Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

Although one's looks may not be completely obvious over the nets that inter, you may be surprised to hear that I am in fact, a white girl...with blue eyes, medium-length brown hair, and a build that's not too fat or too thin. I get the feeling when people meet me and see me later, they think, "Have I met her before?" That's because they can't quite place me, as they've seen me in every other blue-eyed, brown-haired, medium-built white girl. I just don't have anything particular about my appearance that stands out. No flaming red hair, no obvious birthmarks or peculiarities, just a very generic white girl look.

I like to think my genericism is only skin deep, of course. But I suppose internally I'm still just as generic as everyone else, if we can all agree everyone has their own unique story to tell.

And it's Starr's story we are focusing on today. Sixteen-year old Starr struggles with her identity. On the outside, she is black. On the inside, in some ways she might wish she were more generic. Unfortunately, she is dealing with a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common across the United States - the death of young black men at the hands of police. And this time, it's her friend, and she is a witness to the event. (Don't hate if you think that's a spoiler - I haven't revealed more than the movie previews have).

If that's not enough, Starr has a duality in her personality that is becoming too exhausting for her to keep up, especially in the wake of recent events.  She has her home life, with her family and friends from her neighborhood, which she would describe as a ghetto. And then there's her school life, which is in a mostly white, suburban setting.

As you may guess, I identify more with Starr's school life. So when she's at home and says things like she gave dab to her brother, or did the nae-nae, I have to consult Dr. Google for enlightenment. It was interesting to understand her non-school life and identity. I had questions, like, would Starr act the same way around a white person in her neighborhood? Or what about a black person at her school? How much of her personality and identity is tied to her environment (living in her neighborhood versus being black?

And this latter point is something that the author addresses really nicely. She gives Starr a strong voice and makes her family just as interesting (if not more so in the case of her father) than Starr. It's from them we learn the meaning behind Starr and her siblings' names, and what THUG life really means. And it is this whole angle upon which the book title is based - an eye-opening insight that had me googling Tupac Shakur and learning more about his life and music. I've said it before and I'll say it again, any book that has me seeking out new information beyond its pages is a winner to me.

So it's a thumbs up for this relevant and culturally necessary novel.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I wasn't sure what this book was about, just that it was good. So I took a chance and was thrust into the interrogation of a Scottish World War II war prisoner for the Germans. The subject of the interrogation? Not your usual WWII prisoner, as it's a female. And she seems especially...perky?...for being interrogated. Okay, maybe perky isn't the best choice of words, but she's definitely not short on wits, snark, or even a sense of humor. And who can resist someone who says things like, "buckets of blood" as an expletive? It is this voice that kept me intrigued as I progressed through the first part of the book.

I wasn't sure the story was interesting by that point. And it wasn't clear where things were headed, but I damn well knew I liked this chick and wanted to hear what she had to say.

We eventually get the gist that there are two women serving in the military, one as a pilot, and another a radio operator, or something...They develop a friendship that is forged by the vagaries of war. Their unique positions in the British war effort offer a refreshing take on the genre as well.

One of the best things about this book is how each detail is carefully researched by the author. She tried to make things historically accurate, and where she took liberties, she tried to at least make things plausible, asking some literary forgiveness in that respect. In doing so, she provides an amazing war story whose unfolding is a slow-burn, but well-worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Usually the research leading to a book is a means to an end. But with this one, I feel like the book is the means, and the real story lies in the lead up to the book.

We could talk about a man so evil he is believed to be responsible for more than 50 rapes and at least 12 homicides. A man who terrorized California for a decade...whose dauchebaggery was low enough to taunt a child, saying he was playing with mommy and daddy. A man who would call his victim's before and after his crimes. A man who enjoyed sitting in quiet to make his blindfolded victims think he had left, only to remind them of his presence once they gathered the courage to get up to get help.

Or we could talk about Michelle McNamara, the late true-crime writer who became obsessed with the East Area Rapist. Whose research into this man led her throughout California visiting crime-scenes and meeting investigators, criminalists, arm-chair detectives, and even a forensic geneologist. Her efforts even led to the Orange County Sheriff's Department releasing boxes, BOXES of case files to her in an effort to drum up leads in the case. Knowing first-hand the beauracracies that make up local law-enforcement agencies, my brain is boggled that she was able to so cleanly and easily cut through what could have amounted to miles of red tape.

This is a woman who searched the internet for trinkets stolen by the Golden State Killer, who coined this term for the man also known as the Visalia Ransacker and the Original Night Stalker. As her body of research grew, so did her manuscript for a book that was stopped short by her untimely death.

While some chapters are Michelle's voice entirely, some are edited and pieced together. Notes before many chapters tell us the source material for that chapter, whether a previous article she'd written, or notes found on her computer. It is in this way you are reminded of the woman who hunted the Golden State Killer until her death. I found myself more saddened by her inability to finish her work and not see, just months after the publication of this book, Joseph DeAngelo arrested on eight counts of first degree murder and believed responsible for countless other crimes of deeply disturbing violence.

I was more moved by her life and work, than by the account of destruction committed by the pure evil described in the pages of this book. While it isn't my favorite true-crime book I've ever read, the faults are understandable and forgivable.

You can thank her husband, Patton Oswalt, who saw that her book was published. Because he'd be damned if the Golden State Killer, who once threatened a victim, saying, "You'll be silent forever," was given one more opportunity to silence another voice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

ver·sion con·trol
  1. the task of keeping a software system consisting of many versions and configurations well organized. - google

When I'm feeling particularly sorry for myself over something, I like to think that in some other, parallel universe, I was in a similar situation, only things were worse. And now here I am, living in the version of my life that follows the lesser of two evils. 

How many versions of your life have you imagined? Is there any way to know that we are living in the best possible outcome? And if so, at whose expense might that be? Is there a way to somehow keep track of all the possibilities, or do they exist outside of time as we know it?

These are questions that Rebecca doesn't have time to think about. She lives in the not too distant future, where Facebook is still a thing, but self-driving cars are the norm. It's a now where no one blinks an eye when the President comments on your daily life via your restaurant's table screen over hamburgers and fries. Rebecca, a part-time customer service rep for the online-dating service, Lovability, occupies her thoughts and time with her son, a drinking problem, and a physicist husband whose life work is a device that doesn't seem to work. It is more appropriate to say that the existential questions of time are left to Phillip, whose stress of constant negative results is second only to his worry that people call his device a time-machine.

Palmer peppers his story with a supporting cast of characters, as well as online dating anecdotes, some big brother paranoia, salacious affairs, secret government projects, and tragedy. He also explores issues of grief and race, which seemed more as asides, but there were a few interesting moments with both that I felt were eye-opening to say the least. This is a story about cause and effect and the things we do to disrupt the delicate fabric that keeps our relationships and everything we hold dear in place. It's about the possibilities that could be, those we've left behind, and the realities of the moments we have left.

Palmer's writing style is dry - I didn't find myself laughing at much, or even liking a lot of his characters - but as the story unfolded, I became more engrossed in it.  While, at first, I wasn't certain how I felt about the book, I couldn't imagine a better outcome for the ending.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

I share much the same initial sentiment of my fellow readers on this WTactualF did I just read. I was thrust into a world where the players affectionately sniff each other in greeting (as was polite) and kill small children for multiple reasons because you can't have just one. Just as this tale was at times unsavory, yet at times really intriguing, I'm also of two minds about how I feel about it.

To say the characters are unlikeable is an understatement. There's our "librarians" - David, whose catalogue is murder and war. His hobbies include squeezing blood from the hearts of his victims into his hair, creating a sort of warrior's helmet over time, and bringing his girlfriend the still animated, severed heads of his spoils to play with. Speaking of Margaret, her forays into the underworld require dying, obviously. But with each visit, she loses a bit of herself after every trip, until, well, she thinks it's fun to lick the tears of severed heads. And of course this constant dying and reviving is made possible by Jennifer, whose catalogue is medicine. She can heal and bring back the dead, but her constant dabbling with pain and its relief has led to her working most effectively in a drugged out stupor. Then there's Rachel, who kills children on a regular basis. She walks surrounded by her ghostly charges, who enable her to see the future.

Speaking of reanimated dead (because there are many types), some serve as housekeepers and placeholders for the librarians. Think complacent zombies that sweep and dust and live in houses that serve as a front to disguise the library, which exists in 17 dimensions.

But back to our librarians. There's Carolyn, who is a language expert for every language ever to exist, including things like the poetic language of storms. And Michael, ambassador of beasts. He lives among and communicates with animals (hence the sniffing greetings). These are some of the 12 librarians, all selected and trained by "Father," whose methods of discipline include roasting his children in an exotic bull shaped barbeque, among other things. A man who could call down lightning or stop time, to whom stones spoke to by name. But is he God? Or a god? Hardly.

And that's part of the intrigue of this book. Who is God? What are the rules of the universe? What makes someone good, or evil, or powerful?

With all the violence, death, and heavy themes, Hawkins blends humor and farcical touches throughout the book.

Like the part where one character is celebrating being basically a god but sits around drinking Budweiser. BUDWEISER!

Or the part where Father explains how all the horrible things he's done had reasons behind them, as if he's some misunderstood psychopathic sadist. Like we're supposed to sympathize with him when he explains how he had an epiphany the last time he roasted David in the bull.

Or how the language of the librarians is Pelapi, a singsongy cross between an illegitimate child of Vietnamese and a cat fight.

Or how David, having to spend some time in America, decides a tutu is the closest thing to his customary loincloth. Hawkins loves to remind us of how bloodstained it is each time David makes an entrance to engage in mass murder.

Or when Carolyn concocts an overly complicated plan that involves killing someone, getting someone else locked up in jail, breaking said person out of jail, then sending him off somewhere to be potentially attacked and killed by wild dogs, in the off chance that he'll drop something somewhere for someone else to find later and on and on. Just hearing her explanation of her plan was more ridiculous than the playing out of said plan.

Then there's the whole, the sun disappeared bit, where earth basically experiences an apocalypse, something Hawkins really just glosses over, having one character note that maybe she noticed something off because the store WAS out of guacamole...

And I could go on and on.

Here's the rub for me...if still you're on board after reading all of this so far. I basically read the book twice. After the first read, I wrote an angry I-hate-this-book review. But I felt I needed specific examples of what I actually hated. So I skimmed the book a second time through. I noticed two things, first, I didn't remember a lot of details from the first read. I think I read the book half asleep the first time. Second, because I had some context, a lot of the details I (legitimately) read the first time, actually made sense the second time. After that second go, I felt completely differently about this book.

It's hard to follow, confusing, and seriously random. But it's also wildly creative and original. It's definitely not for everyone, as there is a lot of violence. But it's written in a way that you don't really feel too invested in anyone or anything that dies. And death isn't necessarily a permanent condition, so...I wasn't really bothered by the violence as much as others seemed to be. Let's just say this book would make for a great Tarantino film. I almost hope that happens.

And while I've only read great reviews on this book, I also wouldn't be surprised if you, like me, hate it, at least the first time around.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

This World War II biography is written about Jan and Antonina Zabinksi. Jan was the Warsaw zoo's zookeeper. Before the war, he and his wife lived in a villa at the zoo and enjoyed a home filled with strange and exotic pets, (besides the animals in the zoo, of course).  It wasn't unusual to see a hawk hopping throughout the house, or a baby lion being nursed. But what was once a beautifully strange and fulfilling way of life turned to a life of survival and secrets, when Germany invaded Warsaw during World War II.

What may have appeared to be the Zabinskis' love for animals before the war was revealed to be a love for life of all kinds, during the war. Although they lost most of their animals, they held on to what they could, and became active participants in the Warsaw underground. The zoo, amidst war-torn Warsaw, and occasionally visited by Nazi soldiers, was an unlikely location for hiding Jews. But the unoccupied animal enclosures served as convenient hiding spots for Jews making their way through the Polish underground.

What I liked about this book is that, despite the atrocities described and the undertones of war, Ackerman's writing didn't leave me as drained as I've felt when reading or watching other things about World War II. She focuses on Antonina's spirit of hope and humanity, which makes reading about some of the more distasteful things more palatable.

There is also an almost whimsical quality about Antonina, from her playing "Go Go Go to Crete" on the piano as a warning to those in the home, to her love for creatures both large and small. While she lives in constant fear and worry, she hides it well from those in the house, and in a way, from whomever is reading the book as well.

It's an amazing story about even more amazing people during an extraordinary time. For more information about Antonina and Jan, here is a brief interview from her daughter, Teresa, who happens to give the movie, based on this book, an endorsement.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kulti by Mariana Zapata

This book is not really one I'd pick up, except for the rave reviews I was reading about it. So I decided to give it (and soccer lit) a go. Is that a thing? Soccer lit? Well, it is now.

I liked the narrator. Sal Casillas is strong, funny, and swears appropriately. But she's also a bit annoying, in a righteously indignant way. And let me tell you, she. has. done. nothing. wrong. If there is a takeaway from this book, let it be that. Because she will remind you every flipping day.

So I guess I didn't like this one as much as everyone else.

But overall, it was good. I enjoyed the story of a U.S. professional female soccer player, whose team brings on Reiner Kulti, a soccer legend, as a coach. Of course personalities conflict, the past is dredged, revelations are made, and shenanigans ensure. Despite the soccer and professional sports thing, it's really a story that could happen to anyone. In that way, it's relatable, but also non-eventful.

Yet I kept reading. It was safe and comfortable, I guess. Like the old toaster in the attic my old boyfriend tried to compare me to when he was breaking up with me. But that's a different story in no need for further comment.

So I'll end with this: you'll probably like this book. I've heard it's really very good.