Book Review: Tales of the Peculiar

Image: Goodreads

Image: Goodreads

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Today is the premiere of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and as disappointed as I am in its creative direction in regards to changing Emma’s entire peculiarity, I will begrudgingly give this movie a shot.

To amp myself up, I read Ransom Riggs’ latest book, Tales of the Peculiar, which was published this month and given to me by my brother as a birthday gift.

Fans of the series may be let down that this isn’t a prequel or sequel, but rather a collection of short stories, annotated by Millard Nullings, the intellectual ward of Miss Peregrine who is completely invisible.

All of these stories read as fables from peculiar history, teaching moral lessons, ranging from “stay true to yourself” to “be nice to pigeons.” Many are tongue-in-cheek revisions of idioms, turning metaphorical sayings into supernatural origin stories.

For example, in the tale, “The Splendid Cannibals,” a village of peculiars who can regrow limbs literally sell their arms and legs to maneaters to afford ever more lavish homes just to keep up with the Joneses. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s certainly a morbid way to warn against materialism.

Even though no major characters of Riggs’ series make appearances, this book is a nice treat that’s short enough to read in a couple days. It has a gorgeous green cover with gold lettering, and the illustrations at the beginning of each story are wonderfully done. If you can’t get enough of the peculiar universe, then this is the book for you!

Supporting Small Businesses: An Interview with Alley Cat Books

All images taken by Book Club Babe

All images taken by Book Club Babe

One of my 2016 resolutions is to visit five new bookstores this year, in order to support small businesses and promote the hidden gems in the literary community. In March, I interviewed the owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif., and during my European vacation in May, I discovered Pocket 2000 in Rome.

I may not be purchasing any books this year (yet another goal of mine), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t give independent bookstores the shout-outs they so rightfully deserve!

Last week I interviewed Simon Crafts, bookseller and event coordinator at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco. Alley Cat opened in 2011 in the Mission District, known for its cultural diversity and emphasis on the arts.

A unique aspect about Alley Cat is that the store’s owner Kate Rosenberger is a painter and prides herself on featuring local artists in the gallery at the back of the shop. As its bilingual website demonstrates, Alley Cat is also dedicated to stocking a wide variety of new and used books in both English and Spanish.

Simon is one of four Alley Cat staff members, currently studying poetry and creative writing in his MFA program at San Francisco State University. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Book Club Babe, so let’s jump into the Q&A!

Alley Cat bookseller Simon Crafts in front of the “screaming door” featuring Writer in Residence Paul Ebenkamp

“Book people are great. People who care about physical books are generally decent, interesting human beings.” ~ SC

Book Club Babe (BCB): What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working at a bookstore?

Simon Crafts (SC): The most challenging aspect is paying the rent! This is challenging because it involves being the best possible small independent bookstore we can be and making people want to come and shop here, while trying to be as different from a thing like Amazon or Barnes and Noble as possible. We want this to feel like a more intimate and interesting space than that, and we don’t want to sell books like they are just a product.

To that end, I think we’ve settled on trying to make an argument with this place to the people who come in: that books and bookstores have a deeper and more profound value than money and convenience and that there is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books and the people, ideas, and things you might encounter inside a space like that.

This is also the most rewarding thing about working here. It feels exciting to be a caretaker, and so intimately involved in a place that is so electric and creative, like a big strange antenna into the world of ideas. It’s almost a sanctuary for certain sorts of people (both old and young) in the digital age and you’re stewarding that sanctuary.

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Stewarding the Sanctuary

BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?

SC: The damage has already been done. People who shop on Amazon do that now and I don’t think there is as much intersection or competition between the two worlds as people think. In fact, I’ve seen more people coming in and trying to wean themselves off Amazon this year than ever before. I think the public opinion has turned (at least in San Francisco) and this thing that was thought of as a revolution of convenience at first has lost its charm because it’s been revealed to be capitalism as usual. There is a silver lining to Amazon and e-books in that they shut down or greatly damaged the viability of big chains. This has actually improved our business by getting rid of competition here on the ground or “IRL” as it’s known on Twitter.

BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?

SC: We are very involved in the community here. We have a gallery and event space in the back of the store that hosts poetry readings, fundraisers, open mics, book releases, film nights, square dances, and occasional music. We promote through newsletters, social media, and print calendars and good old-fashioned word of mouth. We try to give priority to local artists and people in the neighborhood. We really feel an obligation to participate in a positive way in this neighborhood and its community given that it is being threatened by intense gentrification.

We’ve also recently joined with fellow 24th Street bookstores Modern Times and Adobe Books to form an organization called United Booksellers of San Francisco whose mission it is to try to protect San Francisco bookstores as cultural and literary resources. Rents are (seemingly always) climbing in San Francisco, and we are all in threat of being priced out.

BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?

SC: We carry used, remainder, and new books. We buy used books over the counter every day. We don’t stock romance novels or textbooks, but we have a more extensive art, poetry, and queer/feminist/radical politics sections than most bookstores.

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“Read about more than straight white men” ~ SC

BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?

SC: So people are talking a lot about it being “the golden age of television” but I think it’s really the golden age of the essay. There’s this sort of “hybrid-essay” genre that has appeared. Books like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies,” and just about anything by Rebecca Solnitt. They really blur the line between essay, poetry, memoir, and criticism. They’re also simultaneously tackling some of the hardest cultural discussions and problems of our age. I’ve been selling a lot of these kinds of books, and it gives me hope for the future because it means people are interested in what they’re saying and they’re carrying these ideas into their lives.

BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?

SC: Well, I write poetry, so my favorite books are generally poetry, which is not everybody’s cup of tea (though I wish it was!). Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” is a touchstone for me and a classic that I think even non-poets can enjoy.

As for fiction, anything by Eileen Myles (who is also a poet). Her novel Chelsea Girls was re-released last year, and I recommend it to everyone. She writes like she is speaking to you in the room with this really infectious, casual voice. It’s like the opposite of fussy overwrought MFA fiction. The stories are autobiographical and short, but they all fit together into a larger tapestry. It’s a really amazing and quietly experimental book that is totally enjoyable for almost everyone.

BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?

SC: We’re not really wine drinkers here at Alley Cat, so I would be lying if I claimed to know about any kind of wine except two buck chuck! We’re mostly beer and whiskey folks. I think a moderate amount of alcohol pairs well with just about everything (read or otherwise), but too much alcohol and poetry can have you speaking in tongues. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your friends.

BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?

SC: We’re sister store to Dog Eared Books and Dog Eared Books Castro (which opened in June)! They are amazing independent bookstores, each with a slightly different aesthetic than ours. You should check them out as well!

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“There is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books.”

Top Ten Tuesday: My Favorite Alternative Rock Albums

ttt-albums

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is all about audio! I’ve already discussed my favorite audiobooks at length and most of the podcasts that I listen to are about personal finance (interesting to me, most likely boring to everyone else), so instead I thought I’d just share my favorite albums of the alternative rock genre.

My taste in music is eclectic: I listen to everything from hip-hop to house, from country to k-pop. But my go-to genre is alternative rock, specifically of the pop-punk variety. Some people may brand these albums as emo, but I did too much research on emo history as a teenager to make that amateur mistake.

Next year is my ten-year high school reunion, and although you couldn’t pay me enough money to relive those days, let’s just say I left my musical heart in the last decade.

Listed by the year they were released, here are my top ten favorite alternative rock albums:

  1. Simple Plan: “No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls” (2002)
  2. My Chemical Romance: “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” (2004)
  3. Fall Out Boy: “From Under the Cork Tree” (2005)
  4. 30 Seconds to Mars: “A Beautiful Lie” (2005)
  5. AFI: “Decemberunderground” (2006)
  6. Forever the Sickest Kids: “Underdog Alma Mater” (2008)
  7. Mayday Parade: “Monsters in the Closet (2013)
  8. All Time Low: “Future Hearts” (2015)
  9. Bring Me the Horizon: “That’s the Spirit” (2015)
  10. Compilations: “Punk Goes Pop” volumes 2-6 (2009-2014)

Anyone else in their late 20s who love listening to these albums? Let me know if I missed one of your favs!

Book Review: Agnes Grey

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

After a belated book club this week, followed by a fantastic birthday weekend, I can finally share my thoughts on Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.

I haven’t read so-called “literature” in a while, so I felt rusty, but the book club babes and I agreed that it was great to be challenged intellectually. One friend even commented that she enjoyed needing to consult a dictionary a few times!

Agnes Grey is the perfect novel if you haven’t kept up with the classics since college. It’s a short read with a simple plot: Agnes is a 19-year-old living in rural England who decides to become a governess to help her family who’s struggling financially.

A pious young woman with a strict sense of morality and integrity, Agnes must learn how to raise the spoiled children of the English elite. Her patience is tested, first with the Bloomfield brats and then with the Murray girls. Time and again, she is insulted for her shabby clothes, plain looks, and other indications of her lower socioeconomic class.

Unlike the gothic romances of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontë’s debut novel is not tragic. Despite her meekness, she attracts the interest of Edward Weston, the town’s parson, who spends his time assisting the poor villagers. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Agnes and Edward find their happy ending, since the stakes of this story are so low. Other than terrible demon-children abusing animals for their own amusement, you never get the sense of real danger.

When it comes to literary merit, Agnes Grey is not even remotely in the realm of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The plot is too straightforward, the style too expositional, and none of the characters ever develop, for better or worse. In fact, as I was reading, I kept giving Brontë a pass given how difficult it was for a woman to write in the 19th century, all the while knowing that she’d never be published today.

That said, for what this book is—an autobiographical narrative of one woman trying to remain true to herself in a world of vanity—I appreciated the reading experience. At times it even felt like a Victorian version of “Mean Girls,” with Agnes playing a Cady Heron who never flipped to the dark side. Those of us who were victimized by the richer, more attractive and popular Rosalie Murrays and Regina Georges will feel vindicated when the nice girl wins in the end.

Although all the Brontës are creatively successful in their own rights, there’s definitely a reason why Anne lives in the shadow of her sisters and Agnes Grey rarely makes it on required reading lists in school.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best TV Series Based on Books

TV PicMonkey Collage

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is all about television-related topics. As TV has evolved from sitcoms with standalone plots in favor of long-form storytelling, books are becoming more popular as the go-to place for outstanding content for the small screen.

I’m super excited to finish reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in anticipation of the STARZ adaptation coming next year, but to celebrate this TTT, here are the best TV series based on books (according to the humble opinions of me and my friends!):

  1. Best wedding scene: “Game of Thrones” (2011-present) based on the series by George R.R. Martin
  2. Best accents: “Outlander” (2014-present) based on the series by Diana Gabaldon
  3. Best six-pack abs: “Poldark” (2015-present) based on the series by Winston Graham
  4. Best Clinton biography: “House of Cards” (2013-present) based on the novel by Michael Dobbs
  5. Best swordwielding: “Legend of the Seeker” (2008-2010) based on The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind
  6. Best wardrobes: “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) based on the novel by Candace Bushnell
  7. Best backstabbing: “Gossip Girl” (2007-2012) based on the series by Cecily von Ziegesar
  8. Best for Millenials: “Younger” (2015-present) based on the novel by Pamela Redmond Satran
  9. Best “Will they? Won’t they?” chemistry: “Elementary” (2012-present) based on the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  10. Best culinary show: “Hannibal” (2013-2015) based on the novels by Thomas Harris

I’ve listed some fan-favorites, and I’m sure that there will be a lot of overlap on other bloggers’ TTTs, but let me know if I missed a TV adaptation you love!

Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy Labor Day weekend everybody! I’m happy to announce that after eight whole months of nothing truly wowing me, 2016 has finally delivered an amazing, five-star read!

This book is extra special because I have the pleasure of knowing the author personally! By day, Meg Elison sits two desks down from me as our company’s social media guru/ninja/*insert nauseating Silicon Valley title here*, but off the clock, she managed to find the time to pen an award-winning novel…no big deal!

I’m super excited that I love this book too, since it would have been really awkward to face Meg at work if I thought her baby was ugly, so to speak. However, despite our close acquaintance, I promise to review her book as honestly as I would any other (it helps that she’s currently at Burning Man, so it’s not like she’s looking over my shoulder as I write this!)

First published in 2014, I received an ARC of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife from Meg for the re-release by publisher 47North on October 16. As the title suggests, this novel tells the story of an unnamed midwife living in San Francisco when a mysterious plague wipes out the vast majority of humanity. Even stranger, the disease affects women and children more so than men, creating a literal battle of the sexes as everyone tries to survive.

A word of warning: This book is unapologetically, heartbreakingly graphic. When the protagonist wakes from her bout of the sickness and discovers her husband missing in this post-apocalyptic world, she immediately realizes just how valuable she is when she’s forced to fight off and murder a rapist who breaks into her home.

As she travels northeast from the Bay Area, she must face the sick reality of predatory men enslaving, raping, and otherwise brutalizing what’s left of the female population. Disguising herself as a man, she uses her experience as a midwife and access to contraceptives to help other women navigate their horrific new normal.

Without giving too much away, which is so difficult since there are countless wonderful aspects to this story to discuss, I found The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so suspenseful and engaging that I gobbled it up in just a few days. From her standoff in the woods to her time spent in Utah with a Mormon sect, I had to know more about this character.

It helps that this book was clearly written for a reader like me. Although I can’t speak for her, it’s obvious that Meg’s feminist, pagan perspective permeates each page (sorry, the alliteration ran away from me!). Let’s just say that the story’s queer, secular protagonist leans far to the left, and if you can’t handle casual sex, cussing and frank conversation about abortion, then this book is definitely not for you.

But since Meg and I are on the same wavelength, I found the novel’s themes downright refreshing, especially in an America that seems to be reverting backward when it comes to women’s rights. Dare I say that The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale as a game-changer in the feminist dystopia genre.

On a final note, the structure of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as an epistolary works very well. The present day takes place a generation after the midwife, who has become a historical figure through her journaling of the plague’s aftermath. I’m looking forward to the sequel to learn how society rebuilds and whether a cause for the plague is ever revealed.

In the meantime, Meg has been gracious enough to allow me to interview her next week, so if you have any questions for a debut author, send them my way!

Top Ten Tuesday: Classic Books All Children Need to Read

Kids Books PicMonkey Collage

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a back-to-school special! As the daughter of a retired third-grade teacher, I have many fond memories of helping her set up her classroom every August, but my favorite is curling up at her desk and re-reading all my favorite children’s books.

Not all of the books I’m about to mention are at a third-grade level, but I do consider them classics that all kids should read. Most have won Newbery Medals or Caldecott awards, but all have stood the test of time and positively impacted my love for reading:

  1. Best Dystopia: The Giver by Lois Lowry
  2. Best Juvenile Delinquents: Holes by Louis Sachar
  3. Best Local Claim to Fame: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (you can thank Lone Star Elementary in my hometown for the movie adaptation!)
  4. Best Survivor Story: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  5. Best #SquadGoals: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
  6. Best Life Lesson: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  7. Best Sob Fest: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
  8. Best Fantasy: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Best Country Tale: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
  10. Best Security Blanket: Owen by Kevin Henkes

Many of my peers are now having children of their own, so I can only hope the next generation loves these books as much as I do!