August Book Club: Sourdough

Cover art for Sourdough by Robin Sloan

This book was so fun and there were several points in the story that I had to remind myself that it’s a fictional story and not a biography (like when the starter took over everything). Lois is a relatable character, taking a job because she is good at it and then working hard because that’s the culture in addition to her nature. Her feelings of burnout were real, right down to the idea that eating a special diet would solve all her problems.

While reading Sourdough, I was left with feelings of yes that’s true (we totally are the children of Hogwarts) and awe at the amount of work that went into feeding the starter (like plants, you have to pay attention to its needs). What I wasn’t left with was a lot to say when the story was over. Would I recommend this book to a friend? Absolutely, it was an enjoyable read. Is it a book that has inspired a lot of discussion beyond the initial “you should read this”? Not really, it’s about a girl trying to find herself and discovering that she can along the way.

That aside, I’ve identified a couple things that we can (and probably should) discuss here. For starters, Lois brings a robotic arm to a farm to table food share and works throughout the book to teach the arm how to preform human functions. The idea that a robotic arm is learning how to crack an egg at a farmers market is both comical and interesting. On the one hand, you have an environment where people are interested in a more analog environment, one where the idea of hand crafted/organic is valued. On the other hand, the novelty of the robotic arm helping bake Sourdough is unique and exciting. This blending of future technology with craftsmanship is similar to the idea of selling machine made socks at a craft fair. True, it’s hard to handknit enough pairs of socks to sell in a booth (for context it takes me about 16 hours per pair), but can you really compare handknit socks to socks cranked out (literally) on a machine? And if the quality is similar enough, how much do we, should we, care?

The other piece of Sourdough that I’m sure no one will be surprised that I’m pointing out is the love story between Lois and her email pen-pal. I didn’t pick up on it until the end because I thought they were just becoming really good friends. Did the romance need to be there? Could she still have gone abroad if she wasn’t taking a risk on love? I’m not sure the story needed it, and in the end it felt a little forced.

September’s book will be The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung and was discovered while falling down the Goodreads Fantasy suggestion rabbit hole. This book won the first ever Mark Lawrence Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and is promised to have some morally grey characters, let’s check it out together!

Cover art for The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung.

Amra Thetys lives by two simple rules—take care of business, and never let it get personal. Thieves don’t last long in Lucernis otherwise. But when a fellow rogue and good friend is butchered on the street in a deal gone wrong, she turns her back on burglary and goes after something more precious than treasure: Revenge.

Revenge, however, might be hard to come by. A nightmare assortment of enemies, including an immortal assassin and a mad sorcerer, believe Amra is in possession of The Blade That Whispers Hate—the legendary, powerful artifact her friend was murdered for—and they’ll do anything to take it from her. Trouble is, Amra hasn’t got the least clue where the Blade might be.

She needs to find the Blade, and soon, or she’ll be joining her colleague in a cold grave instead of avenging his death. Time is running out for the small, scarred thief.

July Book Club: The Queen’s Gambit

Cover art for The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis

As I sit here writing this blog post, I feel that it’s worth noting that I have still only watched one episode of the Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit. The main reason for admitting this is to, naturally, point out that my observations are for the book and the book alone. I know for previous book clubs I have taken the time to also watch the movie/tv show, but the weather is beautiful and I find myself itching to sit on the deck instead of curled up on the couch. This is not a reflection of the quality of the TV series, but a nod to the fact that I am more likely to watch TV when it’s dark and cold outside.

This book left me feeling very neutral and wondering if I was expecting more from Beth Harmon. For example, I think we can agree that her ability to visualize chess boards as a child is phenomenal. When you combine that with her narrow focus on the game and how her whole life revolves around it, you’re left wondering is this because she finds comfort in the game now that her parents are dead or does she have a touch of Asperger’s? When you combine this information with her ability to interact with others as a young adult, it’s hard to judge.

With Beth as our narrator, we’re not given complete pictures of the other people that encompass her tail. Whether she she falls on the spectrum or was severally emotionally handicapped as a child, it’s clear that her emotional and social intelligence were stunted and we’re not getting a full picture of what’s happening around her. With this in mind, it made sense that Beth reached for childhood friends when her world felt turned upside down.

I’m not sure we can really call this a book about addiction. Beth’s addiction to the green pills existed to allow her to play a more focused game of chess in her mind and her brief run with drinking seemed like more of a conscious decision to self sabotage. Which leaves me wondering, is this a story about addiction or has addiction been thrown in there as a temporary plot device?

At it’s very core, The Queen’s Gambit is a story about an underdog and we all, myself included, want to root for the underdog. We get to watch Beth struggle to be allowed to learn chess and her development into an eventual champion. You can’t help but root for her as she works towards mastering her next challenge.

In honor of the sourdough trend that I didn’t participate in, we will be reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan. This one comes highly recommended by my town’s public library and I’m excited to read it.

Cover art for Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it.

Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up.

When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?

June Book Club: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I have so many positive things to say about this book that I don’t know where to start, so I will start by simply saying: this book was fun. This book was so much fun that I have spent the last month telling everyone who will listen how enjoyable the Ten Thousand Doors of January is. If you’re reading this blog for the first time, and you didn’t join us in reading the Ten Thousand Doors of January, you should seriously consider putting your device down and picking the book up.

To understand one of the reasons that I love this book I think it’s worth taking a second to mention that portal literature (think Alice in Wonderland) has always played a special role in my life. As a kid, I dreamt of my shower drain opening up so that I could dive into the ocean as a mermaid and watched the stars in hopes that Tinkerbell would fly down and take me away to Neverland. The idea that we live in a mundane world but are surrounded by magic makes me so unbelievably happy to this day. So when you consider the idea that there are thousands of doors in the world that are open and just waiting to be discovered, it’s hard to imagine a world where I do not love this book.

The portal piece of this book is well done, but when you strip that piece of the story away it’s still a phenomenal story. January is a young girl living in Vermont during a time when young girls didn’t have many options in the world. She is the ward of a wealthy caretaker who is more interested in keeping her as part of his collection (both because she is mixed race and because she comes from another world) than in building her up to be the woman she is meant to be. In fact, the most painful transformation that occurs in the book is when January realizes that she needs to act a specific way in order to be loved and accepted, especially because her skin color doesn’t match those that are around her. She almost has to be extra well behaved, a societal pressure that worked well with this story.

And then he sends her to an asylum in an attempt to keep her safe and prevent her from thinking about doors. How on earth do you convince someone that you’re not crazy when you’ve been labeled as crazy? How do you behave in a way that convinces people that you are not a danger to yourself when everything that you do seems to confirm what they believe. How do you hold onto who you are while also conforming so that you are able to succeed? Although January wasn’t in the asylum for very long, I enjoyed watching her work through these questions while trying to keep herself safe.

Safety is an interesting theme within this book because it’s almost as if January is telling you that you can be safe or you can be yourself. True, sometimes there is safety in being yourself, but more often than not you need to put yourself out there in order to get what you want. This goes against all of the teachings that January has absorbed over the years and we see it pronounced the strongest when she eventually leaves her parents to write her own story.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the idea of a story within a story, because this writing technique was executed in a way that allowed me as a reader to escape further into January. I too felt comforted as she read the story in the asylum. I too felt overwhelmed when I discovered that her father wrote each word and that it was real. True, I still struggled to sympathize with his motivations, but it made me understand who he was and what his intentions were.

According to this story, love literally spans worlds waiting for you to come home again. Thought I didn’t need January to fall in love because I was rooting for her to reunite with her family, I didn’t mind it either.

I’ve only seen one episode of the Netflix series a few months ago, but that’s moreso because my partner isn’t interested in watching with me. Next month we’ll be reading the Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevisand and allowing ourselves to fall down the chess rabbit hole that caused so many games to sell out this past fall. Mostly, I’m wondering if I’ll want to pick up Alice In Wonderland when the story is over.

Cover art for the queen's gambit by Walter Tevis

When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.

August’s Book Club: A Darker Shade Of Magic

A Darker Shade final for IreneThere’s something about reading outside on a beautiful day that soothes the soul. Combine that with the promise of magic and well-developed characters and I’m sold.

I’m going to be honest before starting my review, I had a hard time getting through this one and almost put it down after the fourth chapter. A Darker Shade of Magic started very slow and told (instead of showed) the reader as much as it could about the world before introducing the plot.

For argument sake, let’s take a look at the Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. In the Golden Compass, Lyra is introduced to a world beyond Jordan College and everything that is familiar to her. While this is happening, you as the reader are being introduced to the world as well, it feels gradual and natural. As Lyra finds herself with questions, you find yourself with similar ones. The Subtle Knife is similar, despite new worlds and characters being introduced to the story. Pullman’s ability to world build is what makes His Dark Materials so fantastic. This slow introduction to the world is why the Golden Compass movie was such a flop despite the number of fans for the series and the cast — it threw you into the world without regard to the journal through it that Lyra’s perspective provided.

Harry Potter is another example of a series where the author introduced the world in a way that provided an enjoyable experience. So is The Final Empire. My point here is that it can, and has been done successfully.

With that being said, another problem that I had with the book was the “multidimensional” characters that I was promised. Kell was literally battling a dark magical force and it didn’t seem like much of an inward struggle. Lilah wanted to be something other than a thief but couldn’t help herself. The villains just wanted more power. Everyone had simple motivations for doing what they did, nothing like the dimension that was suggested.

Next, so little happened in this story when you think about its length. Kell is given a stone, he bumps into Lilah who steals it from him, this gets her into trouble, Kell saves her, they go to red London, everything is crazy, they go to white London, they battle the villains, the story is over. For those of you who have read Harry Potter, just think about all the events leading up to an eventual Voldamort encounter. Honestly, it makes the movies fall a little flat when you think about how much meat was cut from the story.

Also, I hate mind control as a plot mover. Re: Final battle scene and Lilah’s ability to walk into the Queen’s throne room. I feel like this could have worked in other areas of the story as well….

I kept reading the story because I kept expecting it to get better. Now that it’s over I’m happy about one thing: Kell and Lilah never get together. They never lust after each other and they never waste time thinking about what it would be like to be with each other. Even with a scene where a shopkeeper mistakes them as a couple! This is awesome and strengthens Lilah’s role within the story as being something other than an opportunity for romantic interest. (The remaining books in the series could ruin this…)

Ok, ok, end rant.

September’s book club will feature The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A recommendation that my coworker made about a year ago now. I could use a good murder mystery now that Summer is winding down.

36337550Tonight, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed… again.

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot.

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…

July’s Book Club: The Deep

A mermaid surrounded by whales.One of the reasons that I picked up The Deep was because the description reminded me so much of the Giver, which if you haven’t read that yet you totally should. There’s something intriguing about the idea of a world where everyone lives in complete ignorance by sacrificing one person. In the Deep, Yetu is plagued by the memories of her people. She physically suffers from it, her body wasting away as memory after memory takes hold of her.

Despite her pain and suffering, I struggled to find relief when Yetu ran away. I found myself disagreeing with Yetu as she tried to justify her journey to find herself — which is totally unfair because I am someone who left her family to find herself. As she regained her strength and fell in love, I couldn’t help wondering what happened to those in the Giver when Jonas ran away. Both Yetu and Jonas were considered vessels meant to hold memories, each losing their innocence in different ways. Both ran away. Jonas saved a little boy’s life, Yetu saved herself.

As I read The Deep, I kept flipping back and forth on whether or not Yetu was selfish when she ran away. Initially, I thought yes. How could someone leave her loved ones behind when she knew how much they would suffer without her? How could she leave them when the world would suffer? As I write this now, I suppose that was the point. What is more important, the individual or the tribe? How can you invoke change if one person fails to challenge everyone else? If Yetu hadn’t run away, she never would have shown her people the burden of what they asked her. They never would have agreed to share her burden if she had not run away. Nothing would have changed if she hadn’t run away.

So was running away selfish? Maybe, but it was mostly self-preservation. In the beginning, Yetu didn’t understand the point of the history. She needed to learn what it meant and why it was important. She needed to decide for herself that the history was bigger than she was and then determine how to support her people while supporting herself. In the end, this made her journey back to her people more noble. Yetu understood the freedom she faced if she stayed away, but she realized the burden was worth it to protect those she cared about. Though she didn’t have to take the history back, the sacrifice meant more because it was her choice and she chose to take it.

Many of us have spent the last few months rereading or rewatching Harry Potter. In honor of the children inside of us that long for Magic, August’s book club will be A Darker Shade Of Magic by V. E. Schwab. The New York Times (NYT) says “A Darker Shade of Magic has all the hallmarks of a classic work of fantasy. Its plot is gripping. Its characters are memorable. Its setting in four parallel, powerful Londons is otherworldly yet believable. Schwab has given us a gem of a tale that is original in its premise and compelling in its execution. This is a book to treasure.” While I tend to take NYT with a grain of salt, this one speaks to me, let’s see if they got it right!

A Darker Shade final for IreneKell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.