Review: Giants’ Bread

Giants' Bread
Giants’ Bread by Mary Westmacott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #13 for 2017/#6 for the Mt TBR Challenge
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge Task: A book published before you were born
PopSugar’s Ultimate Reading Challenge Prompts:
– A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long
– A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
– A book written by someone you admire
– A book with an eccentric character
– A book that’s been mentioned in another book
Personal Reading Challenge Task: A book with a woman on the cover
Better World Books Challenge Prompt: A book by a female writer
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge Prompt: A book published between 1900 and 1950

I must say that I am not pleased with Dell’s production quality for this book. For starters, the correct title is Giant’s Bread — singular possessive. All other editions got it right, and it’s the only usage that makes any sense at all, as it is lifted straight from the prologue. And then the text itself is full of typos. “Titantic,” really? And “lesé majestè”?? And those are just the interesting ones. There’s a garden-variety oops on every other page, practically. FFS, Dell, were you all stoned when you slapped this thing together? Oh, wait, with that ugly-ass Binger cover, I don’t even have to look to know this volume is a product of the sixties, so of course you were all stoned.

The story itself is a little harder to rate and review. I’ve been a fan of Christie’s mysteries and nonfiction since I was a kid, and I have read many of her books at least twice. But I had no idea what to expect from her “romance” fiction. I’m not sure this qualifies as a romantic story, but I’m also not the right person to ask for that determination. I will just say it was an interesting departure from her mysteries. It opens with a prologue featuring a stunning new operatic composition, a work of musical genius, and then the rest of the book shows us how it came to be and what sacrifices were involved.

It’s really quite a rambling soap opera at times, and it’s not at all a quick, easy read. I got the distinct impression that Christie was working through a lot of her personal issues on the page, so while the insights were fascinating, there was also a weight of catharsis that made it slow going in spots. Actually, what I would love to see is the Downton Abbey crew tackle this and make a mini-series of it. They could easily even out the pacing, like where Christie spends way too long detouring into Nell’s life as a nurse in WWI. (Like I said, interesting stuff, but dude, Nell’s not the main character. Get back to Vernon!) And given how they handled the whole Aldridge wedding storyline, with some of Lady Sinderby’s pointed comments not terribly unlike Mrs Levinne’s, I think they could even deal with the story’s potentially anti-Semitic tones.

The Levinne storyline is another thing that makes this book a bit of a puzzle. The anti-Semitism that runs rampant throughout Golden Age mysteries gets talked about a lot, but so far in my (re-)reading of the Christie oeuvre, I’m seeing a very different take on how she treats Jewish characters. The Levinnes, for example, are written as very sympathetic characters. Sebastian is Vernon’s stalwart friend, whom Vernon’s beloved cousin Josephine accepts readily. It’s clear that Christie likes the Levinnes and is unhappy about the discrimination they are forced to suffer at the hands of less progressive characters. Yet Christie uses some really offensive stereotypes in describing the Levinnes and other Jewish characters. Some of them don’t even make any sense. Like the lisping — where did that come from? For now, I think I’m going to put down her seemingly anti-Semitic passages to a combination of naïveté and a too-subtle sense of irony.

Despite it being somewhat problematic and often depressing, I did enjoy Vernon’s journey of self-discovery and fulfillment of his artistic vision. It’s always a treat when Christie indulges her more artsy tendencies, and I often wonder what amazing works we would have if she’d never taken up writing and had instead unleashed her talent at a piano or an easel.

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Review: New Beginnings

New Beginnings
New Beginnings by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #12 for 2017; #5 for the Mt TBR Challenge
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge Task: The first book in a series that you haven’t read before
Better World Books Prompts:
– A book under 200 pages
– A fantasy novel
– A book by a female writer
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge Prompts:
– A fantasy novel
– A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+
Possible Book Bingo Squares:
– A book with a female heroine
– A book with multiple perspectives
PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge Prompts:
– A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
– A book involving a mythical creature
– A book written by someone you admire
– The first book in a series you haven’t read before
– A book with an eccentric character

I am clearly not in the target demographic for this book, and I’ve never been really into the whole angel thing, but I quite enjoyed this middle-grades fantasy novel. Probably because Schwab presented the angel narrative as pretty straightforward fantasy and didn’t go in for a bunch of religious crap. (So if you’re a huge fan of Touched by an Angel, you will likely be disappointed by the lack of condescension and proselytizing.)

I thought it was interesting that Aria (our “everyday angel”) seemed to be not just new to angeling but also new to existing in general, at least on any human plane. So it was fun to watch her adjust to her own humanity as she was learning how to be an angel and also how to help her assignment, Gabby, find her sense of self. Not to mention, just a little bit ironic.

I’m glad Schwab didn’t portray the adult characters as enemy combatants. Gabby’s mother was just overwhelmed and in need of a break herself, and she and Henry’s parents were simply doing what they felt was most supportive of their sick children. Even the teacher who caught Gabby in her lies was reasonable and compassionate.

This is a sweet and very well written tale of self-discovery during a phase of childhood that is difficult under even the best circumstances. I intend to pass my copy along to a friend who has a 9-year-old daughter.

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Review: Planetfall

Planetfall
Planetfall by Emma Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #11 for 2017
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge Task: A book recommended by a librarian or bookseller
Personal Reading Challenge Tasks:
– A book with a woman on the cover
– A book set on another planet
Better World Books Challenge Task: A book by a female writer
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge Prompts:
– A book set more than 5000 miles from my location
– A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
Possible Book Bingo Squares:
– A Book About Mental Illness
– A Book with an LGBTQA Character
PopSugar Challenge Prompts:
– A book with one of the four seasons in the title
– A book with an unreliable narrator
– A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
– A book with an eccentric character

(view spoiler)

Much of the time when I finish a book and can’t quite decide how I feel about it, my feelings tend to get more negative as I mull it over. This book seems to have me doing the opposite. There’s still a lot about the book — especially the ending! — that I don’t understand, but I am beginning to think that that is part of Newman’s point. I don’t think we’re supposed to fully understand why Renata did half the stuff she did, and especially the stuff at the very end, but the more I let it all just kind of stew together in my brain, the more it feels like it makes a weird kind of fucked-up sense. Newman uses the metaphor of mosaic in the story, and much like the cover image of a woman’s face made up of tiny little objects, everything eventually coalesces into meaning.

This would be an interesting book to re-read. As an audience, we get only Renata’s perspective, and she’s pretty clear from the get-go that she’s not exactly a reliable narrator. But despite her best efforts to hide things from us as well as herself, she is constantly telling us almost everything we need to know. Newman is just that good at tilting our perspective so that we’re disoriented enough to not catch on as quickly as we might normally. Newman is also having so much fun showing us this new world she created that we get caught up in that as well and get distracted.

I think this book would have something for lots of different readers, not just science fiction fans. There is a great deal of futuristic tech and exobiology involved, yes, but there are many layers to this story. At its core, its about the human experience and what it means. It doesn’t get much broader than that. Just know that it also means that the ending will be pretty dang ambiguous.

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Review: The Steampunk Tarot

The Steampunk Tarot
The Steampunk Tarot by Barbara Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #10 for 2017
PopSugar Challenge Prompts:
– A book with career advice
– A book involving a mythical creature
– A book with pictures
– A book you bought on a trip
– A book based on mythology
Book Bingo Square: A Book with Pictures
Personal Challenge Task: A book with a woman on the cover
Better World Books: A book by a female writer
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book with pictures
Abandoned Book Rescue: Abandoned more than once

This is a great resource for tarot in general, not just this particular deck. And it’s a gorgeous deck, with some unusual detail work and fascinating imagery. Moore’s commentary draws out some amazing insights from Fell’s artwork, and I love how she weaves so much together meaningfully yet leaves so much open to interpretation.

You really don’t have to be into tarot or divination to appreciate a lot of things in this book. There are discussions of art history, myths and legends, the steampunk aesthetic, and subconscious associations. But if you are into tarot (or looking to get into it), you will find a wealth of information here. I enjoyed Moore’s suggestions for spreads, especially the “Difference Engine” spread, which also keeps to the steampunk theme of the book and the deck.

This book is normally packaged with the deck, but if one were to have only the book, they might be a little disappointed that the book’s illustrations are not in color. Of course, the expense for color illustrations is a little hard to justify when the intent is for the book to be a companion to the deck. But if you do find yourself with a deck-less book, never fear, this is well worth the read on its own merits.

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Review: The Wonder

The Wonder
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #9 for 2017
GenreLand Game: Romance
Possible Book Bingo Squares:
– A 2016 Bestseller
– A Book with a Female Heroine
PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompts:
– A book with career advice (nursing, science in general)
– A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
– A bestseller from 2016
– A book with an eccentric character
Better World Books Task: A book by a female writer
Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book with career advice

I can’t say a whole lot without being spoilery, so I will make only a few observations here:
1. With some careful editing, this could have been a kick-ass novella instead of a so-so novel. The pacing was awkward and full of repetition about Lib’s sense of irony and the clash of science and religion.
2. It was surprising how dense Lib was at times. I occasionally wanted to smack her.
3. I was also surprised that I rather liked the romance storyline.
4. I liked the ending, but I think the story would have been much stronger if it had ended in a way I probably wouldn’t like nearly as much.

Would I recommend it? To some readers, sure, but it’s definitely not for everybody. If you aren’t much interested in Catholic tradition (or, conversely, you are heavily invested in Catholic tradition), you probably won’t enjoy this book.

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Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #8 for 2017
Better World Books Challenge Task: A book by a person of color
Personal Reading Challenge: The first book you see in a bookstore
Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge Prompts:
– A book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative
– A book set more than 5000 miles from your location
Possible Book Bingo Squares:
– A 2016 Bestseller
– An Author’s Debut
– An Audiobook
– A Book Written by a Celebrity
– A Book by an Author of Color
PopSugar Challenge Prompts:
– An audiobook
– A book by a person of color
– A book with a subtitle
– A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
– A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
– A book written by someone you admire
– A bestseller from 2016
– A book about an immigrant or refugee
– A book about a difficult topic

I started this book with the thought of using it for the humor challenge as well, but this turned out to be a surprisingly serious book. Sure, there were some episodes of Noah’s childhood that he presented with his trademark comic delivery, and picturing little Trevor in my mind made me smile, but the humor was quite dark. Even when it was funny, I found I had a hard time actually laughing. I mean, the book is about growing up colored during apartheid in South Africa. How grim is that?

It’s flat-out amazing that Noah was able to survive and escape such a dangerous environment, and then he went on to thrive. But his personal history certainly explains the cynicism that drives his humor, and I can see why Steward picked him to take over The Daily Show. The man has real depth, and he has witnessed firsthand the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, so he knows the importance of calling them out and exposing them to the light of day, pointing out how ridiculous they are. He’s our Professor Lupin, teaching us with a cabinet full of boggarts.

If you can possibly listen to the audiobook version of this, do so. Noah dedicated this book to his mother, and his love for her comes out beautifully in the warmth of his voice. He skips around enough that the story line can be hard to follow at times, but everything ultimately revolves around his mother, and he always comes back to her as he tells his own story. Fans of The Daily Show will enjoy this book, of course, but I would also recommend this to anybody wanting to learn more about South African apartheid or with an interest in family dynamics or stories of dealing with adversity.

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Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #7 for 2017
Personal Challenge: An award-winning book
GenreLand Game: Romance
Better World Books Challenge Prompts:
– A young adult novel
– A book by a female writer
Book Riot’s Read Harder Prompts:
– A debut novel
– An LGBTQ+ romance novel
Possible Book Bingo Squares:
– A Book with an Award
– A Book with an LGBTQA Character
– An Author’s Debut
Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book that you can finish in a day
PopSugar Challenge Prompts:
– A book with a red spine
– A book about a difficult topic

This is a sweet and wittily told romance story about a closeted gay teen who is being blackmailed about his secret budding email romance with another boy at the same school. What makes it even more interesting is that the sweethearts use code names and don’t even know who the other is. Albertalli makes effective use of red herrings to keep everybody guessing, though I did figure it out quite a bit before Simon did.

After the on-the-nose blandness of my previous read, Albertalli’s narrative voice was a refreshing change of pace. She used teen-boy-speak in clever ways to get her point across and was still able to make each character’s voice distinct. I did get a bit muddled about some of the side romances among Simon’s friends, but that may be in part due to my advanced age. Or perhaps I was always like that, even in high school.

This story made me think a lot about how different high school social life is now from when I was a kid. As much as I use social media now for planning my life, and despite being somewhat early (compared to my peers) to the online world in the ’80s, the idea of social media apps being such a ubiquitous teen communications hub is completely foreign to me. In retrospect, I had an insane level of personal privacy, and it’s kind of sad that today’s kids don’t even really know what it is to have a private life. As an introvert, I find the idea of having to be “on” like that at all times downright disturbing.

Albertalli also handles lots of side issues really well here. Like how various families set boundaries and consequences for pushing at or violating them. And how important it can be not only to communicate, but to be open to communication that might not be comfortable. And how people will surprise you by being complex.

This story ranged from silly to sobering, but it was a fun, quick read. The only reason I’m giving it only 4 stars is that I’m just too old to appreciate a lot of the teen angst. But I’d totally recommend this to any teenager.

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