Binary 2/5 Stars
A thriller written by Michael Crichton in the early 1970s. Even though this is a John Lange book, it feels very much like a Michael Crichton book, and even more like an Ira Levin or Thomas Harris book. It’s a terrorist thriller wherein our protagonist is sent to spy on a known provocoteur who is making weird moves in his public and private experiences. What we come to understand is that he is planning to either kill a bunch of people, assassinate a high ranking official, or both. To do this, the plan is to obtain a powerful nerve gas that is made up of two distinctly inert components that when combined together are incredibly dangerous (kills within minutes kind of thing; easily spread) and well the chase is on.
It’s a perfectly ok thriller in general, and well the science sounds sound, and I refuse to care one way or another if it is. I couldn’t possibly suggest reading this, but it made for a solid audiobook. The cover is hilariously crude, and even funnier, there’s not even a woman in this book I think, which is its own problem.
Grave Descend 2/5
A Michael Crichton book written under the pseudonym “John Lange” which is apparently a reference to Crichton being quite tall. This book is less a Michael Crichton book and more of a Clive Cussler/Peter Benchley type book, which is not a criticism.
Our protagonist is living in a Caribbean country and is a well-known dive/wreck specialist (maybe this is what Adrienne Rich had in mind? Probably not). Anyway, he’s approached to raise a wreck that recently sunk. He gives a quote, which is accepted, but something smells off to him, so he goes to do a little research. He’s told that this is a rush job, but also he can’t start until tomorrow. This leads to his discovery that the boat has not sunk yet. Well this raises some questions. As he pursues this mystery, he realizes he probably won’t be allowed to just walk away, so he has to play both sides of this one.
It’s very good until the big reveal, and then gets pretty dumb.
Tales of German Imagination – 4/5 Stars
A strange collection overall and fantasy and fantastical/magical realism/Romanticism written in German, and especially the audiobook is missing some pre-text material like an introduction. The collection begins in the early 19th century with a few stories by the Grimm brothers, ETA Hoffmann, and Heinrich von Kleist, the three writers over all, minus Kafka and Rilke, that I had read the most of before. Actually beyond these four, I don’t really know much of the other writers. I also found these to be among the best as well.
The longer stories are the best here, with the shorter ones barely having enough punch to be much more than a sketch or vignette. But the Hoffmann and the Kafka offer up plenty of heft. The Kafka here is “In the Penal Colony” and that’s a real standout because it moves beyond his more familiar terrain to a colony space, and the descriptions of the absurdity of the punishment is beautifully rendered. As far as I can tell the, the collection is well-translated and the stories are imbued with a real narrative flow. I would have sacrificed a few of the writers for more lengthy and rich stories.
Claudia and the Phantom Phone calls – 3/5 Stars
The second of the Baby-Sitters Club books, this one focusing on Claudia. The girls have been clicking with their work. The notebook is robustly filled out, the babysitting keeps happening, and the phones keep ringing. That’s one of the issues in this one. Their town has been hit by a series of break-ins that are always preceded by silent phone calls. What seems clear is that the calls are trying to see who is home and who is not. This sparks two fears for the girls: one, they might be the victim of a robbery and two, worse, the robberies might spook their parents into stopping the club. To address this, they come up with a code to protect one another, where one will call if they think they’re being robbed and say a code to get the others to call the police.
The second issue is boys!!! There’s a Sadie Hawkins type dance coming up and Claudia likes a poet boy, and the other girls like their own boys, but are being secretive about it. All of these and more come to head in this book.
One thing that stands out to me in this one is the very pro-cop message. I know I know, it’s kind of the deal with both the 1980s in general and kids’ books specifically, but it’s funny how much it rubs me the wrong way now.
Amazon Shorts –
This is not a collection but four different short stories produced by Amazon I am linking together. The four stories:
3/5 Stars “The Marriage Test” by Suzanne Redfearn, where a nonprofit conservation worker is swept off her feet by a new boyfriend who asks her to marry him. It’s a little soon, but her grandmother is dying and this might be exactly what she wants. The catch is that there’s a family tradition to make a cake using the eggs of a rare marsh bird. Will he be able to put aside work and doubt to make this happen? It’s a solid story that does some interesting things with expectations while the premise itself is pretty silly.
2/5 Stars “oh. what. fun.” a suburban mom of adult children is trying to do Christmas right, but she’s tired and her children are tired. While they sort out their own bullshit, she’s planning on auditioning for a contest on her favorite morning talk show. Maybe this one is a little too close to my own Christmas drama where I am not a mom, and not super sympathetic on this one.
3/5 Stars “If the Fates Allow”- A Rainbow Rowell short story about a woman who is the only one who is taking Covid seriously, except for her grandfather. Together, they becomes closer, not having been close before. An old high school friend moves back from Washington DC and he’s a possible third person to join their small enclave?
4/5 Stars “Zikora” – This Chimamanda Adichie story is significantly better than all the others, and it’s not even close. A lawyer in her late 30s finds herself pregnant by her boyfriend who panics and abandons her when she decides to keep the child. From there, she experiences the dangers of pregnancy by a Black woman in her late 30s, her Igbo cultural expectations (and the expectations of her mother) and the sadness of taking on a huge responsibility all by herself and only just beginning to process the loss of this relationship.
Nothing Like I Imagined – 2/5 Stars
Mind Kaling writes, produces and reads this short collection of essays about various topics, mostly stories, and mostly pop culture related or adjacent. Some are better than others, but ultimately not a particularly successful or interesting collection.
Southern Belle Insults – 2/5 Stars
A series of shorts written by Jasmine Guillory and Keke Palmer. Our heroine is a bland woman (using the language of the story!) who finds some energy and motivation to make something of her life by putting on a series of magical wigs. Keke Palmer is a great narrator, but the writing is pretty bad.
Currency – 3/5 Stars
This is a collection of contemporary short stories written by a who’s who list of contemporary American writers you’re quite likely to see on book blurbs and others cross-referencing. The stories themselves range in quality and interest. A few of them are a little too didactic feeling, as if they’re teaching us about a valuable topic rather than telling a story. This makes some of them read a little too much like essays, an issue I think we already have as a reading public in the US, especially among well-meaning online Left of center people. The stories more or less consider the ways in which relative amount of wealth difference creates power differences in relationships. It’s not always or usually romantic relationships in this collection and it’s also not always a matter of one person’s interaction with another. Wealth doesn’t automatically mean class differences, though it sometimes does. It’s more about a kind of positional status the wealth or fame confers on the relationship.
Jia Tolentino “I Would Be Doing this Anyway” – In this story, a woman becomes an accidental unpaid intern to an influencer friend from college. The accidental unpaid comes in when she ostensibly begins working as an assistant, but this relationship becomes awkward when it’s treated like a friendship, however exploitative. It’s further complicated by the influencer’s decision to come out as “queer” something not really all that backed up by reality or truth according to our narrator.
Tom Perrotta “Me and Carlos” a well soccer player in high school becomes friends with the new kid Carlos, a recent immigrant from Honduras. The two become friends through playing soccer together in the off-season, eating lunch together, and even going to prom with a pair of friends. This part is complicated when our narrator wants to ask a girl out, but she wants to go with Carlos. And when Carlos’s immigration status comes into play, it’s not an overt act that impacts things, but a privilege to not have to act or worry that does.
Yiyun Li “If You are Lonely and you Know It” a divorced middle-aged man without kids is living in an in-law suite with a woman who used to be his stepmother in a neighborhood with an HOA. This is a perfectly suitable situation until Covid hits and his former step-daughter (it gets complicated with these things) asks him to take care of her sweet pitbull, and the neighbors subtly and not so subtly make it known that this is NOT the right kind of dog for the neighborhood.
Cristina Henriquez “The Summer House” a middle-aged man who works as a summer waitstaff ends up working for an old friend who has married an old crush. The old feelings crop up, especially as the marriage is seemingly on its last legs, but the differences between them power-wise create some unspoken problems.
Curtis Sittenfeld “The Tomorrow Box” – A private school teacher who married in his 40s, now ten years later, is invited out by an old friend to see his show. His friend is now a kind of self-help guru and the old differences between them money-wise have flipped in some uncomfortable ways.
Justin Torres “Crewelwork” a young Queer artist looks for some access to the kinds of life he wants, and ends up needing to supplement his income with various forms of sex work. When he is finally established in his field, he finds he has to fend off some presumptions about his privilege based on the life he’s been able to ascend to.
Emma Cline “Rewards” a pair of older women interact with the success of young men given a shot at success regardless of the life they lived. This brings up some uncomfortable feelings.
Kiley Reid “Simplexity” A young Asian professional woman finds herself trying to navigate the world of corporate HR when she projects her pain and frustration with microaggressions against her into a campaign to help the three Black women in the office. It turns out, they might not have actually needed any help.
Black Stars – 4/5 Stars
Another Amazon collection of science fiction and fantasy stories by Black writers from Africa, the African diaspora, and from the US. The collection is a solid collection through and through, and in addition, the audiobook hosts performances by a host of really wonderful readers.