Monday, April 30, 2012

Like a Real Blogger

I have been insanely excited to read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, ever since I read this review at Things Mean a Lot.  In fact, I spent a few minutes yesterday poking around to see if I could get it at the library before I went to Amazon and realized it's not set to release till the middle of May.

But then, dear reader, but then! In my inbox appeared a message from Netgalley, which is a venue for book reviewers and bloggers to connect with publishers who might want to distribute reviewer copies to them.  Generally I don't qualify, as you, dear cherished readers, are few in number.  But it turns out Code Name Verity wants some buzz, so they're handing out reading copies to the likes of little ol' me!

I'm incredibly excited and will be reading this book as soon as I get home (because I FORGOT MY KINDLE TODAY, which is a whole post in and of itself about the agony I'm experiencing right now). 

What I know about this novel is that it's from the point of view of a spy who has been caught in France in World War II.  I believe the first part is the story she tells her captors, and the second part is a more removed, third person story.  I'm anticipating something personal and intimate and yet historical and exciting.  I really can't wait!

I also started The Shape of Desire today, by Sharon Shinn.  We'll see where it goes; I'm not really excited about werewolves and shapeshifters, but Sharon Shinn always makes the little things so engaging that I'd read her writing about someone reading the phone book.  As it were.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Okay, I'm not Jon Ronson's biggest fan in the whole world.  I read bits and pieces of his book Them, and to be honest, he seems to take a teeny bit too much delight in his subjects' weirdness.  It wasn't bad, just a little odd to me.  Plus, there's this story from This American Life (don't you love their new searchable archive?), which, while honest in a vulnerable way, is also not completely charming.

Which is why I've had The Psychopath Test in my reader for ages and not read it.  Haven't even listened to the TAL story about it (I'm a plug machine today, right?).  Not sure why I picked it up, except that it seemed like the right combination of light and informative for my mood right now.  And OMG, it's awesome.

Now, wait, that's not exactly true.  It's a fun, interesting, personal-journalism-type story that so far is only just coming to the actual topic of the story in a roundabout account of the Ronson's introduction to the world of psychology.  What's awesome about the part I'm reading right now, though, is the Scientologists.

Now, what I know about Scientology has all been shouted by Tom Cruise on daytime TV, but I'm as intrigued by it as I am by any insular group with unusual beliefs.  Ronson, of course, has a lot of experience with such groups, and I think that makes him the right man to tell this story.  Because if there's one thing he can do it's strike a balance between respect and skepticism, between elbowing me and giving me an "isn't this nutty?" eyebrow waggle and falling lightly under the hypnotic spell of whoever he's listening to--really the best a lot of fringe types can hope for in the mainstream media.

I'm not very far in, but I'm tickled pink by this book so far.

In other news, my collective officemates are enabling me by talking me into reading Bill Bryson's I'm a Stranger Here Myself.  Because the delightful distinctions between England and America, coupled with Bill Bryson's quirky charm, and how can I go wrong?  My new coworker Harriet is reading it, and she's English, so if I can get it from the library fast enough, I can pick her brain as I'm reading it!

Monday, April 23, 2012


Tomorrow I get to go to the bookstore and pick up Sandra Dallas's True Sisters, which I'm crazy excited about because I've read bits and pieces about the great Mormon handcart migration and how kind of nutty and dangerous it was, and I'm really excited to get into the meat of this story.  Also, buying a book!  I hope I read it soon.  Doesn't usually work that way, but I think, with determination, I can do it.

My elaborate February line-up has been foiled by the snail-like pace of the public library system, as well as my perhaps-too-high hopes for some of those books.  Magic Under Stone is one of the few books I've already gotten my hands on, and it started annoying me about 10 pages in.  There was some heavy-handed reminder exposition from the first book, some references to things I couldn't piece together because I couldn't remember them from the first book, and some wild coincidences.  Basically, it just feels more juvenile than I'm interested in right now.  I don't think I'm going to read it, and I don't really have any regrets about that.

The Shape of Desire is finally on its way, which fills me with glorious hope, because Sharon Shinn, love you!  I think its about werewolves, which gives me pause, but only a little.  Author trust is such a huge element in my enjoyment of a book, from anticipation of the book right up through the reading and into the potential anticipation of the sequels.

Overall, though, I'm poking through a few things to see what catches.  I was devouring Buddha In the Attic until it got to the part about having children, at which point the sadness of the story just overwhelmed me and I found myself not picking it up as often.  I picked up All Creatures Great and Small, which is really fun in the way that you might expect anecdotes about a vet in the 1930s English countryside would be fun--like watching PBS, which I fully intend to go back and do (on Netflix, most likely) when I finish the book.  I finally started reading Jon Ronson's* The Psychopath Test, which did itself a huge favor by starting off with an intriguing anecdote that doesn't clearly relate to the topic of the book, keeping me reading to see what the heck is going on.

And today, I finished up Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George.  I'm not sure if it was just the right book for the mood I was in, but I loved, loved, loved it.  I loved Celie, and how she was brave and smart and yet so very, very eleven.  I loved how much the characters took care of each other, and was excited every time we found out someone was on their side.  I loved the castle, and I got a little teary--yes, really!--when something bad happened to it.  I don't usually feel this way about books at this age level (middle grade, maybe?), but I really wish I could have written this book. 

So this is the state of the union.  I feel like I've put all my thoughts down here, so I can't imagine what I might have to say tomorrow, but I suppose that's what tomorrow is for, right?

*Incidentally, doesn't his name sound vaguely dirty?  I can't quite figure out why.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Hangover

You know those book hangovers when you wake up in the morning after finishing the book the night before and the FIRST thing you think about is the book, and then you have all these feelings still and you don’t know what to do with them, and no one around understands, and it feels like reality is still moving around you but you’re stuck in that book hangover and still cannot make yourself care about anything in the real world because FEELINGS.

-Always An Original

Yes.  Yes, I do.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Adoption Reading: Flashback

Lately I've been reading a bit about adoption, for no particular reason except that I've become more aware of some of the issues involved lately, and because an online friend of mine brought her two gorgeous new kids home recently.  I reviewed Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other a while ago, which was an interesting analysis of adoption by someone with a modern parent's viewpoint.

Now, though, I find  myself in the middle of Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye, which I happened into because it's by Lois Lowry and it's an ebook that was available at my library.  Lowry's novels have been reliably awesome kids' and YA books throughout my lifetime (Number the Stars, The Giver, A Summer to Die, even The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline).  It wasn't until I started reading it that I realized it was a novel about adoption.

The most interesting thing I'm finding about it is that it was written in 1978, so the default picture of adoption is incredibly different than the world I understand today.  Everyone is shocked when Natalie wants to find out about her birth mother (who is frequently called her "natural mother").  Her parents are hurt, and many people take it to be an attack on them.

Everyone's speculation is filtered through a cultural lens that's completely different from the one I'm used to.  Admittedly, most people I know have either gone with international adoption or open adoption.  But Natalie's boyfriend asks what she'll think if she finds out that her mother is like Brenda who works at the factory in town--sweet and simple and easy?  Natalie says that that's a terrible thing to say, of course that won't be true.

Then she tries to imagine how someone could give up a baby.  She pictures them coldly saying they don't want her.  She pictures them sobbing when they learn that the husband is dying of a horrible disease and the wife can't care for a child on her own, so they sadly sacrifice the child.  She doesn't seem to picture the obvious situation, where both parents are teenagers.  I assume this is because it's a YA book from 35 years ago, and we still believed that Nice Girls Don't Do That--presumably someone will mention it at some point, but the fact that it hasn't crossed anyone's mind is really telling about the angle of the story.

In a slightly different book, this dating--which takes more subtle forms, too; Natalie's family is kind of perfect, which I think is intended to avoid complicating the issue of why she needs to find her origins--might be off-putting, or at least boring.  But first, I love these pristine YA books from my childhood--Judy Blume and Lois Lowry and how they wrestled with hard issues in a more constrained world.  And second, the introspection really balances out all the external anachronisms.  Sure, no one around her understands why Natalie would care at all who gave birth to her.  But much of her confusion is internal, and I really think that a lot of that is much more personal, and timeless, than you might expect.

It's a short book; I suspect it will take a few hours to read in total, over the week or so I'll be working on it.  It's such an interesting perspective; I think I'll be picking up China Ghosts after this, to follow up on the thread.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Recovery Books

My therapeutic post-Children's Hospital reading list has been jumping all around, because I will NOT push through anything without joy right now.

I flipped through a few pages of Michael Northrup's Trapped, but it was just too high school.  I mean, that's not a criticism--it's a young adult book about being trapped in a high school during a snowstorm.  Some days that's what you want, but not today.

And I read a chapter or two of Jaqueline Dolamore's Magic Under Stone, but it was just too clunky.  I guess the first one wasn't exactly High Literature, but this one is starting where it ended up and so it's already a confusing jumble.  I think it's also struggling with second-book syndrome, with a little less polish and a bit more of a rush to move the big story along.

Where did I land?  The Buddha In the Attic, by Julie Otsuka.  It's been on my list for a long time, and when I started reading the first few paragraphs, I was completely caught.  It's lovely and short and a little poem.  Not exactly a story, but a portrait of Japanese brides who traveled to the US in the early part of the 20th century to meet their arranged husbands.  I'm really enjoying it, and after spending a week on about 250 pages that didn't even get me halfway through That Other Book, something short is most welcome.

I'm also into Hate List, by Jennifer Brown.  It's another high school book, and it's not as upbeat as I expected to want.  But it's actually quite intriguing--after a school shooting, the girlfriend of the dead shooter has to return to school.  Is she a hero for the bullet she took pushing someone out of the way?  Is she an accomplice for keeping a hate list with her boyfriend and not knowing he was going to do this?  Already the characters are more real and feeling than in That Other Book, and I'm definitely caught up.

I'll either pick up China Mieville (did you know he's a dude?  I was surprised!) Kraken or Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour in Glass for my other/next/further reading.  They look very different, and I'm very intrigued by both.  I'm feeling my way for now, treating myself gently to recover from the emotional stress.   And book club chose Ann Patchett's State of Wonder for our next read, which should be good, and if not, at least won't be an endless experience in suffering like certain other recent reads.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Release Me

I am pleased to herein offer my firm anti-recommendation for Chris Adrian's ambitious novel, The Children's Hospital. I am backed up by the members of my intelligent, insightful, and currently enraged book club.  I'd love to write a detailed and balanced review that explained the flaws of the book, but a) they are too many and too thorough to describe, and b) I didn't actually finish the book because it was so painful and so very, very long.

Almost none of us finished it.  Those who did had no extra insight to offer the rest of us.  In fact, they may have been even more confused than the rest of us.  The first act of the book, after all, was a poorly-imagined apocalypse story told through the plodding guise of an overly-detailed hospital procedural.

Now, I've read about the end of the world plenty of times--YA, adults, kids, natural disaster, war, zombies--and I have never read a more passionless, meaningless, emotionally vacant version of the end.  People in this book cry sometimes because their loved ones are dead, but they're doctors, so they soldier on.  Really, they take a minute to cry in the bathroom between rounds.  Our main character, who has lost many loved ones before the disaster, doesn't even respond that strongly.  No one finds themselves stripped of their entire understanding of reality, throwing off everything they thought, believed, and were, living--I don't know--naked in the hallway, or ranting about the end times on the roof.  No one goes wild, or shuts down.  People occasionally contemplate it as though it were a really upsetting political situation on the other side of the world.  None of them really even stop doctoring.

The world ended in an apocalyptic flood; the hospital was preserved through the divine intervention of angels, one of whom now occupies the hospital and answers requests and speaks words of saccharine support from the walls.  Angels and a flood, magical changes to the building, magical production of food and things you want.  The end of the world.  Is there any explanation or consideration or questions for the angels or speculation about the nature of God?  Is there any concept that if there are angels (and they're narrating the book, mind you--the whole thing is technically from their point of view) there must be a god?  Heaven is mentioned, as is being sent.  But who did the sending, his/her/its intent, purpose, aims are not only not revealed to us, they are barely speculated about.  One character has a running list of reasons the world had to end--things like irritating commercials and silly products.  Not even she thinks about who might have been making this judgement.

And that's the problem with the whole thing: lots of angels but no God.  Lots of doctors but no healing (or dying, either.  Why is everyone panicking when nobody seems to die?)  It's like the author thought that putting all these things into a book was the same as having something to say about them.  Having an end of the world flood with angels is the same as wrestling with the notion of God.  Watching doctors do their rounds is the same as saying something about the medical profession.  But it's not.

I haven't even gotten into the parts of the book I didn't get to; I read just over 1/3 of it.  For the record, here are some spoilers of the parts I didn't read but was told about:  the main character gets healing powers, someone discovers the journal of a promiscuous little kid, adults die and children take over the world.  Apparently none of them make any more sense than the parts I read, or seem to have any more meaning, or are any more intellectually stimulating or emotionally pleasing.  It's just a bunch of random stuff stuck together that's supposed to mean something, like an electronic poetry generator.  It's not abstract--abstract is a hard, complex, subtle, emotional way to create art.  This is like a parody of abstract.

I could go on forever, but maybe I'll write another post someday about the thoughts and conversations I've had about literary fiction versus "upscale popular fiction" from reading this book, or about Girlfriend in a Coma, which this reminded me of and I also really hated.  This is enough for now.

And if anyone's read the book and can tell my why so many reviewers really loved it (Maya Goldberg even spoke of how he resisted turning characters into symbols, which is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of how I would describe the book I read) , I'd really appreciate if you could explain it to me.  There were plenty of great books that I didn't enjoy or didn't get; I don't think this was one of them.  I think, as Sarah said, this was a case of "the emperor has no clothes."

(PS. Also the names: Dr. Tiller, the calm one.  Dr. Sashay, the crazy one, Dr. Sasscock, the sexy one.  And on and on and ON AND ON.  Also, it was published by McSweeney's.  Of course.  I feel this way about a lot of McSweeney's stuff.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants just blew me away.  I read it in an hour and a half (comics are like that), and I could not put it down.  I'm sure I'd heard of it, but when I read this review at Things Mean A Lot, I put in my library request.  I'm not sure why, really, except that I desperately want to read pretty much everything she reviews, even if, objectively, I know that I will never end up reading it.  She's that kind of reviewer.

Anyway, I got it, and flipped through it, and read the first few pages, and was sucked in completely and didn't put it down till I was done.  I loved Barbara, and how tough and vulnerable and strong and really young she is.  I loved how information was doled out, so that things were mysterious, but you were never actually confused.  I loved the line between reality and imagination and madness, and the fact that there's a psychologist and witnesses, and elves (maybe?).  I thought the balance between capturing the character's experience and the objective experience was just spot on. 

I think I loved Barbara's tough, knowing, mystical alter ego most of all.  The giants are very real and very serious, and she takes them seriously in what is NOT a little kid way.  This is no metaphor; this is horror at her door.  And this was a really beautiful book that I'm so happy to have found.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Art of Detection

According to many famous authors, there are rules about writing mysteries.  I haven't any use for them, though; it seems like there must be something wrong with me.  My favorite mysteries get all mystical and impenetrable and require obscure knowledge of the workings of Communist Lao-produced muskets if I'm going to beat the detective to the killer.  Unlikely.

But oh, so good!  Slash and Burn is the most recent Dr. Siri mystery from Colin Cotterill, and I swear they're getting better.  There was a weird dip in the second through fourth books where the supernatural stuff got all trippy and weird and I couldn't quite get my head around them.  But although Siri's spiritual stowaway Yeh Ming makes an appearance in this book, it's much more about the mystery. 

There's some great cross-cultural humor with a bunch of Americans; a reappearance by Auntie Bpoo, the cross-dressing psychic; development in the love lives of our loveable morgue staff; and Siri's showing his age, both in exhaustion and irreverence.

I am having so much fun reading this book that I had to force myself not to finish it on the bus ride home last night so I could write this post with all the pent-up enthusiasm I was saving.  I know that it will slide away quickly when I'm finished, but for now, I really want to go drinking in the Laotian jungle with Siri, Daeng, Civilai, and Geung.  I love these guys; isn't that exactly what you're looking for in a series of books?

Monday, April 09, 2012

More April!

Remember The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneWasn't that a fun read?  Katherine Howe's got a new one coming out tomorrow!

Unfortunately, as a new release by an author with a very popular first book, The House of Velvet and Glass has a sadly high Kindle price of $15, and I don't think I'll be buying it right away. But!  Historical fiction set in Boston!  In 1915!  With the Titanic as historical background!  And the nascent field of psychology!  I'm so excited already!  And I just heard about this yesterday--how'd I miss this one?

There used to be a little app/widget thingie that would track my favorite authors, and when their Amazon search showed something new associated with their name, it would pop up a little message.  How does Amazon not have this feature?  I would love to be able to put an author in and always know when they have books coming out.  I keep up with some folks, like Sharon Shinn and Megan Whalen Turner (there was an elaborate web community devoted to stalking Jean Auel, more's the pity), but it's hard to remember everyone you want to keep up with!  I end up keeping better track of Mercedes Lackey than anyone else, and that seems like a sign that there's something missing in your life.

Which, by the way, her next Collegium Chronicles book, Redoubt, is coming out in October.  What kind of title is that?  Do you even know what the word "redoubt" means?  I know there's a noun--the high redoubt--and it can be used as an adjective--redoubtable--but I have no idea what it means. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Do you remember Jackaroo?  Cynthia Voigt is one of those writers everyone read, but I never really got into.  Dicey's Song is the one I remember being most popular--or assigned for class?  I can't remember.  Anyway, they seemed too serious for me.  Izzy Willy-Nilly was paralyzed.  Downer!

But lately I've found myself thinking about Jackaroo.  I read that one, and I really liked it.  Thinking about it, this might have been my first exposure to fantasy.  It reads like fantasy, anyway, in that it takes place in an alternate world with feudal overtones, although there's no actual magic.  It's about the daughter of a wealthy innkeeper in a cold, hungry winter.  Jackaroo is a Robin Hood-like figure in this world, and the more Gwyn sees of injustice and suffering, the more she realizes that the people need Jackaroo to protect them from the powerful and to give them strength.

There were only a few scenes that I remembered, and the premise.  I remembered that there was a cabin in the woods where she takes refuge, and the clothing.  I remembered the end, which has a tweak of romance that surprised me at the time. 

So I picked it up again--got a copy for myself, actually, through Paperback Swap--and read the first page.  There was a wonderful line about a room full of women waiting for charity food rations: "Men didn't come to the Doling Room.  The shame would be too great for a man to carry.  So the women carried it."  This kind of blew me away, and now I'm completely hooked and reading it again and let me tell you, it's SO good.  I didn't half appreciate it when I was thirteen.  This is some solid domestic fantasy with a good splash of swashbuckling.  I'm so thrilled I found this again.

And there are others!  She wrote three books about The Kingdom.  I have On Fortune's Wheel waiting on the shelf, and there's another, and Elske is the third.  I'm giddy with a book crush, not even twitterpated about all the other books I'm not reading.  Lucky me!

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Movie

If you haven't been living in a cave, you've probably heard of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. The movie came out last week, and I went to see it this weekend.  Since you asked so nicely, I'll share my opinion with you.

I loved it.  Loved loved it.  I thought it was a really enjoyable, action-packed, thoughtful movie that did a great job of adapting the book.  Movies that are respectful of their source books often fail because a film can't tell a story the same way as a book; hitting all the same scenes does not make all the same points.  The adaptation here was really wonderful; it did a great job balancing the scenes, moment, and tone of the book with the vocabulary of moviemaking.  There weren't any random info-dumps; all the action that took place in Katniss's head was communicated through wonderful acting and judiciously added glimpses of things.  There were some changes made, and some of the moments lost some power (those creatures at the end are a good example of a change), but I can't imagine any other decision that would have been better.

It helps that the plot of the story involves a realty-TV scenario--it gives you the opportunity to have hosts telling audiences things they already know ("One of you will be the winner, and one of you will be out.").  But if you think of all the fish-out-of-water moments--when Peeta and Katniss come to the Capitol, how many explanations about the differences in lifestyle could there be?  But no, the sets and the actors and the banquets speak for themselves.

I also loved that the movie made me think about the same things the book made me think about, only even moreso.  It might be because I went to the movie with friends, and then out to dinner, so we were just sitting around talking about it.  Even though several of us had read the book, we didn't sit down and have a real talk about it.  It made me realize why this would be a good book club book--there's so much to say about it.  The complexity of political systems, the diffusion of power and responsibility, the creepiness of reality TV, the tunnel vision of people who live comfortable lives, the factors that go into rebellion.  A lot of issues about group psychology, rebellion, power trips.  I thought of this story from This American Life, of a lot of other YA dystopian novels about oppression, of a million things.

It was great to see the movie with one friend who had read the series (as I had), one who had read just the first book, and one who had read none.  We could discuss the different things we saw in the stories--how material was added to set the first movie up for the sequels a little more cleanly than the book did.  I thought it worked well for what it had to do, but I think it played into a weakness in the trilogy overall, which is that a large, cultural problem that would be almost impossible to solve neatly is gradually simplified into something where a bad guy can be identified and fought against.  It makes the story a little less complex, but it makes it work better on the scale it's going for, so I don't hold it against anyone.

I wasn't able to get the nail polish before going to the show, which I'm really ridiculously disappointed about; I was going to do a French manicure with Smoke and Ashes as the base and Electrify for the tips.  But aside from that was an incredibly enjoyable, satisfying, thought-provoking, action-packed movie experience, and I really can't wait for the next one.  I suspect I'll like the sequel movies better than I liked the rest of the books.