Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Beautiful Story of Big Ideas

Have you read anything by Erin Bow?  Really, have you read everything by Erin Bow?  You should go do that right now, because she keeps coming up with more amazing stuff.  It's not just how she writes; it's what she chooses to write that makes her so amazing.

I absolutely loved her second book, Sorrow's Knot, which had a Native American-based fantasy setting and a beautiful story about friendship and letting go.  It was so far from being formulaic that I didn't even realize how much I wanted a book like that until I found it. I followed that up with her first book, Plain Kate, which I've just realized I didn't blog about.  It was a lovely, touching book--a much more standard fantasy setting and story, not as special or unique as Sorrow's Knot, but still a very pleasing book.

But now, now comes her next book, The Scorpion Rules, and I was lucky enough to get it from Netgalley.  This is one of those ones that I knew was coming and would type into their Search field, because I wanted to read it the instant it became available, and now here it is, and O, Reader, it is every little thing I wanted it to be.  It is smart and personal and huge, and it asks tough questions an isn't afraid of them, and I wish I knew more about ethical theory and geopolitics and maybe even goat herding, but I don't need to because this book gives them all to me as a gift.

So in a distant future, the much-reduced population of Earth struggles with scarce resources, especially water.  But in this new world of small kingdoms, there is a system to minimize war: the children of great leaders are sent to live apart, essentially as hostages.  The AI that oversees the world keeps these Children of Peace, rears them until they come of age, and, if their parents declare war, kills them.  This is the life Greta, daughter of the Queen of the PanPolar Alliance, has lived since she was five years old.

Greta's country is on the edge of war, and her life may be forfeit at any time.  And here is the first place where Bow does such a brilliant and subtle job with this story; each of these teenagers is absolutely royalty, with all the fierce strength and bravery and composure you could hope for in what one dreams royalty should be, but they are also teenagers, and afraid.  They are trapped, raised to power but entirely powerless.  They have seen friends die.

And now a new hostage, not a royal but the grandson of a general, appears.  And this is where you expect something typical, where the new boy a) teaches these snobs about defiance, and b) is so hot that Greta can't resist him.  And neither of these is how it plays out.  But it's not the opposite, either--it's something entirely different.  Elian is defiant, but he also doesn't understand the rules; he doesn't beat the system just by being the first to stand up to it.  Greta is drawn to him, but how could she not be, when their fates are so closely tied together.  And he's not the one she's realizing she loves.

Oh, there are so many wonderful characters here.  The Abbot, the AI who runs the Precepture with a loving but horribly firm hand; Xie, Greta's poised and powerful roommate and best friend; Han, small and maybe one step behind, but always right there, ready to get in the game.

There are so many moral questions this book asks.  When you think of the idea of holding children as hostages, it turns your stomach, right?  When you realize that this prevents wars (it is a demonstrably successful tactic)  that save the lives of millions of children, does that change your opinion?  Does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few?  Does a closely observed study of the lives of the few living in a comfortable prison change your feelings?  The devil, after all, is always in the details.

The story goes further, but I won't ruin it, except to say that the idea of physical threat--threats of death, of the deaths of those you care about and those you feel responsible for, of torture and pain--is central here.  This book is an exploration of the psychological and political ramifications of torture and threat, and it is poignant in the questions it asks, even though I don't know that there are any good answers.

The answer is to be strong, and brave, and that the best you can do is the right thing.  That's not a facetious answer; in real life, the right thing will sometimes cause the wrong consequences.  That has to be faced; would you want your friends to risk their lives if they could save yours?  Would you want a country to go to war if it would end your torture?  Would it be a good thing if the world was ruled by a benevolent dictator who did not see individuals, but the greater good of humanity?

These are such brave questions to ask, and such hard questions to address, and Erin Bow is so honest with them, and so intimate with the people they affect.  And I make this sound abstract, as though Xie supporting Greta doesn't make me want to cry, as though I didn't want to punch Elian.  As though goat farming wasn't full of funny, frustrating stories.

You should go out right now and become an Erin Bow fan.

Go on.  I'll wait.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why No Post

I was so determined to get back on the posting horse last week, and I was doing so well, and then I got all sucked into the last few episodes of Sense8.  This is a Netflix show that you should probably watch; it's not perfect, but it's pretty gorgeous.  It's about these eight random people (well, these eight random beautiful middle class people) from around the world who discover that they can share their thoughts, "visit" each other, and communicate with their minds across the world. 

The part that's lovely is that each of them has this full, complicated life, with their own problems and loves and communities.  Nomi has the best girlfriend ever; Kala is not sure about her upcoming wedding; Sun is the unappreciated daughter of a man with a wastrel for a son.  Lido is a famous actor with an amazing boyfriend; Will is a cop who has a complicated relationship with his father; Reilly is a skilled DJ who is very closed off in her personal life.  They are all completely different, and they all have lives that are more rich and populated than those of most people on television.

Because this is a show about community.  And you know what most TV shows lack?  Peripheral characters.  I always thought it was cool that How I Met Your Mother involved people with recurring friends, while most TV shows involve very few people who are not consistent cast members.  The Friends friends didn't have any other friends. 


But in Sense8, every character is living a completely separate life, and each one is populated by friends and coworkers and family.  Sun's martial arts teacher; Wolfgang's notorious uncle and childhood best friend; Capheus's mother and business partner and customers.  Each of these people is surrounded by loved ones and family and friends and a whole network of a world, and then this added network of other people is layered on top of it.

They try to learn about their connection and the dangerous people who know about it, while mostly trying to deal with the complicated and sometimes violent circumstances in their own lives.  Pretty much everyone gets to take advantage of Sun's martial arts training, Matt's police skills, and Wolfgang's experiences with violence.

I'm explaining the plot, but not the love.  I love this show.  I love these people.  I want to spend time with them and take care of them, and the show mostly made me glad that they all have each other. 

Also, I'm not sure what Sun practices, but I kind of want to take Aikido.  But I'm like 40; it's too late to start something like that, right?

Back to books soon, I swear.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Revenge of the Romance Novel

I don't read a ton of romance, though not for any particular reason.  I've never taken the time to develop the tools to find the ones I'll like, not the way I can flip through a science fiction novel and tell from the back cover and the first 5 pages whether it has a shot of being up my alley.  I mean, there's still a margin of error, but I know what to look for (personal stakes presented immediately, female characters, minimal stimming on the technology).  I don't have a toolbox like that for romance, so I don't bother going there very often.

But lately, I've been reading a lot of fanfiction (weirdly, and maybe I'll talk about that later), and I've been thinking that part of that is the really intense focus on romance.  So maybe what I needed was a real, official romance novel to gt me back on the reading track.  And then this Mary Jo Putney book, Not Always a Saint, came up on Netgalley, and I've heard of MJP, and maybe she was recommended to me?  Anyway, I should try that, right?

Sigh. The frustrating thing is that I like romance novels.  I like a little steam, a little smolder, a little will-they-won't-they-but-of-course-they-will.  But apparently I have very specific requirements of my romances--namely, that they have some kind of action plot (or subplot! subplot is fine!) to carry things along.  When two people are just living their lives and falling in love, I find it kind of boring.

Not Always a Saint is about a doctor who is low level nobility and likes to help the poor who accidentally becomes heir to a big estate (think Matthew of Downton Abbey) and realizes he needs a wife who can back him up on that.  His sister, the heroine of a previous novel in this series, starts taking him around to parties.  Meanwhile Jessie is mourning her much-older husband, and realizing that his unexpectedly leaving his estate to their young daughter means that the hereditary male heir of the title is going to be making her life really difficult unless she can find another powerful husband to protect them.  They meet, find each other agreeable (and hot! don't forget hot! but also agreeable) and decide to mate--I mean, wed.

I want to love this--the rationality, the grown-ups using their words and talking to each other about their decisions!  But the threat to Jessie's daughter from the thwarted heir is too sporadic.  Daniel saves her from not one but two random dangerous moments (fell into a pond! runaway horse!) to get things heated up.  His main problem is that he's inherited a big estate, poor baby! 

Even the attraction didn't grab me.  He sees her from across the room and his whole body feels like it's on fire and every fiber of her being does something and then they want each other. 

I feel so mean.  I don't think this is a romance thing, though--I think this was Not My Book.  I was asking it to do a job that it was not cut out for.  I'm sorry, book.

And in the meantime, if you know of a good historical romance novel with some action, let me know.  I could still use something steamy to read.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Scarlett Noir

Okay, I said I'd be back and blogging more, and it's been a couple of weeks, but in my defense I was on vacation for one of them.  Which always seems like a good time to blog, but then never is.

But it does mean that I have a backlog of things to talk about (including a question about Game of Thrones in the comments from the last post that is now going to be its own post very shortly), so I'm going to roll right into one of the backlog, with the goal of mixing in these older reviews with some in-progress discussions, because I appear to finally be back on the wagon.

Today, let's talk about the awesome book that got me back into reading after about two months away from it entirely: Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham.  I got it from Netgalley, and thank heaven, because it was exactly what I needed, at just the right time.  Teenaged private detective with a rough recent past (think Veronica Mars) takes a case that leads to secrets the people around her have been keeping about her father's murder, and her own heritage.

Scarlett, first of all, is amazing.  She's 17, but she graduated high school early and is taking time off before college.  Her parents are dead--her father murdered years ago, her mother lost to cancer more recently--and she lives with her older sister, who is loving and wonderful and also very busy in medical school.

Scarlett is a private investigator, and when a tween girl comes to her saying she's worried about what her brother's involved in because he's changed so much, Scarlett takes the case.  This is the point where my summary mostly stops, because here the plot starts rolling along.

This is the most authentically noir teenage story I've seen since Brick--maybe moreso.  Because Brick was full of artistry, and was very self-conscious in its use of the language and styles and characters of noir, but Scarlett is just naturally a cool, on-top-of-things problem solver.  She comes prepared, she thinks fast, and she knows what she wants.  So when the job ends up tying into her father's murder, including maybe a cult and maybe even potentially magical artifacts (though Scarlett has no use for the notion of magic; she lives in the real world, thank you very much), she is ready for things.  She's got a plan, a friend in the police department, and a back door out of every building on the block. 

So when there are car chases, people trailing her, thefts, and threats, she's scared all right--because she's smart enough to know she should be--but she's read, and she's not going to back down without a fight.

So yes, I loved this book.  The plot zipped right along, and the character was a complete no-nonsense, awesome girl (who was also Muslim, by the way, and not just incidentally, but in a way that is cultural and familial and thoughtful and modern all at the same time).  She's got friends and attitude and I wanted to follow her around.  And if the plot was a little convoluted and hinged on some serious coincidences--which, oh yes, it did--I didn't mind so much, because it was nothing Sam Spade hadn't seen before, and I was willing to go anywhere with Scarlett.

There was a little romance, but no more than they needed to be (another requirement for pulling me out of a book rut).  Similarly, a good amount of action, but never to the point where I got bored with it (which I do, sometimes). 

I want to hug Scarlett.  I want to see what she does next.  I want to thank her for bringing me back to my old obsessively reading self.  And I really, really want to see what she does next.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On the Grid

I am back from a short off-the-grid vacation and a long blog hiatus, due to a weird reading hiatus.  I'm not sure how many details I'm going to go into on my reading hiatus, but my vacation involved some lovely fellow readers, so that will get a recap, as will the many books I've actually finished reading in the past few weeks! 

So, welcome back to me, and stay tuned!  Thank you for your patience!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Absolute Worst Case Scenarios

Psychologically speaking, this has been a weird month for me. I haven't read a single novel yet. Since you’re reading my book blog, you probably have an idea how weird this is. I will admit with chagrin that I’ve been reading lots of book-length fanfiction, but I’m not sure how to talk about that, so I’m going to skip it for now.

Instead, let’s talk about the one book I did make it through—Randall Munroe’s What If? There’s a good chance you’re familiar with his work from xkcd, his webcomic about science and life and stick figures, which is exactly what any kind of media at all should be—reverent and irreverent at the same time, intelligent and hilarious and poignant by turns and sometimes simultaneously.

“What If” is a column on the xkcd website where people ask unlikely or impossible questions, and he uses science to figure it out. What would happen on Earth if the sun disappeared? How long would it take to print out Wikipedia? What would happen if you made a periodic table wall out of bricks of the different elements?

A surprising number of the answers are “we would all die horribly” (I don’t think that result from printing out Wikipedia, so there’s something), but the level of attention to detail and scientific explanation is absolutely a blast. There are xkcd-style illustrations throughout, there are funny footnotes, there’s dry humor. If you liked The Martian (which you did, of course you did), you might have a lot of fun with this one—I can picture Mark Watney writing in to Randall Munroe for advice.

I used to have a high school teacher who had an Ultimate Dinner Party list—all the people, living or dead, whom you’d want to have at your dream party. Oscar Wilde, Richard Feynman, Ida B. Wells, and, I’m now pretty sure, Randall Munroe.

I don't make any promises about being back on the blogging bandwagon (though a lot of my favorite bloggers are mostly offline, so maybe it's just a different bandwagon? Hi, Aarti!), but I did actually read a novel last week, and I've started another one, and maybe, just maybe, next week will be different.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to rewatch Veronica Mars with me, give a holler.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Feminist Surrender

I'm gonna try to tell this one linearly, with my experience of the book.  It's called The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, and I picked it up randomly from the library new release shelf.  I didn't know anything about it, but the cover was kind of cool, and I liked the blurb.

"The String Diaries opens with Hannah frantically driving through the night--her daughter asleep in the back, her husband bleeding out in the seat beside her. In the trunk of the car rests a cache of diaries dating back 200 years, tied and retied with strings through generations. The diaries carry the rules for survival that have been handed down from mother to daughter since the 19th century. But how can Hannah escape an enemy with the ability to look and sound like the people she loves?

"Stephen Lloyd Jones's debut novel is a sweeping thriller that extends from the present day, to Oxford in the 1970s, to Hungary at the turn of the 19th century, all tracing back to a man from an ancient royal family with a consuming passion--a boy who can change his shape, insert himself into the intimate lives of his victims, and destroy them.

"If Hannah fails to end the chase now, her daughter is next in line. Only Hannah can decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to finally put a centuries-old curse to rest."
So, I checked it out.  And started reading it--even more surprising, since checking a book out is a low bar, but starting to read it is a higher one.
(Warning: spoilers for the first 20 pages or so ahead.)
First scene: Hannah is driving through the night while her husband bleeds out.  As advertised.  It's tense, but they do have a destination, which helps.  When they arrive, she prowls the house for a bit to figure out if it's safe.  This takes a little too long--a little more time is spent peering around corners than is appropriate for maintaining the tension.  But eventually she gets her husband inside, leaving her daughter in the car where she's--safer, I guess?  Or at least sleeping?

Next scene flashes us back to the '70s, where our viewpoint character is a stuffy, slightly OCD academic who finds his favorite table at the library occupied by a beautiful woman and overtly attempts to use entitlement to get it back.  They flirt; she is gorgeous and French and intriguing.

Okay, this was the point where I had this iffy feeling.  The second scene, in which our super-manly intellectual guy is somehow overcome with unfamiliar Feelings due to a mysterious, sexy French woman just seemed way too...pat.  
This was the point at which the "woman thing" in this book became really noticeable to me, and when I started thinking about it.  Here are the things I realized, going back over what I'd already read:
  • Hanna, in the first chapter, was kind of irritating.  She's our viewpoint character, and she wasn't meant to be irritating, but she's hesitant when decisiveness is called for, makes some subpar decisions, and is bossed around by her half-comatose husband.  The last part is important, because....
  • There's this weird balance between being prepared for this eventuality (with implications that there was a plan for this because it was always a risk) and being a novice to this kind of life threatening situation (where her naivete would be quite understandable).  But her husband, who clearly (in the next chapter, if not this one) has the same amount of preparation as her, is calm and cool and giving good advice while bleeding to death, while she fumbles around and leaves her kid alone in the car in the middle of the night for some reason.
  • Nicole (the French lady) falls instantly for our professor who is clearly, like Robert Langdon, an eminent academic who's just been waiting for a gorgeous woman and a globetrotting adventure.
  • The female characters reminded me of Stephen King's women.  They are front and center and in the middle of the fight, but they are slightly foreign, and might not be as good as men (read: people) as others, but they have access to some sort of mysterious Understanding.  There was a time when I found that sort of thing flattering, but that was a long time ago.
Okay, so this is the point at which I glanced at the back of the book, out of curiosity regarding the blurbs.  And can I tell you what the first thing I noticed was?  Six (glowing) blurbs; not one woman.

I gave it one more chance and dug into the third chapter, the historical part where we learn the origin of whatever's haunting these women.  I know what's going on, that we're tracking the bad guy here, I find out about the supernatural elements (which are hinted at in the first chapter).  But when it finally clicks--when this skeevy dude does the thing he's gonna do, even though it's not a surprise, it's somehow a huge disappointment, because our author has put what I'm sure he thinks is a new spin on a story that's all about rape.

The bad guy's a shapeshifter.  A woman rejects him, and he takes the form of her lover and has sex with her.  And then stuff and etc. but whatever--this is just an amazing new way for a character to rape someone and terrorize a woman with violence!  And while I can imagine a book in which this is actually about identity and trust and is an extended metaphor for how well we really know people--this is not a book I'm going to follow down that path.

Maybe from a female author.  Maybe if the main character had seemed like someone who was doing the best she could, instead of playing the horror movie victim.  Maybe even if some women had blurbed the book, saying they loved it, that it touched on something true about the experience of being terrorized.  Maybe.  But none of these were true.

It's possible that I've misread what's going to happen, that there will be a major plot twist and this isn't what it seemed like it was going to be.  I'm not good at subtext, and I'm kind of new to this thing where I notice subtle sexism.  There's some controversy around reviewing (pronouncing judgement?) on a book that you're quitting in the middle.

But you know what?  My reading list is too short.  150 pages into a 400 page book, I'm out. 

On the plus side, I do feel like my critical faculties got a decent workout.  So not a total waste of my time.