Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker, #1)Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: 2010
Series: Ship Breaker, #1
Length: 326 pages

I hadn’t realised that this was a young adult novel when I picked it up. I read The Windup Girl a couple of years back, and that is very much not a young adult book, so it was interesting to see the difference in tone between the two. In a way, it felt like the confines of young adult fiction, whatever those may be, may have been good for him.

I’ve only read two of his books, but from that sample it seems like Paolo Bacigalupi’s bread and butter is richly-imagined dystopian futures caused by environmental disasters. In Ship Breaker, the polar ice caps have melted, drowning coastal cities around with world, and fossil fuels have run dry. An industry based around scavenging resources from beached old-world oil tankers has grown out of the demand for recycled materials.

We follow Nailer, a young teenager on one of the light oil tanker crews, tasked with collecting copper wiring by crawling through ship ventilation. He lives a miserable life with his drug-abusing thug of a dad and really has no options for his future. Soon he will be too large to continue working in light crew, but he is unlikely to ever be large enough for heavy crew, so he’ll be left with no way to support himself. He just continues working while he can, constantly daydreaming of finding a lucky break. That lucky break appears in the form of a clipper wreck, a solar-powered luxury ship from the new world that crashed in a storm. What they find inside will change everything.

The first half of this was interesting but a bit slow to develop. I loved the creative world, but I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters. Once the group splits up a bit, and the story focuses on just a few of the characters, I found myself much more engaged. I couldn’t put down the book for the last half of the story.

There are a lot of fascinating themes in this book, but most are really only touched upon – the divide between the rich and poor, the meaning of family, free will and slavery, to name but a few. The idea of nature vs nurture is probably the most developed of them all. Nailer’s father is an awful man, and he struggles throughout the novel with how much of his father may or may not be part of his own personality and impulses. Bacigalupi does any excellent job of bringing all of this up while keeping the novel light, but I would have liked to delve in a bit deeper with these ideas. He created such a great world, and it felt like a lost opportunity to not take the time to explore these themes a bit more in that setting.

One of the characters is a half-man, which is a genetically engineered man who is a mix of human, dog, and tiger. They are essentially slaves who are bred to have unbreakable loyalty towards their masters, and this character is one of the only half-men to circumvent that training and live his own life. He was, by far, the most intriguing character, but his story was only teased in this. It does look like the second Ship Breaker novel, The Drowned Cities, is the story of his origin. I would have liked to see him more involved in this particular story, but I’m definitely interested to read more about him.

I found Bacigalupi’s last book to be quite confusing, actually, with the character viewpoints not feeling distinct enough, so in a way this simpler story, with one viewpoint character, was a nice change. That was his first novel, to be fair, but I had a tough time keeping everything straight in my head. In both novels it took me nearly half the book to feel any attachment to the characters, but I’m always immediately in love with the worlds he imagines. That really seems to be his strength as a writer, but I hope characterization catches up with his worldbuilding. This was certainly a step in the right direction, at least.

This was a fun novel. If I come across the next in the series, I’ll be sure to pick it up. I’m also interested in reading his latest adult novel, The Water Knife. Paolo Bacigalupi seems like an author to keep an eye on.

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Gentlemen of the Road

Gentlemen of the RoadGentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Published: 2007
Length: 204 pages

I’ve been wanting to read a Michael Chabon novel for quite a while now, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in particular, and just haven’t gotten to it. At the book sale last month, I found this and thought it might be a good introduction to him, mainly because it’s nice and short.

Those were the longest 200 pages of my life. My god. The concept was great. The cover promises an adventurous tale of Jews with swords, and I’m always up for some swashbuckling. The two main characters are a giant man with an ax and a quick wit and a skinny physician with a rapier and an equally dark mood and sense of humor. They are ‘gentlemen of the road’, and at the beginning of the novel we find them faking a brawl outside of a tavern to scam some bet winnings. Great so far. They are hired, with promise of a reward, to deliver a young man to his relatives, and they set off on their journey.

To be fair, it was obvious from fairly early on that this novel wasn’t working out for me, and I really should have just dropped it. I keep telling myself I’m going to get better at giving up on books, but I was about halfway through when I came out of denial, and I seemed so close to the end. The last hundred pages of this felt like a sprint through molasses.

His writing was so convoluted that it was just a pain to read. The occasional passage would jump out at me as actually being beautifully written, and there were some great bits of humour throughout, but it was all drowning in self-conscious, overwrought prose. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to try to piece together what he was actually trying to say. It read like he was on a misguided mission to elevate genre fiction, and decided to do this by making liberal use of a thesaurus and the Wikipedia entry on the Khazars (which he cited, along with a Geocities page, under his research) while completely forgetting that a compelling plot might help as well.

The problem seems to be that he is deeply embarrassed to be writing genre fiction. He included an afterword, and it only confirmed any suspicion I had. It’s an essay that is, partly, how it may seem unusual for someone of his “literary training, generation and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords”, and while he writes this in a way that suggests he just wants a little more adventure in his life and isn’t personally disparaging genre fiction, I still couldn’t help think that he really needs to get over himself.

Finally, at the very end of this book, he takes a couple of pages to explain the elaborate research that went into this. Normally I would welcome a list of further reading, but with the aftertaste of his apology essay still lingering, it just felt like more posturing. Fantasy writers have been researching their stories since the genre began. It’s not uncommon, and they actually manage to turn that research into a readable story with substance.

I finished the novel disappointed, but I finished the afterword actually a little annoyed. It’s possible that I’ve gotten a completely wrong impression of him from this novel, as this is really the only exposure I’ve had to him, so I’ll try to keep an open mind. People do seem to love him, so there must be something there I haven’t seen yet, and this particular novel was obviously an experiment. I can’t say I’m excited to pick up another of his books after this, though. Never say never, but it’ll take some convincing.

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The Player of Games

The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Published: 1988
Series: The Culture #2
Narrated by: Peter Kenny
Length: 11:26 (288 pages)

This is the second novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. They apparently don’t need to be read in order, and everyone who has read them seems to have their suggested reading order to follow, but I like rules, okay? I’m following the publication order on these.

I knew this wouldn’t be related to the first book, but it’s not just a new set of characters, it’s a complete departure. In Consider Phlebas, it was a story taking place in the war between the hedonistic Culture and the war-minded Idirans. I had assumed each book would be stories taking place within that war, but this novel really had very little to do with it. It did involve the Culture expanding its influence to other worlds, which I supposed could be loosely related, but it really took me by surprise.

This follows a citizen of the Culture, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, who is one of the best board game players in the society. It’s a utopian civilization, where all labour is automated and people are free to pursue their passions. Gurgeh’s passion is board games. He plays them all very well, not focusing on just a single game, and teaches others on game strategy, writing academic papers and giving lectures. He’s successful and well known, but has lately grown bored with his life.

Gurgeh is convinced, with the help of some subtle manipulation, to travel on behalf of the Culture to another civilization’s home planet to participate in an incredibly complex game called Azad, as a way of relating the two societies. The game is very important to these people, as their leaders and high-ranking officers are determined by Azad tournaments. They learn the game from a very young age, and it’s not expected that Gurgeh will do well. It’s more a show of good faith.

It’s an interesting way to explain more of how the Culture works without pages of exposition. In having Gurgeh travel to a new world, we’re able to learn about the Culture by how it’s contrasted with this other society. They are a barbaric race in comparison to the Culture, much more like our current world in real life actually, so he’s able to show us the differences between the two, while also at times using it to reflect our own culture, and it never feels like preaching or a Wikipedia entry.

Banks is a brilliant world-builder and he comes up with such imaginative ideas. Just the simple fact that he based a space opera, of sorts, around a board game, shows he was someone who enjoyed the unique and unexpected. Even the small touches he throws in throughout the story. When they first arrive on the new planet, it’s mentioned that their prison is actually a labyrinth from which it is, in theory, possible to escape. The worse the crime, the further in you begin, and it’s been known for criminals with money to bribe their way out. I feel like a whole story could take place just in that prison (which he did, partly, with Walking on Glass), and it’s just a paragraph on the side.

This book, written nearly thirty years ago now, clearly had an impact on people. After Banks’ death in 2013, Elon Musk of the SpaceX program named two autonomous spaceport drone ships, Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, after ships from this book. The story still holds up today. If I didn’t know the publication date going in, I’d have thought it was written recently.

I look forward to reading some more of this series, as well as more of his literary fiction.

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Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground

Richard Stark's Parker: SlaygroundRichard Stark’s Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke
Format: Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Darwyn Cooke
Series: Parker #4
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Published: 2013
Length: 96 pages

I read the first three of these a few years ago, but I never got around to this final volume. Darwyn Cooke sadly passed away last month, in this year of startling deaths, which gave me an unfortunate reminder to pick it up.

This volume is certainly a contrast to the last Parker book, The Score, in which Parker and his team planned a heist to rob an entire town. It had a complicated Ocean’s Eleven feel to it. This is a much simpler story, which is evident as soon as you get your hands on the physical book, as it’s about half the size of the first three.


Parker and two of his associates rob an armoured truck but crash on the icy roads during the getaway. Parker takes the cash and escapes into a nearby amusement park, which has been closed for the winter. Two corrupt cops, with mob connections, see him retreat and decide to find him, kill him, and take the cash for themselves. It then turns into a game of stealth as Parker tries to escape while using rigged amusement park attractions to thwart his attackers. It’s a set piece that has been used many, many times, particularly in children’s movies and horror novels. I remember stories like this from reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike novels as a kid. This is adapted from Donald E. Westlake’s 1971 novel of the same name, so it was probably a more original concept at the time.

It may not have the depth of the previous volumes, but it’s still good fun. You get to see Parker set traps and ready himself, and even though the second half of the story is fairly predictable, it’s still very satisfying, and conjures that Home Alone nostalgic feeling, to see it all play out. Cooke’s illustrations and use of two-tone colour is always a joy flip through as well.

This is a fun series, and I’m sad to see it end. I might have a look up some of the work he did for DC and Marvel as well.

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Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: 2014
Series: Southern Reach #1
Length: 195 pages

A team of four women – a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist – are sent into a mysterious region called Area X. All they know is that there have been eleven previous expeditions. One ending with every member of the team killing themselves, and another with the team all killing each other. Those who managed to returned from Area X had no memory of their time there. The group has been trained to survive and to deal with the unexpected, and each member must keep a journal during their time there.

Perhaps my only real expertise, my only talent, is to endure beyond the endurable.

None of the characters in this are named, but we follow the biologist’s journal as she experiences the oddities of the area and keeps an eye on her team members. This is quite oddly written with incredibly stunted dialogue, but in the context of it being an epistolary novel, that does make some sense. I find it a bit jarring when you’re reading someone’s supposed journal entry or letter and they’re recounted pages and pages of exact dialogue in perfect detail. I’m re-reading Frankenstein right now, and while I know it’s just a framing device that can be excused, it’s still like come on now. I can barely remember the beginning of my sentence by the time I’m nearing the end of it.

So, in my mind, the dialogue worked perfectly for this particular story, although I can see how it would drive some people crazy. It doesn’t help that the biologist is about as charismatic as a doormat, but I think her dull nature is an interesting contrast to the world around her. I really like her as a character, but in any other novel she would have bored me to tears. In this it helps set a still and disturbing atmosphere, which is really where this novel shines. It’s incredible eerie, and I was never sure what was going to happen next. Some of the revelations throughout the novel genuinely took me by surprise and really made me want to read on.

This is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, and I’ll definitely be reading on. Annihilation didn’t feel like a complete story, just the beginning of something larger, which is somewhat annoying. All three of the novels were published in 2014, though, so it’s hard to complain too much about that.

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May in Review

Books Acquired:
Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell
Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler
How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food by Nigella Lawson
My Little French Kitchen by Rachel Khoo
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Side Effects by Woody Allen
Getting Even by Woody Allen
Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen

Books Read:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

I was apparently still on a bit of a book-buying high after the book sale last month. There were a few novels I had on my wishlist that I couldn’t find at the sale, so I thought I’d pick them up at the local used book store afterwards. Tooth and Nail is the next book in the Inspector Rebus series, which I’m still deciding if I like or not, and I’ve always wanted to try a Kurt Wallander novel after loving the BBC adaptation so much, so I also picked up the first in that series, Faceless Killers.

The Simple Art of Murder contains a famous essay, that the collection is named after, and eight short stories that were written before Philip Marlowe. I didn’t realize this existed, so of course I had to pick that up as well. Annihilation I just kept seeing around and threw that in the basket as well. I’ve read it already and have my eye on the next two.

Good way to spend a lazy afternoon. #russellbooks

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We found ourselves back at the book store at the end of the month as well, and I thought I’d pick up the rest of the Woody Allen books. They have a great cookbook selection too, many of which were quite heavily discounted. I’ve been looking for How to Eat for a while now, but it doesn’t seem readily available around here at the moment, so I was happy to find that.

Whoops, more books. No more trips to the bookstore for a while.

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Movies watched:
Penguins of Madagascar (2014) – This had some cute moments, but it didn’t really hold my interest.

Inside Out (2015) – Fantastic Pixar movie. What a great story, and perfectly executed too. Really enjoyed this.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) – Very unique. I love how it was filmed, with the interesting scene transitions and the weirdly out-of-place special effects, and the story kept me interested right through. The over the top stage acting, which I think was on purpose, was fun but also a little tiring. Overall a great movie, though.

TV watched:
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season 3 (2015) – Just as good as the last two seasons. Silly fun. There was a new character introduced mid-season that I’m not too fond of, but I’m still enjoying this.

Games played:
Uncharted 4 (2016) (PS4) – I haven’t finished this, as I got a bit sidetracked halfway through, but I am in love with this game so far. Brilliant voice acting and writing. The combat is still bland and tedious, but it’s worth pushing through for the story.

Overwatch (2016) (PC) – I wasn’t really excited for this coming out, but it’s fantastic. Each character has a really unique playstyle, so there’s a lot to master before getting bored. I see myself playing this one for a while.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
Published: 1932
Narrated by: Michael York
Length: 08:05 (268 pages)

This is about a utopia gone wrong, where science has been twisted to an absurd extreme in an attempt to keep society happy. What makes this novel particularly interesting is how it all makes a sort of perverse sense. The obvious comparison when discussing this book is Nineteen Eighty-Four, both being dystopian futures with a brainwashed populace, and this is like the wacky uncle to that novel. It’s older, doesn’t take itself as seriously, but is clearly in the same family.

How do you keep a society happy? Firstly, each citizen must be content in their lives. The solution here is to brainwash them from birth. Each person is born, or ‘decanted’, in a lab and is conditioned through sleep-learning to love the caste to which they’re assigned (denoted with the Greek alphabet – alpha through epsilon). The benefits of their social class, and the drawbacks of the other classes, are repeated to them constantly in their youth to stop them from wanting to be anything else. They love their place in society, and couldn’t change it even if they desired. This removes the need to have greater ambitions in one’s life and therefore avoids failure in those ambitions. You do what you’re assigned to do, you enjoy that, and you spend your free time taking drug-induced vacations and having sex with anyone and everyone. The idea is to keep everyone content in a shallow and carefree existence.

In order to have control of each citizen from birth, no births outside of the labs can occur. To prevent this, not only are they citizens kept sterile, but they are trained to view motherhood and natural birth as vulgar.

And home was as squalid psychically as physically. Psychically, it was a rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane, obscene relationships between the members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children) … brooded over them like a cat over its kittens; but a cat that could talk, a cat that could say, “My baby, my baby,” over and over again. “My baby, and oh, oh, at my breast, the little hands, the hunger, and that unspeakable agonizing pleasure! Till at last my baby sleeps, my baby sleeps with a bubble of white milk at the corner of his mouth. My little baby sleeps…”

About halfway through the story, we’re introduced to a man born outside of this society, from a natural birth, and he acts as our eyes to view this perverse world. He is seen, from the society’s point of view, as a savage. He wasn’t brought up with their brainwashing, instead learning a lot of his life’s lessons from his collected works of William Shakespeare. They are fascinated with him, but he becomes increasingly agitated by the end of the novel, when it becomes clear that he has been conditioned in his own way.

There’s a scene where the two worlds finally come to a head. ‘The savage’ completely loses it when a woman tries to lure him to bed, and it results in him calling her a whore and an impudent strumpet (an insult from the bard) and trying to hit her. Up until this point, the label of savage seemed almost funny, as he’s clearly the reader’s representative in this bizarre future, but then the lines began to blur. He begins isolating himself, whipping his back for what he believes are his sins, and he really does start to live up to his nickname. In many ways, I found the him to be as unrelatable as the brainwashed citizens.

This apparently started as a satire on the utopian future societies imagined by H.G. Wells. Huxley wanted to take those utopias and present a frightening alternative, and it eventually grew into a more substantial statement on the state of, at the time, current society. No where is Huxley’s original intent of parody more clear than in the unforgettable, though you may try, orgy scene, in which a group of people, mesmerized with childish delight, chant a hilariously simple verse before getting down. This is their religion in a way, meant to give a sense of community and provide a release of human desires in a controlled way.

Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy-porgy gives release.

Michael York’s narration was fantastic. I’m always amazed at narrators who can switch between so many accents, although it did seem strange to me that he choose different regional English accents for different characters. If everyone’s grown in a lab, part of a group of clones essentially, then they would probably all have basically the same accent. I felt like the point of it was that, in a world this strict, human beings were expected to have no individuality. Henry Ford is their savior, and they are products of the assembly line. This narration didn’t seem to jive with that idea. Maybe this was explained in the text and I missed it, but it struck me as a bit odd. Apart from that, which may just be my misunderstanding, he did an exceptional job.

I had a few false starts with this novel, as I just couldn’t seem to get into it, but I enjoyed myself once it finally clicked. It’s such a thought-provoking world he’s come up with, and it still feels incredibly relevant for today. Maybe even more so than when it was written, with our advanced technology, consumerism and obsession with anti-aging. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I liked it enough that I’ll be seeking out his other novels eventually.

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The Fold

The FoldThe Fold by Peter Clines
Published: 2015
Narrated by: Ray Porter
Length: 10:52 (384 pages)

I read 14 by Peter Clines last year and really enjoyed it. The book had its flaws, but on the whole it was very entertaining. The Fold is set in the same universe, but he doesn’t describe it as a sequel. It takes place after the events of 14, and if you’ve read that you will catch a few connections, but it’s in no means required. I would still start there, personally, but I like to read things in order like that.

The main character in this, Mike Erikson, has an advanced eidetic memory. He can look back in his memory like he’s rewinding a video, analyzing frame by frame. Instead of using this skill to get ahead in life, he’s decided instead to stay in a small town to teach high school English. A noble pursuit, of course, but with a mind like that it’s a bit like Superman not fighting crime. His old college buddy, who now works with DARPA, has been trying to enlist him for years to no avail. At the beginning of the book, he arrives once again to convince Mike to take a job, but this time the offer is too interesting to refuse.

He has a team at DARPA who have discovered the secret to teleportation and are working to perfect the technology before going public. They are being very secretive, however, and it’s getting in the way of funding. He wants Mike to join their team and provide a report for the funding committee. Mike takes the job and tries to integrate with this team of cagey engineers. It then turns into a really fun science fiction mystery.

For the first half of this novel, I was equal parts angry and excited. I was enjoying the mystery of it all, and Clines does an excellent job with pacing the story and building characters you want to learn more about, but I had two problems. The first was that a major plot point, that was thankfully revealed midway through the book and not at the end, felt very obvious to me from early on, so every hint and question related to it, of which there were many, became incredibly grating. In the last novel I felt like I was learning about the mystery along with the characters, but for a chunk of this novel I was waiting for the characters to catch up, which just isn’t as fun.

The second problem was that every character on this team of engineers was so emotionally over the top. I get that they were wary of outsiders and on edge, but they came across as unbelievably unprofessional and immature. Mike was being painfully accommodating, and they were consistently condescending and quick-tempered. No one is that salty. I’ve known some miserable human beings, and none of them were that salty. It just got old so quickly and made the interactions between the characters feel so false at times.

From a high level, this novel is surprisingly similar in plot structure to 14, while sharing its strengths and suffering from similar problems. Enough was different to keep it fresh for me, though. I really enjoyed Mike Erikson, the main character. He reminds me a little of Stephen Leeds from Brandon Sanderson’s Legion series. I think I just love genius protagonists. Maybe it’s a bit of wish fulfillment on my part, but it helps explain those leaps in logic that are prevalent in mystery novels, and it’s interesting what authors come up with to explain how they cope with their genius.

Peter Clines can really write an entertaining story, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for his next novel. I hope he experiments a little with it and comes up with some fresh ideas, or at least takes this idea further. 14 ended with a teaser of what could be a really interesting next step of the story, and this one did the same. Maybe next time he’ll give us that next step.

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Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek (Inspector Rebus, #2)Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin
Published: 1991
Series: Inspector Rebus #2
Length: 224 pages

I’ve finally gotten to the second novel in the Inspector Rebus series. I enjoyed the first one, Knots and Crosses, but I wasn’t in love, so I thought I should try one more just to see.

Since the last novel, Detective Rebus has been promoted to Inspector. It feels like he’s still getting used to the position and is maybe somewhat insecure, because he can act like a complete ass at times, and it seems unprompted and against his usual level nature. He’s also fully in classic detective mode now – living alone and single, his partner having recently left, and a borderline alcoholic. The amount of drunk driving he does in this is impressive, although obviously not recommended.

A junkie is found dead in an abandoned house, and it looked like a clear-cut overdose case, but something compels Rebus to investigate further. At least, it’s said to be a clear-cut case by other investigators, but the body was bruised, obviously posed, and surrounded by satanic symbols and candles. I know I’m not formally trained, but I was right there with Rebus on this one.

The nature of the crime, after some investigation, suggests that a lot more people could be hurt by the same killer, so Rebus takes on the case. His investigation leads him all over the city and the story is anything but predictable. In fact there’s really no way you’d be able to see the ending coming, and I can’t decide if I like that or not. On one hand, it’s great when you reach the climax and all the little pieces throughout the novel click together perfectly, but on the other hand it’s probably near-impossible to pull that off without it feeling contrived. The ending here was a bit abrupt and unsatisfying, though.

This novel began with an introduction from Ian Rankin apologizing for Rebus not being fully realized yet as a character. He says he’s too well-read in this and listens to jazz and classical, when he shouldn’t be interested in such things. This bothered me a bit, as a bookish detective is exactly what I want, and it seems a little condescending to assume that someone in a blue-collar position couldn’t be well-read. We’ll have to see how that works itself out in the later books. If he replaces his bookshelves with some golf clubs I’m finding a new detective series.

Overall I really enjoyed this, probably more than the first book actually. It had a tighter, much less ridiculous plot, and more interesting secondary characters. I enjoy his writing style, but I have to admit there were some incredibly cheesy lines in this. I wish I wrote down the quote, but at one point Rebus says something along the lines of “there was something fishy about this, and that fish was a herring. A red one.” And I was like, Ian no. Take that back.

I’ve picked up the third novel. I’m still unsure about the series, but I’m going to try at least one more. There’s something about the character of Rebus and the setting that just draws me in.

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Fresh Off the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat: A MemoirFresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang
Published: 2013
Narrated by: Eddie Huang
Length: 07:55 (288 pages)

I haven’t seen the sitcom of the same name that was created from this book, but I have seen clips of Eddie Huang’s show on Vice. I wasn’t sure if I liked him then, and now after reading this I’m still not entirely sure what I think of him.

Eddie Huang is a restaurateur and a chef, with a successful Manhattan restaurant called BaoHaus that specializes in baozi, which are steamed Chinese meat buns. He became a known food personality after hosting a few shows on the Cooking Channel and, more recently, on Vice. He’s loud and brash, sometimes obnoxious, but he does have some interesting views and knows his way around food.

Huang grew up in Orlando, for most of his youth, and then moved to New York after university. His parents immigrated from Taiwan, and this autobiography deals largely with him growing up Asian in America, living in two worlds and feeling as if he doesn’t really fit either. He encountered a lot of racism growing up, both from students and teachers, and his home life with his parents was pretty bad at times as well. He started fighting a lot, getting into trouble at school, and selling drugs.

His life definitely had its obstacles, but he had a lot of breaks as well, and he doesn’t really seem to acknowledge that. His family was able to put him through law school, which he did just to prove he should be taken seriously. It feels like he wrote this before he reached that stage in life where you realize everyone else has problems too. So much of this felt like unwarranted bragging, and so many of his stories were juvenile to a cringe-worthy degree. If you’re young enough to think that stealing a tiki statue from someone’s yard or crashing a party and covering the host’s bunny in Doritos dust is prime material for your autobiography, you’re too young to be writing an autobiography.

It was American kitchen culture. Shit, it was American food culture. People would take pride in having hands covered by buffalo wing sauce or BBQ stains on their face. I remember watching meat heads in the dining room eat thirty-two-ounce porterhouses, challenging each other to see how much they could eat. The way those people experienced food didn’t make sense; it was gross to me. I always loved food, but it didn’t bring me any extra enjoyment to eat it or cook it like a frat boy.

I read this mainly because I thought it would be about food, having listed it as one of my Foodies Read 2016 picks, but that’s definitely not the main focus of the book. Food does play a large part, many of his memories are tied to the food he ate at that time, and it’s a major theme in his life, but you really have to pick through the corny high school stories to get to it. When he does talk about food, it’s fantastic. He describes it so well, adding just enough technical detail while letting his passion for the food shine through in every word. I really wanted more of that.

Eddie Huang feels like one of those friends that you’re slightly embarrassed to introduce to your other friends. They act like idiots, but if you get to know them they’re actually pretty cool. He can be hilarious at times, brutally honest, and is clearly a smart and passionate guy. His next book is out this month, Double Cup Love, and it looks to be a Chinese, food-centric travelogue, which I think could be much more up my alley.

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