Monday, May 13, 2019

Book-A-Day May

I had this brilliant idea, because I finished two books in the first five days of May.  News flash: the math does not work out.

BUT! But I love the way it sounds, so I'm going to dream for the next couple of weeks. I figure if I keep plugging away I might get halfway there, which a) will still be an amazing reading month for me, and b) will set me up to make this A Thing and maybe really read 30 books in a month next May! (Or are there 31 days in May?)

This just might work because anything counts. I've read graphic novels and novellas. I counted a Kindle single. I'm counting books I started in April and finished in May. It's about courting success! I'm only not counting the picture book I read, because that would be just too easy; I could be done in a day.

And we're doing it by averages. I don't have to actually finish one book a day--three one day offsets a couple of days plugging through something longer.

So, without further ado: Book-A-Day May so far!

 1) Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell. A Tor.com novella and an ARC I received; full review to come, but generally a neat little mystery with touches of horro.

2) In the Thrill of the Night, by Candice Hern. The anachronistic pun title alone brought me out, along with what I assume was a good review on SBTB, because I live there now and read all the romance and I'm not sorry. I liked the romance in this story very much, but I was very grossed out by a lot of the hero's behavior when he got jealous. There was a lot of lying in this book, and he thinks he's doing it for a good reason but it turned me off of him entirely for a chunk. I forgave him, but I wish there'd been more comeuppance. Still, charming.

3) I'm a Therapist and my Patient is Going to be the Next School Shooter, by Dr. Harper. This is on Amazon as an ebook so I'm counting it, though I read it on the author's website. Don't be fooled; it's not even pretending to be an account of therapy; I'd love to read a fictional account of good therapy. It's a kind of horror/thriller in which a horrible therapist does a bunch of things that I think I'm supposed to find heroic but maybe not? And a bunch of weird stuff happens and it doesn't make much sense. It's all conspiracy and terrible therapy, and by the end I think that the author knows this and is kind of critiquing the main character, but mostly not. Mostly it's salacious stuff that I wouldn't believe on an episode of Criminal Minds.

4) Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob. Indian American author Mira Jacob addresses what it's like to be a daughter of immigrants and a brown woman in the U.S. The framework is trying to explain things to her son--a boy who looks like his Southeast Asian mother more than his White Jewish father--in the time leading up to the election in 2016. The true and nuanced answers she and her husband try to give to the boy's difficult questions just felt so important and relatable to me. How can you explain to your child how messed up and awful the world is without scaring him too much or letting him be callous about it? How do you address his real fears about who the good guys and bad guys are?

And the parts about her relationship with her in laws--who have been lovely and welcoming for years, but who are still Republicans--and with her husband--who is entirely on her side but still moves through the world as a White man--are just so moving and complicated. Basically, this story takes some incredibly complicated, messy issues and lays them out in such personal, honest, and nuanced ways.  I want everyone to go out and read this book.

5) Penric's Mission, by Lois McMaster Bujold. How have I not finished the Penric novellas yet? Dopn't worry, I'll be done with the rest by the end of May. As always, this one is delightful and charming and I loved it.  Penric is clever and humble and Desdemona is brilliant and sassy and they have dangerous adventures and are incredibly competent and meet a lovely woman.  Five stars, will read more ASAP.

6) Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds. Another Tor.com original and my first Alastair Reynolds book. This was great. It's a time travel story, and the mechanisms and rules behind the time travel are, I think particularly well thought out and explained.  It's about paradoxes and saving the world (naturally), or at least about giving the world a sliver of hope.  What I found especially interesting was how the narrative dealt with changes to the narrator's memories. It seems like it shouldn't have worked with such a straightforward first person laying out of changes, but it really did.

I found that parts of the revelation were kind of glossed over, or rather infodumped near the end, but before that I had been admiring how well the story dealt with imperfect knowledge and the fact that we know that history might be changing, that a lot of the things we're finding out are secondhand, and that Valentina does not have perfect knowledge of the situation at the times when she has to make choices.  In the end, we learn all the things she didn't know so that we can evaluate everything from a distance, but I rather liked how she pushed through in the thick of it, trusting who she trusted and believing in the mission.

7) By Night, Volume 1, by John Allison, Christine Larsen, & Sarah Stern. I picked this up because John Allison writes Giant Days, which is the best thing in the world. This has the same flavor in dialogue as Giant Days, but it hasn't quite found itself yet. The premise involves two former best friends living in a down-and-out town exploring an abandoned industrial complex and finding a portal to another world.  They decide to make a documentary about it; Heather's coworker and Jane's dad join them on the adventure.

There's a lot of charm here and the dialogue is snappy, but I don't fully get the characters yet. I feel like Heather's irritation and Jane's urgency don't always make sense. I do love their green horned tour guide, though, and I'm really looking forward to seeing where it goes. It'll be interesting to see how John Allison's plotting skills are; Giant Days is very character-driven, which he clearly does well, but this promises to be a big adventure, and it'll be interesting to see how that works.

So, that's May so far! Aren't you proud of me? Aren't I accomplished? If I squish in a bunch of comics and a couple more novellas, I might just make a good showing in Book-A-Day May!

Read Good Talk. Seriously.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

On Finding Romance

I feel like I'm finally figuring out what I like in a romance novel and how to pick one that might appeal to me.  At the very least, I know that Christina Lauren is my favorite contemporary romance author and that I will always read what she writes, forever and ever amen.

I was so excited to get The Unhoneymooners from Netgalley, and I was right to be, because it was deeee-lightful. The premise is very simple: Olive's twin sister won a fabulous all expenses paid honeymoon, but food poisoning put her, the groom, and almost everyone else at the wedding in a position where no one could go on the trip.  But Olive's allergic to shellfish and the groom's brother, Ethan, doesn't trust buffets, so they're healthy and the bride insists that someone is going to use the nontransferable honeymoon tickets.  So off go Olive and Ethan, who don't really like each other, to Maui for ten days.

Can you guess what happens? Yeah, that's what happens. Their arguing has always looked a little like flirting, but it gradually gets more flirty and less fighty and so on. The thing that makes this book--and most Christina Lauren books, I think--is the flirting. It's the part where two clever people are being clever and charming at each other and they're having fun and you're having fun with them and everything is just right with the world.

So that's about half the book--just falling in love in Maui, like you do. Part of that plot revolves around how bad Olive is at lying, and the fact that the vacation is firmly non-transferable. So to a certain extent, Ethan and Olive have to pretend to be married.  There are some comical scrapes this issue--running into exes and bosses and such--and those just shot my anxiety level through the roof. I don't always hate lying, but I hated it here, I think because Olive hated it so much. Luckily, these bits were short; there were never extended periods where you had to squirm waiting for chapters/days to see how awkward things would get. 

Then we depart Hawaii, returning to normal life in the bleak, frozen northlands of the Twin Cities, where there are complications that are real and realistic and that I liked a *lot*.  It's nothing melodramatic, all very realistic and normal, but there are a bunch of little moments that feel very relevant and important--misunderstandings based around "oh, you must have misinterpreted him" and "you are putting the worst possible spin on" an experience that is pretty cut and dried if you were there but is hard to describe.  It's a perfect depiction of this kind of thing, and while it's fairly small, I loved it a lot.

Just the best. Witty and charming and sexy and real. I have been reading Christina Lauren for a while, but it's time for me to catch up on the ones I haven't gotten to yet. They're very much worth it.

Review copy received from Netgalley; the book will be published on May 14, 2019.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dooce Treatment

Remember dooce.com? The LA party girl blogger turned mommy blogger turned blogging industry? I followed her for years, mostly writing about parenting and her struggles with mental illness. She's a really good writer, and I enjoyed the blog a lot.

Her name is Heather Armstrong and her new book is called The Valedictorian of Being Dead. It's about an experimental treatment for depression that she underwent--experimental as in she was patient #3 in the trial--after an 18-month depressive episode that nothing else could touch.

It's really hard for me to review this book apart from my feelings about Heather herself--isn't that always the case with a memoir? I have fairly strong opinions about her work, and it's kind of hard not to have strong opinions about her life, too, when you've read years and years of detailed accounts about it. 

One of the pivot points of my reaction to dooce is the idea of honesty, straightforwardness, and self awareness in a personal blog. Just because you write a blog about your life doesn't mean you owe your readers any particular details. I don't have any right to know more about the facts that fall in the gaps I see in her storytelling, the places where I want more detail. I want it, but I'm not entitled to it, and I know that.

But am I entitled to the truth about the parts she does write about? Nobody promised me nonfiction, did they? And then again, what is "the truth" when you're telling your life story? There are plenty of stories I tell myself and mostly believe until I don't and I realize they were never true.

Take the divorce. That's about when I stopped reading the blog; that's about when I realized that the people I thought I was reading about were personas. (It's reality TV. No one believes reality TV, right?) I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that pictures of her on a date with someone else (selfies, not any kind of blogger-paparazzi shots) showed up on her Instagram just a couple of days after the separation was announced. What that said to me was either a) cheating, or b) a long-term rift that there had been no hint of in the storytelling. To the point where, in my memory, there was a "my husband is the best husband" blog posts fairly current before the split was announced.

The specter of her ex-husband, Jon, hangs over the book. He doesn't appear, having moved to New York since the split, but one of the driving factors in the book is her fear that if he finds out about the severity of her depression, he'll take the kids away.

I have complicated feelings about that, too. She spent 18 months very, very depressed. Hiding in the closing crying on the phone to her mother about wanting to be dead. Weeping and leaving the room because the fight to make her daughter practice piano was too much. I have felt this--the tyranny of the neverending list of things that need to be done that she describes so, so poignantly. Her ability to explain the feelings of depression is amazing.

But also, maybe she wasn't doing her kids any favors by plowing through this? Not that her ex was the solution--he appears to be a "two weeks in summer and one holiday a year" kind of parent, which, eugh. Who is that guy, and who was the guy I knew on the blog? So no, I don't necessarily think he should have taken her kids. But maybe someone should have been looking at whether they were okay through this?

Ugh, I don't want to dump on her. I really don't; this is a great, interesting memoir of this particular treatment, and it does an excellent job with almost everything it's trying to do--her relationship with her mother and stepfather, her father and her siblings, the family history of mental illness, the experience of the treatment, the nature of her depression, all incredibly well-painted. 

I guess it's more that I don't entirely trust her to be an authentic reporter of her own life. Whether it's for reality TV reasons (in service of the story), or for standard memoir reasons (to protect the real people who are out there in the world living this life), or because her tragic flaw is the need to be the valedictorian of everything, including memoirs, and so everything is cured and sewed up into a neat little package--when I read her book, I am very aware of everything that must be there but is not being said.

One thing that gave me pleasure, though, was how, as the treatment starts to work and she starts to reconstruct her life, she realizes that she has to build it in such a way as to not trigger her anxiety. This is something I have learned myself in the past few years--that part of keeping myself emotionally healthy and strong is to build a life that does not press on the places where I am weakest. There are things that are harder for me than they are for other people--it is not weakness to work around those things instead of trying to do them anyway because I "should." Having a job that you can do competently without getting panic attacks is more important than having a prestigious job; I've learned that, and I am only, endlessly glad that Heather did, too.

I guess that's the other part of reading this book, the good part. In spite of my doubts about whether I'm getting a whole and accurate picture of this person's life, the story she is telling--her suffering, her family's support, her hope--all resonated with me, and I was rooting for her all the way.

Missed you, dooce.  Best of luck with everything.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

On Trust: The Stillwater Girls

I know I've talked about this before--the difficulty of reading a new author when you're not sure if you're supposed to trust the characters or not.  The Stillwater Girls, by Minka Kent, is a perfect example of this, and I'm trying to pick it apart.

For the first half of the book, you're reading two stories in alternating chapters from two narrators. One is from Wren, who lives in a cabin in the deep woods with her sister Sage, and whose mother left weeks ago to take their youngest sister Evie to a hospital. Wren has never been off their homestead, and if Mother doesn't come back, they might starve.

The other story is about Nicolette, who lives in a lonely part of upstate New York with her photographer husband, whom she loves deeply but suspects might be having an affair. They have been unable to have children (and I'd include some content warning for infertility struggles) and this has put pressure on the marriage. The two stories appear to have nothing to do with each other for a very long time.

Now, my objective opinion is that it took too long to bring the two stories together. Wren's story was compelling in its own right, but Nicolette's didn't grab me, and I was mostly waiting for her to have something to do with Wren. This is partly a pet peeve of mine; I have zero interest in whether anyone's husband is cheating on them.  If he's murdering people or conspiring against her, I'm on board, but if he's just sleeping around, even if he's working really hard to hide it, I'm sorry, that is nowhere near thrilling to be even  source of tension in a thriller.

So I was pretty dismissive of Nicolette. She seems very normal, maybe a little shallow and spoiled. And I've realized that I've been trying to figure out whether this is a quality of her character or a judgement I'm making. Does she seem shallow because I am quick to judge people as shallow, or because the author is painting her as shallow?  I struggled with this for a lot of the book; if the author is painting her as such, it's actually pretty subtle and well done, because it's not enough to turn me against her or make me doubt her, but I've definitely noted it.

If I knew the author well enough to feel confident, I would be creeped out by how uneasy the character makes me. But writing this, I realize that I have had another piece of important information that I was ignoring; Wren. The other point of view character has a very different voice and a very different life and personality. But there's no hint in Wren of any reason to doubt her judgement, in spite of her isolation and ignorance. 

In fact, after the two stories intersect, Wren offers a check on Nicolette's observations. The language Nicolette uses about Wren doesn't quite jibe with the character we know from Wren's chapters; a good deal of Nicolette's shallowness comes through in how she perceives Wren (as "little" and "innocent").

I'm nearing the end of the book now, but I think I've talked myself around to trusting the author. Which has me excited to get back to it and see what's going to happen; I'm pretty sure we're coming up on a big twist.

I stand by my assessment that there are some pacing problems with the first half. But there's also a compelling story in there, and now I very much want to know how it ends.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Contagion

I started reading Contagion, by Erin Bowman, a few months ago, but it wasn't the time.  The time was now and it was actually a great read for the same reason I had to put it down.

See, late last year I got really into a series of audio dramas from Audible based on the Alien franchise. They're really great, full cast productions of stories about other encounters with the xenomorphs from the movies.  One story is the backstory of Newt from Aliens and the details of what happened to that colony. Another involves Ripley's shuttle being found between Alien and Aliens, with some serious retconning to resolve all continuity issues.  There was even a convincing Sigourney Weaver imitator playing Ripley.

The thing is, I listened to them all in a row, and they're very similar.  Group of people come to a remote, deserted planet inhospitable to life to investigate something ominous, they find strange and fascinating sights--weird eggs, alien ships--and are inadequately frightened.  They investigate, in spite of barely being able to breathe the air, in spite of the fact that there are probably people missing, so there's reason to be wary.  But no, we'll just check this out. 

Then the aliens hatch and are chasing them, and the people are running, getting picked off, trying to find their way to some kind of escape. We learn more about the aliens and wait to see how many people will actually make it, knowing it won't be many, in some cases knowing the answer will be "just Newt."

Don't let my being jaded stop you from listening; any one of these is a really great story and very well-produced. Maybe don't listen all in a row. But I was glutted on these when I picked up Contagion.

Contagion is the story of a science crew sidetracked to answer a distress call at a mining outpost called Black Quarry. (Point: could you give your mining outpost a more ominous name?) It's an ominous planet, inhospitable to life, and a survey team Died Mysteriously there years before (except for one child who survived). But there might be a source of McGuffin--excuse me, corrarium--on the planet, so another team is investigating. But now they've gone missing, and a team is sent to investigate.

The team consists of: the child survivor of the first mission, now much older. Her teenage intern, scrabbling her way out of a lifetime of institutional foster care. A young pilot who washed out of the military because of a very slight peripheral vision problem. A too-young, too-cocky captain.  A few red-shirts.

So they get to this inhospitable planet, and they start investigating, and it's very mysterious, and they find things that don't make sense, and then ominous things start to happen.  The first half of the book was very much like the part before you find the aliens.  Which is actually great; it's about the nitty gritty of conducting a rescue mission on a dangerous world, with some extra interpersonal conflict and military/political drama thrown in. 

When I came back to it recently, I was all fresh, and it started at a good clip. I think the cover gives away enough information that I can safely tell you without spoilers that there is a zombie virus involved, and leave it at that.

Too long; didn't read: awesome space horror; can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

More Wayward Children

I thought Beneath the Sugar Sky would be the last of the Wayward Children series, but then In an Absent Dream appeared magically on Netgalley, and they were so kind as to share it with me, and a big ol' thank you for that.  Of course, they gave it to me months ago and I read it months ago, but by gum here I am, raving about it now.

Remember Lundy from Every Heart a Doorway? She was Eleanor West's right hand girl at her Home for Wayward Children, a middle aged woman in the body of a child, somewhat prim and devoted to mapping the nature of the worlds her charges have visited.  This is her backstory, where she went and how she came back and how she came to be the Lundy we know at the school.

Because, of course, once she was just a little girl named Katherine Lundy, who liked to read and to think, who liked rules and logic, but who found that the world wasn't quite fair, even by its own standards.  And when she stumbled into another world--the Market, where everything has a value and it is always, always fair--she knows that she's home.

I think what I loved most about this book is that it is addressing a completely different problem than the others in the series.  In this book, while Katherine doesn't much like the way this world is, she does actually love her family.  This is a book about choices, and about how choices are a part of life, and you can't clever your way out of having to sometimes give something up to get what you want. Some resources--like the hours in your life--are finite.

When Lundy finds her way through a door into another world--a world that feels like home to her--there are things she's leaving behind.  And when her new world and new friends demand things of her--giving is wonderful, but what are the limits? Giving generously to your friends can complicate relationships, and your judgement of what they need might not be theirs.

I love how the idea of a world that is always fair is explored here, and how this perfect world--which even makes room in fairness for people's ability and knowledge and freedom--is not enough to be everything to every person. 

In the end, this story brings Lundy from a mysterious, distant figure into a full, fleshed-out character. Knowing her back story, her later life is even more interesting. I wonder sometimes if Seanan McGuire ever regrets that her first book in this series was a murder mystery in which so many interesting characters died; I would very much like to read the story in which that one girl finds her way home through the spider queen's tiny portal.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oh, the Whammy

I was putting down books left and right this month, so I didn't blame the book itself when The Witch of Willow Hall failed to hold my attention and I ended up setting it aside. A coworker read it, though, and when we started discussing it, I decided I wanted to finish it so we could have a full conversation.

So that's what the last to days have been--aggressively skimming this what-a-crockery and texting outraged observations to Library Lily. Comments like "that's not how duels work" (her reply: "that's not how life works") and "All she had to do was yank the letter out of his hand when I shouted at her!" I ended up reading the climactic scene out loud to my family because it made so little sense.

Great cover, though, right? I had some hopes. It's 1821 and our heroine, Lydia, arrives in the present tense in New Oldbury, a stupidly named town (upon which the narrator remarks) in western Massachusetts. Her father's going to start a mill and ignore his family, and the rest of them are going to flee the scandal that has been hovering over their good name.

Older sister Catherine is gorgeous and flirty and in trouble. Little Emeline is Lydia's closest friend. Mother drifts through the house in a haze. There is theoretically a brother named Charles off somewhere. Lydia meets Mr. Barrett, her father's young, handsome business partner. There are maybe ghosts.

The pieces start to line up all right, but when they all come together, it collapses into a hot mess. This book includes such thrilling details as incest, death of a child, and miscarriage, but spends most of the time on the page describing the physical locations of people in the room, their expressions, postures, seated positions, and state of their dress. The story cannot carry off the gravitas required by the themes.

Lydia makes literally no choices and takes no action on any subject at any point. She does not tell anyone how she feels about anything, even when they ask, for reasons that don't make much sense. She spends a lot of time trying to pretend nothing is happening--sometimes more than once on the same page (if she doesn't open her mother's door she can pretend her mother isn't sick; if she doesn't open the book, she can pretend she doesn't have any need of the information in it).  This lasts right up till the very end, when she does one thing in the last scene (which doesn't go very well) and we're supposed to be impressed.

Catherine would have made a much better main character. She's scheming and conniving. Much of her behavior doesn't make emotional sense, given the shallow characterization--but maybe it would have made sense in her head. Her aggressive attempts to flirt her way to a husband are at least practical and well-planned, unlike literally anything Lydia undertakes in the whole novel.

Everyone in this book behaves so erratically, with so little human feeling or common sense. There was a good idea here--girl with latent powers moves to haunted house--but what I ended up reading was, disappointingly, the least lurid incest book ever.

I got an ARC of this book from Netgalley for an honest review.