Thursday, August 4, 2016

Not From Here-Allan G. Johnson

Not From Here-Allan G. Johnson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 176
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2015
memoir

Johnson explores what home and identity really mean.



I was so pleasantly surprised by this book. At first, when I looked closer at the blurb after picking it up properly, I was a bit disappointed-a straight white male struggling with identity? Really? Isn’t that like…culture? This was a knee jerk reaction from a person classified as ‘other’ with regularity. I’m aware that Johnson was unaware of me judging him so quickly but I want to apologize anyway.

This is a well crafted and extremely thoughtful memoir. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the hard aspects of being identified as white (i.e. the complicated feelings about immigrants who made a life on land that was cleared for them) but doesn’t rely solely on the white man’s burden. He is, throughout the memoir, clearly making strange decisions through grief and the writing meanders and goes off into tangents but his main struggle is a relatable one-how can we truly understand another human being, history? His search for a place to place his father is his attempt at this and along the way, he learns more about himself. Johnson writes well and emotionally while refusing to accept simple explanations or reasons for anything. He is always examining concepts and feelings from multiple angles-fully embracing the complexity of lived experience and the ways that the dead and the living are interconnected.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Plucked: a history of hair removal-Rebecca M. Herzig

Plucked: a history of hair removal-Rebecca M. Herzig

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 280
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
non fiction

An exploration of attitudes and methods of hair removal in North America.



As a Western female, I have been told all sorts of stories about my hairiness and why the ‘unsightly’ hair must be removed. It should come as no surprise that many of these stories have been wildly contradictory and/or told to me by people who are naturally far less hairy than me and/or men. Not all the messages have been bad but the overwhelming majority of messages about body hair is to have just the right amount. So, when I saw this book, I picked it up because I like to intellectualize my problems. I was hoping to get a better measure of why these attitudes to body hair exist and Herzig delivers, detailing how attitudes have changed and situates attitudes towards hair removal within social contexts. This is not a self-help or how-to guide but a very well researched academic treatise talking about attitudes towards body hair. The more modern chapters were things I already knew but the earlier chapters were fascinating though be forewarned-this is hair removal in North America. Herzig is not out to entertain but she is also not needlessly pedantic or bogging the reader down in details and often allows herself some dry wit so this is very readable. She stays on the objective side of research until her concluding chapter which made me want to go hang out with her. I was pleasantly surprised by this book and I feel better having read it-history can be academic AND fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Room-Jonas Karlsson

The Room-Jonas Karlsson



the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 128
gender: M
nationality: Sweden
year: 
novella in translation

Björn finds a room at his office but no one else seems to see it.



I have only ever worked in the traditional office environment for a grand total of six weeks. By the end of those six weeks, I was ready to never see a cubicle again. It was an experience I’d describe as uncomfortable, surreal, and incredibly dull (though I didn’t actually dislike any of my coworkers). This book instantly put me back there but with a (very welcome) sense of humor.
This is such a short book and the language is sparse, clean, and cleaned of any extraneous details. Minimalist writing is not usually my jam-I like details and atmosphere. Yet, you get the sense that you could reread this book and each time read a different story. Masterful writing. This is a satire so there’s definitely humor in almost every scene but what it is exactly a satire of is a bit more nebulous. Is Björn crazy and/or a victim of office bullying? What exactly is Björn so efficient at? Does the room actually exist?  Is the problem the room or that Björn works alone? I’ve reread it three times now and each time tried to see it a different way and the writing still works out beautifully (so kudos to the translator too!). I mean, Björn is…an amalgamation of those three co-workers you’ve hated working with the most-he’s self-involved, arrogant, suspicious/paranoid, and socially inept. I enjoyed his predicament-Authority liked him, his coworkers were disturbing him, and no one believes him when he says the room is real.

I will be waiting for more of Karlsson’s work to be translated because this was an unforgettable piece of writing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Breeder-K.B. Hoyle

Breeder-K.B. Hoyle

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 379
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
YA series

Seventeen is genetically perfect and living in a lab where her life is also perfect. Except it's not and a man named Pax shows her that.


I’m doing something I really shouldn’t do. I’m reviewing the first in a series while reading the second. Why am I breaking my own self-imposed rule? Because I really can’t believe I didn’t immediately review this book!
It’s easy to feel burnt out by the glut of YA dystopian books/series that are now out on the market even for a dystopia fan like myself. The blurb for this one sounded like the setting was heavily borrowed from Atwood but the plot promised seemed interesting so I gave it a chance.

Good thing I did. This is such a well done plot. There are twists and turns and unreliable sources of information and you speed along enjoying the ride. It gets very fast at the end and then leaves you teetering at the edge of a cliff, priming you for the second book, but I can’t hold that against this book somehow. Pria is a strong heroine but not superhuman, she remains human. Pax can seem a bit ‘too good’ at times but Hoyle writes her characters in a way that they are not peripheral to the plot. Sure there is a lot of action but the novel still reads like a character study. Delightfully, there is no “insta-love”. And yet, Hoyle also doesn’t skimp on the world building. There is real science mixed in there and a realistic feeling world to go along with the strong characterization and riveting plot. Basically, I consider this to be the whole package in terms of YA dystopias.

The second book, Criminal, releases soon so better read Breeder to get ready!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Girl in the Photograph/Fiercombe Manor-Kate Riordan

The Girl in the Photograph/Fiercombe Manor-Kate Riordan

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 448
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2015
novel

Upon finding herself in trouble in the 1920s, Alice is sent to a manor in the countryside where she seeks to find out what happened to the previous mistress of the manor, Elizabeth. 

I know it’s right there in the publisher’s blurb but I just loved the atmosphere of this novel. There’s something not quite creepy but strange and discomforting atmosphere that Riordan builds up though it can feel a little sluggish at times. Nevertheless, the handling of the  intertwining of the twin narratives is well done-not all the parallels are obvious nor are they ‘reaches’ nor do they ‘collide’. Furthermore, I commend Riordan for not using narrator switches as a tension device but rather letting the two stories unfold organically and using other methods to create the atmosphere. By setting the two narratives both in historical fiction, Riordan can explore details which alternatively hide and expose the secrets Alice seeks to clarify. The two heroines, Alice and Elizabeth, are products of their time, at the mercy of the attitudes towards pregnancy and mental health, and they are true to their context. As such, they are not anachronistic while still evoking an impressively strong array of emotions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Mystical Creatures Attack!-Kathleen Founds

When Mystical Creatures Attack!-Kathleen Founds

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 206
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel, experimental style

Mrs. Freedman is trying to teach a class of kids who have no respect for her.



I have to say I enjoyed reading this. The format is very quirky and seems culled from a variety of sources like student essays, forms, notes, and reports. It is experimental and Founds handles it well. The pace is quick and so this is a fast read. This is both its strength and weakness as a book. The voices are at times too various and the segments too short-by the time you comprehend what is going on, the book moves on. What is the book about? A somewhat inappropriate relationship between a teacher and her students. I don’t know, there was something of the tall tale teller in here-stories that are fun to listen to (some proper, real life laugh out louds happened!) but just a smidge too far over the line to be believed/to allow suspension of belief. The teens are fun people with teenage appropriate voices but they are too many to really make an individual impact on me. The combination of the voices and their actions also often contradicted themselves in ways that made some of the stories feel like caricatures. Mrs. Freedman meanwhile is not given closure and is, beyond her relationship with her students, a deeply problematic characterization. Her mental illness is portrayed one-dimensionally, almost a punchline, relying on tired and outdated tropes.
It was really quite a shame-I really enjoyed the format and the humor is very present (a rarity-humor being one of the hardest things to write!) but the characterization and stories were disappointing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gracefully Grayson-Ami Polansky

Gracefully Grayson-Ami Polansky

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 250
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
Middle Grade

With the help of a play, Grayson is finally allowed to be herself.



Well, Polansky has certainly written a charming character in Grayson. She is alone and different, sustaining herself through fantasy and imagination. Polansky writes her with dignity and respect. Though the book does follow a very familiar narrative arc for the writing about young transgender protagonists, it does so in a...soft way. I can't really describe it to be honest but I have read a lot of novels about transgendered people and it is handled particularly delicately by Polansky. This is great for a book aimed for the younger set. For adults, this book might be a bit too light, a bit 'been there' and goodness, there was no attempt to challenge feminine stereotypes but for its intended audience? This is a lovely book in that it shows that even though your outside doesn't match your inside, there are people who will accept the inside. A reminder all too infrequently demonstrated and yes, sometimes, they are even adults AND children your own age! I also loved the portrayal of the play. The teacher was totally in Grayson's corner and the end result was beautiful for all of the pitfalls in the journey.

I think this is one of those books that for those at the end of their journeys and adults, it will seem too twee, too light, too conventional but it's so easy to forget how it is when you're young and you've never known this narrative could exist. And also, how the first step to challenging the gender you're supposed to represent is usually a somewhat naive sprint to the stereotypes surrounding the 'other gender'. This is not a book written for adult YA readers but rather for the middle school kids themselves.