Sunday, February 19, 2017

Difficult Women - Roxane Gay

Difficult Women is a short story anthology by Roxane Gay, whose work is always thought-provoking and deep. Some of these stories are only a few pages long, while others are much longer, making every story a bit of a surprise, but all of them are interesting and well written. There's a lot of repetition of themes here - violence and rape, which shouldn't surprise you if you've read anything else of Gay's, but also long winters, miscarriages or other ways to lose children, and twins, which was one theme I was not exactly expecting. The stories themselves range wildly in topic but nearly always come down to a woman who might be called difficult, as per the title of the book. 

The real issue with this book is that it's all short stories, and not the full length novel virtually every one of these pieces deserved. Gay draws me in to each world, each character, and their dilemmas are fascinating and real. I wanted to find out what happened next for almost all of them. The slices of these stories she chooses to present are so vivid and real that I was sad to see them go. The longer stories are the worst for this, as the more I learned the more I wanted to know. 

Overall a really solid read, that deserves to be read thoughtfully and with time. I wish I had had the opportunity to spend more time with it. I'd give it four stars, and I'm definitely going to keep devouring Gay's work at every available opportunity. 

This review has also been crossposted to CannonballRead, a race to read and review 52 books in a year! 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I gave this one four stars on first read, and now that it's a day later I'm already wondering if it deserves more. Probably four and a half at least. It was so good, and so different, so unique, that I can't stop thinking about it now. I definitely need to pick up the next one soon.

Ancillary Justice is a sci fi book whose central character is an AI, formerly of a ship, but now confined to a single, body-bound existence. The narrative skips back and forth between the present and the past, narrating the events that saw the AI banished to its one-body existence while also detailing how that one body is moving towards its goals. The world-building is great, and I'm enamoured with the details of the civilization and how it works. It's a little confusing, especially early on as you try to work out the narratives and what's going on, but it comes together so well and the payoff is really, really worth it.

I don't think it's possible to write about this book without writing about the awesome gender commentary enclosed within, and it's totally worth examining. The AI, and the civilization that spawned it, obviously put little importance on gender, and gets flustered when trying to communicate with other species/in other languages that require gender-specific pronouns. The AI refers to all people in the narration with feminine pronouns, even when they've been specifically gendered by another character with (presumed) knowledge or understanding of that person's gender identity - and it's completely brilliant. Of course a ship doesn't care what gender humans identify as! What importance does that have to an AI? As to the defaulting to feminine, aren't ships traditionally referred to using feminine pronouns? Makes sense that they would consider feminine the default when speaking of other entities. It's brilliant, and I loved it as an effect and as a story beat.

Really, this book was super good. I need to get the second one from the library as soon as possible!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

Hoo boy, this was not an easy book. Jeannette Walls tells the story of her childhood, growing up in abject poverty with two parents who are not entirely stable and are really just irresponsible. FYI, there will be spoilers throughout this review. I was aghast at their treatment of their children at many points, and the fact that Walls and her siblings do so well for themselves was really rewarding but also heart-breaking. At one point, a child welfare agent shows up, and Walls successfully talks him away, but I couldn't help but wonder if their lives might have been better if they had let the authorities intervene. I understand that the system is not fair or without its own problems, but the constant neglect and frequent abuse was horrifying.

Mostly this book made me want to shout at her parents for being so irresponsible. Walls seems well adjusted enough, and clearly feels deep affection for both parents, but both of them are exceedingly bad at parenting - her father is an alcoholic who steals Walls' savings, and her mother is selfish to a ludicrous extent: in spite of being a qualified teacher, she feels like she has spent too much of her life working and caring for others, and decides that she wants to spend her time working on her art instead of working to put food on the table for her four children. I'm not sure why I came out of this book so much more frustrated with her mother than her father - he's an alcoholic, which is a serious disease that's difficult to overcome, but there's nothing identifiably wrong with her mother except selfishness, which I eventually came to realize was probably a result of some serious mental issues as well, so why am I so exasperated with her? I suppose it's because it's clear early on her father is good for nothing, so I never have any expectations he'll do better, but her mother will occasionally try, and it would give me hope that she'd do better, and then she would give up, or keep the two-carat diamond ring the children find instead of selling it to put food on the table, because she deserves nice things, and I'd get frustrated again. The reveal at the end of the book that she has been sitting on land with a value of up to a million dollars, while she is homeless and her children spent their formative years eating out of the garbage cans, is particularly upsetting.

Walls writes well, though, and as in Half-Broke Horses, the stories are short little vignettes that I often found very compelling and hard to put down. Some of the anecdotes are funny and cute, but far more are difficult and upsetting, and made me feel terrible for her and her siblings. It was a good read, though, and I'd say it's four stars. Now I need to read about something pleasant and happy for a while...

This review has been crossposted to CannonballRead, a race to read and review 52 books in a year! 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness

I have so many books out from the library, and on hold, and on my TBR, that I can't remember the last time I just picked something up on a whim, because it was to hand, because I'd heard of it loosely and liked the author but didn't really know much about it. That's what A Monster Calls was - I got it as an ebook from my library on a rainy lunch hour, just because I could borrow it immediately and start reading it right then. I read and really enjoyed The Rest of Us Just Live Here last year, so I knew Patrick Ness' name, and thought I would enjoy something new from him. I did!

A Monster Calls is a YA/children's book, probably targeted at early teens. The protagonist is 13, and is dealing with his mother's illness, the problems that creates in his life, and the monster that comes to deal with him. It's a little Gaiman-esque, with a kid dealing with something tough and a world that is a lot like ours but not quite. It's cute and well written, and I very nearly cried at work reading it, which is mostly an endorsement. It was refreshing to read about a teenager who still acted like - and is treated as - a child, rather than the older YA set where people often act like 16-year-olds are adults, It's a quick read, and Ness crafts a touching little story.

For a book I picked up on a whim, I'm quite happy with it. I'd say it's four stars, and I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye peeled for more of Ness' writing. It's definitely a sad book, so if you're coping with some of the themes of loss and illness that permeate this book, maybe it's not for now, but that's up to you. If you're just signing up for a short, touching read, then you should have a look!

This review has been crossposted at CannonballRead, a race to read and review 52 books in a year! 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Another Brooklyn - Jacqueline Woodson

Somehow I managed to read two books with a loose sense of time in a row. Jacqueline Woodson's novel is a much shorter, sadder piece, though, telling the story of a girl growing up in Brooklyn though the adult's reminisces after her father's death. It skips back and forth, making it a little difficult to keep track, but the overall plot is about friendship and the sorts of things it can and can't survive - so not altogether different from Swing Time, now that I think about it. I probably would not have read the two of these in a row if I had realized, but they were both due back at the library and I wanted to power through them, so here we are!

Another Brooklyn was very good. I came to Woodson through her poetry, specifically Brown Girl Dreaming, which is one of the first poetry compilations I've ever read of my own volition, and so holds quite a special place for me. I was already expecting beautiful language and poignant story, and I got it. There are a few unexpected twists, and a lot of revisitation with the different time points, but I quite liked the overall effect. Mostly, I'd just recommend this for the language; the effect of some of the sentences is still with me, and it's worthwhile to seek out for that alone. It's four stars from me, and a note to self to continue seeking out whatever else I can of her lovely words.

Shrill - Lindy West

I was loosely familiar with Lindy West and her writing from some of the bigger pieces she has published over the years, and when I first heard she had a book coming out I made a mental note to follow up with it. Then the first few reviews hit CBR and I was even more interested. I'm glad I made time for it - it's easily one of the best things I've read so far this year, and an all around great read. It's a collection of essays loosely chronicling her life and touching on a number of the incidents for which she is well known - in fact, it's mostly set up as a kind of later reflection of her own experiences, which, when done by a writer as proficient as West, is a delight. Her writing is gorgeous and hilarious, and I laughed out loud more than once. I may also have pumped my fist into the air and shouted "Yes!". It's a good book.

The only issue I had was that I was rushing to read it since I needed to return it to the library (or, thought I did - when I finished I realized it was actually eligible for renewal, oops!) and so I powered through it in less than 24 hours. Some of the topics are quite dark - multiple chapters dealing with rape jokes, online trolls, and rape threats - and I started to feel down and exhausted constantly reading about it.  If I'd planned better, I'd have had time to space the heavier stuff out, and my overall experience would have been better, I think. As it was, it's still a five-star book and nets a place on my faves shelf, since even with the more difficult stories there are a number of uplifting moments, and even heavy stories that still manage to be beautiful and inspiring. I would highly recommend it to anyone who might be interested, and some people who might not be!

This review has been crossposted at CannonballRead, a race to read and review 52 books in a year!