Sunday, June 27, 2010

Other People Obsess About These Things, Too! has a guest post this week from Sarah of Que Sera Sera about The Babysitters Club.  They were talking about it by a fireplace in a pub in England.  What would I have given to be there?

But she hasn't read a BSC book since 1989.  Slacker.

Friday, June 25, 2010

One of Those Books

So the other book, the one that made the last week an unpleasant slog, was The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg.  I read a blurb about it at Unshelved, and it sounded good--future dystopia fiction, etc. etc.  Then I found my library's copy and realized it was originally published in 1971.  This made me a little cautious, but far be it from me to practice literary ageism.

But then I started it, and oh, it's one of those books.  One of those 1970s sci fi books in which a) everybody's having all the sex with everybody else because in the future we will no longer have any kind of sexual boundaries, leading to b) a science fiction writer writes a lot of sex scenes, which is almost incidental to the real problem, because c) the whole book is an excuse for him to write about his philosophical observations on human nature.

The blurb on the back cover, for crying out loud, was an excerpt of a conversation between an urban administrator and an imaginary critic of the society he lives in, in which he defends their way of life.  I really can't believe I opened it after realizing that.

In the future, mankind has made a religion out of fertility; it is one's duty to bring as much life to the world.  The Earth's population is 75 billion (which they write 75,000,000,000 throughout the book, just to impress you with zeros, I suppose), but that's okay, because everyone lives in high rises called "urbmons."  Three kilometers high, each one houses almost a million people.  They have small enough footprints that most of the world is farmland; a very few people live on the agricultural communes and trade food for manufactured goods of the urbmon.

The entire book was an ironic defense of the urbmon way of life.  Each chapter is told by a different character, all relatively interconnected--they all know each other peripherally--and follows their life in the urbmon.  They wander around and have sex with each other and do their little jobs and think about how awesome the urbmon life is, or maybe it's not, but no, sure it is, after all there's all this sex!  Seven kids, 400 square meters of space, this is the life. 

It took me a long time to read, and it definitely made its point and built its world thoroughly.  But it never went outside the box (no pun intended--wow, I made a pun about this book).  This is a book about the dangers of overcrowding on the psychology of the individual, and you are not allowed to forget it.

So I'm afraid I can't recommend it to you.  I can, however, tell you that the books I'm reading now range from enjoyable (99 Coffins, by David Welllington) to really good (The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold) to fabulous (Lamb, by Christopher Moore).  Read some!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Only Half the Battle

I haven't written much in the past couple of weeks, because I have been slogging.  Two kinds of slogging, actually: the good and the bad.

What do you think, good first, or bad?  Good, I think; bad is more interesting to rant about.  The good stuff is Lady Catherine's Necklace, by Joan Aiken.  Now, I'd heard of Joan Aiken as the author of the famous children's book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  I've learned recently that she's written about a gajillion and one books, a bunch of which are novels following the lives of the minor characters in Jane Austen's work. 

This one, for example, is about what happens at Lady Catherine de Bourgh's house after Darcy abruptly decides not to marry his wan cousin Anne and instead to toddle off with Elizabeth Bennett.  Elizabeth's friend Charlotte is of course still married to the obsequious Mr. Collins, and Colonel Fitzwilliam is still lurking about the place.  I understand that in some of her Austen books, Aiken takes some liberties with people's favorite characters and gets them really, really upset (I wish I could link to the Goodreads review of Eliza's Daughter that is just a long string of swear words.)

The story is written with an eye toward Austen's language, and well executed in that respect.  You could not say that Jane Austen would have written it, though.  There is far more high drama (theft and kidnapping and suicide) and small touches that feel comfortable to modern sensibilities but that would not have occurred to Jane (a pair of confirmed bachelor roommates, some gender-bending stuff I won't give away).  Beyond these points, though, both the characters and the story are far more blunt than they would have been in Austen's day.

So why do I call it a slog?  Because for a short book, it took forever to read.  The writing had that lavishly constructed Austen thing going on, but I can hardly blame that; I'm a fairly literate person, after all.  But in spite of the length (less than 200 pages) and the font size (massive), it took forever to read this book.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  Go figure.

This post is ending up longer than I thought.  Tomorrow: the other side of the slogging coin, or: Why I Used the Word Slog.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Y: Why?

So I enjoyed Y: The Last Man as I was reading the series.  It never quite lived up to what I felt was its promise--the art, the premise, the writing of the individual scenes all would have been comfortable in a fabulous, profound, insightful story, which this one kept falling short of.

Mike and I actually disagreed.  We were talking about it last night, after he finished the whole thing and while I was in the middle of the last volume.  He said that the ending was fitting for a book that was mediocre all the way through.  I disagreed: I thought it was good all the way through, but the potential for greatness was so glaring that it made "good" seem like not good enough.

Then I finished the last volume. And, well, crud.  The ending didn't really elevate anything.  It was a disappointment.  I won't give anything away, but I will say that, since the book did not achieve greatness, it would have succeeded better by giving me an ending that was more aggressively pleasing.  That's what I'll say to avoid spoilers.

It's hard to review the whole series like this, though.  I don't want to let my disappointment with the last volume stop someone from reading what I thought was some good comics.  I don't think it used its post-apocalyptic potential as well as it could have, but it was full of great bits, good dialogue, characters I really, really liked.  I have a hard time finding good comics, and I think this was good comics.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Warhorse

Have I regaled you with me extended opinion of the Clan of the Cave Bear series yet?  No?  Well, let's fix that up right now!

Book 1: Clan of the Cave Bear: Superlative.  Historical fiction full of detail and life, about survival and culture.  Loved it.
Book 2: The Valley of Horses: Excellent.  Suffered a little from switching back and forth between two main characters, one of whom we're already invested in, one of whom we don't know at all.  But once the stories come together, you want to go back and reread the Jondalar parts.  (Though they're still not as good as the Ayla parts.)  Great book, again, all about survival.
Book 3: The Mammoth Hunters: Very, very good.  The personal stories start getting a little heavy-handed, but the cultural details are still fabulous.
Book 4: The Plains of Passage: Totally readable.  I mean, you need to skim the six page descriptions of grasslands, and the sex scenes get a little repetitive, but it's a decent book.  Full of action.  A divergence, but on its own terms, fine.
Book 5: The Shelters of Stone: Oh, ugh.  I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I really didn't like this book.  It repeated not only things we knew from previous books, but even "revelations" that took place within this book are supposed to be startling to characters the second and third time they're exposed to them.  The interpersonal drama is bland and unmemorable, and the cultural stuff is cheap and more like fanfic than the great work I expect after the first two books.

You see the evolution here.  I don't know if it's because I'm getting older as I read these, but I doubt it; the first few I reread often; book 4 I go back and reread select parts.  Book 5 I haven't opened since I finished it the first time around.

I feel for the author, too--it takes her about 10 years to write one of these.  And that means we, the fans, have been waiting for eons.  I worry that it also means that the editors are going to rush her through the revision process and not give it the work it needs, but I'll take what they give me.

Because, ladies and gentlemen--drumroll, please--The Land of Painted Caves is coming out!  Yes, that's right, those of us who have been waiting anxiously, googling Jean Auel every couple of months and reading the same tired rumors on the geocities fansites can now relax, because the authority of the publisher and Amazon are behind the promise of only NINE months till P-Day!  (Publication day, that is.)

So, do I have a lot of hope?  Sadly, no.  I figure it'll be about what Shelters of Stone was.  But I love the characters and the world enough that I'm thrilled to spend some more time there, even if it's a cut-rate bus tour, not the luxury cruise I was dreaming of.

I just lent the first book to Brenda, since she's been interested in edible plants lately.  The book is a veritable Field Guide to Useful Plants in the Prehistoric Steppes.  Sigh; now I want to read it again!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Who's Blurbing Who Now?

Jay Asher, who wrote Thirteen Reasons Why, wrote the blurb on the cover of Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver. He claims I'll "have no choice but to tear through this book." And he is so damned right.

The sort of sad part about the blurb is that this book is everything his book wanted to be. It's more observant, thoughtful, probing, clever. It's deeper; it uses its gimmick better. I was more moved. Thirteen Reasons Why left me kind of cold--I heard the story, but it didn't touch me. It was a good idea, and it was an okay book, but it wasn't much more than that.

Before I Fall might be a great book. It knows how to feel sympathy for mean girls, shallow people, sexist pigs, without--and this is important--excusing them or forgiving them. It knows what's fun about high school, as well as how much it sucks. It understands popularity on so many more levels, and unpopularity, too.

And it doesn't waste any time justifying its gimmick. Sam Kingston is living the same day over and over again, yeah yeah. It's not like she takes it in stride, but no precious real estate is wasted trying to figure out how or why. It doesn't waste your time retelling the parts that don't need it, either--for a long book, it is beautifully economical.

I couldn't put it down. I set aside all the other books I was reading and just ploughed right on through. Jay Asher was right. I'm sorry I couldn't love his book this much, but my hat is off to Lauren Oliver.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Conjunction Junction

Important things in my life come together: Miss Manners and librarians.

We had a librarian like that in my hometown. I remember going in once the year after college and going to the checkout with a stack of books. I had just decided to try reading Stephen King for the first time--seemed like it might be fun--so I had two Stephen King books, plus The Law of Love, by Laura Esquivel, who wrote Like Water for Chocolate. There may have been something else, but I remember these specifically.

And that's because I remember her commenting on each one. Not as rudely as the woman in the Miss Manners column; really just conversationally. Except she didn't like my choices, so it wasn't a great conversation. Of Stephen King: "Oh, I've never liked his books--" said with a definite snootiness. Of Laura Esquivel: "Oh, I tried reading her other book; it was over my head." Any snootiness there--of the, "If it was beyond me, you have no hope, honey" variety--just made me feel superior.

Now, a) I had read and enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate, and b) it seems like a librarian making conversation could come up with more than, "I hate all your choices." Hasn't she heard the rule about saying nice things or saying nothing at all? Is my mom the only one who taught that one?

I have to say, I don't feel Miss Manners gave very useful advice. Shushing the librarian may be all you can do, but I am not convinced that the kind of woman who needs that kind of shushing will respond to any hints that don't involve a blunt instrument.