Book Giveaway Winner Announced!

giveawayI just filled out the form to nominate someone to receive a copy of Doing Good Better, and I was able to choose THREE people to receive a free copy! How perfect, since I had three people enter the giveaway: lahgray, Calee, and Emily C.!

(Note to the winners: You will receive an email from the Centre for Effective Altruism sometime in the next couple of days offering you your free book. If you change your mind, you don’t have to accept it. You’re always welcome to borrow my copy instead! :))

Thank you so much for entering my first (and probably only) giveaway, ladies. I appreciate it! I sincerely hope you find this book uplifting.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

BOOK GIVEAWAY! The Book That Changed My Life: Doing Good Better

giveawayI received an exciting email this morning from the Centre for Effective Altruism. They invited me to nominate someone to receive a free copy of the amazing book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill.

I read this book a year ago, and it changed my life. I had a total Ebenezer Scrooge moment. I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it anyway, so what better time than now?

Before I read this book I was feeling pretty cynical about the world in general. Humans suck at doing good. We’re cruel to each other. We’re careless with our planet. We aren’t very kind to animals on the whole. What’s the point in even trying to make a difference when each of us wields so little power against the enormous darkness in our world: hunger, poverty, cruelty, oppression? Why bother caring when so many people who could help refuse to do so? Why save people when the planet is already struggling to support our population? Why bother sending $10 to a charity if they send you $20 worth of marketing materials in return?

I talked to a friend about it. He told me that it’s harder to be kind and altruistic than it is to be cynical. But when you get right down to it, every person has a story, and everyone who’s struggling deserves to be helped. He told me about this movement called Effective Altruism that aims to identify the most important and fixable causes in the world and get people to focus their efforts there.

So that gave me a little glimmer of hope, and then I picked up this book, and it gave me so much more. It made me feel rich and powerful. It made my somewhat meaningless day job feel suddenly full of meaning. There hasn’t been a day since I read this book that I’ve felt sorry for myself for having the job I have, so that alone is testament to how it has changed my life.

Here’s one of the most important things I learned from this book: small amounts of money can do tremendous good. Somehow I always thought that the highest moral action was to volunteer. Spending time physically dishing out soup to the hungry or knocking on doors to drum up political support or traveling to Africa to build homes seemed like the only real way to make a difference, and I’ve always shied away from those things because I highly value my free time and because—well—I’m shy. But in reading this book I learned that a little money can actually go a long way, and giving money to an organization is often far more valuable than giving time. I won’t bother trying to rehash the information in the book, but this guy is a brilliant economist and he did the math for us, and you can read all about it. It partially depends a lot on the type of charitable work you would do and how good you would be at it (I’m starting to think that getting involved in political action might actually be a very powerful use of one’s time), but the point is that giving money is a deeply charitable act as well. You don’t have to be super rich or influential to make a difference, and you don’t have to feel like a lazy a-hole if all you do is give money. And choosing a charity with your brain instead of your heart is a particularly kind thing to do, because it’ll greatly increase the impact you can have. Money has great power, and compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot of it. Giving money is a wonderful thing to do.

That might not sound like a very exciting premise for a book, but if you have some interest in altruism, I strongly encourage you to read it. It’s well written and not a slog to read. And in the wake of recent events, I think we could all use as much hope as we can get our hands on.

So if you’d like a copy of the book, just leave me a comment and convince me that you want to read it. 😉 I’d also love to know about books that changed your life. I’ll pick a winner next Wednesday (11/23/2016)!

(Apologies to Sandy Underwood and Cincinatti Magazine for shamelessly stealing their amazing photograph.)

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is 722 pages of exposition. The story hasn’t really even begun yet. For that reason, and because the protagonist is unbearably arrogant, I feel extremely frustrated with this book.

I feel bad for bashing the book when it was recommended to me by a good friend who was kind enough to even put it in my hands. But it’s not his fault at all that I had qualms with the story. I was also warned by my husband that I wasn’t going to like it—I probably should’ve listened to my spouse. Still, this is one of the most popular fantasy books of our time, so I had been curious about it for quite a while.

This book is basically a washed-up hero, Kvothe, just beginning to tell the story of his glory days. He starts with his charmed and then suddenly tragic (read: cliché) beginnings, and then moves on to his college days. Stories of magic school are usually highly entertaining (Harry Potter, The Magicians), but this one just felt entirely unnecessary to me. I do not give a shit what this impossibly extraordinary human did in college to get in trouble and impress people and make enemies and friends. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; it’s clear that the real story is what he does after leaving the University. At the end of this book, I’m still 90% ignorant about the people/creatures who upset Kvothe’s life when he was young. He hasn’t gotten close to them, hasn’t even learned anything about them yet. I find that completely frustrating. Why has the author wasted my time with all this pointless backstory and awkward-as-hell love story and not moved the real story forward one whit? At least in Harry Potter we get a glimpse of Voldemort in each book, I think, and the overarching plot of his takeover is advancing book by book. The Name of the Wind is literally just backstory. I don’t even understand what the word Chandrian refers to, exactly. Is it the spider things? Is it the demon people? Is it both, somehow? I’m lost.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that the story has so much potential. This book is extremely well-written. I love the system of magic and how it actually integrates with physics and takes knowledge and energy and skill to perform. I love how nuanced and rich this fantasy world is: its histories, myths, and legends; its culture and creatures and places. One of my favorite parts of the story was at the very end, the Underthing. What a fantastic place. I wish there had been so much more of that stuff and so much more relevant story.

I think I’m supposed to feel eager to read the next book at this point. But instead I just feel pissed. I feel a lot like I did at the end of the first Magicians book; like the author has wasted my time for no good reason, and written one of the most annoying protagonists ever. The Magicians series was worth continuing with because it had a whole cast of interesting characters who grew and changed over the course of the series, and because it totally avoided cliché, or dealt with clichés with exactly the same awareness that the reader of the book would have. The Name of the Wind tried to do that in a couple of spots, but I felt it failed on the whole. Kvothe is the most cliché hero ever: white, male, orphaned, super-intelligent and gifted at absolutely everything and therefore highly arrogant, etc. And I know (because my husband has told me) that he’s never going to become a character that I care about, and he’s the only character who matters in this story. If he died, this story would cease to exist; it’s squarely about him, which I find disappointing. Knowing that, I don’t think I’ll continue on with this series.

But, now I can say I’ve read The Name of the Wind! And I really am glad for that.

See all my reviews on Goodreads.

My Top 5 Favorite Audiobooks (And a Bonus!)

I usually opt to read books with my eyeballs, but sometimes I like to listen to audiobooks in the car or while I’m doing mindless tasks at work. I’ve listened to a couple dozen of them now (and DNF a handful of others). It can be hard to find a good audiobook, because sometimes narrators are not so great or the content just doesn’t lend itself to being read out loud. Here are the best ones I’ve found so far.

Fiction

Okay, so all of these are children’s fantasy books. It’s my favorite genre, but it also just makes for a fun road trip. They’re simpler than adult books, and therefore easier to follow. Besides, considering how enduring Harry Potter is, I don’t think I’m the only adult who loves children’s fantasy books.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett audiobook coverThe Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Even if you don’t think you’re a Terry Pratchett fan, you might like this one. It’s probably the best book he ever wrote. It’s funny and beautiful at the same time. I’ve listened to two of the five books in the Tiffany Aching series now, and they’re easily my favorite audiobooks ever.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – This is a relatively short one. Neil Gaiman narrates it himself, and he’s a wonderful narrator. I keep meaning to find more self-narrated Gaiman books.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman- I’ve only listened to part of this one; I was using the audio to bridge the gaps while I was reading the book series, if I recall correctly. It’s very well produced. Philip Pullman narrates it himself, and his voice is quite pleasant to listen to. The other characters are voiced by a cast of actors, and they all do a good job. The story is bizarre, but there’s something about it that really stuck with me. It’s definitely worth reading.

Nonfiction

These happen to be humorous, so I guess what I’m learning is that I prefer my audiobooks to either be fantastic or funny. I find that funny books are actually better in audio format than on the page, so even if you generally prefer to read books (or don’t like books), I recommend checking out a funny audiobook to brighten up your commute every once in a while.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris audiobook coverMe Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris – I didn’t think I was that big of a David Sedaris fan. I read two of his books and then borrowed this audiobook from a friend with a pretty sizable amount of skepticism. His stories tend to be kind of… weird. But this book is just plain funny, especially if you’ve ever tried to learn to speak French.

Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan – I didn’t think I was a huge Gaffigan fan, either, but this book made me laugh a lot. As a bonus, it also made me really grateful for my childfree, moderately-sized-city life.

Bonus!: Bossypants by Tina Fey – I’m adding this just to say that I read the book first and thought it was just okay, and then I listened to the audiobook and liked it much better. So if you’re going to read it, listen to it instead.

After writing this I noticed that all of these audiobooks but one (The Wee Free Men) are narrated by the author. So perhaps that’s something to look for in an audiobook.

What are your favorite audiobooks? When do you like to listen to them?

How I Read 30 Books a Year

books(Give or take a few.)

People sometimes ask me how I read so much. I have a full-time job and a social life. I’m also a very slow reader. Truly. But I still manage to read about 30 books per year. Here’s how I do it.

I read every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, I try to sit down and get a few pages flipped at least once a day. It’s not something I have to force myself to do, really, it’s just something I love doing. It’s how I unwind.

I read in short bursts. I rarely have the time to sit down and just read for a solid hour, so what I do is pull out my book whenever I have or ten or fifteen minutes to kill. I read in the bathtub, while I’m waiting for laundry, on my breaks at work, etc. I almost always leave about twenty minutes for myself before bedtime to spend reading (and although I love to read in bed, I don’t recommend it since it’s bad sleep hygeine).

I read books on my phone. It’s not as unpleasant as you might imagine—or maybe I’ve just gotten very used to it. It’s so convenient though. I never dread air travel or waiting at the DMV anymore, because I always have a book on me. Books that take up zero space are super convenient for travel, too. Reading apps like Kindle and Overdrive are free, and you can even download free books for them from your local library. I only actually purchase a couple of books a year.

I set a reading goal for myself each year on Goodreads, and I enjoy trying to keep it. The app tells me if I’m on track or not, and I can see how many books my friends have read so far, too. Last year I fell short of my goal of 30 books by 3, so I actually fudged my goal down to 27 so that I would meet it. I was afraid I wouldn’t get my badge for 2015! I lied, I’m sorry.

I read books of various lengths. The books I read range anywhere from 50 pages to 1000 pages. I think the average is about 300. I don’t discriminate—although I wouldn’t count a picture book as an actual “book” toward my Goodreads goal, if I happened to read one.

I listen to audiobooks. Again, I don’t actually count these as books that I’ve read, but I do supplement my reading with a few audiobooks each year. If you just can’t find the time to sit down and read, I bet you could still pop an audio CD into your car and listen to it on your commute. I download audiobooks from the library and plug my phone into my car to listen to them.

Occasionally, I give up on the book I’m reading and move on. Sometimes you just get stuck in a book, even if you don’t necessarily hate it. I usually power through because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but every once in a while I’ll set a dense book aside so that I can move on to something that’s more fun.

I read different kinds of books. My favorite genre is children’s fantasy, but I wouldn’t stay as interested in reading as I do if that was all I ever read. You might feel exactly the opposite way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Read for pleasure, just don’t limit yourself to what you think you “should” read. Read anything and everything that catches your fancy.

And finally, I don’t watch a lot of TV. Or play video games. Or even watch that many movies. The book is always better!

How many books do you read or listen to in a year? Are you trying to read more? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I chose Parable of the Sower for my book club before I’d read it myself, because I thought it was about time we read something that wasn’t written by a white person. This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and it sounded weighty and realistic enough for a good discussion. I agree with my mom, who told me when she finished it that the story feels unfinished. This is really just the beginning. And as it turns out, the author, Octavia Butler, died before she had a chance to finish the series. But there is a second book that I’m told makes the story feel more complete.

Reading this book was a little bit like watching The Walking Dead. It’s a group of strangers being drawn together somewhat reluctantly by the will to survive in an extremely hostile future America. Their leader is Lauren Olamina, a young black woman. That in and of itself makes it a good story. Refreshing, to say the least. And I love Lauren’s hyperempathy, or “sharing” as she calls it. She literally feels other people’s pain. I love that concept, and it’s especially interesting in this world where hurting other people is often necessary for survival.

One of the most interesting aspects of Lauren’s strength, to me, is her sexuality. It’s not a major aspect of the book, nor should it be. She’s attracted to men and she has relationships with them, but they are not the center of her universe. Lauren isn’t confused or upset or rendered in any way weaker by her sexuality. She just buys condoms when she needs to. She understands and accepts that aspect of herself, and she prepares for it. She has more important things to worry about. I was so grateful to see that an author finally got a woman’s sexuality right. Thank you, Octavia Butler.

Beyond Lauren, though, I wasn’t able to connect to this book very much. I like Lauren’s ideas about spirituality and survival and hope. But the story of her group’s journey to Acorn is just dark and gruesome, with new horrors emerging throughout. I’m not a fan of stories like that. I stopped watching The Walking Dead after about a season and a half (although that was partly because I got tired of all the impassioned speeches). I think the major thing that bothered me about this book was that it didn’t even attempt to explain how things got so terrible, with drugs and murder running rampant in an America where the government does nothing and the cops are corrupt. It’s hard to believe that our country could ever get so bad. But I’m sheltered and I take my safety for granted, I suppose. Plenty of people in this world are living a nightmare. It could happen here, too.

I like books that make me feel good.
But I also like books that make me go hmmmmm…

Lauren really is an interesting character. She’s not super-likable since she’s so strong and not very relatable. Her physical empathy is her only weakness. But it’s awesome to imagine that a woman could have so much strength and hope—could so firmly believe that she has the power to push back against horrific circumstances—in a world that is out to get her at every moment.

And it’s interesting to consider what this book is saying about the current state of our world. We’re abusing our natural resources. We’re not solving race issues. Our authorities don’t always have our best interest in mind. Slavery still exists. We aren’t really handling the drug problem. We may be first world, but our problems are serious.

The thing is, human life as a whole is getting better. It might not seem like it, but it’s true. And things might collapse before they get even better than this, but I think they will. I believe as Lauren does that humanity will keep springing up anew for many many years to come, especially if people hold onto hope and believe in themselves. New worlds are possible, and our will to survive runs deep. Humanity’s worst enemy is itself. Isn’t that strange? We’re so intelligent and yet so irrational. There are no monsters in this book. There’s no bad guy. And yet every person in it is a potential monster or bad guy. It’s too realistic for comfort.

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Book Review: American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Central Iowa used to get hit by a lot of bad storms — thunderstorms, snowstorms, even the occasional thundersnow or funnel cloud. We’ve had our share of flash floods and white-out blizzards. But for the past year or so it seems like every storm that approaches somehow swirls perfectly around the city, never hitting us. This is good news for our basements, but bad news for people like me who love severe weather. A friend of mine explained to me that the weather bubble is caused by the Ledges state park, which splits storms off toward the north and south. I’m convinced there’s a budding young witch in the city who doesn’t know her own power just yet. Either way, storms show up on our radar and they look big and powerful and they approach… but they just seem to always be approaching, threatening, never actually hitting us, and then suddenly we realize they’ve passed and we hardly even saw a drop of precipitation.

That’s kind of what American Gods felt like to me.

It’s an interesting premise. Each culture has its own folklore and small gods and magical creatures who thrive on belief, and when people of those cultures immigrated to America, they sort of created American copies of those creatures. Many of them live among us and appear human and have ordinary traits like bad cooking and crappy cars and overactive sex drives. They’re hard to kill and their powers are mostly useless, and they’re not thriving here anymore because new generations of Americans don’t believe in them. We believe in the internet and television and celebrity instead, and we’ve created our own new gods. So the old gods and are rising up against the new.

Caught in the middle of all this is Shadow, who is such a blank canvas of a character i don’t even know how to feel about him. He’s not bad. He’s not really good, either. He just goes with the flow. He’s not stupid, but he doesn’t have thoughts or opinions or even questions about things for the vast majority of the book. He starts to give a shit at the end, but up until then i kind of don’t get him.

The story is mainly a midwestern road trip. Kind of boring and unglamorous. The characters are actually driving around the midwest in shitty vehicles, stopping at tourist traps and small towns, mainly to have brief chats with god people. Nothing much happens. It’s a story of a gathering storm, but the storm doesn’t even break. It gives one little clap of thunder and a few fat raindrops, so to speak, and then it’s over. A few mildly cool things and one giant and rather perplexing allegory happen at the end, but all in all i was left feeling underwhelmed.

There were a few short stories sprinkled throughout the first half about people who came to America and brought gods with them, or about the gods doing their weird things here in America. Those were kind of interesting, and i was sorry when they stopped happening. There wasn’t enough explanation of the American gods’ backstories for my taste. I could have and should have done a lot of Wikipedia searching while i read this book, but i was just trying to get through it.

I don’t really understand why there was a murder mystery sub-plot. I don’t think it added much to the story; it felt unnecessary and not very well developed.

I read this book because a lot of my friends really like it, and because i was in the mood for a darker fantasy. I thought it was enjoyable enough, but i don’t feel like i got it. It may be one of those stories that’s more fun the second time around when you know what’s really going on, so maybe i’ll listen to the author’s extended edition some day.

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Book Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Note: I’d just like to announce that this marks my 101st book review on Goodreads! I don’t post all of them here, because many of them are dashed off pretty quickly. You’re still missing out, though.

This book is a fun survival story that masterfully scratches the collective itch that is our curiosity about humanity’s next step into the universe. It’s a refreshingly realistic look at what going to Mars actually means, and what it would mean if the endeavor went slightly wrong. It’s an adventure story that will translate well to the big screen. But i have some major qualms with the book as a whole.

I do appreciate the sense of humor that Weir imbued pretty much all of his characters with. It makes them likable and it’s one of Mark Watney’s most important tools for survival. But likable characters don’t make the most compelling stories. A lot of the jokes were used repeatedly and got old by the end of the book. And i would’ve liked to see some other aspect of Mark Watney. He was just too upbeat about everything all the time. There was no heart-wrenching “Wilson!” scene, nothing. I get that astronauts are chosen for their mental resilience, but still. He went through some serious shit.

The rest of the characters in the book are just tools, honestly. They’re not fleshed-out, they’re just there to do their jobs. And i have to say that i thought the female characters were treated pretty unfairly. Of the dozen or so scientists in the story, just three are women. This is the future, throw us a bone! Johansson is the victim of repeated sexual harassment and we’re supposed to think this is funny. And the one and only time we go into a person’s head in this entire book (about isolation and survival!) is to learn that minor character Mindy wishes she were pretty like minor character Anna. Why? In what way was that necessary? The really ironic thing about it is that Mindy is a scientist who has earned her master’s degree and resents the fact that she’s being made to spend her days deciphering photographs. So, NASA is shitting on her professionally, and the author is shitting on her psychologically, exposing her inner feelings for absolutely no reason.

But, the characters were not the point of the book. Man’s innovative mind and will to survive and unfailing willingness to spend billions of dollars rescuing a single white dude help his brother is the point of the book. The story is very, very detailed. We know precisely what goes wrong to strand Watney on Mars and exactly the measures he takes to survive, down to the many calculations he makes to repeatedly ration and stretch his oxygen, food, water, etc. All of these calculations and shufflings of things to and fro and repairs and modifications of complicated equipment were really cool at first, but wore on me by about the middle of the book. I’m sure they wore tremendously on Watney, too. We were both glad when the action picked up again toward the end of the book.

It’s a fun read, not a great work of literature. I do recommend it, despite the dearth of compelling characters.

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Book Review: Station Eleven

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just today on NPR i heard this book named on a list of finalists for the 2014 National Book Award. I’m not usually on the cutting edge of literature, but this book was so highly praised and sounded so interesting that i decided to jump on it. All i really knew was that it was set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Say no more.

There are a lot of flashback-type scenes, so big chunks of the book do not actually take place in that post-apocalyptic world. In fact they describe pretty mundane lives, and that served as a contrast to the very unusual lives that the characters who survive the crisis live afterward. The book made me appreciate a lot of everyday things even more than i already did, and believe me i’ve always been a huge fan of my hot showers and readily-available food. It also shows that even in the absence of all the technologies and conveniences that we’ve built our lives around, the same interpersonal issues remain, and actually become even more important.

Not a whole lot actually happens in this book. It’s more about thoughts and feelings than action and dialog. I described it early on as The Walking Dead minus zombies, but it’s also that minus all the talking (my god, the talking) and the gore (mostly). It’s surprisingly creepy even without all those things, though. But mainly it’s a tale of a few people who went through a pandemic and how their lives were tightly connected even though they didn’t realize it. Contemporary literary fiction is very often about intertwined lives, i’m noticing. We affect each other’s lives both directly and indirectly.

I liked the writing style. The pretty little sentence fragments that illuminated meaningful things. I liked the rather unflattering portrayal of religion’s role in humanity as it hung by a thread (sorry). I enjoyed the details about how civilization just crumbled without its workforce to support it and how the characters dealt with that. I liked the characters even though they weren’t super-admirable all the time. And i liked that there was a lot of misery and suffering but also just a little bit of enjoyment and hope.

And, by the way, i’m proud of myself for reading this book while Ebola was rearing its head in America and not even freaking out about it. If anything, this book made me less scared of Ebola because it’s nothing compared to the fictional Georgia Flu, which seems to transmit through the air and kill almost everyone within days. Ebola is slow-moving; we’ve totally got this.

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Book Review: The Magician King

The Magician King (The Magicians, #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes. This was an Empire Strikes Back kind of sequel, i.e. the perfect kind. The characters go through these painful, disfiguring transitions, and begin to gain awesome powers and develop deep relationships with one another. They make big mistakes, but they do so knowingly. They want to be heroes even though they don’t really know yet what that means, and they jump into the void and come out the other side of the ensuing disaster by the skin of their teeth.

This is two stories, really. It’s the story of Julia, and it’s the story of Quentin. Julia’s story is heart-rending and yet full of hope. It’s truly a woman’s story, and i think Grossman did a great job of telling it. I think he’s sensitive to women’s issues, and although the first book made me raise an eyebrow as a feminist, i totally forgive him now. It was Quentin who was the dick in the first book, not Grossman.

Quentin has totally redeemed himself in this book, too. From the outset, he’s a much more mature person than he was in book 1. He is learning how to actually care about people. He’s somewhat reluctantly becoming a much better person. He’s still trying to figure himself and his place out, but he’s doing a lot better than he was before. He’s gone from spoiled, self-centered, worthless piece of teenage crap to flailing would-be hero young adult. He’s getting there. I really do care about him now, and i’m ready to root him on in book 3.

The other characters took a back seat in this book, which i was grateful for. Janet was hardly even in it, and she tends to bring out the worst in the other characters. Some fun new characters were introduced, and they were less into the debauchery than the Physical Kids were in book 1.

I love Grossman’s humor. He gets me completely. It’s crass and well-written like British humor and silly like a TV show and nerdy to the max. I giggled a lot while reading this book, right up to the end. It just amazes me how he can be funny and fantastic and realistic and smart and poetic all at once. What a good writer.

I’m so glad i came back to this series. I swore it off after the first book because i hated the characters, but two things brought me back. The first was an article called Would You Want To Be Friends With Humbert Humbert?, and the other was A Discovery of Witches, which put me over the edge of tolerating shitty characters. I can’t put my finger on it, but the characters in that book were just so inhuman. And that happens in a lot of fantasy books. They just don’t react like real people would to things, and it’s annoying as hell. Grossman knows how to write real people, and i love that. Even if they usually start out as dicks.

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