Friday, August 31, 2012

Quick Hits

How many times can I come here and rant about Stephen King?  Actually, this one is kind of a new rant: Mile 81 is way less troubling than a lot of his other recent stuff.  It's a Kindle Single, meaning a short story/novella, so that helps--too long is not the problem.  And, even better, it's pretty tight, not getting too distracted by some of the things that lead to his digressions.

No, my only complaint here is that dude, I know you have a very rosy picture of what a rough and tumble punk you were at age ten, but that is a LOT of swear words that this kid is spouting.  Not just out loud, but in his thoughts, which I think is even less likely.  I mean yeah, a ten year old says swears to impress his older brother, but he doesn't think the f-word in every sentence.  And I highly doubt that a six year old girl thinks of her brother as an asshole quite as frequently as your character does.  I realize that kids are not the pristine innocents we want them to be, but you might have tipped over into the opposite end of  believability.

Let me talk a little about Safekeeping, a new novel by Newbery-winning writer Karen Hesse.  I've never read anything of hers before; I got this advance reader's copy based mostly on the blurb, which is about how the main character, a teenager named Radley, is away from home when the American People's Party takes over the country and the arrests begin.  She makes it back into the US, but now she needs to find her way home to Vermont; and from there, to somewhere even safer when things go downhill.

I wanted to like this book--it's got a good premise--dystopian road trip!--and, based on the blurb, promised to be immediate and intimate.  I was pretty sad to find it disappointing.  There are a lot of ways a book like this can go that would satisfy me--either deep into the day to day details of how the characters keep themselves alive and safe, or on a nerve-wracking series of close calls and scrapes, or into a broader view of the world through the eyes of people they meet and news that trickles through.  This book took none of these paths. 

It seemed like almost every opportunity for tension is wasted.  Radley considers herself to be in danger, but it's always completely unspecified, both why she would be targeted and what the dangers would be.  There are almost no details about how she lives--dumpsters, gardens, hunger, how she spends her days, all are touched on vaguely, broadly.  This is not a book where you worry about food, like Life As We Knew It.  And it's not really political--she gets almost no news, and everything is very vague.  It's really sort of a poem on nature, and discomfort, and sort of the Zen of living in the moment and wanting what you have, and learning to value things you never did before, some of which are now lost to you. 

Emphasis on poem.  There's almost nothing concrete here to hang your hat on.  Radley is pretty passive, and not much happens to her either.  There just wasn't a lot of there there in this book.  I can imagine appreciating it on the level it works on, but it's a little too YA even for that.  Sorry to call this one a no.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Think the Birds Are a Motif

I got this book, Mockingbird, by Chuck Wendig, from Netgalley, because the blurb (short and sweet) sounded really interesting--a girl who can see how people die foresees a big tragedy.  It was succinct and punchy, and when I started the book, it had a gritty, acidic wit, and I got into it.

As I was reading, I was composing this review, which included some concerns about how there seemed to be a backstory subplot going on that was really informing the relationships among the characters but that seemed pretty unclear to me.  Were we going to flash back to how these characters met?  What's the story behind the little pieces of info that we get here and there about their histories?

I was almost done with the book before I found out that it was the sequel to the book Blackbirds.  When I realized that, I was 1) embarrassed, but 2) mightily impressed, because as a second book, it works really, really well.  From the beginning, I understood the characters, I got a clear idea of how they felt about each other, and I understood what I needed to dive right into the story.  And let's let this stand as a recommendation for the book: after getting it free to review, I then paid money for the first one in the series, and will probably do so if another comes out later.

So, the book.  If Miriam touches someone, she can see how they'll die.  She gets lots of details--sometimes sights and sounds and smells, but also dates and information (what kind of cancer, where it's metastasized, how long it's been happening).  The kicker is, there's not much she can do.  Explaining it, trying to stop it--nothing helps.  In extreme moments (as in the first scene of the book, so I'm not giving anything away), serious, profound, violent action on her part can change things, but the different outcome is generally just as ugly.

Unsurprisingly, this has made Miriam a kind of prickly person. She's also broke and in need of money, so a friend sets her up with a gig--a woman who's sure she's dying, though the doctors say no.  Miriam goes to the boarding school where the woman works and easily tells the woman her outcome.  But it's when she accidentally makes contact with one of the students and sees her horrible, violent death that things really take off.

This book is all about voice.  Miriam is angry, sour, intelligent, and likes to hear herself talk.  She takes care of herself, often by beating the crap out of people, and I kind of loved that about her--a woman of action.  She drinks and smokes too much, doesn't eat enough, and is really on the edge of not holding it together, but she's fast and she's trying.  She kind of reminds me of Lisbeth from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, only more likeable (in her prickly way) and sympathetic and well-written. 

It's not a book for everyone.  It's angry and ugly and violent and there's a lot of cursing.  You feel right with the characters when they're hungry and hung over and limping and stuck out in cold rain and angry and scared.  But that's also what's so great about it.  This is a book where, if you read the first five pages and think, yeah, this could be good, then you will absolutely love it.  I kind of did.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A More Diverse Universe

Aarti posted this today, and I was really excited to see it, not only because I will take any excuse to read any fantasy novel that pretty much anyone throws my way, but because I've been really interested in reading more fantasy by non-white writers lately.  I signed up right away, and I'm really excited to browse all the links she gives to reading lists.

I've been thinking about this for a while, mostly since I discovered Octavia Butler and started reading a little about how important a figure she was as a black woman writing fantasy.  N.K. Jemisin has talked about people of color being under represented in fantasy.  And then there were the cover whitewashing scandals.  And I remember Ursula LeGuin's comments when they made a TV movie version of Earthsea that they made all the characters white, which is kind of horrifying, and then I remembered this blog post that I can't find anymore about an avid fantasy reader of Southeast Asian extraction thinking s/he could write a book, but not even knowing where to start, because the culture s/he was imagining was missing all the tropes you expect in a fantasy novel (what do your characters do if they live in a world with no inns?).

So, bloggers unite, and let's get this moving.  Seriously, fantasy is too Eurocentric and needs shaking up.  Let's take a look at early contenders for my review.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor.  Already in my pile (physically)--does it even count if I already wanted to read it?  Also, so popular everyone's reading it.  Let's get outside the box, am I right?  I don't know a huge amount about this book--African dystopia, angel of death, quest for an absent parent.  Supposed to be phenomenal.

Redemption In Indigo, by Karen Lord.  Another African story, this one sounds a little more lighthearted and domestic; a storyteller with an annoying husband crosses some feisty spirits and chaos ensues.  I could be way off, though.

The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin.  Again, can this possibly count since I've been meaning to read it for ages, and can you believe I haven't gotten to it YET?  It's obnoxious to say I don't even care what it's about, but it's kind of true, mostly because her stories are so complicated that trying to describe them almost works against you.  And that's misleading, because all those places they take you?  So, so great.

My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due.  Horror!  It's still speculative, it still counts, and I've been on a kind of weird thriller kick lately. Strange deaths in her circle of friends lead Jessica to a horrifying discovery about her husband.  I know very little more, but its Goodreads rating is 4.22 stars, which is kind of awesome.

Huntress, Malinda Lo.  This is more YA, set in a fantasy version of China, where two girls go on a quest to restore the balance of magic in the world.  This draws me because I'm a big fan of worldbuilding, and I'm really in the market for a non-standard fantasy world.  I was quite excited about The Silver Phoenix when it came out, but the writing style was so very, very not mine, I couldn't get very far.  Maybe this will be what I wanted from that!

So, that's the early shortlist.  Head over to Aarti's blog to find a bunch of possible reading lists, and check back here for updates on my book choice and the blog tour in general. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Vampires, But Just Emotional Ones

Okay, I am definitely not a fan of dysfunctional family dramas, or of stories that are about the bonds between family members who don't really like each other very much.  Just not my thing, possibly because my own family is both so awesome and so crazy.  You know the old saying about happy families all being the same?  Not really, no.

So I was a bit doubtful about The Family Fang when I picked it up.  I think the only reason I got it was because it was time to cancel my Audible subscription, and I had a bunch of credits to use up.  The reader sounded great in the sample, so I figured what the heck?

I just went to look up the author's name, and was surprised to see it's Kevin Wilson.  I actually had thought it would be a woman.  I hope Kevin Wilson isn't out there feeling hurt, because I consider this to be an enormous compliment.  First, his female characters are very well-written, and second, he does such a great job writing about delicately balanced relationships, about internal turmoil, about uncertainty and insecurity, without getting too caught up in the minute examination of these feelings in details.  This book has more emotional authenticity with less pretension than I generally expect to see from a male author. 

I'm just coming to the end of the book now, and I don't think I can organize all these thoughts.  Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists, thriving on creating chaos in real world situations.  Their children, Annie and Buster, have been part of their pieces since they were born.  Now grown, Buster is a writer and Annie an actress, and they're not close to their parents at all.  But they're not very good at maintaining their lives, and through a series of happenstances, they both end up back home at the same time, reconnecting with each other, their parents, and a lot of baggage.

This sounds more abstract than it is.  Annie makes a series of decisions that really seem to make sense at the time, but that look like a nervous breakdown from the outside.  Buster is semi-employed and completely broke when an accident puts him in the hospital.  Interspersed with their lives, we get glimpses of Fang art (the children, pre-teens, sing on a streetcorner for change to take their cat to the vet, and their parents, pretending to be bystanders, heckle them; Buster is put in a wig and entered into a Little Miss Something pageant).

So, I'm not sure I can pick apart all the great stuff going on here, so instead, I'll give you a little reader's guide.  And this could actually be useful, because it would be a really excellent book club pick--it's readable, substantial, and there's a lot to talk about.

1) What is art?  Caleb Fang says that representational art is dead on the page, and it isn't art at all.  He's quite vehement about it.  Is painting art?  Is the process of painting art, at least, if not the end result? Basically, can you imagine what it would be like to have a long conversation with Caleb Fang about Picasso?

2) Where, exactly, did things start falling apart for Annie?  I have my theory (hint: it's not on set, but that relationship that she didn't keep under control), but I think there are solid arguments to be made all around.

3) The end: too pat?  Too easy?  I like closure, but there's such a thing as too satisfying (e.g., the third slice of tirimisu).  This is a real question, though, because I think you could go either way.

4) Did you ever really think about how much kids are totally at the mercy of their parents, not just on a moment to moment basis, but in terms of who they'll become?  It's a big subject, but I think a lot about how the kind of person you want your kid to be intersects with the kind of person who will result from your behavior as a parent.  It's a weird Venn diagram, that one.

5) Did you see Torchwood: Children of Earth?  Warning: spoiler.  At the end Captain Jack basically has to decide between killing one child--his grandson, whom he loves--or letting 10% of the world's children suffer in torment for hundreds of years.  An impossible choice, right?  What do you think Caleb and Camille would do in this situation?  (Hint: the answer is probably "eat a live goldfish.") 

I do kind of wish I'd been able to bring this to a book club meeting.  I think the discussion of the nature and importance of art alone could be really, really great.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Babes and Bosoms

I read The Wet Nurse's Tale, by Erica Eisdorfer, because Aarti has Sarah Rose on her list of "Heroines Who Don't Annoy Me," along with Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, Sarah Tolerance, and Scout.  Anne, Elizabeth, and Scout recommended the list to me, and Miss Tolerance had me convinced.  Sarah Rose does not disappoint.

Sarah's mother was a wet nurse, but Sarah's first job is as a maid at the local estate.  She's an ample woman and no prettier than she ought to be, so she has an easier time of it than her pretty sister, who catches the unasked for eye of the master of the house.  The first half or so of the book is the general unfolding of Sarah's life--how she finds herself working as a wet nurse after (naturally) having a child of her own, the families she works for and her relationship with her own family. 

In the second half of the book, the story gets more urgent, as Sara's son is taken from her abruptly and she has to use her wits to get him back.  One of the things to love about The Wet Nurse's Tale is the hard-to-manage balance here between the realism of historical fiction--Sarah can't read, she's relatively uneducated, and this is perfectly well represented.  But she's smart and a very quick thinker, and the balance between those is managed very well.  She's desperately in love with her baby, but also very practical about caring for him.

If you want to look at the bigger theme of this book, it's about sexual politics at this time in history (mid- to late-1800s, I'd guess?).  There are so many male-female relationships here, and none represent any kind of modern "true love" sense.  There are power relationships (employer and employee, husband and wife), and relationships of affection (lovers of various kinds of affection, brothers and sisters), and types of acquaintance, sexual liasons, father-daughter interactions.  Sarah is quit savvy to how the world works in the sphere she resides in, and she makes a lot of pragmatic choices that seem not cold, but rather the opposite--full of human warmth and good common sense.

I read this in a very meandering way over the course of a few weeks; I think the first half of the book really works that way, since it covers years of Sarah's life and many separate episodes.  By the end of the book, however, we've become focused on one adventure, and I read that all up in a day or two.  Both halves were excellent reads, in their own way, and I definitely recommend them.  It, I mean.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oh, Book Club

As far as I know, only two members of my book club read this blog.  To them I apologize, because they've already heard most of this.  But my god, that book was annoying.

Here is the Goodreads description of Mark Haddon's The Red House:

The set-up of Mark Haddon's brilliant new novel is simple: Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.

But because of Haddon's extraordinary narrative technique, the stories of these eight people are anything but simple. Told through the alternating viewpoints of each character, The Red House becomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding up to a portrait of contemporary family life that is bittersweet, comic, and deeply felt. As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.
This cannot be called a lie.  In fact, it's quite accurate, except in the parts where they describe how I'm likely to react to the book.  I don't find it bittersweet, comic, or deeply felt.  I don't understand them, or find them profoundly real.  And I foolishly spent the whole book hoping that something might come together, that someone might have some personal insight, that something might come of this murk.  Sorry, nope.

There are some interesting things going on from a writing standpoint--he's doing a sort of Virginia Woolf thing where you change perspective in the middle of a scene or even a paragraph.  This worked better than you might expect, although it seemed kind of heavy-handed.  There are no quotation marks; dialogue is in italics, which I think gives the whole book a very internal, dreamy feeling.

And there are a few interesting things happening--Angela and Richard's mother has died, and as they reconnect on this vacation, they realize that their memories of their family are quite different.  Angela is suffering from the memory of a stillbirth she had eighteen years ago.  Her husband Dominic is emotionally absent; their daughter Daisy has joined a church; Richard's stepdaughter Melissa is a traditional mean girl.  The families go on hikes and cook with vacation house pots and pans and flip wander around the countryside.  Really, it's like going on vacation with someone else's dysfunctional family--which, let me tell you, don't.

I think one big struggle for me is that the book is so English.  So much of it is minor observational description--which, in my opinion, is a wonderful tool, but without insight or aim, it's void of meaning.  But because of this structure, the sheer number of references I didn't get--smells I don't know, TV theme songs I've never heard of blaring in the background, slang terms that I can't figure out, and does everyone in England know the names of all the trees?--prevented the word picture he was trying to paint from coming into focus.

Anyway, it was a great book club, even if I didn't like the book very much.  And I'm pushing for Age of Miracles for next month. Which reminds me: scheduling email should go out tomorrow.  Gotta do that!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Good Guy's War

I feel like all the reviews I write for the next month or so will all  have to start with "this has been on my list forever; I can't believe I never read it before!"  But that's good, because it means I'm digging into the really fun meat of my list, and so far it's paying off.

I just finished Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, which of course has been highly recommended for ages.  I've never read John Scalzi before, if you can even believe that.  But this book pressed all my favorite buttons--there's a certain kind of fantasy or science fiction book that mostly consists of kick-ass world building and day-to-day details in an interesting universe.  That's exactly what this book did, and it did it really well.

John Perry is 75 when he enlists in the army of the galactic colonies.  No one quite knows what use the army has for the elderly, but lots of people sign up, since it seems to promise some kind of rejuvenation.  And it does--soldiers are remade in young bodies and sent to fight for the colonies.  The galaxy, it turns out, contains way more intelligent species than fit on the habitable planets, and it's a nonstop struggle to survive as a species.

So this summary doesn't give anything away, but it also kind of misses the point.  The novel is about how things unfold, and it's about life in the army, killing under orders, being part of a team, losing people you love, the meaning of the soul.  It's really a very solid war book, with a lot of really great observations about war.

That in itself is interesting to me.  In my world, the good guys are against war, always.  Avoiding war is supposed to be the aim; a book about war, especially from the point of view of a foot soldier, is going to be about how to bring the war to an end, or a realization that your own side is just as evil as everyone else.  The hero is the one who wants to negotiate, who won't fight.  That notion is written off pretty quickly in Old Man's War.  There are people who think that way, but it quickly becomes clear that the way the galaxy works is kill or be killed, and the very alienness of the aliens makes negotiation only a distant possibility.  You don't even really hold it against the politicians that there's nothing to be done about it; plenty of races eat people.

Watching all these different battles, with different enemies, Scalzi presents you with all these different sides of this kind of struggle--religious fanaticism, hopeless battles (from both points of view), arms races.  There are observations about the advantages of having people with a lifetime of experience in battle--their sense of perspective, their understanding of the gray areas between right and wrong, their enthusiasm for their new young bodies.  The solution to the "youth is wasted on the young" problem is quite charming, and the enjoyment that these "old farts" get out of being young and healthy and genetically enhanced is pretty fun to romp through.

I wish I had more deliberate, well-argued points to make about the book.  But really, it had me thinking about what a privilege it is for me to live in a world where things aren't a zero sum game.  I can give to charity and want everyone to have plenty because, at my exact place in the world, there is enough to go around.  It really is a problem of distribution.  Not every place in history, not every hypothetical situation is like that.  Sometimes there's no best option, just the least awful.

You'd think a book that had me thinking these thoughts would be the opposite of fun, but this was a total romp.  I'm headed right out for the next one.

Thursday, August 09, 2012


I was just reading this article at Publisher's Weekly, a list of the 10 best, most difficult books in English.  And you know, while I don't really walk away wanting to read any of them, per se, I did really enjoy reading about them. 

A suggestion on what to do with James Joyce: 

Try reading 25 pages a day, out loud, in your best bad Irish accent. (Seriously - some of what seems like idiolectic obscurity is just a question of how you pronounce your vowels.) You'll be maddened, you'll be moved, and you'll be done in about four weeks. 

And on Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queen:

The Faerie Queene is allegory to the power of allegory. Or it is allegory drunk out of its mind on sugary wine, dressed up in layers of costumery, made to run singing through the garden of Eden at four o' clock in the morning before falling down in a heap at sunrise to make silver love to itself.

But then, I love reading about reading.  As they say, your mileage may vary.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Angels in Samaria

I may have mentioned my love of Sharon Shinn around here before--I really love Sharon Shinn.  I don't love every one of her books, but I love the way she writes, the way she builds worlds and builds stories around mundanities and details, characters and very small moments. 

I have particularly loved the Samaria series, and right now I'm in the middle of the latest one, Angel-Seeker. This is Shinn's own favorite in the series, and I've heard from others that it's the best.  I think I agree--although the first book, Archangel, had the advantage of the novelty of all that wonderful worldbuilding, this one is definitely the most thoughtful, particularly about love and the place of romance in society.  By this point in the series, Shinn's done a lot of exploration about the place of religion in society and how it shapes individuals, and about what it means to know that god is not omnipotent.

But make no mistake, this is a romance series, straight up, and the fact that this book is so thoughtful about relationships is really satisfying.  Elizabeth is on her own in the world and a bit resentful of it; she moves to Cedar Hills to attempt to win an angel lover, in the hopes of bearing a child who will guarantee her place in the hold.  Rebekah is a good Jansai daughter, veiled and chaste, until she meets the angel Obadiah, in need of nursing back to health.  In traditional romance plot, they fall in love and challenge each other's worlds.

Okay, now here I have to talk about the problematic part.  As usual, I'm writing this review from 2/3 of the way into the book, so I can't tell for sure how problematic this is going to be; it could be that the stuff I'm seeing is deconstructing all the things it has me worried about.  But this is the first book in the series where we get inside Jansai society, and boy howdy, this is one big can of worms.

Jansai, as readers of the series will remember, are a nomadic, mercenary/mercantile race who have dark skin, keep their women veiled, and will do anything for a buck.  In pretty much every book so far, the Jansai are the bad guys.  They enslaved the Edori (who are invariably generous, open-hearted, and friendly); the allied with the rich (greedy) Mandaavi merchants to make business deals that crush the competition.  They conduct raids; they cheat.  And, as we learn in this book, they stone their women if they transgress.

Okay, so first, there's something problematic about any story in which there is a race that is all composed of Bad Guys (or Good Guys, or any one kind of person).  Yes, there are cultural mores in any situation, but the broader the strokes painting these, the more troubling this kind of thing is.  And at the beginning of this book, I was actually getting pretty disgusted by how the angels (tall, gorgeous, musical, goodgoodgood) all described the Jansai--greasy, greedy, disgusting--and their city, Breven--dirty, smelly, unpleasant.  On his visits, Obadiah does not meet a single Jansai whom he trusts, enjoys, or even just is not grossed out by.

Then, of course, he meets Rebekah, and that's totally different.  And through her we get glimpses of the rebellions of women, both small and large.  In fact, the women we meet through Rebekah have a relatively reassuring range of personalities, of feelings and opinions outside of (or rather, ranging wide within) the constraints of being veiled.  I guess what I'm saying is that you see that some of these women have real interior lives, and you see how they spend their time.

The men, however--with the notable exception of a couple of helpful younger brothers--are, to a man, hostile, aggressive, distrusting, and icky.  Not just to women, but to "civilized" people who come among them.  I think that, unless Obadiah finds a couple of Jansai men he can talk to, and unless some man stands up for the young women who (I know) are going to find themselves in trouble by the end of the book, I'm going to have to flat out say that this great book that I'm really enjoying so much is kind of pretty darned racist.

I hope that happens.  In fact, I have some confidence in Sharon Shinn, that she's painting these unattractive pictures near the beginning so that we can follow Obadiah as he learns more about the Jansai as a people (not just as eager slave-drivers).  I think it's likely, and I'm really interested to find out.

Let me say, too, that this kind of indictment is particularly tricky, because unlike some depictions of other societies, you don't just want your heroes to realize that the Jansai are great just the way they are.  Because they stone their women.  They keep them locked up.  I mean, it's not all noble savage, or separate but equal, or something like that.  They're a messed up society.  But she'll need to give me more than "but Rebekah is so great!" for me to think that this one-dimensional portrayal isn't seriously problematic.  She doesn't even give the Jansai any of the traditional virtues that the Arabs they're based on have going for them--a long history of civilization and scholarship and master craftsmanship.  Mandaavi are civilization; Luminaux is craftsmanship.  Jansai are savages.  I hope Obadiah and I learn otherwise.