The Heart’s Invisible Furies

You know how sometimes there are books that you read and love, and others where you loved reading?

I LOVED READING John Boyne’s newest book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. It’s a big book, and when I first received the ARC, I expected to get through oh, half a chapter, half a book at best. I’m pretty easily distracted sometimes, and I find it’s best to keep the reading expectations low.

I read that sucker in two days flat.

It was one of those books where as I read, I was still conscious of the flaws, the need to perhaps cut some scenes and all, but it was such a pleasure to read, though. I’ve never read Boyne’s books before, but if this book is any indication, I may have to pick up another of his. Even though it deals with pretty weighty matters, running the gamut from the relatively benign unexpected pregnancies to the horrors of the AIDs crisis, to straight-up murder (it’s a lot), the writing itself is pretty light on its feet.

Okay. So. First of all, I loved the first chapter.

The book is ostensibly about the life and times of Cyril Avery, an Irish man, whose life events and growing pains are inextricably tied to Ireland’s modern gay history and its evolution from post-war to present day. It’s a fast read, for all that the book sweeps across such a broad time period, as well as geographic distances. The book keeps moving by jumping forward seven years at a time, so that we follow the broad strokes of Cyril’s life.

Cyril Avery is the adopted son of two eccentric characters, a rather misanthropic feminist author and a charming white-collar criminal. His childhood’s already odd enough, but as he begins to realize that he’s gay, and in love with his classmate, he also makes decisions that have serious ramifications down the line. For most of his early life and early adulthood, Cyril tries to pass as a straight man, until the fallout of his decisions comes to a head on his wedding day, and he runs. From there, Cyril leaves Ireland, travels to Europe and America, and gradually learns to accept himself and his decisions, until another tragedy forces him back to Ireland, where he confronts his past, and finally makes peace with himself and his loved ones.

Cyril is– I won’t say he’s my favorite narrator ever, but he’s convincingly human, flawed yet kind, if lacking a bit of spine. However, that doesn’t necessarily seem out of place or obnoxious, in a book like this, when Cyril is probably meant to be broadly representative as a gay man living in a place and time when being gay got you arrested and thrown in jail. You wish he’d be more truthful, more confident, more willing to challenge and fight, especially as a younger man, but you also understand his choices in face of such blatant and violent homophobia and socially conservative surroundings.

The book is at turns sweet and heartbreaking, but also surprisingly funny– a lot of the understated, read-between-the-lines humor that I find really effective and rewarding as a reader is present– and, if you are the sort of person who doesn’t like sad endings, it’s not! There’s tragedy, and terrible awful events that happen (a little eyebrow raising at times…), but Boyne also dedicates a good chunk of the final third of the book to tying up loose ends and, well, being kind to his characters. It’s a really pleasant way to end a book, and yet it doesn’t feel overindulgent. Instead, it feels like a righting of wrongs and things falling into place.

But I return to the first chapter– which, more of a prologue I guess, describes how Cyril’s birth mother arrived in Dublin, and the circumstances of his birth. This birth mother is a recurring character throughout the book as well, but that initial chapter, that setting of the scene… That’s a whole other story waiting to be told. I liked Cyril’s story, but I’d read a series about his mother and her two roommates, and I’d watch the HBO mini-series adaptation too. More of this, please!

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A Doll for Throwing– ie, poetry perplexes me.

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Clegg Agency

But in a good way, I guess? To be fair, I’ve never been a big poetry reader– here and there, it’s alright, but I can’t even tell you my favorite poet… because I don’t really have one? Even poems that I like, I can’t remember their names or authors, only the impressions I had on reading them. Oh, well, Dr. Suess is pretty dope. He counts, right?

So let’s be honest, I’m not going to be writing a very creditable review (it’s more like a ‘noting of having read and checking off the list’) of this next galley– A Doll for Throwing, by Mary Jo Bang.

There certainly weren’t any rhymes or stanza-y things– all text, in even justified blocks, and the lines more stream of consciousness than iambic pentameter.

I did warn you; I’m a poem-reading novice.

Machines. Objects. Furniture and design.

What exactly does that remind you of?

If you thought, “Huh. This is weird and kind of Bauhaus-ish,” then ding ding ding! That is a good connection to make!

I wasn’t paying much attention when I started the book, so I missed the back cover copy as well as the dedication up front which noted that the poems were a fictionalized narrative of the life of Lucia Moholy, a Czech photographer whose husband was the Bauhaus painter and teacher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. But apparently that junior year Weimar Republic history class paid off because indeed, I spotted that Bauhaus style a mile off.

Very proud. Go me.

In all seriousness, once the connection was made, and the back cover copy read (guys, sometimes the BCC is incomprehensible, sometimes it’s beyond helpful, and most times, it walks a wiggly line down the middle), it was a lot easier to follow along and appreciate. Still really abstract stuff– mostly, I felt like I was glimpsing into brief, pensive, and occasionally rebellious roils of thought from an independent woman of artistic and melancholy mindset. It touches on themes of photography and forms and architecture and narrative and machines and approximations of the human form. It reflects on present and future, relationships and identity, family, human nature. I finished it in a few days, and still don’t quite have the mind power to really dissect into the nitty gritty of it all.

But I figure I can skate by on the excuse that half the fun of poetry is the actual experience of reading it. I had a perfectly lovely time reading it and reveling in the Bauhaus age and related themes and the strong-minded yet wistful portrait of Lucia Moholy Bang has suggested in these lines– what exactly it all means, I’ll leave to those English classes; I’m certainly not going to wrack my brains trying to explicate this when there’s no grade riding on it for me.

And on that note, feel free to throw your fave poems at me and see what sticks.

A Doll for Throwing is available August 2017

 

 

 

 

 

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, and why wasn’t this written twenty years earlier?

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My friends, my friends. Let me ask you, what kind of stories did your caretakers read you when you were precocious and wee? Cat in the Hat? Clifford the Big Red Dog? Mother Goose? My mom fed me a steady diet of all of those.

But we also spent nights on nights slowly recounting the antics and adventures of that stone-cold badass of Chinese folklore, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. (And also, somewhat disturbingly, a giant illustrated kids book about the levels of Chinese Buddhist hell. I remember being particularly fascinated by the part of hell where you’re doomed to have your feet tickled forever by giant serpents. TBH, my eventual fate, probs.)

Ah, the Monkey King, hero of the classic Journey to the West, whose presence is more or less ubiquitous in Chinese and general East Asian pop culture (if you think Son Goku was a Japanese creation, buddy you got some Wiki’ing to do). This guy is literally stone-born, is clever af, rocks a tiger pelt and size-changing baton, and is also hilarious to boot. He was a grade-A asshole too, who accomplished as many grand and good things as he did petty, but five-year-old me was most deeply impressed that this fucking guy had the cojones to pee on the Sakyamuni Buddha’s hand. Granted, he didn’t realize it at the time, but still. Comedic gold.

Anyways, all this exultant babbling is so we can talk about The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Lee, the second on my list of BEA galleys to read. I didn’t actually expect them to be giving this out, but I’d seen ads for it in PW, and was REALLY pleasantly surprised to see it first thing.

Genie Lo is a girl after my own heart. She’s a Chinese American high schooler, living in the burbs, and dreaming about that one-way ticket to Harvard University. She’s also got a fierce sense of righteousness with a temper to match and the height to back it up.

All this goes into play since when on her way to school, she sees a group of men beating up on this kid, and instead of walking very quickly away and feigning ignorance, or doing the sensible thing and phoning the cops, she throws her backpack at them instead. The distraction is temporary, but the glance she gets at the boy’s face before she runs for safety is startling enough– instead of being frightened, he’s smiling.

So that’s weird and all, but Genie tries to put it out of mind, out of sight. She’s got school to worry about, volleyball to play. She’s told the police all she could, and they’ve taken over the case. It’s time to turn her attention back to her normal day-to-day life…

Naturally, this is the moment that the new kid in her class arrives and of course he turns out to be the one who’d gotten his ass kicked. And of course, he takes one look at her, hops on her desk, and declares that she belongs to him. That was also when Genie earns my forever admiration and fond affection by reflexively trying to gouge his eyes out. Yes, girl. YES.

This guy, this fucking guy, Quentin Sun or whoever the hell he thinks he is, follows her around, charms up her mom, even shows up at her volunteering gigs to Genie’s alarm. He’s convinced they’re meant to be, tied up in destiny somehow. Genie thinks he’s cute but also bugfuck nuts, until of course, it turns out that he’s not crazy; he’s just the Monkey King, come down to our mortal realm to defeat demons, and find Genie, who, as it turns out, is no ordinary girl, but someone from his past, someone very close to him, and very dear as well…

And together, they fight back a demon invasion.

I’m not going to spoil this book, because when it was revealed who Genie was in her previous life, I actually put the book down because I was laughing so hard. If you’ve grown up with the Monkey King, you’ll honestly appreciate that first twist. And truthfully, reading this has left me a little giddy, because Lee didn’t just “Rick Riordan” (ie., mash classic mythology with modern day) Chinese folktales, but did it so well, and funny, and very naturally, and not half as cheesily as I was preparing myself for.  I genuinely enjoyed this book, Genie Lo is the adorably snarky ball of Asian American rage that I wished I had to look up to growing up, and Quentin Sun, as well as the other updated figures from folklore, most notably Guanyin and Erlang Shen, are nicely done as well– Lee was great about not making them cringe-inducing caricatures, which is honestly half the battle when you’re updating mythological figures. And Lee really needs to be commended for translating Quentin from mythological Monkey King to a quirky, mischievous, and super appealing lead– it’s a good take on him, and also his relationship with Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy, who can be pretty fuckin’ real when it calls for) is a goddamn delight.

And can we also touch on the discussion of Asian American portrayal? Just. I didn’t even realize what a relief it could be to not have to read about conflicting cultural values. Holy shit, I don’t miss that. There’s absolutely no longing for blonde hair or blue eyes, no ‘My white friends never have to put up with this weird thing my parents do!’ Sure, discussion of race and stereotypes aren’t avoided either, but it’s not something that Genie spends much time angsting over. And I get that there was a very important and seminal place in Chinese American and general American literature for the Amy Tans and Maxine Hong Kingstons, but I grew up in a really different age and place from those ladies, so their highly personal stories were alien to me, and I’ve rarely seen anything written that was as relatable to my own high school experience (barring supernatural shenanigans) as this book does. Asian American culture is no weird special thing in this book– it’s just normal, ordinary life, depicted in a natural, unforced way.

I will say that as plots and characters go, there were some outstanding threads that were never really fully developed or tucked back in, and the focus was pretty heavily trained on Genie and Quentin– I hope this means there is a sequel in the future, since the cast of characters are promising.

Lee also engages a bit with the Journey to the West discourse, turning a rather jaundiced eye on the relationship between gods and men. It’s great! Hell yeah, what about the people tormented by demons, hell yeah those gods are super irresponsible. The only quibble I have has no important bearing to this work of fiction really– just, it would have been nice to have a historical note somewhere about Journey to the West, which tells the tale of the Monkey King accompanying the monk Xuanzang to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras for China. Truth is in this case, crazier than fiction because Xuanzang was a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty, and the Monkey King is not, and that monk traveled alone to India (probs on foot because he was hardcore like that, I dunno, most depictions give him a dorky boxy backpack), then all the way back to Xi’an. The “demons” he met along the way were meant to represent the dangers he faced, including roving bandits and provincial kings who wished he would stay, they liked him so much. Many of people tempted him with offers of riches, power, and beautiful women, which is why, factoring in general period appropriate misogyny, so many of the demons in the Journey to the West take women form. Xuanzang, man. That’s some real shit.

I hope that folks who aren’t familiar with Chinese and Chinese American culture enjoy the book, but even more, I hope those that do pick this up and enjoy the hell out of it, because I did, and I want to shove this into all my middle-school-aged acquaintances like Oprah handing out cars and tell them, ‘THIS IS FOR YOU, KID.’

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is out August 2017.

 

 

 

 

The Bedlam Stacks– Smugglers! Priests! Creepy statues! Not enough llamas.

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This is the sophomore book from Natasha Pulley, her first being the lovely Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It’s set in the same universe, but is an independent story, with the exception of one or two cameos from the first book.

Merrick Tremayne, second-son of a well-known family of gardeners and smuggler extraordinaire, is somewhat at loose ends after an accident involving Hong Kong, shrapnel, and his leg leaves him recuperating at home with his sickly older brother in his family’s dilapidated property. Financial and other circumstances as they are, he’s being threatened with a parsonage (despite not knowing how to parson) and the sale of his family home when he’s contacted by old friends and employers and offered a pretty shifty gig to smuggle cinchona trees, which make quinine, out of the uncharted territories of Peru.

With lack of any better options, and because his own grandfather and father had traveled there often as well, Merrick accepts and heads into Peru with his friend, Clem.

I’m simplifying here– there’s some political stuff going on, some personal stuff, some tree stuff, but that’s the thrust of it!

In Peru, Merrick and Clem are introduced to their guide, a native priest named Raphael, who is from the get-go, like, the Man of Mystery. He speaks perfect Spanish and English! He looks at Merrick like he recognizes him! Other Peruvians think he’s creepy! He’s really strong and like, just so intense, and good looking, and has such great posture.

Naturally, the mystery deepens as they travel to Raphael’s home village, New Bethlehem, which is shortened to the titular ‘Bedlam’, and Merrick has to deal with increasingly cranky Clem, moving statues, and Raphael, who on top of seeming not able to make up his mind about helping the two Brits or killing them, also has a mysterious illness that gets worse and worse through the book.

It is, as one might say, right up my alley.

Spoilers ahead (for both Watchmaker and Bedlam).

Continue reading

BookExpo 2017 swagggg

So. BookExpo. BookExpo, guys.

I think I say for everyone when I proclaim that going to BookExpo is probably the single coolest thing about working in publishing. Well, unless you’re the person who signed Harry Potter or something. That’s pretty rad too. But BookExpo is pretty up there.

Technically, our office didn’t have an official BookExpo thing. We’re higher ed, not trade, so I guess no one thought editorial would be interested in going? Like I get it, it’s cool, I only read mental health textbooks ever anyways.

….lol.

In any case, through some judicious and generous help of some of my coworkers, esp. my boss who is clutch af, I was able to finagle a pass for the morning.

And reader, I made out like a fuckin bandit, considering I only had an hour and a half before I had to get back to work.

It was eye-opening. Overwhelming. Marvelous and I could have tottered around Javits Center all day if allowed. At one point, I kept confessing how frazzled I felt to the lady I happened to be closest to. Poor woman had only asked if I was in line for the Katherine Applegate signing (I was not (though I probably should have joined the line. I fucking loved Animorphs)).

Though I wasn’t able to stay for any of the sessions, I did manage to grab a respectable amount of galleys, and even a few that I’d long marked on my to-read list, so I think I’m quite good.

This meant hauling back an enormous stack of books back to my office (where they… still are…) and then pondering what to do with them. I have plenty of unread books still, and I worry that these galleys will go the same unread route. So I’m going to make a good effort to read each of these things, bringing them home one or two at a time so as not to be totally overwhelming.

First up:

The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley, publishing in August 2017.

This was the main galley I wanted to grab from BEA. I recently read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and fell in love with Pulley’s characters and storytelling. While it wasn’t perfect, there was such charm as well as potential to her writing that I had already decided to read anything else the author cared to publish.

So when I saw that this was one of the Bloomsbury galleys, praise be and hallelujah, I timed my entire trip around this one galley drop.

I am usually a save-the-best-for-last kind of gal, but I’ll admit– a) I’m entirely too excited for this book and b) we’ll probably all be dead of climate change in approx. two years so might as well enjoy life amirite.

We’ll see how this goes!

mediocre reader

I read plenty.

But I’ve long come to accept that reading voluminously doesn’t necessarily make me a better reader. A quantity reader, perhaps, who has so little patience for the thought behind the words that I would read articles for class two or three times through just to understand what the conclusive points were.

I think perhaps, reading taste has trained my reading mind in certain ways that fit very well with one style of writing– action! Dialogue! Intrigue!

But books with blocks of theory and introspection require careful reading, which upsets my concentration, and sends it wandering into dreamland.

I never liked exposition much, I suppose.

This stylistic preference isn’t new to anyone who enjoys reading and also has had some kind of English class. But I’ve found myself reading and collecting more and more books– some quite serious tomes on history, philosophy, sociology because I’m an incurable nerd, but while those sit next to my bedside watching over my sleep with stern, urgent miens, I’ve spent most of my time guiltily reading through the torrid romance and action-fantasy ebooks borrowed from the library. That’s not a hundred percent true– I don’t feel guilty at all for reading them; mostly I feel guilty for not giving my unread stack of semi-academic literature equal attention, I suppose.

Even now, I sneak glances at my bedside table and swear not to start a new book until I can move one from my unread pile.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m already browsing the latest additions to the sci-fi murder mystery stuff at the library.

Oh well. Reading is reading is reading!

 

 

Into the Greeeeeeeey

I crossed another long-time to-read book off my list with Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan. I guess I stumbled onto a recommended YA list awhile back, because my to-read is currently chock full of them, easily crowding out any other genre. YA is great though. Authors who write good YA are incredible– how they pack such effective and thrilling storytelling into such complete, readable packages, I don’t know. But I hope, one day, to learn.

Into the Grey is a fast read, a punchy and eerie story about a young boy who finds himself in over his head when he and his twin brother start being haunted by a terrifying goblin-boy ghost. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem, and truth is far less scary and more heartbreakingly mournful than anything else.

Maybe since I read it as an ebook, the book felt more novella-ish. It was those sorts where there is one story to tell, in which one pivotal event takes place, and the narration flies through at a rapid pace. You are dropped in and swept along, rather than cajoled sweetly into the story, which isn’t necessarily bad. I enjoyed its briskness, which was a nice break from some of the other things I’ve been reading.

There were a few nuances I wasn’t sure I understood, and definitely a few that probably flew right over my head. It mostly has to do with the setting and characters, who are Irish? or of Irish descent? During the height of tensions between the IRA and the UK. I imagine knowing a bit more about that, and social tensions during that time may help with the subtleties.

Now, I must tackle a million more tasks– I’ve got several books to read, for pleasure, for work, for inspiration, and I also need to take out the trash. While the summer heat and humidity hasn’t made the kitchen can unbearable just yet, I’m afraid it’s creeping up on that line and about to roll right over it. Thank goodness NYC has started organic recycling; I’ve taken to keeping my organic waste bucket in the fridge, where at least, it won’t contribute to the overall fug of Hot Kitchen Sink.