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2017 Reading Roundup #36-40

The Turn of The Screw | Henry James


I love a good ghost story, but unfortunately Turn of the Screw is just too old timey for me to get into. Like a lot of women in period books, our heroine, a nanny, has unbelievably outsized emotional reactions to trivial things (someone just being at a window) for about a hundred pages, and then a kid dies from having too many feelings but maybe also ghosts. There is some fun eerie stuff toward the beginning, but when she starts to uncover what the malicious ghosts that are influencing the children are, the source of corruption and evil is just an affair. Apparently, the Big Literary Debate about this is whether our protagonist is mentally ill and whether or not there was anything supernatural going on. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care enough to even come down on a side; it was written ambiguously, that is all. D

The Dispossessed | Ursula K. Le Guin


Science fiction books that are statement pieces about philosophy, to the detriment of character and even plot, are difficult for me. The Dispossessed was not the most memorable of Le Guin’s works for me, not because her observations on this very polarized world of Liberterian Science Anarchists in space versus Hedonistic Capitalists on Earth are without merit, it just feels like a very labored narrative with a lot of unnecessary physics discoveries to deliver the point. I will give Le Guin this: the plot progresses in a way that demonstrates her thesis about these two philosophies in a very organized progression. I find it puzzling that the book is considered a feminist utopia, as it doesn’t depict a particularly ideal society for anyone, much less women. Were I to judge the book on what it was trying to do rather than whether it entertained me, I’d set aside the boringness and give it a B.

You Will Know Me | Megan Abbott

you-will-know-me- Marley’s praise for this book was that the author knows how to write tension. Other reviews of the book are rhapsodic about how much creepier it is to feel like you don’t know those closest to you than it is to be menaced by a stranger. These are both absolutely the greatest strengths of this murder mystery centered around a family and their high achieving gymnast daughter. And yet while the book was well-written and I remained engaged in the unfolding mystery, I did not find the narrative as compelling as others. I give major props to the author for building a world and characters which I found inescapably believable while maintaining tremendous ambiguity about what really happened. B+

When True Night Falls | C. S. Friedman


Book two of this utterly ridiculous trilogy was even more extra than the last. It also contains the most weirdly petty line from a noble priest protagonist I’ve ever encountered. It is almost certainly a “you had to be there” to understand why Ibba and I just completely lost it laughing for fifteen minutes, but I’ll quote it anyway, “The food consisted of the kind of thing noncampers might purchase for a camping expedition– mostly sugared snacks and mixes for dried soups– but there was some dried meat and cheese and a flat, hard bread that promised to travel well…. Could have been worsecould have been much worse.” Mind you, this isn’t G-Mart. We’re never treated with descriptions of food and this character has never observed any level of detail excepting the beautiful curve of his deadly enemy/friend/crush’s mouth. As for my recommendation: if you’ve read the first one and wonder if book two is gayer, it is.  D

Dune | Frank Herbert

dune The fact that Dune is basically about an annoyingly Gary Stu child who becomes Prince of Everything by being Wiser and Better than everyone should be more off-putting than it is. Smarter folks than I have probably analyzed the racial undertones of its world building, but despite some eyebrow raising vibes, I found myself invested in the progression of the plot. The book does what books like Stranger in a Strange Land do, where the protagonist goes from ignorant child to magic philosopher king very quickly. So as a seasoned genre reader I know to let the boring bits wash over me to set up for what will probably an interesting series now that we’ve epically “powered up” our protagonist. Unfortunately, its pacing and datedness limits my eagerness to continue. A-

2017 Reading Roundup #31-35

Letters to a Young Muslim | Omar Saif Ghobash

letterstoayoungmuslim I went into this with major hesitation, given the politics (this is authored by the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Russia), but I am so grateful I took the time to read it. The vast majority of discussion I’m exposed to surrounding Muslims, Islam, and international terrorism takes place between white Americans, and occasionally Muslim-Americans. The perspective of someone who considers himself to be a dedicated Muslim, but not coming from a place of defending himself in the American political conversation, is invaluable. He’s writing to his son about what his religion means to him, how lame anti-western radicals will approach him and why. He articulates a compelling alternative worldview that doesn’t simply cater to western ideas, and most importantly, encourages his son to interrogate his own opinions and those of others, even outside of issues of religion. Interestingly, he remarks that American left wing rhetoric about terrorists who operate in the name of Islam aren’t “true Muslims” is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy and that he feels a responsibility to denounce radical groups and their actions. This isn’t a surprise given his position as a diplomat, but was nevertheless heartfelt and valuable. A-

The Grownup | Gillian Flynn


Does Gillian Flynn need more praise? I guess so, because this story was dark and snarky and fun as heck. I read her work infrequently enough that her wicked prose is always an unexpected delight. Our protagonist, who reads auras (read: is a fraud), meets the perfect client, a rich sucker who believes her creepy old Victorian house is haunted. But when our faux-psychic actually enters the building, things begin to get genuinely creepy. In true Flynn style, the twist is surprising but, in retrospect, perfectly seeded. And upon realizing what’s really going on, our girl is cornered into some shady decisions. The Grownup is an entertaining and satisfying journey, and a quick read to boot. A

Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China | Eddie Huang


For all his foibles, I don’t have one word to say against Eddie Huang. Much like Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love is raw, engaging, and bursting with ideas and points of view I have only dreamt of seeing represented in the books, TV, and movies I consume. I found myself once again deeply invested in his relationships both with his brothers and his girlfriend. Above all, his insights into being both an insider and outsider in his parents’ homeland were infinitely relatable. It isn’t possible to overstate the authenticity of these vignettes, which repeatedly hit home despite my radically different experiences and relationship with the motherland. As I cheered him on through his various enterprises in this book, I look forward to reading whatever comes next for Huang. A

Etiquette & Espionage | Gail Carriger

etiquetteVictorian frills usually send me running in the opposite direction when it comes to fiction, but my love of secret schools for assassin girls and the Pimpernel-trope of the secret badass persuaded me to give Etiquette & Espionage a try. I wasn’t bowled over by the originality of a boisterous young girl who didn’t fit her restrictive society’s standards for femininity being summoned to a greater purpose, but the novel picks up sharply in fun ideas from there. I wasn’t expecting a couple of the twists any diversity, and was pleasantly surprised by both. While too YA for me, it’s a charming story and a credit to its genre. B


Abhorsen | Garth Nix

abhorsenI wish I had reviewed Lirael and Abhorsen together. They are, in truth, two acts of the same story: Lirael’s. Taken together, both books are stronger, because Abhorsen eases up on Lirael’s uncertainty and identity struggles as she steps into her role as Abhorsen (high necromancer) in waiting. I deeply felt her story– a girl who wished desperately her whole life to simply belong with the women she grew up around, only to learn that she had a magnificent destiny completely separate from theirs. She embraces her role steadfastly and it brings her the fulfillment she needs, but it doesn’t totally erase the pain of being excluded from the one thing she valued for so long. Unfortunately, the identity crisis faced by the other protagonist, Sameth, isn’t quite so satisfyingly resolved. His destiny seems like an afterthought, and given the rich world building, didn’t have to be. Mogget and the Disreputable Dog are fun, though sometimes fall into that annoying type of kids’ book comedy that becomes repetitive and tiresome. But, it is a kids’ book and a satisfying conclusion to one of the best young adult series around, so it still gets an A-.

2017 Reading Roundup #26-30

Disclaimer | Renee Knight


The premise of this book actually felt fresh among all the “best of” mystery lists. It starts like a Black Mirror episode: a woman moves house and finds among her things a novel she doesn’t remember buying. She quickly realizes it’s about her and her deepest, darkest secret, about which only one other person knew, and he’s dead. Bonus: it comes with a menacing note that the author knows who she is and what she did. Her family slowly gets torn apart by this stranger and his creepy revenge plot, leading to the reveal of the horrible events in the  fake novel. The chapter where we learn the whole story gripping, raw, and so emotionally truthful. The protagonist’s reaction to her husband’s arc, in particular, will always stay with me. Unlike many stories that are building to a twist, this book took its time with the fallout from the reveal and managed to use it to build further tension when her son reads the book and is manipulated by its author. There was some weak characterization of the antagonist, though he certainly wasn’t underdeveloped, he makes at least one decision which seems fairly out of character to serve the plot. Despite this, I’m giving Disclaimer an A.

Codex | Lev Grossman


Hoo boy did I want to love this book. It’s about a hotshot investment banker who ends up noodling around the library of a wealthy and important client in search of a mysterious and priceless medieval codex with the help of a prickly medievalist. The characters in Grossman’s The Magicians, to me, are the closest anyone has ever come to depicting many of my friends as I know them: self-aware nerds shaped deeply by their mental illness, sexuality, minority status, high expectations set by precocious childhoods, and that unceasing hope that their Hogwarts letter may yet come. Codex fell very far short of those characters and the potential of its premise. There were some charming, witty, and compelling moments, but the plot did not quite come together. You can almost always keep me interested if there’s a mysterious ancient tome involved, but the videogame subplot was too Orson Scott Card and unsatisfying. Grossman’s writing style is easy to plow through, so it wasn’t painful so much as meh. C

Station Eleven | Emily St. John Mandel

Station 11One of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the easiest to recommend broadly. So much so that it’s a downright tragedy it hasn’t been adapted for television because it has incredible potential to be expanded in that medium. We open in a familiar time, where a fatal mishap during a stage play winds up being the early moments of a plague that wipes out a good portion of humanity. The story jumps back and forth between the life of the deceased actor, once a young Hollywood star, and fifteen years in the future, with a wandering theater troupe called The Travelling Symphony. There are so many pieces of fiction these days playing to a meta-love for the world of books and storytelling and theater which, despite being the target audience, I find lacking in emotional punch. Meanwhile, Station Eleven delivers on every front. The science fiction plot is imaginative, the arcs across timelines are coordinated delightfully, each vignette is tight and sometimes feels mythic, but the characters still feel so tangible. I want to throw it at every TV exec looking for the next high-concept-prestige-genre-character-driven-drama. A

The Truth and Other Lies | Sascha Arango


Oh, this book was written for middle-school me. (And grown-up me.) But it takes me back to my tween fascination with psychopathic villainy and books like Talented Mr. Ripley, about how far one can go without a conscience. The outrageous premise is this: famous and charismatic author, Henry Hayden, doesn’t actually write his books, his quiet, reclusive wife does, and they’re the only ones who know. Everything is going well until Henry’s mistress becomes pregnant, throwing everything out of balance. What follows is a darkly funny house of cards, lies built upon lies, which had me rooting for our good-for-nothing protagonist the whole time. It’s the appeal of Frank Underwood, but with actual stakes. I find characters who have to be so many people that they doesn’t feel there is a ‘real’ self underneath incredibly relatable, rather than sinister. Given the fun rollercoaster plot, I’m unsurprised to learn the author is a TV writer. All in all, it’s entertaining, but doesn’t really say anything. A-

Thinking, Fast and Slow | Daniel Kahneman

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThanks to Freakonomics, I find myself thinking about Daniel Kahneman’s research all the time. The limitations of people’s ability to assess the word around them (in terms of probability) is laced into almost every conversation you have, beyond but sometimes including the trivial. So it was difficult not to bring up ‘cognitive bias’ in every conversation at work, or throw down with free market types online about how humans don’t actually act rationally with money, or chew my friends’ ears off with the data-driven version of friend-who-has-gotten-too-into-that-one-self-help-book-syndrome. I have since chilled out and keep my “so here’s how this applies to Trump/politics/literally anything in the news” to myself, but not enough not to low key want everyone to read it also and validate my armchair theories. By which I mean be entertained and intellectually enthralled by these landmark changes in how we understand the human mind. A

2017 Reading Roundup #21-25

The Man Who Wasn’t There | Anil Ananthaswamy

man who wasn't there I love reading about the brain, especially case studies that can teach us about human nature. And though I’ve been spoiled by Oliver Sacks, Ananthaswamy acquits himself fairly well. I found the author’s insights about each of the specific cases more compelling than his philosophical conclusions about the self. The section on schizophrenia and how it might be a result of the brain not recognizing thoughts as its own, for example, reminded me of the theory that it could also be the result of the brain processing certain thoughts out of sync with when they occur, causing them to feel like they are coming from outside the self as orders. As someone who has had more than my share of discussion of eastern philosophical ideas about the self and perception, I didn’t find what he had to relate on that subject as compared to what various disorders indicate especially insightful. B+

Born A Crime | Trevor Noah


I have such mad respect for Trevor Noah after reading this. Learning where he came from, made me see his entire comedic point of view and persona in a new light. From the story referenced in the title, about how being the product of a black mother and white father was illegal, to the struggle of watching his mother struggle with an abusive and violent partner, Noah has been through some rough shit. But the fact that his attitude is still playfully inquisitive is a huge testament to the power of not letting life turn you into an angry, resentful person. I can see why Jon Stewart chose him to lead the Daily Show. Over the coming decades, we’ll need someone capable of thinking globally: speaking about racial issues here and abroad, and someone who won’t be ground down by even the most devastating political and social news. Above all, though, it’s a very funny read and shrewdly structured.  A+

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone | Stefan Kiesbye

your house is on fireThis book is like reading a coherent nightmare in the best way. It’s about five children growing up in a quaint German village, full of intrigue, horror, superstition, and betrayal. The interwoven anecdotes from their childhood are framed as reminiscences from the future, where they return to their town for a funeral. I always appreciate an author who isn’t afraid to delve into the amorality of childhood psychology, and this collection of stories fully sinks its teeth into that while maintaining a deliciously detached narrative voice. There were a few moments that dragged, for me, but only because it was so hypnotic I didn’t take enough brakes while reading. I could have done with a bit more of the supernatural element as well, but enjoyed how it was subtly laced in without much mythological explanation. A

Think of a Number | John Verdon

thinkofanumberThis book showed up on a list of exciting mysteries, and I was looking to read something tightly plotted and surprising. So when I read the premise, people getting letters that say “Think of a number” from an unknown person, only to find the letter-writer guesses their random choice, I felt like it was very Holmesian, and I was sold. The reveal just didn’t quite deliver. I didn’t care about the characters; the lead is a typical combo of “I’m retired and too old for this shit” and “I’m too cool/smart/competent to cooperate with the rules”. Some of the plot was genuinely clever, but it fell apart by the end with a lame resolution that was easy to see coming, but was dragged out for a cringey long bit. C

We Have Always Lived in the Castle | Shirley Jackson

We-Have-Always-Lived-in-the-Castle I just love it when I find a classic story that I can enjoy! The story is a very specific, and not for everyone, like Stoker or Crimson Peak. The narrator, despite being eighteen, is very childlike, and the main characters are literally the spooky shut-ins who live in the big house on the hill about whom the villagers gossip. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the unreliable narration and inevitable plot twist, which alone makes the story worth reading. Jackson’s writing is perfect for when you’re in the mood for something atmospheric and moody, rather than a typical scary story. A-

2017 Reading Roundup #16-20

Originals | Adam Grant

Originals  I generally steer clear of anything like self-help books, but after being exposed to some of the ideas in Originals via podcasts and articles, I decided to give it a go. The reason I dislike self-help books is two fold, 1) it’s typically decent advice that doesn’t merit a whole book and thus becomes self-parody partway through 2) they never acknowledge how much of success is related to factors outside of the reader’s control, because if the reader doesn’t believe this one easy trick will fix their life, they won’t feel good and people won’t buy the book. So what I respect about Originals is that it acknowledges the limitations of making assertions without data, so even when points are supported anecdotally, they’re fairly presented. Secondly, Grant acknowledges the messiness and uncertainty around the issues about which he is writing. He clearly states that women and people of color are at a disadvantage when trying to make changes in a system when they see flaws, etc. Moreover, not one aspect of the bookfeels like obvious advice. Sometimes, human nature works in counterintuitive ways, which means working with people/organizations involves counterintuitive strategies. This was at the core of what I got out of the book about non-conformity: it was reassuring that my unusual ways of dealing with decision making, creativity, human relationships, etc, are often advantageous without my knowing it. I of course learned a lot of ways to improve as well, but as someone who always felt reaching her goals would involve changing a lot about herself, I found myself relieved by almost every chapter. A

By Nightfall | Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall This book is a paint-by-numbers piece of literary fiction by a male author with one twist. It’s about an older man in an artistic field coming to grips with his mortality, whose relationship with his wife is stale, whose daughter in oh-so-incomprehensible and angry with him, etc, etc. Themes include: is he unambitious to be satisfied with only moderate success? Art and death, how about that? Beauty, man, it sure is compelling. So naturally the next thing to happen is that he becomes infatuated with someone young and flighty and brilliant and beautiful, but tragically destined to burn bright and die young. The twist: the gorgeous thing is a young man! His junkie brother-in-law, who he smooches a couple of times. At the end we learn that he has literally no clue about his wife’s inner life because she says she wants to leave him and he cannot fathom that she was also unhappy in their marriage. It’s like someone cobbled together a book out of male novelist tropes from The Toast. C+

The Art of War | Sun Tzu

art of war I read this book so I could say I had, and that’s more or less all I got out of it. And some laughs, I suppose. If I’m being respectful, I acknowledge that it is a treasured part of Chinese history, and understand how almost spiritually important it is to them as a culture. But it is baffling to me that people read this in business school and the like. Right now there are hundreds of MBAs out there with a bunch of random trivia knocking around their brains about how to conduct a land war on ancient Chinese terrain. Which I suppose is kind of surreally funny, but hardly seems worth it. Every lesson contradicts some other and the majority of the book is a) be competent, b) don’t be incompetent, c) simply never get in a situation where you’re at a disadvantage or likely to lose, and if you are, see a) and b). It was interesting to note which points the author tried to fuse the idea of The Path with his tactics, and where he just went with ruthlessness and “all’s fair in love and war”. It’s telling how spiritual purity sneaks into justification for war since forever. F

The Likeness | Tana French

The Likeness Again, I’m totally beguiled by Tana French’s writing. I cannot even fully explain what wraps me up in these mysteries so deeply now that I’m on the other side. The plot of this one is that a detective bears an uncanny resemblance to a corpse and goes under cover as the murder victim to figure out who killed her. The emotional dynamic between the main character and the murder victims close friend circle is tense and interesting, even though I had a hard time believing the premise could realistically be pulled off. The book is haunting and creepy while being very grounded in the world of the Dublin murder squad. Despite its one plot flaw, I am definitely committed to reading the rest of Tana French’s series, and looking forward to getting lost in the delicious writing. B+

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem | Jillian Lauren

Some Girl I figured given how much sex workers tend to serve as props in film and tv, that it would be a good idea to read some work by someone who had actually lived that experience. It helped that the story also involved politics, intrigue, and the Sultan of Brunei. I really appreciated the humor and candid language, especially given the author’s journey after she left Brunei for the last time. I can’t say the perspective or insights were especially enlightening, but they were entertaining and I did feel I got to know the heart and mind of someone who I wouldn’t ordinarily get to hear from. B

2017 Reading Round-up #11-15

Uprooted | Naomi Novik

UprootedI’d been meaning to pick up some of Naomi Novik’s original work forever, and I’m glad I finally did (at the urging of several friends). What surprised me the most was how much plot is crammed into a single book, and boy did I miss grown-up fantasy that can move. The characters and their relationships were every bit as dynamic as I’d hoped and I thoroughly enjoyed unraveling the layers of world-building. It isn’t a perfect book, but I’m a bit blinded by my loyalty to the author and look forward to supporting whatever comes next. A-


In the Woods | Tana French

In the Woods

This book kicked off my search for compelling mysteries, and its premise offers a lot: a murder detective is assigned to a case in the same place he grew up, and appears to be linked to a traumatic incident from his past. It’s rare for me to be drawn to a more literary writing style, but I have to say, French’s mysteries are laced with gorgeous and evocative images. This book was strongly recommended to me as the necessary first in a series, but with the caveat that the ending falls apart– and it does. My empathy for the main character plummeted and I felt robbed of a real resolution. B


Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir | Eddie Huang


What started off as research for a spec I was writing turned into one hell of an unexpected delight. Growing up as the child of FOBs has been such a defining part of who I am, and I am entirely cut off from that community in LA. Huang spoke to so many parts of my experience with a nuance and complexity and flavor that I had never experienced before. His thoughts on cultural appropriation versus sharing culture via food are charmingly sophisticated and plain-spoken, which is rare for culture/race discussions these days. While I disagree with some of what he has to say, I sincerely hope more people engage with his work and point-of-view. It is, at the very least, surprising, engaging, and satisfying. A+

Lirael | Garth Nix


Boy am I glad I came back to this series after stopping after Sabriel when I was a kid. I was incredibly charmed to see the main characters from the first book grown up into rulers and parents. While it starts a little heavy on the teen angst, the main characters do grow and become lovable. It suffers slightly when the ‘normie’ character, Sameth, learns that he isn’t meant to be the next Abhorsen (necromancer). It’s a relief for him, but Nix doesn’t show us where Sameth fits in or what his path is in a satisfying way, but tries to tell us it does exist. That aside, the entire series is worth reading for the brilliant world-building alone.  B+


The Ghost Bride | Yangsze Choo

the ghost bride

I was so thrilled to find out this book existed, and unfortunately that set my expectations too high. I found it while researching Malay mythology for one of my own writing projects. It centers around a young woman who has to solve a murder mystery by entering the world of the dead, and winds up in a love triangle in the process. The world itself has brilliant potential, with the living being obligated to make sacrifices to provide their deceased loved ones. Sadly, the characters and their relationships left a lot to be desired, and I didn’t find myself all that interested in the outcome of love triangle and the main character’s choices by the end. B-


2017 Reading Round-up #6-10

Hallucinations | Oliver Sacks

Hallucinations Oliver SacksSacks’s writing is just as engrossing and charming in Hallucinations as it is in Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I’ve always been drawn to stories of the weird things brains do and how we interpret them, but hallucinations in particular feel almost like a literary device shedding light on some aspect of those who suffer from them. More importantly, I appreciate Sacks treatment of his subjects as people rather than medical oddities. It’s clearly a big part of the reason for his success and makes the process of reading feel more like learning and less like gathering meaningless trivia. A

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) | Kevin Kwan China Rich Girlfriend

I read the first book in this series, Crazy Rich Asians, largely because the title made me think of home. I didn’t expect to fall in love with a book almost purely consisting of romantic intrigue, but I. am. addicted. I’m so invested in Astrid’s well-being, and the author was smart to center the drama around Rachel’s new found family, since her perfect relationship with Nick has limited interest even if I’m rooting for them. I was surprised at my interest in Kitty Pong’s story, even if I could see the twists coming. I’m looking forward to part three as well as the film. A

MonstressMonstress, Vol. 1: Awakening | Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda, Rus Wooton

I bought this book largely because the artistic style is just so beautiful. I was warned about how dark the story is, and while is gloomy and edgy, I found it a little forgettable.  This is probably the result of my usual inability to connect with graphic novels the way I do with regular books. Unlike other visually striking graphic novels, the sheer creativity and gorgeousness kept me interested and I don’t regret owning the volume. So for the low time investment, I’ll give it a B+.

Shrill | Lindy West Shrill

This is a book I know I’m going to read more than once in my life. I got it from the library and then went out and bought it. There were selections from every passage that I wanted to shout from the rooftops and then also send directly to so many people I know– “This! This is what I mean, articulated funnier and better than I could say it.” There’s a lot of ell-oh-ell-feminist stuff out there right now, and Lindy’s voice just soars above the pap because she actually has something to say. But even apart from the stuff I expected (real talk on fat phobia, abortion, rape jokes, trolls), her personal stories about losing her father and her relationship with her husband, were beautifully told and moving. A+

Saints AstraySaints Astray | Jacqueline Carey

This sequel is much weaker than the original, which was doubly disappointing given the fact that our gutsy leads now get to have international adventures instead of being stuck in sad dystopia town. But unfortunately the boy-band subplot just didn’t do it for me and I found the conversations between the main couple to be tiresome and repetitive. It still gets points for a fun training-to-be-secret-service-types sequence, a few side characters, and the greater plot resolution. I love how Carey can scale up a story and make me believe the future of a dystopia really does lie with her lead (whose simple resolve I still love in a similar way to Phedre’s). B-