reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

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the beautiful bureaucrat

I couldn’t resist checking out The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips after seeing it all over the book blogs, despite the mixed reviews. Edited from Goodreads:

In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as “The Database.” After a long period of joblessness, she’s not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread. As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine’s work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond.

I feel like I’m in the middle on this one. It wasn’t as crazy and out there as I was expecting, and not quite as good overall as I was hoping. But I did like it enough to finish it (very short anyway, only about 170 pages) and I was left thinking afterwards. There seemed to be quite a few religious themes, or more like subtle undertones. For most of the story, Phillips takes the reader along on a compelling mental thriller, set in a familiar yet slightly dystopian future. The money struggles and futile, mindless job toiling will be recognizable to many in today’s economic climate… but it is quirky with enough twists and turns to make it interesting and not boring.

I wish the characters had been more fleshed out (they were described with one major physical attribute—bad breath, pink outfit, etc.) and the anagram wordplay was so annoying (“Gonna yin. Nag inn yo.” like that) that I started skipping over those parts. The end wasn’t executed as well as all that lead up to it; it was rushed, conveniently tied up. I feel like The Beautiful Bureaucrat could have either been shorter or longer than it was. Despite these minor quibbles, it was a real page turner right up until the end.

Read from September 5 to 6, 2015.

the thief of always

I always seem to find my way to at least one YA book a year, and Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always was a great pick—right up my alley. From Goodreads:

Mr. Hood’s Holiday House has stood for a thousand years, welcoming countless children into its embrace. It is a place of miracles, a blissful rounds of treats and seasons, where every childhood whim may be satisfied… There is a price to be paid, of course, but young Harvey Swick, bored with his life and beguiled by Mr. Hood’s wonders, does not stop to consider the consequences. It is only when the House shows it’s darker face—when Harvey discovers the pitiful creatures that dwell in its shadows—that he comes to doubt Mr. Hood’s philanthropy. The House and its mysterious architect are not about to release their captive without a battle, however. Mr. Hood has ambitious for his new guest, for Harvey’s soul burns brighter than any soul he has encountered in a thousand years…

The Thief of Always was one of my husband’s all-time favorites as a child, one he had read many times. The night he started his recent re-read a month or so ago, he quoted the first line to me before he even opened the book:

The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.

Great opening. I wish I had read this as a kid! This was the first Clive Barker book I’ve read, and it is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman or Lemony Snicket in its inherent creepiness and sense of dread… while somehow managing to be kind of cute in a way. It’s a very imaginative story with twists and turns, and I’ve thought of it quite a few times since I finished. I loved the dank danger of the lake, and the rapid changing of the seasons. If I have a quibble, I would have liked to learned more about some of the characters, Lulu especially—the quiet girl Harvey encounters who was at the Holiday House when he arrived. And the backstories of Rictus, Marr, Jive, Carna, and the rest.

Another thing that was really great about the copy I read was Barker’s own black-and-white illustrations. They were defined, nuanced, and greatly enhanced the macabre scenes and menacing characters.

I was disappointed to learn that attempts at making a The Thief of Always movie have fallen through! It would translate fantastically to film, especially since this was a book readers of all different ages can enjoy.

Read from April 9 to 12, 2015.

audiobook mini-reviews: shovel, ocean

In addition to the three short books I read on paper and electronically, I listened to a couple of audiobooks on the road last week and on my rehearsal commutes this week, rounding out my reading for 2014:

I picked Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh for our drive to Wisconsin partly because it was fairly short, and also because it seemed like a plot that both Nick and I would enjoy. While not the greatest example of post-apocalyptic literature I’ve encountered, Shovel Ready was still a fun, action-packed read that was perfect for our time in the car. The book follows Spademan, a garbageman-turned-hitman in a New York City that was decimated by a surprise dirty bomb in Times Square. The wealthy can hook themselves up to a virtual world (a la Ready Player One) while everyone else ekes by out on the chaotic, dangerous streets. Spademan is hired to kill the daughter of a famous evangelist, and thus begins the tumultuous, mysterious adventure in Shovel Ready. [Listened to audiobook from December 19 to 26, 2014.]

I just finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman today, another audiobook I chose for its brevity and the story sounded pretty interesting. This is the first Gaiman work I’ve read. Generally I enjoyed Ocean, though I’m not sure I was compelled enough to seek out more Gaiman. It leaned just a bit too YA and fantasy for my tastes. In Ocean, an unnamed middle-aged man returns to his hometown for a funeral, and ends up stopping by the street on which he grew up and visiting the home of a wise-beyond-her-years, apparently magical girl named Lettie Hempstock, with whom he was friends. At her house, he speaks with one of Lettie’s family members and long-forgotten events start coming to light again. Ocean straddles several genres, with elements of fantasy, horror, adventure, and mystery, ultimately boiling down to a battle between good and evil and the dissociation existing between childhood and adulthood. I have to say it was a treat to listen to Gaiman himself narrate this audio version! I think his reading made it a better experience than paper would have been for me in this case. [Listened to audiobook from December 27 to 31, 2014.]

as you wish

Our fantastic indie bookshop Rainy Day Books hosted actor Cary Elwes a couple weeks ago here in Kansas City on his book tour for As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, and I couldn’t resist attending! From Goodreads:

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes a first-person account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

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Confession: Fred Savage was my first celebrity crush. [Photo]

Who doesn’t love The Princess Bride? It’s definitely a film I hold dear to my heart, one I’ve seen countless times and bonded over with friends and family. Somehow this movie never gets old! I finally got around to reading the book as a sophomore in high school in one sitting on a plane ride to Europe, and it was just as beautiful as the movie, of course. After reading Cary Elwes’s As You Wish, I had the natural urge to watch the movie again and eventually I’ll have to dig out my copy of the book and reread it.

The book tour event with Elwes was a lot of fun! There was medieval music performed by musicians in period dress, an elaborate sword fighting demonstration, a short documentary, and an hour-long conversation with Elwes before finally a book signing. Elwes was just as charming and good humored as you would expect. He related some of the stories we could expect to find in the book, answered questions, and even did a few impressions of Rob Reiner and André the Giant. When I got up to the table for the book signing, Elwes immediately noticed my Green Bay Packers shirt (it was a Sunday, I always wear a Packers shirt to support the team on game days!) and excitedly gave me a high five! “I love the Packers! Aaron’s a fan.” (Cue cute, irresistible smile.) I had a great time!

As for the book itself, it was the nicest book about the nicest people having the nicest experience making the nicest movie. It’s a sweet, uplifting read, and any fan of the movie or original novel will love going behind-the-scenes with As You Wish. The stories of André the Giant off-camera, the intense preparation for Elwes and Patinkin for the “Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times,” and the saga of getting the film made in the first place especially captured my attention. Now, I can’t say it’s the greatest piece of writing I’ve ever read—the continual praise of everyone and everything hinged on being a bit too saccharine and quickly became repetitive. Elwes would note something in the narrative, then another person on the film (or two) would repeat it in an inset. But I do believe it’s all genuine. This tactic may come across better in the audiobook version—I bet it would be cool to listen to the cast and crew recount all these great memories.

Read it! As You Wish was great fun and conjured up wonderful memories for me.

Read from November 2 to 4, 2014.

something wicked this way comes

My friend Anthony and I were at a library book sale last summer, saw two copies of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for a dollar, and decided to have ourselves a little readalong. One year later, Anthony is preparing to move to Canada and we finally decided to get on it! From Goodreads:

A masterpiece of modern Gothic literature, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the memorable story of two boys, James Nightshade and William Halloway, and the evil that grips their small Midwestern town with the arrival of a “dark carnival” one Autumn midnight. How these two innocents, both age 13, save the souls of the town (as well as their own), makes for compelling reading on timeless themes. What would youdo if your secret wishes could be granted by the mysterious ringmaster Mr. Dark? Bradbury excels in revealing the dark side that exists in us all, teaching us ultimately to celebrate the shadows rather than fear them. In many ways, this is a companion piece to his joyful, nostalgia-drenchedDandelion Wine, in which Bradbury presented us with one perfect summer as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, he deftly explores the fearsome delights of one perfectly terrifying, unforgettable autumn.

lt’s , featuring the most ridiculous hashtag ever! We had a lot of fun on Twitter and then a great discussion last week after we were both finished. I’ll let the tweets speak for themselves:

Final consensus: It was a fun, action-packed story, but I thought I might have been more into it back when I was around 13 years old (of course, I was reading Orwell’s 1984 then… so maybe not so much) and Anthony would recommend The Martian Chronicles to someone new to Bradbury instead. I had only read his Fahrenheit 451 before this, so I couldn’t really say, but I liked 451 better. According to my copy, there is a 1983 film version of Something Wicked; I watched the preview on IMDB and GOOD LORD that music is terrible. But I bet the story translates to film very well. Fun times! Thanks, Anthony!

Read from June 30 to July 5, 2014.