Wednesday, July 18, 2018

[Book] Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

Book cover
Fourteen year-old Doreen Green is back in this second adventure of Squirrel Girl.  Her parents are a little more used to the idea that she has super abilities, but are still nervous parents.  Her Best Human Friend Forever (BHFF), Ana Sofia, is also a friend of Thor, and Agents of SHIELD show up. Her Best Squirrel Friend Forever (BSFF), Tippy Toe, also joins in to help her solve the big mystery.  So, Marvel's comic universe is in full swing in this delightful return to young Squirrel Girl adventures.

For those who don't already know: Squirrel Girl has a tail like a Squirrel (but human sized) that she stuffs into her pants to pass as "normal", she can talk to squirrels, and she has the proportional strength of a squirrel.  Squirrel Girl, while super strong, always tries to use her wit and intelligence before resorting to an actual fight.

Doreen Green is just trying to navigate middle school as a normal kid while her super-hero persona, Squirrel Girl is so-popular the other students have set up a fan club that goes out on patrols to try to see Squirrel Girl in action.  Everyone is excited about a new mall opening near town, but before the mall opens, Squirrel Girl needs to deal with LASER LADY.

Bonus: There's a sub-plot here that feels like a nod to Jason Reynolds' book Miles Morales: Spider-Man, while taking the story in a very different direction.  This may not have been on purpose, but I like to think that it was.

In case it isn't clear, I highly recommend this book.  I also suggest picking up the first book, but there's no references to the first book that are not explained in this second book.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

[Book] The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover (paperback)
This is the 1989 book that later became a movie (which I never saw).  This won the Booker Prize.  We follow a quintessential British Butler named Stevens sometime after World War 2 on a journey to look up an ex-employee.  The journey itself is beautifully and descriptively written.

While the main thread is the journey, the bulk of the story is Stevens' recollection of his past.  From stories about his father, to many descriptive stories about how professional he is, to his many interactions with both employees of the house, Darlington Hall, and the owners of his house, especially the first one, Lord Darlington.

At its core, this is a sweet story that - having read it four months ago - still sticks with me, and I still think of it occasionally.  In some ways, I feel this was a life story of someone who has seen a lot, but not seen anything extraordinary.  However, in other ways it is much more expansive than that, in that it deeply explores how being too close to something can keep you from seeing what it really is.

I do recommend this book if you are the kind of person who doesn't mind being haunted by a good story.  When I first read the book, it seemed like nothing happened, but it kept coming back to me and I realize now that nothing happened in between the three or four stories that were beautifully told throughout the narrative.  If you demand some action, though, this book isn't for you.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

[Food] Homage to Pizza Gone By

Not too far from where I live is a "turn key fully equipped restaurant" for lease.  The restaurant that was there until a few weeks ago was called Pizzaniste.

Pizzaniste had really good pizza.  Gourmet, all fresh ingredients, coal fired, whole-wheat crust as an option; even gluten free as an option.  Partly because they also made custom fresh salads, there were some unexpected ingredients: Real anchovies, fresh basil, artichokes, black beans, corn, cilantro, carrots, chickpeas, eggplant, hard-boiled egg, zucchini and two types of olives to choose from (along with all the other things you might expect every pizza place to have).  The place also had the look of a high-end juice-bar.  Tile and wood, clean glass in front of the food prep area.  Ingredients in refrigerated buckets easily seen and identifiable by the consumer.

Pizzaniste was also surprisingly inexpensive (which may be part of their demise).  They made these 12" personal pizzas, and their specialty vegetarian, "Veg Out" was $11.95.  Less than $1 per inch.  They had this huge bowl of Minestrone soup that they sold for $4.95.  This place was excellent, and I would have paid half-again the price for anything I ordered there it was that good.

However, it wasn't greasy New York street-style pizza.  The first thing I learned about this neighborhood is that the best rated pizza place around here is a place that absolutely specializes in street-pizza.  At Louie & Ernie's Pizza, orange grease runs freely from a bent slice (no pepperoni required), just like they make it for the two buck slices in "the city".  Street-pizza has its place, but I'm not in my 20s anymore, so I have to come at that sparingly.  This neighborhood loves Louie & Ernie.

In their last week, one of their employees pulled me aside and said that I was the only customer who noticed that they were about to close.  The signs were piling up fast.  Early in the year, there were several weeks where several fountain drink flavors ran out.  That was isolated, and eventually fixed, but ... a bad sign.  About a month before they closed, their customer WiFi stopped working, then their branded cups ran out, replaced by cheap purple-green blotch design cups.  I mentioned my suspicion to that employee, and he put on his best face, "they are on order".  When their web-site went offline with no sign of returning, I was deeply concerned.  The last time I went in, and they were out of Parmesan cheese I moaned at everyone, "Oh... it's really over."  That's when he took me aside to tell me that they would be closing as soon as Thursday or Friday.  They were already gone on Thursday evening.

My wife and I miss you, Pizzaniste.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

[Book] eyE Marty by Marty Feldman

Book cover
Marty Feldman is probably most famous for playing Igor in the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein.  He died in 1982, and his autobiography sat in the attic of his widow's home until her death in 2010 when it was discovered by Mark Flanagan.  Flanagan had it transcribed, exactly as it was found, including photo inserts and published without further editing.

This book is in desperate need of editing.  I fully understand why it was published the way it was, but it was one of the hardest books to read that I've ever sat down for.  Here's the thing, I love the comedies he's written for, and I love the comedies he's acted in, but I cannot recommend this book.  Maybe, though, this is exactly what you want to read.

eyE Marty is very much like sitting down in front of someone you don't know very well, and having him simply tell you his entire life story.  It is conversational in tone, which also means that the timeline slips back and forth with little notes like, "before I get to that, I have to go back a few years to mention..."  At which point, conversationally, I wanted to say, "Wait, what year?"  But nobody can answer my inquiry.  It's also not always clear when the back-story is finished and we've come back into the "current" timeline.

The greatest value of this book, is the foreword by Eric Idle.  The foreword is enlightening in its explanation of the things that happened after Marty finished this book.  It was finished just before he left for Mexico to film what would become his last movie, Yellowbeard.  Also, the foreword was well edited.

Well, at very least, here is a nod to all the book editors out there.  You folks rock!  Thanks for keeping the narrative flowing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

[Book] Ohio by Stephen Markley

Ohio book cover
Book Cover
This follows four main characters who had gone to high school together back in the early 2000s, and on one night in 2013, all came back home to their hometown of New Canaan, Ohio.

After the prelude, the first section of the book follows Bill Ashcraft, a drifter who is loaded up on drugs.  Appropriate to the character - for the parts where we are following his narrative - the story is jumping back and forth between his past and present with no direct warning in-between, full of non-sequiturs, and frankly - hard to follow.  In my Advanced Reader's Copy, this section is a quarter of the book, and there were several times during this part in which I came close to giving up entirely on the book.  I'm saying it was well written, but purposely hard to follow in places.

The rest of the book is much more straight forward.  We are re-introduced to several characters that appeared in the Bill section, with mostly overlapping timelines.  The story still switches between past and present with little warning, but because the narrative is sober, there is easier context to follow.  I found myself quite eager to continue once the drugged part of the narrative was over.

The past... the parts where these characters are recalling the things that happened in high school reminded me of watching Riverdale, but darker and way more adult.  There is a lot of things going on, gossip, love, infatuation, cheating, and conspiracy.

There are politics and diverse political viewpoints throughout this book from many different characters.  The most obvious view of a die-hard liberal is the drug addled Bill Ashcraft, who comes off as more an anarchist than a liberal.  While the many views of core conservatives included a deeply racist, radical that got his start from family money; an assistant pastor who quotes Leviticus to his gay sister and Rick Brinklan who puts patriotism and following a Republican president above all other political considerations.  The political alignments on these character's other traits felt like caricature instead of character, which is sad because its the only other aspect (after the drugged narrative) that took me out of the story.  There's a lot of politics in this story for it not to be about politics, and the static nature here is offset by the personal relationships.

There are friendships, loves, love affairs, fights, hugs, rape and lots of consensual sex.  While it felt like a lot of sex (especially during the high-school years), the inter-personal relationships were dynamic, complex, and the emotions were nuanced.  Relationships affected other relationships, affairs had consequences.  Rape is not glorified but brutal, and the explanations, excuses and rumors felt all so real.

While there aren't a lot of action sequences, the ones that exist were surprisingly easy to follow.  I, as a reader, often have trouble following fast paced action sequences, and even the ones that occurred during the drugged narrative were crisp and clear, and I felt I understood what was happening the whole time.

Ultimately, this book explores the ripples that happen because of loss.  A job, a whole factory, a lover gone away without explanation or a friend lost to war.  Innocence less lost, but enthusiastically tossed aside, with the emotional consequences no less for irreverence.  This exploration of loss is the theme within this book that really resonates with me.  There's also a plot-line of this book that is a mystery, which will satisfy those who enjoy some mystery as well.

I haven't figured out where to go with the actual rating of books on this blog.  Despite my criticism, the overall story works, and I'm glad I stuck it out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

[Book] Catching Stars by Cayla Keenan

Book cover
The world building is probably the thing I liked the most about Catching Stars.  There are people who have magical abilities and a larger group of people who don't.  Within magic users, there are different types of magic users.  There are kingdoms and politics, palace intrigue, roving gangs, sailing ships, petty rivalries and fierce prejudices.  Though the story is quite different, the emotional feel of the world is similar to the book Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley.  Take that basic world with its gritty dangers, add magic and remove the detailed economic modelling.  None of this would be interesting without a good story to go with it.

The story is very action packed, every chapter switching back and forth between the perspective of the two main characters, Jayin and Maddix, and the author does this very well.  The book starts off establishing Maddix, and throwing him in front of very powerful magic.  This quick action sets the pace for the rest of the book.

This is the first book in a series, which I say because I wasn't actually aware of it when I read this.  If you want a book to have a climax, this book delivers.  If you want a book to have a resolution, THAT part is probably found in book two.  I was much more disappointed by this when I expectantly turned the page to find the heading ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS than I am now, a few days later.  Now, honestly, I'm just looking forward to the next book.

Nitty gritty:  There was one important thing that was introduced in the middle of the story that I missed.  I think I missed it because it was introduced in the middle of fast paced action scenes.  I tell myself this often, but I need to slow down and read carefully.  I also spotted at least two places where it seemed like a negative was missing, which had me re-reading and hunting context to make sure I understood correctly what was going on.  Maybe I mis-read something, but watch for those.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

[Book] The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman

I got an advanced readers copy of this book from the first day of BookExpo.  It is supposed to be released in September 2018, but that is preliminary, and the date could slip.

Book cover
I don't usually read true-crime genre books.  If I had never read the Nabokov fiction, Lolita, I would have never been interested enough in this book to read The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman.

A note about Lolita

It's been a few years, but I have always been uncomfortable with the book, Lolita.  It didn't present to me in the same way it presented to so many other people.  To me, it was a beautifully written tragedy in which the narrator has circumstances that show him in a better light, but we can't trust the narrator.  I have said to people that I regret having read that book.

The Real Lolita

This book contrasts the journey of Vladimir Nabokov and his wife VĂ©ra while Nabokov wrote his controversial book, Lolita, with the journey of Sally Horner who was kidnapped in 1948 and taken across country herself.  In some ways the book is a little game of what did Nabokov know about Horner, and when did he know it.

I feel better about having subjected to myself to the fictional Lolita after reading this book.  I say this because this book points out the things that made me most uncomfortable about Lolita, and in some ways sets them right.

Ultimately, though this is a true crime story about an 11 year old Sally Horner and her abductor Frank LaSalle.  While I can't recommend the fictional Lolita, I absolutely can recommend The Real Lolita to anyone who has read the fiction, or who is interested in true crime stories.  This book is very well written, and given it still has an edit pass or two to go, I am sure it will be even better in its final version.