Youpine: A New Way to Review

I’ve had a busy past couple of weeks, and I’ve fallen behind on writing blog posts as a result! To ease back into it, here’s a short post about a new website I’ve encountered, Youpine.

Now, as readers of this blog know, I love writing and reading full-length book reviews. However, sometimes I want to check out a book quickly without sifting through several people’s opinions. That’s why I’m intrigued by the concept of this site. Rather than aggregating star ratings and written reviews, it puts together lists of descriptive adjectives to form a quick snapshot of what a book is like. These descriptions are submitted as lists of adjectives from the users of the website. Rather than seeing whether or not the reviewer liked the book, we see their impression of the actual contents. This is great because individual preferences make it so that a good book for one might be awful for another.

The catch is that it’s a very new website with few users as of right now, and so a lot of books (and movies!) remain without any reviews at all, let alone a meaningful consensus. If you’re  interested in this site, I recommend checking it out and helping to build it up a bit more. If you review books regularly, you can do what I did and pull relevant adjectives from your already written reviews to describe books.

What do you think of this idea? Is it an innovation; is it competition to WordPress bloggers; is it a useless idea? Tell me in the comments!

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Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Harriet and David are a happy couple who want lots of children, and so they have them. The first four are perfectly ordinary. The fifth child is something else. It’s a simple premise for a horror novel–almost an obvious one–and accordingly, it needs less than 150 pages for the idea to express itself fully.

This is not a gory, blood-pumping horror novel; it’s a tale of suspense. We spend nearly the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time and time again, the fifth child, Ben, does something that sets off alarm bells in the brain, and so we wait for him to snap. And wait. And wait.

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Doris Lessing takes the story from merely psychological to philosophical, taking a figurative page from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ben cannot help being what he is, and he does make efforts to be human in some sense. He is doomed to be misunderstood. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, though, it’s not that people refuse to understand him. Harriet does her absolute darnedest to love Ben like she does her other children. Chillingly, he is completely incapable of being understood.

I find The Fifth Child to be an excellent example of horror from a feminine perspective in that it comments so incisively on motherhood. What Harriet faces is an extreme version of what many mothers face. Can I love all my children the same? Is it normal to resent my child? If my child turns out “wrong,” is it my fault? Am I doing motherhood wrong? Is it bad not to breastfeed, is it uncaring not to follow all the little bits of health advice that we mothers pass around among us? So many of Harriet’s problems are just one step beyond what an ordinary mother experiences.

The thing is, her experiences are not the experiences of an ordinary mother, and whenever she tries to point this out, others gaslight her. They pretend that Ben is just remarkably strong for his age, or a bit slow, or a bit “different.” On the flip side, they treat Harriet as though this difference is her fault. It all comes to a head in her conversation with a doctor toward the end of the book:

I don’t blame myself, though I don’t expect you to believe it. But it’s a bad joke. I feel like I’ve been blamed for Ben ever since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I’ve always been made to feel like a criminal.

I think that Harriet’s predicament is relatable not only for mothers, but for any woman who’s been treated as “hysterical” or “crazy” over legitimate grievances. That realism is what gives the novel its edge.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we never do really solve the mystery of Ben. However, how Ben came to be what he is, is not the point. The point is the effect he has on his family and the people around him.

I recommend this to anyone looking for an unsettling read that isn’t too outright scary, especially if you appreciate a tint of feminist insight.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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An Unexpected DNF: Vox by Christina Dalcher (Linguist’s Perspective)

I was excited about Vox for one reason — the main character is a neurolinguist. What’s more, she is an accurately written neurolinguist, since the author has a PhD in linguistics herself. I studied linguistics in college, so having accurate representation of my field out there is important to me. Then why didn’t I finish it?

Time constraints. At my library, new books are lent on a two-week basis, no renewals. I had to give it back. To be honest, though, I had the appropriate amount of time to read this book, but it didn’t excite me enough to finish it before the deadline. It’s a decent book, based on the 75 pages I did read of it. I would have finished it eventually if not for the due date. Still, I’d like to talk about why, as a linguist, I didn’t really get the book I was expecting.

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Vox is set in a dystopian future where women are allotted 100 words per day. For every word after that, a wrist cuff administers a shock that increases in intensity as the woman continues to speak. It’s all very The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, it’s a bit too The Handmaid’s Tale. Every single blurb and review of the book latches on to this easy comparison. Dalcher seems determined to impress upon us that something like this, if not exactly this, could happen if we don’t stop Trump and the fundamentalist right. The main character has failed to heed the warnings of her activist classmate from grad school, and now she’s stuck in a world where women can’t speak.

I mean, that’s one way to motivate people to action, I suppose.

There’s a strange disconnect between two segments of the U.S. population, in my observation. There are people who have firsthand experience with fundamentalist right-wing Christianity, and there are people who have only looked upon it from the outside. I’ve attended churches across the spectrum and known Christians of many different political shades. I find that books like Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale cater to an audience that has never been involved in “that” part of the church and that often has little experience with religion at all. That’s not to say that these books are necessarily wrong in their portrayals, but they lack nuance and a real understanding of how the religious right thinks. Religious characters seem like caricatures.

Margaret Atwood has given enough interviews about her work that we can understand how she formulated Gilead, but there is much less to go on with Dalcher. While she names her inspiration as the Cult of Domesticity, this doesn’t tell us about her own religious background and how it informs her writing. I don’t think readers are entitled to know her beliefs or her upbringing unless she chooses to share it, but I do think it’s a relevant point to consider on my end when analyzing a book that criticizes religion and politics.

With regard to linguistics, Vox is factual, or at least it is up to the point I read. And that’s great, but in terms of science fiction, it’s a bit of a snooze. Arrival might not have accurate linguistics, but at least it’s creative with linguistic concepts. Dalcher writes about Wernicke’s aphasia in layman’s terms, paragraphs I skimmed with a yawn. It’s a decent introduction to the topic, but from what I gather, she doesn’t take this aspect of the storyline anywhere particularly speculative.

The more interesting linguistic question she raises is about speech development in children. The main character’s daughter Sonia seems to receive an appropriate amount of linguistic input, but she isn’t allowed to put it into practice by speaking herself. The women of this society begin to invent sign languages, but the authorities cotton on quickly and shut them down. Any linguist can tell you that with such stunted language use in childhood, a girl like Sonia would end up with permanent linguistic disabilities. I hope that Dalcher explores this idea with imagination, since she’s creating a generation of test subjects for the most unethical of linguistic studies: what happens when you raise a child without speech? Only a small handful of abused, neglected, or “wild” children have been observed by researchers to this end.

The thing is, I could be wrong, but I don’t see room in the narrative she sets up to properly explore the ramifications of the 100-word policy. Its consequences would be on a generational scale, and her plot seems to be fairly real-time.

I want to highlight again that I only read the first 75 pages of this book. Many of my qualms could easily be wiped away in the rest of the story. I just wanted to give some of my thoughts as a linguist, even though I wasn’t able to read the entire thing. Maybe when the initial library rush has died down I’ll pick it up again and do a follow-up.

One thing’s for sure: Vox has ignited in me an appetite for more linguistic science fiction. Send the recommendations my way if you have them!

You can buy Vox here.

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Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

This review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

I love Ella Enchanted. I love Gail Carson Levine’s entire bibliography. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve written an essay on the impact Ella Enchanted has made on my life. So when I got the chance to read Ogre Enchanted before it officially comes out, I was psyched. This book can stand alone, but it’s also a prequel featuring characters from the generation before Ella.

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There’s a suggestion of a Beauty and the Beast narrative, but Ogre Enchanted is content to leave it as a vague inspiration rather than the basis of the tale. In fact, the Beauty and the Beast story canonically exists as a fairy tale in this universe. This stands in contrast to Ella Enchanted and Fairest, which are retellings, albeit ones that take great liberties with the source material.

Our protagonist, Evie, turns down a marriage proposal from her friend Wormy in the presence of the familiar fairy Lucinda, who turns her into an ogre in retaliation. If Evie can’t secure and accept another proposal within the time limit, she’ll remain one forever.

The main appeal for me as a fan of Levine is the expanded world-building. This story sheds light on the workings of ogre culture and magic, gives important background information on the history of Kyrria, and explains how Ella’s parents got together. The main plot-line is solid enough, but it seems a bit formulaic, and I would have preferred a different ending.

Spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading “Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine”

Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

What burdens we lay on the dying … seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel–something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

What do you expect from a book about grieving? It’s probably not what you get from The Optimist’s Daughter, which strikes a light and philosophical tone as it follows Laurel through the death of her father. Beleaguered by well-meaning mourners and her too-young stepmother, Fay, Laurel tries to make sense of her father’s life and actions, especially his taking a second wife after the passing of her mother, Becky.

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Laurel, although she is the central character, often fades into the background as she observes other characters. While others make her father’s death about themselves, fluttering around and making a spectacle, Laurel is determined to remember her father as he was. She wants nothing more than to arrange the aftermath of her father’s passing the way he would have wanted it, but Fay’s self-centered plans get in the way.

Funerals. The chaos of trying to plan an event in the midst of deep sadness. Reminiscing. The odd moments of joy and laughter that follow. The empty silence when it’s over. Sorting through your loved one’s belongings. Welty takes us through the entire process. It’s just realistic enough to not feel so sad. Thankfully, I haven’t been through the loss of a parent, but I related intensely to the sheer strangeness that permeates the loss of a loved one. Funeral receptions feel surreal to me, and the distribution of a family member’s belongings can be a difficult process.

There are also the questions. Who was Judge McKelva? Was he who Laurel thinks he was? Why did he remarry? Do those left behind deserve to impose on the privacy he held in life?

This book is easy to read until it isn’t. The very ending brought tears to my eyes, although I hadn’t felt particularly sad up until that point.

Usually when I read a book, I have some meter going in the back of my mind measuring how much I like it, where the strengths are, where the flaws are. That didn’t happen with this book. I just read it. It’s a short read, so if you get the chance to get through it in one or two sittings, you should absolutely do it. With a colorful cast of characters and simple poignancy, there’s nothing not to love about The Optimist’s Daughter.

I recommend this as a thoughtful, relaxed read to enjoy when you have the time and the focus to absorb it fully.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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