Monday, September 26, 2016

Romance Title Quiz, Part 5!

We are WAY past due for another romance title quiz, and there are some doozies on the new acquisitions page at the library. And I'll admit, they suffer for being piled together, like when my sister used to make fun of the fact that all the books I read were called By the Sword, Up the Sword, Through the Sword, On the Sword, etc.  There are patterns, is what I'm saying.

Part 4 is here, and has links to one through three. As usual, one made up title in each category.

It's Like Top Gun In Here
A) Her Tender Maverick
B) A Maverick and a Half
C) Pregnant by the Maverick Millionaire
D) Do You Take This Maverick?

Verbed by the Someone's Noun
A) Bought by Her Italian Boss
B) Taken for a Highlander's Bride
C) Crowned for the Prince's Heir
D) Commanded by the French Duke

Babies, Okay? There Are Babies
A) The Kentucky Cowboy's Baby
B) The Pregnant Colton Bride
C) An Heir to Unite Them
D) Expecting the Rancher's Child

And If You're Not a Baby Person...
A) Puppy Love for the Veterinarian
B) A Dog and a Diamond
C) The Puppy Proposal
D) For the Love of the Puppy

Burning the Candle at Both Ends
A) Seducing the Cowboy Surgeon
B) Billionaire Boss, MD
C) The CEO Daddy Next Door
D) Courting the Cowboy Boss

Pregnant by Your Exotically Named Lover: An Oddly Specific Genre
A) A Ring for Vincenzo's Heir
B) Expecting Contini's Surprise
C) Demetriou Demands His Child
D) The Di Sione Secret Baby

All Alliteration
A) The Bridesmaid's Baby Bump
B) Make Mine a Marine
C) A Kiss for the Christmas Cowboy
D) Bound by the Unborn Baby

Bad Career Moves
A) Waking Up With the Boss
B) In the Boss's Bed
C) Her Brooding Italian Boss
D) Seducing the CEO

Probably Kinda Racist
A) Enslaved by the Desert Trader
B) A Virgin for Vasquez
C) The Sheik's Baby Scandal
D) Yeah, No, This One Is Just Icky

Bonus: Just The Best
A) The Detective's 8 lb, 10 oz Surprise
B) Snowbound Surprise for the Billionaire
C) His Badge, Her Baby...Their Family?
D) The Greek Tycoon's Love Child



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Unpopular Opinions Book Tag

Lianna tagged me, and far be it from me to refuse a challenge.  (That's not true.  I refuse challenges all the time.  But an opportunity to write about books...)


Anyway, this one's going to be pretty hard, because I agreed with almost all of Li's answers--many were the first things that popped into my mind (I do not understand Catherynne Valente; I just don't). But I'm going to purposefully avoid duplicates.  So if you wonder why I didn't say Outlander for number one--now you know.

1) A popular book or series you didn't like: Archivist Wasp. The Book Smugglers so rarely steer me wrong, but with this one, I literally cannot figure out what book they were reading.  I mean, it was not without its interesting qualities, but it was mostly a jumbled mess.

2) A book or series everyone seems to hate, but you love: Gah, this one's hard.  My taste is so mainstream! Instead of "everyone hates it" (I can't think of a book like that!) let's go with "how can you possibly even  notice that this book exists?" There is a romance novel called Beloved Wife.  It's a straight up Harlequin Historical by Lynda Trent, and it came out about 20 or 30 years ago, and at a point in my life my friend and I were buying HHs for $1 per grocery bag full.  It's just another one of those, your standard mail-order-bride story ending in true love.  So why have I owned it for two decades, read it half a dozen times, and love it more than any HH ever deserved to be love?  Reader, I know not.

3) A love triangle or romantic pairing you're not a fan of: Okay, this is an obscure one, but since I love Sharon Shinn, this mistake sticks out like a sore thumb to me.  The implied romance at the end of The Safe-Keeper's Secret is just a dozen kinds of messed up.  I'm not going to spoil it for you, and it doesn't ruin the rest of the story (I don't think) but there is a definite moment of WHAT. THE. HELL? going on there.

4) A popular genre you hardly ever reach for: Mysteries. There are tons of great mysteries, and some of them are my favorites, but it's hard to find the best ones, and when I'm reading a less-than-awesome mystery, I find myself really confused and distracted.  So I only follow strong recommendations in that genre.

5) A beloved book character who gets on your nerves in a major way: (Please don't hate me) Harry Potter.  I love the books, but let's all be honest: Hermione is the real hero there. Ron's a great sidekick; Harry's only there to be tortured and anguished. Sure, there's justification in his history for him being sullen and kind of whiny, but man, he makes an art of it.

6) A popular author you can't seem to get into: Jasper Fforde.  I've read a couple of his Thursday Next books, and even enjoyed them, but I can't seem to want to come back to them. And the other books of his that I've picked up, the ones that are not in that world, I never made it very far.  You'd think they'd be right up my alley, but they just never quite clicked for me.

7) A trope you're tired of seeing: These adults don't know how to run the world!  If they'd just do whatever straightforwardly obvious thing that we teenagers suggest so that everything could be fair and reasonable, then the world would be a place of peace and plenty and all the bad guys would be defeated.  But they're just overcomplicating things like international relations and crowd control and physics because of fear and inability to think creatively!

8) A popular book or series you have no interest in reading: Ender's Shadow. I loved Ender's Game and really enjoyed Speaker for the Dead, but by the time the new series rolled around, I had two problems: 1) I realized that at least the beginning involves rewriting some of the events of the original book from a different point of view, and that a bunch of what we understood to be happening gets a lot more shady with the new information, and 2) Orson Scott Card is a vocal and rampant bigot. So I'm not going back to that world, not even to see what happened to Bean.

9) The saying goes: the book is always better than the movie. But what movie or TV adaption did you like better than the original book?  Little House on the Prairie.  I never read those books as a kid, so I don't have any nostalgia for them.  And while I am generally really into books about the nitty gritty details of survival in a harsh environment, I find rereading it to be somewhere between dull and racist/violent. But the TV show! Michael Landon should be everybody's dad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Kickin' with Nonfiction

It's pretty uncommon for me to be reading two nonfiction books at the same time, but here I am, tempted by a prison book club and octopuses, and finding patterns--probably not in nonfiction in general, but at least in this kind of book.

My friend Lily pointed me at Maximum Security Book Club, by Mikita Brottman. As the title implies, it's about a book club that takes place in a men's prison. Lily's dad teaches in a college program in prisons, and if you want to tear up you should watch one of the videos of the commencement ceremonies for this program. I've been reading and thinking about prison reform lately, but that's not really what this book is about; the author is not (at least in the context of the book) an activist.  She's working within the system, running a book club-slash-English class for these men.

I'm enjoying the book, because I mostly enjoy reading about people discussing books. The prison history, characters of the convicts and their thoughts on the books, and the stories of Brottman's experiences going to the prison--being reprimanded for wearing red or very short sleeves, kept waiting for no discernible reason, interrupted by guards.  It's a really interesting book.

I'm not sure how I feel about the narrator, though--or rather, about the teacher.  (I hate talking about memoirs--there's author as narrator, author as character, and author as author, and it's hard to pick them apart.) She starts the book with some disclosure about how she doesn't romanticize the convicts and is very aware of how much coincidence went into the differences between her life and theirs, and I believe that.  And I do admire that she completely respects them as people.

But sometimes it seems a bit disingenuous, or to work against her.  The first book she chose for book club was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  She says she chose it because the themes of alienation and isolation from the human race might appeal to the men, but she also talks about how damned hard the book was to read when she read it the first few times--studying literature in grad school.  Even completely acknowledging that these men are equally intelligent and worthy of respect as yourself, it seems like setting them up for failure to pick a book that she only came to appreciate after years of education on how to read hard books. Her first few choices are all like that--hard books that even she struggled with a great deal.

The other book I'm reading is The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery, which I got from Netgalley ages ago because OCTOPUS! but which I put down almost immediately because, again, the author/narrator/main character bugged me a little.  In this case it was the narrator, really; she spent a long time trying to convince me that octopuses aren't creepy, to the point where it felt more like she was trying to convince me that I thought they were before.

She also drifts off into talk about Jung and the collective unconscious, or the meaning of souls, or the transcendent experience of touching an octopus.  It's all very woo, and assumed that I had to be talked into liking octopuses--which is ridiculous. because I love them and that's why I'm reading the book.  (I eagerly await the arrival of our squibbon overlords.) She takes her title as a mission statement; this is about the question of whether animals--particularly "lower" forms of life--might have souls.

The reason I came back to the book recently was because someone suggested in the comments thread on a Reading the End post about a different book about animal intelligence (which I'm also eager to read), and I was reminded how much I love octopuses.  And sure enough, as the poster said, once I got past the introduction, the stories about the octopuses and other inhabitants of the aquarium are totally worth it.

At times there are parts where she starts sounding like she's anthropomorphizing--even when she's making points that are totally valid.  The idea that an octopus has moods and that you can perceive them when you know it well enough is completely believable. When you start comparing them to your own moods and attributing facial expressions to fish, I begin to doubt you. And there are times where it lapses into memoir, or even worse, long vacation recaps, listing off the animals she saw scuba diving. Her experience with sea life is not as interesting to me as sea life itself.

Still, it's a fun book, and I really do love animal stories.  We've been watching a bunch of BBC nature documentaries lately, and they are absolutely delightful; this book fits in with that pleasure.

I'm still reading both books, more than halfway through each, and I'm enjoying them. But I am reminded that spending time with a book is spending time with its author, and that not every author is my favorite person to hang out with.  In a novel, there are layers that hide the author's personality from you, though you may get hints and make guesses.  In nonfiction, their agenda and even their thoughts are more clearly on display.  I wonder if this is part of why I don't read more nonfiction.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Farewell to the Three Thieves

One of the most amazing things about Netgalley is when a series that I'm reading comes up there and I get a jump on my VERY REAL NEED to keep up with it.  This is what has happened with most of Scott Chantler's Three Thieves series, and I just finished the final volume, The Iron Hand, thanks again to Netgalley.

When last we left our heroes, a bunch of dramatic and spoilery things had just happened on an island, and some people had been rescued, but some tragedy had befallen our heroes.  In this final volume, we finally get our favorite characters teaming up and heading back home to set things straight.

The first six volumes set up some really complicated mysteries around Greyfalcon, and it takes a dense section of flashback monologuing for the villain's history to be laid out; not a lot of surprises there, and I'd say 15% less backstory and the equivalent more adventuring would not have been misplaced.  But that's because the adventuring is SO good--the alliances, the conspiring, the army, the siege, the intrigue!

Everything plays out, your questions are answered, and matters are resolved. A couple of things happen a bit too neatly--there is one happy ending that I would have actually changed if I could--but most of the neat resolution is exactly what you hope and expect to happen, with enough dramatic twists to keep you surprised. 

This series was really a pleasure, and I can't wait to read the last couple of volumes with my seven-year-old son!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

There Are No Fairies In the Tale

Fairy tales retold in different times and places--a classic storytelling choice. There are a lot of ways this can go; I know people who are always on board, but for me it really depends.  Fairy tales themselves are relatively abstract and impersonal; they are about strings of events that have meaning in the context of the culture the story comes from, not about characters who grow and change.

When the string of events is used as a starting place, an author can tell a great story with the twist that I know what's going to happen, and it adds a layer of pleasure, of conspiracy, and of anticipation, but only when the author allows me to connect with a character who, in the original [Grimm/Andersen/Perrault] version, was barely recognizable as a human being.

Matt Phelan wrote Snow White: A Graphic Novel, and his choice of setting--the '20s and '30s in New York--caught my eye.  This is where Genevieve Valentine set her excellent novel The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I wondered what someone could do with Snow White. At the very least, I figured the comic would be pretty.

And it was pretty.  It was done in what I think is called inkwash, which is a mostly black and white watercolor style, which was lovely and dreamy and reminded me of the old French silent film of Beauty and the Beast. It was lovely to look at.

I wish there was more I could say about it, but I don't have a lot more.  It was...fine. It worked very nicely on the level of a fairy tale: Snow White's father is a stockbroker and her stepmother is an actress and she is sent away to boarding school and her father dies and she inherits his money and her stepmother tries to have her killed so she runs away and it's the '20s so all the poor people live in Hoovervilles and some kids take her in (seven of them!) and the evil stepmother poisons her with an apple and she sleeps till she is woken by a kiss and the stepmother dies through her own actions and everyone lives happily after.

I just ruined it for you, except that it was already ruined, because it was Snow White, and there was nothing you didn't know here.  There is no particular connection between the rich stockbroker and royalty, no comment on the stepmother's greed and envy or on Snow's pure innocence. In fact, both of those, and the father's passivity, are so broadly displayed that they're almost worse than in a standard fairy tale.  It's not just "she's innocent," which works as a shorthand for something I can picture a real person being--she's talking to a bunch of boys who are living in the street with no one to take care of them and telling them that most people are good and everything's going to be okay.  Her father doesn't just neglect his daughter in one sentence where we can fill in the blanks of all the ways a man can be mesmerized by an attractive woman; we are shown him loving his daughter and neglecting her, with no direct address of this discordance.

And I was actually kind of offended by how flat Snow was, and how evil her stepmother, and what an old sucker her father was.  The "gorgeous showgirl pretends to love an old man to get his money but is so, so evil!" is a nasty story that we've heard a million times and it kind of squicked me out here. 

So yeah, this was essentially a lovely illustrated edition of the same old story you've heard a million times.  It's really pretty, which is not nothing, but there isn't much else to recommend it.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for review.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Ninefox Gambit

This is an example of a book title that cannot be improved upon to title the post. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a smart, complicated, book; the title is pretty perfect.

Ninefox Gambit owes a debt of gratitude to Ann Leckie's marvelous Ancillary Justice, not for anything about the book itself--which is very different in plot, worldbuilding, characterization, and writing style--but for teaching me how to read really complicated scifi world building.  There is a mental place I learned to go to while reading that book, where I was taking everything in, whether I understood it or not, and filing it away for later, that served me well with Ninefox Gambit.

I was able to follow the broad strokes of the story, and those of the worldbuilding, very well.  (I would love to hear Ada Palmer and Yoon Ha Lee talk about epistemology, by the way.) On a physical level this is a world where mathematics can dictate reality, if you wield it in the right ways.  If you set up an appropriate calendar and get people worshiping and sacrificing on the right days, if you arrange your troops in certain formations, you can create different effects--weapons, defenses, tools.  In effect, it's magic, but translated completely into a scifi context.

Culturally, you have a society that is built to take advantage of this.  Celebrating the correct calendar is paramount, and control of the populace is important.  It doesn't feel particularly oppressive to the reader, but it's hard to tell, because our point of view is from within the military. Society is run by six factions--the hexarchate, the government--and each faction has a trait that they bring to the stage.  The Kel are the warriors, the Shuos are the spies, the Nirai are mathematicians, and so on. Together there's an uneasy balance of power.

Then comes the plot: a space station, the Fortress of Shattered Needles, has been taken by heretics, and calendrical rot has set in.  A soldier named Kel Cheris is singled out as unorthodox enough to maybe handle it.  She is given an ally, of sorts--the ghost of a mad general named Shuos Jedao.  Three centuries ago he slaughtered an entire space station and his own soldiers, but his genius was too valuable to give up; his mind was downloaded into a kind of cold storage, and they bring him out when they have an unwinnable war.  He has never lost.

Now he's hooked to Cheris, talking to her inside her head, and she's commanding a fleet with his advice, and they have to retake the fortress. Okay, so that's a lot of explaining, and I understood everything here. There's a lot of jargon about weapons and formations and ships and how the hexarchate works, but it's true that you can let it roll over you and you find yourself knowing what you need to know.

I realize I don't sound excited in this review; a lot of other people have.  The fact is that I didn't feel excited, though.  I found the book confusing in a different way, a way that I'm struggling to put my finger on.  I think it might have been emotionally confusing, in that I couldn't quite figure out where the book was coming down on the value of human life.

I mean, it's a war book.  There are lots of battles and lots of people die, and all the characters we meet are warriors of one stripe or another, whether Kel infantry or Shuos spies or Nirai strategists.  There are a lot of deaths, and a lot of moments where a character has to choose a strategy that will result in the fewest or least problematic deaths.  For most of the book, it felt like background noise to me, the kind of concern for life that you expect in a novel that is specifically about soldiers--not that life is cheap, but that we call came in here knowing what we were in for.

By the end, however, I've come to believe that this is the main point of the book--wastefulness of life, war as unnecessary. I can't quite figure out what it's about if it's not about that.  But the amount of death that every character puts toward that meaning confused me--like, the characters I came to think of as opposed to war were some of the killingest ones, and I couldn't see the lines.

There were a lot of scenes where we followed a character for one scene only, usually into a battle of some sort.  And a lot of the characters we meet die horribly, with exotic weapons that work because of mathemagical calendrical technology. "War is hell" is a fair summary of this story, and "politics begets war" is a good underlying message.  There are a lot of lessons on how to play with people's minds that I didn't follow, a lot of conversations where one thing is being said and another is meant, and the characters recognize the second meaning--and maybe the narrator even tells the reader what it is--but I can't see how the surface information leads to that result.

So yes, I was able to read this complex science fiction book because Ann Leckie taught me how. And for the most part I got it, and I'm pretty sure that the story that was being told here was a rip-snorting thrill ride.  But there was a gap in my understanding of the mental and emotional heart of the story that left me just a bit adrift.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for an unbiased review.)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

August 2

August novels we've covered; let's do August short stuff.  I know I promised you a real review of Ninefox Gambit; Wednesday, I promise.

Here we go!

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, by Daniel Pinkwater, was the book that Sophie reads to her chickens in Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, which Adam and I adored.  We liked the title, so we gave this book a try.  It's a tiny bit dated, and more than a tiny bit odd, but it's also pretty adorable.

A kid named Arthur is sent to buy the Thanksgiving turkey, but can't find one anywhere.  He ends up accidentally acquiring a 266 pound chicken named Henrietta as a pet.  He brings her home and teaches her tricks, but she proves to be too much trouble and his parents insist he get rid of her.  This is not as easy as it sounds.

Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy, by Philippa Perry and illustrated by Junko Graat, is...odd.  First of all, "graphic" in the title refers to the fact that it's a graphic novel, although I guess there a couple of moments where we see what's in the characters' minds and it's a little less than family friendly.  Anyway, it's basically an account of the therapeutic relationship between Pat, the therapist, and James, her patient.  It shows us chunks of James's therapy and there are annotations that comment on what's happening in the encounter--places where Pat fumbles, why she makes the choices she does, and what's going on behind James's replies.

Like so many books by psychologists about how their chosen forms of therapy work, it's got a heavy-handed faith in its system.  Unsurprisingly, James's stealing compulsion is tied to his childhood relationship with his wealthy but distant parents. It turns out this is also tied into his relationship with his girlfriend.  These realizations solve all of James's problems.

I actually very much appreciated the outline of what the sessions actually looked like, and the notes on what the therapist is thinking as she steers the conversation. And I'm sure this is what successful psychotherapy often looks like.  I guess I'm just really not into psychoanalysis as a solution to many concrete psychological problems, and I'm skeptical about the enthusiasm this book has for its efficacy.  

The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a novella by Fran Wilder and another one that I already posted about. The short story is that I really liked it even though I sometimes found it hard to connect with.

I Work at a Public Library, by Gina Sheridan, is a blog-to-book that was an unsurprisingly quick read.  It's an assortment of strange and sometimes charming stories of wacky things that happen at the library, but when read all at once in book form, but as separate anecdotes without context (as in blog form), it actually came off as a bit abrasive.

Many of the stories are adorable, and some are outright hilarious (as when a man dismissively calls the teen section where they keep the sexy vampire books and his friend looks at him and says "do you even read, man?"). There are grateful patrons and cute kids and wacky situations, which is just what I'm here for.

But there are a lot of stories that are about elderly people who are confused about the computer, or people who clearly have special needs who as confusing questions and get agitated.  It's the kind of thing that I can absolutely see writing down in your blog--because it just happened to you, and you're shook up, and it's fine but you're kind of like "what is this job I have!?" But when you put them in the book, it feels like you're rolling your eyes at those people in kind of a snide way, and that's the aftertaste that this book left for me.  It's a shame, really, because dang if I don't think this is a great idea for a book.  I think I want more of a memoir format for this kind of thing.

Finally, there's The Governess Affair, Courtney Milan's prequel novella to the Brothers Sinister series, which I am lapping up with a spoon. This is about how Oliver's parents met, and Serena's stubbornness in the face of overwhelming odds and Hugo's ambition and hidden humor are just so charming and irresistible.  It was a short book, and that worked fine; Milan's B stories are delightful, and every character gets their full due of nuance and depth.  I love that these characters whom we meet many years later as the parents of protagonists in other stories feel perfectly natural in their own tale.

And that's August.  I feel a great burden lifted now that I've shared it with you, dear readers.  I don't know that I'll do a lot of monthly wrap-ups, but I do feel like a lot of my books have been getting short shrift lately.  I'm being too uptight a blogger.  I need to cut loose a little!  Blog from the middle!  Be less analytical! Let my hair down!  Let's kick September up a notch, shall we?