Sunday, November 29, 2015

Haunts and Jumbies

I have two kinds of experiences reading middle grade novels: either I'm reading them to my son, who's seven, or I'm reading them for my own pleasure.  Tracey Baptiste's The Jumbies is a book that I read recently for my own pleasure, but that I really hope to either read to my son eventually, or at least give him to read for himself.

He's not ready for it yet, though.  As Mrs N at Between These Pages points out, this is a good book for a target reading level of third or fourth grade or higher.  While I do think the vocabulary (especially the introduction of new words, which I know still confuse my first-grader), I think part of that is that this is, believe it or not, a perfectly targeted children's horror story.

Because it is a horror story.  The appealing woman who is slowly transformed into something grotesque reminded me of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. The forest full of jumbies--a collection of supernatural creatures of all shapes and sizes and sorts--is eerie, and the specific creatures are quite terrifying.  I don't think Adam would have been able to sleep after I read him this.

There was so much I liked about this story, especially the first half.  I love Corinne's confidence and independence, and her loving, trusting relationship with her father.  I love the friendships that are modeled here--with Dru and Bouki and Malik, how they all have flaws and they really annoy each other sometimes, but that doesn't mean they don't stick together.  I love how Dru's big family takes care of her, and Bouki and Malik stick together with no one else, and how many different ways there are to be a family here.

Really, I just love the setup of the island--the market, the forest, the fishing boats; the legends, the villages, the witch.  The first half of the book, where you meet everyone and everything, was by far my favorite.

The second half was good, too, but it didn't appeal to me quite as much.  The second half was where the action happens--the figuring out and the battles and the stakes.  I think all of this would have worked great for a kid of the appropriate age, but I am not that. The big build up, the grand showdown, the pacing--all of these were fine, but they were pretty expected, and they didn't blow my mind. 

What I loved, though, and what I'll carry away, is how Corinne was strong and brave when she needed to be, and how she knew what was right, even when she didn't know what she needed to do.  She was going to save her father no matter what, and that determination was beautifully drawn.  The path that takes her on--this is the magic thing, and here is where the power comes from, etc.--is something I think I'm too old for; I've read this before, and it's fine.  But Corinne carried me through all of that on her sheer strength of will.

Great book--a must for the creepy-loving ten-year-old in your life!

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I've been so bad about reading sequels in the past few years; there's so much new stuff dragging my attention away.  And I can never read a sequel just after its predecessor, when my interest is high, because I always get all bummed that it's a whole book of its own, not just more of what I loved in the last one.

BUT!  But I finally picked up Ancillary Sword, sequel to the excellent Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and I cannot put it down.  Like, not for a few minutes, it's so good.

Summarizing it isn't really important: Breq has been sent to manage a system that I guess is important, while Anaander Mianaai fights a war against herself.  This is about Breq as captain of a ship, ranking officer in a system, managing the politics of a station and the loyalty of her crew, including some characters we know and some new ones. 

I think what I love about Breq is that she don't give a damn.  She wants things and cares about them--with the cool passion of someone who is very rational but also very empathetic.  Breq is my hero, I want to be her.  And she's so good at things; she gets politics, she has poise, she takes no crap and while her emotions can be riled, she doesn't lose her cool.  The first book was about Breq learning her humanity; this one is about her applying it.

The story is a bit complex, and honestly, I can't tell at every moment what the wider goal is, where the big political stuff stands.  I don't care.  I will follow this book to the end, follow Breq into battle because I know that even if I don't make it, I will have died for the right cause, in the best chance we had at the moment. 

Damn, I'm sorry, I need to go read now.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wish List

Guys, this is going to be really bad for my self-control.

Both the BPL and the Minuteman Overdrive networks--my source for library ebooks--have added a "suggest a purchase" feature.  You search for the book you want, and if it's not in your library, you can expand the search to overdrive, and suggest they order it.

And they do!  They will!  They have!  They were wise to put in a maximum (though I haven't quite figured out the limits, I know I hit them at one point), because every book I asked for they have bought for me.  They bought them!  Because I asked!  And now anyone who wants can read The Empress Game by my sister's childhood friend Rhonda Mason, or Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan, which looks kind of trashy but delightful, or the new Mindy McGinnis book, A Madness So Discreet.  Anyone!  Because I asked for them!

Guys.  Guys.  This is a  power that should never have been put in my hands.  Someone warn the librarians, and maybe get me some smelling salts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

All In My Head

Okay, I'm going to tell you something that's either going to convince you I'm nuts or just give you a glimpse of my rich inner life.  I would like to apologize in advance for this glimpse of the crazy that is in me.

Okay, so there are these two authors, Genevieve Valentine and Catherynne M. Valente. They are not really related, but for a while there I got them confused.

Valente wrote The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and its sequels, which I wasn't able to finish, and Six Gun Snow White, which I read and enjoyed but didn't love.  She is quite popular, and her writing is beautiful, but it's like poetry--you have to dig into it to appreciate it, rummage through the language to find the point.  Not for me, not at all.  Still, famous.  Popular.  Prolific.

Valentine broke onto the scene more recently with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.  She'd published stories before, but this was her breakthrough novel.  This was an excellent book, and I immediately considered myself a Genevieve Valentine fan.

Kingfisher is a retelling of the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the Jazz Age.  It was bold and stark, and it used the structure of the fairy tale to tell a story with its own villains and hero's journeys.  It made me care about twelve separate sisters, for crying out loud. It was about power, and all the small kinds of power that a person has or doesn't have in the world, including many that you and I take for granted in our day to day lives.  It was really lovely.

Summary thus far: I love Genevieve Valentine, I don't care for Catherynne Valente, and I get them a little confused sometimes (wait, which one do I like? Oh, yeah, the other one).  Because of this, I see them as being in a little bit of a rivalry--note that this has no bearing on their books, which are in two totally different styles, and which actually share a lot of fans.  But somehow, I have set them up as opponents in my mind, and of course, I'm totally on Team Genevieve.

So here we come to the point, the reason I'm telling you this story about this odd little system that's been in my head for a while: I just learned that Catherynne Valente is publishing a new novella.  It's called Speak Easy.  Can you guess what it's about?

It's a Jazz Age retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I want to say "OF COURSE," but that's ridiculous, because only in my head is there a rivalry because their names are sort of a little bit similar.  But really, am I taking this too personally (on someone else's behalf)?  Sure, I didn't think the literary world needed another Jazz Age Twelve Dancing Princesses story, but maybe there's room for two?  Maybe this is not a "ha, I can do better" moment.

But I'm still feeling really resentful.

There you go.  Guided tour of the nonsensical interior of yours truly.  Bitter rivalries playing out entirely in my mind. 

Is your inner life this rich?

Monday, November 09, 2015

Gotta Love a Pip

As a parent reading to their first grader at night, there is a very special moment when you're enjoying a book just as much as your kid is.  I mean, there are the books that you grit your teeth through because the kid loves them (I'm looking at you, Amelia Bedelia Unleashed), and there are the ones that you love from your childhood and they kind of put up with them out of kindness (our current My Side of the Mountain experience).  And plenty of kids' books are fine and pleasant and I'm perfectly happy to read them for him.

And then there's the book that I like so much that I'm glad it's a kids book just so I have someone to share it with as I'm reading it.  The book where I'm glad to be a parent so there's a perfectly good reason for me to be reading this, and to buy the sequel the minute it comes out.  Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures, by Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce is that kind of book.

It's hard not to like a character named Pip, right?  I mean, has there ever been a non-spunky Pip?  I didn't think so.  This Pip is no different--she's in fourth grade (I think; it's been a few weeks), and she lives in a world that is pretty much just like ours, except that magical creatures exist.  There are unicorns and miniature silky griffins, just like there are cows and alligators.  It's just part of the world.

Pip can talk to these creatures and understand when they talk to her.  But however much magic there is in this world, this is not a talent anyone else has, and no one believes Pip.  So she goes through life carrying her dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Higgleston's Guide To Magical Creatures, seizing any opportunity she can to chat with them and marking up the margins of her Guide.

But sometimes her talent gets her into trouble, and after The Unicorn Incident, Pip goes to spend the summer with her aunt, who is a magical creature veterinarian.  It's an amazing opportunity to learn about all kinds of animals, and maybe make some friends. (Pip's not very good with people.)  But when her aunt's town gets an infestation of Fuzzles (which are adorable, but with a nasty habit of bursting into flames), Pip might be the only one who can solve the problem.

This book is adorable, and hilarious, and charming.  I love Bubbles, the cranky old miniature silky griffin.  I love Tomas, Pip's new friend who is allergic to (almost literally) everything--especially magical creatures.  I love her awesome aunt and her oh-so-teenaged cousin, and Regent Maximus the paranoid unicorn, and the horrible Mrs. Dreadbatch.  I love the chapter names and the sassy ducks and Tomas's houseful of non-allergic rough-and-tumble brothers.  I love the illustrated pages from the Guide, complete with Pip's insider annotations.  I love everything about this book.

I am heartbroken that I have to wait until, apparently, next FALL to read Pip Bartlett's Guide to Unicorn Training, which is book two in the series.  And the best part?  Adam's going to be SO EXCITED!  It's like the best book club ever.  When he's not interrupting to repeat his favorite lines, that is.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Girl After Girl

Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and you can pretty much immediately see why.  (I'm going to try to walk you through it with minimal spoilers, but you know, be warned.)  You've got your multiple unreliable narrators, you've got your cast of intensely dislikable people, you've got your missing person mystery that keeps unfolding into a more complicated and darker tale.  The moving parts are in place.

So you've got Rachel, who rides the commuter train to London and back every day, and at a stopping place on the track, she has a favorite couple she watches, on their deck or through their windows.  A harmless little fantasy, though perhaps she's got more invested in these strangers than it strictly normal.  It makes a little more sense when we learn that they live just a few houses away from where she used to live with her husband, and where he still lives with his new wife.  No wonder she likes to focus on someone else's house when the train stalls there.

But Rachel's life, we find out, is kind of a mess--she drinks, she has blackouts, she harasses her ex's new wife. And when Neighbor Lady goes missing, Rachel worms her way into the investigation.

Then you meet the woman she's been watching, Megan.  You find out about her "perfect" marriage and her husband and her rather run-of-the-mill but not-quite-right life.  Her secrets start to unfold, bit by bit. Her timeline runs earlier, interspersing her life over the past year with Rachel's "present day."

And there's her neighbor, Anna, who is Rachel's replacement in her old home.  She provides a counterpoint (an objective one?) to Rachel's blackouts and emotional confusion. 

So: multiple points of view.  The present and the past intertwine, and the story unfolds as we learn what secrets the narrator's been keeping from us.  Gone Girl, right?

Gone Girl was better, though. I'm not sure I can articulate why, but I can tell you a few things I've noticed here.  One, for example, is that part of the mystery hinges on missing memories.  It's not that we can't know what happened or find reality, it's that key information is hidden from us--and the character--because she can't remember.  And I don't think it's a big reveal to tell you that things start to resolve because she eventually does start to remember things.  Missing memories feel like kind of a copout to begin with, but when spontaneously getting them back (by, presumably, trying really hard to remember?) is the resolution--well, it's kind of deux ex machina, if you know what I mean.

Also, here's a big one that's bugging me: again, lots and lots of characters who are unlikable to varying degrees and with varying kinds of icky personalities.  But all three of these women are driven by the notion of motherhood--specifically, having a baby.  Rachel couldn't get pregnant; Megan doesn't want to have a baby; Anna has a child around whom her life focuses.  This book is about all the ugly, messed up ways that women obsess over babies and having them or not having them. 

It just kind of makes me want to throw my hands up in the air.  I mean, if all three of them were related to each other--if it was one pregnancy/child that the whole plot revolved around--maybe?  But it's three different women with different off-putting obsessions with babies.  And you know, I'm a mom, and I am the one at the party who is holding the baby so the parents can go do whatever they want--I lurve babies as much as the next person, and I love my son and have my own complicated relationship with parenthood.  That's not a boring topic. 

But being obsessed with the concept of babies--with the idea of getting pregnant, with the vague notion of motherhood that doesn't have to do with an actual kid--and filling your book with people whose brains (ugly, scheming, weird brains) revolve around that feels kind of reductive.  Like, not one woman in this story has some other motivation?  This isn't a book about parenting or parenthood; it's kind of about sex and suburbia and secrets, but for some reason that's all boiled down to getting pregnant. Not adopting, not parenting, not forming a specific relationship with this little person who is your family now and whom you must both command and obey.  Nope.  Getting pregnant.

It's not that this overwhelms the book.  But it's there, and it feels reductive to me.

And also?  Once they start giving the hints we needed, the right pieces of information, I immediately figured out what happened.  Withholding information till late in the game is how mysteries work, but the very best mysteries give you the information but make it hard to put together.  This one was somewhere in between.

So, not as impressive as Gillian Flynn.  But hey, I'm reading it fast and furious.  And Rachel is a very specific portrait of a person who can tell you every single thing she's doing wrong, even as she does it, again and again.  She sees the car wreck she's living in, but she can't steer away.  That is actually pretty fascinating to watch, and probably the most well-crafted part of the book.  If you ever wonder how bad decisions happen, Rachel's your go-to girl.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read the last 10%.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Space Operetta

I love a title that tells you just what you're going to get.  The best example of this was Louisa May Alcott's A Long, Fatal Love Chase, which, as Mike pointed out, kind of spoils the ending on the front cover.

But if what you're going for is truth in advertising, you can't do better than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers.  The story of the book is one of those plucky-Kickstarter-self-published-upstart-makes-good heartwarmers.  The story in the book is pretty much exactly as cuddly and lovable.  It's one of a genre that I think of as Firefly stories, where an oddball crew of deep spacers muddle along as a ragtag family of sorts, getting into scrapes and laughing along the way.  The beginning of Rachel Bach's Paradox series, Fortune's Pawn, kind of reads like that, and I think losing the ensemble cast to focus on Devi was actually a weakness in the later books. 

But wow, do I digress.

Angry Planet starts with Rosemary, who's just been hired as a clerk on a deep space drilling ship.  Their job is to punch wormholes through subspace (or something) to create pathways between distant planets. Rosemary is running from something (but who isn't in deep space?), but the ship just got a sweet new job that will, unfortunately, involve a year of travel before they can punch their hole and get home instantly.

That's pretty much the whole summary.  There's action, but it's not action-packed.  There's a lot of incident, a lot of story, but they work as anecdotes, introducing and deepening character development; the things that happen to them don't build to a crescendo.  For a while, I expected things to build--Rosemary's secret (when we learn it) to be relevant to, say, Sissix's family life or Ohan's health situation.  But they're not; most of these things are just people living their lives.  It's episodic, and the things that happen are small and very important.

It reminded me of Hellspark (which is amazing and out of print and you should read it, you can borrow my copy), in that there was a very interesting focus on how hard it can be to live every day in a culture that is different from your own, even if you're used to it, and even if the people you're surrounded by are people you love.  Culture is pervasive, and we often don't even realize how it affects us. 

Kizzy was probably the biggest knockoff character, since she was so obviously Kaylee from Firefly.  Sissix was probably my favorite, somewhere between glamorous and maternal, and also a lizard person who I picture very much as looking like Vastra from Dr. Who (who, I'm sorry, needs a spinoff).  Dr. Chef (you couldn't pronounce his name) and his cheer in the face of sorrow; Ohan, whose pronouns are plural and who doesn't really know how to interact with his crewmates; Jenks, who I kind of pictured as a little person Naveen Andrews, I don't know why.

The ship's AI was a character, and while that storyline got a decent amount of time, I feel like it could have gone deeper.  There are a lot of places where things could have gone deeper--some cultural hurdles to interspecies dating are addressed, but I can imagine some psychological and hey, anatomical ones, too.  The moral and ethical issues around how the Galactic Commons is dealing with the eponymous small, angry planet were definitely laid out, but that was another place where the deep alienness of an alien culture could have been looked at with a finer eye, and maybe some deeper conclusions drawn.

But sometimes, you just want to read a book where good people go off and have adventures--not big or scary ones, just small ones.  You want to watch someone use paperwork to save the day (ooh, like Myfanwy in The Rook!)  Have you noticed how many of my favorite books and TV shows are getting callbacks here?  This is not edge of your seat stuff; it's a heartwarming, curl-up-with-cocoa, let's watch movies together with the characters book. And I want another one.