Friday, September 30, 2011

September Reads

September coincided with "buy new books for the library" month, and I went on an absolute reading binge: fiction, non-fiction, juvenile, YA--whatever sounded good I took a gander at, to the tune of 39 books all told, leaving me at an even 230 books for the year so far. There's some really good stuff here, Like Lansdale's All the Dust, Thrown to the Sky and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. I've also decided that Susan Casey is edging into Mary Roach territory for me--must-reads. Oh, and those of you with a penchant for the odd and unsettling get your orders in now for Kafkaesque. So without further adieu, the list:

Atwood, Margaret Cat's Eye

A semi-famous artist returns to her hometown for a retrospective and remembers her childhood as tormented and tormenter and how it influenced her art. Atwood is awesome, and I love the interplay between the descriptions of the paintings (which we can interpret just fine, being privy to the author's thoughts, memories, and actions) and the interpretations hung on the paintings by others, who, of course, see what they want to see.

Barnhill, Kelly The Mostly True Story of Jack

Jack is ignored by everybody: teachers, strangers, family. He's so ignored he's practically invisible. But when his parents split up, he's sent to live with his aunt and uncle, and suddenly people are paying attention to him: his aunt and uncle actually talk to him, kids want to be his friend, and he even gets beaten up by a bully. There are strange goings-on in this town, and Jack is right in the middle of it. Well-written, engaging, and Jack is an awesome character (as is Wendy).

Beauman, Ned Boxer Beetle

What do you get when you combine a closeted “gentleman entomologist” with a passion for eugenics & a man-crush on Hitler, a violent alcoholic boxer (also gay) who's almost completely controlled by his id, a group of effete, squabbling fascists, a vicious gangster, & a beetle built to be nigh-invulnerable? One of the oddest books I've ever read. It's funny (in some places hilarious) and horrifying all at once in that peculiar British humor tradition where truly awful things happen to people, but it's funny instead of sad because they're awful people.

Casey, Susan The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Casey's account of huge waves, their unpredictability, their destructive power, and the quest to surf a 100-foot wave is absolutely unputdownable. She has a remarkable way of making everything fascinating. Awesome.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 01: Marked

Vampyres have always existed. They are not created by being bitten, they simply are, and as teens they are “marked,” physically and societally and separated to begin their education, which not all of them survive. Zoey Redbird is not just marked, but chosen by Nyx, the Goddess of Night. Marked is the story of Zoey's being chosen and of her life adjusting to her new self in a new school. Who knew vampire schools had Heathers?

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 02: Betrayed

Beginning immediately after book 01, Zoey is still trying to organize the Dark Daughters, avoid her human ex-boyfriend who may or may not be imprinted, and pining for her almost-boyfriend Eric, who's away at a contest. Then human boys start disappearing and are found dead drained of blood, causing suspicion to fall on the vampires in general & Zoey in particular, as she knew them. In the middle of all this, a teacher seemingly hits on her, a friend is sick, her grandmother is in danger, and something is off with her mentor, the High Priestess Neferet. There's a lot of story packed into this relatively small book.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 03: Chosen

Zoey is trying to do the right thing, but it all turns out wrong. By keeping secrets to protect her friends, she ends up turning the away from her just when she needs them most. She also dithers on deciding between the boys who like her, makes some truly horrible choices, and ends up all alone. Although you often want to pinch her little head right off, Zoey is so fundamentally likeable that you end up rooting for her, even when she's being bone stupid. Kudos to the Casts for a truly great character.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 04: Untamed

Zoey's trying to win her friends back because of a vision of her death that leads to a horrible human/vampire war. She makes progress, but things still go all to hell by the end of this book. Again, Zoey is awesome, and for such a dark book, I laughed out loud more than once. Excellent.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 05: Hunted

Living in the tunnels with the red fledgelings, Zoey and her friends try to deal with Neferet and Kalona. Aphrodite is convinced that Stevie Ray is hiding something about the red fledgelings. Erik is being a possessive butthead again, and Stark has reawakened as a red fledgeling and is working with Neferet and Kalona, who are pretending to be the incarnation of Nyx and Erebus. Lots of action and intrigue, leading to a climactic showdown with the evil Neferet and her consort Kalona.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 06: Tempted

Kalona and Neferet have been temporarily banished, but Kalona is still connected to Zoey in her dreams. Heath is back, re-Imprinted stronger than ever, Erik's still around, and now there's Stark, the red fledgeling archer who's so connected to Zoey he can sense her emotions. Stevie Ray is definitely hiding something about the red fledgelings, and now everyone except Stevie Ray has to go to Italy to attend the Vampyre Council with Neferet & Kalona, where something so terrible happens that it literally shatters Zoey's soul.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 07: Burned

Stevie Ray has saved an injured Raven Mocker and can't tell anyone. Zoey and the pieces of her shattered soul are in the Otherworld with Heath. Stark undertakes a deadly journey to try to help Zoey mend herself & also to protect her from Kalona, who Neferet Has sent to kill Zoey. Lots of intrigue and lots of hard choices as everyone (except Neferet) tries to make the right choices.

Cast, P.C. & Kristin Cast House of Night 08: Awakened

Zoey is back together, Heath has moved on in the Otherworld, and Zoey & Stark are now together. Stevie Ray has grown close to Rephaim, but still keeps him a secret from her friends. Neferet has fooled the council into thinking she was under Kalona's sway, but now she's better, so she returns to Tulsa where her first act is unspeakably evil. Zoey and her friends return to try to take back their home, but Neferet is able to twist the homecoming, leaving Zoey & friends to depart the school to make their own way in the tunnels. Again, excellent characters, and no matter how tragic, you'll still laugh out loud more than once.

Collins, Suzanne The Hunger Games

Oh. My. Dog. What am I paying you people for if it's not to insist that I read books this good? All the hype and popularity is well-deserved in this gritty tale of institutionalized cruelty and the teens forced to fight each other for everyone's amusement. You will never forget Katniss Everdeen.

Collins, Suzanne Catching Fire

Katniss has unwittingly become a symbol of rebellion, and her punishment is a return to the Hunger Games along with a slate of other former winners, including Peeta. Dark, depressing, and cruel to be sure, but there are lessons of compassion and honor as well. Katniss, taught from a very early age to make hard decisions, is torn between what she wants and what she has to do to make that happen. Incredible characters and an awesome story.

Collins, Suzanne Mockingjay

Now there's a full-scale rebellion and the rebels want Katniss to be their symbol and rallying point. Peeta is in the hands of the government, calling for Katniss to stand down. Gale's hatred for what the Capitol has done to his people leads him to create ever crueler weapons, and Katniss is slowly realizing that people who resort to inhuman acts to push their agenda are all alike, no matter what their politics.

Cook, Kevin Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything

Titanic Thompson was not just “Runyonesque”--he's the guy Sky Masterson was based on. His life was full of card sharps, hustlers, and gangsters, and it's utterly fascinating.

Crowell, Rodney Chinaberry Sidewalks

Country singer/songwriter Crowell's book is less an autobiography than a study of his parent's turbulent and sometimes violent realtionship and the effect said relationship had on them and on him. There's some terrific detail, and by the end you're encouraged to come to the same peace with these fierce, proud, volatile folks as Crowell did.

Datlow, Ellen Blood and Other Cravings

Datlow's new anthology involves vampires, but makes the point that not all vampires feed on blood. A Datlow anthology is always first rate, and this is no exception. Favorites include "baskerville's Midgets" by Reggie Oliver, "Sweet Sorrow" by Barbara Roden and Carol Emshwiller's "Mrs. Jones."

Feynman, Richard Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Less an autobiography than a manic guy telling stories at a party, Feynman is alternately completely, hilariously fascinating and something of a jerk. It's great to experience his personality first-hand, as it were, but there's not enough contextual detail to really make it stick.

Gangi, Tony Carny Sideshows

Always fascinated with sideshows, Gangi decides to attend the classes offered by the Coney Island sideshow to learn such skills as how to drive a nail your nose, how to lay on a bed of nails, and how to eat fire. Interspersed with his account of learning his new skills (and believe me, no 12-year old boy could be giddier than Gangi about sticking a nail up his nose) are interviews with sideshow folk and a bit of the history of the sideshow, its acts, and its performers.

Kessel, John and James Patrick Kelly Kafkaesque

Co-editors Kessel & James Patrick Kelly have put together a winner: an homage to a very singular writer that's more than one slick pastiche after another. The stories gathered here do manage to evoke Kafka, whether directly by featuring him as a character or riffing on a particular story or indirectly by capturing that mood that is distinctly Kafkaesque. Many favorite stories, including “The Jackdaw's Last Case” by Paul di Fillipo, “Report to the Men's Club” by Carol Emshwiller, & “Bright Morning” by Jeffrey Ford. Highly recommended.

Keyes, Ralph Euphemania

Keyes looks at our fascination with euphemism through the ages and argue that the kinds of things that we create euphemisms for can tell a lot about the society that created them.

Lansdale, Joe R. All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky

The Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the 30s is no place to be. After Jack's mother dies and his father hangs himself, Jack hooks up with Jane & Tony, two other abandoned kids and tries to make to to East Texas to find Jane & Tony's relatives. It's a fast-moving story, with gangsters, crooked lawmen, kind widow-ladies, and carny-folk, but all of that pales once you meet Jane: smart, stubborn, clear-headed, good-hearted, and as gifted a liar as ever came down the pike. It's Jack's story, but just like him, once Jane comes along you'd follow her anywhere.

Lansdale, Joe R. Flaming Zeppelins

Two of Lansdale's alt-history mash-ups together in one package. Book one, "Zeppelin's West," tells the tale of Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, & the living head of Buffalo Bill Cody (it's kept alive in a jar), the Wild West show, a zeppelin crash, Frankenstein's monster, Captain Nemo, & the wildest version of the Island of Dr. Moreau you're ever likely to see. Book two, "Flaming London," involves Ned the Seal (a talking seal we met in the previous adventure), Mark Twain, Jules Verne, the Flying Dutchman, invaders from Mars, and H.G. Wells himself. Funny, fast-moving, & profane, these books are some of the most enjoyable time I've spent reading.

Lansdale, Joe R. Hyenas

A Hap & Leonard novella along with a short story featuring a teen-age Hap Collins. The novella is pure Hap & Leonard—Leonard's been in a bar fight (the other guys started it) and beaten 3 men bloody (one's had his head pushed through the men's room wall and is still dangling there). Nobody presses charges, but one of the guys tries to hire Leonard to scare his little brother (who's fallen in with a bunch of bank robbers) straight. Hap & Leonard feel sorry for the guy and decide to try, but of course, everything goes wrong in true Hap & Leonard fashion. I really love those guys.

Lansdale, Joe R. Unchained and Unhinged

A collection of Lansdale's columns for Subterranean & some short stories. As fun as reading a Lansdale story is, reading his non-fiction is even moreso. His voice is unmistakeable, a good ol' East Texas drawl that was made for telling stories. You might not agree with what he has to say, but it sure is fun to hear him say it.

Maney, Mabel Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy

Maney, author of some parodies featuring Nancy Clue and the Hardly Boys, takes on James Bond. In this light-hearted romp, James Bond is a drunken cad who's been institutionalized for enforced “rest.” When the Queen wants to give him a medal, Bond's masters enlist the aid of his lesbian twin sister Jane to keep the Queen (and everyone else) from finding out Bond's not well. Jane's not much like her famous brother, except, of course, for her fondness for young women, and her adventures as a reluctant spy are quite funny.

McMann, Lisa The Unwanteds

Quill's society is very rigid: the Wanteds are strong and smart & hold privileged positions, the Necessaries are exactly that—necessary for the labor to keep the Wanteds in power, and the Unwanteds, who are all creative. Every year comes the Purge, where all Unwanteds are put to death. Aaron is a Wanted; his twin Alex is Unwanted. When Alex is Purged, he discovers the secret: all the Unwanteds have been saved by a powerful mage, who has created a perfect land for them to fulfill their creativity and grow. Naturally, conflict ensues. Some interesting stuff here, but a bit too one-sided and didactic for me.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo The King's Gold

Upon his return from Flanders, Captain Alatriste and Inigo are hired to steal some gold. The gold technically belongs to the King, but it is undeclared and being smuggled into the country. Of course, this job runs them afoul of old enemies, and of course, things don't go quite according to plan. It has been fun watching Inigo grow up, but I sincerely hope we will soon actually get to see some of the adventures he refers to in his reports. The books are quick, but I'm beginning to want more.

Roberson, Chris Iron Jaw and Hummingbird

Set in Roberson's Celestial Empire, a world where China never turned inward and so went on to be one of the Earth's dominant empires, Iron Jaw & Hummingbird is the tale of two young people, one a child of the streets, one a child of privilege, who together form a rebel army to topple the governor of Mars. It's got action and adventure aplenty, but what really shines for me is the detail of Roberson's world.

Rothfuss, Patrick The Wise Man's Fear

As irritating as the wait for book two was (and I had it a lot lighter than most), it really was worth the wait: huge and detailed with great description and fabulous characters that truly come alive. Talented and hot-headed, the young Kvothe is cunning, clever, naive, and occasionally bone stupid. We get a front row seat on how both his talents and his flaws came together to create a legend. Unbelievably awesome.

Selznick, Brian Wonderstruck

The stories of Ben, a young boy in Minnesota in 1977 (told in words) and Rose, a young girl in New Jersey in 1927 (told in pictures) converge in unexpected ways involving New York City, a bookstore, The Museum of Natural History, and a book called Wonderstruck. Selznick is a wonderful storyteller no matter what medium he's using, and he can make you feel every ounce of hurt or terror or wonder that his characters are experiencing.

Stiefvater, Maggie Forever

Book 3 in Stiefvater's werewolf trilogy brings a nice conclusion. It's not up to book one, but it's better than book two.

Tremlett, Giles Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain & Its Silent Past

British journalist Tremlett, a long-time resident of Spain, looks through Spanish history for clues to understand the Spanish people and why they think and act the way they do. It's a very general overview, and shifts between history and current times, but it's an interesting intro and piques the interest for more detailed explorations.

Vordak the Incomprehensible Rule the School

Since no one used his first book to step up and rule the world, Vordak has unretired to get rid of Commander Virtue once and for all. Unfortunately, a slight problem has left him 12 years old and in middle school. Hilarious misadventures just begging to be read aloud.

Walker, Brian Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau

A lovely retrospective and history of Doonsebury, with some fun biography on Trudeau and some surprising insight on how the comic strip works.

Willingham, Bill Down the Mysterly River

Max the Wolf, intrepid Boy Scout and Bot Detective, comes to with only hazy memories of how he might have gotten to the woods he finds himself in. While trying to figure out what might have happened, he meets a talking badger named Banderbrock. They are both attacked by someone who seems to know who they are and who holds a glowing blue sword that can do amazing things. They escape and along the way meet up with an ugly and irritable yellow tomcat who calls himself MacTavish and a not-too-bright but goodhearted bear named Walden, who fancies himself a sheriff. Still pursued by the Blue Cutters, Max & his gang make their way towards the Wizard Swift to try and solve the mystery of how they all got there. Lots of fun, a ton of humor, and a genuine sweet, gooey heart in Walden the Bear.

Wilson, Edward O. Kingdom of Ants: Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World

A small monograph of Jose Celestino Mutis and his contributions to the study of ants in Central & South America and how that pioneering study shaped how natural history was studied.

Yancey, Rick The Monstrumologist

The Mostrumologist purports to be the journals of Will Henry, born in the late 1800s, orphaned, and taken in by his father's employer, a monstrumologist (one who studies monsters). This well-writen story is dark and disturbing not just for the gory stuff (and there's plenty of gory stuff), but for the character of the monstrumologist himself, a man so self-absorbed he seems incapable of noticing that 12-year old Will is actually a person. The doctor is, indeed monstrous (although not the most monstrous thing you'll run into here), but Yancey manages to make him an object of humor and of pity, too. Well done!

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