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Mirkat

Mirkat Always Reading

I'm always reading something, usually multiple books at a time.

Currently reading

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff, Nicol Zanzarella

Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl - Stacey Lee, Emily Woo Zeller

Jo Kuan is a 17-year-old Chinese-American girl in 1890 Atlanta. Jo and Old Gin secretly live below the Bell family's home/printing press. The secret chambers were built by abolitionists, and the Bells do not know they exist. Jo begins the story as a milliner's assistant, but loses that job early in the book. Jo accepts a job as a lady's maid, tending to the spoiled Caroline Payne, who is around Jo's age and used to be a sometimes friend/sometimes frenemy. Meanwhile, Jo hears through the "listening tube" left by the abolitionists that the Bells' newspaper, The Focus, needs a way to regain lost circulation. She comes up with the idea of writing an "Agony Aunt" type column called "Dear Miss Sweetie."

"Miss Sweetie" quickly becomes popular and increases subscriptions to the paper. Jo begins to tackle increasingly controversial topics, challenging racism and sexism, and thereby possibly making herself the target of readers who object.

At the same time, Jo attempts to solve the mysteries of her own parentage. According to Old Gin, she was abandoned on his doorstep when she was a newborn.

This was an enjoyable read. Jo is a likable, principled protagonist, and the author sneaks in a history lesson. She writes in her author's note:

Were you surprised to learn that planters shipped Chinese people to the South to replace the field slaves during Reconstruction? I was. Plantation owners envisioned an improved system of coerced labor, as Chinese workers were lauded as "fine specimens, bright and intelligent" (New Orleans Times, June 3, 1870). They were dismayed, however, when the Chinese behaved no differently from formerly enslaved blacks. The new workers were unwilling to withstand the terrible conditions and ran away to the cities, and sometimes vanished from the South altogether,

Was I surprised? You bet I was. I had no idea!

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams - Matthew Walker, Steve West

This is another book that everyone should read. It's that important. From memory formation to creativity, to mental, emotional, and physical health--adequate natural sleep is vital. Unfortunately, sleep is devalued by many, and chronic sleep deprivation is dangerously widespread.

Did you know that driving drowsy is even more dangerous than driving drunk? And if both conditions are present, the effects multiply one another.

Sleep deprivation prevents adults from performing to their potential at work; it prevents students from excelling in school. It can lead to symptoms that mimic psychosis, and in children, ADHD.

Medical residents forced to undersleep on a regular basis are liable to make serious medical errors and then get into accidents driving home. Patients in hospitals are subjected to conditions that make adequate sleep difficult at best, if not impossible--making them more susceptible to pain and slowing recovery. Newborns in NICU can be discharged an average of five days earlier if kept in dim lighting during the day and complete darkness at night.

Read this book. Get your friends, co-workers, bosses, friends, and kids to read it. If enough people read it, maybe a real societal shift can happen, where sleep is valued, prioritized, and protected.

 

[Completed 2/29/2020; forgot to adjust read dates and don't know how to go back and do that from here.]

Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep - Stephen King, Will Patton

What happens to Danny Torrance after The Shining?

According to Stephen King, in his author's note, this is a question he was often asked at book talks, and also one he wondered about from time to time himself, idly thinking about how old Danny would be at various times. So he wrote Doctor Sleep to find out.

After the traumatic events of The Shining, it's no wonder Danny continues to have nightmares. Although, as a child, Danny is sure he will never succumb to alcoholism as his father had, he falls into that trap nonetheless. One attraction is that alcohol damps down the shining.

While living in Florida, Dan Torrance finds his rock bottom and decides he needs a fresh start somewhere else. He ends up in New Hampshire, where he finds work and an AA sponsor.

Meanwhile, he begins to be contacted by someone with a shine even brighter than his own: Abra Stone. Abra is born in 2001, and as a baby, she sends precognitive dreams to her parents and great-grandmother, predicting the events of September 11.

Abra is in danger because of a nomadic, supernatural band of evil beings that call themselves The True Knot. They are virtually immortal and feed off of the essence, or "steam," of children who shine. She calls out to Dan, and soon they team up. Who better to understand what it's like to be a kid who can read minds? And two steam-heads (as The True Knot calls them) are stronger than one.

I definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoyed The Shining, especially those who might have wondered how Danny ended up. The book follows him from age six to 44.

The Shining

The Shining - Stephen King, Campbell Scott

Like most people, I have seen the Stanley Kubrick-directed movie adaptation of The Shining. It's been so many years since I have seen the film, that I don't recall it in great detail, but of course I remember the iconic lines and images most people remember: Danny croaking "REDRUM"; Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance shouting "HEEEEEEEERE'S JOHNNY"; Shelley Duvall's Wendy discovering that Jack has typed pages and pages filled with the repeated phrase "ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY."

I only just got around to the novel (audio narrated by Dying Young actor Campbell Scott) because I saw the trailers for the Doctor Sleep movie. The trailer made me want to check out the book, and since it's a sequel (I didn't even know!) to The Shining, it was obviously time for me to consume The Shining.

Jack Torrance is a writer who has recently lost his teaching job at a prep school in Denver, Colorado, after an unfortunate incident arising from losing his temper with a troublesome student. Jack's temper is an ongoing threat/foe, lurking within him and threatening to be triggered by any number of potential circumstances. Jack is an alcoholic struggling to keep his promise to stay dry, while carrying shame over the things he has done while inebriated. The two worst moments were a drunk-driving accident involving a bicycle and the uncertainty over whether the bike had been accompanied by a child (please let it just be the bicycle) and the time two years before when he broke Danny's arm while turning him around to spank him. Danny, age three at the time, had spilled beer onto Jack's manuscript.

Jack is given what seems like a lifeline: the opportunity to serve as winter caretaker of a grand hotel in the mountains of Colorado: The Overlook Hotel. Jack tells himself this will be his chance to stay dry while making a fresh start with his family and his writing. Without the possibility of accessing booze, Jack expects he will be able to focus on and finally complete the play he has been working on. The play could potentially increase Jack's profile, and maybe he can get his job at the prep school back.

But the Overlook is no ordinary hotel. The Overlook has.... History. Other caretakers have lost their sanity there, and done terrible things. To their families. Danny has had troubling premonitions about the Overlook. The hotel will bring something dark and destructive out of his daddy, suggest the premonitions. The place "makes monsters of men." Dick Hallorann, the hotel's cook, takes Danny aside after giving the family a tour of the pantry and kitchen. He recognizes in Danny a power that he shares, "the shining." When you "shine," you have certain psychic abilities. Since Dick and Danny both "shine," they are able to have a conversation entirely in their heads. Danny not only has telepathic powers, but he also can see the past and the future. This makes the hotel particularly frightening and dangerous for Danny. He can see things that have happened in the hotel's past, as well as things that are likely to happen in the future. People have been dying in the hotel for decades.

There is something in the hotel that wants to get into Jack Torrance, to play to his emotional weaknesses and his egotistical ambitions, to manipulate him into attacking his wife Wendy and Danny. If the hotel has its way, the Torrance family will never leave.

Stephen King has famously criticized Kubrick's interpretation of his story. I can understand where he is coming from. Here is an article on this topic:

Stephen King's Hatred For Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Explained
[Spoilers for both the book and the movie]

I have already begun listening to the audio version of Doctor Sleep.

On the Come Up

On the Come Up - Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin

Bri Jackson is the 16-year-old daughter of the late "Lawless," a rising star in the hip-hop world, killed when Bri was only five years old. Bri aspires to be a rapper, not so much following in her father's footsteps as finding her own voice and forging her own path. She has a shot at starting on that path when she is chosen to be in rap battle at "The Ring." She quickly demonstrates that she has a talent for freestyle rapping and immediately begins to receive attention.

At her school, a high school for the arts, Bri is targeted during routine security screening, and the incident quickly escalates and leads to an unfair suspension. Bri pours her frustration and anger into lyrics for her first rap song, "On the Come Up," which her Aunt Pooh arranges for her to record. Once she has the courage to upload and share her song, it quickly gains popularity.

When the song is used for a spontaneous protest against the security guards at school, and her lyrics are interpreted in ways Bri never meant, she soon becomes uneasy about the potential power of words. Meanwhile, she feels intense pressure to establish a career, because her mother is out of work and struggling to keep the lights and heat on. The pressure includes a possible record deal, but does that require playing a role and rapping words that aren't her own?

I highly recommend this book. Readers who have read The Hate You Give will recognize certain references to events in that book, though On the Come Up is not a sequel. Like Starr Carter in the earlier book, Bri lives in the Garden Heights neighborhood. But she does not know Starr or any of the other characters that Starr associates with.

The Institute

The Institute - Stephen King, Santino Fontana

It's difficult to write about this book without spoilers. I feel as though the blurb even has too many spoilers, and I'm glad I didn't read it before completing the book. (I started to read the first sentence of the blurb soon after starting, but then backed up, as it was telling me more than I wanted to know.)

The book features a sinister place in (of course!) Maine, The Institute. The residents of The Institute are children with psychic abilities--telekinesis or telepathy (sometimes both). They are kidnapped from their homes and subjected to tests and procedures. If they are not cooperative, they are punished with physical abuse. The children begin in "front half," and before too long, they are graduated to the mysterious "back half." What they are told is that after their "service" in back half is concluded, they will have their memory wiped and be sent back to their families to live happily ever after. It does not take the children long to be skeptical about this.

What is going on in back half? Who is in charge of The Institute? If anyone found out what happens in that place, who would believe it?

I don't want to give away more than that, but I'll make a few spoiler-free comments about the structure. The book opens with one character, and then after following him for a while, switches to another, who ends up being the book's central character. When I realized this, I wondered how the first guy would fit into the narrative. Don't worry--he shows up later, and then the beginning makes sense!

This book has some serious kid power. It's also got some seriously evil adults who hurt kids, which is disturbing. But Stephen King delivers a satisfying arc and conclusion.

Oh, and if you are thinking about Carrie at the mention of the telekinesis, I'm with you! I think Carrie could have dismantled the entire place, and the book would have ended five minutes after she got there. And while I am on other SK titles--there is a fun reference to twin girls in the institute reminding a character of an old horror movie. Must be The Shining!

Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras

Uglies, The Collector's Set, #1 - #4 - Scott Westerfeld

I read/listened to each of these books individually and did write-ups on each one, with the intention of writing a review covering the entire series. This is that review.

My individual write-ups can be accessed at the following links:

Uglies
Pretties
Specials
Extras

Note: While I avoided spoilers for each book, I did refer to events of earlier books once I got past the first.

The remainder of this review will be placed behind spoiler tags. Spoilers for all four books follow.

Uglies
When the book begins, Tally Youngblood is three months away from turning 16 years old. She lives in one of those future dystopian worlds in which everything changes when you turn 16. (If you have read many YA dystopian novels, this is likely a phenomenon you know fairly well.) In the case of the Uglies-verse, everyone gets plastic surgery upon turning 16, transforming them from an "ugly" to a "pretty." The "ugly" stage lasts from age 12 to 16, and during that stage, uglies live in dormitories and attend school as they await their pivotal birthday. From birth to age 12, children are considered "littlies," and live with their parents in suburban communities. The 16-year-olds who undergo the operation are called "new pretties," and they move to New Pretty Town, separated by a river from Uglyville. The other life stages are "Middle Pretties" and "Crumblies," with other surgeries associated with them. (We never get many details about those, though.)

The inciting incident at the start of Uglies is Tally sneaking into New Pretty Town to crash a party, so she can see her bestie, Peris. (I spent most of Uglies listening to the audio and thinking his name was PARIS, but then I discovered in the text version that he's PERIS. PERIS?!?!?!) Peris is three years older than Tally, and she feels lost being separated from him. They once made matching scars on their wrists to show they would always be best friends, but the Peris she catches up with at the pretties party is not only beautiful, but he no longer has the scar.

Although she catches up with Peris at the party, the most significant event of the night is meeting Shay during her dramatic escape (she has used a bungee jacket to jump from the roof of the mansion where the party is being held and is on the run to evade patrolling marshals). Shay is also an ugly, who coincidentally shares a birthday with Shay, and has also sneaked into New Pretty Town because she misses 16-year-old friends. Shay and Tally spend the next three months becoming close friends, while engaging in "tricks," including sneaking out of the confines of the city into the "Rusties Ruins." (Rusties are basically us, the people who destroyed the environment, clear-cut land, and engaged in wars 300+ years before the action of the quadrilogy.)

On the cusp of turning 16, Shay reveals that she does not want the operation. She is running away to a place known as "The Smoke," where people live in "the wild," free from the conformity of the city. She leaves coded instructions Tally can follow if she decides also to escape to The Smoke. And while Tally still wants to become a pretty and resume her friendship with Peris, she is given an unexpected ultimatum. Dr. Cable, who is with a unit called "Special Circumstances," urges Tally to follow after Shay, infiltrate the "smokies," and use a tracking device (hidden in a heart-shaped locket), to alert the "Specials" to the location. If she does not fulfill the request, she will not be given the "pretty" operation. Reluctantly, she does as asked.

When she is reunited with Shay and is accepted into the group, Tally becomes increasingly sympathetic with their ways, and decides she does not want to betray them. During that time, David, Shay's original contact person and recruiter to the smokies, of course falls in love with Tally (because she's the protagonist of a YA dystopian novel). David introduces Tally to her parents, Maddy and Az, doctors who used to the "pretty" surgery and know the dark secret behind it. Not only does the operation give its recipient beautiful faces and super-healthy bodies, but it results in brain lesions that make the new pretties compliant and not terribly smart!

Tally believes she can destroy the tracking device by burning the locket, but instead that actually reveals the location to the smokies. So it's an accidental betrayal. The specials ("cruel pretties," per Tally's description) descend upon The Smoke. Most are captured, to be taken to Special Circumstances and given the surgery. David and Tally of course escape and are able to mount a valiant rescue. By the end, Shay has been made pretty, Az is dead, Maddy and David know about the accidental betrayal, and Maddy proffers a cure to pretty-headedness, which Shay (whom they have taken with them) refuses to take. Shay, wishing to do penance for the betrayal, offers to allow herself to be captured and made pretty, so she can take the cure.

Pretties
Tally is pretty, living in pretty housing, and besties with Shay. Most of their energy is devoted to preparing themselves for parties and trying to get into the best clique, The Crims. Zane is the leader of that particular clique, and he annoys the heck out of me by having a cutesy device where he asks people how many "milli-Helens" something or someone has. It's a reference to the mythological Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships. So a "milli-Helen" can launch one ship. It's a silly measure of how awesome something is. Probably.

The Crims are all about pulling stunts and being "bubbly." Being bubbly means you're not just being a boring, placid pretty, and on some level, Zane and his clique-mates perceive their is something wrong with their brains. At the first party of the book, Croy infiltrates, to leave a special message for Tally. She and Zane later go on an adventure to retrieve it (after quickly becoming a couple), and have to climb into an old elevator shaft to retrieve a pouch containing two pills and a letter from Tally to herself. It was her informed consent, transcribed by Shay (because "kids today" don't learn to handwrite anymore, and Shay had learned in preparation for being a smokie). While Tally dithers over whether to take the pills, Special Circumstances hover cars create a sense of urgency. She and Zane quickly decide to each take one pill.

There is a protracted period where Tally, Zane, and other Crims wish to run away to the New Smoke (which Tally has semi-made up), but they can't because Tally and Zane have been fitted with monitoring bracelets. Much of the book is devoted to devising a way to get rid of the bracelets. Ultimately they do, but on escape night, Zane and Tally are separated, because Peris gets scared and decides to stay behind. Trying to convince him to come along slows down Tally, so of course, she ends up making a giant journey on her own (mirroring her journey in the first book; a pattern that repeats in Specials). Peris, by the way, is marginal in this book, and will be even more marginal in the next. It's hard to believe he and Tally were ever BFF.

The end of this book somewhat mirrors the end of Uglies. Maddy, David, Zane, and Tally are together, along with members of the New Smoke. Zane has been suffering from debilitating headaches, and Maddy reveals it's because the two pills were different. The one Zane took was the one that actually got rid of the lesions. But the pills work by unleashing "nanos" that eat brain tissue, and the second pill, the one Tally took, stops the nanos. So, the changes Tally has been going through (she has been getting more and more "bubbly") must have been placebo effect and maybe also sheer will. So, at the close of the book, most of the new smokies are fleeing, because the specials are coming, the specials are coming. But Tally won't abandon Zane, who needs medical care. And guess who the newest special is. SHAY! She jabs a needle into Tally's neck, and... CURTAIN!

Specials
In which I hate Tally.

Tally has been made into a special. And not just any special--a VERY SPECIAL special. Back in Pretties, Shay was so desperate to be bubbly she formed a "cutter" clique, who all got together and cut themselves to make and keep themselves bubbly. Somehow, all the cutters were made into teenage specials, and Shay is their "boss." Tally is part of this group, and she and her fellow cutters cut themselves and perform stunts to keep themselves "icy." It's like "bubbly" but with more clarity.

Becoming special involves more surgeries--face, brain and body. The specials have sharp features, coal-black eyes, super-strong, muscled bodies, knife-like teeth and nails, and sociopathic brains. They look down on anyone non-special as "random," and to them, pretties are all "bubbleheads." They are given to fits of rage and feelings of superiority.

The "cutter" specials spend all their time camping outdoors and patrolling New Pretty Town and Uglyville. According to rumors, smokies are colluding with uglies to bring the cure to pretties. Oh, noes!

Tally wants Zane to be made special, but there's a problem. He suffered permanent neurological damage from his cure (in Pretties), and he has slight tremors. Shay assures Tally that if Zane escapes, Dr. Cable will be convinced that he is "specials" material. They hatch a plot to help him and some fellow Crims escape and reach the smokies. This will involve finding a way to remove a collar from Zane (sound familiar?). Shay's plan for that involves breaking into an armory that has weapons dating back to the "rusties" time. It's an overlong, boring action scene that leads to disaster and later unintended consequences, but Tally and Shay get what they're there for, and Tally removes the collar from Zane.

There is a long, dull sequence involving Zane and his group of Crims (including superfluous Peris) going on a journey into the wild to find their contact who will take them to the smokies. Tally follows at a distance to make sure they make it, and at one point, Zane catches her. They kiss, even though he disgusts her now. He urges her to rewire her brain.

The Crims are taken via helicopter to a distant city called Diego. Tally stows away by holding onto the bottom of the helicopter. In Diego, Tally is shocked to learn that everyone has taken the cure. Uglies, pretties, middle pretties, littlies, and crumblies co-exist. Instead of having standard faces devised by a Pretty Committee, people have features and modifications of all kinds.

Meanwhile, Tally discovers that Maddy has also developed a cure for special-brain. Fausto, a fellow "cutter," has taken the cure and tries to stick Tally with a syringe so that she can, too. But she doesn't want to lose her special-mindedness, and flees. She is captured and brought to a hospital, where she is to be forcibly operated on, as her body is considered a lethal weapon. However, all hell breaks loose because Special Circumstances from Tally's city is waging war against Diego.

What? But that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. That was a "rusty" thing, wasn't it?

Diego is being blamed for what Tally and Shay did in the Armory. This is being declared a "special circumstance."

During the mayhem, Shay helps Tally get away. Does Shay know that Fausto has been "cured" of his special-brain? You bet, and Fausto has cured Shay! Not thinking like a special anymore is a relief. But Shay believes that Tally should hold off on getting cured herself. The plan is to return to Dr. Cable and confess about the armory. If Dr. Cable scans them, it will be better if one of them is still special.

Oh, and there is one more thing. Zane tried to get a cognitive and physical upgrade, but something went wrong, and during the attack, the emergency system broke down. He's on life support, and he is going to die the moment he is unplugged. So he's about to die and it's all Tally's fault! She does a final goodbye.

Shay's plan is to leave at first light, so of course, Tally has to go off on her own while Shay is sleeping. Because she's Tally. Back at home, Shay is ready to make the confession, but she discovers that Dr. Cable knows who is responsible for the armory incident. And she blamed Diego anyway. Because it's a convenient excuse, and Dr. Cable is evil. Tally's new plan is to make the confession to the Council. But instead of being led to the Council, Tally is taken down to a sub-basement. Where the final confrontation with Dr. Cable happens. And the Villain Confession. Which Tally says she recorded with her special device. Which is actually the syringe that has the cure of special-brain. And Dr. Cable sticks herself with it, while trying to snatch it away.

So, the cure sinks in and the war is called off. World saved! Tally reconnects with David, and devises her "plan to save the world." She issues a manifesto.

Extras
So, at first glance, Extras seems to have little to do with the first three books, beyond being in the same universe, almost three years later--in Japan. But Aya Fuse, the main character, stumbles upon a hot story that appears to uncover devices that could destroy the world. So Tally, Shay, Fausto, and David show up. And there are alien-looking figures involved. But it turns out they actually want to save humanity by colonizing space. Who knew?

As described in my write-up of Extras, I was not a fan of Aya for the first third of the book. She lies to the Sly Girls, who don't want publicity, and pretends she's not into kicking stories anymore. Except she secretly still does. But the girl does grow and change. It's also fun to have the main cast of Extras interacting with Tally, Shay, Fausto, and David, and vice versa. In both cases, we get characters making comments that readers might have been thinking. The book provides some closure that was lacking at the end of Specials.

Finally....
Tally is a reluctant heroine for much of this. In some ways, I felt Shay could have been a better protagonist. I wish she had accepted the cure for special-brain!  As suggested above, I felt Peris was really wasted in the series.  Westerfeld could have done something cool with a close, platonic friendship between a girl and a boy.

(show spoiler)

Extras

Extras - Scott Westerfeld, Joy Osmanski
After having been disappointed in Specials, I was wary of Extras, especially since Westerfeld drops readers into an entirely different setting (a city in Japan) with a new protagonist (15-year-old "ugly" Aya Fuse). For roughly the first third or so, I found myself really disliking Aya, who seems to value fame and social rank above all else. Set about three years after the end of SpecialsExtras presents a city in which social ranking and merit points serve as a type of currency, so fame = profit. Everyone in the city has a personal "feed," and most seem to have hovercams they use to record "stories" that many of them "kick" to get attention. It's kind of like Instagram on steroids.

I will get into more detail when I write my full review of the entire series, but here I will just mention a few things. In the world of Extras, Tally Youngblood is the MOST FAMOUS PERSON IN THE WORLD. And yes, she does show up. Along with Shay, Fausto, David, and even Andrew (the "holy man" Tally meets in Pretties). If you were disappointed with the non-closure of Specials, you might find it worthwhile to catch up with these characters in the final installment. Just have a bit of patience with Aya. She does grow a clue by the end.

Bad Blood

Bad Blood: Secret and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup - Will Damron, John Carreyrou

I think I first became aware of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos when, for reasons I don't recall, I did a YouTube search on "sociopath." This led me to a video featuring John Carreyrou talking about Holmes. And down the rabbit hole I went.

After watching numerous videos and reading articles about Holmes, I wanted to read Bad Blood, so I put myself on the waiting list for the audiobook from my library's website.

This crazy true story is stranger than fiction. Elizabeth Holmes famously dropped out of Stanford University during sophomore year (because it's in the Silicon Valley tech CEO playbook) and founded a company called Theranos (therapy + diagnosis).

Her vision was to produce a device that could run hundreds of diagnostic blood tests, all from a single drop of blood taken from a finger stick. With her vision of the device's potential, she convinced many high-profile investors to support the company. But behind the scenes, the devices did not actually work. Rather than address the problems and ensure that test results would be reliable, Holmes and Theranos leadership covered up the malfunctions and perpetuated a fraud. Employees who raised concerns were silenced and eventually either quit or were fired. And despite the known issues, Theranos partnered with Walgreens and Safeway to provide testing (though the Safeway deal eventually fell through).

Eventually, a concerned ex-employee contacted John Carreyrou, investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal. Carreyrou began the process of investigating Theranos, and things got very weird. As in surveillance and legal intimidation of Carreyrou and his suspected sources. Despite the efforts of Holmes, her associates, and her attorney David Boies, Carreyrou was not deterred. He ultimately wrote multiple articles. The book also recounts what happened in the aftermath of the articles, including the ultimate demise of Theranos, the fraud cases against Holmes, and the class action suit by patients harmed by incorrect test results.

After reading Carreyrou's account, I conclude that Holmes probably (probably!) is a sociopath.

Specials

Specials - Scott Westerfeld, Gregory Hedberg and Emily Tremaine,  with a Preface By Tracy Atkinson Robert Rosenblum

 

 

2.5 stars on Booklikes; rounded down to 2 stars on Goodreads.

 

I will be writing one big review for the entire series once I've finished Extras, which I started just this morning (January 3, 2020).  Although I've shelved the audio versions for all the books, I've actually been going back and forth between audio and text.  I actually ended up reading MOST of Specials in print.  I noticed that the edition I read identifies Specials as "The final volume in the highly acclaimed UGLIES trilogy," while the cover of Extras has "The thrilling fourth book in the UGLIES series."  So clearly, after publishing Specials, Westerfeld decided he was not done, after all.

 

My ratings for the first two books were 3.5 and 3, respectively.  So this book has been relatively....  Disappointing.  Tally becomes downright loathsome, and although we understand why she does, it doesn't make being in her head any more pleasant.

 

Icy is the new bubbly.

 

If you've read Pretties, you got used to seeing or hearing the word "bubbly" almost constantly.  For Specials, it's all about being "icy."  "It's like being bubbly, but much better," says Tally.

 

The cutting

 

Remember at the end of Pretties, Shay and her weird little clique are revealed to be cutters, trying to keep themselves "bubbly" by cutting?  Well, not only has no grown-up intervened to get these misguided teenagers to stop it, this clique is elevated in Specials, with their self-harm tacitly encouraged.  Although the practice is eventually called out (somewhat), I kept thinking this was irresponsible.

 

I won't spoil the end, but it left me dissatisfied.  And wishing another character had been the protagonist.

Pretties

Pretties - Scott Westerfeld, Gregory Hedberg and Emily Tremaine,  with a Preface By Tracy Atkinson Robert Rosenblum

 

 

So, I will be writing a review of the entire series, once I have completed all four books.  I just started reading Specials, which is book #3 of four.

 

I intend to avoid spoilers for Pretties in this write-up, but please stop here if you have not read Uglies and wish to avoid spoilers for that book.

 

****************************************LOOK AWAY TO AVOID UGLIES SPOILERS!****

 

At the end of Uglies, Tally has volunteered to allow herself to be caught, be brought back to the city, and to be "made pretty," with the intention of letting Maddy test her cure of "pretty-mindedness," healing the brain lesions that are administered along with the plastic surgery that transforms uglies into pretties.

 

Pretties picks up on Tally's story when she is a "new pretty," adjusting to her new life of attending parties and striving to be voted into the "Crims," the most prestigious clique in New Pretty Town (why don't they call it "Pretty City"?).

 

In keeping with the thoughts I shared on Uglies, I want to touch on YA Dystopian tropes.  As I mentioned in my Uglies write-up, there was a case of insta-love in that book, and that trope shows up in Pretties, too.  So that inevitably leads to something many YA Dystopian readers (and YA readers in general) have come to dread:  a love triangle.  However, it shows up very late in the book, and as I reflect on the way it's addressed, it occurs to me that it's lampshaded and even subverted.  I ultimately appreciated that, though arguably, the trope could have been avoided altogether.  Related to that, there are moments in the book where Tally has moments of clarity that are brought about by kissing.  KISSING?  That strikes me as somewhat problematic.

 

This book has propelled me into immediately starting the next book--so that speaks in favor of Westerfeld's ability.  I expect to tear through the next two books and be posting again soon.

 

[3.5 stars on Booklikes; rounded down to *** on Goodreads.]

Uglies

Uglies - Scott Westerfeld, Gregory Hedberg and Emily Tremaine,  with a Preface By Tracy Atkinson Robert Rosenblum

 

3.5 stars on Booklikes.  This will round down to three stars on Goodreads.

 

I was on the fence as to whether to read this book/series.  I think my reasoning went something like this:  "Everyone gets plastic surgery at age 16, to make them 'pretty'?  That more implausible than most of the implausible scenarios in YA dystopians.  I think I'll pass!"

 

But this is the January 2020 selection for the Forever YA Book Club I belong to, so I decided to give it a try.  And It's intrigued me enough that I'm a bit over 1/4 of the way through the second book (Pretties) and planning to tear through the next two books, Specials and Extras.

 

I am thinking that once I've completed the series, I will write a big review covering all the books.  But meanwhile, I want to put down some thoughts about Uglies as it relates to YA dystopian tropes.

 

As mentioned above, in the world of Uglies, everyone receives plastic surgery upon turning sixteen.  From age 12 to their 16th birthday, they live in dormitories in Uglyville.  "New pretties" reside in New Pretty Town, spending their days and nights partying and otherwise entertaining themselves.

 

As you have no doubt noticed, if you have read many YA dystopians, there is usually a major change all of the characters undergo, more often than not at age 16.

 

Everything changes when you are 16.

 

The main character typically goes through the age-16 transition (but sometimes resists and/or avoids it). Around this time, the character learns THE TRUTH.  There is a dark secret being hidden from most citizens, about the way their society actually operates.  Usually, the 16-year old becomes involved in a resistance movement, and more often than not, becomes a leader (or sometimes THE leader).

 

In the case of Uglies, Tally Youngblood begins the book missing her best friend Peris.  Because he is three months older than Tally, he has had his "pretty" operation when she still has another three months to go.  She gets into some trouble sneaking into New Pretty Town to spy on Peris, meanwhile meeting Shay, who has the exact same birthday as Tally and is also missing friends who have turned 16.

 

Having looked forward to the operation her entire life, Tally is shocked to learn that not all Uglies want to be turned pretty.  There are rumors about Uglies who run away to live in "the wild."  There are rumors about a place called "The Smoke," where people live without the luxuries and technology of the cities.  

 

I don't want to include spoilers here, but I will note that this book has a touch of the dreaded "insta-love" many readers criticize in YA dystopian novels.  I had a hunch a character was on his way to becoming a love interest for Tally, but it still seemed very fast for him to suddenly think that Tally was incredibly smart and special.  (Our 16-year-old YA dystopian protagonists are just about always special in some way, no?)  The other thing, Tally being so smart and special felt a bit like an informed trait.  I wasn't seeing as much special and smart in her actions, vs. what she was being told about herself.

 

Something that intrigues me about the world in this series is the history the characters are taught about the "Rusties."  Rusties are their predecessors.  Before the current society formed, there was a world much like the one we have now.  People did foolish things like burn fossil fuels and wage wars.  They lived in large, industrial cities, and at some point, there was a huge disaster that they tried in vain to escape.  (I am somewhat reminded of Pompeii, but the hints point to a human-made disaster.)  The "pretty" operation was intended to create an egalitarian society.  If everyone has the kinds of facial features that humans are biologically programmed to appreciate the most, nobody will be favored or disfavored for their looks.  But of course, there must be more to the highly structured society.  Who is controlling the masses, and to what end?

 

To be continued, in my write-up of Pretties.

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy Box Set

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy Box Set - Kevin Kwan

I listened to all three of these books in audio form, but I also had the Kindle version of the box set.  I went back and forth between the two.

 

The three books are not a traditional trilogy, as the focal characters shift somewhat from book to book.  The first book focuses mainly on Rachel meeting Nick's crazy-rich family when they traveled to Singapore from NYC, for the wedding of Colin Khoo and Araminta Lee.  The second focuses Rachel getting to know family members she did not know she had (I am trying to avoid spoilers!), and the third is mainly focused on Nick's ailing grandmother, and the family descending upon her estate in anticipation of her demise.  Each book has B and C stories.

 

The audio versions switched to a different narrator for the second book and kept her for the third.  I've complained a bit about her here.  In addition to calling earrings "yearrings" and pronouncing French words badly, she does not do any of the accents she is supposed to do.  Nick, for example, is supposed to have a posh British accent.  Rachel is supposed to have an American accent.  Everyone has the same mildly Chinese accent.  And regarding the badly pronounced French:  authors, if you are going to write that a character speaks in perfectly accented French, please ensure that your narrator does, too.

YEARRINGS?!?!?

China Rich Girlfriend - Kevin Kwan, Lydia Look

This isn't really a review.  It's a comment about the narrator, Lydia Look.  There are certain things about her narration that I enjoy, but one thing that drives me crazy is that she pronounces "ear" "year"--and in this audio narration, there were multiple references to YEARRINGS.  YEARRINGS?!?!?!?

 

[Also, she CANNOT pronounce French words.]

 

I missed Lynn Chen, who narrated the first book, Crazy Rich Asians.

Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill - Ronan Farrow

Non-fiction that reads somewhat like a spy novel.  Ronan Farrow was investigating claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and intimidation against Harvey Weinstein, of Miramax Pictures.  At the time, Farrow worked for NBC.  The deeper he got into his investigation, the more he encountered obstacles from NBC.  Somehow there was always a need for more fact-checking.  The investigation process was to be "paused," and interviews delayed.

 

Eventually, Farrow left NBC and broke the story in The New Yorker.  Harvey Weinstein's power and connectedness had previously stopped the claims against him from coming out years before, and his machine attempted to stop The New Yorker from publishing the article.  During his investigation, Farrow often had the impression he was being watched and/or followed, and it was difficult to know what to believe.  Ultimately, he learned that his impressions had been correct, and surveillance was just one of Weinstein's tactics.

 

In addition to describing the process of reporting on the Weinstein story, Catch and Kill describes the revelations about Matt Lauer's sexual harassment and assault of NBC subordinates, along with NBC's systemic enabling and protection of Lauer.  Also included is the practice the title of the book refers to.  "Catch and kill" refers to news outlets obtaining rights to a story, only to prevent it from ever being released to the public.  The main example described in the book is when The National Enquirer used the "catch and kill" tactic to bury news stories about Donald Trump.

 

The book finally ties together what all of these things have to do with one another (read or listen to find out!).  

I'm Not Dying With You Tonight

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight - Kimberly Jones, Channie Waites, Brittany Pressley, Gilly Segal

I grabbed this when it came up for the Big Library Read, but then I didn't manage to get to it before the Read was over.

 

Campbell is the new girl in her southern, predominantly black high school, and she is working the concession stand at a football game, when a racially motivated fight breaks out in the growing line to the stand.  Lena jumps into the stand to take cover.  There are gunshots, police arrive, and that is just the start of a night where things keep getting worse.

 

As the blurb reports, Lena and Campbell must rely on one another to survive and progress through the night, each demonstrating to the other that her assumptions had been misguided.  

 

This book in some ways reminded me of The Hate U Give, though it has a much more compressed timeline.  In this book, the Caucasian girl Campbell, having been transplanted from the home she shared with her mother in Pennsylvania to her her father's house, is the outsider/fish out of water.  African-American Lena is the wildly popular fashionista Campbell can't help but envy.  I appreciated the way this set-up diverted from more usual book premises.