Sunday, February 20, 2011

God's War

Watching Nyx disarm was a more drawn-out affair. There was the sword she kept strapped to her back, her pistol, her whip, the garroting wire she kept strung in her dhoti, the bullets sewn into her burnous, the bullets strung around her neck. The dagger strapped to her thigh, the pistol strapped to the opposite calf, the three poisoned needles she kept in her hair. He noted she kept the garroting wire she used to tie her sandals, but she pulled out the razor blades tucked into the soles.

God's War by Kameron Hurley: You definitely don’t want to be on Nyx’s bad side. As a bel dame, she serves her country of Nasheen by finding and killing the inevitable deserters from their perpetual war with neighboring Chenja. As a bounty hunter on the side, she often takes on even more unsavory jobs. Unfortunately for her, the bel dame council does not approve of moonlighting. Down on her luck, Nyx, along with her bounty hunting team, takes a mysterious job: one with repercussions she can only begin to comprehend.

The author Kameron Hurley has kept a really good blog for years, and I was excited to see this, her first novel, be published.

Overall Quality: Good. Hurley does a wonderful job of world-building, creating a war-torn desert world powered by bugs and magic. (Yes, bugs. You’ll see how it works if you read it.) The characters are well thought out and interesting.  The perspective of the story is primarily through Nyx and Rhys, a devout Chenjan magician who has taken refuge in Nasheen. He works for Nyx, somewhat grudgingly, and the relationship between the two is one of my favorite parts of the book.

If you like action, you will love this book. Fight scenes, chase scenes, ambushes; the adrenaline never stops. A word of warning though, this is one violent book.

Bus Readability: Good. At just under 300 pages, it’s right about at the limit of one-handed reading. I found that the story worked well for bus reading. It gets confusing at times, but everything is explained as the book goes on.  

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: If you meet an aspiring writer, you can show them the author’s video of fifteen years of rejection letters:

TL;DR: Bloody badassery; good for the bus. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Corked by Kathryn Borel: Road trip! During one of the worst years of her life, Kathryn Borel joins her father for a wine-tasting trip through France. Her dad, a Frenchman turned Candian hotelier, is a renowned wine expert, while Kathryn, a journalist, is fine with the grocery store stuff. This trip is her effort to learn more about her father, bond with him, and come to terms with the traumas in her own life. If she can stand to be around him that long. The first chapter has Kathryn trying to sink into the floor as her dad berates a waitress for not bringing the wine list to their table quickly enough.

Overall Quality: Pretty good. Based on the cover, I was expecting a lot more discussion of wine mixed in with the story of the relationship, and while there are some good wine tidbits, this is primarily a story about a woman and her father trying to understand each other. They bond over their goofy (and sometimes gross) sense of humor, but falter when dealing with more serious issues. Borel is a journalist by trade, and I think that comes through in this book (her first) as many of the chapters read more like columns. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, and I would be up for reading future books by Borel.  

Bus Readability: Good. It’s easy to pick up and put down, so it’s well suited to bus reading. The hardcover is just on the verge of being too big for one-handed reading, but my habds are small. I suspect the paperback would be fine.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: The highest classification of wine is called Grand Cru, and it represents the best of a particular region for a given year.

TL;DR: Sweet, easy, and sometimes painful tale of daughter-dad bonding.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Empire Falls

Empire Falls by Richard Russo: Miles Roby is a man with problems. Twenty years after leaving college to see to his dying mother, he’s still stuck in the also dying industrial town of Empire Falls, Maine, managing the Empire Grill. His wife Janine is leaving him for Walt Comeau, an obnoxious (but apparently great in bed) fitness club owner. Their daughter Tick is dealing not only with her parents’ divorce, but also with the ramifications of breaking up with Zack Minty, one of the most popular and powerful students at Empire Falls High. Miles’s luck at work is no better than in his personal life.  Despite the best efforts of his brother David and their waitress Charlene, the woman of Miles’s boyhood dreams, the Grill hasn’t turned a profit in years. He can’t even sell the place and move on, since it belongs to Francine Whiting, along with everything else in Empire Falls. Can Miles find a way to a better future than the grim one he sees ahead?

(Believe it or not, that was probably only half the characters.)

Overall Quality: Fantastic. I know they generally don’t give Pulitzers to bad books, but Empire Falls is truly outstanding. If you tend to like character-driven novels, you will love this. There’s not a lot of action in the first three quarters or so of the book, but through flashbacks and internal monologues, each character is explored in rich detail. Eventually you realize that the author has been very carefully setting up all the dominos and in the last quarter of the book, they start to all fall down. The end is incredibly gripping and intense, though also disturbing in a few scenes.

Bus Readability: Pretty good. The book is a little long for one-handed reading (the paperback has almost 500 pages), but the story itself works pretty well being read in small sections. A word of warning though: once those dominos start falling, it’s a hard book to put down. Watch out for getting so engrossed in the story that you miss your stop being called.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward both play major roles in the 2005 Empire Falls miniseries, the last live-action acting by Newman before he died and the last time the couple were both in the same project.

TL;DR: Great book with compelling characters, but don’t miss your stop.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Book of Vice

You knew you shouldn’t.
You loved it.
And now…
You feel terrible.
-Peter Sagal

The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them) by Peter Sagal: The host of NPR’s “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!” travels the country to understand the naughty indulgences of American society. From gambling to pornography, lying to gluttony, and conspicuous consumption to strip clubs, each chapter covers a different vice: who does it, how they do it, and why they do it.

Overall Quality: Very good. Every topic is both well-researched and funny, and if you tend to “hear” books as you read them, you’ll probably hear this one in Sagal’s voice if you’re an NPR fan. My one criticism is that, in the sexual vice chapters, he definitely seems to be writing for more of a male audience. I know it must be hard to get away from the male perspective when writing about strip clubs and singers’ parties, but there were a couple of times when I felt slightly alienated as a female reader. On the whole though, I did really enjoy this book, especially the interviews. He really delves into why people give in to their particular indulgences. The lunch interview with Nina Hartley, Shane, and Stormy Daniels (all porn stars) is the best. Expert tip: if you sleep with a porn star, don’t ask for an autograph afterward.

Bus Readability: Good. Once again, non-fiction holds up quite well to reading in small sections. Much like Packing for Mars, each chapter is a different subject, so there’s always something new to read about. The hardcover is about 250 pages, so it fits reasonably well in one hand.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: During World War I, a man named Commodore Ned Green wanted to own the largest yacht in the world. Since such a yacht wasn’t for sale, he purchased a 225 foot steamer, had it sawed in half, and added 40 feet. The finished result sank promptly in15 feet of water.

Too G rated for a book on vice? Okay.

Eadweard Muybridge, after using his fast-shutter photographic technology to settle a bet for Leland Stanford on whether a racehorse ever has all four legs off the ground, next turned to images of a naked, writhing woman: the first pornographic movie.

TL;DR: Naughty stories for a far more interesting bus ride.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


You can learn how to tie a shoe.
You can learn how to rebuild an engine.
You can learn how to speak Swahili with a French accent.
But style is innate
-Andy Spade

Style by Kate Spade: Designer Kate Spade shares her thoughts on stylish living in this volume, part of a trio with Manners and Occasions. Beginning with her thoughts on style in books, movies, and art, she spends the bulk of the book on fashion. How to mix colors, what to wear in any season, and Spade’s favorite clothes are all discussed, complete with beautiful illustrations. Style also serves as a useful reference book with conversion charts to International clothing and shoe sizes, as well as definitions of fashion terms.

Overall Quality: As an engineer, “stylish” is probably not the first word you’d come up with to describe me. I was hoping this book would be more of a how-to, and it does include a number of useful tips. However, it’s really more of a discussion of Kate Spade’s personal views on style. I sill found it an enjoyable read. As could be expected, the illustrations are the very best part. I always like to see how people with a better sense of style than me put together looks, and no one has a better sense of style than Spade. I will definitely hold onto this as a reference for subjects like how to care for vintage clothing. I'll keep my eyes peeled for the companion books Manners and Occasions, so don’t be surprised to see either of those featured later.

Bus Readability: The format of this book is actually much more like a magazine than a traditional book, so if you’re a morning Cosmo reader, you’ll be a fan. It’s more of a “flip-through” than a focused read, making it particularly ideal for short transit rides or those mornings when you’d need another cup of coffee before focusing on anything with a plotline. It’s a physically small book, and probably even more convenient to stow in a purse than said issue of Cosmo.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Did you know the bikini was invented in 1946 and named for the Bikini atoll?

TL;DR: Pretty pictures and easy bus reading.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Stephenson, a favorite author among geeky types, creates an alternate world where intellectuals live in “concents,” monasteries completely secluded from the rest of society except for specific occasions. Fraa Erasmus is excited to see the outside world for the first time in ten years, but he never could have predicted what would begin. Math, science, and philosophy are all key to solving a mystery that will change the concents--and the rest of the world--forever.

Overall Quality: Personally, I quite enjoyed this book. There are some amazing ideas and concepts explored and the last third or so of the book has a riveting plotline. I would love to discuss this book with someone, but I can’t because no one else I know has finished it. This 935 page beast starts off soooooo slooooooow. Really, someone should just write a summary of the first 150 pages and tell people to start there. He also makes up a lot of words, even inspiring an xkcd comic, though that didn’t bother me as much as it did others. And there is a legitimate story-telling reason for the invented vocabulary. (Which doesn’t really help you if you’re so annoyed by “Suur” and “Saunt” and whatnot that you can’t finish the book.) However, if you’re interested in math, philosophy, and alternate universes, I promise it’s worth slugging through the beginning and the made-up words. Despite the slow and somewhat confusing start, this is a great book.

Bus Readability: Pretty bad. In addition to being physically huge, this book does not hold up well to being read in short sections. Sometimes you can’t even finish one conversation before your stop is called. Wait for a vacation to tackle this tome.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Can you cut eight equal servings from a square of cake without using a ruler? There’s a fun geometry proof as the first appendix.

TL;DR: Great book for geeks, but not for the bus.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

(Trigger Warning: Violence between animals)

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris: In a big departure from his normal taken-from-life short stories, Sedaris’s Bestiary features tales of anthropomorphic animals satirizing the most annoying of human behaviors. A chicken tries to figure out the right way to behave in order to never die. An Irish setter wonders what it means to be loyal to his wife. An owl helps a lubricated gerbil into the anus of a hippopotamus to convince some singing leeches to move out. (You may have to just read the book to understand that one.)

Overall Quality: Sedaris is a fantastic author, but I’ll admit this isn’t my favorite by him. I cracked up at a lot of the stories, but a few of them are just too gruesome for my taste. (As in, more than one story involves eyes getting bitten out.) If you have a slightly more twisted sense of humor than I do, and a much higher tolerance for violent imagery, you will absolutely love this book.

Bus Readability: Short stories make for perfect bus reading, since you can often finish a whole story on one ride. You might get strange looks from your neighbors though, if they see some of the illustrations. (Like the mink who sold his skin for booze talking at the AA meeting.) The book is quite small, so it’s easy to read one-handed and tuck into a purse when you disembark.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: You could always tell the limerick about the rat with AIDS… Actually, that would be a bad idea.

TL;DR: Great for the bus, if you don’t mind a little cruelty to animals.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach: I wasn’t really into non-fiction until I started reading Mary Roach. After covering cadavers, the afterlife, and sex, her latest book is about space. Specifically, what happens to astronauts in outer space: from bone loss to zero-gravity toilets and what it would take to keep astronauts alive on a long-haul journey to Mars.

Overall Quality: Excellent, like her others. (Come on, any book including a thoroughly researched chapter on whether anyone has ever had sex in zero-gravity is automatically a good one.) She asks all the questions your inner twelve year old has always wondered about. What would a space shuttle smell like after two weeks without bathing? What happens if you vomit in your spacesuit? And of course, how do you go to the bathroom in space? Funny, compelling, and I learned a lot about space exploration.

Bus Readability: Solid. Non-fiction is well-suited to being read in small chunks. Every chapter covers a different aspect of life off Earth, so if a chapter drags a little for you (one or two did for me), you’ll be riveted again by the next one. Physically, even the hardcover is light enough to hold with one hand, if you’re unlucky enough to be standing.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Did you know NASA scientists once filmed volunteers defecating in zero-gravity?

TL;DR: Good book; good bus reading; but, sadly, no one has ever had sex in space.


Welcome to the Bus Reader Book Review!

I’m a lifelong avid reader, but most of my reading these days is twenty minutes on the bus to work and twenty minutes on the bus from work. I’ve noticed that some books make for much better bus reading than others, so the BRBR is here to share with you what books I think make for the best commute reading. Whether you ride the bus, the train, the subway, or the ferry, this is the place to find great new books to read and what books to skip.