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.