Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thumbnail Reviews

I don't usually do this, but in the past few weeks I've read some books I really enjoyed but didn't have a chance to blog about--honestly, sometimes didn't have a lot to say about.  Still, good books!  Fun!  Share!  So let's be brief about them.

His At Night, by Sherry Thomas. We can thank Sarah for this one--specifically, her ability to read an entire novel during a slow bus ride, meaning she plows through the library's ebook catalog as fast as they can update it.  She reads all the bad romances out there; when she gives one three stars, I sit up and pay attention.  And sure enough, here you have likeable characters caught in tough situations, an exciting plot, and believable emotions.  The sex gets a little dirtier than in most straight-up romances I've read--and in one part it's disturbingly rapey, which is sadly common in romance--but with apologies for that, this was a lot of fun.

The Diviners, by Libba Bray.  Brenda plugged this one, and she was right.  This was really about the Roaring '20s, and that's its biggest strength.  The cast was a bit sprawling, and some of them didn't really get used effectively--this is definitely not a book for the many people I know who don't read the beginning of a trilogy till the third one is out.  But I liked Memphis and Evie and Theta.  Some of the characters weren't adequately fleshed out, but there's more coming, and I can't wait for it.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. This was a book club pick, and it's one of those reasons I'm glad to have a book club.  I probably wouldn't have picked it up on my own--it's kind of a family saga, coming of age thing, and it's pretty long.  But there was also a core of a mystery/drama around the narrator's mother being raped and beaten, which did a lot of the work of driving the story forward, which very much kept me interested.  The coming of age part--which is really the meat of the story--was great, with lots of the observed details of life that don't usually excite me, but somehow worked well for me here.  I didn't like the ending--it seemed weirdly random--but (unlike my book club friend Kris), I did like most of the characters, as messed up and flawed as they were.  While the book sometimes swung suddenly between the family drama/coming of age and the mystery/thriller parts of the story, they balanced each other out to make this a really touching, thoughtful read.

I think I might make this a regular thing.  When I don't have a whole review in me--because the book didn't hit me that hard, or because too much time has passed--I'll whip up a mini-review and when I have three call it a post. content.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Romance Title Quiz #2; Cowboys in Kilts

By popular demand (okay, really just because I love them), more romance titles!  Which have I made up?  Could I possibly make up some of this stuff?  Three real ones, one fake, who's the winner?  I did an Amazon search on the fake ones just to make sure they didn't really exist; there are a lot of romances out there!

1) What kind of wedding is this, anyway?
   A. One Hot Cowboy Wedding
   B. Three Brides, No Groom
   C. The Misbegotten Bridegroom
   D. The Bridegroom Wore Plaid

2) Customize your selections!
   A. Some Like It Steamy
   B. Some Like It Wicked
   C. Some Like It Kilted
   D. Some Like It Scandalous

3) Holidays and horses.
   A. The Cowboy and the New Year's Baby
   B. A Cowboy Under My Christmas Tree
   C. Darn Good Cowboy Christmas
   D. For Auld Lang Cowboys

4) Lusty Ladies.
   A. The Duchess of Love
   B. Courting the Countess
   C. Countess in Cowboy Boots
   D. Desperate Duchesses

5) Instruction manuals.
   A. How To Ruin Your Boyfriend's Reputation
   B. How To Marry a Marquis
   C. How To Catch a Highland Heart
   D. How To Tame a Willful Wife

You'll notice that my fake titles are almost always the least interesting of them, though I think I came up with one or two good distractors this time around.  Oh, and check out the previous edition of the quiz. Enjoy!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Intrigue and Soapboxes

As I said before, I've been reading The Sleeping Partner, the third and most recent Sarah Tolerance novel by Madeleine Robins.  I love these books, and this one is just as great--rich in historic detail, some cool personal details about Miss Tolerance's life, and what is so far an intriguing mystery.

But what I'm finding just as interesting is figuring this book out.  The first two books in the series, Point of Honour and Petty Treason, were published by Tor-Forge, a division of MacMillan.  This third book, however, looked different immediately--the cover looks distinctly self-published.  It doesn't look professionally designed--the font is not generally a cover font, the use of negative space feels strange, and the pattern in the background is kind of off-putting.  I was surprised by this, and I went looking for the publisher to see what it was about.

Turns out it's not a self-publishing scheme, but an "author-centric" publishing house, Plus One Press.  This seemed like it could be an interesting niche publisher--after all, a lot of small publishing houses are sort of based around the idea that they can find new, different voices and treat them more personally than the big houses, right?  Here's the first paragraph of their About Us page:

Plus One Press is a small, independent publisher, representing an alternative approach to the current mainstream publishing model. We strive to be an author-centric publishing house, where our responsibilities are to our authors and their works, rather than necessarily to some commercialized product-centric vision of maximized profits.
It starts out smooth, then gets a little soapboxy at the end, but still, I'm with them.  Then I read deeper into their long, long, long mission statement, and found that they have clearly been camping out on that soapbox.  They've set up a tent and a camp stove and are serving tea and crumpets along with leaflets and chanting.

The publishing industry is an "insensitive behemoth that has little or no regard for the creative element it seeks to exploit."  Readers are "currently suffering from a disease that they aren’t even aware of."  They go on to say that this is about not having access to a broad range of voices, since publishers won't put out that material.  But that doesn't sound like a disease, does it?   

Whatever I think of the publishing industry, when someone starts talking like a conspiracy theorist, my first instinct is to take a step back.  What I hope, though--more than anything--is that Madeleine Robins is out there writing another Sarah Tolerance book, and that, whoever publishes it, I'll get a chance to read it.  Hear that, Ms. Robins?  If you self-publish on Amazon for the Kindle, you've gone at least one guaranteed buyer.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Long Awaited!

I think you have to be a book-loving parent of a small child to truly understand how great it is to have a day off work when he  has school.  My husband and I sat there on the couch ALL DAY and just read.  I used to live like that all the time in  my wild and crazy youth.  It was indescribably comforting.

And I was reading a long-awaited read!  Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore, is a book I bought five minutes after it came out, and then sat on for most of the year, as I am wont to do.  Because I'm worried it won't live up to my expectations; because I'm impulsive and some other book jumped in front of me while I was busy anticipating this one; because the first chapter is about a teenaged royal sneaking out to the seamy side of town, which seemed kind of cliche.

This reaction ties back to a lot of feelings I have about princess stories, which err on one of two sides: All The Fun or All The Boring.  This read very much like an All The Boring story, meaning oh, poor me, I'm royal and it's so wearying to have everything I want, I need an AUTHENTIC experience.

This time, though, when I came back to read more, I found it.  Cashore's take on being queen is just what I want--the business of running a country as one of information, perception, trust, ideas and their execution.  I love the tension in who Bitterblue should trust, and I love that this changes over the course of the story.  I love that there are so many characters, and that Bitterblue has different relationships with all of them.  I love that I was really kept guessing about what would happen.

There is a but here, which is that I thought the book proceeded much more slowly than it should have.  I am a cautious person and not one to dive into action without looking at it from all sides, but Bitterblue knew from the beginning that things were a mess, that she didn't know what she needed to know, and that she wasn't making the forward motion she needed to.  There's really no explanation for why it takes her fully half of the book to even consider taking small actions.

I realize it's the story of her passage from child to queen.  I guess I was surprised by how passive she was as a child--rather than impulsive or having poor judgement--and I think it slowed the story down, not just in terms of plot, but in terms of her development.  I love that she has realizations throughout the book--early and late--of things she's taken for granted and things she doesn't know.  I guess I wish those realizations had built on each other with a little more intensity.

In the end, I did love it.  I especially loved getting more Katsa and Po--not just more face time, but more nuance, more about their relationship, and more of their own growth and changes.

This Long Awaited Reads thing is awesome.  Now I'm reading The Sleeping Partner, which is not only long-awaited but in paper, not electronic.  This is my most successful PLR ever!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Best Books--For a Laugh

Check out Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of all time.

What really made me laugh was the difference between the Board's List and the Readers' List.  The latter was voted on by readers of the site.  Modern Library is a "classics" division at Random House; I don't hold it against them too firmly that they put two James Joyce books in the top five--they're going for Quality and Gravitas.

But the readers of this site were apparently heavily into Modern Crackpot Philosophy, because the top 10 of that list contains seven books by either L. Ron Hubbard or Ayn Rand.

The Radcliffe list is pretty good, though, and I suddenly have a powerful urge to read Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Writerly Trick

The conjunction today is an NPR conversation with Will Self about his new book, Umbrella, a blog post at Jenny's Books about a book with a first person plural narrator (The Fates Will Find Their Way), and my current reading for book club, The Round House, by Louise Erdrich.  So the topic will be writers who use unusual stylistic tools in their novels, and the question will be, why?

Let's take "being writerly" off the table.  Of course, people who want to be fancy or edgy or literary are going to use these tools indiscriminately.  I think that happens way more often than some people will admit, but there's a difference between using it poorly, using it unnecessarily, and using it carelessly.  Carelessly is someone whose book seems more writerly without punctuation, or more literary in the first person present tense.  Whether they use it well or poorly, that's kind of an inane reason and I don't have much to say about it.

When we read The Red House for book club (I was going to let that pass without pointing out the similar title, and then I realized that you might think it was a typo--I'm talking about Mark Haddon's book about British people on vacation), one of the things I wanted to talk about was why the author chose not to use quotation marks, and to put all the dialog in italics instead.  I think the effect was to make all those speeches feel like thoughts; since one of the big things that was going on in that book was contrasting all the characters' internal lives, and many of the other tools he used were tricky about blending one person's thoughts into another, this seemed like a fitting tool.

My question this month is about why Erdrich doesn't use quotation marks.  She doesn't italicize dialog--it looks just as it would look otherwise, but without the quotation marks.  My theory here is that the book is clearly written from the position of the narrator looking back from a period of years.  The entire story takes place when he's 13, but he talks about what happens many years later, how he came to understand certain things as an adult, how his relationships changed once he was grown.  I think the lack of quotation marks makes it seem more like a story someone is recounting--he's telling you what was said, but he's not quoting--you're not there in the moment, but being told the story.  I think it's a tie to an oral tradition. 

(I'll have more to say about this book later, I'm sure; I hope no one's disappointed that this post isn't a full review, but I'm not quite there yet.)

Now, Will Self, in the article I linked above, talks about why his new 400 page book has no chapter breaks and almost no paragraph breaks.  He says this:
"Lives don't divide up into chapters," he continues. "People don't just talk, while nothing's going on in their head, and then respond. You know, none of these things actually happen. But it is enormously reassuring, and a good ordering principle for the kind of ghastly incoherent and largely inchoate mess that human consciousness is. And I'm inclined to think that all we actually have is experience."
I have to admit, his explanation didn't thrill me.  He talked in the interview about modernism, and how this narrative technique is a tool of modernism that is used because it more accurately reflects the human experience of your thoughts and sensations and feelings swirling and overlapping and happening in an unbroken torrent.

My very first thought when he said that was that recreating the human experience is different from telling a story.  I've vented embarrassingly about the importance of plot, but this is separate--this isn't about whether it's an exciting story, or whether it's realistic or moving.  Telling a story is different from trying to pour experience into someone, and I think the structure of telling a story isn't an artificial crutch to bypass this search for verisimilitude.  Rather, it's a language of its own that gives us a shared vocabulary, allowing stories to communicate so much more than they contain.

I'm still thinking about how I feel about his comments.  I know that his book sounds incredibly ponderous to me and I don't want to read it (I'd go so far as to say I want to not read it).  But in thinking about what result he's going for by using these literary tools, I'm trying to decide if I just don't have any particular interest in that result, or if I disagree that this strategy will work.

I had the same idea about the book reviewed in the blog post I linked to at the top of the page.  When the author sat down to write this book, did she start with the unusual, tricky narrator?  Or did she start telling the story and realize that this opened so many more doors? 

I suppose you could say that anything that makes me more aware of the writer than the book is a risk, in my mind, and maybe a failure.  But if a writer can pull something like this off--do it gracefully, appropriately, and write such a compelling novel that I'm not tripped up by the unfamiliar bits--then she's added something wonderful to the world, and to my skills as a reader.  I'm going to be thinking a lot more about this as I come across more writerly tricks.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Thoughts on the Duds

As requested and promised, I wanted to talk a bit about the books that didn't do much for me this year.  These are the ones I put down, but also the ones I look back on without any particular fondness.

Not every book is going to be a life-changer, of course.  But I don't expect them to be, and that's not the standard I'm using here.  Looking back over the list, there were just quite a few books that kind of fizzled for me.  And, reviewing, I think I can pinpoint a couple of good reasons--Netgalley and bloggers.

Netgalley's pretty obvious--they're kind enough to give me ebooks to read and review.  But since they're generally pre-release books, there is very little information to go on when selecting them--a cover and a blurb.  They're usually by authors I haven't read, they don't provide a sample, and (by definition) few or no reviews exist yet. 

This means it's a craps shoot to pick one up, but when I do, I try to give it an honest shot.  That's not to say that I don't put them down when I need to, but I give them more of a chance than I might otherwise, just because I value the service and want to do my part for them in good faith.  This has meant reading a good handful of books that I either didn't like or, as often, just didn't quite click with.  Safekeeping and The Tragedy Paper are good examples of this. 

Really, you can expand on this a bit to any form of free ebooks.  They're so easy--I don't have to go to the get them, I can just log in and grab whatever vaguely interesting stuff the library has on Overdrive.  This has led me to start things I should not have bothered with.

Book bloggers are by far a really great addition to my reading and blogging life.  It's fascinating to see how my tastes align with some people, to see where we differ, or where one of us expands on another. But I have this annoying habit of putting any book that crosses my radar and doesn't sound actively off-putting onto my to-read list.  I think to-read and noticed-the-existence-of are way too closely related in my world.  Which has meant that quite a few inconsequential books--especially YA--have caught my attention. 

Really, the more I think about it, the less I think it's the bloggers.  I get YA recommendations all the time, and there's so much great YA that I really love that I take those suggestions.  But to be honest, there are books that are really meant for kids, and I've (finally, at 36) grown past them.  Almost anything that's actually about high school holds almost no appeal to me.  There are also a few trends in YA that are going on right now that I have no interest in, even when people whose opinions I trust enjoy them--the afterlife is a big one (The Catastrophic History of You and Me, The Everafter)--as well as ones I've enjoyed that have been ridden right down into the ground--the end of the world in all its forms (No Safety in Numbers, Monument 14, the whole Matched series).

Of course, there are exceptions to every one of these rules I'm mentioning.  I read The Mist this year, and enjoyed it, even though the world ended.  I loved Beautiful Music for Ugly Children and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, both of which are about high school.  These aren't rules, they're just patterns.  The exceptions are what keep me coming back for more tries.

But I think I'm getting better.  I think sheer age is changing me--I'm more aware of the fact that I only read about 100 books a year, and that I'm not going to get to read All The Books in my time on earth, so I might as well read the ones I want to.  I've also been working consciously on not worrying too much about making the wrong decision.  I mean, if someone tells me that I, personally, must read a book to the end because it will, in their opinion, speak to me, I will give it a shot.  But just because everybody likes something doesn't mean I have to like it.  I think I'm starting to get over the notion that everyone else knows something I don't, and that I'm just missing the point when I don't feel as they do.

Luckily, Long-Awaited Reads Month will get me off on the right foot in this area.  I've put off way too many books I'm excited about following up on passing whims.  Now I'm going to focus a little on the things that keep getting back burnered.  Part of this, I think has been dread that I won't love the books I've anticipated as much as I'd like to.  I think I'm going to need to be okay with that. 

See this?  I'm growing as a person.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Under the Tree

Because I love to gush, let me share the list of books I got for Christmas!  It's a combination of ebooks I've wanted but been too lazy to buy, books that I needed to get in print, and some excellent instincts on Mike's part.


I think In the Garden of Iden might have to qualify as a long-awaited read.  Time travel historical romance--yes please.  Winterling is by the author of The Magic Thief, and I just wanted more Prineas.  And I've been really into historical mysteries lately, somehow, and have been really tempted by Instruments of Darkness, partly because the protagonist is a married woman who solves the mystery in professional partnership with an elderly neighbor, which is very 19th-century-edgy.


I'm picky about what I get in print.  I wanted The Quilt Walk because I collect Sandra Dallas books, in honor of my grandmother, who loved them.  I wanted Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy because I love Rumer Godden.  I read the book years ago, and I've falling into a nun book place lately; the last scene in this book just sticks out in my head right now, and I really want to reread the rest of it--and it's only available in print.

Final Harvest is a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems edited by Thomas Johnson.  I realized a few weeks ago that I didn't own any Dickinson, even though the structure and imagery of her work makes it just the kind of poetry I would love.  Hereby rectified (thanks, Steph!).  Ebooks aren't right for poetry--they're no good for flipping through randomly.  This is also why a collection of fairy tales should be read in print, which is why I now own Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.


Finally, Mike did some amazing mind reading.  He picked up the first volume of Gunnerkrigg Court, which I love love love and will now get to reread.  He also got me the first two volumes of the comic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, which he bought about three days before I read a review that made me really want to read it.  I'm about halfway through rewatching the series, and I'm hoarding the comics till I finish up and go into withdrawal. 

Oh, and I almost forgot about the ebooks my Secret Santa got me!  She did an amazing job, clearly looking at my Goodreads lists and reading some of my posts here.  She got me Flashforward, which I had been really interested in when the TV show appeared a few years ago, and The Fatal Strain: On the Trail of the Avian Flu and the Coming Pandemic, because I love popular science and medical investigation books.  

Okay, looking over this post, I think this can only be called an embarrassment of riches.  I'd say thank you to everyone, but they don't all read here.  Thank you anyway.  I'm an incredibly lucky person--not just for the books, but for all the loved ones to share the holidays with.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Long Awaited

Ana has declared January Long-Awaited Reads Month, and I have jumped out ahead of the pack (I like to think) by finishing John Scalzi's Red Shirts on the first day of the year.  The year is off to a promising start.

I've only ever read one book by Scalzi before, but I consider myself a fan, because that book was the fabulous Old Man's War His characters are pragmatic, sarcastic, and just the right amount of idealistic.  Old Man's War was mostly worldbuilding, deftly and compellingly done, and I can't wait to dig into that world more in the follow-up books. 

Red Shirts is something different--more lighthearted, but also more conceptual.  It's clearly born from a "what-if"--what if all these extras who get bumped off for a moment of drama in Star Trek were real?  Aren't these unacceptable losses?  And the story spins it out in different directions: wouldn't these crew members realize that something fishy--or at least dangerous--is going on?  Why are the writers killing all these people off, anyway? What's the writer's relationship with or responsibility to the characters?  How convoluted can sci-fi pseudoscience get before your brain goes off the rails?

I knew the basic premise going on, but I didn't realize that the book was going to go in the direction it did--I expected more satire and less practical action.  I love practical action.  I love smart people figuring things out.  I love characters who are dryly funny and make the jokes I like to think I'd make in a stressful situation. 

This month will not be all long-awaited reads.  There will be book club reads and impulse reads along the way.  But I want to really push to make sure some books I've been looking forward to forever get read this month--The King's Peace, The Sleeping Partner, and Black Powder War are my solid goals.  Wish me luck!