Monday, January 22, 2018

Review: Agents Of Dreamland – Caitlín R. Kiernan

Agents Of Dreamland – Caitlín R. Kiernan

A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman. 
In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible—the Children of the Next Level—and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in. 
A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA's interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.

Review: This is going to be a black sheep review because I accidentally didn’t like this book. I say “accidentally” because I was supposed to like it. I mean, look at that cover. That’s a very “me” cover. The book also has great reviews on Goodreads. All the evidence points to me liking it, but I didn’t.

Honestly, I’m not completely sure what this book is about. It’s very short—only 125 pages. There’s a doomsday cult that’s trying to help an alien fungus take over the world. Then there’s a government agent and a psychic lady who are trying to stop the fungus. The psychic lady thinks the fungus will win? Is that it? I don’t know, guys. I’m a bit confused here.

“Too often, it occurs to him that he’s lived just long enough to have completely outlived the world that made sense to him, the world where he fit.” – Agents of Dreamland

I think my problem with this book is that there are a lot of words being used, but nothing is really happening. Characters meet, have cryptic discussions, and leave. There’s a whole chapter of a girl standing on a roof. It’s all very bizarre. I never felt like I had a firm grasp on what was happening or why it was happening. Mostly it feels like nothing is happening. It’s a wordy story with a plot that wanders all over the place.

I know there are allusions to other sci-fi stories in this novella. I haven’t read those other stories, so maybe I would have more appreciation for this book if I had read them?

I did really love the premise and the imagery. All the “nothing” that happens is quite vivid. It’s creepy to think about an alien fungus that preys on humans. That’s enough to give me nightmares. I always appreciate it when a book can creep me out.

Maybe this novella would have been better if it was longer? There would have been more space to flesh out the characters. Except, I don’t think I would have finished it if it was longer.

I guess this is going to be a short review because I don’t know what to say about this book. Everything is confusing, a spoiler, or a confusing spoiler. I’m baffled.

TL;DR: This book is smarter than me. I didn’t get it.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Sunday Post #132

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan.
  • On Tuesday I apologize to authors for forgetting their books.
  • On Wednesday I review A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab.
  • On Thursday there’s a tag.
  • On Saturday there’s a book haul.

In My Reading Life

Last week had my first 5-star read of 2018 and my first DNF of 2018. I’m slightly obsessed with This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee. It’s a fun book. Five stars! I DNFed How to Survive a Summer by Nick White. I’m gutted about that because I was really looking forward to reading it. The narrator pissed me off too much to finish it. He was passive aggressively nice to people’s faces, but in his head, he was a jerk to everyone. I couldn’t stand him.

After I gave up on How to Survive a Summer, I finished The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. Right now, I’m reading The Dumb House by John Burnside and Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. Re-watching Planet Earth. BBC America had a marathon of nature shows last week. Nature is cool. And terrifying. And disgusting.
  2. I read my first 5-star book of the year.
  3. I updated my TBR list with all the translated books that you guys have recommended to me. Updating the list was fun, but let’s ignore the fact that the list now has over 600 books on it. Thank you for the recommendations!
  4. I’m getting better at using my new phone. I don’t feel like such a noob anymore.
  5. I noticed that this blog now has over 10000 comments. Thank you for commenting!

So many comments.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The “Slightly Weird Short Story” Book Haul

Stacking the Shelves is hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. I get to show off all the books I’ve gotten recently.

I have a thing for short stories, especially weird ones. Here are some collections I’ve picked up in the last few weeks.

The “Slightly Weird Short Story” Book Haul

What is Not Yours is Not Yours: Stories – Helen Oyeyemi

The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don't You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu

This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

Lungs Full of Noise – Tessa Mellas

Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps. A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex to reclaim the fragments of a dissolved marriage. Following the advice of a fashion magazine, teenaged girls binge on grapes to dye their skin purple and attract prom dates. And a college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has inadvertently seduced all the boys in their dorm with her exotic hermaphroditic anatomy.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets: Stories – Danielle McLaughlin

In a raw seacoast cabin, a young woman watches her boyfriend go out with his brother, late one night, on a mysterious job she realizes she isn’t supposed to know about. A man gets a call at work from his sister-in-law, saying that his wife and his daughter never made it to nursery school that day. A mother learns that her teenage daughter has told a teacher about problems in her parents’ marriage that were meant to be private—problems the mother herself tries to ignore.

The Shell Collector: Stories – Anthony Doerr

The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr's acclaimed debut collection take readers from the African coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties—metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts—and conjures nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of his characters contend with tremendous hardship; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the mysteries of the universe outside themselves.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry – Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry – Jon Ronson

When Jon Ronson is drawn into an elaborate hoax played on some of the world's top scientists, his investigation leads him, unexpectedly, to psychopaths. He meets an influential psychologist who is convinced that many important business leaders and politicians are in fact high-flying, high-functioning psychopaths, and teaches Ronson how to spot them. Armed with these new abilities, Ronson meets a patient inside an asylum for the criminally insane who insists that he's sane, a mere run-of-the-mill troubled youth, not a psychopath—a claim that might be only manipulation, and a sign of his psychopathy. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud, and a legendary CEO who took joy in shutting down factories and firing people. He delves into the fascinating history of psychopathy diagnosis and treatments, from LSD-fueled days-long naked therapy sessions in prisons to attempts to understand serial killers.

Review: It starts with a hoax. Journalist Jon Ronson is drawn into a stranger-than-fiction puzzle that was created by a madman. This weird puzzle has disrupted the lives of several of the world’s top scientists, who were willingly—or unwillingly—drawn into solving it. As Ronson attempts to track down the puzzle’s creator, he starts to wonder about mental illness. Can one person’s mental illness destroy the world? This question leads him down a winding road to studying psychopaths.

“Suddenly, madness was everywhere, and I was determined to learn about the impact it had on the way society evolves. I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn't? What if it is built on insanity?” – The Psychopath Test

This book is Ronson’s strange and fast-paced journey through the madness industry. He learns how psychopaths are diagnosed, and then he sets out to find some. He meets Scientologists who insist that mental illness doesn’t exist, a man who (supposedly) faked being a psychopath, a mass murderer, a 7/7 conspiracy theorist, and a CEO who enjoys destroying his employees’ lives. Along the way, he explores the various methods that psychologist have used to treat psychopaths, and uncovers the not-so-scientific history of diagnosing mental problems.

Earlier this year, I read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and loved it. I didn’t like this book quite as much as that one, but this one is still really good. It’s definitely not dry nonfiction because the author is kind of hilarious. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor that I appreciate. I laughed when he got a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and promptly diagnosed himself with a bunch of disorders. Then he freaked out a little. Honestly, I probably would have done the same thing if I had access to that book. That’s why I have to stay far away from WebMD.

“I closed the manual. ‘I wonder if I’ve got any of the 374 mental disorders,’ I thought. I opened the manual again. And I instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones.” – The Psychopath Test

This book covers a lot of ground. It jumps around from subject to subject. That jumpiness makes it fast-paced and intensely readable, but I wish it had gone more in-depth on some subjects. I especially wanted to know more about psychopaths in the political and business worlds. I guess that’s why the bibliography exists. I can track down some of the books that the author read for research.

This is an entertaining introduction to the subject of psychopaths. I really liked both of the Jon Ronson books I’ve read so far. They’re clever and focus on subjects that interest me. I’ll happily read more of his work.

“Oh, you know what bloggers are like, they write and write and write. I don't know why, because they're not being paid.” – The Psychopath Test

Fun Facts About Psychopaths And The Madness Industry

1. In the 1850s, an American doctor identified a mental disorder that he called drapetomania. It only occurred in slaves. The only symptom was “the desire to run away from slavery.”

2. The author interviewed a reality show casting director who only puts mentally ill people on her shows. Mentally unstable people provide the drama that reality show producers want.

“Practically every prime-time program is populated by people who are just the right sort of mad, and I now knew what the formula was. The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we're becoming, and in a recognizable way. We might be anxious but we aren't as anxious as they are. We might be paranoid but we aren't as paranoid as they are. We are entertained by them, and comforted that we're not as mad as they are.” – The Psychopath Test

3. A doctor tried to cure psychopaths by locking them in a room together and giving them LSD. It didn’t end well.

4. Psychopaths are extremely rare, but they seem to be drawn to politics and business. There are a disproportionate number of psychopaths working in those fields.

“I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.” – The Psychopath Test

TL;DR: Are you curious about psychopaths? Read this book.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: 2018 Bookish Resolutions

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is bookish New Year’s resolutions.  

I know a lot of people dislike resolutions, but I’m a goal-oriented person, so they’re helpful for me. (If I can remember them. I usually forget them partway through the year.) Hopefully writing them down and forcing you to look at them will give me the incentive I need to accomplish something.

My 2018 Bookish Resolutions

The Books

1. Read at least 100 books. I did this in 2017, so I’m hoping I can do it again.

2. Read more translations. Most of the authors I read are from the US or UK. I need to do research and find interesting books from non-English-speaking parts of the world. (I’d love recommendations, if you have any.)

3. Read Newbery winners. I’ve been saying for years that I want to read the Newbery winners I haven’t read yet. I’m actually going to put a dent in my massive Newbery TBR this year. The books are sitting on my shelf, waiting for me. I can’t ignore them forever.

4. Maybe read more Stephen King. I eventually want to read all of Stephen King’s work, but he started his publishing career over a decade before I was born, so I have lots of catching up to do. I’ve read about 40 of his books in my life. I’m scared to Google how many he’s written. I’m pretty sure it’s over 100. I’m way behind.

5. 0 by 19. I got my TBR pile down to 0 in November 2017, and then I bought a mountain of new books. I’m hoping to do that again this year. It was fun. I’m really excited to read everything on my shelf.

6. Figure out the deal with Christianity. Considering how excited I was about Christmas, you’d probably think I’m Christian, but I’m not. I just celebrate with them. As a non-Christian in the US, I feel like Christianity influences everything. It’s in our politics, traditions, art, history, everywhere. I want to learn more about what Christians believe. I read The Bible in college, but it was in an ancient literature context and not a religious context. So, does anyone have book recommendations for me? Are there editions of The Bible that include context and background info for curious noobs?

The Internet

7. Add TL;DR to my reviews. TL;DR stands for “Too long; didn’t read.” If you’ve been on this blog before, you know that I write really long reviews. Most people probably don’t read the whole things. At the very end of each review, I’m going to attempt to sum up my thoughts about the book in 1-2 sentences. If you don’t want to read the review, you can scroll down to that.

8. Learn to use Instagram. I have a phone now! This is the first smartphone I’ve ever owned. Instagram seems like a thing that bookish people do. I posted some photos on my account, but they’re mostly of dogs and stupid Christmas decorations. Basically, I have no idea what I’m doing.

9. Maybe participate in a Twitter chat. I’ve seen the aftermath of Twitter chats, but I’m never online while they’re happening. I don’t even know how people know when they’re happening. They just appear like magic. I want to be included in the magic!

10. Figure out the deal with blog tours. I’ve seen other bloggers participating in blog tours, and I’ve seen people say they hate tours and never click on tour posts. I would love to do more to promote interesting books, but I’ve never been part of a blog tour and don’t know how to get involved. I assume there are tour companies I need to contact? *Scurries to Google.*

Do you have New Year’s resolutions?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood returns with a shrewd, funny, and insightful retelling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope. Describing her own remarkable vision, the author writes in the foreword, “I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in the Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”

Review: Honestly, if this book hadn’t been written by Margaret Atwood, I probably wouldn’t have read it. It’s a retelling of The Odyssey, and I usually don’t like retellings for two reasons.

Reason 1: They stick too close to the original story, and then they are predictable. If I already read a story once, I usually don’t want to read it again in a slightly different form. 
Reason 2: They stray too far from the original story, and then they are not a retelling. They’re an original story with some vague similarities to another story.

As you can probably see, it’s nearly impossible to impress me with a retelling. That’s why I usually avoid them. I decided to give The Penelopiad a shot because it’s Margaret Atwood. If anybody can pull off a retelling, she can.

This novel retells The Odyssey from the point-of-view of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. It tries to answer all the questions that are left unanswered in the original myth. Who is Penelope? What was she doing during those twenty years when her husband was fighting wars, banging goddesses, and getting lost? How did she really feel about the suitors who came to compete for her hand in marriage? And, most importantly, what role did she play in the murders of her “maids,” the twelve slave girls?

“Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.” – The Penelopiad

I read The Odyssey for the first time when I was in college. I remember thinking that Odysseus is less of a hero and more of a colossal jerk. He disappears for twenty years because he keeps getting himself into trouble. Then he randomly shows up at home, slaughters all the dudes who are trying to marry his wife, murders the slaves who were “disloyal” to him, and interrogates his wife to make sure she didn’t cheat on him while he was gone. Um . . . dude?! You went to war and disappeared for twenty years. Everybody assumed you were dead. Give them a break.

My review of The Odyssey.

In Margaret Atwood’s version of the tale, Odysseus isn’t a hero. Penelope has doubts about his over-the-top war stories, and she’s traumatized by the murders of her slaves, who were her friends and secret allies. They distracted the suitors and helped her escape from unwanted male attention. They made Penelope’s life less miserable while Odysseus was missing. Then Odysseus returns and murders them all. Understandably, Penelope is a bit angry at her husband in this story.

“Also, if a man takes pride in his disguise skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: it's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.” – The Penelopiad

Like all of Atwood’s books, this one is quirky and full of smart wordplay. Penelope’s chapters are written in prose, but the other chapters are written in verse and narrated by a Greek Chorus of murdered slave girls. The Odyssey is written in verse, so I appreciate that Atwood wrote part of her retelling that way. It’s both creative and bizarre.

Remember when I said I don’t like retellings? This book is good, but it didn’t change my mind about retellings. For me, this novel is too close to the original Odyssey. I like that Penelope and her servants have backstories, but there were times when I felt like I was just reading a summary of The Odyssey. I wish this book moved farther away from the original. There isn’t much in this retelling that’s really different or surprising.

I also wish this story addressed the miscommunication issues between Penelope and Odysseus. The slaves weren’t being disloyal to Odysseus. They were following Penelope’s orders. I understand that Odysseus didn’t consult Penelope before he murdered her maids, but why didn’t she bring it up afterward? She’s just going to spend the rest of her life being silently angry at him?

This isn’t my favorite Atwood book, but I know she’s written other retellings, and I’m curious about those. I’ll get around to reading them someday.

“Happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked” – The Penelopiad

TL;DR: Good for hardcore fans of Margaret Atwood or The Odyssey. If you’re not either of those things, you probably won’t miss much by skipping this one.