Thursday, September 30, 2010


I finished Mockingjay this week, and I don't think I can write about it without spoiling the series, at least, if not the book itself.  So this review is only safe if you've read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, or at least don't mind knowing something about how they end, and really, there are some hints to what happens in Mockingjay, too.

I've heard a lot of different opinions about which of the last two books is better (I've never met anyone who didn't think The Hunger Games was the best of the three).  I personally liked Mockingjay better than Catching Fire.  I found the premise of the second book to be a little "hey, let's do this again," though in the broader picture I know that's not true. 

And I found the ending to be a little confusing--I got some of the characters mixed up (Johanna and Enobaria, specifically, are sometimes conflated in my memory), and I never really figured out what was going on, who was double crossing who, etc.  One thing I really like about this series is that Katniss is often in the dark, or confused, or doesn't have enough information to make a good decision--this is a lot more realistic than a lot of adventure stories.   But sometimes I find myself equally confused, and it doesn't always get cleared up to my satisfaction.

Another level of realism that I like is the PTSD that all these poor people suffer from.  It makes horrible sense, doesn't it?  How could you not be messed up by an experience like that?  Fiction generally wants me to believe that action heroes are just fine--they routinely take injuries that would drop real people in their tracks without slowing their pace.  The most heroic thing a real-life hero has ever done--rescued ten soldiers from an ambush or racing out of a burning building carrying a child--is what a fictional character does in the first few pages to set them up for the real heroics later on.  So the fact that kill-or-be-killed messes with these poor kids' heads is really well appreciated.

What I liked about Mockingjay, I think, was just what I can picture some people not liking--the politics.   I appreciated that we not only got to watch the revolution but to agonize over how it would end.  If you think about most of the real revolutions in history, they were bloody and violent and the resulting government was often crappy in either similar or opposite ways to the overthrown government.  (The American Revolution is a bit of an exception, but our oppressors had the option of retreating back to their own country, which is not usually the case.)  So I think that the power Katniss has and her odd, detached position that allows her to look at things somewhat objectively is a really interesting place for observation and thought.

There are some obvious and some less-than-convincing plot points, which I won't bother with because I don't want to spoil it and because they're not that important.  The places that the story goes are thrilling, compelling, and tragic; the mechanisms involved in getting everyone in place are sometimes a little contrived.  But there was a scene at the end--the scene with the cat, for those of you who've read it--where I really cried.  So there's that.

Then there's the real question:  are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale?  I have an opinion on that one, too, but I can't talk about it, again, without spoiling.  But tell me which one you were rooting for--at any point in the books--in the comments, and we'll keep all you people who are still waiting in a 400-person library queue out of the comments till you're done.  Don't worry; I'm returning my copy tomorrow, so you'll move up a slot on the list.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Girl Who Put Down the Book

You know, I can see why people love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.  I liked the first one all right--it had a decent thriller plot with some pretty good business/espionage stuff going on.  They weren't really related to each all...but they were enjoyable enough.

But my God, that drag through The Girl Who Played with FireI honestly couldn't tell you how far into the book I am, because I've found it to be torture for so long that I've mostly stopped listening to it.  I'm probably a quarter of the way in.  A number of unrelated things have happened, and I'm pretty sure that I know which of them are going to have something to do with a broader plot and which aren't, but God, I don't care.  So here's my permission to give it up.

Some points before I go:

1) I'll be really excited to see the movies.  The plots are good; the writing isn't.

2) I wonder if there's a translation issue, or if people in Sweden just like their books that way. 

3) I think it's the shopping lists that did me in.  She bought one thing from each page of the Ikea catalog about three pages before she went to the convenience store and bought three frozen pizzas, four microwaveable burritos, instant coffee, a carton of orange juice, a block of cheese, and half a dozen apples.  She then drove down four streets I can't pronounce to get home. 

4) I also find the author's fondness for Salendar to be kind of creepy.  She's a fun antihero--smart, antisocial, independent.  But all the fifty-year-old men in this book seem to find her skinny, unwashed asexuality to be highly sexy.  And somehow her "whatever works" morality is venerated by the characters whose morals I'm supposed to trust.

5) This.  Warning: there's one pretty big spoiler, so if you don't know what All The Evil was yet, consider yourself warned.  But overally, this sums it right up for me, and I'll bid you good day.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Want Prizes

Goodreads has a whole page--pages and pages, really!--of free book giveaways.  Some of them are for things that were already on my to-read list!  I ran through and entered a bunch of them, and now I'm on the edge of my seat.  The newest Terry Pratchett!  An Asian warrior princess romance novel!  All kinds of cool stuff!  Most of the drawings have odds somewhere in the range of a 1 in 50 to 1 in 200 chance of winning.  I'll let you know if I have any luck.

I finished Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam, the other day.  It was really excellent.  I've found a couple of his pieces that have been published in online journals since then, and the difference is interesting--it's like looking at a second draft vs. a final draft.  But the book, which is a collection of stories from the life of the same character, is really great.

The first story takes place on Y2K eve, when the character is nine or ten.  He and his parents are leaving the city to go stay with his grandparents in the country, avoiding any potential trouble.  His father's pretty freaked out, his mother thinks he's overreacting.  There's nothing here that might not have really happened, but the characters you meet, the glimpse you get of the narrator's personality, is interesting, affectionate, slightly uncomfortable.

Then you jump forward about five years, and he's a teenager staying with his grandparents to keep out of trouble.  There are food shortages, barricades, things aren't going well, but the story is about a road trip, about aging, about all kinds of things.

Another jump, another place in his life.  Another disaster, another glimpse of a world that is falling apart in all the ways that people can't do anything about--floods, drought, epidemics.  And the rag-tag life he leads--crime, bureaucracy, wealth. 

I'm not a fly by the seat of my pants person, and there are plenty of books out there about people who act on impulse, drift through life, do whatever comes along.  But somehow this one caught me, maybe because the world he lived in is so different from mine that I can see how a person might come to this position.

But it's not something I think about very often: what if I didn't know where my next meal--heck, my next drink of fresh water--was coming from.  Often enough I've read about other people with this life, but these stories seemed so normal and immediate that, strangely enough, this fictional world was less another place than other real stories that pose that question.

I almost ended on the overly-clever line, "Didn't see that coming."  But that wouldn't really mean anything and it was way too precious, so let's just leave it there, shall we?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Our Day Out

It's been pointed out to me that for some reason, you, my loyal readers, might find book reviews somewhat more interesting than the gritty details of my wanderings around the libraries of greater Boston.  I can't even begin to imagine why, but believe that I'm taking it under advisement. 

Today, though, was a complicated library day, and I have to share it.  Adam and I went to the Cambridge library first thing this morning, because everyone's been raving about Emma Donoghue's Room, and I decided I couldn't wait till I got to the top of the hundreds of people on the wait list.  Cambridge has a great speed read collection, and the internet told me that they had a copy just waiting for me to speed read it.

The internet lied.  I hunted; the librarian hunted.  No such book.  I have since come to believe that the internet just didn't know that someone was wandering around the library clutching my book in their hot little hands. 

The trip wasn't a waste--Adam and I played "Take-a da nap" on the floor of the children's room and I backed the car into some nice patron or staffer's Honda Civic. 

Left only the tiniest scratch, but I left a note, because doesn't the lack of note hurt more than the scratch?  I didn't want to be that guy.  And no one's called yet, so I suspect that the owner, like me, felt that the scratch was infinitesimal.

Overall, though, it was a pretty stressful morning.  After naptime, we went over to the Medford library to pick up the newest Dr. Siri book by Colin Cotterill.  And the librarian came back on with two books--Love Songs from a Shallow Grave and Room.  Talk about redeeming my day.

Anecdotes over: now back to our regularly scheduled reading.

Monday, September 20, 2010

And We're Back!

I think my October goals are pretty much shot, but now that my computer's back up, I've got more to say.

I've meant to read something by Dennis Lehane for a long time.  He's an iconic Boston writer, I've liked a number of the movies based on his books, and he's one of my friend Sheila's favorite writers.

I picked Shutter Island because it seemed kind of up my alley--kind of creepy, with (I heard) a twist ending.  Plus, I don't like Leonardo DiCaprio, so it was a way to avoid seeing the movie in spite of being a little intrigued.

So, since I clearly don't get "real" reviews, let's go through the experience of reading Shutter Island chronologically.  No plot spoilers, but if I tell you where I get confused or skeptical, that might give something away to you, I guess.

First, the beginning: not bad.  I stumbled a little over the fact that the preface is narrated by a character who doesn't relate to the beginning of the book, and I kept confusing him with the main character.  But it's a book with a good premise, and the solid, direct prose you'd expect of a guy who mostly writes detective novels.

Then the tension builds, the mystery, the conspiracy.  It gets more complex--not convoluted, not hard to follow, but full of tensions, characters, motivations.  As that happens, things get a little more unlikely.  It wasn't unbelievable, but I found myself wanting it to hurry up and get sorted out so I could put the pieces together.

Now, let's remember that I knew going in that there was a twist ending.  So this is the point where I did that thing I'm not supposed to do and flipped to the last page.  I didn't read too much, just a line or two. 

From this point, a combination of that glimpse of the ending and what's going on in the story gives me a few possible guesses to the twist.  And now I'm pissed off, because all of these endings are contrived, irritating, lame, overblown.  Every hint I get, I want to throw the book across the room.

So I slog angrily along until I get to the Big Reveal.  And it is, in fact, one of the outcomes I have foreseen.  But somehow--and I'm pretty impressed by this--it was really, really satisfying.  It made so much more sense than anything else would have, and I was surprised and impressed to find that all the loose ends tied up neatly.  I didn't assume they'd be left dangling, but I was expecting some ugly, awkward knots.  It was all quite elegant, though.

So, at the end, I didn't hate the book.  I would give it a pretty good review now--a mystery that trots along neatly with a twist ending.

But most of the time I was reading the book--at least half the time--I hated it.  I was miserable reading it, didn't trust the author, raged against the plot twists.  So tell me, a good review or a bad one?

This is why I like to review them while I'm reading them.  And why reviews are not for me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Some bloggers--better bloggers than I--would stick to their challenge in the face of the kind of system-crashing computer challenges I'm having.  I am not one of those bloggers--I mean, by definition I'm not a better blogger than I, but--oh, you know what I mean.  Anyway, I'm posting this from my husband's too-tiny-to-type-on keyboard, and I promise to come back and post my Susan Isaacs retrospective and then also to talk about my growing passionate feelings about Shutter Island (hint: GAH!), but it will probably be Monday before that happens.  I'm so, so sorry.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Strangers In the Night

Sorry to be absent; my computer has been on the fritz, which has caused me enough work delays that my blog delays.  In house tech support is on it, though, and I think we're making progress.

I'll just catch you up on a little New Release shelf discovery I made this week.  It's called Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steve Amsterdam, and I think it will appeal to my readership.  Two words: future dystopia.  Two more: short stories.  This is a book of connected short stories about one character, starting on New Year's Eve, 1999, when he's a child with a father having a Y2K panic attack.  It follows his life in a world that becomes increasingly different from the one we live in--a world of shortages, oppression, and difficulty. 

That's what I think is going on--I'm really only in the second story.  But I'm pretty impressed so far.  I won't say I love it, but I really like it, and I find it really interesting. 

So I wanted to report on it, and let you know that I appear to be back on the radar, internet-wise.  Big shout out to Techie.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Did That Count?

So, for the record, did yesterday's description of Between Silk and Cyanide count as a real review?  Because really, I think it's mostly what I was going for.  Wasn't it?  Was there anything missing?  It didn't feel structured, but...oh, heck, what do I know? 

Anyway, I can't write a review tonight--I'm too clogged in the sinuses; it's all I can do to remember the title of the book, much less what I thought of it.  I'll say that I finished Mistress of the Art of Death and was pleased.  Everything was tied up very satisfactorily, even to the extent that some very small dissatisfactions prevent the ending from being too pat.

I'm reading Shutter Island, too, by Dennis Lehane.  A few things have conspired to bring this to pass:  my friend Sheila, who loves Lehane, has left me feeling like I should read one of his books.  The previews for the movie that came out recently made the premise sound interesting, but I'm not much of a Leo DiCaprio fan, so I thought I'd read the book instead.  And heck, it was sitting right there on the shelf.  Really, that's the key.

I've got a good metric ton of reading to do, but luckily I'm sick as a dog--plenty of time for that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Merrily Rolling Along

I think I've figured out another problem with writing "regular" reviews, which is that I'm way more interested in writing about a book while I'm in the middle of it than when I finish.  What I want to talk about is the experience of reading it, not the experience of having read it.  But the former turns into the latter as soon as you finish, and then I feel like, well, I'm glad I read it.  What do you want me to say?

Whereas right now--well, let's talk about Between Silk and Cyanide.  Leo Marks clearly knew when he was writing the book that most of the people who picked it up would do so because his father ran Marks & Co., the bookstore located at 84, Charing Cross Road.  If you are not familiar with the book by Helene Hanff, run out and get it right now.  Seriously.  I'll wait.  If you're reading a book blog, you need to have read this book.

Anyway, Leo Marks.  He has an audience built in, and he plays to them by mentioning the bookstore way more often than a book about spies and secret codes in World War II justifies.  I know I wouldn't have heard of the book if not for 84 CCR, but I'm enjoying it for itself. 

It's mostly a memoir, which is probably for the best, since I often have trouble with histories.  And it's not flawless--if what you're looking for is a book you can follow, and broad information about Signals and spies in WWII, then this probably isn't the place.  If, however, you're like me and you want a string of funny and fascinating anecdotes about an amazing place and time in history, well, there we are.

Marks was a 22 year old graduate who was sent to code school and nearly flunked out.  Headstrong, mouthy, funny, and completely unable to accept the idea that someone else was in charge and doing something he disapproved of, he's a great narrator.  Cocky, sure, but assuming he's not fudging the facts, he's also pretty amazing. 

I wasn't kidding about not being able to follow it.  There are a handful of "characters" who he works with and who are consistent in the book, but there are dozens and dozens of other people who you only meet for one encounter, then maybe hear about by their code name half a book later.  Who's a colonel, and what was he in command of in July?  Who knows?  But when you need to remember someone, he gives you enough clues, and if you lay back and roll with it, you realize that it doesn't really matter who Wilson is (the same guy who denied your personnel request?  Or was he the guy who kicked you out of coding school?)--you have enough info to know what you think of Wilson right now and what his relationship to Marks is--that's enough.

Witty, urgent, firmly British and lovingly Jewish, this is a book to meander through, learn about code breaking, and watch a genius (in his own mind, and I'm pretty sure in real life) at work.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


It was horrible, wasn't it?  I mean, I was embarrassed to post it.  But I promised, and for me it's finishing things at all, not how they come out, that is the real accomplishment.  I'm so sorry that I subjected you to that.  I'll put in more work on the next one, I promise. 

I checked out Mockingjay yesterday, in spite of the fact that the BPL claims it's on its way.  I found a speed read copy available at Cambridge and snatched it up, because the damned book came out over two weeks ago, and I've been looking at the Transit Hold notification for another week.  Everyone else has already read it.  And I want it now, Mom!

And then I didn't even start it.  But if you've read Mistress of the Art of Death you won't blame me.  Not that Mockingjay isn't calling my name, but it's not often that I come across a mystery that I like this much.  Primarily it's the period detail, I think--Cambridge of the 12th century is pretty amazing. 

But I'm also loving something that sets this book apart from a lot of other mysteries; besides the detectives, there are a whole bunch of likable characters.  Usually when you find a likable character in a mystery, it's the author using reverse psychology and you want to suspect them.  But each of these characters has layers, and I'm enjoying that element of the story a lot.

Also, the doctor, Adelia, reminds me of the Temperance Brennan character from Bones.  She's good with science and the dead, okay with people in the context of medicine, and completely useless with people in pretty much every other respect.  Thank goodness for her clever sidekicks.

I have no idea who did it yet--everyone I want to suspect is too obvious.  But I'm along for the ride, which is not always how I feel about a mystery.  So way to go, Ariana Franklin--finding a good mystery series is pretty impressive for me.

So now wait.  Does that count as a review?  No plot synopsis.  If I added a little info about what happens would it be a review?  Gah!  Watching me wrestle with myself over this has got to be irritating.  But hey, what's a blog for?

Monday, September 06, 2010

Blame, by Michelle Huneven

Like a lot of books I read, Blame moved on and off my radar for a while before I picked it up.  Audible recommended it as an audiobook, but I wasn't sure about the reader; someone I know online liked it.  And, as often happens, what sold me was its availability at the library I happened to be at when my first choice book wasn't available.

Situations like this always make me grateful.  Luck brought me a book I was only moderately interested in, and I'm lucky to have read it.  I have a well documented sketchy relationship with literary fiction, but the idea that I might be missing books like Blame because of that skittishness is off-putting.

On one level, this is an addiction recovery novel--a very straightforward story of a woman, Patsy, who hits rock bottom and climbs out.  On another level, it's about Patsy's relationship with herself--control, forgiveness, and the struggle to be a good person when she's already done pretty much the worst bad-person thing that you can do.  But then, I suppose all addiction recovery stories are similarly about coming to terms with yourself. 

Blame has the quality of close observation of the mundane that seems to really define today's literary fiction, but adds to that the interest of observing something that I haven't experienced myself, and that seems worth looking at.  What must it be like to know that you killed someone by accident?  What would jail be like for a nice, middle-class girl like me?  I've wondered about these things, and the straightforward thoroughness with which Huneven covers them satisfies my desires for both story and information.

Patsy goes to jail, joins AA, gets paroled, goes back to work, attends therapy, makes friends, lives her life.  Most of the book takes place in the 1980s, and we meet the people who surround her--her brother, her old friends, her AA friends, the men she's attracted to, the people who revile her, the people who forgive her. 

I think that what I loved about this book was that the story it told me was one that, though it's been told before, I'd never heard before.  To me, that's what set it apart from other literary fiction--that the observations it makes are ones that I might or might not have guessed, but have always wondered about.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Surrender Monkey Gives Up

Before I start on things I have finished, let's do a wrap up of the things I haven't.  Sometimes when I have too many library books out, I suddenly become aware of my own mortality.  This is because I'm so excited to read all these books that when something fails to live up, I can't bring myself to let it keep me from the real meat.

So the last couple of weeks have been full of attrition.  I quit most of them within 40 pages, but I'll give you a rundown so you can decide if you want to concur with my catty conclusions out of sheer love of trash talk.

In reverse order:

Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon.  I heard about this book because of the great Cover Controversy: the hardcover version features, appropriately, an Asian character, while the paperback has a more ethnically neutral girl.  That's what brought it to my attention, but everything else about it--YA, fantasy, strong female character on a quest, the type of world it's set in--all implied to me that I'd like it. 

And Ai Ling is just my kind of character.  She starts out ordinary, but circumstances--her father's failure to return from a trip to the Imperial Palace, mysterious hints at his scandalous past, and unpaid debts--make her confront her assumptions about the world she lives in and herself.  Right up my alley.

But it turns out that, as a YA fantasy author, your literary model should probably be someone other than Ernest Hemingway.  This is a book composed of short, declarative sentences.  It's not quite Hemingway; it took me 40 pages to realize it.  But here's the passage that made me realize I wasn't in love with the book:

"She eased the shed door open.  The morning air rejuvenated her as she scanned the horizon.  The rays of the sun were just beginning to wash the skyline.  She reeked of farm animals and damp hay.  Ai Ling scratched her itching scalp and wished for a mirror, then decided it was probably better she didn't have one."  Noun - verb - direct object - prepositional phrase. 

But what really did me in was the magic.  Whenever something magical happened--a mysterious animal drags her into a lake, her amulet protects her from attack--I literally had to flip back a few pages to make sure I hadn't missed something.  Where did the magic come from?  She's always shocked by it, yet seems to expect it.  I'm the queen of suspended disbelief, but I got lost very early on here, and was never won back.  Which is a shame, because I love the flavor that the Chinese cultural basis brought to the kingdom of Xia.

The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr.  What could be better: the author of The Alienist and Sherlock Holmes?  They were made for each other!  Anyone else ever set up a failed blind date and been unable to see that it was going to go wrong?

Really, I don't think the book was awful, and it was really short, so I'm even surprised at myself for giving it up.  But I realized that we were a third of the way through the book--litearally--and they were still on the train heading for the location of the murders while Holmes is spouting exposition about Mary Stuart's murdered title character of a music instructor, Rizzio.  Also, the book spends a lot of time setting you up to think Holmes believes that Rizzio's ghost is responsible for the present crimes, but does so in a way that it's pretty clear that he's going to later surprise Watson by revealing that no, he just means that a society can still suffer from the memories of old crimes, not that an actual ghost is doing the killing, silly ol' Watson!

Saddest of all, Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn.  She's my current author crush, and it shocked and dismayed me to put this book down.  And I'm not going to claim that you can't do Jane Eyre in space, because I think you could.  But you have to get all Frank Herbert--all High Imperial.  Your formality can't be Victorian; it has to be Elizabethan.  And you have to really, really sell me on the class distinctions and stiff use of language, which she tried, but couldn't do.   I'm convinced that if it hadn't been a Jane Eyre knockoff, if I hadn't known where the plot was going and what forces were supposed to be behind things, I would actually have liked the book. 

But as it is, I just don't have the time for halfhearted right now!  Not with 600-page Between Silk and Cyanide due in a couple of weeks, and me taking forever with it even though it's great and funny and fascinating.  Not with Mistress of the Art of Death begging for my attention (I finally started it, and it's really good).  And certainly not with the raves I've been reading about The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

So, coming up: my pants-wetting wait for Mockingjay and my first review.  Maybe Hunger Games?  Or one I recently finished, Blame?  Or an old favorite, Shining Through.  Since I view it as an exercise and I have a schedule to keep, I'm going to dig into the backlist for good reviews to write.  Votes?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Good Blogger

A good blogger lets her reading public know before she goes on vacation, not five days after she gets back.  And she certainly does not let a long list of potential post topics muddle her to the point where she doesn't know what to write about and so writes about nothing.

So I guess we've established that I'm not a very good blogger.  But as an exercise, I'd like to practice being one.  So: a resolution.  Starting today (Wednesday, September 1, 2010), I'm going to post three times a week for the next month.  That'll be something in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday range, though I might do more of a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday thing, since I understand it's bad form to blog at work.

In addition, as part of this little outing, I'm going to try a little exercise for myself.  A few people I know from online have started book blogs recently, and I picked up a NYT Book Review and some free publication the library was handing out, and I've been thinking of the form of the book review.

That's not really what I do here.  This is more of a personal blog with a book theme, at least to me.  It's about my hobby, my personal experience of reading all these books, not so much the books themselves.  That's less because I think that I'm worth reading about and more because I know for a fact that I'm an authority on it. 

Also, to be honest, not a lot of people want to hear about the spasms I went into when I found out that Mockingjay was in transit - finally! - or exactly what about Jenna Starborn is making it less compelling than Sharon Shinn's other books.  Like so many other blogs, I consider this a venue for things I want to blab about but can't convince anyone to listen.

It seems like I should be able to use this space constructively, though.  So during September Of The Ambitious Posting Schedule, I'm going to try to write a Real Review every week.  This will include a synopsis but not spoilers, and an evaluation based on slightly more than whether I loved or hated the book.  I'd really like to see if I can write something structured without turning it into an academic paper.  History says no, but my Magic 8 Ball says 'Ask again later.'  I'll take all the encouragement I can get.