Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Accounting

As 2011 draws to a close, let's summarize what we've experienced together over the past twelve months.

According to Goodreads, I've read 106 books.  It will be 107 by tomorrow, since I'm only four pages from the end of The Weathermonger.  This count isn't a perfect representation of the picture, though, since it includes five novellas, thirteen graphic novels, and at least one audiobook performance that only sort of counts as a book.  Still, it's a good way to grasp how things have been going.

I can't tell you what the best book I read this year was, but I can give you a sampling of the five-star ratings I've given.  My star ratings (like everyone else's, I suppose) mostly reflect my reaction in the moment, and looking back on them, I'm sometimes surprised--something I only moderately enjoyed stayed with me, or something I loveloveloved loses its luster.  But sometimes, great books are just great books.  So:
Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell.  I read some good comics this year, but this one just makes me so happy.  It's an ongoing webcomic (the image links to Amazon, but he link goes to his site), and I read it through in about three days.  Halfway through, I sent the author a donation through PayPal; when I got to the end I sent him another.  There are robots, animate shadows, a mysterious boarding school, an ominous forest, teenaged relationship stress, and Coyote the trickster.  Also laser cows.  Read this, please.

Troubled Waters, Sharon Shinn.  Reviewed here.  I love Sharon Shinn.  I don't love every one of her books uncritically, but I think that makes me love her more--I know it's not just that I'm bewitched or she has a gimmick; it's that she writes such good books.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin.  Reviewed here.  I'm also reading the sequel right now.  This is one of those books that kind of blew me away with the world building--including things that I'd never seen done so well, like gods as characters--and some outings into very tricky literary ground, like irregular timelines and characters without enough information.  In my memory, it's just a really good fantasy book, but looking back to when I finished it, it really blew the doors of your average good fantasy book, and was totally worth it for that.

The Warrior's Apprentice (The Vorkosigan Saga), Lois McMaster Bujold.  I'm finally reading the Miles books.  They're just as much fun as I was promised.  I read two quickly, and now I'm dawdling so I don't finish too fast.  I can't say much about how great these are that hasn't been said a million times--the Amazon reviews alone are so glowing as to be bottomless.

Some nonfiction....

Bossypants, Tina Fey.  Reviewed here.  This is definitely one of those that I look back on with a little less enthusiasm than I had when I starred it.  But belly laughs will do that to you.  Her reading was a performance--I highly recommend the audiobook.  I laughed so hard, and I loved that she actually had a lot to say about the challenges of being a woman in an odd, male-centric field like comedy.

Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick.  Reviewed here.  Even more timely now that Kim Jong Il is dead and North Korea's about to go just a little wonkier.  Amazingly well-painted portrait of life in the modern world but cut off from it.

Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney.  Spiritual journeys--complicated ones by intellectuals, especially--are one of my favorite types of stories.  This is actually an audiobook/performance, so I'm not sure it counts as a book, but I'd like to recommend it here anyway, because I really liked the way all Sweeney's considerations orbited around trying to reconcile her experiences as a believer with the mythology she had grown up with.  Moving, and thoughtful, and funny.

And a couple of novels...

Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork. Reviewed here.  I found the ending a little problematic, but it was such a thorough, touching, and sensitive portrayal of Asperger's, I was really moved.

Rules for Virgins, Amy Tan.  This one is a novella, and absolutely lovely.  It's an instructive monologue from an experienced geisha to her student.  The subtleties of relationships--power, sex, culture--and the delicate pressures everyone is exerting are intricate and fascinating.  And the hints of character that are revealed through the lessons are equally compelling.  I wish it had been longer.

Overall, I'd say it was a pretty good year.  I found a lot of great new authors and had a lot of fun in a lot of great fantasy worlds.  There are all kinds of things that I imagine myself reading in the new year--more literary fiction, more classics--but I'm having so much fun the way I'm going, I'm not setting any goals.  We'll trust where the wind takes me.

Welcome 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sequeltown III: The Revenge

Don't think I was done.  I'm hardly reading anything these days that doesn't come from a proven author with a proven set of characters, world, and pre-approved plotlines.  Keeps things streamlined.

I liked-but-didn't-love Ally Condie's Matched, but was interested enough to keep rolling with the next one, Crossed.  It's coming at the Perfect Society Dystopia from the other side; while the first book took place in the happy, locked-down part of the world, this one takes place on the fringes, on the run.  In spite of that, it has a very similar feel to the first book, and I have a very similar reaction to it.

I think this series may have suffered from overhype.  That's a real risk, especially when you're an adult reading YA.  Because the main audience for these books is young, you have a fresh set of folks reading their first dystopian fiction and being blown away by it.  Books are wildly popular because most readers are coming at everything with fresh eyes.  Even reviewers in this genre are often librarians, teachers, and people who service young adults and who (appropriately) look at the work through that audience's eyes.

Crossed shares some of what I'd consider the weaknesses of Matched, especially the reliance on true, deep, enormous teen love as the main driving force, and the seamless monolith of the Society's machinations.  The former is usually my biggest pet peeve, but is almost tolerable here; I can really get behind the romance being mostly a way for the characters to pursue something (freedom) that they wouldn't know how to reach for or even really define on its own.  So I'll give it a pass.

But the absolute tight control that the Society has--every piece of information monitored, every piece of paper accounted for, every ounce of food measured and accounted for--seems entirely impossible to me.  I think that's a very adult perspective on my part; over the years I've become aware of how almost everything that looks structurally flawless is fraying just out of frame.  Still, I'm finding it to be a weakness, if only because I never know what to expect from the Society--the omnipotence they seem to have in the story, or a more realistic veneer of omnipotence.

As flaws go, these are in no way deal-breakers, though.  I like how little information everyone has, how hard Cassia finds her decisions (though her unflinching willingness to rush toward death is kind of startling), how conflicted Ky is.  I really like the secondary characters, who really feel like full characters we've just met, with back stories and blind spots and everything.  There are types here, but they're all their own.

My other current situation is The Broken Kingdoms, sequel to N.K. Jemisen's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  I only just started it, so it almost doesn't count for a blog post, but I really liked the first one, and I'm pretty excited about it.  The world-building was incredible; the incredibly complex problem of gods living side by side with people was deftly handled.  I've barely begun this one, but as a follow-up--with new characters and set a while later--it's already very promising.

I think that's it from Sequeltown for now.  But hey, maybe I'll come out with another trilogy 25 years from now.  They'll probably be pretty mediocre, though.  This is probably my masterpiece.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Someone Else's Blog

Kristen Cashore (of the inimitable Graceling and Fire, and the forthcoming (squee!) Bitterblue), posted a link to this from Tui Sutherland, whose blog I hadn't read before.  That post has some fabulous stuff in it, both as Christmas gift ideas and just good reads, and I may or may not have run out and made myself an impulse buy based on it. 

I know Tui through a friend and she's very cool--I can't believe I hadn't found her blog before.  She's the author of a bunch of books for young readers and young adults, which you should check out!

Anyway, I know it's last minute, but a good book is a great gift.  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Slasher Fic

In the afterword to the ebook Trapped, by Jack Kilborn, the author explains why the ebook contains two versions of the novel.  He wrote one and his editors asked for some revisions, because it was too violent.  He wrote the second, but refused to make further revisions, so it sat unpublished till it came out in this form.  He requests that reviewers please rate the version they prefer, rather than averaging the two for a rating and thereby "punishing" him for including two versions.

Jack, honey, I'll be happy to.

This is a slasher movie of a novel, all gore and guts and cannibals and torture.  It's not just that it's violent--I've read some violent stuff.  It's that it's so purposefully violent.  It feels very much like the only thought that went into this story was "how can I be gorier; what would be the most horrifying thing that could happen to this person?"

It's pretty poorly written, although I don't entirely hold that against the author; there's a strong sense that this is a first draft (second, actually; I'm reading the LESS violent revision).  There are typos, a lot of exposition is thrust into the middle of the action in a clunky way, a lot of the character histories read like the author hadn't really figured out which details were important and which weren't.  All these I can let slide, mostly because I wasn't expecting much when I picked this up.

But there are some serious, major plot holes in the surprise twist that I really don't think, at this point, are going to be sewn up.  Things like: nobody noticed those campers never came back?  Really?  No insurance because you missed a Medicare payment?  Is that how it works?

I'm skimming almost all the back story, and almost all the tension-mounting moments in the dark woods, and almost all the really violent scenes--well, the whole book really.  There are some good moments about planning and logistics, but oh my word, the do-gooder's heroic thoughts and the inner city slang of the troubled youths being chased through the woods--it's a parody of itself.  It's the novelization of Really Freaking Scary Movie, with Gore

It's almost high art.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sequeltown, The Sequel

The Thirteenth Child was a pleasure, and I'm hoping Across the Great Barrier is just as good.  As a sequel, that's always tough, but the style of storytelling here really lends itself to continuing in the same vein as the first book.  This isn't a story of glorious highs and terrifying lows--it's about living on the American frontier, coming of age as a girl who's always been outshone by her twin, and trying to find what you want when it's always been easy just to slip by.

And also magic.  Wildlife, really.  Magic is everywhere, always used.  On the frontier, magic runs wild and the magical animals make homesteading incredibly dangerous.  And our heroine, Eff, wants to be a naturalist and to study these animals.

I don't know what's going to happen in the story, but explaining what happened in the first book wouldn't tell you much.  Eff grows up, her brother goes to school, they visit the Rationalist settlement, she learns Aphrikan magic.  I'm a sucker for a book about the patterns of life in a well-built fantasy world, and that's what I'm hoping to find in Patricia Wrede's sequel.  I think I've got a good chance.

Unfortunately, I recently threw in the towel on another sequel that I've been struggling with for a while.  The Parable of the Talents, which is Octavia Butler's follow-up to The Parable of the Sower, started out with the spark of hope that concluded the first book and slowly, painfully scattered dirt on it till it was snuffed out.  Sower was grim enough that I would not have expected to be overcome by the grimness of the sequel, but darn if I wasn't.

I'll admit that I actually really want to know how it ends.  I wish I'd been able to stick it out to find out.  But as the precarious little world that the characters have built is dented and shredded, as the outside world gets worse, as the story is framed with comments many years later that describe the emotional fallout of what we're about to read, it just wore away at me until I never wanted to pick it up.

The more I think about it, the more the visceral discomfort was an intellectual strength.  When everything falls apart, that's when anyone's faith is tested, and more so those whose faith states that God is change.  The introduction by Lauren's grown daughter opens a wider window on the harsher aspects of the protagonist's character--her ambition, her cold practicality.  The most useful traits are not always the most endearing ones.

But in the end, I couldn't read it.  It just made me tired, and sad.  That feels more like a weakness in myself than in the book itself, though.

But oh, baby, I'm not done with sequels yet!  While I've got some one-off irons in the fire, I feel like there's a wonderful bounty of great series that I'm swimming in right now.  Huzzah!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

RIP Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey of The Dragonriders of Pern fame passed away almost a month ago. I was very sorry to hear it, although I'm not very familiar with her work.  I will always remember the Pern books as the first stories I read that started out medieval/fantasy style and turned out to be post-industrial space colonies (see Dragonflight and Dragonsdawn--the only two Pern books I've read).

(Spoiler Alert)

But I read these books long ago, and I have a question for McCaffrey fans.  I loved Dragonsdawn, but my memory of Dragonflight involves a flaw that really bugged me.  Dragonriders have lived on Pern for thousands of years at this point, presumably.  And they travel to distant places by visualizing them and going "between."  But somehow no one has ever accidentally traveled through time until Lessa did?  And she did it by picturing her target place as she remembered it?  No one else ever did that before?  Then what were they picturing?

Can someone who's read this book more recently, and/or who loves it and knows it well, tell me whether this is as far fetched as it seems to me?  Am I remembering it wrong?  Is it addressed in the story?  Am I the only one who noticed this?  I'd appreciate it, because I'm very tempted to read some of these books, but just the memory of that is bugging the heck out of me.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sequeltown, Part the First

During my long break, I waded hip-deep into a bunch of YA fantasy (surprise!), and I've been devouring series in one big gulp.  It's kind of fabulous, actually.  A quick, fun read, and I walk to the library while I'm finishing the last 10 pages so I can check out the next on.  Or, heck, the next two, why wait?

Tamora Pierce is an incredibly popular classic, but it took me a while to understand her.  I think this is because she straddles the line between YA and middle-grade--she's NOT a YA writer who ended up in that section because of marketing.  Her books have younger characters, simpler moral dilemmas, and straightforward writing.  Ages ago when I read the first Circle of Magic book, I considered that a weakness. I've gotten much more comfortable with the genre since then, so I thought I'd try another one.

Alanna: The First Adventure is the beginning of the Song of the Lioness series.  It falls clearly into that same category--the main character ages from 10 to about 14 in the book, and the target audience is right in the lower range of those ages. Because I understood that, I could deal with the simplicity, and of course you know how excited I get with books about learning how to do stuff.  Knighthood, jousting, girls disguised as boys, magic lessons, court politics.  Simple fun, small stories, a kid growing up.

I barely finished the book before I went back for In the Hand of the Goddess and The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (which, good God, don't even look at that awful cover.  Alanna is not sassy.  Alanna is a knight.).  They took about three days to read total, and now I've started Lioness Rampant, which is the final one in the series.  She's an adult and traveling around and having adventures.  Starting with the second book, Alanna has had sexual relationships (no direct sex scenes), which has thrown off my understanding of the age bracket thing, but basically, I am having a blast reading these books in the same way that I enjoy watching a lot of simple, fast-paced TV shows: stuff is happening to these characters I know and like, and I'd like to see how it turns out.

If I was 14, I'd probably feel impassioned about these books, but for right now, what I'm feeling is a Pez-level pleasure.  And baby, I'll take it.

The Changes series by Peter Dickinson is extremely different in tone.  For lack of a better word, it's very British.  There is something charmingly, weirdly British in a book about people who do a lot of walking that is described in great detail, but somehow that doesn't work against these.  The first book, The Devil's Children, I think I found on a "help me find the name of this book I remember from childhood" website; it was the answer to someone else's question.  (I know; I need to stop reading those).

One day, England suddenly changes.  There's a brief prologue that hints someone in a mine opened up something, but essentially everyone woke up one day hating, loathing, fearing all machines.  Cars ran off the road as the drivers tried to jump away from screaming engines, people smashed the electronics in their houses.  People wandered the streets, sanitation ended, there was death and mass exodus.  People are affected differently--children feel it less acutely than adults; white people more strongly than other races.

The Devil's Children is the story of a girl who is left alone and falls in with a group of Sikhs.  They keep her around as a canary in the coal mine--to test whether things that they want to do are likely to get them lynched--and they end up forming a community that lives somewhat peacefully near a feudal-style village.  That's almost all there is to the story--it's about looking for a good spot to live, learning about Sikh culture, what mass fear looks like.  A small, everyday story.

The second book, Heartsease, is set in a different part of England, five years later.  A "witch" (someone who uses technology) is stoned in a small town, and is rescued by some children who aren't as frightened as they should be.
They keep him hidden for months, then smuggle him away to a boat and upriver to the sea.  That is all that happens in this book--all the tension is around getting caught, misleading the lynch-mob adults of the town, wandering around at night, and trying to get up the canal.  And along the way, teeny-tiny little clues about why The Changes happened are dropped. 

I'm DYING to know what's up with The Changes.  The third book is sitting here beside me.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

I Read That

Isn't it funny that it hardly occurs to me to review books I recently finished with, as opposed to those I'm in the middle of?  Why would I talk about those?  They're yesterday's news.

Literally yesterday.  I'm not always a mystery reader, but the Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin has a firm grip on my love of historical fiction. I had Grave Goods
on my desk/table/floor next to the table for over a month before I picked it up from the long list.

But oh, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think I'd forgotten how much I love this series.  Tightly plotted, full of historical detail, and just the right amount of color and flavor.  I hate a mystery where you know who did it by the Law of Economy of Characters, but I also hate a mystery that rambles around and mostly isn't about the mystery.  That's never a problem here--place and time, political intrigue and love and fire and superstition are wrapped up tightly and hurl you through the story.

I think it helps that I love Bones, since it's basically Bones in the Middle Ages, like some time travel episode of a sitcom. Adelia is a doctor, trained in Italy where social mores are liberal enough to allow a woman that profession.  She's scientific, literal, and not very socially adept; her expertise is the dead.  In the first book she comes to England to assist Henry II with an investigation.  In this book, she's trying to establish whether a disinterred body is that of the legendary Arthur, whose proven death might help quell a Welsh rebellion.

But there's so much more to the story.  The innkeepers, the abbot, the huntsmen, the bard, the knight, the friend, and of course the Bishop of St. Albans (wink wink).  All the subplots come together neatly (but not too neatly), and there is just the right amount of peril, confusion, and diversion.  And there is comeuppance, though not all exactly what one might wish for.

As I said, I'm not a mystery person.  But I've already reserved the most recent book in the series, A Murderous Procession, from the library.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Unexpected Hiatus

Not only was I gone for a month, but I left a Christopher Pike retrospective posted.  Did you ever notice that when a blogger disappears for a long stretch, the last post they leave up is usually pretty lame?  Yeah, that's me.

There wasn't any special reason I didn't write all month.  Not that I wasn't busy, but I also didn't have a lot to say about anything I was reading.  I grabbed and quit a lot of books, finished a bunch, and read a good amount of fluff. 

But instead of going back to fill in last month's reading, which thought I'm finding rather depressing, I'm going to plunge forward with some current reviews, because there's some great stuff piling up here. 

Like True Grit, by Charles Portis.  I haven't seen the John Wayne movie, but I saw the more recent one, which was really fascinating.  The dialogue was very stylized, but the story was a great Western and the characters were such fun--strange, hard Mattie and aloof, competent Rooster.  I was curious about the book.

It was just fun.  Narrated by Mattie, the nitty gritty, practical details of getting business done as a 14-year-old girl on her own in a Western town were a romp.  The dialogue was still distracting--no contractions, everyone speaking in a stilted, structured way.  But inside the story, it's very clear that Mattie is telling the story, and Mattie is relating everything in her own voice. 

And her voice really makes the book.  I didn't understand two words of her digressions into politics or the divisions within the Presybterian church, but they were incredibly charming and passionate.  She's a strange, passionate, practical girl, and it was satisfying to watch her follow her quest.  Short, sharp, fun read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Christopher Pike: A Retrospective

I remember being sold on the Final Friends series in middle school, and then sweeping through the rest of his classic YA horror novels:  Last Act, Chain Letter, The Weekend, Slumber Party (what kind of genius YA horror writer doesn't write a book called Slumber Party?).  I've read and reread Remember Me dozens of times over the years, well into  my 20s.

I can't say a lot about those books--they're teen mystery/horror novels--a bunch of high schoolers are away for the weekend and get picked off one by one, and then at the end we find out the twist of who did it.  They're fun and innocent and seemed very smart and realistic when I was 14.

Then there was Sati, which blew my mind in high school.  I wrote a paper comparing it to C.S. Lewis's Perelandra.  A girl who claims to be god turns up (appears?) in the desert of southern California and touches the lives of a group of friends and neighbors.  There's a Buddhist influence, and all these ideas about god that are apart from the mythology of specific religions, where god is so simple and magically spiritual.  I haven't read it in years, and I suspect I'd be embarrassed now at how I felt about the book, but I really loved it.

It turns out the Christopher Pike was a teenager when he started publishing those books.  In retrospect, they regain a lot of the ground that they lost as I matured past them.  I also recently learned that Christopher Pike is actually a pen name that he took from that other famous Christopher Pike, first captain of the starship Enterprise

Then we hit a wall.  I believe Scavenger Hunt was the first of his books where I balked.  It got really dark, really fast.  Witch, Die Softly--books where there was a lot of dying and a lot of hopelessness.  It was too sudden to switch from one, maybe two dead people in the book to everyone being destroyed by an ancient evil.

Looking back, though, Scavenger Hunt was a pretty good horror novel.  It's just that his books had always been thrillers, and I wasn't ready for it.  But that's when I stopped reading his books, gave up, and moved on.

I recently learned--realized might be a better word--that he kept writing, though.  A lot, actually.  He wrote a whole big vampire series, before vampires were big.  He wrote two sequels to Remember Me, very weirdly spiritual and all around strange.  And some "grown-up" books that I decided I had to try.

I picked The Listeners because the plot made me wonder if he'd gone more deeply into the mythology of Scavenger Hunt.  There is another world, maybe another dimension, populated by possibly lizard-like creatures that have evil intentions.  The lizard part isn't there, but the idea of another world touching ours and a gap that potential enemies can slip through--there was a lot of potential there.

I'm so sorry to report, after just a few pages, that the book is nearly unreadable.  The very simple precaution of reading your characters' dialogue out loud would have helped a lot here.  In the first scene, two high-level FBI agents, who are close friends, have a conversation in which one briefs the other and assigns him a case.  They do not speak like FBI agents, friends, or people having a conversation.  They speak like someone reading prepared remarks--the same person on both sides. 

Also, they're investigating an organization of psychics in the midwest for being suspiciously successful at predicting the future, and the briefing begins with information about what the ancient Mayans knew about astronomy--because it's very relevant.  It's not color commentary or in-depth subtlety; it's where you have to start briefing your friend and direct report before you send him to the midwest.  If you don't explain the Mayans, how could he possibly look into the suspiciously successful psychics?

God, I'm a whiner.  I've been writing this post for days, but I'm too depressed by this loss of my childhood innocence.  Plus, the absence of the Amazon Associates widget for adding book links is bringing me down.  Also, on a more personal note, it's bedtime and my living room suddenly smells like skunk.  I'll come back with something better in a couple more days; it's been a while since we've had a Mercedes Lackey retrospective around here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Short Story Sorrow

(Excuse the lack of links; Amazon stole my widget.  I'll add them in tomorrow when my laptop is charged.)

I don't know why, but I'm just not a short story person most of the time. I wish I could come up with a general reason, but it seems more like I just have a series of less-than-pleasing short story experiences.  Although thinking about it, what I really don't care for is a book of short stories all by the same author.  It's not stories I don't enjoy, per se, but a book full of stories.  Especially by the same author--stories by the same author tend to have a very uniform flavor that gets redundant in a way that a continuously unfolding story of course does not.

So that's interesting; I seem to have had a little insight there.  This feeds nicely into the two books I want to talk about  here, one a surrender, one a thumbs up.  There's not a lot to say about the thumbs up that isn't said by the title: Zombies vs. Unicorns.  It's just what it sounds like, with an all star cast of YA fantasy/sci fi writers--Scott Westerfeld, Libba Bray, Libba Bray, Carrie Ryan, Garth Nix, Maureen Johnson, and Naomi Novik.  And those are just the ones I've read--Meg Cabot, Cassandra Clare, Margo Lanagan, and a bunch of others turn up, too.

Zombie stories alternate with unicorn stories as the two editors (Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier) argue about which is cooler.  I think that, objectively speaking, Team Zombie takes the prize, though mostly because a lot of the unicorn stories involve the undead.  Anyway, this is one of those things that I'm sure to get sick of soon, where someone decides to put together an anthology with a Theme and a bunch of people write stories about it.  The stories aren't all spectacular, but they're diverting and different and I'm having fun with it.

Surrender, however, is The Great Frustration, by Seth Fried.  I picked it up because the title caught my eye, and when I opened to a random page, it was the beginning of a story entitled "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre."  It was a funny, charming beginning that looked like it might be satire.  And you know, it might actually be satire, but if it is, it's too heavy-handed for me to appreciate. 

It's about how every year the whole town goes to this picnic and a bunch of people get killed.  And everyone gets all upset and wails and laments, but then the next year they all go again.  And it's run by a big faceless corporation so no one ever gets held responsible.  It wants to be really observant and insightful, but it's just kind of hollow, like the profound things that you realize about the world when you're in high school.

As for my earlier insight about short stories by the same author having the same tone?  The first two stories in this collection are told in the first person plural.  It was just too much for me; I think I need a good literary magazine instead.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One with a very specific reader in mind.  This person grew up in the 1980s and played a lot of video games.  He loved Rush, WarGames, Asteroid, Monty Python, Dungeons & Dragons.  He played video games obsessively--he was the beginning of the current geekiarchy.

This book was a ton of fun.  The world building is intense, amusing, and incredibly well thought out.  It's pretty explicitly laid out--the narrator gives you a history lesson, and drops a lot of information throughout the book in the manner of someone whose audience needs info.  What's kind of cool is that he's filling you with '80s trivia and late 21st century history in the same tone of voice, and you never feel like he's laying it on too thick.

I got most of the movie references and almost none of the video games, but you are handed more than enough information.  Mike was actually turned off by all the name dropping, and I can see that--programmers who worked on obscure video games, characters in specific Dungeons & Dragons quests, shots that appeared in specific movies, the book is loaded up.  I'd argue that it's not overloaded, and that part of the point is that these people are all weirdly submerged in a pop culture that isn't even their own.  But you could argue with me on those points.

Instead of the internet, these future folks have the OASIS, which is a simulated universe where most modern life takes place.  Everyone has an avatar, and access to the OASIS is free and anonymous (though you can only have one avatar at a time, which is an interesting twist), per the specific plan of its kooky creator, Halliday.  When Halliday died with no heirs, he left his enormous fortune to whoever solved the scavenger hunt he'd left in the OASIS and found his Easter egg.

Now our hero Wade (avatar Parzival) and everyone else in the world are trying to track down the egg.  Including mammoth corporations who want to monetize the OASIS, and will stop at nothing to win the prize.  You can imagine that Wade has a series of adventures and near misses, learning about the true meaning of freedom, friendship, and Zork along the way, and you'd be right.  It's action packed.

And if it played out a little more straightforwardly than I had expected, if the boogeyman I kept waiting for didn't jump out, well, there's a sweetness and innocence to the feel-good ending that I can't help but love. 

Also, I played Joust once.  The '80s were crazy, man.

Friday, October 07, 2011


When I finish all my books at the same time, I have to start a bunch of new ones all at once.  This is what leads to these brief, awkward, one-night flings that I have with the things I eventually put down.

Things like The False Friend, by Myla Goldberg.  A library book that caught my eye, this was always a long shot.  The basic plot summary, first page, and even the cover fit a certain template, reminding me of Jennifer McMahon's books (Promise Not To Tell, Island of Lost Girls).  A little girl vanished 20 years ago and a woman today is trying to come to terms with her understanding and memories of what happened to her friend.  In The False Friend, it appears from the beginning that the teenager whose friend disappeared actually witnessed her fall down a well (maybe?) but lied and told everyone she got into a car with a stranger, and then blocked the memory out until one random day in adulthood the truth came back to her.

This is all I got about the theoretical plot of the book before the main character decided to go back to her hometown and face her past.  From this point, we get a lot of pages about her parents, their relationship, how the old neighborhood had gone to the dogs, how those dogs were all college students, her relationship with her brother (who has not appeared in the book yet), etc.

At this point, I'm 10% of the way into the book and I've had about four pages of "OMG, I think I have suppressed memories!" and 25 pages of "her parents are in love but her father is the dominant personality and he's kind of in denial about not being in his prime any more (physically and real estate-wise) and her brother finds her education intimidating...."  And it's not even family psychodrama--it's setup, prequel, backstory.

So, done.

Then there's The Agency: A Spy In the House, by Y.S. Lee, which has the best plot summary ever: in Victorian(ish) England, a school for impoverished girls is actually a training ground for secret agents who will pose as servants in the houses of important people.  I have no idea what the details are, but is that not the best premise ever? 

Sadly, the writing doesn't live up.  I have pretty high expectations for the writing in YA books, and this is just kind of clunky, full of expository conversations where characters inform each other of things they both already know, in ways that don't even pretend to be phrased realistically. 

I'm probably going to read it eventually, because boarding school and spies!  But this is the kind of book that I have to read as a side project in the middle of something awesome, so next I need the something awesome to get into.

Next candidates: A Game of Thrones (you may have heard of it) and Terry Pratchett's Nation, which is not high-profile but universally raved about.  We'll see what sticks first.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Movie-Book Cycle

When you see a movie whose top-billed stars are Scott Glenn and Jurgen Prochnow, but which also stars a young Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellan, I ask you, do you have any choice but to watch it?  No, of course not!  Especially not if it's available streaming from Netflix.  So Mike and I watched The Keep a few weeks ago.

It started out great--in the way an '80s horror movie about Nazis that takes place in an abandoned castle is great.  And then it kind of fell apart, with characters who appeared out of nowhere, did rather pointless things for no discernible reason, then wandered away.  Also there was one key, pivotal prop--a major plot point--that was clearly made out of a flashlight, a ruler, and some duct tape.

But the seed was there of a good horror story, and even the movie was a) good for at least half of it, and b) fascinating in its awfulness when it fell apart.  You could see Michael Mann didn't know how to give enough information about these non-chatty characters in the time he had; the screenwriter didn't know how to convey Magda's inner struggle, and nobody quite knew how to balance the mystery of The Evil Force between pedestrian TMI and so mysterious you can't figure it out.

The only solution, of course, was for me to read the book.  I'm only halfway through, but I can tell you now that I'm not going to have much to say at the end to anyone who hasn't seen the movie.  The book does very well by comparison--in fact, it was doing very well as a stand-alone horror novel, striking a very interesting balance between the Nazis and The Evil Force.  Some of the Nazis are horrifying people while others are just folks who grew up in Germany and joined the army and did what they were told.  The Evil Force is killing them--which is good, for the most part--but then, it's killing pretty indiscriminately.  Both sides are a threat to Magda (why is a Jewish woman named Magda?  I'm not wrong to think that's usually short for some version of Magdalena, which is not so much a Jewish name, right?) and her father.  It's a pretty good setup with some tension.

It kind of falls apart, though, because (and this is sort of a spoiler, I'm sorry), the plot kind of hinges on her reserve and introversion and how the mysterious Glenn causes her to react with unprecedented longing and fascination.  And you know how science fiction writers really shouldn't write sex?  Ultra-libertarian horror novelists probably shouldn't write about burning passion from a woman's POV.  We'll just say I'm left with doubts.

Also (major, MAJOR spoiler), the evil which is vague and unnamed in the movie is explicitly named a vampire in the book.  I hope I don't seem narrow-minded when I say that I am so over vampires.

I'm still reading the book, though.  Mostly because I'm picturing Jurgen Prochnow as the sympathetic Wehrmacht captain and Ian McKellan as the ailing old scholar.  As awesome as I think Scott Glenn is, he's not quite suave enough for Glenn--I'm going with more of a young Roy Scheider kind of thing.  Now we just need a role for Ray Wise and we're all set.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I'm Swooning, or MumbleMumbleDragonsMumble

How is it I think of myself as "not a dragon person?"  It's not like I've read a million books about them to reject, and Tooth and Claw was marvelous.  True, that Mercedes Lackey romance whose name I can't remember was awful, but I can't really blame the dragons for that.  Although...yeah, well, it was a dragon fail.  But also a fail on so many other levels!

But now, here, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon has appeared before me, and I've read it.  And thank God she's already written five of them, because I intend to read them all by tomorrow morning, if possible.  I'm hooked, seduced, bewitched--I am at the mercy of Ms. Novik and Temeraire.

Temeraire is the name of the dragon, and Laurence is his handler/partner/captain.  It's the Napoleanic war, and besides a navy, each nation has a fleet of dragon-mounted aviators.  The huge creatures carry crews, bombs, and occasionally natural weapons.  Laurence is effectively drafted into this force when the naval ship he captains captures and hatches a valuable dragon's egg.

The research in this book is impeccable, to the point where I can't even imagine writing something that is so successful in historical accuracy, creative worldbuilding, and compelling characters. 

And make no mistake, the characters carry the day.  Laurence is a good navy man out of place among the libertine aviators.  He's strong and likeable and everything you want in a hero.  And he just adores Temeraire, his clever dragon partner.

The warm, affectionate relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is at the heart of the book as the dragon grows up and learns about the world and they figure out together what it means to belong to each other.  To see a guy in uniform so undone by what is essentially a smart, funny kid is just disarming.

That's Brenda's word for the book--charming.  And I am charmed off my feet.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of Mercedes Lackey?  This partnership is a very much more realistic, comprehensible, well-constructed version of all the emotional bonds that her characters magically have with sentient animals.  It's not psychic, though--it's just about affection, loyalty, and partnership.  You know, real world stuff.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Would you marry someone who's been married eight other times before?  Not polygamy, not a serial killer--serially divorced.  It's an easy question to answer in theory--that guy is a bad bet.

But that's in theory.  In fact, you only really need to answer this question when you know and love someone.  To get married eight times you need to be charming, but there's a level of charm that will beguile eight women without descending into cheap illusion.  There's a guy who's sincere and loving, hopeful and talented, and he wants to marry Bess.

Now, if you read the back of the book, you'll think The Ninth Wife, by Amy Stoll, is a heartwarming road trip book about a 35-year old-woman, her sassy gay friend, and her bickering grandparents searching for details about her boyfriend (fiance?) Rory's past.  That's pretty much literally what the cover says.

That description doesn't do the book justice at all.  It sounds like silly, bubbly chick lit.  It sounds lame or stereotypical, but it's not any of those things.  I'm not going to tell you it's ponderous or even deep or literary.  But it's thoughtful and sincere, and Bess is a sincere, thoughtful character who, at 35, is not at all desperate, but would really like to be partnered.  I think that the threads of sadness are actually what save the book from being fluffy--her gay best friend lost his partner and is putting a good face on it; her aging grandparents are showing wear around the edges of their 65-year marriage. 

And then there's Rory--a single, romantic, 45-year-old man who keeps secrets would be very easy to make unlikeable or "perfect but misunderstood," but Rory is neither.  The stories of his marriages are fascinating, and I've found myself, in spare moments nowhere near the book, running tallies of his exes and how they wound up together and how, though eight is a very large number, each one makes so much sense as its own story.

If the theme of this book is what a partnership means and how it works, the question of the book is what relevance the past has on the present.  I have to admit that I found some of the conclusions the author seemed to reach a little weak--being "a different person" than you were back then is a really complicated concept, and I think she just lets it fly past too easily, whether the character believes it's true or not.

I don't read a lot of chick lit, preferring to get my comedy and romance elsewhere.  I was really pleased to find this book.  It wasn't a classic and I don't expect it to go down in history, but I finished it yesterday and I strongly suspect I'm still going to be tallying off Rory's ex wives tonight, trying to decide which choices were his best and his worst, which were understandable and which totally misguided.  If just for that, it was worth it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Night In the City

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist moves very fast.  I'm pretty sure it's short--hard to tell on a Kindle--but it just pounded past, very much like I imagine a late night wandering from club to club in New York might.  Actually, I would honestly find that experience a drag, but reading about people excited about music is much more exciting to me than listening to music, because I'm weird that way. 

And these kids are excited about music.  They're the most endearing music snobs you've ever read about, including Nick Hornby characters, because there's no superiority to them.  They just love what they love.  They're kids, for crying out loud.  That's hard to remember sometimes--there are a lot of sexual situations, remembered sex, implied sex, etc.  There's a lot of independence, a certain amount of experience.

But there's also a really refreshing uncertainty.  These kids are intelligent and articulate, but they're really, really confused about how they feel.  They know firmly what they want, but it does change every few minutes or so.  Nick wants his girlfriend Tris back, or barring that not to look like a passed-over loser in front of her.  Norah wants to make sure that her drunk friend Caroline gets home, to figure out what she wants from her ex Tal, and oh yeah, is she going to Brown or a kibbutz next year?  And maybe she wants Nick a little, too. 

They meet at a queercore (did you know that was a word?  I didn't) show, then go to a burlesque club, then a punk show, walk around the city, stall the car, run into exes, eat borscht.  The talk and flirt and stomp away from each other.  The point of view switches back and fort from chapter to chapter--presumably the authorship does, too, between the two writers, Rachel Cohn and Dave Levithan.  Both voices are smart and sharp, but they're firmly different, independent of each other.

Now I have to watch the movie.  I do not picture Michael Cera in the Nick role--Nick is a hot, confident guy who's feeling vulnerable because he's been dumped, not an adorable dweeb with puppy-dog eagerness.  Honestly, as much as I dislike Zac Efron because he always looks so smug (and Nick is not smug), it's his role, really.  Well, if it came out now it would be.  Norah, I can't remember the actress's name, but she's perfect--tough and vulnerable.

This isn't much of a review, I guess--the book moved very fast, things happening one tumbling over another, with occasional digressions into describing how awesome the music is.  It took me about four hours total to read.  Four really good hours--worth your time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Not As Peculiar As You'd Think

It was the cover that got me--Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children had the most intriguing cover.  Combined with the photos scattered throughout the book, it was just irresistible.  And the author's name is Ransom Riggs--how awesome is that?

I ended up enjoying the book, but not the way I expected to.  Most of the things that I was drawn to turned out to either not amount to anything or actually be the weaker points.  I expected something kind of mysterious, odd, mystical.  While there was a sense of mystery here, the story was told in a very straightforward way. 

Jacob is a teenager in Florida, living a fairly typical life and very close to his aging grandfather.  All his life he's listened to his grandfather's stories about his childhood being chased by monsters and his life of travel, but Jacob's come to understand that these stories are really about his grandfather's experiences during the Holocaust.

Then his grandfather dies, suddenly and violently.  Jacob is plagued by nightmares, and follows his therapist's advice to trace some of his grandfather's history to try to understand what happened to his grandfather, both long ago and when he died.

The photographs throughout the book are charming, but there are definitely places where they seem to be crammed into the story a little.  There's also a stretch in the middle where there are quite a few Knowledge Dump moments--two characters have a conversation where fantastic elements are defined, explained, and laid out, complete with interesting names, historical references, and explanations of alternate physics. 

It gets a little clunky in places, is what I'm saying.  But I'm also saying that I really liked the main character--I liked that he was innocent and scared and gutsy honest.  I liked how the forces of evil gathered around the edges of things and then advance in a rush.  I liked the setting, on a picturesque island off the coast of Wales. 

I couldn't decide if the ending was a first-book-in-the-trilogy cliffhanger, or if it was more of a then-they-went-off-into-the-wide-world-for-adventures launch into the characters' future.  I don't know which I hope it is, either.  If there was more to read, though, I'd absolutely read it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Highest Hopes

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has become one of my favorite books.  It deals with some of my favorite subjects—religion, anachronism, first contact—in a wonderful story.  And if the characters make mistakes that only someone who'd never seen an episode of Star Trek would make, well, I can suspend disbelief a little bit.  It's a stretch—I mean, have you never taken an anthropology class?  If not, why are you on a first contact mission?—but since this is really my single critique of the book (well, that and how did the Jesuits jump to such crazy conclusions? But really, just those two), I think that speaks to how well-written, well-thought-out, and well-researched it is.

The sequel, Children of God, is wonderful as well.  It's more about redemption and social evolution, and how time and experiences change us into people even we don't know.  The end is a bit facile, but it's so good.

Doc: A NovelSo I hope you can imagine how excited I was to hear that Russell was releasing a novel about the life of Doc Holliday, famous gunslinger and friend to the Earp brothers, hero of the OK Corral.  I've been reading Doc for weeks now and barely made a dent in it, which makes me very sad.

It's actually not that it's not enjoyable.  It's well written, well researched, and easy to follow.  But it's not a very good novel.  It's actually a really good nonfiction book--a very readable biography.  Most of what happens is told rather than shown, and the parts that are shown are written in a style that makes it very clear that she's drawing from contemporary accounts, letters, and recorded recollections.  

There are also dramatized moments--a private conversation between Doc and his girl Kate, a description of an average day at the poker tables.  They are few and far between, and read like nonfiction.  I think these are the moments that forced the author and publishers to label this a novel.  I think that's a crying shame, because it doesn't work as a novel.  

All characterization is done from the outside, and it's done through the unskilled eyes of contemporaries, not through the careful application of relevant details that a novelist can envision but a researcher can't confirm.  We get almost no inner lives of the characters, but a lot of expository back story--including very thorough back stories what appear to be very minor characters.  This adds texture, but telling about the life of Wyatt Earp's friend Johnnie through the point of view of a train trip taken by his childhood pastor to perform a funeral is perhaps overkill.  Especially when you then get into the personal background of Johnnie's childhood pastor, just because (as often happens in nonfiction) that information is there.

TombstoneAnyway, I'll finish it.  And I'll know a lot more.  But I will not have as clear a picture or sympathetic a portrait of Doc Holliday as I did after I watched Val Kilmer's wheezing, drawling, melodramatic performance in the very enjoyable movie, Tombstone