Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: THE CITY OF MIRRORS, by Justin Cronin

The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin. Published 2016 by Random House. Literary Fiction, Science Fiction.

So, I finally ate the whole thing. Late Friday night I finished the last few pages of The City of Mirrors and with it Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy comes to a close. Wow.

To catch you up, humankind has been laid waste by a deadly virus that originated in the jungles of South America and came to the United States as an experiment by a Harvard scientist working for the US government. Timothy Fanning is Patient Zero, the first infected in the jungle and the leader of the general contagion. The government scientists infect twelve men on death row and a little girl named Amy in furtherance of a project which hopes to produce a race of supersoldiers but instead creates a race of monsters ("virals" or infected persons) from ordinary people. In The Passage (volume 1) and The Twelve (#2) we see the origin of the virus and its devastating, immediate effects, and then move forward and see how humanity is faring about 100 years in the future. In short, the news isn't all that great.

All three books concern a core group of survivors- Peter, Alicia, Michael, Sara, Hollis, Theo, Mausami and Amy- and the original 13 infected men. Cronin introduces new characters along the way too as people have children, or move, or supporting characters from one section move to the center of the stage elsewhere. The City of Mirrors is long like the first two, and mostly weighted towards action with sizable chunks of exposition and backstory. In particular we learn about Timothy Fanning in great detail through an extended soliloquy near the beginning of The City and get to know a new character that Cronin introduces at the very end.

Plot-wise, The City of Mirrors recounts the end of the viral period and the beginning of a new world. There are several endings as the characters branch off to different destinies, and then there is a final ending, poetic and emotional, that loops us right back to the beginning. Have your tissues ready.

Did I like it? Yes. Cronin does a masterful job tying up the loose ends and giving his characters appropriate and satisfying endings. There was a little bit of bloat and I will admit to some skimming when it came to the backstories, especially the final bit when the book was about to end. At that point I was impatient for the plot to move and wasn't interested in the life story of someone who I was going to stop reading about in ten pages. But never let it be said that Cronin doesn't create richly drawn characters; that's what kept me reading, these people I'd come to care about so much.

If you are new to the Passage trilogy you should start with book one, The Passage, because these books depend on being read together and that's the best one anyway. But once you read The Passage be ready to be hooked. And when you get to The City of Mirrors you'll be too busy crying to worry about anything else. If you've already read the first two you will want to read this no matter what I say, and you should.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

So I finally finished The City of Mirrors, and now I'm going to read.... IDK. Something. I'll pick something off the shelf in the next day or two.

I'm still reading Baba Dunja's Last Love, which is good. I'm almost finished. Alina Bronsky is very dependable and this, the fourth novel of hers I've read, is the best since the first, Broken Glass Park.

And I'm reading Sjon's Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, a poetic short novel about a young gay boy in World War 1-era Iceland. He deals with the Spanish Flu and his own sense of alienation through covert friendships and a love affair with the movies. It's for my book club and I have to finish by tomorrow.

Almost done with The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by journalist Masha Gessen. It's disturbing and compelling. It makes me want to read more about Putin, but maybe not quite right away.

That's it for me, for now. What are you reading this week?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

My New Home of Books Part Two: Kitchen Bookshelf!

When we first saw the apartment that would become our new home, one of things I loved the most about it were the two sturdy bookshelves in the kitchen.

I never had nice bookshelves in my kitchen before and I loved the idea of having a beautiful, handy home for my collection of cookbooks. I assumed the sellers would take them and once our offer was accepted, started casting about for good bookshelves to replace them with.

Lucky me, the sellers decided to leave them!

When we moved in, the kitchen was the first room I unpacked; you have to have a place to cook, even in NYC where delivery is king and I know people who literally only use their ovens for storage. But I like to cook, sometimes anyway, and so I set about making my kitchen my kitchen.

When I got to the bookshelves, I piled the top shelf with cookware and some decorative things but left the bottom shelf for my cookbooks. I love it! It's so handy. Beneath it we have a pretty butcher block table made by my husband's grandfather, and together they make the perfect cooking nook. It's one of my favorite parts of my new home.

Do you have a bookshelf- or case- in your kitchen? What do you use it for? How do you organize your cookbooks? I'd love to know!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My New Home of Books Part One: The Reading Nook

One of the greatest pleasures of setting up my new home has been establishing a real reading nook for the first time.

Believe it or not, I am not a big one for reading at home. Most of the time I read on the train, or in a coffeeshop, or in a waiting room. Curling up on the sofa is nice but it makes me sleepy. And there always seem to be so many distractions- housework, the cats, sewing. And, to be perfectly honest, I can concentrate better when there is more noise around rather than less.

So when we moved into our new place I was determined to set up a great space for reading. I found a corner in the second bedroom that became my sewing room, and I think I've hit on the right formula.

First up, a comfy chair that isn't too comfy- I can stretch out and it has great back support so I don't automatically fall asleep.  The pillows help keep me sitting up straight.

Next up, a small bookcase for my current read, a few magazines and the world's cutest mug rug for my cup of coffee. I won this in a swap at my quilt guild's spring retreat. Adorbs!

I also keep my Kobo tablet nearby so I can put on one of my favorite Pandora stations to keep my brain focused. I prefer to read to The Smiths or classical guitar.

Then there's the bookcase with its huge selection of TBR books, including a separate shelf for nonfiction so I can easily grab that next bedside or gymbag read.

See? No end to the choices here and yes that shelf is double-stacked. Never let it be said I don't support my local booksellers.

What does your reading nook look like? What do you dream of when you dream of the perfect space to read? I think if I could have anything, I'd have the coffeemaker right next to me and a rack of mugs but that's it. This space is pretty perfect!

Monday, August 22, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I did manage to finish a book last week- Jeff Vandermeer's Authority. It was really good. I want to read Acceptance sooner rather than later, but considering I'm still reading The City of Mirrors I need a break from science fiction and will spend some time getting back to my literary/historical roots and maybe even read a crime novel or two before I finish up that series.

Yes I'm still reading The City of Mirrors but I'm thisclose to finishing and expect to be done early this week. Then I'll review it and the Passage series as a whole.

I started reading Alina Bronsky's latest book, Baba Dunja's Last Love, which came out a month or two ago. I finally picked up a copy last week after I felt settled enough in my home to recommence buying books lol. Actually a "what's new on the shelf" post is long overdue.

Finally I'm still enjoying Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face, but enjoying may not be quite the right word since it's kind of a horror show about Vladimir Putin. I just finished a chapter about the incident in which Chechen terrorists held a theater's worth of people hostage and 129 of them died mostly due to government incompetence. Even though I had the energy to keep going I had to stop for the night because it was too awful. But I expect to finish the book before my next "It's Monday" post, and pick something else off my nonfiction shelf.

That's it for me. What are you reading today?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

So What If I'm Screwing Up My Amateur Book Reviews?

A few days ago an article by a gentleman called Peter Derk came to my attention, entitled "7 Things That Are Ruining Amateur Book Reviews." Go read it and come back.

You're back? Good.

I want to start off by making the point, which has been made before, that amateur book reviews- the kind that appear on social media including blogs, GoodReads, Amazon, LibraryThing, etc., and including my blog, are just that- amateur. As such, they adhere to no particular standard, follow no particular rules and because there is no standard what there is instead is a spectrum. There are people who write beautifully composed reviews, people whose blogs are artful, visually pleasing and harmonious to the eye, people whose reviews are a little (or a lot) more emotional, scattered, even incoherent, and people whose websites are cluttered with GIFs, music, flashy things and doodads. And there is a lot in between. Part of dealing in the online reviewing world is accepting this diversity of presentation and expression.

Which is not to say you have to like everything you see. I have preferences and pet peeves; I am not, for example, a big fan of the GIF either. If you are working in a verbal medium like blogging, maybe try to express yourself in writing? Of course the web is also visual, and visual representations and shorthand can be a valid form of expression. It's just not my own preference. Blogs that rely heavily on GIFs are not going to be blogs I read, and I tend to just scroll by them on other social media.

Derk takes issue with excessive synopses and I agree that the ideal synopsis is a short one, but I don't mind a quick summary on GoodReads. Half the time when I'm on GoodReads I'm there for the summary. I may even looking for spoilers. Sometimes I'm reading reviews because I'm struggling with a book and want someone else's take on it to keep me going.  But even if all I want is the yea or nay, it's difficult for me to place the review in context without some kind of summary. It doesn't take much to do the job though; a book review is a book review, not a book report, so keep it tight.

Derk's point about free copies is really off the mark though. Getting review copies doesn't make me a professional reviewer. Publishing to a personal blog or to your account on GoodReads does not make anyone a professional, no matter how many galleys you get. Getting paid to review is what makes someone a professional. After nine years of amateur blogging I've come to believe that freebies are the grease that moves the gears when it comes to book blogging. Most bloggers more or less expect to get them to one degree or another, and publishers seem mostly used to sending them. But free copies are an investment and and publishers do expect a return. Most also understand that not every book is a hit with every reader, even when it comes to their biggest fans, and publicity is publicity. An honest, thoughtful less-than-stellar review shouldn't damage a blogger's relationship with most publishers. Someone smart might even find the feedback useful. But whining, babbling, swear words and other childish behavior might hurt.

That said, amateur reviews are amateur. People write them for fun, to record their thoughts, keep track of their reading, share with friends, or for other reasons of their own. I am certainly not writing expecting to be on par with the New York Review of Books or the New York Times. My reviews will not examine a book's place in literature, or offer an academic tone or lengthy analysis. If you want a NYRB review, read the NYRB. And you should, because it's a great magazine. And you know what else? You can read both the NYRB and book blogs if you want and get that range of perspectives. But it's unrealistic to hold regular people to an academic standard. Regular-people reviews, including mine, are messy, personal, and uneven, but also creative and often delightful. You're only going to drive yourself crazy if you expect anything else.

The rest of Derk's issues- not paying attention, linking out, and rating quibbles- strike me as pretty trivial. If someone on GoodReads links out, I don't often follow; if I'm on GoodReads I'm there to read what's on GoodReads (or LibraryThing or whatever). I link out too; I'll have a short summary review (opinion only) and then the link. Want to follow it? Great. Some of my LT pals do read my blog. No? That's fine too. As far as ratings, the only time I even notice a blogger's rating system is when it seems like they copied mine. (I have a unique system, and yes, I've noticed. But so what?) Otherwise I don't care. And the thing about rating a book before you have read it is just enthusiasm and I disregard those anyway. Which brings me to my final point. Sometimes as a participant in the Internet world you have to learn when and how to take things with a grain of salt. It's not all all that important.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My Blogiversary!

It's blogiversary time again!

Nine years!

I can't believe it. I think in 2007 when I started this blog I would never have believed I'd still be blogging nine years later.

I have been thinking about how to write about how blogging has changed my life, and it seems so obvious it's almost not worth saying, but I'll say it- in community. Before blogging reading was something that I did to escape the daily grind of working in corporate America, where I put on a skirt and makeup and pretended to be someone else. I wasn't very good at pretending, so I never did particularly well in that environment, but I kept my head above water and once in a while got to go to Harvard Square and get a coffee and a new book and feel like myself again for a while. There was no one I really got to talk to about books; I tried book clubs but never found a good fit, and my reading tastes differed from most people I knew.

Blogging changed everything. Blogging connected me to readers all over the world, opened my mind to new genres (somewhat, let's be honest) and put me in touch with the larger literary world in ways I would not have thought possible. My personal book collection ballooned alongside it as I heard about and got interested in lots of things I never would have otherwise. And getting to know so many booklovers helped validate my own love of books. I've been lucky enough to meet some of my favorite authors, interview them, get to know publishers, help them promote their work in whatever way I can and work in several bookstores where all this enthusiasm gets put to use even more. And I've made so many friends I can't keep track.

Thank you to everyone who reads and comments and who's stuck with me through my ups and downs. Nine years in and I'm so excited to see where it goes next.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: THE CORE OF THE SUN, by Johanna Sinisalo

The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo. Published 2016 by Grove Atlantic, Black Cat. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. Science fiction.

James Tiptree Jr. Award-winner Johanna Sinisalo takes us on a trip through a reimagined modern day Finland in The Core of the Sun (translated by Lola Rogers), as a young woman at odds with the rigid gendering laws of her society searches for her missing sister all the while battling her growing despondency through an addiction to capsaicin and black-market chili peppers.

Vanna, or Vera as she was born, has come of age in a culturally isolated Finland in which women are divided into two female genders- ultra-girly elois who are allowed to marry and have children, and sterilized morlocks destined for a life of sexless squalor and manual labor. Vanna herself is a morlock by temperament but tries to pass as an eloi because everything about her culture teaches her that to be an eloi is to be accepted, loved and celebrated while morlocks are scorned and rejected. Her beautiful sister Manna doesn't have to pretend though and accepts the life of an eloi without question. The sisters' relationship as seen through Vanna's memoirs form the emotional core of this immersive and fast-paced tale that uses multiple points of view to tell the story of how Vanna tries to escape both physically and psychologically, aided by her friend and confidante Jare, who has his own reasons for helping her.

The Core of the Sun reads like a Finnish Handmaid's Tale crossed with Brave New World, with more voices, and more hope. Sinisalo mixes Vanna and Jare's first-person perspectives with primary source documentation from this version of her country and some real history too, like the story of the silver foxes and the early days of eugenics. In this version, Finland has evolved into a "eusistocracy," in which everyone, male and female, is slotted into rigid gender roles supposedly for the betterment of the whole country. Of course this betterment comes at the price of freedom and Sinisalo makes sure we think about both the benefits and the costs associated with this vision of Scandinavian life.

This review also appears on SFinTranslation.com.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, August 15, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Good morning and welcome to another episode of "I haven't finished any books this week." In this week's episode, I will recap the same three books I've been recapping for the past several weeks.

First up is Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer, a sci-fi thriller about a man in control of a secret he doesn't even know- Area X, a mysterious parcel of land which many enter but from which few return. Those that do, are changed.

Next The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin's finale to his best-selling and much-lauded Passage Trilogy. I think I read maybe twenty pages this week. It's a lot of set-up for the big showdown, and I want to get to said showdown sooner rather than later.

Finally, The Man Without a Face, by Masha Gessen, which tells the story of the ascent of Vladimir Putin from KGB backwater functionary to Russia's dictator-in-chief and possible US kingmaker.

I blame the shorter ride from my new home to basically everywhere I go for the slowdown. Also I need to find my reading glasses.

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Women in Translation Month!

In August we take some time to recognize and celebrate women authors whose works have come to us in translation.

Here's a list of some of my favorite translated women I compiled last year.

And here are some translated books by women I've read this year.

The Mountain and the Wall, by Alisa Ganieva, translated from Russian, is the first novel to come to us in the US from the ex-Soviet republic of Dagestan. It's about war in the region and the effects of Islamic fundamentalism on a secular European community of several faiths.

The Other Woman, by Therese Bohman, translated from the Swedish, is the second book I've read by this intriguing author. This story is about a young woman who has an affair with an older man, painful and true in its realism and psychological insight.

Stockholm Noir, an anthology series of crime stories edited by Nathan Larson and Carol-Michael Edenborg and translated from the Swedish, contains several stories by women including Anna-Karin Selberg and Lina Wolff,

The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo, translated from the Finnish, is a modern-day dystopia set
in an unrecognizable Finland, kind of The Handmaid's Tale meets Brave New World, with chili peppers,

So Much For That Winter, by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish, two novellas about romantic breakups written as prose-poems.

And I have so many others in my TBR piles. Maybe that's another post later in the month! What translated books by women have you read this year?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: SWEET LAMB OF HEAVEN, by Lydia Millet

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet. Published 2016 by WW Norton. Literary Fiction.

A young mother with a secret and her toddler daughter escape a controlling husband for a dingy Maine motel in the latest novel by acclaimed author Lydia Millet.

I've been a fan of Lydia Millet's for a while now, starting when I read her wonderful novel Magnificence. That was the third in a trilogy, and reading the first two novels in that series really locked her in for me as a new favorite writer. Here was someone who reminded me of a pre-dystopia Margaret Atwood, who wrote about peoples' lives with devastating insight and clarity and mixed the political into her very personal stories about growing up, marriage and everyday life, pushing past the domestic and into the sublime.

In her latest novel, she tells the story of a married woman named Anna who has taken her young daughter Lena and run away from her husband, a budding and controlling politician. They are hiding out at a motel in Maine as Anna tells their story through journal entries and flashbacks.  But Anna and Lena have a secret; when Lena was a baby, Anna (and maybe her husband too) heard voices. These weren't voices in their head; these were like radio broadcasts or transmissions and included music, recognizable passages from literature, and more. The voices always seemed tied to whatever Lena was doing and once she started to talk the voices stopped. But in a way they have continued to haunt Anna in their new life at the motel.

What starts as a quiet narrative picks up steam when Anna's husband catches up with them and kidnaps Lena. From here the book takes a turn into thriller territory but we never quite leave the supernatural behind.

I welcomed the change of pace since the book did start off slow for me. I hung in because I trust Millet to deliver, and she did. That said, Sweet Lamb of Heaven isn't going to be for every reader. It reminds me a lot of Curtis Sittenfeld's 2013 novel Sisterland (read my review here), about two sisters, adultery, sibling rivalry and psychic phenomena. That one was a rewarding read that was also a tough sell and I'd save recommending Sweet Lamb for the reader who isn't afraid of domestic fiction with an edge. I liked it a lot; I always admire Millet's work for the way she portrays the quiet of everyday life as well as the undercurrent of our inner lives.

Rating: Backlist

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, August 8, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

We moved, and I'm finally settled down enough to start blogging again.

In the past couple of weeks I started and stopped a bunch of books, but I did manage to finish a couple- So Much For That Winter, by Dorthe Nors, for the Nordic Book Club, and Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet, just for me. Both were edgy and off-the-beaten-path in their own way. So Much was comprised of two novellas each written in lists and having to do with romantic breakups. Sweet Lamb was about a woman hiding from her husband and accompanied by her small daughter. The woman, Anna, has contact with the supernatural and lives among a group of misfits in a Maine motel as she waits for the other shoe to drop. I enjoyed it but it's not going to be something for everyone.

As far as what I'm reading now, I'm still picking my way through The City of Mirrors. We only just got the new apartment up and running enough for me to relax with a book but I'm doing the best I can.
I'm also reading Jeff Vandermeer's Authority, sequel to Annihilation and volume 2 in his Southern Reach trilogy. It's good but slow.

Finally I started The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen, because for some reason it feels relevant right now. I haven't opened the box that contains the other book I was reading at my bedside table before the move, so I'll get back to that eventually!

What are you reading today?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Bookish Things On My Mind

  • I was thrilled to hear about Print Bookstore, soon to be opened in Portland, Maine, by Josh Christie and Emily Russo. I've known Josh from here and there for a few years now and I can't wait for the store to open so I can go visit. They are both tremendous booksellers and I know their store is going to be amazing. For now you can follow them on social media (@PrintBookstore on Twitter) and sign up for their newsletter from their website, http://www.printbookstore.com
  • I'm really excited about Alex Garland's adaption of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation after reading this interview on Tor.com. I only dabble in science fiction but I really enjoyed the book and since the interview came out I started reading book two in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Authority. I'm very intrigued by the thought that he's adapting Annihilation without having read the other books; it means his version won't include references or hints or connections, making the experience of watching the adaptation more like the experience of reading the first book, where you can't reference anything outside the first book itself. Neat!
  • On that note I love all the upcoming adaptations- Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy is in the works, Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam series as well as a remake of The Handmaid's Tale. Now when are we going to get Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy adapted? It would have to be almost as long as "Game of Thrones" but can you imagine, like an old-style PBS series along the lines of "The Jewel in the Crown" and I bet it could be as wonderful as that series too. Are there any upcoming adaptations, whether for TV or the movies, that you're excited about? 
  • Speaking of "Game of Thrones," now that it's over for the season, what literary adaptations are you watching? I'm thinking of dipping my toes into "Outlander." Thoughts?
  • One last comment on adaptations. I heard the Broadway adaptation of Alison Bechdel's wonderful Fun Home is closing in September. I'm really sorry to hear this as it's a great show and a moving, beautiful book, but I'm glad I did get to go see it for my birthday last year. I don't see many Broadway shows but I am grateful we made time for this one, and that I took the opportunity to re-read the book afterwards. Whatever happens with the show I do highly, highly recommend the book.
  • The Man Booker longlist was announced recently. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I haven't read any of them but I'm pleased to see Paul Beatty recognized. I loved his book Slumberland (my review here) and I've got The Sellout in my TBR pile. And it's great to see perennial favorite and two-time winner J.M. Coetzee listed again too. The Man Booker people have so many awards now it's hard to keep track, but this is the original and my personal favorite award to watch and read from.