Speed Reading

The world is full of so much bad news lately that retreating into the world of entertainment and pop culture is one of my few respites. One of the best ways to avoid hearing about...well, absolutely anything going on around you, is to stick your nose into a book. My last post about my current reading list was way back in March, but I haven't been avoiding the library. Far from it! So let's dive into these lifesavers that have been able to keep me from going completely insane.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015)

Let's get the worst thing about this book out of the way first: It's got a bad title that doesn't relate strongly enough with the story to justify its use. But please don't let that put you off, because this is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta. This book is about sixteen-year old Simon, a closeted gay teen who doesn't belong to a popular clique, but neither is he an isolated loner. He just keeps to his small circle of friends. (Gee, I wonder why I relate so much to this book, huh?) Simon begins to email with a mystery boy at his school, and the two begin to get closer and closer, while still being unsure of the other's identity. When one of Simon's emails is discovered by a classmate who indulges in some mild blackmail to get Simon's help with his own dating life, the situation becomes a lot more tenuous. I'm always mildly surprised when I enjoy a YA book this much, but given that I had similar experiences to Simon in high school (minus the hot mystery boyfriend), I suppose it's understandable. I'm not sure if someone who couldn't relate as much to the character would enjoy the book as much as I did, but it was definitely a highlight of my reading year.

The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014)

If there's one thing that disappoints more reliably than other flaws, it's a book with an excellent premise that collapses in the execution. It just makes me think about what could have been. The Eighth Day is the first book in a series that explores an intriguing possibility: What if there were some people who experience time differently than the rest of us. They get an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday while the rest of us jump right over it. Not only that, there are other people who live exclusively in this extra day, so a great deal of the population just seem to disappear each week. Sounds like rich material for a series, right? Unfortunately, the story veers into deeply silly territory having to do with Arthurian lineage and an out-of-nowhere apocalyptic plot to destroy the seven-day world. It's an eminently readable book, and doesn't have any issues with structure or anything like that. It just has nothing interesting to say. It's disappointing that such a promising idea landed with such a thud, but there's no way I'll be continuing with the series.

Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015)

Speaking of series that I'm dropping after the first entry, here's another one. This one was slightly better, though, coming off as a slightly less-dry version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Zacharias Wythe is a freed slave who apprentices with the Sorceror Royal of Great Britain, and who later attains the same position. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the staid, white magicians who make up the majority of magical society. Part of Zacharias' duty is to undertake the task of figuring out why magic is drying up in the land, and along the way, he meets Prunella, a young lady with some remarkable gifts of her own. It could be a ripping story, but unfortunately proceeds in too slow and plodding a fashion. As a stand-alone book, it's not bad, but as the kickoff to a series, it's a slight letdown.

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011)

Let's round out the disappointments with the biggest one of all. Proof that being popular doesn't always mean a book will hold your attention, Swamplandia! was so stupefyingly boring that I almost couldn't get through it. At first, it appears to be about the diminishing fortunes of an alligator wrestling-themed attraction in the Florida swamplands, and how the family that runs it responds to its flagging popularity. But once the tourists stop visiting, the family splits off into separate directions, and the book follows each of them. To be fair, the third of the book that focuses on the protagonist Ava Bigtree's brother Kiwi is quite decent. So, 33% credit! Unfortunately, the third that focuses on Ava herself - as well as the portion that follows the spiritual romance her sister Ophelia pursues with a local ghost - are the world's greatest cures for insomnia. I somehow managed to drag myself to the finish line on this one, but the best part about reading Swamplandia! was the part where I got to give it back to its owner.

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015)

I needed a palate cleanser after that one, and luckily, Sloane Crosley was there for me. I've liked her previous books of essays, so I was excited to give her first fiction a whirl. College friends Kezia, Nathaniel, and Victor reunite at the wedding of a mutual acquaintance. They have a complicated romantic past with each other, and their lives have been proceeding in wildly different directions, and with varying degrees of success. Sad-sack Victor passes out in a bedroom, where he is discovered by the groom's mother, who tells him the story of a lost heirloom. Adrift in his life, Victor decides to track it down. Kezia has issues with a controlling boss, and Nathaniel is trying to establish himself in the dog-eat-dog world of entertainment. Victor's quest eventually wraps them all up, and forces them to re-examine both their own choices and their relationships to one another. This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015)

This one's tough to grade, because as a compendium of the historical record of cookbooks inspired by and written by African-American authors, it's excellent. But being good reference material and being a good book to read are two vastly different things. Tipton-Martin does the food world a service in putting these cooks and nutritional pioneers center stage, as so many of their achievements were either ignored, or the credit stolen from them. If this book had focused on the early days of African-American cooking, and how we should celebrate talent and intelligence over the cultural insensitivity of the Magical Black Woman Who Instinctively Knows the Secrets of Home Cooking, I think I'd have liked it even more. It does go into that, but after a while, morphs into more of a rote almanac, which is kind of a shame. Anyone who's interested in the world of food will find a lot of the information in this book fascinating, but it's more valuable as an informational resource than as a reading experience.

Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (2016)

Hey, it's a YA novel about a teenager who just doesn't fit in at school! Finally! I mentioned up in the Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda entry how hard it is to write a realistic, unannoying teenager, and here's proof, as the eponymous Scarlett is both somewhat unrealistic (a perfectly normal-looking, intelligent girl with no friends) and somewhat annoying (simultaneously insecure and snobby). Scarlett spends her free time writing fanfiction about her favorite supernatural TV show, and when it is canceled, she tries her hand at writing fictionalized stories transparently based on the people around her at school, instead. Naturally, this leads to complications. It's not a bad book by any means, but did have me rolling my eyes a fair amount. It can be challenging to enjoy a book with an unrelatable protagonist, but with a fairly decent plot, this book manages to rescue itself from its less-successful elements.

Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (2016)

As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? Plus, I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway! The book follows three characters: Cliff (a privileged editor's son with a healthy ego about his own prospects), Eden (a secretary who attempts to rise above the obstacles sexism and jealousy pose while trying to become an editor), and Miles (an African-American writer with plenty of talent, but who's struggling with his romantic life and his father's past). The three of them become entangled with each other and the challenges of making it in such a competitive field, having to make tough choices and sacrifices along the way. It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015)

I don't watch The Mindy Project, but since I liked Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? so much, I wasn't about to pass up Mindy Kaling's second book of essays. It gave me plenty of chuckles, and was the perfect book to read on a plane ride. She always seems to be really good at straddling the line between gossiping about the celebrity life and being a well-adjusted, normal person. In this book, she dishes on a lot of the aspects of being famous-but-not-that-famous and about Hollywood's crazy standards. It wasn't as great as her first book, but it was still a lot of fun.

The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015)

What is it about seeing rich, white, Northeastern, upper-class families fall apart that appeals to me so much? Whatever the allure is, I was definitely drawn to this book about...well, exactly that kind of family. The Somners are a wealthy family, but the money and power mostly lie with matriarch Cecelia, who finds herself battling a rare disease. As she attempts to maintain her high standards while dealing with the inconveniences of ill health, her son George starts to flounder without her around for support. It starts off as a really engaging story, but takes some less interesting turns, culminating in a very poor plot twist that threatens to derail the whole thing. Overall, it was still worth the read, but its flaws are pretty glaring.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda: A
The Eighth Day: C
Sorcerer to the Crown: B-
Swamplandia!: C-
The Clasp: B+
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks: B-
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: B-
Three-Martini Lunch: B
Why Not Me?: B
The Unfortunates: B-


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