This week on the bookish internet

  • Dana Lee shares her bookish habits/rituals. I wish I was more interesting reader having read the list. I just plunk myself on the coach, wait to get covered in cats (3 seconds, tops), and read until I need to get up to go to the bathroom. (Book Riot)
  • Jo Lou asked a bunch of book designers about covers they rejected and the ones they accepted. (Electric Literature)
  • Callie Ryan Brimberry has a terrific example of the power of a book to connect strangers. (Book Riot)
  • I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the grawlix. (Words at Play)
  • Kristin Arnett shares what happens when librarians go DIY. (LitHub)
  • Laura Sackton reflects on what her favorite books share. (Book Riot)
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Familiar Things, by Hwang Sok-yong

33148672Bugeye doesn’t have much going for him at the beginning of Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell). Things are so hopeless that when his mother takes a job as a trash picker at Seoul’s Flower Island landfill, it’s actually a step up for their little family. And, strangely enough, the trash heap turns out to be a land of opportunity for Bugeye in this strangely charming coming-of-age story.

Flower Island lives in the shadow of Seoul (which is not named, but I’m calling the city Seoul because all of the plot descriptions say that’s where this story takes place). It has it’s own culture and economy, latched on to the rest of Korean society. There is a strict pecking order among the groups of trash pickers, the recyclers, and other salvagers. Money makes it possible to move between the groups, but it takes a long time to accumulate enough to make the jump. The adults in Bugeye’s life worry about that more than he does. Like the other children of trash pickers, Bugeye is resigned to the fact that he will probably follow in his mother’s footsteps and that the rest of Korean society will be closed to him. When I started to read about his life, I was expecting another depressing tale of extreme poverty (like The Rent Collector by Camron Wright). Instead, I was as surprised as Bugeye was when Baldspot appeared on the scene and things started to get magical.

Baldspot makes it possible for Bugeye to have a childhood. While their parents pick through Seoul’s trash for anything they can sell, Baldspot introduces Bugeye to Headquarters, a club house built as a place for the local boys to escape to. He also introduces Bugeye to the strange lights and the mysterious Mr. Kims that only they can see. The boys run around the island and make friends with the more uncanny parts of the island, such as the woman who is occasionally possessed by the spirit of the island’s guardian spirit. The poverty of their families should have crushed them, but Bugeye and Baldspot have adventures that keep their minds (mostly) off of their worries about the future.

For me, Familiar Things walks a perfect path between realism and the supernatural. There’s enough realism that I didn’t get annoyed at the story for not taking the setting seriously enough, but enough magic that it wasn’t utterly depressing. I loved learning about the dokkaebi and what Flower Island was like before it became a landfill. And the way that that past is blended into Bugeye’s reality is seamless, with a beautiful,  bittersweet ending that gives the book a poignancy that I loved. This book is amazing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis

38908116Connie Willis’ I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land is either a long short story or a short novellette. As such, it is very much focused on an idea, rather than on plot or character development. The idea at the heart of this tale is the struggle to preserve books that might otherwise be lost to time, fire, flood, war, negligence, etc. This story argues that every book, no matter how silly, obsolete, and useless it might be, should never be completely lost.

At the beginning of I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, Jim is very much of the opinion that physical books don’t need saving. Sure, book stores are closing left and right, but there’s the Cloud. Books can be digitized and downloaded any time. There’s no need to worry. In fact, he opines at the beginning of the story, some book stores deserve to close because they’re not keeping up with the times. Who wants to dig through dusty old books in a smelly shop when they could just click the buy button on their device?

But then Jim wanders into what appears to be the stereotypical bookshop of his argument. Ozymandius’ (named after the Shelley poem, of course) is crammed with just the sorts of books that Jim believes no one would ever want, all buried under an inch of dirt and dust and completely unorganized. He enjoys seeing his theories confirmed until he follows a pretty blonde through the staff only door and discovers the most unique collection I’ve ever seen in fiction.

The staff area of Ozymandius’ is a labyrinth of books Jim has never heard of before. He scoffs but, when the pretty blonde, Cassandra, offers to give him a tour, he learns that these books are the last of their kind. Once, there were multiple copies of these books in stores and libraries all over the place. But time and tastes have done their work. Copies were lost or destroyed until only one remained. The staff of Ozymandius’ somehow manage to save that last copy from disaster or the landfill. Jim is desperate to know how, but that is one of the many unanswered questions that torment him after he leaves and is unable to find his way back.

As I read I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, I had a reaction that I’ve never had to a book before: I felt attacked. I’m a librarian and I have, to use the euphemism that Cassandra scorns, “de-accessioned” hundreds of books in my time. We have only so much shelf space at our library. There’s no place for books that don’t get used. That said, I truly appreciated the argument that the last copy must be preserved. I don’t want any knowledge to ever be lost and I wish that libraries and bookstores didn’t have to fight so hard to stay open. Right now, I don’t see how that’s possible unless something like Ozymandius’ magically appears to rescue us.

I recommend I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land to bibliophiles of all stripes. It doesn’t matter if you read print or electronic books. The important thing is that we all read and, thus, do our little bit to keep books and reading alive. Maybe one of us will be the one to save a last copy and keep it from being lost forever.

I received a free copy of this novellette from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It has already been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction but it will be widely released 30 April 2018.

Book v. Movie: The Death of Stalin

Last week, I caught the last showing of The Death of Stalin—a satire I’ve been wanting to see since I saw the reviews. I liked it so much that I bought the graphic novel the movie was based on immediately after I got home (and before I spent two hours on Wikipedia finding out what really happened). I hardly ever go to movies, so seeing the movie and reading the book gave me the rare opportunity to compare the two.

MV5BMDhkMjdkNjEtMDExMi00MzRhLTgyMWUtNWRmZTdhZThhMDNhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTIyODMzMzA@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The film The Death of Stalin is one of the most brutally funny things I’ve ever seen. I laughed a lot as the characters—the members of the central committee and various members of the Soviet public—race around in the power vacuum after the death of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had created such a sense of terrified obedience to his will that the characters have to turn constant mental somersaults to avoid being considered a traitor (and consequently shot or sent to the gulag). The movie constantly flirts with going to far. For some viewers, I’m sure it does go too far in making jokes about how easy it was to die for no reason in the Soviet Union. And yet, the actors do such a great job at overplaying their characters just enough that the whole thing has a tone of frantic farce. I really, really enjoyed it.

34437954The original graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, I did not enjoy. Perhaps it was because I had just seen and liked the movie so much, that I wasn’t ready for the more historically accurate sinister atmosphere. This version of the story shows the central committee in all their dubious and paranoid glory. In the film version, the scurrying these men do makes it easier to forget the monstrosity of their actions. There is no forgetting in the book version. It is very clear that all of these men have committed crimes against the people they claim to be working for.

One is not better than the other, although there’s a version I absolutely prefer. After all, there’s more than one right way to tell a story. From a critical standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how much tone can affect the way a reader perceives a story and how it’s little things that create that tone. In both versions of The Death of Stalin, it’s characterization that has the biggest impact on the tone. The actors in the film version deliberately chew the scenery and use their incredibly mobile faces to express panic and scheming. The faces in the book version are cruel, hard, and much less expressive. They look like monsters and it’s impossible to empathize with them at all. (Not that they deserve it. They are monsters.) Empathy made it possible for me to watch the characters scurry around in the film while I was just waiting for those characters to receive some kind of just punishment.

The two versions of the story offer very different experiences. For readers who want a manic farce, I would recommend the film. For readers who want historical accuracy (if in brief), I would recommend the graphic novel.

Armistice, by Lara Elena Donnelly

36480645Armistice, the sequel to Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, picks up three years after the disastrous takeover by the fascist Ospies (One State Party). The characters who survived to live another day are now exiled in the neighboring country of Porcharis. Cordelia, the dancer turned guerrilla leader, had a narrow escape but is plotting her way back home. Artistide, however, is mourning the death of his lover and has buried himself in work and drink. When another character enters the scene, it gives both of them the opportunity to get what they want if they are willing to take the chance—and if their luck holds out.

That character is Lillian DePaul, Aristide’s lover’s sister. She is working for the Ospies as their publicist. She works under duress, as the Ospies have her son. One misstep and Lillian will never see the boy again. Her status quo is disrupted when her boss tells her that one of their colleagues, Memmidev, maybe plotting to right some historic wrongs of his own against the One State Party. Lillian is no spy, not like her brother was, but she does the best she can by using her own connections to try and dig up the necessary dirt. Her clumsy spying becomes the catalyst that drives a host of characters to up their game.

Most of Armistice is scheming. Plans are fleshed out, abandoned, and resurrected as characters uncover ever more secrets. Throughout all of this skullduggery, the characters ask the same question: who can I trust? In some cases, past relationships answer the question. Lillian can trust her old lover because he is her son’s father. Cordelia and Aristide can trust each other because they were friends at the old Bumble Bee in Amberlough. The answer is much more complicated for other characters. Can they trust a self-interested traitor who already betrayed them once? Can they trust the arms dealer who is really just out to preserve her illicit empire? And what about the dilettante foreign prince who seems much more interested in his movie star lover yet knows a surprising amount of state secrets?

Armistice was an great read, tightly written with plenty of character development and tense moments. I strongly recommend reading Amberlough first. Armistice pushes readers right into the deep end and it’s easy to get lost without the necessary background. There will be a sequel to this book, but I don’t think Armistice has even a whiff of middle book syndrome: lot happens in this book. Characters grow. Plots are hatched and executed. There are double-crosses and confrontations. This really was a lot of fun to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

What Should Be Wild, by Julia Fine

35068762Girls without mothers raised by somewhat clueless fathers are not uncommon in literature. What is uncommon is Maisie Cothay’s ability to instantly kill and resurrect living things. In Julia Fine’s What Should Be Wild, Maisie grows up on her family’s secluded estate somewhere in the English countryside. She wears gloves all the time and is under strict orders not to touch anything. But childhood has to come to an end. When Maisie turns 16, a series of events conspire to set her on a rough journey into adulthood and a reckoning with her strange abilities.

Maisie’s childhood, without a mother and without any human touch, is a lonely one. She copes with her father’s aloofness as best she can. Not surprisingly, she longs for companionship. When she turns 16 and the housekeeper passes away, Maisie’s grief and her dog’s macabre theft of the housekeeper’s leg sends her into the forest around Urizon, the family estate. The forest is the object of sinister legends. Women in Maisie’s family have disappeared into the forest over the centuries. Unbeknownst to everyone outside the forest, those women are still alive—and they want to get out.

An awful lot of awful things happen in What Should Be Wild, but at the heart of all the plots and subplots is the moral that women should not be caged by walls, by rules, or by magic. When women are hemmed in, those literal and figurative walls stunt their growth. They can wither away or go mad and, eventually, there will come a moment when a woman has to make a choice to either accept the limits or do whatever they can to break loose.

What Should Be Wild is a modern twist on fairy tales. There is plenty of messing around with powers without knowing the rules and cautionary tales to scare the pants off of children. The main plot meanders, sometimes in ways that I felt were superfluous to requirements. That said, I enjoyed the novel’s originality. I was hooked the entire time I read it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 May 2018. 

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin

32912154Grace has gone a lot farther to figure out what happened to her missing sister than anyone can imagine. She has trained in self-defense and to master her fears. She has scoured the dark web for information and false identities. She has cooked up lies to cover her tracks. She has done all of this to break a possible serial killer with dementia out of a halfway house to get the truth out of him somehow. Julia Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts is a tense ride through Texas, following a trail that leads who knows where for a story Grace might not want to hear. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this book.

We don’t know much about either Grace or Carl Feldman at the very beginning of Paper Ghosts. In a few short chapters, we learn that Carl has dementia, he was a photographer, and that he might have killed Grace’s sister. We also learn that Grace is going to bust him out and take him on a trip to the sites where he took pictures and young women disappeared. Somehow it’s all going to work, in Grace’s head. It has to. She refuses to think that it won’t work. Carl, of course, is not talking about his past no matter how much she prods or tries to jog his memory. Instead, he makes demands for fast food; stops to pan for gold; and to pick up stray, wounded animals. He is not the kind of serial killer Grace expected, especially when he starts to save her life from mysterious pursuers.

The question of what Carl has and hasn’t done kept Grace (and me) guessing about what really happened to her sister and three other young women. Carl was on trial for one kidnapping and murder, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. There’s circumstantial evidence that puts him in the right time and place. There’s his cunning intelligence and charm that can be predatory or flattering by turns. He seems like he ought to be a serial killer. And yet, there’s a delicious ambiguity that runs through the entire book that is only finally resolved at the very end.

I wasn’t sure about Paper Ghosts when I first started it. There were a lot of short paragraphs to get the story moving that made me worry that there might be a lack of depth—characterization and backstory sacrificed for the sake of a fast plot. But Heaberlin is very skilled at embedding information in such a way that you learn more about what’s happening and why without loading readers down with exposition. She’s also great at building up an atmosphere and rich setting that made me feel like I was in the car with Grace and Carl, worried every minute for Grace’s safety and wondering what Carl would do next. This book is a fantastic thriller. It was so good that I want to go and read the rest of Heaberlin’s books.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Erin Barnett asked other librarians about whether or not we lend books to people. It turns out that we’re surprisingly stingy most of the time—or maybe not so surprising in light of the fact that we know what people to do books they borrow. (Electric Literature)
  • James Jeffrey reports on the custody battle for hundreds of Ethiopian religious manuscripts that were looted by British soldiers in 1868. (Atlas Obscura)
  • Stuart Kells shares the story of how Aboriginal oral literatures were studied and misrepresented (and misunderstood) by Westerners. This sentence might sound a little dry, but it’s fascinating. If nothing else, I learned that Bruce Chatwin was kind of an asshole. (LitHub)
  • Kasia van Schaik reflects on what it means to be a single woman who reads. (Electric Literature)
  • Yep, people are still asking for books to be banned at their local libraries. (The Guardian)
  • Christine Hauser reports on what happened after teenagers were sentenced to books after committing race-related vandalism. (New York Times)

Moon Brow, by Shahriar Mandanipour

35606613The Qur’an has mentions two angels that record a person’s life, the kiraman katibin. One angel, which sits on the right shoulder, writes down all the good a person does, thinks, and feels. The other records all the bad and sits on the left shoulder. In Shahriar Mandanipour’s masterful novel Moon Brow (translated by Khalili Sara), the two angels that sit on Amir Yamini’s shoulders tell us all the good and bad in Amir’s violent, confused, angry, lonely life. The two angels spare no embarrassing detail or tantrum, creating a far from flattering portrait. And yet, seeing all of Amir’s warts means that I ended up feeling enormous sympathy for him.

By the time we meet Amir at the beginning of Moon Brow, he has lost most of his left arm and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in the Iran-Iraq War. He’s lost a lot of his memory, even his ability to remember what he’s said from one hour to the next some days. His sister and mother retrieved him from a mental hospital, where he fetched up after running away to join the Iranian Army. The angels take turns explaining how Amir got to this point. They move back and forth through Amir’s life to tell us about his past romantic exploits and life as a privileged young man in the years right before the Iranian Revolution.

The angels also reveal details about the young woman Amir fell in love with while he was away at war. At the beginning of the book, all he can remembers is that she was his true love and that they had exchanged rings. Over and over, Amir pesters his sister, Reyhaneh, about what she remembers about his life before he ran away. Then, once he exhausts her memory, Amir pulls in every favor that he might possibly have been owed to try and find the ring that was lost with his left arm and hand.

All the memories and Amir’s nearly impossible quest to find his lost love reveal a tormented man. His memory problems (both what he remembers and what he doesn’t) and the fact that he is trapped in his father’s house mean that he is angry and frustrated most of the time. He takes it out on everyone and, for much of the book, I found him very unlikable. He never really became likable but, because he was so interesting, this was never a problem for me. Then, once Amir started to try and hunt down the girl he initially calls Moon Brow, I kept reading because I just had to know what happened.

Moon Brow is a masterpiece. Structurally, psychologically, plot-wise, setting-wise—it was all brilliant. I would strongly recommend this to readers looking for in-depth psychological portraits.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 24 April 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who would like to understand post-traumatic stress disorder.

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

29976283A good find at a used book sale might be a copy of a book that was missing from a series, a first edition, or a signed first edition. Emmett, the protagonist of Time Was by Ian McDonald, is hoping for good hardbacks about World War II to sell online when he visits the closing sale of the Golden Page in London. Instead, he accidentally acquires a mysterious collection of poetry that leads him down a deep research rabbit hole and into an even stranger story of love and weird science.

Emmett discovery of an anonymous book of poetry—Time Was, by E.L.—is just a prelude to another find. The book contains a surprising love letter from one soldier to another soldier. Love letters from World War II are not so rare; soldiers wrote to their (female) sweethearts and vice versa all the time. But love letters between soldiers of the same sex are vanishingly rare (possibly none existent). This stunning find leads Emmett on a quest to find out who Tom and Ben were and what might have happened to them. Then, an archivist friend tips Emmett off to the possibility that Tom and Ben might have been alive and together…in World War I.

Time Was contains an astonishing number of discoveries for such a brief book. One thing leads to another in short order. The more Emmett learns, the weirder and more gripping the novel gets. It is packed with things I love: unusual love stories, time travel, and deep dives into archival material. I had a great time reading this fast-paced novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 24 April 2018.