All-of-a-Kind Family (CBR10 #48)

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I have no recollection of how All-of-a-Kind Family arrived on my shelves. There’s no inscription in the front, no library book sale note, I didn’t write my name in it so I can’t do handwriting sleuthing. All I know is that I read this book over, and over, and over again in my youth and the book shows my care and use. Still, probably 20 years since the last time I read it, I know the story backwards and forwards and the lilting nature of Sydney Taylor’s writing came immediately back to my mind’s eye.

The book was first published in 1951, but the edition I have is from 1989. This book kicks off a series, and in it Sydney Taylor introduces us to a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1912 – with five daughters ranging in age from 12 to 4. The book follows the five girls, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie through a year in their life We are treated to things small, such as searching for hidden buttons while dusting the front parlor, or childhood traumas of lost library books and being quarantined and not allowed to see your friends so you don’t give them scarlet fever.  The book also doesn’t shy away from the family’s faith, and  is a primer on how to celebrate the Sabbath, Purim, Passover, and Sukkoth. Fast forward to my thirties when I’m the only non-Jewish person at my job who knows that Sukkoth (Succos) is the thanksgiving for the harvest lasting nine days and generally falling at the end of September after the heavy hitters of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This re-read had me interested in the author, so I did a little digging. As I suspected, this book is a version of the author’s own childhood. She became a writer by jotting down notes about the stories she would tell her daughter of her own life, following her career as a secretary, then working with the Lenox Hill Players theater group, and dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After Sydney Taylor passed in 1978 the Sydney Taylor Book Award was created in her honor and is given each year by the Jewish Association of Libraries to a book for young people that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guideline), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.


Homegoing (CBR10 #47)

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Confession: I took this book out of the library no less than twice before I managed to read it. I was intimidated by the book, both by its content and its acclaim. It has a near perfect five star rating on Cannonball Read and high rating on Goodreads where literary fiction doesn’t normally do so well. I shouldn’t have been hesitant – the book earns its high rating by being one of the most accessible works of literary and historical fiction I have possibly ever read.

In her debut Yaa Gyasi tells a story which is both grand in scope and intimate in its execution, which is often attempted and rarely executed to this level. The book is also nearly flawless. Homegoing follows the descendants of a single Asante woman, Maame, living in late-18th century Gold Coast Africa. Structurally the novel traces the descendant generations of each of her daughters on two continents. One of her daughters, Effia, marries a white Englishman stationed at the fort and her descendants stay in Ghana. Her other daughter, Esi, is captured in a raid and sold into slavery in America. Adding to the nature of the story being told is that each daughter comes into the world into different families and different tribes, completely independent and unaware of the other.

The chapters are vignettes of one person per generation in each line, starting with the two half-sisters.  The chapters follow the next six generations in Ghana and America.  These generations  span over two hundred years of African and American history which includes some of the ugliest chapters each has to offer: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, and the list goes on. One line has found itself in a land not of its choosing, unwelcome and continually oppressed; the other in the land of its ancestors, but searching for something new and meaningful and struggling to achieve either. The two lines move in concert with one another, across an ocean and in vastly different circumstances, but their shared past unites them in ways they cannot be aware of, and that are gently uncovered for the reader to connect.

Overall, Homegoing took my breath away. The book takes on the big issues that initially scared me away; slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and more head on, without blanching from the truth. This is a book that it isn’t afraid of its contents and keeps them from overwhelming the reader.  The characters, the themes, and the sheer ambition of tackling so much time is astounding and could have easily gotten away from Gyasi, and she touched on the possibility briefly through her characters in the final chapters. Gyasi manages the tightrope by keeping the chapters crisp.

The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  Each individual story is interesting, well-researched and developed in order to be compelling even in the quiet moments.  As a whole, the interwoven stories are a sparklingly nuanced, producing a thought-provoking picture of race, the past, and inheritance.  You can tell Gyasi put an ocean of thought into the whole thing and took greatest advantage of the fellowships she was awarded to put the time in to craft this work. The evidence of the mechanics falls away and we are left with the world, the story, and the characters; and a plain prose that could be confused for simple and unskilled but that would be confusing density with expertise.  Gyasi’s expert craftsmanship shows in the lack of obvious work, which is quite the trick.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Sisters Brothers (CBR10 #42)

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I have an enormous backlog. My Goodreads account tells me as of today, I have 649 books on my Want to Read shelf. I still have 62 that I added on the day I joined, January 6, 2012 during my first year participating in Cannonball Read 4. What better book to knock off the Backlog square than something I was introduced to in my first week of Cannonball Read and has been languishing for more than six years on Mount TBR (and also has a movie adaptation coming out later this month).

The Sisters Brothers of the story are Charlie and Eli. They are infamous mercenary killers traveling the 1850s Gold Rush west, hunting down the enemies of their boss, the Commodore. Their reputations precede them and the mention of their names makes people pay very close attention because no one survives when Charlie and Eli draw their weapons. Through them we have deWitt building a story about the nature of greed and the illusion of dreams and what is sacrificed to both.

The story is told by Eli, the younger of the two who has been following older brother Charlie’s lead since they were kidsyoung. Eli, however, is getting tired of life as a paid assassin and thinks it might be nice to settle down, run a store, and have a family. But they’ve got an assignment from the Commodore, so there’s not much he can do right now except for dream. The book follows the brothers from Oregon City to San Francisco as they seek out their latest target, and Eli is working towards this being their last target.

The predicaments they find themselves in as they travel towards then man they are supposed to kill are studies in the two different personalities of Eli and Charlie, how they see and interact with the world, and what those interactions cost them. Where Eli spends pages with his mind spinning out romance and back story of what was and will be, Charlie takes half a moment to figure out where he can get his most basic of needs met. The reader is left with the feeling that for every one of Charlie’s thoughts, Eli has one hundred, and very little of them have to do with reality in front of them. Eli’s life is in his mind, and Charlie’s life is the gun in his hand.

I appreciated the portrayal of the West and life therein. Patrick deWitt is riffing on the classic Western structure, and while I wasn’t completely sold on the “comic tour de force” the blurb was trying to sell, this is a book that is willing, wanting, and able to unpack the absurdity of life.  It doesn’t villainize nor romanticize violence, the old west, or the life of an outlaw but rather those components become well-rounded characters in their own right. Many characters are not human, and the horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter, is integral in the growth of Eli.

While I’m not using this for my Snubbed square, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I found it to be a much more cohesive and engaging book than that year’s winner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes so if you’re looking for a choice for that square, I can suggest this one for you.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Saga Volumes Five – Eight (CBR10 #37-40)

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I’ve finally finished the remaining available volumes of Saga. At the end of Four I was devastated, I both simultaneously wanted to start the next volume immediately and knew I wasn’t emotionally ready for it. Instead, I went on vacation, came back, and then slowly continued my journey through Hazel’s story. These books continue to be fantastic and I am in awe of what Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples partnership has managed to accomplish.

*As a note, I am refusing to grade these against themselves, they are collectively some of the best storytelling I have read this year and they will all be given five stars, regardless of swings in execution from volume to volume.

Volume Five

We pick up with Gwendolyn, Sophie, Lying Cat and The Brand are looking for the ingredients to a cure for The Will. Marko’s uneasy alliance with Prince Robot IV to find their missing children is underway (and it is just as awesome as I hoped). The children, Alanna, and Marko’s mom are with their kidnapper and other terrifying new enemies who bring an entire new area of danger to light. There is simply no end in sight to the struggle Alana and Marko will continue to endure to protect and rebuild their family, welcome to the middle of the story.

While there are arguably only a couple of main characters in Saga the “supporting” characters are just as well-developed, sympathetic, and alive as Alanna and Marko. Gwendolyn has grown on me, my interest in her story growing as she moves away from being revenge driven. In this chapter she is something extra, something more. She’s tough as nails, and a part of that strength is built from rage, the rage she feels at the entire situation she is in, but that she tamps down. I understand her rage, viscerally. Her emotions can cause her to think and act rashly; she clearly isn’t whole, but isn’t portrayed as broken. She never falls to pieces; none of our characters do because even while strong, terrible, dramatic things are happening our brains are capable of processing them alongside the other more mundane needs to keep us functioning. The focus of this part of the story is personal, but the scope of the story is growing and becoming the epic and galactic space opera we’ve been building towards to this point. While Gwendolyn is a great example of the complexity of the characters Vaughan and Staples are creating, she’s merely a small part of the impossibly grand character driven saga that we are being told.

Volume Six

After a time jump (which, was devastating), we join Hazel and her grandmother in detention. Hazel is in kindergarten, no longer a cute chubby bundle, and we are treated to both the Hazel on the page and the Hazel in the narration. She’s her own person with her own mind and ability to make decisions now and is now an active part of the story.  I loved her storyline, particularly when she meets a prisoner who is transgender, Petrichor, and that experience prompts her to tell her teacher about being “half-wings, half-horns”. The relationship between Petrichor and Hazel grows to be an important outlet for our little adventurer.

Meanwhile, her parents have been non-stop searching for her, and as we rejoin them they are finally close to finding Hazel. Also reappearing in the story (although not missed and I’m liking them less and less as they reappear) are the tabloid journalists, freed from the embargo put on them by The Brand and off looking for the scoop of the century. We get to see The Will again and he’s not in a good place. I can see where some might see this volume as filler. I disagree. Sure, it isn’t full of huge action pieces (well, we get a couple) but several of the story lines from earlier volumes are paying off, and this volume is the end of the bridge that began at the end of Volume Four.

Volume Seven

I wanted to rate this book four stars, right until the very end and the team of Vaughan and Staples kicked me in the feelings and five stars it was. Finally reunited with her ever-expanding family (and boy do I love the work being done on the definition of family in this series), Hazel travels to a war-torn comet that Wreath and Landfall have been battling over for ages. This volume is about families, combat and the refugee experience, and it’s a doozy. Our band of misfits have taken up residence on Phang, where Sophie was originally from before being sold as a slave. It is not a nice place, and what was supposed to be a quick stop to refuel turns into months as they all settle in and make do with the choices they’ve made thus far. The focus of the story is Hazel and it’s striking to see evidence of her childhood, even as it’s directly contrasted with terrible, adult things happening all around her. Fleeting childhood friendship, first kisses, and the impending birth of a sibling are presented side by side with hunger and poverty, refugees, and violent, senseless death. We learn that the war is becoming more complex and people are starting to be seen as either resources or liabilities, and that diplomacy is going to matter more and more.

Volume Eight

After the traumatic events on Phang, Hazel, her parents, and their surviving companions embark to the westernmost edge of the universe to deal with the events from Volume Seven, and some of them are having a harder time than others. The lingering pregnancy externalized the internal grief they’re feeling, both in the literal ways we see Alanna struggle but also in the reactions of Petrichor and Prince Robot. We also take a side trip to see what The Will is up to, and I want that man to get his shit together very, very badly. I’m done with The Stalk, with his “visions” while high, and with him running away from his emotions. I need The Will to get back to himself, desperately. It’s time for him to get on the right side of things, (well, his right side of things) and stop wallowing. We also get back to Ghüs and the princeling, and they’ve been suffering while everyone’s been working their way back to them after finding Hazel. This part probably could have been brought in earlier to keep the pacing up, but I get leaving it where it is. The ending of this volume suggests a pretty big change in the narrative going forward, and I am very eager to see where the journey takes us next.

On the whole, this series is sophisticated but isn’t afraid to be crass. It is complex and a bit bizarre yet it feels as familiar as my own face. There is a sense that each storyline is part of this grand whole that is only slowly being revealed to the reader, that we’ve still only barely scratched the surface. We will likely never see the real whole, because the worlds created by Vaughan and Staples are too rich. But we are given these characters to hold onto, and it’s through them that we can see the larger things their creators are concerned with: family, love, and meditations on war and violence begetting nothing but more violence. I liked the grey areas that Vaughan and Staples are working in, and they appear to as well. Now I wait like everyone else for Volume Nine (out in October!) and then truly suffer as the wait for Ten inevitably begins.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (CBR10 #36)

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We humans share a fascination with the weather, and more often than not, with rain. I’m an eastern seaboard American; I’ve lived both in the northeast and in the Caribbean climate of South Florida. Each location has its own particular type of rain – and I love the rain in all its forms. I love rainy weather and I love listening to rain fall against windows and plopping into puddles. As a Cannonballer I love reading books near an open window on a rainy day catching the new, clean smell the rain leaves behind while devouring the words in front of me.  But Cynthia Barnett has me beat; her fascination with rain stunned me and led her to writing over three hundred pages on the subject.

When Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge called for a book about nature it was not a surprise that I located a book on the topic, and so Rain: A Natural and Cultural History was added to my list. But while this book should have been like catnip to me, I instead had a rough go of it – Barnett, in the words of Cheryl Strayed, writes like a motherfucker but reading her book often left me unsatisfied. There was something about the structure of the sections and chapters that felt like a meandering as opposed to a thoughtfully structured narrative. In the bluntest way I can think to say it, this book bored me from time to time

What Rain does well it does very well. It aims to weave together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain. Barnett’s writing flowed easily and blended from one topic to the next with great ease, there were no uncomfortable changes in style or failures of writing mechanics. The authorial voice matched the subject and when it was engaging it was very engaging. But, when it is not working the book is merely a potpourri of rain facts. We get the history of the Mackintosh raincoats. Then there’s a chapter on rain in literature and a stop in India where villagers extract the scent of rain from the monsoon-drenched earth and turn it into perfume.  There’s just too much going on and I struggled to keep my attention on the page.

Barnett hits her stride when she’s exploring the cultural significance to discoveries made in hydrology and detailing the effects of climate change. After thousands of years humanity has finally managed to change the rain. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and increasingly severe storms and drought affect us globally, Barnett shows rain (or its lack) to be a unifying force in our shared history and future. The book would have been better if she’d focused on that or written a more tongue in cheek book about rain mythologies and rain inspired industries.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Saga: Volumes One – Four (CBR10 #29-33)

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Other than clocking everyone’s rave reviews I have been staying away from the world of Saga on purpose. I have an inclination to wait for series to be near its conclusion before I pick it up. But I’m not made of stone. My friend Gina hand delivered the first eight volumes to me while we were on vacation last month. It seemed Saga’s time had arrived.

These books are *fantastic*.  I always knew they would be: the swath of Cannonballers who love these and have such varying taste means that they absolutely have to be the best of the best.  These books are viscerally good. Cancel plans, move around to read lists, question all life choices that have kept you from reading them before now GOOD.  They also transcend any entry issues I usually have with comics and graphic novels.  I’m putting it down to two things, the quality of Vaughan’s narrative and the absolute stunning design of Fiona Staples.

Brian K. Vaughan was introduced to Fiona Staples by a mutual friend. Vaughan reportedly chose to work with Staples because her artwork is incredible, that it doesn’t look like anyone else. I can absolutely believe it, have you seen her work? GLORIOUS. I’m so glad to know that Staples is co-owner of Saga, her work in designing the cast, the ships, and all the various races in the story is just as integral to my enjoyment of these books as the story Vaughan has plotted.  Her painted covers, and hand-lettering Hazel’s narration with her own handwriting, make the difference in the quality of the books.

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Volume One introduces us to our family on the run and all of those who are chasing them. When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring new life into a dangerous universe. Alana and Marco are dynamic characters in very few panels; we immediately know them and their struggles even if we don’t know details yet.  Their love for each other and their newborn daughter is captured on their faces in Staples’ art.  There isn’t a lot of lumbering info dumps, the universe that is a scary, crazy, fucked up, violent place is easily understood and the peril facing the young family is illuminated: the antagonist characters are quickly made complex, but also frightening.  Even the protagonists’ allies are visually scary, but terribly charming. I really like The Will, I don’t know what that says about me.

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Volume Two is my favorite thus far. It may be a perfect space opera: adventure, romance, and humor. This volume is the story of the coming together of family across planetary divides. Marko has not told his parents that he ran off with a member of the enemy, as one would expect, so he has a lot of explaining to do when they show up at their ships door. Hazel’s narration told from the future is hilarious. Marko and his mother go to find the accidentally exiled babysitter Izabel, and Alana and Marko’s father get to know each other better. Prince Robot IV is searching for the star-crossed family, The Will reluctantly joining forces with someone on the hunt for Marko broadening his character out and we get more delicious sass from The Lying Cat. I should probably tell you more about this one, but I can’t seem to find the words to break it into smaller bites, just know its good, and inextricably linked to the volumes before and after.

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Volume Three has my favorite of the four covers so far. It was so burned in my mind that when Gwendoline shows up in Volume Two I immediately recognized her and then became VERY confused about how we got from where we were to where we were going. Our motley crew travel to a cosmic lighthouse on the planet Quietus searching for their literary hero, the author of the romance novel that their initial courtship hinged on. This book pulls together the themes of the two previous ones and adds some of its own, as you would expect. It explores how to make a life while on the run, what finding love after a loss might look like, and how to feel about it.  There’s also a bit about getting over a breakup and that violence only begets more violence. Plot-wise The Will, Lying Cat, Gwendoline, and Sophie are stuck on an idyllic alien planet while waiting for their spaceship to be repaired and Gwen is impatient to get to Alana and Marko, but the Will seems quite content to stay on the new planet. He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s seeing impossible things and they are all in danger. Meanwhile, a pair of tabloid journalists is trying to figure out exactly what is the story with Marko and Alana: could two enemy combatants actually have deserted, got married and had a child? (Yes) The real threat to Marko and Alana’s family time on Quietus is not that they betrayed their respective people, it’s that their life together might give others ideas about just who the enemies are, and that there are other options than killing them. And we learn that the opposite of war is not peace, because this is that kind of book.

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Volume Four is my sole four star rated volume, the other three are all five stars. I’m sure that the plot it covers was necessary for the narrative that Vaughan is after, but it was both hard to read on an emotional level, and frankly a bit uneven. In order to watch people come back together they have to be separated first, and that is not enjoyable for the characters or the readers. We’ve got toddler Hazel, Alanna and Marko struggling with the reality of life in hiding and the stresses of family, but we also have a secondary plot dealing with the Robot monarchy and rebellion that felt… off. But, even that leads to a great final panel so I can’t hate it too much. But most of all I don’t want Alana and Marko to be fighting anymore. My emotions are fragile and I love them as a team figuring it out together, not sparring with one another, no matter how true it rings.

Overall, I’m in love with this series. It’s rare to have humor, sorrow, wit, action, adventure, and beautiful drawings married in one text, but this is that text. I’m making myself take a break from reading the next four volumes until at least tomorrow. I think I have the strength to hold out.

These books were read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (CBR10 #29)

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)

Science Fiction is one of the genres that grew on me over time.  I find myself drawn more to the space-based versions, books like the Red Rising trilogy, The Martian, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Sparrow, and Children of God have been favorites over the years.  There’s something about the exploration and survival stories that are part of the genre that work for me. I became particularly interested in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet when I heard it described as a contemplative, character driven space opera. My favorite genre books are all character driven. But I still put this book on and off my to read list at least once, but that’s a story for later in the review.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is at its heart a road trip story. We’re introduced to the ship the Wayfarer in the form of a newly added crew member: Rosemary Harper. No one expects much when she joins the crew the captain, Ashby, just needs someone to be their clerk and keep up with the forms so they can get better jobs drilling holes in space, and Rosemary is looking to be anywhere but where she came from. While the hodgepodge ship has seen better days, it offers Rosemary a place to rest her head and some distance from her past.  Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy and populated by a diverse crew of sapients. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job tunneling a wormhole to the titular small, angry planet. While that’s just the type of plot that works for me, in the hands of Becky Chambers it is treated in an episodic way. She spends over 400 pages of her book bouncing from one small adventure to another resulting in character development but not much else. But it doesn’t really need much else; its power is in the small things it accomplishes.

The book is also unabashedly feminist (Chambers used to write for The Mary Sue), sex positive, inclusive, and has an overall optimistic view of the future, even if that future contains our destroying the Earth.  The crew of the Wayfarer lives in a world which intrinsically makes room for multiple ways of being. Chambers isn’t writing a story about overthrowing systems and fighting against injustice. Her story is about the lives we lead in a universe that is stable but still has its problem areas. She’s writing a story about adults for adults that isn’t “adult” in its content. Not all of her characters are loveable, or necessarily likeable, but they all make sense. They may be alien (and Chambers manages to really make her aliens seemingly infinitely diverse) but they are all recognizable and relatable. It makes the minutiae of their lives an interesting read all by itself, and puts the larger plot of the journey take a back seat.

Time to circle back to my almost putting this book off to some indeterminate time: some science fiction books have absolutely beautiful cover art… and some do not. That was honestly part of my entry bias to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, that I absolutely hated its cover. I also couldn’t really get excited about the frequent comparisons to other properties – it didn’t sound like the fun character study I had initially been sold on.  I put it back on my to read list when I read the Read Harder Challenge Tasks late last year, and  its lackluster cover got it its spot on 2018’s to read list.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.