A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

all-my-puny-sorrowsPlot: Elfrieda is a world-reknowed pianist, beautiful, wealthy and happily married. And she wants to die. Her younger sister Yolandi is divorced, broke and struggling both in her writing career and in her love life. But above all else she wants her sister to live. This struggle takes them back through their Mennonite childhood and all the troubles since.

This was our most recent book club book. It is one that I would have never picked up on my own but one that I enjoyed once I got into it. It was quiet and slow paced but layer by layer revealed the complicated dynamics of a troubled family. Brilliant, rebellious Elf who cannot bear to live. Their quiet, pious father who has his own troubles. And Yoli, who feels inadequate next to a sister she idolizes.

I was introduced to Towes as an author who is unexpectedly funny in the midst of tragic narratives (I have yet to read her other books but they come highly recommended by readers I trust). This novel didn’t quite fit this description. The characters were quirky, in particular Yoli’s best friend and her mother. But their occasional odd behaviour wasn’t as much laugh out loud funny as intriguing. It is a fascinating character study, a glimpse at a Mennonite community and a touching examination at suicide and loss (and their affect on family) but it is not a book that I would recommend for black humour.

If I have one major complaint, it is that the second half of the book should not be read while waiting by your mother-in-law’s sick bed. It doesn’t make you feel hopeful.

All My Puny Sorrows has recently been shortlisted for the Giller prize. I wish Miriam Towes luck!

2014 (#54)

doubt factoryPlot: Everything that Alix believes about her life and her father is a lie. Or at least that’s what the young, brilliant vandal who is stalking her wants her to believe. But Alix doesn’t simply accept either of their claims. She begins an investigation that takes her to the very heart of her father’s industry.

This review is based on a review copy received through Netgalley.

I love Bacigalupi. Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities are favorites of mine so I picked up this book with no idea what it was about, sure I would love it no matter what. It is a very different sort of story than his post-apocalyptic novels. This is a smart thriller that carefully examines the PR firms protecting pharmaceutical companies – among others – by casting doubt. A lot of the novel is careful research (the librarian in me loves Alix and her research so very much) and investigation but there are also a few brilliantly executed pranks and some high risk, high intensity confrontations.

This is a novel that makes you think and doubt. It is a novel that doesn’t give you all the answers or neat conclusions. This is not for everyone but it is very well executed and never talks down to teen readers.

The romance is deeply problematic with hints of obsession and Stockholm syndrome among other things. Alix and Moses are two characters whose intelligence and determination compliment each other but this is no destined, romantic love if that’s what you’re looking for. But then this novel is about trust, not love. Alix is working through her trust for the people in her life and for the very foundation that her privileged life rests upon. Besides, both Alix and Moses are fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with their relationship.

It is also worth noting that Bacigalupi gives us a very diverse cast: different races and sexualities as well as women in a variety of roles. I look forward to a day when this is no longer worth noting but at the moment I find it refreshing to find so much diversity without it being the central issue of the novel, or an issue at all. And while I have reservations about the romance, I love how Moses’ diverse crew works together, argue and support each other.

Final verdict: not my favorite Bacigalupi but a solid, well plotted and researched novel that really makes you question what you believe.

2014 (#53)

{October 8, 2014}   Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

spyness_200Plot: Georgie is a penniless cousin to King George V with no interesting prospects. As if that wasn’t hard enough to bear, a man is found dead in her bathtub and her brother is the main suspect. It’s up to Georgie to clear her brother’s name.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

I really enjoyed this book on several levels. It is on the one hand a fun and interesting historical novel about the 1930s in England. While they are not central to the plot, the Prince of Wales’ flirtation with a married American woman is a recurring concern and there are many references to the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. And Queen Mary is quite the character in and of herself. To those who know about the period, it’s a different angle on an interesting period in British history. This isn’t a history book but Bowen gives us a nice feel for the period with some interesting historical tidbits.

The mystery is also very interesting: we have a corpse in her own home, a seemingly open-and-shut case, an abundance of suspects and someone trying to kill Georgie. It is a real pleasure to follow her investigation and Bowen leads the reader on a few wrong turns. The resolution is very satisfying.

But above all else, Georgie is a fun character. She takes her financial difficulties in stride. She is looking for her independence and is willing to leave her comfort zone to find it (including working as a maid). She is intelligent and cultured but still stands outside the hedonistic culture of her class. And for those who like a bit of romance in their stories, she has  is a roguish and handsome Irishman to turn her head.

Kellgren’s narration really added to the fun for me. She has the right voice for Georgie: smart, sophisticated and witty. And she does an amazing job on the voices of a varied cast including the Queen, Georgie’s grandfather and various bright young things. Each one sounds different and consistent. Kellgren is the reason I picked up the audiobook and it’s part of the reason I plan to continue the series.

2014 (#52)

{October 8, 2014}   Comics and manga of September

HabibiAd Astra, Volume 1 & 2 (French) by Michachi Kagano

  • Ad Astra tells the story of Hannibal’s campaign against Rome in amazing historical detail and breath taking detailed art. But the real hero of the story is Scipion the Africain, who will eventually defeat him. If you enjoy historical manga like Vinland Saga, this will be right up your alley.

Angel & Faith, Volume 5: What You Want, Not What You Need by Christos Gage and Rebekah Isaacs

  • Angel and his allies succeed in reviving Giles but he doesn’t return exactly as he was. But before they can deal with this new development they must face down Whistler and his plot to destroy the world. The Buffy-verse comics have been every bit as good as the TV series and so far, Angel & Faith has been my favorite series. Read it.

Apple and Honey by Hideyoshico

  • A lovely boys love manga containing two stories. In the first cheerful and popular Komano starts circling quiet, lonesome Natsuki and it blossoms into a romance. In the second, thinking the world will end Takagi seeks out the boy he had a crush on in High School. I really liked the art and the touching relationships.

Read the rest of this entry »

{September 8, 2014}   Animal Farm by George Orwell

animalfarmPlot: Tired of the tyranny of man, the animals of Manor Farm revolt. They take over management of the farm based on seven commandments, the most important of which is “All animals are equal”. But as time goes on the commandments seem to change and the pigs seem to take on the qualities of their former human oppressors.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Tamsin Greig with a full cast.

This is a dramatized version of Orwell’s famous novel, modified for the purpose by the author himself. I have never read the full version (though I hope to correct that in the near future) so I cannot comment on how it has been changed. I can, however, say that this short audiobook (1h27) is engrossing and the narrators are effective. I found myself completely caught up in the story and thus deeply troubled by the pigs, led by Napoleon.

Orwell doesn’t hide the fact that this is a criticism of Stalin’s socialist regime. But though it isn’t a subtle criticism, it is very effective. He shows the ways in which ideals are twisted to the benefit of those in power, how loyalty and illiteracy is abused, how a cult of personality is formed and used to manipulate the populace.

Animal Farm is a classic for a reason and this audio version is very accessible.

2014 (#51)

{September 8, 2014}   Lock In by John Scalzi

lockinPlot: 25 years ago, a virus spread throughout the world. Though its symptoms were flu-like, it caused 1% of patients to become locked into their bodies, conscious but unable to move in any way. Those suffering of Lock In became known as Hadens. Agent Chris Shane is a Haden and is assigned to a murder case involving an integrator, a person who can share their body with Hadens. This case will put Chris in the midst of political and economic upheaval surrounding new Hadens-related legislation.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton. Please note that there is a second version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson.

I was already a few chapters in when I finally realized why this novel came in two different audio versions with two different narrators: Scalzi never once specifies whether Chris, who narrates the novel, is a man or a woman. I imagine that in a paper version, the reader’s own biases and imagination will fill in the gender. I’m curious to find out how most readers read Chris; I suspect “male” is the overwhelming answer, but I might be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile bear with me as I attempt to write a review without using pronouns.

This is a fascinating book on many fronts. It is, on the one hand, an intriguing police procedural with many twists and turns that kept me guessing about both the criminal and the means used to commit the crimes until the end. Agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann follow leads across the country, into a Navajo reservation, into the boardrooms of major corporations and into the very depths of the human brain. And they are put in mortal danger more than once as they get closer to the improbable truth.

It is also a fascinating sci-fi novel that explores disability and the mind. The Hadens function in society thanks to robots known as Threeps (after C3PO) and integrators with which they can interface while their bodies remain immobile. They are also able to interact and form communities in a virtual world known as The Agora, a world all but inaccessible to non-Hadens. Some Hadens spend most of their lives in Threeps, others like Casssandra Cain, never leave The Agora. I thought Scalzi’s comparison to the Deaf community was especially apt. He explores their relationships with non-Hadens, with their own bodies and with the world. But it is the integrators like Chris’ partner Vann who are most interesting. These are people who volunteer to share a body and mind with strangers. The implications and difficulties of such integration are at the very center of the novel’s mystery.

The audiobook also includes a short story which recounts, by means of testimonials, the beginnings and the effects of Hadens on the US population as well as the developments of Threeps. The narrative style reminded me a bit of World War Z though it isn’t exactly a tale of apocalyptic horror. It isn’t necessary to understand the story but it adds depth to the world and makes me wish for more stories in this universe.

Lock In is a brilliant sci-fi mystery. I couldn’t stop listening. Scalzi seems to get better with every book and finishing this novel only makes me eager for his next one.

2014 (#50)

{September 8, 2014}   The Human Division by John Scalzi

The_Human_Division_CoverThese reviews are based on the audiobook narrated by William Dufris.

These reviews cover episodes 10 to 13 of The Human Division, for my review of the first 9 episodes, see here.

Episode 10: This Must Be The Place

This is a more quiet episode. Schmidt, who has most often been seen assisting Harry, goes home to Pheonix to visit his family. He gets caught up in the colony’s politics and the family drama. We get to see, for the first time Schmidt’s qualities and his perspective on his life and his work. It is not an exciting story in the same way as some of the others, and it is not my favorite, but it really humanizes Schmidt and lends gravitas to the events in later episodes. If I had one complaint about the audio version it would be that Dufris doesn’t use the same voice for Schmidt as he does in other episodes; I was confused at times to find that he sounded more like Harry.

2014 (#46)

Episode 11: A Problem of Proportion

The Clarke, and its diplomatic team led by Abumway, meet with a Conclave diplomatic team. Instead they are attacked by a ship that had been reported missing and the Conclave ship suddenly surrenders to them. Together the two crews investigate the attacking ship and find it empty except for a brain connected to the ship’s computer. This was an intriguing episode with a great cast of one time characters. I found the relationship that Harry forms with the brain on the ship especially touching. It also sets up a lot of what happens in the final episode.

2014 (#47)

Episode 12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads

Danielle Lowen, who had been on the Clarke in The Observers, as part of the Earth’s diplomatic mission is back in this episode. She is trying to investigate the assassination that occurred. Her investigation is hampered by exploding embassies and a mysterious man (possibly related to the one in A Voice in the Wilderness?) with outlandish theories that point toward a conspiracy to keep the Earth and the Colonial Union at odds. This was a fascinating and ominous lead up to the final episode starring a character that I’m rather fond of.

2014 (#48)

Episode 13: Earth Below and Sky Above

This is the final episode and it is, appropriately, a full 2 hours long. Earth and Colonial Union diplomats are set to meet on earth station to negotiate a treaty. But the station soon finds itself under attack by missing Colonial ships and the cast we have come to know must put their lives on the line to save the negotiations. It is explosively exciting; I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The novel ends with many questions still unanswered: who was truly behind all the attacks? why were they trying to divide humanity? and who will the Earth ally with? But I wasn’t left dissatisfied, merely eager for more books in The Old Man’s War universe. Fortunately there are plenty.

2014 (#49)

I have loved The Human Division as a whole and I think that the format, in episodes worked wonderfully well. I highly recommend the audiobook version: it felt like following a sci-fi show.

saywhatyouwillPlot: Amy was born with cerebral palsy: she can’t communicate without mechanical assistance and can’t walk without a walker. She is keenly intelligent but needs help to get about her days and has few friends. For her last year of High School, she requests  peer helpers so that she can learn to interact with people her own age. One of these helpers is Matthew, who has a less visible disability: he suffers from a severe case of OCD that affects his life and relationships in many ways. As they work together, their feelings begin to blossom into something more.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

I read a lot of books, many of them YA, and yet this is the first romance I’ve read about a young woman with cerebral palsy (OCD and other mental disorders are not entirely new but still rare). I think that is a real shame that there aren’t more disabled teens in YA and I’d like to take the opportunity to direct everyone to Disability in Kidlit who will better be able to tell you if McGovern’s portrayal of Amy is accurate (they are rather critical, actually). But even with the problems they describe, I hope the popularity of this book encourages the publication of more books starring teens with disabilities (hopefully written by people with disabilities!) perhaps even dealing with problems that have nothing to do with their disabilities.

As a YA novel, it is still quite enjoyable. I’ve seen this novel recommended to fans of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park and I can hardly disagree. It is an unconventional romance told with humour and honesty. The narration alternates between Amy – who struggles to connect with people her age in spite of communication problems – and Matthew – who cannot resist his compulsions but fears having them revealed – interrupted by the occasional email exchange. They grow closer and try to help each other through their difficulties (though the tasks that Amy sets Matthew to help with OCD seem rather cruel at times) and sometimes, in their failure to connect, hurt each other. They are disabled but ultimately, they strive for the same goals as the teens in most YA novels – friends, love, work and college – and struggle with parents who don’t understand them. Which leads me to my least favorite character: Amy’s mother. She’s almost cartoonishly terrible. She pushes Amy to excel, doesn’t listen to her desires or needs, manipulates her life, chooses her friends and makes decisions for her. I wouldn’t wish her on anyone, no matter how good her intentions.

Even if it is far from a perfect portrayal, I do think that being in Amy’s head can help able-bodied readers rethink how they view disabled people, especially non-verbal ones. I like that her ultimate problem in the novel has little to do with her CP and that by the end she stands up to her mother. I also like that McGovern doesn’t shy away from discussing Amy’s sexuality. Our society sometimes likes to pretend that disabled people are asexual. Amy’s one sexual experience could have been handled better (there are some serious issues of consent, for one) but it is refreshing to me that her desires are recognized and openly discussed.

I want to give this book a glowing review as I listened to it with great pleasure. I rather enjoy Lowman’s narrations, for one, I already knew her from Rainbow Rowell’s audiobooks and was pleased to find her again. And I found Amy and Matthew to be witty, endearing narrators. However, I do have to nuance my praise with the concerns of actual people with disabilities.

2014 (#45)

{September 8, 2014}   White Night By Jim Butcher

white nightPlot: Witches of middling power are being murdered in Chicago and the murders are disguised as suicides. Harry and Murphy see the crimes for what they are but their investigation is hampered by mistrust: the female practitioners most at risk don’t trust the White Council and it’s wardens like Harry. His investigations will lead him deep into the politics of the vampire courts.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by James Marsters.

The 9th Harry Dresden book begins as a murder mystery, one that seems tied to many of Harry’s friends and former foes. Witness accounts and the manner of least one of the deaths ties Harry’s brother Thomas, a vampire of the white court, to the killings. And Thomas’ recent behaviour worries even Harry. He wants to trust his brother, but he has been looking remarkably well fed of late. Meanwhile, a group of witches has taken refuge from the serial killer with Harry’s first love, Elaine.

But as Harry digs deeper into the murders, he finds that they are tied both to a tragic young warden training session that he led (the cut to this particular flashback was unpleasantly jarring in the audiobook version; I thought I’d blacked out for 20 minutes or something) and to power struggles within the white court of vampires.This is when the action goes into high gear: political manipulation, high stakes battles worthy of Hollywood action flics and startling revelations.

We also learn a lot of interesting new things about Thomas, about Marcone and about Elaine which add real depth to their characters. But there is one revelation that I felt really overdone: someone, I won’t tell you who, is a vigin. <sarcasm>Hahaha, despite his bluster, he has never had sex! Hilarious! </sarcasm> No really, this joke is old, boring and perpetuates the myth that sex is a rite of passage that men need to become true men. I probably could have forgotten about it if it hadn’t been dragged out for so long. As it is I couldn’t roll my eyes enough.

Still, that is my only real complaint. There is some cheesiness and the number of foes thrown at Harry at once is, as usual, nearly ludicrous… but I think those my be half the reason I enjoy the series. It is a pulpy, action-packed, occasionally silly magical romp and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2014 (#44)

{September 8, 2014}   Like No Other by Una LaMarche

likenootherPlot: Devorah is Hasidic and has little to no contact with people outside of her community. But when accompanying her pregnant sister to the hospital during a terrible storm, she finds herself trapped in an elevator with a young, black man. She and Jaxon strike it off immediately. Despite the rules she was raised by and always followed, despite all the difficulties, Devorah and Jaxon seek each other out and begin to fall in love.

This review is based on a review copy received through Netgalley.

I first learned about Una LaMarche when I attended SummerTeen this year. She described seeking a remaining relationship taboo in order to write a modern Romeo & Juliet story. She decided upon the Hasidic community which remains isolated and which discourages relationships with people outside the community. Hearing her talk about it really made me want to read the book.

It is very much a Romeo & Juliet story: they are not only star-crossed but also rash and ill fated. (You can guess from this that I actually don’t find Romeo & Juliet particularly romantic. :P ) They describe feelings of love and irresistible longing but they are together only a handful of time in the entire book. This, the risks that Jaxon takes against Devorah’s will (coming to see her when she tells her not to, calling her on a phone she should not have, etc.) and the numerous lies they tell in order to meet, make the relationship feel terribly immature to me.  It is their first love so such immaturity is understandable but it kills the romance for me. Nevertheless LaMarche does a good job of balancing their passion and the difficulties of their relationship.

More interesting to me than the romance itself was the exploration of Hasidic culture, which we see through Devorah and her family. LaMarche does this with a great deal of respect and complexity: she doesn’t describe a community that is of a single mind, but rather shows the great variety of personality and opinion (including Devorah’s terrible, self-rituous brother-in-law). Devorah is a great character. She is very intelligent, though a little naive about relationships. She is devoted to her family and “frum”, that is serious about following all the religious rules. She begins to question the path she had been born on and the rules imposed upon her. This questioning and the answers that she reaches were what kept me turning pages.

Though the romance itself struck me as immature with an uncomfortable power imbalance, we need more diverse books like this, books that explore different cultures, different ways of living and being.

2014 (#43)

et cetera

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