Book Club Thursday

A Closed and Common Orbit

The best problem I ever have is the inability to tear myself away from a book.  It’s happened less and less lately, but A Closed and Common Orbit was so good I could barely put it down to get to work.

It’s the sequel/companion to Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planeta book Katie recommended to me back in 2016.  It was about a group of misfits doing a dangerous job while trying to keep the family they’ve created together.

A Closed and Common Orbit is still a “found family” story that also deals with questions of identity and purpose.  At the end of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence has been rebooted in such a way that she’s lost all the personality and relationships she’s developed.  For everyone’s emotional health, she’s forced to take root in an artificial body and leave the ship.  The story follows her as she learns to fit into outside society, as her friends Pepper, Blue, and eventually Tak help her figure out who she is and what she wants to be.

The story is broken up by Pepper’s story, showing where she came from to get her where she is now.  Her story is just as strange as Sidra’s.  She was created to work in a factory with a group of girls all named Jane.  Once she escaped, she found a derelict ship housing an old AI who taught her about the outside world and took care of her until they could escape the planet together.

Being raised by the AI Owl gives her a unique perspective on the AI Sidra and allows the AI the opportunity to behave like a real person.  This is an example of how Chambers continues the themes from her first book, questioning the nature of life and consciousness and what makes us human.  But in this book, she also explores questions of identity.  Pepper truly understands Sidra because they were both created for a singular purpose and they both escaped being controlled over it.  She has spent years creating herself and forging a place for herself in society and she is patient as she guides Sidra to do the same.

For the first three-quarters of the book, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven.  It helps that the characters are so dynamic and enthralling.

Despite that, this is not a standalone book.  Without reading the original, it’s difficult to get a true understanding of how the universe works.   But since both the books are amazing, it’s worth it if you want to read both.

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Turtles All the Way Down

I read my first John Green book in 2012 – which, you may know, is when his last one came out.  I loved them.  I went from having read none to having read all six of them within the same amount of months.  In a way, his books reminded me of Sarah Dessen’s.  They told the stories of teenagers trying to navigate their lives in a way that helped me navigate mine.  My favorite part about John Green books is that they always left me with the sense that everything was going to be okay.  I had a lot of anxiety in those days, so that feeling was crucial to me.

For four years after reading The Fault in Our Stars, I had no new John Green to read.  When he announced a new book, I was thrilled.

Turtles All the Way Down is about Aza, a teenager living with OCD and anxiety.  While she tries to cope, despite feeling overwhelmed, the world around her goes on.  A billionaire goes missing and her best friend, Daisy, wants to solve the mystery and collect on the reward.  The search has Aza reconnecting with an old friend who becomes a better one.  While her own inner world crashes, she has to learn how to manage her mind while participating in the world around her.

I believe every story we write has a little bit of autobiographical truth to it anyway, but this one was explicit.  At the reading in Charlotte, John talked about his own struggles with mental illness similar to Aza’s and how he managed it.

Now, I don’t have OCD.  In fact, I don’t have any diagnosed anything when it comes to mental illness.  But I still saw pieces of myself in Aza, thoughts she had that young Kari felt too.  He does such a thorough job of creating Aza’s voice and placing the reader in her head that I could feel the anxieties creeping back.

This story in no way glorifies Aza’s mental illness.  Instead, it does exactly what it’s intended to do.  For those who have never experienced something like this, it shines a light on what it’s like to live in a constant battle with your own brain.  For those who are currently living with it, it does something even more important.  It shows a realistic portrayal that proves there is a world outside of your head.  It gives a guide for how to live in it.  And it does what every John Green novel has ever done for me: it tells you that everything will be okay, even after the world has collapsed around you.

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Making it Official

I love Book Club Thursdays.  Writing about books is the next best thing to talking about books.  But I have to be honest with you: working 50-60 hours each week makes reading difficult.  When I feel rushed, I read less substantial books and don’t always think my responses through fully.

I’ve already skipped a lot of Book Club Thursdays because I didn’t finish the book, and I’ve always felt guilty about it.  I don’t want reading to become a chore that I dread each week.  So from now on, Book Club Thursday will (officially) not be happening every week.  When they happen, they will still always be on Thursdays, and I’ll still do them every time I finish a book.  I’ll try to keep them to once a month minimum.

Doing this every week means I’ll be able to read at my own pace, so it’ll stay fun instead of work.  It also means I can think through my reviews or responses and every post won’t just be a variation of “I liked/didn’t like this because…”  And, most importantly, I’ll be able to read whatever I want instead of something I think I can get through quickly.  I may finally get some classics and House of Leaves read.

So I will see you next week with The Night Circus (which I will only definitely be done with because I’m meeting with my actual book club about it on Wednesday).  After that, I’ll see you when I have a book to talk about.

 

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The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

It feels oddly anti-climatic to be writing this post, but sometimes…you just gotta.

I’m still working on the “balance” part in the “work-life” balance equation, but I’ve found something that’s important is that I read what I can.  This week it was something short and sweet: The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde.

Velde was an author I read a lot of as a child, a storyteller I could always count on to add a little magic to my life.  Books like A Well-Timed Enchantment, Dragon’s Bait, and Curses, Inc. were my introduction to the fantasy genre.  So when I found The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, I picked it up instantly.  The nostalgia helped, but Velde also had a point on the back of the book, a point I’d been thinking about for a while: the story of Rumpelstiltskin is pretty messed up.  Velde wrote six stories that made it make more sense.

My personal favorite was “Straw into Gold.”  My number one problem with the story has always been that the miller’s daughter married the king after he threatened to kill her and it was supposed to be a happy ending.  “Straw into Gold” gave her the best ending, in my opinion.

With six stories that come from the same fairy-tale, it would be easy for the stories to get repetitive, for the characters to run together.  Velde makes each story unique and each character is her own person.  If you want something short and fun to read, this is a great option.

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The Magicians

My least favorite thing in the world is when an interesting concept is done poorly, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was one of those books.

The premise itself sounds great: kid is obsessed with a collection of fantasy books about a magical land.  He grows up and finds out magic is real after being invited to a school to learn the skill, but this magic land (Fillory) is still considered a fantasy.  Until one day…it’s not.  He and his friends actually get there.

Unfortunately, the story goes wrong right from the beginning.  Quentin Coldwater, the main character and third-person narrator, ruins it.  The first line of the description on the back states that he is “brilliant but miserable,” but he’s also a dick.  He objectifies every woman he sees.  He plays the victim even when he’s in the wrong, and he thinks he’s above everyone else.  As the main character, he’s annoying, but since the book is told from his perspective we get every gross or self-righteous thought that flows through his head.

The other problem with the book is its timeline.  It opens with him finishing high school and preparing for college.  In 400 pages, it spans somewhere between seven and eight years.  To do so, it glosses over those years to get as much time into the story as possible.  Random story elements will pop up, go unmentioned for hundreds of pages, and then come back when you’ve already forgotten about them.  Other story elements are never relevant and put in solely for shock value: when Quentin and Alice have fox sex, for instance.  The whole thing feels disjointed and vague.

I only kept reading it because someone I love very much bought it for me because she wanted me to watch the TV show.  I imagine, in that format, it’s much better.  You can’t be vague on-screen, and it is more third-person omniscient than third-person limited so I won’t have to deal with Quentin’s internal dialogue.  Because of that, I’ll probably try an episode or two.  But I wouldn’t recommend the book.

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2

I am incredibly excited to discuss the The Handmaid’s Tale with my book club tonight.  After reading it, we’d also talked about watching the show on Hulu.  We had all heard good things, but I put it off because I thought it would be intense.  Today, if for no other reason than I was running out of time, I finally worked up the nerve.

I only got two episodes in, but here are my thoughts so far.

If you read my post about the book, you know I liked the way Margaret Atwood dropped the reader into the story.  The show didn’t work that way.  Episode one opens with Offred and her husband’s attempt to escape, a scene that was shown as a flashback about halfway through the book.  The change made sense, as the visual format needed a more dramatic introduction to the story.

The change I liked most was the casting of actors of color.  In the book, society’s downfall is directly related to an overwhelming wave of racism.  That is a very important and relative message and I think everyone should read the book so that they can see that effect.  However, in a TV show, it would just seem like an excuse not to cast non-white people.  (Granted, there still weren’t enough people of color cast, but maybe it’s better than none at all?)

They also made the population problem more dramatic.  In reading  the book, my understanding was that birthrates were down due to abortions and birth control.  In other words, people were choosing not to have children en masse.  In the show it was clear that infertility was an epidemic.  It had gotten so bad that someone tried to kidnap the main character’s baby.

I’m still waiting for more of the corrupted religion aspect to play in.  They’ve shown the Ceremony and talked about the Bible story that inspired it, but haven’t discussed why Offred became a Handmaid.  One of my favorite scenes in the book was Serena Joy telling Offred that the Commander was her husband, til death do they part.  That scene still appeared, but lacked the final line that gave it power: “That’s what we fought for.”

I also really hated what happened with Ofglen.  In the book, she’s a rebel fighter, using the term “Mayday” to judge who may be on her side and informing Offred about the rebellion.  The show already seems to have done away with her without giving Offred any of this information…although IMDB has Alexis Bledel credited for two more episodes, so maybe they have something else figured out.

The visual media is always going to be different than books.  Some aspects can be portrayed more clearly one way or the other.  As far as adaptations go, time will tell how the Hulu series does.  I’m interested in how they will move the story along going forward and if they’ll answer the question I’ve been dying to know since I finished the book: What happened to Offred?

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The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood wasn’t on my to-be-read list until last year.  I had heard of it, but had no idea what it was about.  I still didn’t know what it was about when I decided I should read it, but it sold out when Donald Trump was elected president, and that made me curious.

It’s a dystopic novel about a theocracy taking over America.  As a handmaid, Offred isn’t allowed to go out alone, read, or possess anything except her strict uniform and her Pass.  When she does the shopping, another handmaid accompanies her and she passes over vouchers with pictures of food on them.  Once a month, she participates in a ceremony to impregnate her so she can be a surrogate for her Commander and his Wife.  The ceremony was inspired by the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 30, one of many scriptures the regime manipulated for their own purposes.

As she tells the story, Offred shares snippets of her life before: her husband Luke, her lost daughter, her feminist mother, and her friend Moira.  It was a time when she had her own job and family, when she could wear whatever clothes and make-up she wanted.  At first, it seems like a story set long ago, but with every detail it becomes clearer.  This isn’t the past for us, it’s the future.

One of the most powerful things Atwood does in this novel is to subvert the timeline.  By tossing us into the middle, she shows these rules and lifestyles as “normal.”  Only when Offred finally tells us when the change took place do we see how quickly it became so.

The women have little choice in the matter and are constantly told it is better this way.  “Look at how it was before,” they’re told.  “Women being raped and murdered all over the place.  This way protects you.”  Meanwhile, women who were actually raped are told they were to blame for it.

There is some resistance: an underground network and a rebel army.  But most people in Gilead are just trying to survive.  Except the Commanders, whose power allows them to flagrantly break rules with no consequence.

It is easy to read The Handmaid’s Tale thinking this could never happen, but the first step was to designate an entire group of people, legally, as second-class citizens.  And if we aren’t all free, none of us is truly free.  That includes our transgender brothers and sisters.

No one should feel like there is something wrong with them for existing.  Transgender people are not a burden.  And if we live in a country where this can happen, it isn’t truly the land of the free.  Don’t tell me it is when people with the bravery to serve are denied because of who they are.

If you choose to read this book, don’t start with the mindset that this could never happen to us.  Do not read it believing we have it easy because “things could be worse.”  If you read this book, do so with the realization that many women now are forced into abusive relationships or desperate lifestyles because of a power imbalance.  Realize how many people choose the military in an effort to escape poverty whether they feel called to it or not.  And realize how many people were just called a burden and not deserving of the chance to serve by the president of the United States.

Ordinary, as Aunt Lydia says, is what you are used to.  Let’s not let this become ordinary.

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Rise of the Isle of the Lost

If a movie is based on a book, the book will always be better.  It’s just a Rule.  So what about when a book is the prequel to a movie?

I always read the book first because it enables me to enjoy both, but I stay away from novelezations at all costs.  Melissa de la Cruz and Descendants managed to find a middle ground: a prequel novel that gave the movie context.  In that way, The Isle of the Lost prepared readers for what came next.  It gave an insight into the characters and their friendship that added layers to the final production.

The movie was a phenomena (despite its gaps in logic).  It was watched by so many people that the second (coming out Friday) is going to air on every channel the Disney corporation owns.  When I heard they were doing another book in between, Return to the Isle of the LostI wasn’t surprised.  I was even excited to see how our heroes fared being, well, the heroes.  And (if you read my post, you know) I hated it because it lacked the darkness and edge that made them Villain Kids.

Rise of the Isle of the Lost did a better job.  It shows Mal’s dark side and dependence on magic as well as the contrast between her and Evie.  It shows Carlos and his terror at the idea of returning to his abusive mother.  It shows Jay’s struggle between rogue and prince as he learns to channel his energy into a new sport instead of thievery.  Basically, if Return to the Isle of the Lost had never existed, this book would be perfect.

It shows every way the Villain Kids have changed and all the ways they haven’t, which is a fine and difficult line to walk in a sequel.

Knowing there were two books between the movies concerned me at first, at the first book (second total) didn’t help.  Reading the new book, however, eased my fears.  The second sets up the movie, especially Mal’s insecurities and Uma’s fury, but ends at a spot where someone could jump in without prior information and still understand what’s going on.

It’s a good book to read if you enjoyed Descendants and are looking forward to its sequel.  Give it a chance.  As sequels go, it’s definitely worthy of the title.

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Golden

I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes…I can’t help it.  I like books that are going to look good on my shelf.  Usually that’s something vintage, either leather-bound or with something beautiful on the cover.  This time it was a bound manuscript.

I wasn’t expecting Golden by Jessi Kirby to be anything spectacular.  Maybe it was the format or maybe it was the fact that I’ve been disillusioned with YA fiction in general.  Either way, I was wrong.  I read Golden at the beach and really enjoyed it.

Parker is about to graduate from high school, after having done everything just right, read: “whatever her mother told her to do.”  With the biggest accomplishment of her life to date looming ahead, it’s time to start thinking about the future and what she really wants.

The basic storyline is a typical YA motif: the coming of age and choosing your own life story.  There’s the dynamic best friend attempting to convince the main character to take more risks and the cute boy she could have at the snap of her fingers if she were ever brave enough to snap her fingers.  Pretty average stuff.  But under it all is a mystery that keeps the reader interested.

While trying to figure out where her future leads, Parker finds a journal from ten years ago, written by a girl whose life ended at the age Parker is at now.  Despite the stories about the girl’s perfect life, Parker sees the parallels and how easy it is to do what is expected of you.  As she unfolds the past, she starts to see the future more clearly.

If you’re looking for a YA book that has something different, this is the one.  It’s a fun, easy read with enough substance to keep you interested.  I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

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Brain on Fire

When asked to name their greatest fear, people can list anything: oblivion, dying alone, failure.  Heights, depths, sharks.  Clowns.  While I’m afraid of some of those things, my greatest fear isn’t so common.  My greatest fear is that I could, through some stroke of misfortune, lose the ability to read.

A lot of terrible things happen to Susannah Cahalan in Brain on Fire, many that are objectively worse but, to me, that was the scariest moment in the book.

Brain on Fire is a unique memoir in many ways.  In writing it, Cahalan documented her “month of madness,” from the minor personality lapses that were the first sign something was wrong to her recover as she fought to get her life back.  Most interestingly, there were long stretches of time where she lacked full consciousness.  With no recollection of her own to draw on, Cahalan instead relies on cryptic journal entries, spotty surveillance tapes, and other people’s partial accounts to piece her story together.  A typical memoir relies on distance in time to give it weight.  Her lack of recall gives Cahalan a different distance, putting her closer to her readers’ level.  This changes the tone: the reader is afraid for her though they know she’s right there.  The suspense gives them a reason to keep reading while the camaraderie gives them the courage to go on.

Her pacing encourages this tone.  The book is subtitled, “My Month of Madness,” but it feels longer as doctor after doctor fails to diagnose her.  Besides the fear of not know what was happening or how to fix it, she also shows frustration, especially as some physicians dismiss her concerns or doubt her answers to questions of drugs and drinking, answers that significantly affect their diagnosis.  Women face problems like this all the time and seeing the effect this can have in the face of a major crisis makes the story more personal.

From the beginning, it is clear to the reader that Susannah must get better.  It’s the only way she could have written the book.  But the journey Cahalan takes us on to get there is terrifying and long, while always allowing the reader hope and a good person to cling to.  Despite its horrors,  Brain on Fire is an enjoyable read and a reminder about all the good things in life.

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