all the books to read first. :)

Glad to see you here!

As for David Clay Johnston, I mostly didn't get that feeling from him in It's Even Worse Than You Think, but there were little glimmers of it in there, perhaps, that didn't do him any favors when they showed up.

32bragan
Nov 14, 2019, 7:30am

88. You Say Potato: A Book About Accents by Ben Crystal & David Crystal



This "book about accents" is really mostly about UK accents, and I think is going to be of limited interest to most of my fellow Americans, unless they happen to be real Anglophiles or language nerds. Fortunately, I'm kind of both, so I found it at least mildly interesting, but not, I confess, nearly as interesting as I would have found a book about the accents of my home country. Even if we do have fewer of them.

Anyway, the authors are a father-and-son team of a linguist (David) and an actor (Ben), both of which have an obvious professional interest in the subject. It's written in a very breezy, informal style in which they pass the writing back and forth to each other, with David getting a little bit into the linguistic details of various accents, and Ben tossing out stories about his acting experiences, or sharing conversations he's had with other actors about using or not using their native accents. Both of them talk quite a bit about how various accents are perceived, and how those perceptions are changing.

Its all very light and readable, which isn't a bad thing. I've read some of David's solo books, and while they're interesting, they can get a bit dry. But I think it really goes a little bit far on the casual, chatty style and ends up feeling very slight. It's not bad, but it did leave me wishing for something a little meatier.

I was very interested, though, by Ben's impassioned discussion about performing Shakespeare using the pronunciation that the words would have had in Shakespeare's day. I got curious to hear some of this while I was reading about it, so I looked it up, and found a video of Ben Crystal himself doing Hamlet's most famous soliloquy in this fashion. I have to say, it wasn't at all what I expected, and it's weirdly appealing.

Rating: 3.5/5

33thorold
Nov 14, 2019, 7:52am

>32 bragan: Well, I never knew Professor Crystal had such a good-looking son...

34dchaikin
Nov 14, 2019, 8:05am

Enjoyed the video!

35bragan
Nov 14, 2019, 9:23am

>33 thorold: I know, that was my first thought, too! "Wow, he's surprisingly cute."

36thorold
Nov 14, 2019, 10:03am

>35 bragan: Of course, there's no knowing what his dad's concealing behind all that white beard.

37bragan
Nov 16, 2019, 8:38am

89. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken



Book two in the alternate history kids' series that started with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

After hearing more than one person praise these books as bone fide children's classics, I was quite underwhelmed by the first volume, which I found readable but pretty unmemorable. I was told, though, that this one was better, and I do think that's true. I still don't quite see why it's rated as such a classic -- I think maybe you just have to read it at the right age to fully appreciate it and imprint on it -- but it is an entirely decent kids' story. There's a mysterious disappearance, an insurrectionist plot, some adventures at sea, and the revelation of several true identities. All of which admittedly feels quite contrived, and the main mysteries are wrapped up a bit abruptly, but I guess that's hardly unusual for this sort of thing. It's entertaining enough, anyway, and I'm sure I would have found it fairly exciting if I'd read it as a child. (And quite how I missed out on this series as a kid, I'm not remotely sure.) It's also got some fun and colorful dialog, which may or may not be historically accurate, but is rather charming, anyway.

Rating: a slightly generous 4/5

38bragan
Nov 21, 2019, 11:30am

90. Mythos by Stephen Fry



Stephen Fry's rendition of Greek myths, from the creation of the world to the tribulations of King Midas, is a lot of fun. Fry tells these stories with a wit and affection that makes them entertaining to read, no matter how familiar they are. (Although, for me at least, they were often familiar only in general outline or half-forgtten, making it interesting to discover, or rediscover, the details.)

Fry focuses on telling the stories, not on analyzing them, although he can't resist indulging in a little bit of amusing personal commentary here and there. And I think leaving any interpretation of these stories, beyond the most obvious themes, as an exercise for the reader works very well. It's an easy exercise to indulge in, if you're so inclined.

He also includes a lot of interesting footnotes, featuring asides about etymology, geography, and literature in a way that never gets overwhelming or dry.

Basically, the whole thing is rather delightful. Well, as delightful as you can get, I suppose, when you're writing about entities whose main pastime appears to have been sexually assaulting each other and everyone else,and just generally being jerks. Between this and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology, which I read a while back, I'm genuinely beginning to wonder if there are any mythologies out there where the gods aren't giant dicks.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

39lisapeet
Nov 21, 2019, 5:35pm

>38 bragan: Good to hear--I got that for my birthday last spring and have been looking forward to it, but haven't seen many reviews of it. I wonder if the gods being dicks thing is wish fulfillment on the part of the storytellers, or an explanation for the general pettiness of the world. Or, most likely, a combination of the two...

40bragan
Nov 22, 2019, 11:08am

>39 lisapeet: I'd bet on "an explanation for the general pettiness of the world," maybe combined with the thought that it just makes for better stories.

41ELiz_M
Nov 22, 2019, 1:20pm

>39 lisapeet: perfection is boring.

42dchaikin
Nov 22, 2019, 1:36pm

>39 lisapeet: I was thinking wish-fulfillment, which puts me opposite >40 bragan: - but I haven’t read Fry

>38 bragan: delightful has appeal. Noting! Fun review.

>41 ELiz_M: 🙂

43bragan
Nov 22, 2019, 3:43pm

>42 dchaikin: Well, if I were wishing for gods, I'd be wishing for ones that weren't dicks, myself. But that's just me. :)

44dchaikin
Nov 22, 2019, 4:15pm

Oh, Betty, you might not selfish enough to create your own mythology. At least, the record may not be on your side. Gods being dicks has a proven track record of success... (here’s hoping no one takes me too seriously in the wrong way.)

45bragan
Nov 22, 2019, 7:42pm

>44 dchaikin: No worries, I laughed. :)

46bragan
Nov 23, 2019, 8:35pm

91. The Devil's Cup by Stewart Lee Allen



This is partly a book about coffee, its history, and its effects on the world, and partly a slightly disjointed travelogue in which the author traipses around five different continents visiting coffee-related places and doing various more or less coffee-related things.

I liked one of these two things considerably better than the other. The facts about and musings on coffee and its place in history were interesting, entertainingly written, and generally pretty fun. But the account of the author's travels, which involved a lot of doing stupid and occasionally illegal things, often left me shaking my head a bit and thinking, "Who is this guy, and why am I reading about his dumb adventures, again?"

Rating: 3.5/5

47bragan
Nov 24, 2019, 6:15pm

92. The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin



Ursula LeGuin's classic short SF novel from 1972, featuring human colonists who come to conduct a logging operation on an alien planet and the enslaved forest-dweling people who rise up against them.

I first read this decades ago, and I hadn't remembered a great deal about it, other than the basic premise and the fact that I found it quite impactful. Re-reading it now, I have to say that it stands up extremely well.

What's most interesting about it, I think, is that in one sense it can fairly be described as "heavy-handed." LeGuin has something to say about the horrors of colonialism, and by god, she is going to hit you squarely in the face with that message. And yet, that message is underpinned with a lot of very powerfully subtle writing. Particularly impressive is her handling of the biggest bad guy, Captain Davidson. The man is pretty much the pure distilled essence of callousness, unreflective cruelty, conspiracy-mindedness, racism, and sexism, and toxic masculinity. In the hands of a less skilled writer, he'd feel like a caricature. But he doesn't. Indeed, there is something about him and his unwavering belief that he is the good guy that feels deeply familiar and almost sickeningly easy to understand.

I may have forgotten a lot of the details from my first reading, but I feel like this second one is going to stick with me for quite a while.

Rating: I think it has to be a 5/5

48baswood
Nov 24, 2019, 6:34pm

>47 bragan: It's great when books stand up for a re-read. I have not read that one - its now on my list.

49bragan
Nov 24, 2019, 6:39pm

>48 baswood: It's definitely considered an SF classic for a reason!

50dukedom_enough
Nov 26, 2019, 2:10pm

>47 bragan: I think Le Guin said somewhere that she thought she had been too heavy-handed, but I thought it was fine in a reread a few years ago.

51bragan
Nov 26, 2019, 2:15pm

>50 dukedom_enough: It would be really interesting to see how she might have written it if she were doing it later, but, yeah, I think it still very much works. LeGuin's version of heavy-handedness, I suppose, is better than most people's nuanced subtlety. :)

52dukedom_enough
Nov 28, 2019, 10:11am

>51 bragan: My reread was when Cameron's Avatar was released. So terrible that the movie made mistakes that LeGuin had cleared up four decades earlier.

53bragan
Nov 28, 2019, 11:34am

>52 dukedom_enough: Oh, yeah. The similarities to Avatar are very obvious, and the movie does not come out looking well from the comparison.

54bragan
Nov 28, 2019, 11:44am

93. The Island by Olivia Levez



Sixteen-year-old Fran has done something terrible, something that makes her feel like a monster. In an attempt to help her build life skills and learn to work with people, or some such idealistic thing, she is enrolled in a program that sends troubled teens out to learn survival and help the developing populace on an island somewhere. But the plane crashes on the way, and she finds herself trying to survive in a classic desert island scenario.

I think I'm really not the best audience for YA books about messed-up teens, and even though Fran is a sympathetic character with good reason to have trouble coping, her tendency to lash out destructively when upset made her difficult to be around sometimes, even in a vicarious, fictional kind of way. And yet, by the end, I found myself very, very drawn into her story. I am kind of trying to decide, still, whether the ending of the novel works for me or not. But I think it probably does. And the writing, for a YA novel, is bold and original. Ultimately, I liked it a lot more than I expected to.

Rating: 4/5

55bragan
Dec 1, 2019, 1:28am

94. The Making of You by Katharina Vestre



I sort of want to describe this, flippantly, as a book about where babies come from. What it's actually about, though, is how fetuses develop in the womb, a fantastically complex process involving cells coordinating with each other, genes being switched on and off, organs moving around, and all kinds of weird and complicated stuff happening.

This book is less than 200 pages long, though, and aimed very much at the general reader, so of course it's mostly just providing a simplified version of all this biological activity. Being the giant science geek that I am, I was a little disappointed that it didn't get a bit more technical about everything that goes on during the whole process on a molecular level, but I think there's probably plenty enough science-y detail for most people, and Vestre does a good job of summing it all up and making it clear.

So it's not a book for someone who wants a really deep dive into embryology, but perhaps a good choice for those with some basic curiosity about what all of us go through before we're born. Might be an interesting read for parents-to-be who'd like some scientific explanation of just what's going on with their developing offspring.

Rating: a maybe very slightly generous 4/5

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

56bragan
Dec 5, 2019, 11:59am

95. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins



This novel starts out in the decaying remnants of a California where drought has become total and permanent, in a future where much of the American West has been swallowed up by a vast, impossible sea of sand dunes.

I find this one kind of hard to review, really. Because ultimately I think it's a beautiful experiment of a novel, but for me it's not an experiment that quite entirely succeeds. The prose is creative and intricate, in a way that I sometimes found lovely and arresting, and sometimes simply overdone. There are a lot of complex and interesting themes, some obvious and perhaps some less so, and I certainly did find myself responding to them. But it gets stranger and more improbable-feeling as it goes along, in a way that worked for me less and less well as it went along. Not that I dislike the strange and improbable, by any means, but I think this sort of thing has to resonate with the reader in exactly the right way to be effective, and it only halfway did that for me.

I think, though, that this is one where people's mileage is going to vary enormously.

Rating: a possibly more subjective than usual 3.5/5

57Jim53
Dec 6, 2019, 3:51pm

Catching up after an absence. I think you hit me with Spinning Silver and Mythos. Thanks, I think ;-)

58bragan
Dec 6, 2019, 4:00pm

>57 Jim53: Those are good ones to be hit with, I think.

And welcome back!

59rhian_of_oz
Dec 7, 2019, 10:04am

>57 Jim53: Bragan hit me with Spinning SIlver and I'm really enjoying it.

60bragan
Dec 7, 2019, 12:31pm

>59 rhian_of_oz: Yay, I'm glad you're enjoying it!

61valkyrdeath
Dec 9, 2019, 5:16pm

Just catching up on your reviews after falling behind again. I've never read that LeGuin book but it sounds like one I need to get to.

62bragan
Dec 9, 2019, 6:35pm

>61 valkyrdeath: Hello, again!

And, yes, I'd say it's a book of LeGuin's that's worth getting to.

63bragan
Dec 10, 2019, 11:08pm

96. The Black Company by Glen Cook



A fantasy novel from 1984, the first in a series about a company of mercenaries who find themselves employed in the service of mysterious and powerful figures who might be pretty much evil.

Unfortunately, this one got off on the wrong foot with me pretty quickly. The first couple of chapters -- or just about a hundred pages -- read to me more like an incomplete outline for a novel than an actual finished story. Things that should have been dramatized were summarized in a few uninspired paragraphs, and important pieces of backstory were skimmed over or merely hinted at, and not in a way that made anything intriguingly mysterious, but in a way that felt like the author just couldn't be bothered doing any better.

Things improved considerably after that, but for me the damage was done, and I was already far too irritated to be able to relax and enjoy it. Too irritated, even, to be able to tell how enjoyable it would have been if I weren't already irritated with it. I did have a certain amount of trouble all the way through keeping track of what the action was and who was on whose side, and I'm genuinely unsure whether that's because the writing didn't make these things clear or because I was too impatient with it all to be paying the proper amount of attention.

All of which is too bad, really, because even through my irritation, I did see some good in it. The mysterious powerful figures turn out to be fairly interesting, even if their history and the world they inhabit are never sufficiently fleshed out. The mercenary characters, likewise, aren't super well-developed, but are entertaining enough for what they are. And the dark-but-not-too-ugly tone of the whole thing actually sits in a very nice sweet spot, I think, between the heroic fantasy that was common at the time and the grimdark stuff that started cropping up afterward.

I can imagine a world in which I read this in a more forgiving mood and liked it a lot better, but, alas, that world is not this world. And I'm glad to be done with it. I'm definitely not continuing on to the next volume.

Rating: a probably biased and unkind 2.5/5

64bragan
Dec 11, 2019, 10:50pm

97. Common Sense by Thomas Paine



Thomas Paine's seminal 1776 publication arguing in favor of independence for the American colonies, and against further attempts at reconciliation with England.

As important historical documents go, this one has the benefit of being short, accessible, and still surprisingly readable nearly 250 years later. Some of Paine's arguments are better than others, and his opinions about the function of government look very simplistic from my 21st century perspective, although there is no doubt there are still plenty of people who think much the same way even now. But he does a great rant about why the whole concept of hereditary monarchies is irrational and morally bankrupt, and you can certainly see why he got people fired up and ready to get their rebellion on.

It also provides a fascinating sense of perspective to watch an important figure from the past thinking about the legacy the actions of his own time are going to leave for posterity, when you yourself are that posterity.

Rating: I'm giving this one a 4/5, as an interesting and painless-to-read window into history. (No pun intended.)

65bragan
Edited: Dec 12, 2019, 9:58pm

98. American Housewife by Helen Ellis



A collection of strange, satirical little short stories, mostly featuring women who are writers or housewives, or both.

A couple of these hit the right spot for me. I liked "Hello! Welcome to Book Club" for its shocking, delightfully audacious ending, and I liked the quietly macabre "Dead Doormen." But most of them, I admit, I felt like I should like more than I actually did like them. None of them are bad, but far too much of the time I just found myself sort of intellectually appreciating what the author was doing while the story itself kind of left me cold. This may be one of these cases where a particular writer, however talented, just isn't the right fit for a particular reader.

Rating: a deeply subjective 3.5/5.

66bragan
Edited: Dec 16, 2019, 7:23pm

99. Nod by Adrian Barnes



This novel features an unusual sort of apocalypse: one in which almost everyone entirely loses their ability to sleep and quickly descends into madness, while the few remaining sleepers all experience more or less the same oddly beautiful dream.

There is, I think, room in the world for an extremely realistic take on an insomniac apocalypse, complete with carefully researched medical details. This is not that novel. This one has a slightly surreal feel to it, and no explanations for anything, and is more interested in exploring some half-glimpsed metaphors about language and our relationships to each other and to reality than in giving us a believable post-apocalyptic survival story.

And I enjoyed it, if "enjoyed" is quite the right word for this sort of thing. The writing has a fresh, creative, casually inventive feel to it that I really liked. I feel like lately I've been reading a fair number of works that are trying to do something a bit unusual with language and story (or even with apocalyptic narratives) and left me thinking that while I can intellectually appreciate what the author was doing and the artistic energy that went into it, it just didn't quite do it for me as a reader. So it's really nice to have found one, finally, that, for whatever reason, did work this well for me.

Rating: 4/5

67dukedom_enough
Dec 18, 2019, 1:04pm

>66 bragan:

Not quite what you're looking for, but in Kim Stanley Robinson's story "Before I Wake", our brains are stuck in a half-awake, half-dreaming state.

In Greg Egan's "Zeitgeber" (at tor.com), the internal clocks of many people are no longer reset by sunlight and drift away from the local time followed by their families.

68dchaikin
Dec 18, 2019, 1:47pm

>64 bragan: cool that you read Thomas Paine, an atheist ahead of his time. And - I kind of liked your unintended pun.

69bragan
Dec 18, 2019, 8:25pm

>67 dukedom_enough: Noted! Maybe I'll look for those.

Although the Greg Egan one basically just sounds like my life. I mean, as I write this, it's almost 6:30 PM, and I'm just finishing up my "morning" coffee and contemplating having some breakfast.

>68 dchaikin: I think technically he was a deist, but that might be almost close enough. :) Although given what I've read about his religious views (and even some of his comments about religion in Common Sense), his writing here still seems to be weirdly grounded in the idea of Christianity as some kind of natural default for civilized society. Or maybe not so weirdly, given his time and culture. Or even just given his audience.

70bragan
Dec 19, 2019, 7:54am

100. The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley



A collection of essays -- all, I believe, originally blog posts -- by Hugo-winning SF writer Kameron Hurley, in which she talks about writing, feminism, the importance of representation, dealing with criticism and online harassment, and the power of stories, among other things.

There's a fair amount of anger in these essays, but it's a focused, clear-headed, thoughtful sort of anger, and she's saying a lot of things that are very much worth paying attention to.

Rating: 4/5

71rhian_of_oz
Dec 19, 2019, 10:54am

>70 bragan: This has been in my TBR pile for over three years (I didn't realise it had been so long). Your review may be the impetus I need to dig it out. Though maybe *after* my Christmas/New Years break :-).

72bragan
Dec 19, 2019, 8:07pm

>71 rhian_of_oz: It had been on mine for just about three years. I truly have no idea where the time goes!

73bragan
Dec 21, 2019, 7:59pm

101. Still Alice by Lisa Genova



Alice Howland is a brilliant and successful scientist with three children... until she starts experiencing unexplained memory lapses and moments of disorientation, receives a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's, and begins an all-too-rapid slide into dementia.

By its very nature, this book has moments of genuine, painful poignancy. And it's clearly very carefully researched and feels extremely realistic. But the writing is... Well, the admittedly rather unkind word I want to use is "pedestrian," and the dialog often seems a bit stilted and cliched. Honestly, several times while reading it, I found myself thinking that perhaps it felt less like a novel and more like a public service announcement, or the sort of dramatized example story you might get in an informative pamphlet. (A high-quality pamphlet. But still.) It also suffers a lot by comparison with Emma Healey's fantastic Elizabeth is Missing, which I read earlier this year and which is also told from the viewpoint of someone with dementia. Which is inevitable and probably unfair, as that one is a very tough act to follow.

It does finish very strong, though, which impressed me. This is surely the kind of story it's hard to put a good ending on, because it's never going to be able to have a happy one. But Genova does make it work, makes it moving, and makes it, somehow, affirming even as it's depressing.

Rating: I'm giving this a 3.5/5. For most of it, I was figuring it'd get a 3/5, but it definitely deserves the extra half star for sticking a difficult landing at the end.

74bragan
Dec 27, 2019, 7:09pm

102. Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham



In this short novel from 1960, two scientists discover a species of lichen with the ability to drastically slow human aging.

There follows a lot of debate and speculation about what longer lifespans might or might not do to human society, which is kind of interesting even if I'm dubious about most of it, and even if it's ground that's been covered a lot in science fiction since. There's also some amusingly satirical humor in the reactions that various people and institutions have to the concept, as well as some apt skewering of the beauty industry.

But despite those positive points, the main thing I have to say about this novel is that it really, really hasn't aged well. (Uh, no pun intended.) The main character, you see, is a female scientist, and both she and the author take as a central theme the question of what longer lifespans might do to improve the lot of women. But, hoo boy, what may have seemed progressive in 1960 just feels painfully sexist now, in a way that makes it kind of hard to read. I mean, I really, really, really didn't need to read a solid thirty pages of opening material in which every I get to hear every single sexist thing ever said about women in STEM fields, up to and including a serious discussion of the merits of only hiring plain-looking women so they don't disrupt the menfolk with their temping sexy ways.

Yes, the main character gets to push back against these attitudes with a few mildly snarky lines, but that seems like pretty anemic stuff to me, and she turns out to have some rather sexist attitudes herself, and doesn't, in the end, remotely escape being something of a stereotype in her own right. Worse still, this supposed cause of improving the lot of women is pursued by performing life-changing medical procedures on women without their knowledge, understanding, or consent, and that's considered just hunky-dorky, in exactly the way that the then-common practice of not telling terminally ill women their diagnoses was. Which is, as it happens, something that's explicitly endorsed here.

All of which is very unpleasant in ways that, for me, really overshadowed the light, humorous stuff. Indeed, it's perhaps made more unpleasant by the light and humorous tone of the light and humorous stuff.

And because I know that a response like this to a book almost inevitably provokes someone, somewhere, into an irresistible impulse to mansplain about how novels are products of their times, I'll add that, yeah, I understand perfectly well that novels are products of their times. But sometimes that's exactly the problem. In a lot of highly relevant ways, this particular time sucked. I didn't have a fun time visiting it -- seriously, you sit through thirty pages of characters telling you people like you don't belong in your job, even if the author does make some vague gestures towards disagreeing with them, and see how you feel about it -- and it no longer works as social commentary because, thank goodness, society is very different now.

Honestly, it's interesting now mainly as a look at how oppressively women were treated in 1960, even by people who were trying to be on their side. But a lesson in the history of sexism isn't exactly what I was hoping for when I opened the front cover.

Rating: 2.5/5

75dukedom_enough
Dec 28, 2019, 7:02am

>74 bragan: Too bad. Well, there's a book I don't ever need to read.

76bragan
Dec 28, 2019, 10:07am

>75 dukedom_enough: Well, he's got lots of others, and I don't remember any of the other ones I've read annoying me that badly.

77bragan
Dec 28, 2019, 9:05pm

103. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler



The first half of this book describes the author's explorations and investigations of Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic technology and encounters with its proprietor, David Wilson. And a weird, weird place this is. Weird enough that I actual felt compelled to look it up and make sure it was actually a real establishment, and not some sort of elaborate prank or fantasy. Turns out, it is real, and despite the fact that this book was published in 1995, it's still there, and still doing... whatever the heck it is that it's doing.

Because, the way Weschler describes it, it's hard to tell to what extent this place qualifies as a museum and to what extent it's some kind of bizarre art project. It contains exhibits and information that are strange, and strangely presented, but perfectly real, and others that are completely made up. Or partly made up. Or completely crackpotty. Or something. It can be very hard to tell the difference, and very hard to tell when Wilson is being serious and when he's being ironic.

Weschler clearly falls down quite a rabbit hole here, and the main effect is to leave one blinking and going, "What the heck did I just read?" Which seems entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

The second half mostly consists of a little historical exploration of the wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonder, a tradition in whose footsteps the Wilson's odd collection certainly follows. The subject matter here is interesting, but the disjointed writing style which did such a good job capturing the feel of the Museum works less well here, and the rambling footnotes are more than a little distracting.

Rating: 3.5/5

78avaland
Dec 31, 2019, 9:19am

>74 bragan: Sorry for your suffering but I really enjoyed that review!

79bragan
Dec 31, 2019, 10:39am

>78 avaland: LOL! Well, I'm glad it entertained someone.

80lisapeet
Dec 31, 2019, 5:18pm

>77 bragan: Agreed about all the inconsistencies throughout Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, but it still occupies a very affectionate place in my heart. Maybe because that's where I first learned about actual cabinets of wonders/wunderkammern, which have become a great interest of mine over the years. Unsurprisingly, I guess, given my magpie brain, but I always felt that fascination paved the way, for me, for the internet and all things wordwide-webby.

81bragan
Edited: Dec 31, 2019, 5:35pm

>80 lisapeet: I had heard of such things before, and did always think they seemed rather charming. (Which is more than you can say about the web these days, probably. :))

82lisapeet
Edited: Dec 31, 2019, 7:40pm

>81 bragan:. True that. But oh, the early days! There was so much cool geeky stuff to be explored, lots of people's pet projects and weird archives.

83bragan
Edited: Dec 31, 2019, 7:43pm

>82 lisapeet: I do periodically find myself quite nostalgic about that. I really miss the days before people figured out how to harness other people's online activity for profit.

84bragan
Jan 4, 10:16pm

My new thread for 2020 can now be found here.

85dchaikin
Jan 5, 9:03pm

>74 bragan: and >77 bragan: - two reviews worth the price of admission. The first really really entertaining, and last a nice window into a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I’ve never read a CR review of it before. Heading over to 2020 now.

86bragan
Jan 5, 9:51pm

>85 dchaikin: Glad to have rounded out the year with some stuff you found interesting. Happy New Year!