Book Review: M Train by Patti Smith

M Train

M Train by Patti Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Patti Smith’s M Train inhabits a space so intimate that it’s typically found only inside our own minds–a swirl of dreams, longing, pithy observances, profound confrontations, mad wishes, spontaneous convictions, and ruminations on the tasks and artifacts of life. A place where we make sense of a life’s worth of words consumed. A place where we imagine what we might make and in that imagining make something else. This book is a love story, a catalogue of art, an ode to lost objects, a process journal, a coffee-drinking manifesto, and yet also none of these things. Smith’s voice is that of a woman who transcends definition and is so sure of her own course that she fairly manifests it out of thin air. She comprehends her own power in a way that is staggering. This book is the same: it is impossible to describe, but it makes meaning in its own way, on its own time.

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Book Review: The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish by Emily Voigt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This absorbing oddity of nonfiction starts out as an inquiry into the absurd and even dangerous obsession with a single species and ends up broadening into an exploration of the human view toward categorizing and assigning value to all kinds of species. It is an odd and thrilling amalgam of real-life adventure with an eccentric cast of modern explorers and the retraced steps of some of biology’s defining pioneers of taxonomy. The lengths that Voight undertook to get her story are a testament to the dark power of the quest for near-unobtainable rarity. It is a strange, colorful, and oftentimes quietly sad portrait of the human need to “own” the world around us.

The truth is, the pleasure of finding new species is too great; it is morally dangerous; for it brings with it the temptation to look on the thing found as your own possession all but your own creation… as if all the angels in heaven had not been admiring it, long before you were born or thought of.

-Charles Kingsley, 1855

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Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay


Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tigana is a sparkling gem of 1990s epic fantasy. The scope of this novel is completely dizzying–one of Kay’s strengths is complexity of, well, everything. The characters are complex in their motivations and ethical moorings. The power structure is complex with its conflicts of religion, economic pressures, and shifting allegiance to shifting rulers. The setting is complex with richly-drawn nuances of distinct regions’ geography and culture. The movement of time is complex with plots literally decades in the making, thousands of small decisions leading to hoped-for outcomes. Oh, and there’s magic, too. And secret identities. And so much more. With that comes a lot of pages: 673 in my edition. It’s not the leanest book in the world, and could probably have come under a more ruthless editing knife, but goodness is it satisfying. Kay explores the question of how deeply rooted the memory of our native lands can be within our sense of identity, and ends up with a politically interesting, romantically engaging beast of an adventure.

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Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang


Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Ted Chiang’s sparkling collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I knew I had to pick up this new volume. These stories are also quite good, solidifying Chiang as an important modern voice in science fiction. His writing is spare and efficient, but packs an incredible punch. His concepts are lofty and complex in a way that will satisfy science fiction classicists. Several of these stories will remain in my mind, predominantly because of the way they approach really important ethical ideas. My favorites were…

“Exhalation”: There’s a reason this is the title story. It’s really gorgeous, melding the concept of body and machine in a fascinating way.

“The Lifecyle of Software Objects”: We are on the threshold of a society that will have new ethical problems concerning the human relationship with AI. This story takes that age-old science fiction trope and explores it in a very personal way.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”: This story was written for a science fiction short story collection based around objects from an imagined museum exhibit. (I’ve since learned that it’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and I really want to read it.) This story manages to feel historically authentic, be completely heartbreaking, and be a little funny too.

“Omphalos”: The overlap between ardent faith and scientific discovery is one that I find very compelling, and this story explores that idea in a very satisfying way.

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Book Review: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the serious large-scope fiction writer, this guide is a treasure. Lusciously designed, packed with different perspectives, humorous and hyper-serious at turns, it’s a fabulous textbook to turn to when muddling through the task of bringing the fantastical to life through writing. Jeff VanderMeer really lays everything he’s got on the table–generous to a fault with comprehensive inclusion of information on his process and philosophy as a writer.

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Book Review: How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

How to Make Friends with the Dark

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many YA novels, this one starts with a protagonist whose mother dies. But what makes this title stand apart is the way it lingers and sinks into the grief that actually accompanies such a monstrous loss. Grief is not an aspect of the plot line in Glasgow’s How to Make Friends with the Dark; rather, it is the plot line… the horrible, inescapable plot line that all of us must follow at one time or another. As such, it’s a painful read, but also a revelatory and important one. I applaud Glasgow for having the bravery to go here, in such a realistic and three-dimensional way. This book is about death and the aftermath–no sugared-over love story among the rubble, just the truth.

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Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood is a writer who we need, for so many reasons, and she proves that yet again in The Testaments. Both satisfying and unnerving, true and false, saccharine and scathing, this book gives fans of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more time to look around Gilead and to imagine how we might act were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. There’s a veil between this dystopian reality and our own which, at times, can feel quite thin. We’re lucky that Atwood is the one pulling the curtain back for us. She is a consummate storyteller, one of the finest of our age.

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Book Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Neverworld Wake

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was not prepared for everything that I got out of Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake. It’s a genre-defying YA title, mostly realistic but somehow also mostly fantasy, a little sci-fi, a lot mystery, and just an extremely interesting ride. Pessl takes the concept of a time loop anomaly and applies it to a group of wealthy, privileged college kids who all have something to hide. When they get trapped together in a recurring day inside a kind of half-alive limbo with a ticking clock, all manner of possibilities provide themselves. It’s a thrilling and satisfyingly fun read. The plot is admirably complex, and will delight fans of unpredictable stories with larger than life characters. In other words, this book is like the hippest game of Clue ever played.

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Book Review: After the Fall by Kate Hart

After the Fall

After the Fall by Kate Hart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the Fall is a gossipy YA read with a real beating heart behind it. The way that the narration plays with our perceptions of the characters ultimately reveals a criticism of stereotypes, a reminder that people are rarely what we think we know about them. I appreciate the way Hart refuses to shy away from edgier content–her treatment of sexual assault from multiple perspectives has important and strong messages for her young adult readers. This book could be the difference that makes a kid speak up about something important.

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Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best YA books capture what it really feels like to be young, and The Poet X does that with a hand so light you didn’t even know it touched you until you close the back cover. The book verges on metafiction, as it’s written in verse, essentially representing the notebook full of poems that the main character Xiomara carries with her everywhere as she comes into her artistic identity. Acevedo is so good at capturing the overwhelming crescendo of adolescence–suddenly we have to figure out about God and love and who our parents really are as people and what to do with an adult body and terror and pride and what we’re willing to risk ourselves for. Xiomara has all of that chaos right in front of her, and we get to ride along as she figures it all out, full of doubt but also full of power. A resounding celebration of the solace and strength that comes from writing.

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