Monday, January 15, 2018

Making the Monster, or Happy 200th Birthday Frankenstein!

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
by: Kathryn Harkup
To be Published: Feb 2018

2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's gothic masterpiece-- Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Widely recognized as one of the first (if not the first) work of science fiction, this revolutionary novel has truly withstood the test of time (and continues to haunt middle school literary criticism to this day). Some may already know the broad strokes of how this story came to life: on a dark and stormy night (of course), 18 year old Mary joins her friends in a competitive game to see who can write the best horror story. Inspired by the rational ideals of the Enlightenment and recent advances in electricity research, Mary writes the short story that she will later develop into the novel we know and love.

Making the Monster dives quite bit deeper into the historical context of this work, piecing together not only Mary's biography but those of her family, friends and any intellectual or "natural philosopher" she may have been influenced by. This is interwoven with the upheavals in politics and the sciences leading up to her education and journey away from home. Though the narrative unravels into countless tangents and side-histories, it is well-organized and cohesive. This is a book for anyone who enjoys reading about the history of scientific progress-- the controversies, the blunders, and the experiments that got us where we are today1. Whether or not you enjoyed (or even read) Frankenstein, if you appreciate its significance in history and are ready to fall down the rabbit-hole of alchemy, galvanism, and medical experimentation (oh my!), check it out.

// I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
*blows dust off drawing pad* 2018 resolutions here we go!
1. If weird medical history is your thing and you're not already listening to the Maximum Fun podcast "Sawbones" Run, don't walk.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)
by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Published: Nov 2014 (first published 2007)

THIS is the hard sci fi I've been craving: chock full of physics thought-experiments, tedious descriptions of nanoparticle research and multi-dimensional folding, with a hefty dose of cult environmentalism. Plus it's written and set in China -- starting with the Cultural Revolution and spanning the decades leading up to present day-- so there's also heavy focus on the persecution of scientists and intellectuals by the Communist Party. So if you enjoy your dystopian fiction a little too real, look no further.

As a literary work it's not entirely consistent - there are some gloriously crafted passages with a fair share of dry, struggle-to-get-through moments. But I'm leaving the 5 star rating on Goodreads for the incredible ingenuity packed into the story. There's a lot to unpack here and I felt it all pulled together quite nicely. Though for anyone interested in checking it out, a warning: definitely did myself a disservice listening to this over audiobook. On top of it being a bit more difficult to distinguish between names, there were so many times I wanted to go back and reread an especially technical passage or process described in a previous chapter with absolutely no idea how to scroll back and find it. Will definitely be adding this to my library as a hardcopy.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Year in Books or: How I Learned To Stop Wasting My Bus Commute

So I started out this year with the goal to read a book a month, alternating fiction and nonfiction and writing up review after each one (in a sincere but futile effort to stall the inevitable fading of my awful, awful memory). This was actually a pretty lofty goal considering my reading habits since grad school had consisted entirely of manga, comics and Song of Ice and Fire rereads. Turns out, I vastly underestimated the amount of reading I could squeeze into a hour long bus commute (and devouring books was the perfect replacement to doing actual work and improving myself in tangible ways!). I ended up rounding out the year closer to 8 books a month coming in at a hot 98 with an almost perfect split of fic/nonfic.

But I didn't write this shit up just to humblebrag all over your beautiful faces, I also wanted to share some things I learned over the span of the year. Apologies if these are already common knowledge, I honestly have been living under a Netflix-shaped rock for the last five years.

Now back in the swing of a full blown book addiction, I'm swimming upstream against the last few years of bestsellers and near constant flow of new releases. To make matters even more complicated I realized there are services that appreciate book reviews so much they send you free Advance Reader Copies just to hear your honest opinion.  Blogging for Books sends you books in exchange for a review (though I actually haven't yet read or reviewed the book they sent me because I'm the worst). Netgalley is a website for authors to receive feedback from booksellers, librarians and reviewers and I've gotten some pretty incredible ARCs from them (here's a handy how-to guide with more information). LibraryThing, a great website for organizing your library and to-reads, offers early reviewers a chance to grab books, again, with the expectation of feedback. Goodreads also has giveaways for free hardcopy or ebooks but I either have terrible luck or the algorithm just hates me-- apparently posting reviews for books you are sent gives you a more favorable chance of receiving another but let's be real, it's all a numbers game.

Libraries have come so far in the last few years! Getting e-books and audiobooks is super easy with either your phone or e-reader (assuming you have a recent-ish one which I unfortunately do not). Overdrive allows you to log in with your library card and place holds on a surprisingly great selection & Hoopla doesn't even make you wait in line - everything available can be downloaded immediately (though you are limited to 8 borrows per month). Both of these sites/apps are linked to your local public library system, but if you currently live in an area with a limited selection, there are libraries that let nonresidents to gain membership and access.

Online behemoths like Amazon will obviously give you the best bang for your buck, but if you're into voting with your dollars, your brick and mortar book purchases make a statement about what you value in your community. Indiebound has a bookstore locator if you're unsure about what is available near you. Why support local? Bookstores give you the chance to become more connected with your community and the reading world at large - either by offering events with authors, reading clubs, or an opportunity to browse expertly curated selections of books. Sometimes you just want to know what's out there and the hivemind over at r/books can get a little circlejerky.

Now that I've proven to myself that I can still read, I think I want to focus less on quantity and more on casting a wider, more diverse net. Popsugar posted a fun reading challenge that may force me out of my comfort zone a bit. I don't plan to do all of them, but I like the idea of reading a "book set in the decade you were born",  a "book by local author" or a "childhood classic you've never read." Bookriot has a Read Harder Challenge with prompts like: "genre fiction in translation", "a book with a female protagonist over the age of 60", "a comic written or illustrated by a person of color".  I've got some work to avoid y'all, LET'S FUCKIN DO THIS.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Chalk Man

The Chalk Man
by C.J. Tudor
To be Published: Jan 2018

Reminiscent of Stand By Me (/The Body) this whodunnit centers on a group of 12 year olds and the unsolved  mystery that plagues their small town. Flashing between 1986 and 2016, we piece together events from their childish misadventures leading up to their discovery of a brutal murder and the resurrection of the mystery decades later.

3 of 5 stars : Definitely a page-turner, it has a good pace, solid story and a satisfying conclusion.** I unintentionally breezed through the book over the holiday weekend thanks to some cold and gloomy book-friendly weather! Without treading into spoiler territory, let's just say, not impressed overall. Ending every chapter on a cliffhanger really brought me back to my Goosebumps / Fear Street days, so maybe the overarching "meh" feeling comes from it feeling a bit YA fic. Which isn't a terrible thing in and of itself - just not my cuppa anymore. One thing I did really enjoy was the occasional asides on existence and memory - never forget kids, deep down we're all unreliable narrators.

**that said I'm still left with some questions and I can't decide whether this was sloppy, intentional or I'm just dense. Usually the latter so *shrugs*

PS: Found a nice summary video from C.J. Tudor herself:

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Book of the Month

~~~ wake up wake up wake up, it's the book of the mooooooonth ~~ 

// Disclaimer: Book of the Month has not paid me to promote them, I am a corporate shill of my own volition and with no foreseeable benefit to myself. Don't mind me, I'll just be sitting here re-evaluating all the choices I've made that have led me to this point.

Book of the Month Club was founded in 1926 as a way to distribute and discuss new and upcoming books. From the Wikipedia page, I bring you some fun tidbits of history:
"The club has a tradition of focusing on debut and emerging writers, and is known for having helped launch the careers of some of the most acclaimed authors in American literary history. In 1926 (its first year in operation), the Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In 1936 (its tenth year), the Club selected Gone with the Wind by unknown author Margaret Mitchell... In 1951 (its 25th year), the club distributed its 100 millionth book and selected J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which became both the most-censored and the most-taught book in America."
Since it's the holiday season, I've had this bouncing around my brain-- that I'm pleased with my subscription and thought I'd spread the joy. This is for anyone who still needs a gift for that picky bookworm who you love just enough to spend one of three convenient price ranges ($45 bucks for 3 books, $80 bucks for 6 books or $150 for starting at ~$15 per book). Each month, members are presented with five new books and the option to either pick one or skip the month. There is also an archive of books offered in the past that are available to someone with book credits.

Honestly, I'd wait until BOTM is doing a coupon or offer to make sure you're getting the best deal i.e. Groupon / RetailMeNot / sporadic promo sales.

Q: Kay you've convinced me, where do I go to check this out?
A: Haz click aquĆ­ --> If you use my own personal referral link I get a free book. Thanks in advance, stranger! That's some genius marketing right there, yea? Falls right in line with their self-perpetuating stream of Instagram Book Looks. *cough*

Q: What if my friend is super particular and doesn't like the books available? 
A: They can always skip that month and get something the next month! Or the month after that. Or the one after that. Or they can prolong the wait indefinitely and get off on how unreasonably high their standards are #neversettle #neverbackdown. But seriously there's no shame in skipping months, save those credits for books you're excited about. Though the curation team does deserve some credit here: the picks seem pretty well-regarded in the grand scheme of things.

Q: Why can't I just get my friend a gift card to their favorite local book store? Or to Half-Price books instead?  
A: I never said you couldn't do that. Those are fantastic options! Do it! Some local bookstores even offer subscription boxes now - like my lovely neighborhood Brazos Bookstore makes personalized gift boxes tailor-made to suit the recipient with 1-2 books and several gift items. Book of the Month is neat and all but nothing beats supporting local. Find your nearest indie bookstore on IndieBound!