Mirror, Mirror, On the Hook, How Much Critical Race Theory Can You Fit in One Book?

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Reading Challenge: A Book Based on a Fairy Tale

The last time I read a book by Helen Oyeyemi (that time it was “Mr. Fox”), my review was one sentence long: “I have no idea what I just read, but I liked it.” I think she has that effect as an author. You’ll come out of the book knowing there was definitely more in there than you got, but you did notice the themes and enjoyed it, so you don’t really mind.

“Boy, Snow, Bird” is about the construction of race and gender in mid-twentieth century Massachusetts. It’s a retelling of Snow White, and there’s a lot about mirrors.  It’s about families. It’s one of those books told by different narrators along the way, and in the first part, I couldn’t help noticing this was another work of literary fiction where the reader can’t be sure if the narrator is insane, or simply living in a work of symbolism. Raise your hand if you think “psychotic disorder or magical realism?” should be a literary genre.

But if you’re willing to stick it out through Boy’s narration (which is not bad, by the way, it just may push some of your buttons if, like me, you think literary fiction has its own version of the conventions and types that genre fiction is known for, it just won’t admit it), you get to Bird’s section. And Bird is…Bird is awesome, actually. She is a note-perfect 13 year-old, wise, precocious, nosy and imaginative. In a book full of symbolism and things you aren’t sure are real, Bird practically walks off the page. I think she’s delightful, although she’s real enough that you know she’d drive you just a little nuts if she was actually in your life.

Actually, maybe she is in your life. Maybe you’re in a book right now. Do you reflect in mirrors consistently? Go check. I’ll wait.

Suggested pairing: hard cider, obviously. If you’re in New England and can get it, I recommend Citizen Cider as the top choice of all the cider fans I know.

 

Here Be Robots

Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Reading Challenge: “A Science-Fiction Novel”

You should probably read this book. It’s not like anything else you’ve ever read, but at the same time it’s like a lot of things you’ve read. It’s a film noir, complete with scrappy PI; it’s a political thriller with gangsters and politicians equally corrupt; it’s a robot revolution. It’s kind of like Blade Runner in a steampunk 1960s. And did I mention it takes place in Antarctica?

Noir really was the main impression this book left with me, and in spite of it being pretty cinematic, I kind of hope they never make it into a movie. Not now. Diego could have been played by Alan Ladd, Marianella by Veronica Lake. Sofia, the beautiful robot, could have been Grace Kelly (I know I’m mixing my eras here, but it doesn’t matter in fantasy casting). Lauren Bacall would’ve made a good Eliana, and Luciano strikes me as a young Paul Newman. It’s an easy book to fantasy cast because of the types and because of the type of story.

This is not a perfect book, and I warn you now: I’m feeling pretty comprehensive at the moment so there are spoilers ahead.

Most of my complaints are character-related. In spite of being the person with the biggest changes in her character arc, Marianella was weirdly uninteresting. I couldn’t quite figure it out. She was kind of bland, even when wrestling with some very complex issues. I also didn’t understand her religion. She seemed to be the only character, not just of the main characters but in the entire world, who was religious. There was never any explanation, implicit or explicit, why. “Sacrilege” was dropped as a term a few times, not just by her, but it seemed out of place. Overall Hope City appeared to be a very secular society. It was puzzling, especially given the title of the book.

Diego’s perspective, meanwhile, was much worse. There was no depth to it. I was actually waiting for the surprise twist that Diego was an android, because his main character trait was that he had been programmed for loyalty. When (AND HERE BE SPOILERS, FOLKS) he ran into the conflict between his boss Cabrera and his girlfriend Eliana, his only thought basically boiled down to “this sucks.” There was no denial, no thinking about a way he could reconcile the conflict, absolutely zero insight, not a second questioning his loyalty to his boss even though we already know he doesn’t like the things he has to do for Cabrera. That whole chapter was essentially “I don’t like this – oh no, an explosion!” and that was the last we heard from him directly. I really question what purpose it served including his perspective, other than to establish that humans are also programmable if you really think about it. I was always much more interested in Eliana, Sofia, and Luciano (whose perspective we never got, and I was sorry about that).

The overarching plot probably wasn’t great, but there were two things that were: one, more interesting than great, was that the narrative took a very neutral perspective on the android/human conflict. Oddly neutral. It was an interesting choice to make. And two, there were some great scenes. Really great scenes. The Last Night celebration. The gala. Sofia’s reprogramming. The attack on Cabrera’s headquarters (bonus points for double intensity). The rainstorm. Those are scenes that are going to stay with me, even if I forget about the political maneuvering.

So, basically: it’s a good book, not perfect, but unique and interesting and certainly engaging. You should probably go read it.

Suggested pairing: Obviously, something cold weather-appropriate. I suggest Irish coffee, in honor of Eliana’s coffee drinking habits. A porter or a chocolate stout would also be good.

She chose poorly

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Reading Challenge: “A Dystopian Novel”

This is the first book I’ve read for the reading challenge, as opposed to reading something I’ve been wanting to read and then finding the category it fit into. And here is why I selected (hurr hurr) The Selection. I had to read a dystopia. I don’t like dystopias. If you ask me, there’s enough that’s grim and disturbing about real life as it is. I’m already worried about climate change and the election and Russia and mass shootings and shit. I do not need to see the dire possibilities explored in fiction. So I thought, hmm, this book looks like it has the mildest dystopia I’ve ever seen. It’s not really my kind of book, but I’ll give it all the breaks. I will keep my expectations low. Besides, I like princess things and romance. I wrote my own princess contest story back when I was 17, and THAT turned out okay. In mine, the heroine didn’t want to win either, taught the other princesses how to play baseball and convinced them to follow their dreams instead of competing for the prince, and helped the prince run away with his true love, who was a guy. No, it was not great literature, but I had fun with it, so I know there are good things you can do with this concept. I will give this book a shot.

It was a bad idea.

If you don’t want to read me rambling on about how much I disliked this book, just know that it all adds up to this: I’m pretty sure the author read The Hunger Games and said “Good books – but what if it were The Bachelor instead of a fight to the death?” That’s it. That’s the book.

My first hint that this was going to be a lot worse than I anticipated was when I realized the castes of this dystopian society were named – are you ready? – One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven and Eight. Part of me was grateful I didn’t have to learn a bunch of names. Part of me was laughing at the absurd laziness of it.

Then the heroine just wouldn’t shut up about how she wasn’t pretty, you guys, can everyone stop telling me how beautiful I am? Followed, I might add, with her looking at a potential rival later and thinking “I suppose she’s pretty, but she doesn’t look like me at all.” I’ll just leave that there for you to ponder and draw your own conclusions.

I was feeling a little uncertain about the writing already. It wasn’t, like, E.L. James bad, but it was pretty bad. Then I got to this line (p. 17): “The gritty sound of his voice pushed out every other thought.” Maybe this is a regional thing, but I’ve never heard of a gritty voice before (let alone that it’s a sexy thing). What is a gritty voice? I pondered this with my husband, who suggested that maybe a gritty voice is that of a used car salesman who smokes too much. It’s as good a theory as any.

So, all of this having happened already, I knew I was probably in for a rough ride with this book, and boy, was I right. The heroine was a jerk with approximately zero insight into her own or anyone else’s feelings 90% of the time, her boy back home was a whiny asshole and the prince I’m pretty sure was a robot. Wait, let me correct: I was really, really hoping the prince was a robot. This would have been a much more interesting book if so.

The society pretty much existed to give us this story, with a few vague gestures at relevance filled in here or there. There are some mysterious rebels who for some reason hate these nice royal people who are at the top of a crazily divided society. But the two things that were utterly unaddressed but worried me the whole time were as follows: 1) Why is everyone in this dystopia white? Now, granted, there were characters who weren’t described and might conceivably have been people of color, but there was no variety in naming or physical description that suggested anyone wasn’t white. What terrifying, horrific tragedy wiped out all the non-white people in your world and why didn’t you mention it? 2) What happened during the fictional world wars and after to create a brand-new society where women are such second-class citizens? Really, the misogyny got me more than anything except the crappy writing (priorities). A woman’s sole power lay in her sexuality – premarital nookie is punishable by death, apparently, and the heroine pretty constantly rates everyone’s attractiveness. The evil girl wears too much makeup and is predatory and ambitious, to the point of psychosis. A man has to be the provider for the household and women become whatever caste the man they marry belongs to. Plus birth control is a privilege reserved for the upper classes.

My God. This is what we get if Ted Cruz wins in 2016. Kiera Cass is a prophet of doom. I didn’t realize.

Can we also stop with this trend of young adult novels where the heroine wins things more or less by accident? Give me more like The Assassin’s Curse or Leviathan where the heroine is confident and ambitious, please. Ambition is not a crime, although you’d never know it by how some of these books are.

There were things to not hate about this book. America (shudder, that name) had some pretty good relationships with women, trying to make friends in the contest rather than automatically hating them all. Some of the best dialogue, I thought, was between her and her friend Marlee. Particularly one conversation they had about the prince sounded to me like real teenage girls talking about a boy. The book moved quickly. It made enough of an impression on me that I went ahead and finished the damn thing, and also bothered to write this lengthy rant.

There were many, many problems with this book, but the last one I’ll mention is that it features a heroine entering a contest she doesn’t want to enter, a heroine with a little sister she adores. She gets a makeover from some guy who respects her choices and works with her personality. She loves the food at the contest because she’s gone hungry before. It’s a world that divides people with numbers, where the smaller numbers are the more privileged. There’s an MC personality, oh, and he’s wearing this interesting pin. Now, where have I heard that before?

So, yes, I picked up a book I thought I would probably not really enjoy, and turned out to be right beyond my wildest dreams. Partly, I asked for this, and maybe that made me a little hard on it. But Kiera Cass doesn’t need my approval: the series (yes, it’s a series) is wicked popular and I think just got made into a TV miniseries on the CW. Pretty good for a book that’s just The Hunger Games remade as “The Bachelor.”

Suggested pairing: for those of you who actually enjoyed the book, champagne. Crappy peach champagne, for you deserve no better.

For the rest of us, tequila shots.

In which I get lazy already

The Unadulterated Cat by Terry Pratchett and Gray Joliffe

Reading Challenge: “A Book That’s Under 150 Pages.”

If you run across a review that’s almost exactly this thing on Goodreads, just know that it’s me, plagiarizing myself. This is a very small book, and there’s only so much to say about it. It’s about cats. Real cats.

This book was introduced to me by friends with the words “we have a surprise Pratchett you’re going to love.” It’s for people who have cats (these two friends don’t, but are our cat-sitters and enjoy our asshole cat more than seems probable for anyone who isn’t his Cat Parent). I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t into cats enjoying it, but all cat owners are probably going to read it, giggle a lot, and come away with the sure knowledge that their cat is a Real Cat. Granted, most of the examples are country Real Cats, as opposed to the city-dwelling kind, but yeah.

The cat personality is captured beautifully by Sir Terry, as if we didn’t already know, from how he wrote Greebo and You, that he was a cat-loving kind of guy. The whole thing is delightful and takes very little time, but I also have to call out the bit about the tortoise as especially hilarious. Pratchett + tortoises is always a good time (see also Small Gods and that essay he wrote about his process writing Small Gods). Pratchett + cats, ditto.

Suggested Pairing: ginger ale. This is a kid’s book, you monster. Plus, it’s such a quick read, so if you like to savor your booze, you will truly be done with the book before you’re done with your drink. Make it ginger ale and give your liver a rest.

Sir Terry

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Reading challenge: “A Satirical Book”

One of the things you should know about me is that Terry Pratchett is my favorite. His best books grab me, turn me inside out, make me rethink everything I know about humanity, reaffirm my decision to go to social work school, and make me feel a million different emotions. He did amazing things with war, Shakespeare, consumerism, fairy tales, religion, gender, racism, class, DEATH and the conventions of literature. He perfected the footnote. He used puns like nobody else. He died too young, and is missed.

This isn’t one of the inside-out-turning, million-different-emotions books. It just doesn’t quite reach that level of transcendence. Oh, don’t get me wrong, though. It’s still good. It’s still wildly entertaining. And you should read it.

Making Money follows the further adventures of the unfortunately/brilliantly-named Moist von Lipwig, the protagonist of Going Postal. This time the focus of the satire is the banking industry, which is certainly open to satire. The best part of this for me is the Glooper, run by a slightly mad young man named Hubert and his faithful Igor (the Igors are a whole race of people in Pratchett, and they’re amazing). These are among the new characters we’re introduced to: there’s also the Lavish family, the mysterious and uptight Mr. Bent, his chief clerk Miss Drapes, Owlswick Jenkins (who illustrates a point about the nature of artists that, in spite of being fairly obvious, is very entertaining in its execution), the not-actually-alive Professor Flead and of course, Mr. Fusspot (the dog). Characters from previous books are back, including of course Moist, his love interest the chain-smoking Golem ally Adora Belle Dearheart, Lord Vetinari, Commander Vimes, intrepid reporter Sacharissa Cripslock, Gladys the Golem and more. Gladys, whose appearances are frequent but largely brief, probably has the most interesting character arc of any of the characters. I’d say more but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

It moves quickly, is entertaining, and overall is very solid Pratchett. I probably wouldn’t start with this one if you’re new to Discworld (I recommend The Wee Free Men, Guards, Guards, or Wyrd Sisters as all good starting points), but if you aren’t, read and enjoy.

Suggested Pairing: gin & tonic.

An Introduction, and some Ian Rankin

Greetings! As it states in the “About,” I decided that one of the ways to keep myself sane for the remainder of my grad school career was to do a blog about books, which I love, and drinking, which I also love only more moderately (this is probably healthy). I went from inspiration to putting on the coffee, pulling up WordPress, and sitting down with my trusty laptop Dax in the space of 5 minutes, so it’s not as if I thought this through carefully. So we will see what happens.

I know this isn’t a brand new idea (a quick Google turned up a number of other lists of books-and-booze, mostly from 2011 for some reason. What was going on that year?). However, I am doing this reading challenge so it’s going to be an interesting assortment of books, which will lead in turn to an interesting assortment of drinks.

So! That’s taken care of, let’s move on to the books.

The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin

My first book of the New Year fulfilled the “A Murder Mystery” item on the challenge. It’s a collection of short stories featuring Rankin’s detective John Rebus, who has so far been the focus of 20 novels. I’ve read probably half of the novels, which are largely dark, intense, and feature an abrupt denouement. They are set in Scotland, in Edinburgh for the most part but with side trips from time to time. Rebus is the central character and boy, is he ever central: he’s kind of a selfish bastard, but you do feel for him. Everyone around him gets frustrated with him, even his colleague (or protegee, depending on which book you’re reading) Siobhan Clarke.

The novels are extremely engaging, or at least I find them that way. They want to be devoured in one sitting, which is difficult because they also tend to be in the 350-400 page range. The short stories are also engaging, and the good news is that they can in fact be finished fairly quickly. There are TWO featuring Santa Claus (I can only assume written originally for inclusion in some kind of mystery holiday anthology) and one that occurs at Hogmanay, New Year’s Eve. The New Year’s Eve story, “Auld Lang Syne,” is for me the best of the bunch, perfectly paced and – well, atmospheric, although I hate to use the word. Some of the stories are on the lighter side for Rebus, such as “Monstrous Trumpet” (which I liked in spite of its flirtation with Straw Feminism). Overall, I enjoyed the whole thing, which I can’t say about many short story collections. I’d recommend it for Rebus fans, but it might also be a good, bite-sized introduction to the detective.

Suggested Pairing: Well, obviously a Scotch or a lager. Because I’m mostly a beer girl and most of these will probably be beer recommendations, I’m going to go with a Scotch. Something peaty. Have a nice Laphroaig or an Ardbeg with this one.

There it is, my first entry. Second one coming pretty soon, maybe later today, because I’ve already finished 3 books this year and I want to get caught up.