Visiting My Local Bookstore

I didn’t realize there was a bookstore where I live until last weekend, when I decided to Google it. Clearly, I don’t get out much, but I’m happy to have found a place worth getting out for.

My sense of direction is so bad I often say I could get lost inside a paper bag, so I’m honestly proud of myself just for finding it without much trouble. It was on a downtown street I knew fairly well, though I’d never been to that part of it before. Even more luckily, I was able to find a nice parking spot nearby.

Inside, the selection was small, which was about what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised to find several titles I recognized and had enjoyed reading in the past, as well as a few that are on the list of books I want to read sometime soon. Even better, it had exactly what I was hoping for: all three Lord of the Rings books, plus The Hobbit! While I was thinking the store might offer one or more individually, I was thrilled to find them in a lovely box set that looks excellent on my bookshelf, and I picked up a used hardcover of A Tale of Two Cities as a bonus.

A box set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Each of the four paperbacks inside has matching font and similar design but in a different color.
The box set I bought (not my picture because I don’t have a good camera)

I also found out while exploring the store’s website that they host events for writers, including workshops and an open mic night. While checking out, I picked up a paper listing all the dates and times and got some more details from the owner, and I was back a few days later to listen to some local writers whose talents just amazed me. There were poets, essay and short story writers, and even singer-songwriters with their guitars. There was a great variety, and everyone was so good it was honestly intimidating.

I came in with the first few pages of my novel just in case I got pushed into reading something, but I’m ultimately glad I held off. The owner did ask if I’d like to, but there was no pressure at all, which I really appreciate. I was nervous enough just being in a brand new situation, and having time to sit back and absorb it all definitely helped, especially because it seemed like there was understanding rather than judgment. Hearing what the others presented, I got a feel for what the expectations are. I found out what the standard length of time should be and also saw that most people read pieces that are complete, so when I do go back with something, it’ll be a short piece, at least to start with.

I’m half convinced I’ll still be blushing and/or shaking even with this preparation, but I’m looking forward to getting more practice with this so that I hopefully get better. If (when?) I do publish a novel, I definitely want to be able to do readings at libraries and bookstores and wherever else I’m able.

The takeaway for readers is that you can look forward to a review of The Hobbit coming soon! And also an update on my own reading performance… if I don’t lose my nerve.

Should You Read Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko?

The cover of Raybearer, depicting a young woman wearing earrings, necklace, dots of face paint, and hair braided with gold, which spreads out behind the head to create a halo effect

“I shouldn’t have been surprised that fairies exist.

“When elephants passed by in a lumbering sea beneath my window, flecks of light whispered in the dust, dancing above the rows of tusks and leather. I leaned precariously over the sill, hoping to catch a fleck before a servant wrestled me inside.”

– Opening of Raybearer

Raybearer is a young adult fantasy novel about a young girl (later a teenager) whose mother has been trying to use her to carry out a personal vendetta from the moment she was conceived. Raised in an isolated house with only a rotating cast of servants she’s not allowed to touch and a mother who barely speaks to her on the rare occasions she’s actually present, Tarisai grows up longing for love and human connection. When she’s finally sent away to fulfill her mother’s mysterious wish, she finds a group of friends who become even closer than family, but the shadow of who–and what–she is hangs over her. As a half-djinn, she’s magically compelled to carry out her mother’s wish, even if it means killing someone she’s come to love. And her other half? Try as it might, it can’t escape the growing feeling that continuing to play the role that her new family asks of her is denying her true self. And that, in its own way, could prove just as destructive.

For me, this book is one that got better and better as it went along. At first, I was simply taking note of several features that seem to be popular in the current market for YA fantasy and wondering if I’d spend the entire book feeling down about the awful situation of the main character, but once Tarisai left the house where she was raised, the plot caught my attention for real and made the whole beginning section worth it. I enjoyed the world building, the subversion of certain expectations, and the gradual unfolding of various mysteries about the world, the society, and the characters themselves.

While I don’t generally enjoy books that give the impression that teenagers are or can be more capable than adults when it comes to seemingly everything, I understand that’s generally a staple of young adult fiction in which the protagonist has to be the hero. Apart from that, a few plot elements that seemed a little too convenient, and a few areas that seemed a little lacking in polish, I have nothing to complain about. The book was definitely enjoyable, and I know my standards have been partially shaped by what are considered actual literary masterpieces, so I imagine other readers wouldn’t even notice, wouldn’t even care, or would even disagree with me.

As for who this book appeals to, I think it certainly would appeal to those who like a diverse cast of characters, themes of feminism and empowerment, and a fantasy world not based strictly on the US and/or Europe. I also think it would appeal more broadly to those who enjoy modern YA fantasy with a strong leading character who ends up taking charge of the action. I imagine many teenagers could relate to the main character, and they especially, I think, could feel a powerful connection to this book through stepping into her shoes and experiencing it all as if through their own eyes. If the plot description that I gave above struck a chord with you, give it a read! If you stick through the beginning, I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.

Should You Read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, showing Hyde as Jekyll's shadow, ominously raising his cane as if to strike.

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty, and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.”

– Opening of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A strange, deformed man haunts the streets, trampling over fallen children and seemingly wresting money from the good Dr. Jekyll to escape the consequences of his misdeeds. Jekyll has even gone so far as to make this mysterious Mr. Hyde the sole benefactor of his will, against all advice from Mr. Utterson, his lawyer. Utterson suspects blackmail, and he’s determined not to rest until he’s helped his dear friend and client escape with his life. For surely, he thinks, Hyde must be tempted to murder Jekyll in order to usurp him. Utterson doesn’t know how right he is, though not at all in the way that he suspects.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic horror novel, and one that has been referenced so often in modern culture that I knew its biggest secret going in. For me, the surprises and the appeal were in discovering the way in which the story was told. Much of the plot involves watching Mr. Utterson and others slowly uncovering the mystery, and, for me, this resulted in a very interesting dramatic irony. I knew exactly what the characters were missing, but I didn’t know all the twists and turns of the plot, how the characters would react to them, or how the story would reach its end. For me, this was enough to maintain interest, and I think other readers would have a similar experience if they have only a surface-level knowledge of the plot.

This is a short book, certainly a quick read, and I found it to be a good example of British literature of the nineteenth century. Characters’ physical descriptions are meant to signify aspects of their personalities, houses and the weather are likewise described with obvious symbolism, the omniscient narrator tells you what the characters are like, and the characters have over-the-top reactions whenever anything remotely horrifying happens. Because of this, combined with how easy it is to read, I think it would make a great introductory book for anyone looking to get into British classics from the same time period without immediately jumping in the deep end.

I also found it interesting as a window into the past, seeing how people lived and spoke and how they told their stories. I would recommend it if you have a similar interest, or if, somehow, you actually don’t know the secret behind this particular mystery. If that’s the case, I recommend you go out and read it right now. And then come back and tell the rest of us how the ending struck you. I’m very curious to know.

Should You Read Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh?

The cover of Hyperbole and a Half, showing a cartoon version of the author and one of her dogs on a yellow background.

“When I was ten years old, I wrote a letter to my future self and buried it in my backyard. Seventeen years later, I remembered that I was supposed to dig it up two years earlier.

“I looked forward to getting a nostalgic glimpse into my childhood–perhaps I would marvel at my own innocence or see the first glimmer of my current aspirations. As it turns out, it just made me feel real weird about myself.”

– Opening of Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half is a cross between a memoir and a graphic novel. Organized into a series of vignettes that often read like comedy sketches, it covers such diverse topics as the author’s childhood, the joys and difficulties of dog ownership, and struggles with self-improvement, motivation, and depression.

The writing is intertwined with drawings that can appear comically amateurish, particularly when it comes to the author’s depiction of herself with stick arms and a triangle of blond hair sticking up like a party hat, but the author is clearly an expert of the style, making the visual jokes land just as well if not better than those based in text. It reminds me of a friend who jokingly prides himself in his ability to use Microsoft Paint, except that Allie Brosh could certainly draw circles around him in her software of choice. Something about taking a simple tool or a simple art style and turning it into something really impressive is charming to me, and, in this case, that certainly added to the book’s ability to make me laugh.

And this book did make me laugh, from the introduction to the About the Author section on the back cover flap. I laughed out loud more times than I can count. Every time I finished one story, I was eager for the next.

In terms of substance, I also appreciated the honest depiction of another person’s life and perspective on the world. The section related to the author’s struggles with depression, while certainly not the most light-hearted, was one of my favorites because of how clearly it depicted a true experience that many people could relate to and yet was entirely unique. Depression is too often misunderstood, and one aspect of that, I think, is that people forget that not everyone experiences it in the same way. Other types of misunderstanding are more common, and I loved the way this section depicted the author’s well-meaning friends and loved ones and explained how their words and actions were received by her depressive mind. It’s natural to want to help, and it’s the unfortunate reality of depression that it’s extremely difficult to know how. This section alone, in my opinion, provides enormous value in a way that’s very easy to absorb.

My biggest criticism for this book is the language in the first section about the author’s dog, which I personally found distasteful. There is also swearing scattered throughout, so I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t care for that style of humor. If you only want to avoid the r word, though, just skip the second story. The rest of the book calls the dog “simple”, and you won’t have any trouble understanding anything that follows.

With those caveats, I would recommend this book to just about anybody else. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, great for a laugh, and definitely kept my interest. For anyone who has a friend or loved one going through depression–or, heck, anyone who has the awareness that they might someday–I would highly recommend reading the section related to depression, even if you skip the rest of the book entirely. I don’t know why you would, though. If that’s the sort of mission you’re on, you probably deserve a smile and a laugh.

Should You Read 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke?

The cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey, red with black dotted lines coming out from a circular yellow center

“The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight. In this barren and desiccated land, only the small or the swift or the fierce could flourish, or even hope to survive.”

– Opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic science fiction novel divided into three parts. The first follows the ancestors of humanity as they have a strange encounter that changes the course of human history. The second follows a scientist who journeys to the moon to investigate a top-secret discovery. And the last follows an astronaut on a journey to Saturn, although the real purpose of his mission is not told to him until disaster strikes.

I should mention that I’ve never seen the movie that was developed at the same time as this novel. I typically prefer books to movies, and therefore I was interested in reading this book but feel no particular compulsion to watch the movie. As such, this review will not contain any comparisons or an answer to the question of which is better. If you haven’t seen the movie either and are considering whether to read the book, I hope this will be helpful to you.

I will admit that I was aware of the movie going into this, and I knew one particular plot point from what is the third portion of the book (I think I saw a clip at some point), so I was surprised to find that the opening is not about space travel at all. That being said, once I got into it, I quite enjoyed reading about the man-apes, as Clarke envisioned them. It was fascinating to see what he thought they were like or what he thought they might have been like and to wonder about the mystery that begins unfolding here. The second section was, to my mind, a little slow, while the third started slow, picked way up, then disappointed me. I don’t recommend reading this if you’re looking for an exciting or action-packed plot.

What did the book have instead? Lots of descriptions of space, space travel, and the technology that humans use to live in and travel through space. I’m no expert on the science shown here, but it read to me as being quite believable, and there were many times when I did believe the author was presenting details as they truly are. If you haven’t read or watched much science fiction, perhaps many of the ideas would surprise you and catch your interest as well. I suspect that at the time it was written this was a large part of the appeal, as of course no one had created anything inspired by it yet.

I couldn’t help but notice that it is very much a product of its time, both in terms of the level of advancement of the scientific ideas and the portrayal of female characters. The latter wasn’t at the level where it was upsetting, but it was certainly noticeable to this reader. One line that gives a good idea of what I’m talking about is this: “[Space pods] were usually christened with feminine names, perhaps in recognition of the fact that their personalities were sometimes slightly unpredictable.” Coming from the omniscient narrator, that certainly helps explain in my mind why this depiction of “the future” focuses so heavily on men and seems to put them in every single position of power or influence in society. Some readers, I’m sure, will not mind this in the slightest. Others like myself will likely find it interesting, a view into the mindsets of the past as well as the futuristic speculations of the past. In the year 2022, I personally find it interesting to consider how the real 2001 turned out so differently than what Clarke predicted.

In the end, I found this book enjoyable enough. I’m glad I read it in order to understand the cultural relevance and the impact it’s had on what has come since. I also enjoyed seeing the writing techniques used and was intrigued to find that the book is so beloved in spite of what I wouldn’t have expected to be widely considered a compelling plot structure. If you like space and space travel or if you’re a science fiction buff, a lover of classic literature, or an aspiring science fiction writer, I would recommend giving this one a read. If you’re looking for good representation, action, or new ideas, I’d go with a modern science fiction book instead. Perhaps The World Gives Way, which I reviewed previously.

Should You Read How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann?

How to Be Eaten tells the stories of a variety of fairytale characters from their perspectives, modernized and with some twists. Each one of them is suffering from the trauma of what they’ve experienced as well as from the unwanted media attention. One thing all these women have in common is that their stories are being told for them–and they’re being told very badly.

“The women gather in the YMCA basement rec room: hard linoleum floors, half-windows along one wall, view of sidewalk and brick. It’s a Friday, just after six, and above them the city of New York bustles. Up there, people are teeming out of subway stations and into the hot sun, rushing toward tourist traps, toward restaurants, toward parties and friends.

“Whatever people do on a Friday, the women in the basement are not doing it.”

– Opening of How to Be Eaten

How to Be Eaten tells the stories of a variety of fairytale characters from their perspectives, modernized and with some twists. Each one of them is suffering from the trauma of what they’ve experienced as well as from the unwanted media attention. One thing all these women have in common is that their stories are being told for them–and they’re being told very badly. From victim blaming to sexist assumptions, the worst of society is on display, and the reader is left wondering if these characters will ever be able to find peace.

I sometimes get bored with twisted fairytale plotlines because you can anticipate what’s going to happen, but the clever thing about this book is that it starts with all the characters having already been through the experiences you would know them for, which creates a totally different plot. Combined with the modernization, the inclusion of a character who isn’t from a classic fairytale at all, and the fact that some of the women have names that leave you guessing about the story they’re from all help add to add surprises also. I particularly enjoyed the role reality television plays in the story, as that really added something fresh and hammered home the fact that the problematic stories our culture is telling are not all passed down from the distant past.

Certainly, this book makes no secret about being feminist, so you’re more likely to enjoy it if you enjoy reading the type of book that makes you think about these sorts of topics. You might also enjoy it if you like a book that has a larger cast. In this book, each woman tells her own story in first person, separated and introduced by sections written in third person, which makes for a variety of different voices in the spotlight. It’s largely realistic, with certain aspects of fantasy that are depicted in such a way that many characters aren’t sure whether to believe that these things really happened, so I would also recommend it to people who like just a dash of the impossible to spice things up.

Overall, it is a book that I enjoyed, and I had to force myself to take breaks to absorb everything that I’d just read before going back to my swift page-turning. If you decide to give it a try, I predict you’ll also find it a quick read!

Should You Read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams?

The cover of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, showing a shining door plate against the background of a dark landscape

“This time there would be no witnesses.

“This time there was just the dead earth, a rumble of thunder, and the onset of that interminable light drizzle from the northeast by which so many of the world’s most momentous events seem to be accompanied.”

– Opening of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency tells the tale of an Electric Monk, an old college professor who’s apparently paid to do nothing, a computer programmer whose software makes music out of accounting figures, his overbearing and eccentric boss, his sensible but nearly fed-up girlfriend, and, of course, a private detective who swears that because of the fundamental interconnectedness of everything, it’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to charge people for trips to Bermuda in search of their lost cats. When the eccentric boss is unexpectedly gunned down and the programmer seems to be the police’s top suspect, Dirk takes his new client on a wild adventure to clear his name, discover the true culprit, and maybe even save the world. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Gently does not eliminate the impossible, and in this case he might just be onto something.

Douglas Adams is an author well known for his humorous and light-hearted writing style, and this book was no exception. Although he’s better known for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, I found the two Dirk Gently books (this one and the sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul) to be easier to enjoy, as I personally had a difficult time getting over the fact that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens with the destruction of Earth. Don’t get me wrong, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy still got a few good laughs out of me, but the Dirk Gently books are more my cup of tea.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency starts out very slowly and requires a good deal of patience and concentration before it really starts to ramp up, in my opinion, but I found that when I did give it that focus I was very much rewarded. In fact, this is the sort of book where the astute reader can pick up on vital clues and get the satisfaction of seeing all the pieces fall in place by the ending. It rewards the reader who goes slowly and enjoys every little humor-laced paragraph along the way.

And for me, one of the main attractions is that it did make me smile throughout rather than getting dragged down into sadness while the characters faced their struggles. Certainly, it’s important to read books on serious topics, just as it’s important to stay aware of current events even when they’re frightening or tragic, but there’s also such a thing as too much. Sometimes all you want is to balance it all out with a book that just makes you feel good. This is that kind of book. I recommend it to anyone else who’s looking for the same.

Should You Read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer?

“On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, The Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony.”

– Opening of The Interestings

The Interestings is a literary fiction novel that follows a small cast of characters who start as gifted artistic teenagers and grow to see what becomes of their talents and their lives. One becomes famous, another is able to do the work she’s dreamt of with a lesser degree of success, one becomes a spectacular failure, and others find themselves falling into more ordinary roles within society. None, however, find themselves with what they really wanted. The novel follows their individual quests for happiness, fulfillment, and success, with all the ups and downs of life, their stories sometimes branching apart and sometimes becoming intertwined. It’s an exploration of what it means to be “talented” and “successful”, both in general and in the society we live in.

This is one of those books where all the characters are imperfect and happy endings are far from guaranteed. It uses limited omniscience to reveal information, skip around in time, and present the reader with certain judgments, but it tends to focus on one character per chapter, dipping into his or her thoughts alone. I found this to be an interesting technique, and I particularly enjoyed how easily it moved the reader forwards and backwards while letting each scene shine no matter where in the timeline it was located.

On the other hand, there were certain places where I found myself negatively judging both the characters and the narrator, which I was personally disappointed by. Some scenes seemed to do a good job of pointing the reader to the fact that the point of view characters were very wrong in their assessments, but other times the narrator was either absent or apparently agreed with them in a way that didn’t sit right with me.

Regardless, the writing itself was very good, and I would recommend it to any other writers (aspiring or otherwise) who want to explore and learn from its techniques. For more casual readers, it might fit the bill if you enjoy realistic fiction and are prepared to keep your own head about you as you read. It seems to be the sort of book that almost expects you to be making your own judgments and contemplating the characters and their fates. And perhaps it could be the sort of book that causes you to open your eyes and alter your own course in life, which would certainly make it very valuable indeed.

Reading Goals for 2022

(Graph generated by The StoryGraph)

I read twenty-four books in 2021, a lot of fantasy, a little bit of science fiction, one classic, and one non-fiction. On the fantasy front, I read some books by hugely popular authors and others that were very recently published. In a lot of cases, I was reading to try to get a feel for what fantasy readers want to see and for what the current market is like. I also ended up enjoying a lot of what I read, to the extent that I went out and read all the sequels as well.

This year, I would like to continue doing that, but I want to find a good balance between that sort of reading and the other sort that I enjoy even though it doesn’t contribute to that sort of research. I do want to keep reading classic literature, even though it tends to take longer to get through and isn’t directly applicable to the current market. I do think that I pick up writing techniques from reading books that are masterfully written, and I think it gives me insights into the literary world and the real one in which we live.

So I’m not going to set a goal for how many books I read or even how many pages, but I am going to try to spend at least some time reading in a meaningful way every week. Whether that means a few chapters in a classic that makes me stop and think or an entire modern novella that I just fly through, I’m going to try to feel good about myself for what I’m accomplishing. Numbers aren’t the whole story, but at this time next year, I want to look back and feel satisfied.

What are your current reading goals?

Should You Read The Invisible Library Series by Genevieve Cogman?

“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern light. Her back was complaining, but that was only normal after an evening’s work cleaning. The cleaning was certainly necessary. The pupils at Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys managed to get just as much mud and muck on the floor as any other teenagers would. Clean indoor studies in the dark arts, military history, and alchemy didn’t preclude messy outdoor classes in strategic combat, dueling, open field assassination, and rugby.”

– Opening of The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library is the first book in a fantasy series that follows the adventures of a librarian named Irene as she buys, steals, or trades for rare and valuable books across a network of alternate worlds, each one uniquely fantastical and uniquely dangerous. In the first book, she takes on a new apprentice who’s a lot more than what he first appears and faces off against a bitterly hated rival as she tries to solve the mystery of who has stolen the book that she came looking for. Armed with a powerful magical language, she’s able to do amazing things, but the world she’s been sent to is inhabited with beings who have powers of their own. She’s not the only one who wants to get the book, and some of her enemies are willing to kill.

In my opinion, this series doesn’t have the most engaging start, but once it picks up, it really picks up. Every single book is action-packed and has new worlds, new characters, and new dangers to be faced. The characters grow throughout it, and mysteries about them are revealed little by little. It all ties together into a series I couldn’t stop reading until I’d reached the end of the latest book that’s been published and was very disappointed that I would have to wait for the next!

I wish there were a few more character moments or that some of the moments there are would be drawn out a little more, but if you enjoy a plot-based series with lots of action, it doesn’t get much better. I would recommend reading from the beginning, but each book does function as its own little adventure, which I think does a lot to keep things fresh.

This is a series I would definitely recommend to people who love fantasy. It’s deeply enjoyable in that way that makes you turn page after page and always long for more.