Recent Reads: Autumn 2016 Edition

After raiding the library recently, I found a couple of quick-but-good reads. What have you been reading lately? Share in the comments!

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
Synopsis: Sailor Twain – illustrations + tarot + librarians
Short Thoughts: Terrific first outing from Erika Swyler!
Balancing a bookish mystery on modern-day Long Island with a traveling carnival in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, The Book of Speculation is well-crafted and entertaining to read. Swyler veers into soap opera territory in the final fourth of the book, but all the threads still come together neatly by the end with minimal melodrama.

My only complaint was that the shadowy book dealer who kicks off the whole thing never really gels — he could have been a more interesting and/or more sinister figure, but instead floats in and out of the story without any particular point.
More serious reviews: NPR and Publisher’s Weekly

On Writing by Stephen King
Synopsis: Strunk & White + memoir + advice – formality
Short Thoughts: Would you believe I’ve never read anything by Stephen King? This is my first and, although I know none of his other books are like it, it made me want to read more Stephen King. Equally personable and helpful, On Writing is a great examination of where that writing itch comes from and how to hone your own.
More serious reviews: The Guardian and The A.V. Club

October 14, 2016 at 6:01 am Leave a comment

‘Rustication’ by Charles Palliser

rusticationIf you like unreliable teenage narrators, then strap yourselves in for the bumpy ride that is Charles Palliser’s ode to the Victorian sensationalist novel, Rustication.

The book tells the story of Richard Shenstone — our 17-year-old, opium-addicted, wildly selfish narrator — who arrives home from Cambridge having been “sent down,” or rusticated, under mysterious circumstances and forbidden by the college from returning. After his father’s death (of which Richard was not informed until much later), Richard’s mother and sister, Effie, now live in abject poverty in a falling-down old family house at the edge of a moor. Richard can’t understand why any of this is the case, much like his mother and sister can’t understand what he’s even doing there. Shouldn’t he be at school making the family proud?

Meanwhile, a mysterious madman starts to terrorize the neighborhood by disemboweling pregnant animals, writing crude letters to ladies in the area, and threatening the local earl’s son with violent death. With his stunning obliviousness and propensity to wander around at night after taking too much opium, Richard is maneuvered into being the prime suspect — but by whom?

In his own utterly daffy way, Richard eventually puts the pieces together, but not before you want to wring his foolish little neck and possibly throttle his wishy-washy mother, a source of much misunderstanding. (more…)

October 5, 2016 at 6:31 am Leave a comment

‘Career of Evil’ by Robert Galbraith

career_of_evil_oct_2015Okay, folks, I’m calling it: I’m done with Robert Galbraith.

In times of reading slumps, I often find myself turning to mysteries as a way to kick-start my reading habits. Mysteries usually quick and fun with just enough mental stimulation (whodunit?!) to make them feel worthwhile and slightly better than zoning in front of a movie.

In such times, I tend to veer towards Victorian-era mysteries of the Elizabeth Peters, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Anne Perry variety, but a couple of years ago I widened by net to include Robert Galbraith. Galbraith’s books are utterly unlike the kind of mysteries I usually enjoy: they’re contemporary, they have a surly male protagonist, and are often very violent.

So, why the exception? Because, improbably, Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J.K. Rowling. And I mean it when I say “improbably.” I can hardly think of something less probable than Robert Galbraith’s dark and violent books being written by the same person who invented Chocolate Frogs, Quidditch, and Diagon Alley.

And yet, they somehow are. So, I gave them a try. (more…)

September 27, 2016 at 6:31 am 1 comment

‘The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman’ by Mamen Sánchez

9781501118852Fluff alert!

Mamen Sánchez’s The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman (what a great title!) tells the story of one Atticus Craftsman, heir to a British publishing house, who is sent to Spain to shut down the publisher’s failing Spanish literary magazine. This magazine is run by five women, one of whom has rather more to hide than the other four, and, in the course of closing the magazine, Atticus (altogether unexpectedly!) disappears. Or so his British father back in London thinks.

For whatever reason, I went into Disappearance expecting a bookish novel, along the lines of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé or Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (or maybe even more like Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists). The book was recommended in the August edition of the IndieBound Next List, a usually reputable source of good reads, so maybe that’s where I got the notion.

In any event, Disappearance is many things — including fun, madcap, and sweet — but it is not particularly literary. It is pure fluffy goodness, something light and downright goofy that would have been a perfect beach read earlier in the summer. (Who releases a book like this at the end of August?!) (more…)

September 21, 2016 at 6:41 am Leave a comment

‘The House of Spirits’ by Isabel Allende

house-of-spiritsI’m not entirely sure what I was expecting going into Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits. I’d read her Daughter of Fortune and her retelling of Zorro many years ago, before I’d ever heard of “magical realism” or started enjoying Spanish or Latin American books every summer. I remember them both vaguely (and positively!) and I always had it in mind to read The House of Spirits. It was supposed to be her greatest work and so, when I found it at used book store earlier this summer, the timing seemed propitious.

Having now read it, I mostly felt like The House of Spirits was two novels jammed together as one. They flow so nicely that you almost don’t notice you’ve wandered from one to the other until you — seemingly suddenly — find yourself in a Chilean concentration camp for women and wonder what happened to the puckish and magical goings-on that started the book. (more…)

September 13, 2016 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

Creepypasta: Nightmares we’re all dreaming

The first time I stumbled on a piece of creepypasta, I had no idea what it was. A friend had posted a link to it on Facebook, and since this particular friend always posts interesting things, I clicked through and read it.

I can’t even remember what it was about, now. Maybe a dead girlfriend haunting a teenager. It definitely involved doctored photos, and it was written in an unusual style that contributed to my confusion. I’m pretty sure it was on r/No Sleep, a sub Reddit forum where people tell creepy stories and other readers engage actively with the poster. The story evolved over a series of posts, after which the original poster suddenly disappeared, causing an interesting tension with the readers.

Then there was the time I discovered Slenderman. If you’re not familiar, I believe the general understanding is that Slenderman is a made-up character based on a series of doctored photos that show a preternaturally tall, gangly figure in the shadows, luring children into his clutches. The thing is, though Slenderman isn’t real, he is in the minds of at least two teenagers, who said they were inspired by him to perform real-life murders.

These are only two examples of creepypasta, a viral fiction form that lives on the Internet and is inseparable from it. I know this doesn’t sound literary, but hear me out. (more…)

September 1, 2016 at 12:25 am Leave a comment

‘Something New’ by Lucy Knisley

something-newLucy Knisley is known for her confessional, thoughtful, and fearless graphic novels. From her very first one (French Milk), she has illuminated each phase of her life with watercolor, grace, and humor. She’s written about everything from discovering your place in the world, caring for elderly relatives, making delicious food, and finding your ideal partner.

Her latest is called Something New and, in it, Knisley tackles a doozy: the modern American wedding. She does this in her usual way: with insight, history, and a serious deep-dive into the personal. She approaches the “industrial marriage complex” from the wide angle of society, but manages to inflect her exploration with her own personal experiences.

Both Kate and Corey read Something New this summer and, while they both love Lucy Knisley’s work but have fairly different perspectives on weddings, they decided to have a chat about it.

Corey: Weddings are such a personal topic — people seem to get anxious even when talking about hypothetical, future weddings — so I hope we’re still friends after this.

Kate: Um, of course we will be! But I agree, there’s so much emotion and stress inherent in weddings and marriage and wedding planning, which I think is why this book strikes such a chord. Knisley doesn’t try to paint a wedding as this wonderful, beautiful, perfect day — it’s a day that symbolizes a couple’s commitment to each other that, as so many things in life are, is inherently flawed.

Corey: Absolutely. But I think Knisley’s book is truly exceptional at capturing the best about weddings: the bringing together of everyone you love to celebrate love. The day after her wedding, as Knisley ponders the event, she is struck by how lovely and how important it was to gather everyone together in this way. Most often, you will never again have those people in a room together. I’d never thought about weddings that way!

Kate: Yes! I think she did a great job of unpicking all of the stuff that comes along with weddings and making it clear that it was the people there that were ultimately most important. (more…)

August 24, 2016 at 6:04 am Leave a comment

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