Review: The Stars, Like Dust

The Stars, Like Dust (Galactic Empire #1)The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and that may contribute some confusion as to what happened. But that also explains why I stopped “reading”–the CD was rather scratched–and yet I don’t care much because getting to the ending isn’t worth it.
“The Stars, Like Dust” is rather pulpy and action-oriented for Asimov, reading a lot more like “Dune” with maybe a dash of “The Hunger Games.” I honestly think, with a little dusting up, it might make a popular modern young adult novel. The gender norms are stiff and restrictive and stick out painfully, there’s a large splash of deus ex machina, and you’ve got to be willing to wait two chapters to answer the basic question, “where should we take this spaceship?” but it’s not totally without joy. I liked the details the most–holding a dress seam together with a miniature force field, or a spray abrasive to gently shave off a nascent beard. It’s charming, and a lovely dream of what space travel could be, but still rather clunky.

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Review: No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every time someone saw this book or heard I was reading it, I heard, “man, I love that book/movie!”
I had never seen the movie but the book came highly recommended, of course, so I gave it a try.
Let’s just say I appreciate its merits but I didn’t enjoy this book.
“No Country For Old Men” is a rough, tough tumble through south Texas and the dangers of drug cartels and one very very bad man. The bad guys are incredibly bad, the bystanders get hurt, and the good guys are always running a step behind.
The storytelling is unique–McCarthy changes spellings and drops dialogue punctuation to both bring out the local accent and force you to be totally immersed in his book or be forced to reread a few times to catch the story.
It is definitely deftly written, and each character feels like they have been carefully placed and then set in motion.
It is enjoyable if you like the barren sweep of a desert, but if you prefer a lush forest, look somewhere else. This is a book with hard cold lessons to teach and no time for relaxation. While it was good, it wasn’t for me.

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Review: Doctor Strange: The Oath

Doctor Strange: The OathDoctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After seeing “Dr. Strange” in theaters for the second time in 36 hours, I came home and insisted my husband find me any Strange comic books he had. Luckily, this was the top of the pile.
I already love Brian K. Vaughan for his work in Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned and Saga, Volume 1, so this was a shoe-in for my affections.
And boy did it hold up!
This is a great starter comic version of Strange after seeing the movie because, even though some things are different in the Cinematic Universe, The Oath recounts part of Strange’s magical origin story, which should be fresh on moviegoers’ minds. Plus if you watch the Netflix shows, you’ll already be familiar with the whole cast of the book. In other words, go read this one!
In The Oath, Strange is already a famous Sorcerer Supreme, but someone has made an attempt on his life! Strange must try to solve the mystery while trying to keep Wong (cast here as a servant of the Dark Arts and Stephen’s friend) alive from an inoperable brain tumor. He teams up with Night Nurse, and there’s some really wonderful reparte—such as when she insists she may be CALLED Night Nurse, but she’s actually a general practitioner. Brilliant, classic BKV. My favorite moment of all is toward the end, so I can’t give too much away, but let’s just say there is a stunningly clear reference to the Disney animated “The Sword and The Stone,” which is a win in and of itself.
I really enjoyed this comic and will be looking for more as I continue my Strange education!

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Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a decidedly unique book. Whether that is good or bad is a matter of perspective, but it is most certainly distinctive and different from almost anything else you’ll read.

Parts of this distinction are Victorian-esque spelling and grammar; detailed footnotes relating to imaginary books and stories to further worldbuilding; meandering plotlines; and incredible length, measured not just in pages or word count but in drawn-out pacing.

To cut to the point, would I recommend this book? Not to most people. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good! It has charm, and kept my attention. But it is long and slow and indistinct–it really isn’t a book for everyone.

And if you do read it, save yourself the arm ache and read it as an ebook. I didn’t, and my book seems to have a cracked spine in a few places, despite my caution.

Anyway, what is the book about, you ask? Well, funny question: I went most of the book without being able to give a clear answer. It’s ostensibly about two Victorian-esque magicians who quite literally bring magic back to England. But it’s really not. It’s also not about a rivalry between these two; though it flirts with the idea, that’s a red herring. So basically it’s a book you should read if you’ve got time to kill and an interest in Victorian magic and glacially slow plots.

I do appreciate the writing. It must have been incredibly complex! There are layers upon layers here–but I just didn’t care that much. My biggest question, having finished it, is how in the hell in today’s publishing market it was allowed to be published in this format?! There was a lot here that I didn’t really need to read and which would have been easier to digest as two or three books in a series. The resolution would have been about as satisfying (ahem: not), and it would have given me a bit of a brain break from the wandering story. I mean, some people are really going to enjoy it–and it is masterful!–but that doesn’t inherently make it a good read.

Generally, you should probably just watch the TV show for this one.

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Dead President Fact Sheet

After reading the excellent “Dead Presidents,” I realized, because it was written thematically rather than sequentially, that I was a bit muddled on my presidential trivia facts. So I went back through the book, like a crazy person, gave myself homework, and made a list.

Here’s a bunch of trivia about the presidents you probably didn’t know. You’re welcome.


  • George Washington- a tomb was built for him in the Capitol rotunda, but he isn’t buried in it
  • John Adams- died on July 4 and was kinda terrible father
  • Thomas Jefferson- “the Sage of Monticello”; didn’t include his presidency on his obelisk’s list of personal achievements
  • James Madison- his grave went unmarked for two decades after he had to sell his land to pay off his stepson’s gambling debt
  • James Monroe- ran unopposed for reelection, the only president (besides Washington) to do so
  • John Quincy Adams- died in the House of Representatives of a heart attack/very vocal “NO” vote
  • Andrew Jackson- “Old Hickory”; his pet parrot cursed loud and long at his funeral and had to be removed
  • Martin Van Buren- known as “The Little Magician”
  • William Henry Harrison- died after 1 month in office, so soon his family hadn’t even made it up to Washington yet
  • John Tyler- known as “His Accidency.” He had to hire the first presidential bodyguards.
  • James K. Polk- micromanaged his Cabinet and the whole presidency
  • Zachary Taylor- was thought to have been poisoned, was disinterred in the 1990s…nope, not poisoned.
  • Millard Fillmore- official White House biography calls him an “uninspiring man”
  • Franklin Pierce- Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his campaign biography; his son died in the days before he took office, leading his wife to believe Franklin had somehow caused God’s wrath to be directed at them
  • James Buchanan- he adopted his niece, Harried Lane, after her parents died; as he was unmarried, she served as first lady
  • Abraham Lincoln- “the Great Emancipator”; was taken on the “Great American Death Tour” after he died; the impromptu stage built for his funeral has been used in every state funeral since
  • Andrew Johnson- first impeached president, but he wasn’t removed! He hired the first presidential doctor.
  • Ulysses S. Grant- Mark Twain bought the publishing rights to his memoir
  • Rutherford B. Hayes- “Rud”; created the first presidential center to protect/display his papers and artifacts; his election was known as the “ugliest, most contentious election ever”
  • James A. Garfield- killed by an assassin–with an assist from his terrible doctors
  • Chester Arthur-“Dude President”; first act as president was to cry in a bedroom
  • Grover Cleveland- big supporter of Hawaiian independence
  • Benjamin Harrison- grandson of William H. Harrison but didn’t like talking about it; gave us the tradition of the White House Christmas tree; also he married his niece, which is pretty icky
  • William McKinley- Mt. McKinley (in Alaska) was named after the president by an opportunistic prospector who was trying to lobby for the gold standard; the name was reverted to the original Diwali this year
  • Theodore Roosevelt- his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth was considered one of America’s greatest political wits and she was a pretty rowdy teenager, too
  • William Howard Taft- that bathtub story? It’s not true! ….But he did stress-eat and develop sleep apnea while in the White House
  • Woodrow Wilson- buried at the Washington National Cathedral with Helen Keller and a few other notables
  • Warren G. Harding- had the first presidential celebrity pet, his dog “Laddie Boy”
  • Calvin Coolidge- “Silent Cal”; a fan of artisinal cheese; his dad swore him into office at 2 in the morning, upon which they went back to bed
  • Herbert Hoover- invented a sport called “Hoover-Ball”
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt- first to plan his presidential library while in office, including a paper mache sphinx head of himself (you’d have to read it, it’s too hard to explain)
  • Harry S Truman- gave personal tours of his presidential library
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower- “Ike”; a toymaker friend created a set of presidential toys/collectibles to celebrate Ike’s presidency
  • John F. Kennedy- his eternal flame was jerry-rigged together the day before; Jackie is personally responsible for the “Camelot” mythos
  • Lyndon B. Johnson- robot LBJ tells jokes in the presidential library, which was intentionally built as a “vigorous, male building”
  • Richard Nixon- titled his comeback plan post-Watergate “Wizard” and was eventually seen as an expert in foreign policy
  • Gerald Ford- said “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln”
  • Jimmy Carter- n/a
  • Ronald Reagan- “The Great Communicator”; shot by an assassin but lived because he had good doctors; the “Legacy Project” is a concerted effort to get something named after Reagan in every county of the U.S.
  • George H.W. Bush- n/a
  • Bill Clinton- still very much alive, but the book noted that his cat, Socks, has his ashes at Clinton’s library
  • George W. Bush – n/a
  • Barack Obama- n/a

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Review: Dead Presidents

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's LeadersDead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack too much, or that this year’s election cycle has continuously been called “unprecedented,” but “Dead Presidents” seems like the perfect book for 2016.

It is:
– a historical view on how each of our presidents was memorialized after his death
– an excellent source of perspective on politics in general
– hilarious
– thoughtful introspection on what it means to be American
– essential to all trivia fiends (you’ll have so much weird presidential knowledge!)

Die-hard history buffs might be a little frustrated by the format–rather than following presidents sequentially, they are grouped by themes related to their deaths–and I admit I definitely lost track of who was who a few times, but there’s a ordered list at the front you can always refer back to if you’ve gotten Calvin Coolidge confused with The Great Communicator.

Carlson’s book has great heart, and it’s clear he is really enamored of the subject. He provides excellent historical commentary (did you know the bathtub story about Pres. Taft is probably pure fiction?!) but layers it well with side notes and a generous understanding that most people would never think to undertake such a quest as visiting the tomb of every president. He knows it’s a little crazy, and he’s just tickled that you were interested enough to read his book.

As a Dallas native, this book brings an extra perspective. The chapter on Kennedy’s death surprises you by mostly glossing over the “controversy” regarding the number of shooters, and generally assumes you’re sick of conspiracy theories. Instead it focuses largely on how the city of Dallas has reacted to the legacy of being the city that killed Kennedy. It’s really interesting to see an outsider’s perspective.

This book is fantastic. I’ve already recommended it to no less than four people, and I think you should give it a shot, too.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It has been years since I have been so utterly challenged by a book. Junot Diaz breaks almost every conventional rule of literature—the story is nonlinear; characters are not major historical players despite being set in a historical moment of great change; mixes vulgarities with nerdy references in a way guaranteed to exclude most highbrow readers; jumps around in narration; makes frequent reference to a book most people probably hasn’t read, even if they should (In the Time of the Butterflies); avoids most dialogue punctuation—and yet transcends most books. Read this book to have your mind blown in the best possible way.

I had four years of Spanish in high school and it wasn’t enough, because they don’t teach words like “toto,” “puta,” and “culo” in high school (“pussy,” “whore,” and “ass.” You’ll need them in this book)—though Diaz presents a compelling reason to include them in the next lesson. I’ve never made such frequent use of Google translate as I did with this book, and many times there were words even there that couldn’t be looked up, that only brought up annotations for this very book.

But even if you don’t stop to look up all the words you don’t know, Diaz beautifully and elegantly communicates the feeling of being each character, of dealing with their struggles and their particular viewpoint. It’s rare that you can see inside a whole family in this way, each against each other and yet tied together as one unit, each struggling with their own challenges yet determined to be a united front against the world.

The title of this book and the blurb makes it seem like this is the story of one character—Oscar “Wao”—but that’s misleading. I’m not even sure, except for the end, that Oscar can be said to be the main character. No, this is a story about a family, individually and together, and about the legacy of immigration–both blessing and curse–that has impacted them all. It is a powerful and moving tale–even if it does stretch the limits of your translator.

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