Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Big 7-0-0

It's nice to come to a round number of posts on a wrap-up post, isn't it?  So, for my 700th post on this blog, I decided to give you 2012 in review.  Unfortunately, this ended up being seriously daunting, and between travel, hosting, being hosted, and general fretting, I've been putting it off. 

Let's start with some stats: 107 books total this year.  I always feel like I need to qualify this number, though--8 graphic novels, 5 novellas, 15 kids' books.  I don't separate YA, since the difference between YA and other books is frequently arbitrary.  I didn't pick out nonfiction, either, but the number is almost laughably low. 

Another thing I noticed was that there was a lot of filler this year.  Kind of junky stuff.  I mean, there are always going to be the Anastasia Krupnik books, which are light and kids and hardly count, but I read them for joy, and they take no time at all.  But there were quite a few books this year that passed right over me, hardly making a ripple.  Not that I can't remember them--I rarely have that problem--but that, if I could go back and have that time back to read something else, I'd take it.  Books that had clever ideas that didn't pan out (Safekeeping), YA books that were formulaic and I could have done without (Monument 14), books that had buzz but didn't touch me (The Age of Miracles). 

I'm not even counting the ones I was personally excited about but let me down (Princess Academy: Palace of Stone).  I'm just thinking of the ones that I picked up with a vague idea that I ought to read it and kept going with in spite of the fact that I wasn't necessarily enjoying it.  I do that a lot less these days--I'm much more likely to put a book down now than I ever have been in my life--but I'm still at risk of letting momentum carry me through the mediocre.  I'm going to do a post on that phenomenon soon (for Lianna!), but I'm sad to look back on those parts of the list, especially when looking ahead at the great to-reads that have been waiting forever.

But enough about the bad stuff.  Let's do the good stuff, and let's do this chronologically (with the help of Goodreads.  Which is over capacity right now, probably due to all the bloggers trying to get on to do their year-end wrap-ups.  Which, by the way, have many of the books I've listed below on them).

I started the year with Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, and I'll put it on a top 10 list, any day.  I can't blame anyone who finds it too twee, because oh, a scavenger hunt with a stranger in NYC at Christmastime, with your cranky grandpa upstairs and your gay best friend crashing on your couch and yes, it's twee.  But it's a Christmas book, and it's charming, and I loved it.

Petty Treason, by Madeleine Robins, the first Sarah Tolerance novel.  Thank you, thank you, Aarti, for having this book in your list of "Heroines Who Don't Annoy Me," because I love Sarah Tolerance. 

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein.  I'd like to thank the publisher of this book for giving me an ARC.  I love it when I love an ARC, and I was happy to join the stampede of good press that this got before it came out.  The sense of time and place, the two very different characters who are so close, and the intense, nailbiting plot--it was unexpected and just right, and I want more books just like this.

The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green.  My first John Green, though I've tried before.  There are people who loathe him, mostly because his characters are too glib and don't talk like people.  I think this book gets away with that, though, because these teenagers are dying--they're introverted, bookish, and mature.  And I loved them--tears were jerked, and I didn't even mind.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. I don't have a ton to say about this, except that I really enjoyed it.  I feel like it was amazingly well-crafted and structured, as though the different focal points of the narrator's life, Tinker's life, the Twenties in general, and New York specifically were all nested neatly inside each other and playing off each other brilliantly.  I still wish we'd been able to have our book club meeting about this book.

Old Man's War, by John Scalzi.  I am now a John Scalzi fan.  This book is all worldbuilding, but good worldbuilding is just about one of my favorite things in reading.  It satisfies my need for tight, neat order--it's like Competence on a universal level.

Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Like meeting Bertie Wooster and Anne Shirley again for the first time.

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley.  Okay, this is the one you really need to read if you haven't.  I know, the Top Secret Government Agency That Deals With the Supernatural has been done inside out.  And that alone would not have won me over.  But a really good amnesia story, super-duper Competence, and that perfect balance between drama and humor (without a bunch of flat-out jokes) made this an incredibly appealing book.  There's almost no one I wouldn't recommend this to.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills.  This one sort of snuck up on me.  In a lot of ways it's a pretty standard YA book, with a certain amount of self-centeredness and focus on sex and romance by the main character.  But the main character is a trans guy trying to figure out what life after high school looks like, and somehow that makes the sense of drama of adolescence seem much less annoying.  The characters who say one thing and mean another, or change their minds, or don't even know their minds are all so human that I was really impressed.

So there you have my Best Of list for the year.  It's a bit short; hopefully tomorrow I'll have a Resolutions post that will make next year's list longer.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Or, if Christmas is not explicitly your bag, then at the very least, happy day off work.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Swiss Cheesy

I already touched on The Tragedy Paper, but now that I've finished it and started reading Ally Condie's Reached, I feel like I need to talk a little bit more about believability, or at least common sense.

Let's start with The Tragedy Paper, which I wrapped up earlier this week.  Throughout, there seemed to be some behaviors and reactions that didn't quite strike me as realistic.  But it was pretty clear from the pacing of the book that we were building up to some reveal, and it wasn't clear how it would affect all the characters.

You have Tim who likes Vanessa, who has a boyfriend Patrick.  Tim is narrating his version of the school year to a student the next year, Duncan, who's listening to this audio recording.  Duncan likes Daisy.  Tim and his class were seniors last year, so you don't expect them to be on campus, but it's clear that something happened and it's not clear how the year ended, so Duncan's tension, his being drawn to the story, all of these could theoretically be resolved if their behavior feels authentic in light of the big reveal.

Now, right away that's off-beat.  It's a pretty daring move to write a book that feels wrong for the first 80% and depends entirely on the payoff at the end.  Not unheard of, but risky.  And then there's the reveal, which I won't spoil except to say that, while the circumstances were crazy enough to be a crisis, the actual way things play out is not satisfying.  People who are blaming themselves for things need to be able to come to that conclusion with at least a slim layer of rational thought for it to be satisfying--otherwise you've got a psychological drama with no psychological weight.

But the least convincing part of the book?  So the whole thing is structured around the notion of the classic, literary, dramatic tragedy.  The students are studying tragedy and writing a HUGE (I cannot overemphasize the HUGENESS of this assignment) paper on the subject.  And then the events of the year parallel the elements of tragedy that they're learning about.

I'm trying not to give away the end.  But let me say that when the principal of the school comes to you and says "maybe we've been teaching you too much," I find myself strangely unconvinced.

So how has Reached unconvinced me in the first 50 pages?  Well, the first two books and 50 pages?  We'll move beyond the Teenage Love May Save The World plot, or the whole Yes, The Rebellion Matters, But Not As Much As My Heart thing.  Let's touch on the little things.

Like Cassia being called in to do an important Sort, and making a mistake on purpose, knowing that if the failsafes aren't in place, she'll be caught instantly.  Tell me, if they know the "right answer" to the sort she's doing, why did they call her in the middle of the night to do it?  Now, this can be lifted out of the realm of unbelievable by finding out that it was a test, but if that's true, why didn't she think of that?  What powers does the Society have, and what do the citizens believe it can do, anyway?

And Xander's repeated, drilled-in conviction that the Rising can cure the Plague (because Xander is a Good Guy, and Good Guys only infect little kids with curable Plagues) has me already wondering about his lack of skepticism.  As does everyone's constant debate about the true identity of the Pilot, with no one saying, "Hey, maybe this Pilot who is everywhere and always is Metaphorical, and there is a Pilot In Each Of Us."  No one seems to have thought of this.

Honestly, it's not like I loved the series.  And there's no way this one will be as tough as the second boo, so I'll read it.  But dude, I am SO Spartacus.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thrilling and Otherwise

The thing about my new kick of trying to read thrillers is that they're frequently populated by unlikeable characters and tense moments, and damn if I don't need to find some balance for myself in here.  For a long time there, I was jumping back and forth between Gone Girl and John Dies at the End, and while both are really great books, they did not make the best combination for me emotionally.

In some ways, they do balance each other, though.  Gone Girl is all about slowly building tension, while John Dies is about being slammed over the head with crazy.  The only problem is, there's barely a likeable character between them.

Gone Girl is a standard Gillian Flynn story of twists, turns, reveals, and doubts.  Nick comes home to find his wife missing and signs of a fight.  There are police, and Nick is kind of a jerk, and there are entries from Amy's diary, and secrets are revealed one by one, and nothing is what it appears to be, and it's all very creepy and dreadful.  It's incredibly compelling, but almost every single character in the book ranges from irritating to horrible to sociopath.  There are maybe three characters I don't actively dislike, and honestly, I'm not convinced I'm not going to find out some nasty stuff about them any minute now.

John Dies at the End, on the other hand, is hilarious and gruesome.  A bunch of post-high school losers are milling aimlessly around a Midwestern town when our narrator finds himself accidentally dosed with a strange drug.  Everything that happens ranges from impossible to nightmarish, with levels of gross out somewhere between poking a bratwurst with mustard in your ear and being slowly digested by a man-sized worm-slug.  It's like Bill and Ted's Most Bogus Journey EVER.  The characters aren't hateworthy--they're kind of losers, but mostly just dim and overwhelmed.  But there is such a pervasive sense of Evil in here, with pretty much no capital-G Good to balance it out. 

This can kind of get to you after a while.  I went for YA to try to solve the problem, but The Tragedy Paper ended up not helping that much, due to being boring (see last week's review).  Instead, I'm going for Terry Pratchett.  If you need to find a nice protagonist who's doing his or her best to do the right thing in this crazy world and for whom it mostly works out in the end, he's your guy.  It helps that the books aren't just funny, but also thoughtful, intelligent, and well-plotted.  Next on my list was Mort, mostly because the Death books are some of my favorites, but also because isn't that thematic with the rest of the line up right now?

In sum: Gone Girl, John Dies at the End, and Mort are all highly recommended.  But if you're going to read one of those first two, I suggest some puppies and kittens to balance out your mood.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Discussion Questions

In honor of book club, the discussion questions about David Levithan's Every Day that I promised you.  Some minor spoilers below, but nothing too explicit.

1. Let's start with the obvious, glaring flaw of the book.  What kind of psychological damage would it do a child to never know the same people for two days in a row?  In exactly what ways would this person be twisted and miserable?  What skills would s/he have been unable to learn?  And did you have a problem suspending your disbelief around this issue?

2. A has a very philosophical view on his (let's stick with one for simplicity) situation.  He has a pretty balanced view of some of the things he has and some of the things he's lacking.  But he also has blind spots, things about what it means to be an individual living in a body and a life over time.  Where are the blind spots?  Do you think that any of them are about the author, not the characrer?

3. How obnoxious is A in his pursuit of Rhiannon?  How much of this is being 16 and in love?  What other elements are at play in this obnoxiousness (Self-centeredness born of a life of self-denial?
General lack of knowledge of what meaningful long-term connection looks like?)

4. How do you feel about the end?  Do you think it was a good resolution for A?  For Rhiannon?  For what's-his-name?

5. What do you think about A's notions of gender?  Is this Levithan's ideal post-gender vision, or is it partly misguided because of the big hole in A's psychology where his relationship with his body would normally be?  If the former, what do you think of these ideas of gender?

6. Speculation: what would a different life look like for A?  Is there any option but to live this way?

I'm sure there are more things to go over.  I'm curious what anyone else would have to ask about the book; I really felt like there was so much going on here.  I guess that's what book club is for!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ah, Youth

I know I've said this before, but YA stuff is really hit or miss for me.  There are big swaths of stuff in the YA department that is really only there for marketing reasons (Code Name Verity, which, I don't care who you are, if you haven't read it, read it right now) or that is fantasy and science fiction (The Hunger Games is a great example), and these tend to stand on a book by book basis for me--sometimes I like them and sometimes I don't, but it's not their "YA-ness" behind that reaction.

The problem generally starts coming up in realistic novels, usually that take place in high school.  Not all of them, but more than most other kinds of book, I'm likely to find myself drifting off from something that's well-written and straightforward just because it feels so foreign and distant to me.  I'm much more likely to feel that way about a high school novel than I am about something that takes place in feudal Japan or a Brazilian slum.

I'm reading two books now that both fit into this category, and I wish I could pick apart why my reactions are so different.  The first one, The Tragedy Paper, is an ARC of a novel by Elizabeth Laban.  I'm having a tough time with this one, for all YA-ish reasons. 

The main character of the book is Duncan, who's just arrived for his senior year at boarding school, and finds a gift from the former inhabitant of his room.  Tim MacBeth (and OMG, two characters named Duncan and MacBeth?  You're putting some pressure on yourself when you pick those names for your book) was albino, transferred to the school for the last part of senior year, and has always been kind of an outcast.  There are many ominous hints of a big Something that happened at the end of the school year, but we don't know what it is yet--the CDs that Tim left for Duncan telling his story are apparently going to get around to that.  So far, though, it's just about liking a girl and being sure she won't like him because he looks strange.

The characters feel small, and their problems are in very large part caused by self-consciousness and nerves.  It's their emotional states, really--their problems are treated with respect, as though they were important.  But what seemed important when I was in high school often seems kind of small right now, and I can't help but think, "if you'd just get comfortable with yourself, you wouldn't really have any problems."

The other book is called Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, and this one is all about becoming comfortable with yourself.  But this book is absolutely fantastic.  The narrator, Gabe, is graduating high school and starting his own midnight radio show at the local station.  He's also starting the process of transitioning from being Liz, a biological female.  While Gabe's problems are all about awkwardness and discomfort, they feel way more earned.  Being nervous about liking a girl is a much bigger deal if you've been going to high school as a girl for years and are now trying to flirt with the girl you're interested in while presenting as a guy. 

The tension between Gabe and his parents (who still call him Liz), the support of  his friends, the sense of pressure and excitement--they all feel earned, not manufactured.  That's an authenticity that I don't have to imagine the hormone soup of adolescence to appreciate.   I'm zipping through this book and I just can't put it down.

I've been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the past few weeks; damn, that show is good.  There are so many moments this time through, though, where I'm reminded that these are kids.  Most of the romantic scenes (especially the ones that do not involve anyone 100 years of age or older) just remind me that each of these couples totals my age between them, and that breaking up means something different at 17 than it does at 35.  There's enough great stuff going on, and the story is told well enough, that these feelings are fleeting, but it's a good reminder that relevance is relative, and my feelings about something are not directly related to some objective standard of poignancy that's out there.

I don't know if I'll finish The Tragedy Paper.   There are bits of it that are rather heavy-handed--apparently every senior at this school has to do a final project, legendary in scope and importance, about the definition of a tragedy in literature.  It feels kind of put on--I know plenty of high schools that have a Big Scary Senior Project, but none where everyone has to do the same thing.  And at this point, I just don't trust the book enough to assume that the Big Mystery is going to balance out the feelings and tension that are going into it, both from the characters and me. 

But I'll likely be finished Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by tomorrow.  And it'll likely be because I stayed up way too late reading it.  There's my review right there.

Friday, November 30, 2012


I've been reading a lot more blogs lately, book and other.  In some ways it starts to feel like a responsibility, but then you find the awesome stuff and you just want to read more.

And, not that you need me to sum up the internet for you, but here are a couple of great things I really wanted to share.

First: YES, I am book obsessed.  I mean, not everyone is like this?  I count 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, and at least the first three that were added from the comments.  I don't think it will surprise anyone to hear that I tested positive for book obsession.

Then there's Worldbuilders.  This is the annual fundraiser for Heifer International sponsored by Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear.  The charity supplies goats, chickens cows, and other animals for people living in third world countries.  The bookish part of this is that a donation through their website enters you in a raffle for one of billions and billions of books that have been donated and are being raffled off.  Especially for sci fi fans and people who like collectible books--first editions, autographed copies--there are lots of cool prizes.  There are also eBay auctions of bigger ticket items.  It's a cool cause and a really big deal--they raise hundreds of thousands every year.

And then there's this post, which is one of those meme things where everyone posts on the same topic on a certain day.  But because I'm always a day late and a dollar short, I'm just going to poke my response in here with some other stuff.  The discussion is about talking to people who aren't readers, and part reads thusly: "Am I the only one who...wonders at how other people can simply NOT do something that should be so essential? Who feels almost sad that so many people seem content to go through their lives without stretching their mental wings at all?  Can you imagine NOT being a Reader? How does it shape your life? Your perception of it?  How does being a Reader affect your relationship with all those folks who are looking at it from the other side and simply can’t understand how you can sit and READ all the time?"

First, I'm very much surrounded by readers.  Most of my friends were English majors, and most of the rest are readers for fun.  Reading has drawn me to a lot of my social circle (book clubs, friends who bonded over favorite books), and I used to work at a publishing company. 

But I know plenty of non-readers, too (most of my family, for example), and I find that they get me just fine.  I am about books how they are about TV shows or movies or comics or knitting or theater or something else.  Even if they don't have the same interest in books, they understand my passion and are able to be interested enough in a good story that we can talk about books, movies, and TV shows in a way that brings us together.

But the real reason I wanted to answer this question is because of my position on the other side, as the non-enjoyer--not with books, but with music.  Most people I know are at least somewhat passionate about music, at least to a minor extent.  I never have been.  The incredulity that's in this question is something that I've gotten from a lot of people when I look at them blankly after not recognizing a band name, or when my response to "what kind of music do you like?" is "whatever's on the radio when NPR is on a pledge break."  I don't dislike music; I just don't connect with it, and that really stymies some people.  But I know perfectly well that a) there's a lot I'm missing, and b) there's a whole life to be led and music is just a part of it.

The fact is, it's a big world, and we're never going to get to all of it.  I think it's really important to really that our part isn't the only one, or even the best or most important or "right" one.  It's just different.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More Book Club Fodder

We decided to go somewhere a little different for book club this time around.  Ruth Rendell is a crime writer who is famous and prolific and just always there, sitting on the to-read shelf.  So we picked up one of her books, A Judgement in Stone, which had been recommended by several people as one of her best.

This was a mistake, and I would not recommend this book to other book clubs.  I would probably also avoid recommending it to other readers, in fact.  And the weird thing is, it's not like it was bad at all.  It was just kind of nothing.

On the first page of the book, you're told that the Coverdale family was murdered by their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, on Valentine's Day, and that this happened because Eunice was illiterate.  The book then proceeds through the year leading up to the event, beginning with Eunice's interview and ending with the shooting.  There are no surprises at all--obviously not the big ones, but there aren't really any little ones, either.  Honestly, this read like true crime--a lot of information, with some really good character portrayals, actually.  But knowing who lived and who died, and that all of the characters  you were getting to know were going to die (and how) took a lot of wind out of the book's sails.

Another thing that felt "true crime" to me was the way Eunice's illiteracy was hammered home as The Reason She Did This, when it's not quite true.  Eunice is definitely illiterate, and she's worried about keeping the secret and hates anything to do with writing.  But the reason she did it is because she's a sociopath.  If she had killed them because they chewed with their mouths open, that wouldn't be the reason she did it--the reason is because she's a monster.

In fact, the illiteracy thing is hammered on so hard that it ends up misshapen by the end of the book.  People who can't read think in pictures and very simple words.  People who can't read are base and brutish--reading is the center of all refinement, all civilization, and without it you are an animal who can't be trusted.  I have friends who volunteer as adult literacy tutors, and I'm pretty sure they'll tell you that's not true.  Honestly, I was offended on behalf of the non-readers of the world.

Another reason I think this book didn't click for me in particular, though, was the fact of its setting at a house in the English country.  From the beginning, it was causing me flashbacks to The Red House, a former book club choice with a similar setting.  By the end, I could use Judgement as a comparison to point out what I didn't like about Red House, but at when I started it, I could feel doubt creeping up on me, and I don't think it helped my experience of the book.

Next book club is Every Day, which I read and reviewed here already, and loved.  It sounds like the book club reviews are already mixed; that always makes a fun meeting!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Them's Fighting Words

A couple more blows in the literary fiction vs. genre fiction argument.  Really, to me, it's about defining terms; is literary really the opposite of genre?  Really?

I swear I had more things to be outraged about, but I'm sleepy.  Another day, maybe.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pee El Are

Ana at Things Mean a Lot has declared January Long Awaited Reads month.  But we have a name for that around here, don't we?  Personal Library Renaissance!

And while I can't guarantee that I'm going to participate-because let's face it, I'm nothing if not unreliable--I do LOVE to fantasize about them.  So, on the theory that I'm going to spend January (which is to say, roughly 6 to 8 books, depending on their length and ambition), let's speculate on which of the many tempting choices I might slot into that time.

First, 100% definitely, would be The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine Robins.  I absolutely loved the first two Sarah Tolerance books, and was quite disappointed at how hard it was to get my hands on the third one, which is not available as an ebook.  I think the author may have switched from a mainstream publishing house to a small press--to be perfectly honest, the cover of this one looks like something put together at a self-publishing place.  But it looks like it's actually a very, very (very) small press--reading between the lines of their mission statement, possibly founded by writers who'd been treated poorly by publishers in the past.  Upshot: wanna read right now!

True Sisters, by Sandra Dallas, is next on the list.  The thing about this list, I just realized, is that it's going to be depressing because by definition, these are all books I've been really excited about for a while.  It's sad that I haven't read them already.  I raved about how psyched I was for this book back at the beginning of the year. Mormons, Sandra Dallas--how have I not read this yet?

And how is it possible that any good, self-respecting Neil Gaiman fan hasn't yet read American Gods? I know Mike says it's not his absolute favorite, but I just listened to Gaiman's reading of his story "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," and a) it was incredibly creepy, and b) I'm primed for some new Gaimain.  (That link, by the way, just takes you to a blog post about the story; it was available free on through Halloween but isn't there anymore.  I have no idea what happened to it.)  I've even read the sequel to American Gods, but not the book itself yet.

Slot four will be filled with something by Colette.  I read The Vagabond for book club ages ago, and I have to credit that as one of those discoveries that makes book club so worthwhile--I would never have read  it otherwise, and I'm SO glad I did.  (Other such discoveries, if I may digress, include Cloud Atlas and Revolutionary Road.)  I recently bought myself a bunch of used books by Colette, including Gigi and The Cat and The Complete Claudine, both of which are compendiums.  I think I'd probably start with Gigi, though, out of love for the musical and curiosity about how it differs.

This is just a start, but it's fun to speculate.  January?  Well, if I look at the pile I'm working on....January might be about right.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Late Night Thought Experiement

When I was in college--I love stories that start this way, because they're all about being young and stupid and doing weird things late at night.  We had a squirt gun, a laser pointer, a bullhorn, and a window overlooking the quad, and we were unstoppable.

This is a digression; sorry.  I was into thought experiments--what would be the practical problems with a superintelligent squirrel enrolling at the college?  How would I get out of the library if ninjas came in through the front and back doors?  What exact steps would I take if I woke up tomorrow morning and I was inside the body of the girl who lived up the hall?

(Back to the digression; I don't think my college friends know I thought about these things.  I was much more embarrassed back then at how dorky I am.)

That last one is pretty much the premise of David Levithan's Every Day. The narrator wakes up in a different body every day and lives one day in that life.  S/he can access that person's memories as needed--sister's named Jill, math quiz today, allergic to nuts, my turn to make dinner--but the thoughts and feelings are his/her own.  It's always been like this; it's weird, but s/he's used to it.

And then one day--the day the book starts--s/he meets Rhiannon.  She's the girlfriend of Justin, the body our narrator is wearing today.  We can tell Justin's kind of a jerk--not evil, just not great.  But the narrator and Rhiannon have a perfect day together, and suddenly, the drifting tolerance he (let's settle on "he" for now) has for his lifestyle doesn't cut it anymore.  Suddenly, instead of trying to blend in with the lives of his daily hosts, he's going out of his way to see Rhiannon, to find her, and to try to form some sort of lasting human connection.

I'm a sucker for the nitty gritty details of how a weird situation gets handled, and this book is great for that.  I loved the glimpses into the dozens of lives he lives--recovering from hangovers, hanging out with friends, going to a funeral, making it through the school day.  There's a lot of thought about the ethics of each situation--there's nothing he can do to stop this from happening, so he does his best to be a good caretaker of each body.  He sees a lot of the human condition, up close and personal.

But there's so much missing, too.  Any kind of consistency, any kind of physical possessions.  Never in his life has this person had any of these things, and he misses them, as far as it goes. But there are also places where you see the holes in his missing them--there's a great tension in the story between this character's lack of a body and the freedom, the objectivity it gives him, and the presence, the ownership of himself that he misses, that he doesn't even realize is there.

There are so many really interesting ideas in this book--ideas about gender, ideas about ownership, ideas about humanity, ideas about the importance of love--and they're folded in up in such an interesting premise and such a well-told story--I really loved reading it.  I kind of wish I'd been reading it for book club (and not only--sorry, clubbers--because I'm not loving this month's pick).  It would be such a good source of conversation.  Now I kind of want to do a list of discussion questions.  Would that be too dorky?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

And That's Not All!

I just reread and realized that I missed the most irritating point I wanted to make in my previous review.  There's a whole other level to Lifespan of a Fact that I forgot to complain about--can you believe it?

Okay, so it's an argument in the form of emails, structured around the fact checking of an essay.  And both sides of the argument--the author's claims that art demands these changes to reality and the checker's claims that the reality of what happened matters--are kind of aggressive and alienating.  But here's the big question: what do you make of the factuality of the book itself?

Here's an article with a summary of this angle of the situation: to what extent is this book an accurate--a "true"--representation of that conversation?  Because it turns out that most of the emails were written during the process of writing the book, not fact checking the article.  The "seven years" of correspondence that is represented here is not exactly what it appears to claim to be.

On one level, that is in no way unexpected.  I mean, on what level do you expect that an unedited email correspondence would be in any way publishable?  Besides which, I don't suppose that the facts were actually checked out in the linear, chronological fashion in which the book unfolds--that is, the confused outrage expressed at the beginning of the article is backed up by a research trip to Vegas.  It's pretty clear that the correspondence couldn't really have looked anything like this, with the checker sending notes to the editor "at first" and then being told to talk directly to the author instead after he's already clearly put in a lot of the research time.

So here's the thing--by not advertising this editing, this creative license that's been taken, the book essentially stakes its claim on which side of the divide it stands behind.  Is graceful art more important than fact?  Is it important that the examples given in an argument be "true?" 

I have opinions, but I'm not up to expounding on them.  But I do think that when you prove a point with a lie, you weaken the point, even if the lie is convincing AND the point is correct. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Is A Fact?

You know when you get a good idea for a blog post, but it's going to require you to do some real thinking, and maybe background reading, before you can post it?  And that just seems like so much work when you've got this nasty chest cold coming on and can barely stay awake past 8:30?

You don't?

Well, then you probably don't know how it feels to finally suck it up to do the background reading and then realize that this guy wrote the article that's the blog post you were going to write.  This guy and probably everyone else in the world, but this was the article that took the stance most like your own.

It's not like I've even gotten very far into The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.  In and of itself, the book is driving me crazy, because I am one of those people who didn't read A Million Little Pieces but was really pissed that James Frey turned out to have been lying about it being a memoir.  John D'Agata wrote an essay, and Jim Fingal was set the task of fact checking it, and this book consists of (a version of) the essay annotated with the fact check and portions of email correspondence between the fact checker and the author.

Now, let's stop here for a second.  The author comes across as a complete ass--about how little any of the facts he made up matter (in terms of whether they're true or not) but how MUCH they matter (in terms of creating a visceral sense of meaning and reality for the reader).  He's not only defensive, he's impatient and insulting--not even really defending his practice so much as scorning anyone who could dare question him.  I'm not even finding it as thoughtful a discussion of the meaning of fact in nonfiction as I'd like.

And then you have Fingal, the hero of the piece, defending us readers from lies lies lies.  Only--sometimes he comes across as a bit of a prig.  I mean, I agree that the facts are important, and some of the exaggerations feel like a betrayal (when you find meaning in the fact that three events occur on the same day, but it turns out they didn't, what does that say about the meaning you're trying to draw?).  But the fact is, when someone is writing a magazine article, I might expect them to describe bricks as red that are, in a certain light, really more of a dark brown.  I do NOT feel betrayed by a referral to someone whose title is Vice President of Public Relations as "the hotel's public relations manager."  If your only argument for journalistic truth is this kind of authoritarianism, then I might have lean on the side of the anarchist instead of the fascist.

What I want, though, is a discussion of what that in-between place looks like.  I want someone to help me define why I care about the veracity of the story in an article like this, that don't apply directly me.  I want a discussion that will help me map what kind of details I care about and what kind I don't.  I want an author who doesn't refer to my wanting to be able to draw my own conclusions as wanting to be "spoon fed." 

This book makes me want all of these things, badly, but I'm pretty sure it won't provide them.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Bad Book! Bad!

I loved Princess Academy.  I was thrilled that there would be a sequel.  I hesitated when I saw the title--Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.  First Book: Second Book is not a winning combination.  It's the title styling of a prefab series. I read it anyway.

Its most redeeming characteristic is that it's a fast read--only took a couple of days.  Miri, our heroine from the first book, comes to the city to spend a year and attend the wedding of her friend the princess, as well as to attend the university.  It turns out there is unrest fomenting among the populace.  Miri to the rescue! There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start. 

1) Why does this problem exist in the first place?  How can a man so supremely incompetent put his own clothes on in the morning, never mind be king?  When there is a mob outside the palace shouting about their starving children, it's one thing to say "screw them, I want my diamond-crusted handkerchiefs," but totally another to say "who's starving?  what are you talking about?"

2) What does he need all that money for, anyway?  There is no Sun King decadence going on here.  He's not doing any kinging!

3) Even if the king IS exactly this intellectually subpar, I will not believe that NO ONE AT ALL around him is any smarter.  None of his advisers; his son (Miri's friend!), none of the nobles have ever said, "Hey, you know what?  Starving peasants!"

4) (Or 3b, depending how you look at it) Why is Miri--lowly mountain girl--responsible for all this stuff?  I can see how she gets caught up as a figurehead and swept up in the movement in her naivete--that's quite believable.  But there's no way that she would actually have any say in events, never mind be able to undo them.  (I'm getting vaguer to avoid serious spoilers, but please don't worry about being spoiled and just skip the book.)

5) This one is worst, I think, because this is a kids' book, and so political reality is not as important as emotional reality.  So here's my least favorite thing about this book--Miri is a completely limp, passive, wet dishrag of a character.  She does NOTHING in this book.  She waits for things to happen, and hopes that people will tell her what to do, and paces around watching them go on.  When she suspects something's wrong--all kinds of somethings, at all kinds of stages in the book--she never goes to the people involved and asks questions, tries to persuade, or makes an effort to change things. She's a hand-wringing milksop.

6) At the end, when she does take action, it's because some heretofore unprecedented magical powers come into being.  There's a foundation of vaguely magical stuff set up in the first book and the beginning of the second, but it's got clear rules and limitations that cease to have any meaning when they're needed, deus-ex-machina-style, to lift Miri out of her passivity. 

I'm quite depressed by this book.  Really, the nonsense of the political situation is only vaguely irritating--it's not a YA book, it's a kids' book, really, so the oversimplified nice-but-out-of-touch king with bad advisers, the girl who's used by politicians, a nation that can be healed because almost everyone has good intentions.  That's something you take in stride when you read books outside your reading level.

But guys, the amount of time in this book spent waiting for rescue is just exhausting.  The hand wringing, the not talking to each other--it's somewhere between boring and insufferable.  Blah!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Monarchy, Idealism, and Psychic Horses

Once again--it seems to happen so often--the two books I'm reading dovetail strangely.  This time, it's causing me some challenges keeping the tone of the two books sorted out.

You've got two pseudo-medieval, very much YA fantasy novels.  Mercedes Lackey's Redoubt is the newest Valdemar novel (if I say psychic horses, I hope that gives you a really good shorthand for this series of books in general).  Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is also a sequel, this one by Shannon Hale.  Both of them are about lowborn folks who end up living and being educated at the palace, getting involved in politics and, to a lesser extent, the personal lives of the royals.

Mags, the hero of Redoubt, is the apprentice spymaster to the King of Valdemar.  By day he's a Herald (which means he has a psychic horse sidekick) and by night he roams the city meeting with sketchy folks and getting the scoop on the underworld happenings.  The Heralds of Valdemar are the arms on the law--they are honest, upright, and true, and they speak for the king and dispense his justice in the same way the Superman speaks for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  Government is all about doing good.

When Miri, the heroine of Palace of Stone, comes out of the highlands of her childhood to spend a year studying (so she can start the first ever school in her hometown, as well as hang out with her friend the Princess), she's entering the world of politics for the first time.  Turns out everyone kind of hates the king, who's been demanding tributes and stomping on the poor.  Or at least, so say the new friends Miri meets at the university and the salons she attends.  Down with monarchy!  The king is a leech upon the people!

Switching back and forth between these books is a head trip.  When I read about Miri's friends discussing the end of monarchy, I keep waiting for Mags to come bursting in with a bunch of Heralds.  The rebel leaders will be revealed to be conniving and tricking the good honest folk into believing that the king is doing less than his best, which is a LIE, of course!  It makes my head swim.

Another layer of this is knowing the Shannon Hale is Mormon.  I don't know enough about her to have any idea how conservative or liberal she is, but this really affects my expectations for where this book is going to go.  Are the rebels going to turn out to be on the side of the good and the downtrodden--as they appear to be right now to the very naive Miri?  Are they going to be duplicitous, a power-grab disguised as freedom-fighting?  Or just misguided communists? 

In my mind, this depends on Hale's politics, which I don't know anything about.  It's frustrating to feel like I'm looking to the real world to guess what's going to happen in a book.  Here's an essay on Hale's website where she talks about creating the religious homemaker character of Becky in the book The Actor and the Housewife (which I disliked for being Hugh Grant fanfic). 

So, how do I feel about the monarchy?  I like idealism, but Lackey gets treacly.  I like freedom, but Hale gets heavy-handed.  Let's see if I get confused or if things just shake out nice and balanced.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service

That's actually the subtitle of the book.  The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, has been keeping me company while I waited for my new Kindle, and believe  it or not I haven't read an electronic word in the two days since Grimm came in the mail.  I'm having too much fun here.

It took me a little while to get the hang of it, I'll admit.  The complicated plot isn't hard to follow, but I had a lot of trouble catching my stride with the tone.  There's real danger, there's wry humor, and there are funny names.  I kept trying to figure out if we were talking Terry Pratchett, Tom Clancy, or Monty Python.  I eventually got the hang of it, but it's only today that I found the analogy I was looking for--it's James Bond.  If James Bond was fighting supernatural manifestations instead of all diamond thieves and international masterminds, this would be the book.  It's over the top and melodramatic, with plenty of humor thrown in.  The plot works straight, but the reason you love it are the fun bits.

The reason I didn't go straight to Bond is because the main character is a paper pusher.  There's a lot of wonderful dry humor about administration, red tape, and standard operating procedure.  And, as I said, there's a lot going on--Myfanwy Thomas has lost her memory.  She wakes up one day and finds herself an elite executive at a national agency that handles supernatural threats in Great Britain.  She has no idea who she is or what is going on--her only clues are the notes she left herself, knowing the memory loss was coming, warning her of a traitor in her agency.

There's the whole traitor plot, which is actually quite the nail-biter. A lot of the fun, though, comes from just trying to navigate day to day operations at an office where you've never been, but everyone knows you.  And of course, there are the standard threats to the nation from sentient purple fungi and ancient Belgian brotherhoods.  Plus, while all this is going on, you get the letters from the old Myfanwy, telling about her life and how she ended up where she is.

It's complicated enough, but it's not as complicated as you might fear.  There are good guys and bad guys, and even before we know exactly who's who, we have a good instinct for where folks are going to fall.  I'm not done or anything, but it doesn't seem to be a story with a big twist at the end.  Myfanwy's just so down to earth, I'm having fun with her.

This is not a compelling review.  Somehow I'm not feeling very articulate today.  Still and all, I'm having a blast with this book--highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

La Grande Sophy Remembered

Readers, I would like to say a sad goodbye to my Kindle.  Her name was La Grande Sophy, and she had been with me for nearly a year and a half.  Well, she was replaced once by an identical copy of her.  That was a seamless transition, and we pretend it never happened.  She was a milky alabaster in color, with a keyboard and 3G. 

I named her partly for Georgette Heyer's heroine, The Grand Sophy, but Frencher, because it was important that its name alphabetically came before Mike's Illustrated Primer.  If you have two Kindles on the same account, the one that comes alphabetically first will be the default in the One-Click Buying drop-down menu, and I am the impulse shopper in this relationship.  So La Grande Sophy she was, and she held my to-read pile with quiet dignity for a long time. 

She was lost due to a foolish attempt on my part to cram her into my bike basket along with my laptop.  I didn't think I was squishing her, but the next time I pulled her out, the screen was a mess, and she never came back.  She was in her slipcover, too--supposed to be safe!  May she rest in peace.

She has been replaced, after much deliberation and some expense, by Grimm, a slim, dark, handsome cousin of hers.  He's mysterious, but is a teasing way.  I suspect he might be some sort of vampire, but the good kind.  He lacks Sophy's bright, tranquil alertness, but he makes up for it with the kind of illusion of casualness hiding careful attention that James Bond brings to his work.  I think we'll get on well together.

Thank you for everything, Sophy.  I'll miss you.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Twin-Off: The -Offs Trilogy, Final Showdown

Really, it's not so much a comparison as a complementary situation.  I'm deep into two books that are incredibly different and perfectly suited to balance each other out, and both feature a pair of male-female twins as their main characters.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is about Nick, whose wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle in their living room.  His sister, Go (short for Margo, which nickname I seriously love), is one of the few functional relationships in his life.  We watch the investigation unfold from Nick's point of view with a sour, hungover stomachache just from hanging out with him, and see Amy as a brittle, aggressive person.  Then we watch their relationship unfold from the beginning through her journal entries and start to wonder if Nick is really the guy he thinks of himself as or the guy he knows the world sees.  It's dark and makes you feel kind of hopeless about people.

Patricia Wrede's The Far West is the third book in the Frontier Magic series, and it's so exactly what I wanted it to be. We pick up where we left Eff--working at the college menagerie, living with her parents, everything going along.  Her twin brother, Lan, is still living at home, and appears to be going through some real self-examination after the incident in the last book, but that's not what this story is about.  The reason for reading Eff's story is that it's the story of a place and a time, and I wish I could find a book that did with real history what this does with alternate history.  Her friends visit and pass through, she and the professors at the university try to figure out what's up with the medusa lizard they're studying, and Western expansion unfolds around them. 

The Far West is a slow, easy novel that gets you caught up in the day to day.  Gone Girl is a mover, grim and kind of icky, but fascinating.  It's so perfect that whenever I need a break from one, the other is waiting right there for me.  If you'll excuse me, I have some books to read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I did a thing the other day that I try very hard not to do--I revisited a score I gave a few months ago and dropped a four star book to a three star.  This was based partly on reevaluation--I really don't remember liking the book for four stars.  But it was also because, in a head to head of YA novels about a bunch of teenagers trapped in a mall, No Safety In Numbers fell a distant second to Monument 14.

One big ticket item in any book where the kids have to sort things out is where the heck the adults are and what they're doing.  Safety had adults in it, and while many of them were wandering around passively, some of them were taking action.  Just because we're following the kids doesn't mean the adults disappear.  But there's definitely a sheep-like element to the behavior of most (though not all) of the adults that the kids are all too vital and probing to fall prey to.  They're not sheep!  They're individuals!

Monument, however, had the kids trapped without adults.  The adults are on the outside, doing their best to survive the earthquakes and chemical weapons.  When we do meet adults, they're commanding and firm, and there are complexities to their presence--they're just as much characters as the kids are.

And really, it's about the characters.  Both books have some parallel characters--the popular jock who's not as much of a jerk as tradition holds, and the popular jock who is.  The self-sufficient loner who knows how to make his way in the world.  Hot popular girl.  But Safety's characters are somehow still thumbnail sketches--the non-jerk jock has to be a stealth non-jerk, because Jocks Are Jerks is written in stone somewhere.  Not because jocks are people who are sometimes not jerks, or because often someone gets to be popular by being really, really likeable.  Monument's Jake is a real person, a hand-shaking, back-slapping, let's-all-chill type of guy.  Yeah, he's got problems and plenty of flaws, but being a flat out jerk is not one of them.

What about Jerky Jock?  There's Safety, with a dude who elbows random strangers out of the way and runs someone down with his car, or there's Monument, with a dude who teases mercilessly, occasionally threatens, and steps up at least partway--you know, like a real human being--when the situation calls for.

So yeah, there's no way I could give Monument a lower score than Safety.  It was tighter, made more sense, and had a lot more of the good, meaty how-to details I love.  Plus, while the ending was not very resolved, at least it was an ending.  Definitely the winner of this kids-in-a-mall-off.

Monday, October 15, 2012


This month, book club was a close tie between The Language of Flowers and The Age of Miracles.  The club went with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's Flowers, but I read both, just out of curiosity, and I think they're a great study in contrasts, especially about what makes a "literary novel." 

I've already mentioned that I didn't like Miracles. It was less an awful book than a waste of time and a good premise.  Almost nothing happens.  Occasionally the narrator will let you know about interesting things that are happening, inasmuch as the world is coming to an end.  But it doesn't affect the day to day life of anyone you know; your main character just has a standard twelve year old's coming of age story--and a particularly boring one, as I'm pretty sure Julia doesn't actually take a single action in the whole story.  She just rambles around and watches people live their lives.

I really did like The Language of Flowers.  Although it was also a coming of age story, the main character--tentatively and with great emotional barriers--does actually do things.  She reaches out and shies away and hurts people and is hurt by them, and then makes up with them and tries again.  It's really a book about getting it wrong and trying again.

What I think is interesting in looking at the two books next to each other is about my overall discussion of literary fiction.  I think these two books aim very solidly for the same high-middle-brow range of literature--the land of book clubs and reviews in popular mainstream magazines.  And they both have, I think, the same quality of a "hook."  Miracles has the end of the world; Flowers has a character who has been chewed up and spit out by the foster system, who got kicked out of the best home she'd been in by committing some unnamed horrifying act--she's messed up and misanthropic, and she likes flowers and pretty much nothing else.  For want of a better descriptor, the bare bones outline is a bit lurid, which, as we all know, sells.

So what does Flowers succeed at where Miracles fails?  It's all in the details. Even at the moments when Victoria is at her most passive--and her passive aggressive moments are remarkable--she's filled with emotion.  She freezes it out, she goes into shock, she suppresses rage--it might look like nothing is going on, but a lot is going on.  Julia, not so much.  She's an empty vessel, a wide-eyed lens to look at the world around her.

The other characters in the books have room to wiggle, too.  Let's look at Mother Ruby, who is kind of a third tier character in this book--neither the protagonist nor one of the main players, but a big role anyway.  Mother Ruby is solid and knowledgeable, and yet she screws up.  She is needed and just what Victoria needs at the moment she appears, but she's not all-knowing.  Then you look at Hannah, Julia's best friend at the beginning of Miracles, and you realize that she's just an object to act on Julia.  What's important is not who Hannah is; it's what she does to Julia.  But since Julia doesn't seem to react, then that "what she does" means nothing.

My review of The Language of Flowers is "great read," though I would caution you that if your book club is composed of 70% social workers and child psychologists, they're going to explain how attachment disorders work and how in real life, Victoria would never, ever heal.  But the real point I wanted to make here is that, when I talk about not liking literary fiction, I know I'm probably misusing the term.  What I dislike is a book in which NOTHING HAPPENS.  It doesn't have to be space opera, soap opera, or even musical theater.  Emotionally, though, I need real motion, agitation, and a breath of life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brokeback Tankers

Do you think  my titular puns are getting worse?  I think they might be.

Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker won a bunch of awards last year, so I always figured I'd read it.  Took me a while to get around to it, probably because I was a little put off by the first few pages of Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which is overwhelmingly world-building and kind of hard to follow, I thought.  So I put this book off.

This book, though, is really great.  The blurb is pretty straightforward--it sounds like setup, but it's really the meat of the story--Nailer lives in the poor community centered around tearing apart derelict oil tankers for scrap.  In a post-petrolium world, this is dangerous business, and everyone is hanging on by their fingernails.  When a hurricane rips through their beach community, it leaves behind a prize--a wrecked sailing ship, and a survivor who could be worth a fortune, or who could get him killed.

All this is on the inside cover, so you kind of expect it to happen in the first ten pages.  But really, that's about a third of the book, and everything else that happens stems from that, so it's not like any of it is a surprise.  There was a little stretch in the middle where I was adrift, because I wasn't sure what direction the story was going to go in, but that was pretty brief--the story is about Nailer, and wherever he is, you're happy to be. 

Usually your protagonist in a book like this is a little smarter or kinder or better than everyone around him--because in a rough world, most people are keeping their heads down and doing whatever ugly things they need to do to survive.  You don't want your protagonist doing these things, so you're with the special guy who rises to the top.  And that's not untrue here, but it's not nearly as clunky as you expect, either.  Nailer isn't the only one who does generous things, and he doesn't always do them, either.  He believes the code that the people around him live by--the book just happens to catch him on a day when he rises above it, and everything spills from this. 

I need to write my reviews while I'm still reading the book, or right after.  I finished this at least a week ago, and it's hard to blather on as I usually do.  But I really, really liked this book, and I definitely want to read the next one--which follows a character who's a genetically modified half-man, which is one of the more interesting world-building details.  We'll see if I can ramble more eloquently on that one when the time comes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Yet another thrilling book month!  Although, to be honest, a lot of the books I'm excited about are not new releases.  Still--let's do a quick run-down of October's exciting (to me) new releases.  Most of them came out last week, but I haven't read them yet, so I don't have to writhe in anxious anticipation.

The Far West, by Patricia C. Wrede.  You remember The Thirteenth Child and Across the Great Barrier, of course, because I loved them so much.  I think this is the last one in the series, and I can't wait--one of the best things about this series is the real danger and excitement of discovery, and I really hope Eff spends most of this book out West.  Oddly, the book was out in print about three months ago, but not as an ebook till now.  I actually bought this the day it came out; I was that excited.

I think I have loyalty issues surrounding Redoubt: Book 4 of the Collegium Chronicles, by Mercedes Lackey.  I mean, you can't say these books are good--as I keep saying, I aged out of Valdemar ages ago, and I'm starting to suspect the author did, too.  I read the first sentence of the sample and I cringe a little.  But I know--I know--that when I dig in and start reading it, the super-organization and competence of everyone in these books is just going to knock me backwards.  And of course, Mags is going to think everyone hates him and turn his back on them at some point.  But on the way, we'll learn about the super-organized dining hall system at the Collegium, or the forensic investigation units in the City Guard.  I love it when a fantasy author gets fed up with the medieval world they've modeled their own world on for not being innovative.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, is the sequel to his first book, The Passage.  I started out loving that book and ended up really liking it.  It read like early Stephen King--perhaps a bit ambitions, especially toward the end when our characters start traveling, but a great balance of forward motion and character development, with effectively scary bad guys.  I have some strong suspicions about what's going to happen in this next book, at least in broad strokes.  My only fear is that it's going to be hugely long, and I'll need to invest myself when it's time to dive in.  I have a hard time with commitment.

Son, by Lois Lowry--after all this time, another book in The Giver series!  I have to admit, I didn't love Messenger all that much--I can't really remember the details, but I remember not really getting the details even just after I finished it, and not really finding the ending very satisfying.  But Lois Lowry is so awesome, and the various worlds/societies in this series are so interesting and different, I can't wait to see what else she does with it.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, first hit my radar because of Netgalley, where I get my publisher's galleys.  This is proof that they're doing a solid thing for the publishers, because I got excited about this title.  I wasn't given a copy for review, though--don't blame them; I suspect this publisher sticks with outlets that really follow their demographic--which means I'm now going to have to buy the book.  And I will, if the sample's any good--I'm really interested in transgender issues, and the description makes this sound like a sad, hopeful novel.

Whenever I do one of these, it seems to be mostly sequels.  I guess it's partly because everyone's writing sequels these days, and partly because I mostly get excited about a book because I've read the author before.  Still, I am just drowning in exciting new books by authors I haven't read--many of which, I'm ashamed to say, have been on my to-read list forever.  Still, I soldier on.  Really, it's quite remarkably.  I understand now why you admire me so much.