Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Amnesia: long the staple of daytime soap operas and wacky sitcom hijinks.  And, apparently, current novels.  To-read example: What Alice Forgot, about a woman who wakes up with no memory of her last ten years and finds that her suburban mom life looks lonely and miserable when you jump right into it.  That's up next.

But from the just-read pile, we have the psychological thriller Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson.  This book is a great example of why I like to write reviews while I'm in the middle of a book--I felt a lot more passionately about it while I was reading it.  It's also a good example of why I shouldn't do that--my opinion of the end of the book was very different from how I felt about the middle.

Christine wakes up confused in a bed she doesn't know, next to a man she doesn't recognize.  Every morning.  She doesn't recognize the face in the mirror, either.  Christine has amnesia--she can retain memories for a day, but when she falls asleep every night, it all slips away.  She's been this way for years; she was in a hospital for a long time, but now her husband, Ben, cares for her at home.

As the day goes on, she learns more; she's seeing a therapist, keeping a journal that Ben doesn't know about.  She finds clues about her life, makes guesses, has doubts.  Watson does an excellent job with the unreliable narrator.  Christine catches her husband in lies, some larger and some smaller.  But are they lies of convenience, or something more sinister?  Why is she keeping her journal from him?  And her memory isn't perfect--things slip.  Her theories and reactions range from reasonable to inappropriate, and she's not always sure what's going on.  And every day, she has to learn all this again by reading her journal.

The tension between the facts and Christine's emotions, the mysteries and the lies, all of this is very well executed, and I was never sure who to trust or how clearly Christine was thinking. I can't say that I didn't guess the ending, but that's mostly because, at one point or another, every possible ending occurred to me.

Now, I'm not going to spoil anything, but I'll admit that the ending really didn't live up to the rest of the book for me.  The resolution to the story was a little Hollywood, a little pat, but it was also pretty clunky in its execution.  The same events could have been written in a less melodramatic way--less of a Dramatic Confrontation, fewer characters making illogical choices, less conveniently wrapped up in a tidy little package, and heaven help us, building up more gradually.  The last 25 pages or so of the book were a fast-moving "and then this happened and then that happened and then there was a big confrontation and then it was all over the end" chunk of brick.

It's a shame, because the psychological tension, the confusion, and the doubts that I had in the narrator made for a really enthralling read up until that point.  I still suggest reading it--as I said, the ending wasn't unsatisfying--but my positive review does come with a caveat.  Enter at your own risk.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko, has been on my radar for a very long time.  Mrs. N at Between These Pages reviewed it and liked it. Though I had heard the title before, that was when I realized that it was about autism, specifically a boy living with his autistic sister in the '30s on--you guessed it--Alcatraz.

Moose is a great kid, likeable, good with his sister, but no more patient than he should be.  All the characters are exactly as flawed as they should be.  Natalie changes over time, but she is never magically cured.  Moose's mother is a fierce advocate for her daughter, but her strength is brittle bravado.  His father sees things clearly, but tries not to push anything out of the balance.

This is definitely a kids' book, but it was thoughtful and complex enough to keep me really interested.  There was just enough tension from the troublemaking neighbor, just enough anxiety about what was going to happen, and just enough historical flavor from the cons on the Rock.  I don't have a million things to say about this book, but I really enjoyed it, and I really can't wait to read the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Craig Thompson's Habibi is an excellent example of why the name "comic books" is kind of useless as a descriptor.  There's pretty much no level on which the word "comic" applies here.  I suppose that's why we have the term graphic novel, though sometimes that seems inadequate, too.

This was one of those books that is hard to give stars to, or even to say whether I enjoyed it.  I can list off its qualities, though--the art is incredible, simple and expressive.  The long passages about Islamic numerology are beautifully rendered but somewhat confusing.  It shouldn't have surprised me that this was a fairly explicit sexual coming of age story (given that the author's previous book was Blankets), but the sexuality, the explicitness, and the complexity of some of the relationships was actually pretty shocking.

The time period and the historical context are a little confusing--the desert, sultan's palace, and city all feel like timeless places, so the occasional glimpse of a motorcycle or pickup truck are jarring.  It spans many years, too--Zam is three at the beginning of the story and about 19 at the end.  Dodola is a little girl when she's sold in marriage, and not yet a teenager when her husband is killed and she's sold into slavery.  She takes Zam under her wing and becomes his mother, his older sister, and his protector. 

They are each other's only family and whole world, and as they grown up in close quarters and all alone, sex takes on a strange aspect of their relationship.  So many harsh elements of sexuality are touched on here--rape, concubinage, prostitution, castration--and those studies are probably what I find most successful about the book. 

Considering the heavy influence of Islamic mysticism in the story, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more explicit discussion of sex in Islam.  All of those elements were symbols, metaphors, and analogies, which I'm not usually very good at.  I think I could have used a study guide for those parts; I'm not even sure what the stories meant to the characters, except to the extent that storytelling itself was an escape, a power, and a connection between the characters.

This was a beautiful book in a lot of ways.  It was also shocking, harsh, confusing, and challenging.  A real work of art, I think.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Again with a non-disappointing second book!  The Thirteenth Child was the first in Patricia C. Wrede's new Frontier Magic trilogy, which takes place in the 19th century as the United States of Columbia expands past the Great Barrier River and into the frontier.  The river and the spells that guard it protect the eastern united States from the wildlife—both natural and magical—that populate the west, but pioneers are finding ways to survive in such a dangerous land.

Across the Great Barrier follows the same heroine from the first book, Eff Rothmer, as she begins to find her place in the world.  The first book followed her growing up in a western college town, learning that being the thirteenth child didn't mean she was cursed, and figuring out how to listen to herself in a world where she's overshadowed by her large family and accomplished twin brother.  In this book, we get a new set of challenges as Eff learns more about her own brand of magic and gets more opportunities to spend time on the frontier.

A lot of the charm of these books is in their portrayal of this alternate frontier.  Something I noticed this time, though, is that the success of world building here isn't just centered around the magical alternate reality that the author created.  Rather, the historical sense of expansion, the newness, eagerness, and change that infect everyone around Eff are really the most fun part of the book.  The tightly woven alternate reality is a bonus on top of this.

These are not books in which major things happen.  Minor incidents are related not only because they are important in the greater story, but because they build a picture of Eff's life.  The realism of this approach and the opportunity to follow Eff through her days—whether hunting magical animals beyond the Great Barrier or sharpening her skills on basic housekeeping spells—are really what made me love this book. 

And I do love it.  It reads very much like an extension of the first one, almost seamlessly.  But it's got its own arc, its own flavor.  Eff isn't afraid anymore—the first book was about her fear, but this book is about her discovery of herself, and learning.  Watching Eff—and the people around her—change through time is another thing that Wrede does a lot better than other authors.  I really can't wait to read more.

Also, I'd really like to see an ice dragon someday. 

From a distance, of course. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Kindle Problem

I can't imagine there are many people out there who aren't finding that their e-reader is increasing the amount they spend on books.  A lot of people defray the cost by choosing some of their books from the many free options available.  I just can't do that--my to-read list is already more than 500 books long (that's the A-list, mind you; I also have a B-list of over 400 books).  I'm trying NOT to find more books to read.

So I've had a two-pronged approach of a) mining the library's ebooks for all they're worth, and b) sticking with about half paper books.  So I'm still using the library extensively, which is pretty great.  Sure, my book buying has increased, but I actually feel pretty good about the idea of spending some of my disposable income sending money at some of the authors I like, especially the ones who aren't rich and famous yet.

But then I run up against a conundrum like Tomorrow Girls. I've heard great things, and it's a kids' series, so the books are a little cheaper.  I figured what the heck and bought the first one, Behind the Gates.  It turned out to be a lot of fun--in a future America (points!) where resources are scarce and the nation is at war, Louisa's parents are lucky to have enough money to send her and her best friend Maddie to boarding school (points!), where they'll be safe. 

Louisa's having a great time learning outdoor skills, making friends, and impressing her teachers.  But the school doesn't quite make sense--if there's no reception, why were their cellphones taken away?  Why do they need to learn survival skills?  There are plenty of interesting secrets to uncover.

I really enjoyed this--a fun, quick middle grade read that moved quickly and kept me guessing without being confusing.  For a middle grade book, it was really impressively accessible as an adult.  I want to read the next one--in fact, there are already four of them, and I'm not sure how many there will be total.

And herein lies my problem.  I bought the first book for $8.  While I really love this book, I'm not sure if I want to run out and spend almost $24 on the next three.  But--BIZARRELY--the BPL doesn't have any copies of these.  I might be able to find them through the Minuteman network, but even they only have a few copies and it's not clear if they have the second one. 

I guess $24 ($32 total) isn't that much in the greater scheme of things.  I've got some gift certificates to spend and things.  Still, though, I have a terrible time with things like this.  The Kindle puts this conundrum--is this worth my money?--in front of me significantly more often than the library ever did.  Surprise!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Remember how I was talking about sequels, and second book syndrome?  Baby, I've found the cure.  The Broken Kingdoms is an awesome book that just got better and better as I went along, until, two chapters from the end, I bought the third book because I didn't want to wait five more minutes to read more.  N.K. Jemisin is a great author, and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Not perfect, but I can't even generate a whole paragraph on that subject.  Basically, I wasn't sure where the book was going for the first 60 pages or so.  I enjoyed meeting the characters and the worldbuilding, but I couldn't figure out which details were going to be relevant to the bigger story, or which direction it was going to go in.

But when it started rolling, nothing held it back.  Oree is a blind artist who lives in the city of Shadow, under the World Tree and the hovering palace-city of Sky, where the powerful Arameri live.  This is a city where godlings live beside mortals and magic is mostly illegal and not uncommon.  Oree finds a silent vagrant in her trashbin and takes him into her home, and the story begins.  Godlings are being murdered, the balance of power in the world is shifting, and Oree finds herself at the center of the struggle. 

It's so much harder to enumerate what you like about a book than what goes wrong.  The naturalism of complicated emotions, bad luck, and bad decisions is handled effortlessly, which is often something I find awkward in books.  The worldbuilding is elegant and seamless, which is astounding with a mythology like this--the implications of the interactions of gods, mortals, and godlings are consistent and believable, but not invasive.

I wish I was a better reviewer, because I loved this book and I think you should read it.  I suppose that's the best I can do.  I'm so excited for the next one!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Life Is a Dryer Full of Socks

This'll be quick, because the book was quick.  The Everafter, by Amy Huntley,  is not a book I'd call light, fun, or fluffy, but that's mostly because it's about death.  And it's not silly, or at all cheesy.

But it's a puff piece on death. This book isn't about mining any of the darkness.  The main character died at 17, but it's not even about being cut down so young, the way Before I Fall was.  It's kind of a meditation on loss, I guess?  Or really, on lost opportunities.  But in a sweet way, not a painful one. 

Maddy finds herself formless and alone, floating in a void with almost no memories.  She shares the void with random objects--a shoe, a rubber band, a set of keys, a cell phone.  These things are everything she's ever lost, and when she touches something, she is taken back to the moment when it was lost.  As she lives more moments in her life, she regains more and more memories, and begins to circle in on the question of how she died.

The question of who killed her is treated nicely--it's not the point of the book, but curiosity keeps you interested in the story.  The real point of the book, though, is about the things that slip away.  It seems kind of odd to have a book for teens that is about memory and wistful regret, but it's balanced with how self-doubt in one moment becomes regret in another.  Maddy can change her past, but the memories that she overwrites slip away, and she can never really compare now with then.

I've read a lot of young adult books for many years, but lately I've started to notice that some things have started to get on my nerves--earth-shattering teen romances, entire books whose tension revolves around people not saying what they think.  But this book puts a lot of "stereotypically" teen moments--tongue-tied by your crush, panicking over lost homework--in just the right perspective, simultaneously the biggest problem ever and just a mote of dust drifting away.

This is a short book, dreamy, easy to read.  I don't know if I'll be thinking about it next week, but it was well worth the few hours I spent with it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Society Strikes Back

Ah, second book syndrome. Has any trilogy escaped it? You start with a standalone story of fighting for survival against all odds. At the end, success--with a strong hint that there are bigger battles to be fought.

Then we get the sophomore slump, where little battles are fought and the Really Big Battle is set up for us.  Things don't really let loose till the final book, where there are showdowns and world changes and a neat little wrap up.

I'm really looking forward to that third book in Ally Condie's Matched series.  The second, Crossed, was good, kept me reading, no problems, but the Society wasn't really in it at all, except as whispers in the background.  And come on, this is all about Man--well, Teenaged Girl--vs. Society.

The story, in general, is that Cassia sets out to find Ky, who's been basically deported to the Outer Provinces.  We also get alternating chapters from Ky's point of view, where the role of the "colonists" in the Outer Provinces is one giant step below cannon fodder.  Ky and Cassia both end up on the run through nature (there are canyons--I'm thinking American Southwest), looking for each other, afraid of the Society, trying to learn more about the folks who live outside it--the Rising, the Farmers.

We learn a bit more about Ky's history.  We learn a LOT about how True Love makes you pine for your beloved, and how being with them makes everything feel right, and how remembering hard things makes you feel, and hoping makes you feel, and wondering makes you feel, and thinking makes you feel.  There's a lot of feeling, is what I'm saying.

What there's very little of is any real driver.  The characters keep running because they're so afraid of being caught, but as far as I can tell pretty much nobody is looking for them.  There are occasional dead bodies to imply that the ante is being upped, but I don't quite get where they came from.  Ky's fears, while probably normal, seem kind of lame to me.  Cassia's attempts to stop thinking like a Citizen are worth something, but there just aren't that many of them.

What the book did is set a lot of expectations for the next one.  The whole book was about getting elements into place--the movements and characters and expectations.  The stage is now set for the third book to be action packed, either with explosions and running or with delicate political maneuvering.  I'll take either one, because I just spent a lot more time than I needed to on the setup.

I also have some predictions about the Enemy that I won't make explicitly, but that I want credit for calling as early as the first book, thank you.

Basically, while I don't regret reading it, most of what I have to say about this book is that there's no there there.  It's an opening act.  I'm waiting for the headliner.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Like the new design?  I hadn't realized Blogger had so many new layouts and features.  I feel very modern and jazz hands.

I accidentally started reading Neal Stephenson's Reamde (which I think is pronounced Read Me, but I always read as Reamed, but isn't he clever, it could also be read as Remade).  I got it and set it aside for when I had time, but I glanced at the first few pages.  Which was a really interesting account of a guy at his family reunion in Iowa, only he's sort of--well, not the black sheep, but he has a Wikipedia entry and people are glancing at him sideways.  And so I read a little more to find out what was going on....

And now I'm into it.  And it's really just so engaging as a story of how to set up a good MMORPG, with some other pretty interesting anecdotes thrown in.  It's not like it's driving along like a rollercoaster, but it's a string of really engaging scenes and anecdotes and I'm going to read the whole thing.

Except that I have no clear idea what it's about yet.  The blurb implies that there will be chasing and thriller elements, but I have no clear ideas yet.  I'm 5% of the way in, but this is a Neal Stephenson book, so that's about 50 pages out of presumably a thousand or so.

Thank heaven it's really, really good.  And that I have Tomorrow Girls--which is dystopian AND girls boarding school all in one--to balance it out.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Growing Up '80s

I was drawn to Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones, by the first line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."  Well, now, there's something you don't see every day--I was hooked.

It goes on to describe his meeting with the narrator's mother, ten years into his first marriage.  Good choice; at this point, how this bigamy came to pass is what's keeping me interested.  How do Gwen and James meet, fall in love, and end up married?  By the time this background story is told, the narrator's voice has you, and you're on board for the rest.

Dana Yarboro (she doesn't have his name) knows she's the secret daughter.  She sees her father once a week, shares her  mother's obsession with his other family, and has to give up opportunities again and again to protect his secret.  Her uncle Raleigh is the only person in her father's life who knows his secret, and he's at least half in love with Gwen himself.  Dana's loneliness bearing this long secret, her relationship with her mother, who walks the line between doing her best and obsessed, and her attempts to figure out where she fits in the world when she's not even sure where she fits in her family comprise the structure of the story, although a lot of it is just about growing up Black in lower-middle class Atlanta in the early '80s. 

(I have to say here, I loved the early '80s stuff.  It's a period that you don't see in fiction much without a lot of ironic layers and distant social observation.  If only as the story of a Black teenager in Atlanta, this was really good.  It felt very personal and familiar--there was no feeling of distance from the time, either intentionally or unintentionally by the author.)

But then--oh, then--halfway through the book, the point of view shifts, and we learn of another mother's courtship with James Witherspoon, and another daughter's life with her mother, her father, her friends and neighbors, her place in the world.  Chaurisse is the legitimate daughter, the acknowledged on, the one whose perfect life Dana is protecting.  It's not all that perfect--her parents were married very young due to a pregnancy that ended with stillbirth.  Chaurisse is not beautiful or brilliant, doesn't have close friends, but has a happy, solid family life.  She doesn't know or even suspect her father's secret.

I won't spoil the events in the book, but for the most part, the events aren't what matters.  This book is all about relationships, and about trying to figure out what to do with the cards you're dealt, how to navigate a world you can't control, and how to make the best of a tough situation.  In that respect--in portraying these two young women and their strengths and vulnerabilities, and above all confusion--Silver Sparrow really shines.

In fact, I think the book's biggest flaw is that it is a bit too casual with the plot.  The ending is rushed, and a lot of emotional fallout is left of the page, which is kind of unsatisfying.  Because the decisions of adults--especially men--are almost always enigmatic, a lot of situations the girls face feel just a little sudden and contrived.  It's not entirely a failure, but it pulled me out of the story more than I would have liked.

I think my favorite element of the story, though, is the way we get to see each character through two sets of eyes.  Dana's mother--glamorous, self-sufficient, desperate--and Chaurisse's--comfortable, maternal, emotional--are both observed by each daughter, through the lenses of love, fear, innocence, and too much knowledge.  Whether the chain of events fits together at every link, Silver Sparrow is a perceptive character study that kept me reading.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

A New Task

Not a resolution, or anything, but let's see what happens when I try to blog every book I finish, instead of just the highlights.

First up, Dash & Lily's Book of Dares.  Another outing from Rachel Cohen and David Levithan of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist fame.  I liked that book a lot, but I think I like this one even more.  But they're hard to compare, because while there are some major similarities (alternating point-of-view chapters, a scavenger hunt-like journey through New York City), the characters and mood are so very different.

Nick & Norah was one long, intense, pounding night in the city.  That was the glory of it, and it worked really well.  Dash and Lily spend a week roaming around, never meeting, trying to figure themselves out through the lens of the mysterious pen pals they are to each other.  Nick was the sweet, sincere boy with a guitar of so many girls' dreams, Norah the smart, determined young woman that most girls become four years later after college.  But Dash is a snarly, ironic, bookish hipster, while Lily is a too-sincere, family-centered free spirit.

When you meet Dash and Lily, you despair of them ever liking each other--it's not that Lily isn't smart enough for Dash, or that he's not warm enough for her.  It's that they each embody not just the opposite of the other, but the fundamental elements that the other is missing, and maybe most afraid of.  And maybe you start out thinking Dash is a snob and Lily a freak, but you live inside their head and come to love them--and the things they love--and you just want to meet them and read about them and see them both happy.

I really enjoyed this book.  It didn't zip by as fast as Nick & Norah, but that's okay.  It didn't need the driving pulse or urgency.  It had its own introverted, tentative charm that drew me in and made me--ME, mind you, who is in many ways the opposite of a New Yorker--want to see the Big Apple at Christmas.  I think that alone says all you need to know.

Monday, January 02, 2012

My People

I have been looking around the internets for book blogs that I could love.  I have a few favorites from people I already know well--Between These Pages for kids' books, Unshelved Book Club for comic reviews--but I've been looking for more and more. I found a lot that I didn't--romance blogs with great writing but that I'll never read the books, and a lot of blogs that do all the same theme days: Tuesday, a random line from a random page; Friday, a title from your to-read pile.  Not bad, but just not for me.

But I've finally lucked into a couple of great reads.  Fun, thoughtful writing, books right up my alley (fantasy, historical fiction), and reviews, reviews, reviews.  I'm constantly being reminded that reviews are what people want to read from book bloggers, including me.  I will endeavor to provide, gentle readers.

In the meantime, check out my two new imaginary sisters, Books I Done Read and Aarti Chapati's BookLust.  Not to be confused with Nancy Pearl's Book Lust, which I would love if she ever updated.