Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Synopsis:

26505302“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…” This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the 22-year-old at the heart of this stunning debut. Shot like a bullet from a mundane past, she’s come to New York to escape the provincial, to take on her destiny. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on and off duty. Her appetites are awakened, for food, wine, knowledge and experience; and she’s pulled into the thrall of two other servers–a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman whose connection to both young lovers is murky, sensual, and overpowering. These two will prove to be Tess’s hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story about discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.

Review:

I had high hopes for this book – it got glowing reviews left and right, and I got the impression it was a fictional Kitchen Confidential for waiters. The first half kind of reads like that but it soon peters out into nothingness.

The strong start: a young woman arrives in New York and falls into a restaurant job, learning how to be a back waiter with a motley group of coworkers. I used to sling coffee so the controlled chaos that erupts when the health inspector shows up rings true. Don’t touch the fridges! Throw everything out! I especially like a scene where Tess is trying to have a quiet lunch but the guy next to her keeps trying to strike up a conversation.

“What are you reading?”

“Okay.” I folded my hands. “I know it’s quiet at your job. You sit in silence at your computer and when you do talk nobody listens to you, so I understand the need to impose yourself on whatever docile-looking female you find yourself in front of, but let me tell you about my job. It’s loud. I lose my voice I talk so much. And people look at me, and they stop me, pretending they know me, they say, Let me guess, are you French, and I shake my head and smile and they say, Are you Swedish? And I shake my head and smile and so on. But this is my day off. I just want quiet. If you want someone to put up with you, may I suggest your waitress because that is lit-ter-ally what you’re paying her to do right now.”

“So you’re sassy, huh?”

(Side note – guys, when a gal tells you to fuck off take it seriously, k? We deal with enough shit.)

Anywho, the language is probably what got Sweetbitter all the advance buzz.

SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.

So if language is your thing you’ll be in love. But if you’re like me and would rather more plot things fall flat around 50% and never pick up again. The story gets away from the restaurant and into the nitty gritty of relationships. Yes, those two people are weird. No, I don’t care about them. Wow, that’s a lot of drugs. And so on.

So let’s chalk this one up as a disappointment with flashes of sentence-level beauty.

The Emperor’s Arrow by Lauren D.M. Smith

Synopsis:

29832434The bride candidates have been summoned. Their numbers are many, yet only one is an Amazzi warrior. Only one would give her life to protect him.

Evony of Aureline, warrior of her people, has no intention of becoming a hideous old man’s bride. Though her people have sworn their loyalty to the legendary emperor Galen, Evony knows little of courts and intrigue. It’s simply not her world.

Yet it’s on the palace training grounds where Evony’s archery skills gain her the respect of soldiers and legates alike. The emperor himself takes notice of the beautiful, ruthless warrior. In turn, the young, steely eyed Galen is nothing at all what Evony expected. As the rivalry among the remaining bride candidates intensifies and the plot for the throne unfolds, Evony must make a grave choice: fulfill her destiny and protect her people or follow her heart and pursue true love.

Either way, the honor of the Amazzi people and the future of the empire now rests with Evony of Aureline. For she is the Emperor’s Arrow.

Review:

This book is like The Selection with fewer dresses and more archers, or Poison Study with many more factions to keep straight.  I like what Smith is going for but unfortunately it falls short for me.

The good:

  • Competence porn, I love thee.  Evony is very good at what she does – shooting things with arrows.  She is kick ass, knows it, and doesn’t let anyone boss her around.  You go, girl.
  • Some of the language usage is neat – I like “brightness” as a title for the young ladies.  It just feels right in the world.

The not-so-good:

  • Evony has no faults and never really messes up.  The only thing she sucks at seems to be gardening, a non-issue when you’re an archer.
  • A lot of potential brides are introduced all at once and I did my best to remember who is who… only to have a sizable number eliminated quickly.  I would have liked it if the important characters were emphasized earlier, with fewer facts about characters that only last a few pages.
  • There are a lot of factions and areas of the kingdom and their names all blend together.  Evony’s speech describing her corner of the world is repeated several times with the same content while other areas are barely described.
  • I love a feminist book, I really do, but this novel wears its ideals on its sleeve, tunic, and ball cap.  You’re hit over the head repeatedly.
  • Galen is boring and hard to understand as a character.  I don’t really get how he falls in love with Evony or believe the relationship at all.
  • The writing isn’t as solid as I would like.

While I can’t heartily recommend this book I’ll still keep an eye out for Smith’s next to see how she grows as a writer.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey

Synopsis:

20820098From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters.

Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns.

Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom—and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read non-fiction that kept drawing me back to see “what happens next” but Atomic is totally that book.

The subject matter helps – nearly every recorded radiological mishap and disaster, both famous and little-known. There are caves of death in the Ozark Mountains circa 1880, radium paint that killed dozens, World War II, Three Mile Island, and of course Fukushima Daiichi. Mahaffey leads us through each, carefully explaining isotopes and reactions in ways that neither make you feel stupid nor dumb down the material.

He states his biases right in the introduction:

The purpose of this book is not to convince you that nuclear power is unsafe beyond reason…. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that nuclear power is even safer than transportation by steam and may be one of the key things that will allow life on Earth to keep progressing; but please form your own conclusions.

I think he’s done a great job of this – I come away from the book thinking that nuclear power has great potential but man, we need to find a way to engineer human stupidity out of it. Whether it’s worth the try is left up to the reader.

I cannot review this book without mentioning the footnotes – don’t skip them! Some are more information or links to videos, and others are tidbits that are awesome but wouldn’t fit anywhere else. For example:

It is difficult to find a cross-section view of the Fermi 1 reactor that does not have a big X drawn through the refueling car. It was not a popular accessory.

I leave you to find the 1975 geek joke on your own.

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

Synopsis:

17751274Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

Review:

Are you looking for a novel with people of color… in space? How about queer people… in space? Or people dealing with chronic disease… in space?

Ding ding ding! This is your book right here. I liked it for all those reasons and more, but there are some parts I wish were done better.

First, the good:

  • A protagonist of color that’s also queer and neuroatypical. Intersectionality, we haz it.
  • The world is interesting and drew me in. There’s spaceships, different worlds, and an interesting mix of two different kinds of technology.
  • Alana is very good at her job but by no means perfect. Her failings feel natural and human. Most of the characters are well-developed with interesting motives and hang ups.
  • The Tangled Axon feels like it lives and breathes. I love it when a ship or environment becomes its own kind of character.
  • Koyanagi’s care and investment in the story comes through loud and clear. I love knowing that it was written by a neuroatypical, queer person of color – she knows of what she speaks. Little lines like this discussion about Ovie make me happy:

“He’s no small canine, that’s for sure, just like he’s no small man.”
“I don’t get it.”
She patted my leg. “You don’t have to. People don’t exist for us to get.”

And the not-so-good:

  • I feel like the author is going for science fiction with romantic elements, as they say, or science fiction with a philosophical bent. But it ends up starting as the latter with a straight up (and oddly unsatisfying) romance plopped into the middle.
  • We don’t learn a lot about Ovie and he feels more like a plot device. I get that his story is probably left to be unspooled in later books, but an air of mystery would be nice. He feels dull even though he’s a kind of man kind of wolf… guy.
  • The plot doesn’t pick up in the way you’d expect, and it stops dead in the middle for that romantic bit. I lost my interest about halfway through and it never really came back. And that thing they’re aiming for seems to be forgotten now and then, more of a general want than Important Thing We Need.
  • I have a lot of unanswered questions. The captain says they’re short on money, but how would they normally earn it? Isn’t someone due an inheritance at the end, and wouldn’t that solve everything? The tech relies on magic a bit too much for my liking, too.
  • Philosophical is cool, but conversations trip over into preachy too many times for my liking. A bit blunt and on the nose.

So as much as I wanted to outright love this book I merely like it. I do hope there’s a sequel so I can see where the characters end up and how Koyanagi’s craft evolves.

Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye by Victoria Laurie (Psychic Eye Mystery #1)

Synopsis:

574955Abby Cooper is a P.I., psychic intuitive. But her insight failed her when she didn’t foresee the death of one of her clients-or that the lead investigator for the case is the gorgeous blind date she just met. Now, with the police suspicious of her abilities and a killer on the loose, Abby’s future looks more uncertain than ever.

Review:

I picked this book hoping for a quirky cozy mystery but ended up in romantic suspense hell.

Continue reading “Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye by Victoria Laurie (Psychic Eye Mystery #1)”

A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

Synopsis:

22237142At the core of A Burglar’s Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.

With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum’s surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar’s Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.

Review:

This book starts with a bang, detailing the life and exploits of George Leonidas Leslie. He moved to New York City in 1869 and, to quote Manaugh, “his first thoughts were that he could use his architectural skills to rob the place blind”.

Picture it – the Brooklyn Bridge under construction, elevators allowing buildings to reach higher and higher into the sky, and Leslie, building full scale replicas of bank lobbies and vaults in vast warehouses to plan his heists. At one point he and his gang were behind 80 percent of all bank robberies in the entire United States.

Oh ho!, I thought. This is going to be a heckuva book with a mix of historical how’d-they-do-its, modern thefts pulled off with technology, and action and adventure at every turn. Right?

Nope.

The rest of the book reads like this:

For the burglar, every building is infinite, endlessly weaving back into itself through meshed gears made of fire escapes and secondary stairways, window frames and screened in porches, pet doors and ventilation shafts, everything interpenetrating, everything mixed together in a fantastic knot. Rooms and halls coiled together like dragons inside of dragons or snakes eating their own tails, rooms opening onto every other room in the city. For the burglar, doors are everywhere. Where we see locks and alarms, they see M.C. Escher.

Repetitions upon repetitions upon… you get the picture. Not thrilling, and kinda boring.

It feels like Manaugh is splitting the difference between two styles and doing neither very well. On one hand there’s some participatory journalism – riding with an LAPD helicopter patrol, taking a lock-picking class. He tries for Mary Roach but lacks her insight and wit. On the other hand there’s some scholarly history stuff, recounting parts of interesting robberies. But only parts. Many times Manaugh leaves out the stuff you really want to know, like how and after how long the bad guy was caught. It’s a bad sign when I want to read the books an author mentions more than the book I have in front of me.

I would have liked a stronger framework, perhaps focusing on the roles different parts of buildings (roofs, doors, walls, underground spaces, locks) play in aiding or deterring robbery. As it stands the text flits from one subject to the next, repeating itself often and relating some info second- and third-hand. (‘I spoke with the author that wrote xyz book, in which he says…’)

Now, it’s not bad. There’s some interesting information, and the audiobook narrator made even circuitous passages engaging and accessible. I would have liked more interesting info, though, along with cutting the repetition and similes.

I’m disappointed because I expected so much more from A Burglar’s Guide to the City, both from the description and first chapter. I’m still interested in this kind of architectural non-fiction – what should I read next?

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman

Synopsis:

25067884Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.

Review:

This book is a gem – it’s easy to see why it won the Best Translated Book Award. Short but deep, in turns slangy and lyrical, I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful and light, perfectly fitting for whatever situation the main character finds herself in.  And deep!  So many layers.

    The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?

    They play, said the old man.  Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are.  He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air.  One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

    Do you like it?

    Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.

  • Makina is awesome.  Understated, street-wise awesome.
  • The translation by Lisa Dillman is wonderful and her note at the end is enlightening.  Translators are the closest to any text, maybe even closer than the authors themselves, because they process it in two different languages.  Her insights are wonderful and had me hankering to reread the book immediately to appreciate aspects I didn’t pick up the first time through.

The not-so-good:

  • This is the only the first book of Herrera’s to be translated into English.  I’m eagerly awaiting the second, soon to be published by the same press.

All in all I utterly love this book.  It didn’t rattle around in my head for as long as some others but it will reward rereading for years to come.

How the Duke Was Won by Lenora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #1)

Synopsis:

26029548“The pleasure of your company is requested at Warbury Park. Four lovely ladies will arrive… but only one can become a duchess.”

James, the scandalously uncivilized Duke of Harland, requires a bride with a spotless reputation for a strictly business arrangement. Lust is prohibited and love is out of the question.

Four ladies. Three days. What could go wrong?

Charlene Beckett, the unacknowledged daughter of an earl and a courtesan, has just been offered a life-altering fortune to pose as her half-sister, Lady Dorothea, and win the duke’s proposal. All she must do is:

  • Be the perfect English rose [Ha!]
  • Breathe, smile, and curtsy in impossibly tight gowns [blast Lady Dorothea’s sylph-like figure]
  • Charm and seduce a wild duke [without appearing to try]
  • Keep said duke far, far from her heart [no matter how tempting]

When secrets are revealed and passion overwhelms, James must decide if the last lady he should want is really everything he needs. And Charlene must decide if the promise of a new life is worth risking everything . . . including her heart.

Review:

What a fun book! We have a kick-butt heroine, funny scenes, heart-rending moments, and a lovely HEA – what more could you want?

The good:

  • Charlene is strong, and has been taught jujutsu by a Japanese guard. She’s done her homework – I asked my husband (who’s done judo and aikido) about the techniques mentioned and they match up. And the particulars, like technique names, aren’t harped on too much either. Very nice.
  • Said guard, Kyuzo, is a native Japanese that was taken away from his village against his will. He’s been in England for something like 15 years now and his speech is perfect, colloquial English. No hint of accent or anything untoward – he’s acclimated to his new home, just like you’d expect after so long. (I can’t believe I’ve seen this as a negative in some reviews. Crazy.)
  • The plot revolves around a set of secrets, something that normally drives me mad. But instead of “oh no, he’s going to find out!” it was more like, “ooo, I wonder what he’ll do when he finds out!”
  • The writing is solid and assured, with hot love scenes and well-paced plot. I eagerly went to check Bell’s backlist and was surprised to see this is her debut – it doesn’t read like one!

The not-so-good:

  • There are still secrets. This is completely a me thing though – if you don’t mind secrets you’re going to eat this up.
  • Plot moppets, plural. Well, one and a half.
  • There’s a bit of damsel in distress, even though she’s such a strong character.
  • It’s not completely historically accurate. Now and then I’d think, “Wait, would that…?” I was enjoying myself so much I glossed over it. If you’re a stickler it’ll make you stickle.

A solid, enjoyable weekend read – I’m looking forward to the next book in the series!

An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones and William Wilson

Synopsis:

126041How do you tell the Balkans from the Caucasus? What’s the difference between fission and fusion? Whigs and Tories? Shiites and Sunnis? Deduction and induction? Why aren’t all Shakespearean comedies necessarily thigh-slappers? What are transcendental numbers and what are they good for? What really happened in Plato’s cave? Is postmodernism dead or just having a bad hair day? And for extra credit, when should you use the adjective continual and when should you use continuous?

An Incomplete Education answers these and thousands of other questions with incomparable wit, style, and clarity. American Studies, Art History, Economics, Film, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Science, and World History: Here’s the bottom line on each of these major disciplines, distilled to its essence and served up with consummate flair.

Review:

A guide to all the little things that bugged you but you never bothered googling. Which is higher ranking, a baron or a marquess? What’s the difference between i.e. and e.g.? And what was the deal with World War I, anyway?

Continue reading “An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones and William Wilson”

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

Translated by Emma Ramadan

Synopsis:

27135621This long-awaited English-language debut from Morocco’s most prominent contemporary writer won the Prix Gouncourt de Nouvelles, France’s most prestigious literary award, for best story collection. Laroui uses surrealism, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound compassion across a variety of literary styles to highlight the absurdity of the human condition, exploring the realities of life in a world where everything is foreign.

Review:

Why does man distance himself from his home? Why does he make himself into a foreigner?”

It’s foreign land to you, of course, but to everyone else you are the outsider.  As an American in Japan it’s a feeling I know well.

“[In France] the trees would have had familiar names, the trees and the animals and the household items at the supermarket; over there he wouldn’t have needed to consult the dictionary to buy a mop.”

(For me it was baking yeast.)

Laroui covers it all – the embarrassment of not knowing social signals, the delight in discovering a second name for everything, the frustration at always being seen as other, no matter what you do.

Just as at the zoo, the tiger seems to be the equal of the porcupine, they are fed in the same way, they are loved the same and the placard in front of the enclosure… so, what about the placard?  It’s the same for all: tiger, porcupine, or bonobo – but Anna, you’re outside of the enclosure….

The foreign angle is what made me pick up this short story collection but I was happy to find that there is much, much more in Laroui’s writing.  First of all, it’s funny.  Laugh out loud on the bus funny.  My favorite stories have a narrator spinning tales at a cafe, with a peanut gallery at the ready to put in their own two cents.

“‘We are,’ said Hamid (he paused), ‘we are (he swallowed a sip of coffee), we are (he put down his cup) an inventive people.’

“He had put the word in italics.  So we examined it closely.  Then we demanded, silent, the proof (we, too, know how to use italics).”

Often there’s a linguistic hook that makes the telling just as fun as the contents.  Some stories are absurd, like tall tales that get tossed around a bar at 1 am.  There’s truth in there – you can feel it – but after so many drinks you can’t be bothered to tease out the facts.  And who wants to, when the story stands so well on its own?  An ambassador that has his pants (and only his pants) stolen before an important meeting.  Swimming in sand when water proves scarce. Getting revenge on your high school philosophy teacher for making you think about death.  Add a layer of deep insights and beautiful language (wonderfully translated by Ramadan) and it’s easy to see why this book has won awards.

The stories range from insightful to funny, deep to absurd, and I was delighted the whole way.  After much searching I have finally, finally, found a short story writer that I love.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.