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August booklist

1. Farthing, Jo Walton

Alternate history and English country-house murder mystery are blended in such a seamless way that you almost forget this isn't the way history really went, and the gradual Nazi-fication of England and subsequent beginning of subtle persecution of Jews adds even more to the unsettling tension already present in the classic British mystery: a weekend house party gone wrong, a dead body, a house full of suspects, all with excellent motives. In conclusion, Jo Walton is brilliant (more on that later.)

2. Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson

This was the month of Bryson, although I still have at least two more waiting to be read. Although his complaining pessimism gets old (I want to shake him periodically and shout, YOU HAVE THESE AMAZING TRAVEL OPPORTUNITIES, SHUT UP AND ENJOY THEM!"), in this one you can really see his love for the "small island" of England.

3. The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai

A rather idealistic small-town children's librarian tries to play the hero for a precocious young patron whose overbearing religious parents are trying to "cure" his gayness in possibly abusive ways. She ends up kidnapping him - or is it getting kidnapped BY him? - and heading off on an impromptu cross-country roadtrip. I still can't decide what I thought about it. It was one of those mad-dash-to-the-end books, but when I got there it left me unsatisfied - too many questions raised with too few answers. The moral ambiguity felt unsettling (this is just a personal thing with me and not a flaw in the book) and basically, I just felt sad about the whole situation.

4. A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

A witch by birth who has been avoiding her powers finds herself suddenly the center of attention in the supernatural world, watched (and menaced) by other witches, vampires, and daemons. It's exquisitely and intelligently written, but the plot unfolds agonizingly slowly. If you can make it through the first ... third? half? without getting bored, the rest is worth it. In fact, the ending almost feels rushed and left me definitely eager for the second book.

However, billing this as Twilight for adults is rather unfortunate: the implication that Twilight is kiddie fare and we all need to move on to more adult novels is annoying (everyone needs light/comfort/guilty-pleasure reads without being made to feel guilty over them), and really, this is not really like Twilight at all except for certain similar-to-Edward characteristics of the main vampire that the author really would have been better off avoiding (did he REALLY need to break in and watch her sleeping?!)

5. Free For All, Don Borchert

A librarian tell-all book. Librarians should keep this handy to give to anyone who naively remarks, "what a lovely, quiet job you have, getting to sit around reading books all day." It's a nice alternative to laughing at them bitterly, anyway.

6. Tooth & Claw, Jo Walton

Written in the style of classic Jane Austen novel of manners, in which sons wrestle with dividing their father's inheritance, daughters seek marriages that will save them from poverty and the restrictions of being a single female, and country parsons seek blushing brides. The thing that sets this apart is that all the characters are ... dragons. Here is where I could go on and on about what a brilliant writer Jo Walton is: she seems to be able to write anything: sci-fi, fantasy, satire, alt history, mystery. If anyone could make this work, she could, and she DOES. It is so. bloody. brilliant.

7. In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson

Also I kind of have a literary crush on Erik Larson now. He's really, really good about taking unusual bits of history and making a cohesive, completely engrossing narrative out of them. This is based mostly on the journals and letters of Ambassador Dodd (the American Ambassador to Berlin during Hitler's rise to power) and his daughter Martha. It is frightening to see how blissfully unaware most people were of the deadly changes happening in Germany during the 1930s - everyone was so naive, and the few who did see couldn't get anyone to believe them. Knowing what we know now, an oppressive cloud seems to hang over this book, actually creating an aura of suspicion and unease during the reading... and even lingering after.

8. The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson

My least favorite Bryson. He seems much more disgruntled and bad-tempered than usual, and I think it was harder to take because he's taking about a lot of places I've been myself, and the trips he makes around the US are sometimes similar to ones I've taken. He still has moments of brilliance and I didn't hate the book, but it made me mad more often than not. I had to take lots of breaks from it and read other things for awhile.

"...drove for an hour and half towards St. Louis. It was boring, too."

You know what? That is the exact wrong attitude with which to approach travel. There will always be annoyances and inconveniences when traveling, but if you expect it to suck or be boring, guess what? IT WILL. I'd much rather try to accept problems with as much good grace as possible and focus on the things that are interesting and good.

It reminds me of the phenomenon of Americans traveling to foreign lands with amazing food - say, Thailand - and then complaining that they can't get a decent hamburger and french fries. I'm sorry, if you wanted MacDonald's, STAY HOME.

Okay, that's my rant. In conclusion, I still love me some Bryson but occasionally I want to hit him with a two-by-four, and I will continue to read his books but I would never travel with him. (And I don't think it's coincidence that he almost always travels alone, and when he does travel with Katz they end up wanting to kill each other.)

9. The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman

Finally, right?! Again, I'm reading something because of Mark Reads. Not sure how to summarize this, and I think most people who are interested already know about it anyway, as well as the controversy involved (the Catholic church has issued statements against this series, it was written as the atheist answer to the Chronicles of Narnia, etc. etc.) I've only read the first of the trilogy so far, so I don't feel like I can say much except that as it stands now, on third through the series, the writing is less wonderful and the controversial bits less present than I was led to believe. The story was okay, but I wasn't wowed by it.

10. Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson

Bryson is back in Europe, and he seems much happier there. This is a little less coherent than the other two from earlier in the list, but he hits most of the European countries and has a lot to say about them.

11. A Brief History of Montmaray, Michelle Cooper

It's easy to see why this gets compared to I Capture the Castle: impoverished aristocracy, a crumbling castle, quirky characters, very similar first-person narrative voice. Of course, this castle and these characters are an independent kingdom on a tiny island off the coast of England ("kingdom" here consisting of one insane king, one bad-tempered housekeeper, one lazy but charming prince, one bookish beautiful princess, one precocious tomboy princess, and our plainer, shyer narrator. Oh, and a village consisting of approximately three old people and some goats and chickens.) It can't help but suffer in comparison, but it can stand on its own merits as a charming and delightful book, and I think you should probably read it.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC)
I have The Lost Continent but haven't read it yet. Thanks for the warning!! :)
Sep. 10th, 2011 10:59 am (UTC)
Don't avoid it because of me, but just be warned that he's grumpy. :D
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )