Monday, October 31, 2011

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Amazing take on a classic zombie novel. So many "literary" authors are venturing into post-apocalyptic fiction that its hard to keep them all straight, but this one really stood out. Mark Spitz (the name is a joke you don't get til you're more than halfway through the book) has been, in his own mind, mediocre his entire life, but it turns out he has a hell of a survival instinct. In the blurred days since Last Night, he has managed to keep away from and survive enough skels (the dead) to make it to being a part of a clearing crew, a 3 person team working on buildings under 20 stories in Zone One, lower Manhattan.
In the choas of sweeping the city for stragglers, Mark reflects on what has been lost, and what may be to come, and human nature gets painted in some pretty ugly terms, but parts of the novel are lyrical in mourning what will pass, the chain restaurants, the easy commerce, the abundance of America. I think the resurgence of post-apocalyptic fiction is telling, and have written more about that elsewhere, but this is one of the finest examples I have read. Justin Cronin's The Passage was a straight-up Stephen King-ish horror vampire epic, Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story kind of skipped the apocalypse and led us right to moral ruin, but this book showed the steps in between. Wonderfully done.

The Party After You Left, by Roz Chast

Very clever cartoons fron New Yorker staple Roz Chast.

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, by Ken Jennings

This was wonderful, readable, fascinating nonfiction. This made me want to paper the walls in maps, and to snuggle up with globes and atlases. Jennings is such a likeable writer, and does that Bryson-ish trick of imparting a ton of info without coming across as pedantic or lecture-y, and made me really think a lot about the meanings of maps, the implications of geography, the importance of spatial cognition, and the charming and bizarre hobbies that people can create for themselves. I feel a special fondness for the "earth sandwich" people, just because that takes geography hobbies to a new and particularly strange place, but I just also really loved this book.

Crossed, by Ally Condie

The second in Condie's YA trilogy, Crossed has Cassia leaving the safe confines of Society to search for her love Ky in the Outer Provinces. Disturbing scenes have Society dropping off unarmed young Abberations off in the wilds to serve as decoys for the enemy, and that is where Ky has ended up. Cassia and Ky's romance gets helped along by a few too many coincidences, but it was still a fast and enjoyable read, if of a very different tone than Matched.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

Dazzling early (1960) post-apocalyptic Sci-fi, with a heartbreaking sense of inevitability and repetition to our own self-destruction. Obviously born of nuclear nightmares, this still had  a strong message to send, despite a certain datedness. I can't believe I had never read this before, this was definitely filling in a gap for me. I still think On The Beach is a more powerful novel, but this went to darker places after the final clouds rained poison, and suggested that we would do it all over again.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

This was WONDERFUL. It was a fully realized fantasy, and I mean that in every way. The world building was impeccable, from Prague to a planet with two moons, and the characters were better developed than in almost anything I've read this year. 17 year old art student Karou has blue hair, a marionette-making best friend called Zuzanna, and a very complicated home life.   I know this is published as YA, but I think it might truly be more of an adult book. I wonder a bit if some authors are allowing themselves to be steered towards publishing in YA because it is a more accepting realm? Either way, this is one of the best books I've read this year.

Ruby Red, by Kersten Gier

This was good, and I suppose the closest I've ccome to reading steampunk- which still isn't very close then lol.
Gwyneth Shepard is more than surprised when it turns out that she, rather than her perfectly prepared cousin Charlotte, carries the family time-travel gene. Lots of confusing plot business, and it was translated from German, and seems to have lost a lot on the way, but at the same time, strangely enjoyable.
My main issue was that Gwyneth kept being remarkably, startlingly stupid, and that got really annoying.

Dreams of Significant Girls, by Cristina Garcia

Rather glitzy YA. Vivien, Ingrid and Shirin meet at Swiss boarding school summer camp, each the product of exotic and wealthy backgrounds, with improbable coincidental connections and impossible savoir faire for 14 year old girls. It read like Jackie Collins for teens- might be popular, doesn't make it good.

The Dressmaker, by Kate Alcott

Review from Advance Copy.
This was, for some reason, impossible to put down. I have so many books I should be reading, and yet once I picked this up, I was hooked.
Tess is an Irish girl with dreams of being a fashion designer working as a maid in Cherbourg, who glibs and bluffs her way into a position as a lady's maid on the Titanic, working for Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, a famous New York dressmaker.  Lady Gordon becomes fond of Tess, and after the sinking of the boat, offers Tess a chance to work in her couture salon. Tess, however, is torn between rumors she hears from a sailor she met about what really happened on the "millionaires' lifeboat", and torn between two loves. I can't say what it was about this that caught me so strongly, but it was a quick and absorbing read that really surprised me with how much I wanted to be reading it!
With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic coming soon, I think this will be a susccessful book. 
Pub date February, 2012.

Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour, by Robb Walsh

Now,  while the Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobson was rather dry, this was a juicy, salty, slurpy mess of a book, and all the better for it. This book had the passion and the hyperbole a book dedicated to bivalve eating really needs. I want to go to every place he wrote about- well, except maybe Texas- and eat oysters there. Especially France, Ireland, and Malpecque. Really well written, with a kind of breezy comfortable air, but a lot of solid research made this feel like a substantial book. 3 in a row (American Terroit, Geography of Oysters, and Sex, Death and Oysters), and I think I will take a break from reading books about oysters and concentratte on eating them, but this was a really good read.

A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, by Rowan Jacobson

Rather dry but interesting look at oysters and regional differences. This book lacked the almost delirious celebration of terroir- or rather, merroir- that American Terroir  had, but was a quick introduction into the differences between species and how the appelations came to be defined.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Double Death on the Black Isle, by A.D. Scott

Miserable 1950's set Scottish mystery, full of domestic violence and alcoholism.

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin

Pretty intense YA about surviving an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. Dark, but realistic, and really well done.

The Art of Resin Jewelry, by Sherri Haab

Bleh. Aside from the fuss level, the projects were all pretty ugly.

Martha Stewart's Handmade Holiday Crafts, by Martha Stewart

The usual perfectionist insanity. Its like porn- I can't look away from the glistening pages and can't imagine having time to try a single one of the projects.

American terroir : savoring the flavors of our woods, waters, and fields, by Rowan Jacobsen

Wonderful book about savoring American artisan foods. This made me want to eat everything it talked about, especially the moules frites on Prince Edward Island and the Vermont cheese and the Totten oysters and, oh, everything! This was beautifully written, too- one of the best books I've read all year.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen

This was a major disappointement to me. I so love Hansen's luminous Mariette in Ecstasy, and this was nowhere near that. This was more a lurid account of a true crime, and a sad and sleazy one it was.

Payment in Blood, by Elizabeth George

Well written and crisp English locked door country house mystery. so well done.

Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol

Ok graphic novel about an unpleanasnt Russian immigrant teen named Anya, who picks up a psycho ghost from 1918 afer falling in a hole.

Paper Covers Rock, by Jenny Hubbard

Whiny white boy teen angst boarding school drama drama. Wants to be Separate Peace or Dead Poet's Society, doesn't get there.

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos

Pretty silly (ok, ridiculous) but very very quick Austen/reality show fluff. Chloe Parker thinks she is participating in a Regency era immersion documentary, but it turns out to be a dating show (think the Bachelor) with Regency trappings. And so on.

Beautiful Days, by Anna Godbersen

The second in Godbersen's disappointing Bright Young Things series. As much as I want to enjoy these, I just don't, especially compared to Jillian Larkin's excellent Flappers series.  

The Mother-Daughter Book Club: Home For The Holidays, by Heather Vogel Frederick

Another lovely entry in this light but heartwarming tween-aimed series. Although the characters are growing up, the books are cleaner than clean, and the emphasis is on the interactions between the girls and their families rather than on some burgeoning (and age-appropriate) relationships.

Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge

Really lovely classic English childrens' classic I somehow missed. The Linnet children enter and change the lives of the aristocratic but troubled Valerian family, with hints of pagan magic and a great deal a old fashionoed charm.

Never Have I Ever, by Sara Shepard

2nd book in Shepard's ludicrous and delicious YA series. Very different from the hit tv series based on it, in that in the books, Sutton Mercer is dead, and her ghost is the narrator. Fun guilty pleasure reading.  

The Vault, by Ruth Rendell

Satisfying Ruth Rendell. Much better than recent ones, and the change of having Wexford retired and assisting rather than directing a case added something interesting to the story.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis

Fascinating look at how the global recession has affected places such as Iceland,  Greece, Ireland, Germany and California. Michael Lewis is such an accessable writer, and makes this disaster tourism book as entertaining as it is informative. Great insights into the background of the recession have me reading his The Big Short right now, but he is such a clear writer that I feel much more aware of what the f is going on- a bit more alarmed, too, but much more informed.

How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend, by Gary Ghislain

Fantastic, bizarre and wonderful YA. David falls in love with an alien who has come to earth to kidnap Johnny Depp and take him back to her planet- but even with this absurd set up, the book was really good and even touching in parts.

Wicked Autumn, by G. M. Malliet

Fantastic start to a new series by the seriously talented cosy mystery writer G. M. Malliet. As much as I hope she will continue the St. Just series, I really enjoyed the detailed Christie-reminiscent village setting of Wicked Autumn.