Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Talent Envy

Sorcery & Cecelia has the unfortunate subtitle of The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, which sounds kind of silly.  It is charming, sweet, and adorable, but not silly.  It's what Shades of Milk and Honey might have been; it's better than that, though.  It's a Regency romance without any of the problems those have.

Also, it's two Regency romances, because it's an epistolary novel, and each of the characters is having their own adventures.  Kate has gone to London with her sister and aunt to have her season; her cousin and best friend Cecelia has had to stay at home in the country.  Their friendship is solid and fun and sincere, and they share everything in letters--including the dangerous magical situations they are both caught up in.  Kate, in a case of mistaken identity, makes a dangerous enemy and a reluctant ally; Cecelia is drawn into the affair from afar when matters involve her brother and touch closer to home.

I love that these girls are both clever and matter-of-fact, and that they love their families even when their siblings are goofy and their aunts tiresome.  I love that they get the job done, but are in no way perfect.  I love that they're so similar and yet so different.

This is because there are two authors, each writing the part of one character--Patricia C. Wrede wrote Cecelia and Caroline Stevermer wrote Kate.  Then, when I read the afterword, I learned that they actually wrote the book as a series of letters for each other, with no planning or discussion of the plot ahead of time.  They just threw this stuff together on the fly.

This is ADVANCED STORYTELLING, people.  I mean, there were drafts and alterations and tightening up, but still.  I spend my life immersed in work that I admire by so many talented people, but let me tell you, rarely do I find myself actually feeling this kind of envy, this wanting to be able to do that.  It's astounding.

There are so many good things about the book--how the empty space where the characters don't know what's going on do such a wonderful job of shaping the story without being annoying (including gaps between the dates of letters and events surrounding one of the girls and the other); how the secondary characters are complicated and interesting (Dorothea, Georgiana, Oliver, Sylvia, Cecelia's father, the list goes on); how powerful the ladies are here, with characters who are smart and dim, brave and cowardly, rescued and rescuers, all women!

But mostly I'm in awe of the craft here, and really want to start my own in-character correspondence, even though I know I'll never come near what these authors have accomplished.  And now I'm waiting anxiously for the library to send me one of the books on my waiting list to free up a waiting list spot (only five books on hold at a time!) so I can get The Grand Tour, the next Kate and Cecelia book.  It can't possibly be quite as good, but I absolutely can't wait.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blurb Agony

Here are some blurbs I've read recently.

"A novel about memory, music, friendship, family rifts and reconciliation, this is an intelligent, compelling read set in Melbourne."

"In the bestselling tradition of "Good in Bed," and "She's Come Undone," comes a charming romantic comedy about a woman who flees a life and a body she doesn't want, and finds love and her true self."

"The novel's story line revolves around a single moment that threatens to unravel a woman's entire life and will appeal to readers of Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller and Ann Packet."

"Like Anita Shreve, Myerson writes in a literary and yet accessible manner. Her fifth book is a story of a troubled woman who falls for an outsider who has come to uncover the truth."

These make me want a job writing blurbs, just so they won't suck quite as much.  Because we can all agree, right, that these suck a lot?  Aside from the poor use of commas (I will accept your right to choose not to use the serial comma, but you don't get to put a serial comma in a list of two items), they're just so clunky and uninformative.

Also, FYI, blurbs that compare a book to something I liked are generally wrong about what I'll enjoy.  Friends who do that are in, but blurbs are almost always overreaching.

Also?  I think they meant Ann Patchett.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Secrets and Lies

I think characters keeping unnecessary secrets is officially at the top of my pet peeves list.  I feel like I'm running into this problem left and right these days; I hate that, because it makes me hypersensitive to it and removes my ability to suspend my disbelief when necessary.  Credit where credit is due, though: Ruby Red redeemed itself pretty quickly.

The Never List, though, involved a nearly-paranoid agoraphobic who doesn't tell her police friend about her plans because she needs to "face things on her own" and feels like police protection would cramp her style.  This is as out of character as it is possible for behavior to be.  There are all sorts of moments when you're actively thinking, "Just call the detective before you do that!  He can help you!"

In most books when you think that, there's at least a nod to the fact that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all--things look for a minute like they might go okay, or the trouble you run into ends up being something you couldn't have predicted anyway.  Not here, though.  Here, you get just what you were worried about when you started yelling at the characters in the first place.

Then you have Harry Dresden in Storm Front, who has some legitimate secrets--private wizard information, private information about his past.  But when he's working with the police to solve a murder and figures out what's going on, he then keeps the information from the police, because the bad guys are bad guys, and the police might not be able to handle themselves.  Or they might get overprotective and keep him from getting into further trouble, and wouldn't that be a shame?  His reasons for not telling his police contact what he knows are paper thin.  Lucky for me the story just keeps rip roaring along and I can get swept right past the problem.

I will forgive Jim Butcher for Harry's failings, though, because noir detective stories have a lot of leeway in my book.  Sometimes a private dick just gets in over his head.

On a bright note, Sorcery and Cecelia is a book that depends entirely on communication between the characters, and it does a smashing job.  There are plenty of people keeping secrets here, but they're all keeping them from our heroines, who are telling each other everything in their letters and solving problems together from miles apart via mail coach.  Frequently they point out to the Serious Gentlemen in their lives that if they would only explain things a bit more clearly, our narrators could be of more service.  The gentlemen generally respond favorably to these suggestions, and look now!  The girls were right!  They're very useful when they know what's going on.  This is a charming, charming book and I'm so glad there are already sequels.

Does it seem like I'm still talking about the same books from weeks ago?  I make no excuses--I follow my whims.  Sharon out.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Elderly Energizer Bunnies

Oh, Mrs. Pollifax, you were so unexpected.

Am I the only person who gets kind of excited when they get to the library and the book they're looking for looks like this?

Because I do.  I would pretty much never pick a book like this randomly off the shelf, but when I get interested in a title and I find a book like this, I get some sort of nostalgic enthusiasm for an old-fashioned library binding.  I think it helps that this kind of cover is nearly indestructible--I am hard on library books.

What I wanted to write about today was old people rocking out, because Mrs. Pollifax is almost as delightful as Dr. Siri Paiboun, although they are on entirely opposite sides on the issue of communism and the red menace.    Dr. Siri, as my faithful readers know, is the national coroner of communist Laos in the late 1970s, and he's too old to put up with any of the bull that comes with the politbureau.  His "I'm old, so you can bite me" schtick has been one of my favorites for a long time, and I have Colin Cotterill's newest one waiting for me on my Kindle--The Woman Who Wouldn't Die

This came up, though, because of Mrs. Pollifax.  And it turns out, what I really want to do is talk about Mrs. Pollifax, and get all gooey over her and love her sass and her bravado and how she just gets things done by distracting the guards with her sensible wiles.  The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is a treasure, and thank you Sarah (and, of course, Dorothy Gilman) for her.

(Note that this cover is not nearly as tempting as the mysterious green library binding you see photographed above.)

Mrs. Pollifax is widowed and retired, and she's pretty tired of the garden club and hospital aid society.  So she takes the bull by the horns, takes a trip to Washington, DC, and offers her services to the CIA as a spy.  Through a plausible if unlikely turn of events, it comes to pass, and Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Mexico to pick up a very important MacGuffin.  It's not too much of a spoiler to let you know that things don't go according to plan, and Mrs. Pollifax finds herself behind the Iron Curtian and dependent on her wits and good nature to get her out of a distinctly risky scrape.

She's a charmer.  It seems unlikely to me that she's going to end up with the chief gentleman in the story, since she's 30 years his senior and the book was written in the '60s, but I'm still holding out hope, because they have a lovely rapport.  She's got the guards telling her their troubles and she fixed the Major's back.  She's not fearless, but she's moved beyond her fear--she's lived  her life, and now she's doing something important, and if she's going to die doing it, well, that's all right, too. 

At one point, she walks into a room and then realizes that there might easily have been an ambush set up for her.  She makes a mental note to be more cunning.  The one wrinkle I find in the book is that the All-American characters often talk like Brits, saying they'll "jolly well" do this or that the other thing is "a rum job, what?"  Dorothy Gilman--dear, lovely Dorothy Gilman, who has written many other books that Sarah now loves (one about NUNS!!!)--was from Nova Scotia, and she may have learned how Americans talk from such non-Americans as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

Mrs. Pollifax is not a dense book, nor a long one.  It may even be called slight.  But it is so desperately charming.  And now I find myself wanting to read other books in which elderly people don't give a damn.  Anyone have any nominees?  I'm thinking Miss Marple will be a start.  But I'm taking nominations.  But I suspect Mrs. Pollifax and Dr. Siri are going to take the prize.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chat of Smoke and Bone

I started this book in a blur of wonderfulness, stalled out when the characters fell in love and got all schmoopy, and swung back in when everything became worth it.  So worth it.  So, before we get to the spoilery part way down below, let me just say that I loved this book and cannot WAIT to read the next one.  To the point where I'm reading the preview chapters of Days of Blood and Starlight while I wait for the library to tell me my reserve has come in.  Wait anxiously.

Okay, that is the general part.  Now comes the part where my friend Lianna and I had a great chat about this book and how we felt about it.  I asked if she wanted to do a joint review, where we each publish half on our blog.  Her blog is really more of a writing journal, though, so she suggested I keep the whole thing for myself.  Which makes me feel greedy, but here we are!

Major, huge, enormous spoilers below; this post is really only for people who have read the book, or who are never, ever going to read the book but for some reason really want to read about it.  Which, they exist; I love spoilery reviews of books that I'm never going to read.  Go figure.

And thank you, Lianna, for letting me share this; I think it captures a lot of interesting angles on both the best and weakest parts of this wonderful, wonderful book that you should totally read before you come back and read this review full of spoilers which start.....NOW!

Lianna:  First of all, I have to share that every time I mention this book to my husband, he thinks it's called "My Daughter is Smokin' a Bone".

So, I FLEW through the first half of this book in a day, then slowed down a lot and took three more days to finish it. I felt that the action started getting bogged down by the love story, and that a lot of things that I loved about it-- the careful balancing of Karou's two worlds, the hallucinatory wonder of Brimstone's shop, Karou's art education, the acerbically witty best friend-- were kind of shoved aside to make room for the Instalove.

I wasn't that annoyed by the Instalove itself, partly because you had forewarned me about it, and partly because I could tell from the hints that this was a reincarnation story of sorts. So, it's Instalove based on a prior relationship. I'm basically cool with that. But THEN, when the story flashes back to Akiva and Madrigal/Karou falling in love, it's STILL Instalove! That's the point at which the love story began to annoy me to the degree of souring my opinion of the book as a whole.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm totally reading the second book. I adored the world-building, and the cliff-hanger ending hooked me good. I also appreciate that she didn't drag out the mysteries of "why was Karou was raised by demons?" and "wtf is the deal with Brimstone and the teeth?" any longer than made sense. I respect the hell out of an author who's not afraid to give answers in the first book of a trilogy.

But the love story thing has been rattling around in my mind. Here are the questions I've been pondering as I fold laundry:

1) Why does Instalove not do it for me, Romance-wise?
2) Why is Instalove so appealing to teenage readers?
3) What is the role my own personal taste in men plays in the way I judge Romance plots?
4) Is there a way to do the "our love will save the world!" plot that isn't eye-rolling to anyone over the age of 19?

And my thoughts about these questions:

1) As I said in my comments on your Instalove blog post, I am a Pride and Prejudice fan. I am just more interested in and excited by love stories in which the connection and attraction build slowly.

2) If my teenage self were reading DoSaB, she'd be alllllll over it. Mostly for the style (Blue hair! Tattoos! Prague! Chimaera demons!), but also for the love story. I think it has something to do with the intense adolescent longing for unconditional acceptance, coupled with a certain immaturity in regards to personal decisions. If your love is fated and eternal, then you don't have to struggle to catch the boy's attention or work to get to know him. No matter what you do, he'll still love you, and no matter what bad choices you make, you'll still wind up together in the end. 

As an adult, this just doesn't appeal to me, maybe because Fated, Eternal Love now seems like such a slim thread to hang a real relationship on. If love is born so effortlessly, isn't it also more likely to die without a struggle?

3) If I'm honest, I think part of my problem here is that I'm just not feelin' Akiva. He's a brooding, melodramatic sourpuss, and I do not believe I would be attracted to him if I met him in real life. I just don't see what he has going for him beyond being otherwordly-gorgeous. This is my problem with a lot of Instalove heroes; the Fated Love starts to feel lazy to me, like if the guy is really hot and really into the heroine, he doesn't need any other redeeming qualities (except perhaps a stalker-ish overprotectiveness that I am proud to say I have NEVER found appealing). 

It's not that I'm immune to male beauty, but if a guy is really that jaw-droppingly perfect (a la Edward Cullen/Christian Gray), I've always been more inclined to look at him as an amazing piece of art, rather than as a potential romantic partner. Call me reactionary, but I prefer to be prettier than the men I sleep with. And I am no jaw-dropping piece of art.

I like my romantic interests more on the beta side. I'd rather break through the facade of the wisecracking sidekick than the brooding hero.

4) The Instalove device often goes hand-in-hand with the "only our super-special love can save the world" trope. I don't like how smug this usually comes off, implying as it does that the lead couple's superiority over everyone else in their world-- not only are they more attractive than everyone else, they are nobler, wiser, braver, and the only ones capable of seeing what really matters, dammit! It rankles. 

I saw some of this in DoSaB. For example, the whole Chiro thing went over the line into Mary Sue territory for me. Chiro is ugly! And she envies Madgrial for being sooooo amazingly beautiful! But Madrigal is so awesomely above it all she doesn't even realize that she is pretty and Chiro is ugly! And so Chiro betrays her, 'cause ugly people are petty like that. Bitch, please.

Have you read Warm Bodies? I just saw the movie this weekend, and I've been trying to work out why the "teen love saves the world" thing did not bug me in that story. I think it was the sense that it wasn't so much THEIR love specifically that was curing the zombie plague as it was love in general. If it hadn't been R's resurrected ability to love that started it, it could have been someone else's. Also, while R feels Instalove, it's not the Fated, Eternal kind-- more like, "underneath my zombie-ness I am still a typically romantic and horny teenage boy, and you are cute and in immediate need of saving". And Julie feels no Instalove whatsoever; it is a completely one-sided thing for quite a while.

And those are my feelingful feelings.

Et vous? 
Sharon: This exactly echoes my reaction down to the details.  I flew through the first half and then, when the love story started, slowed down considerably--to the point where I'm pretty sure it's been weeks.  I did not figure out the reincarnation thing before it happened--well, when Akiva realized he knew who Karou was, I figured she was probably his dead girlfriend, but that's not much in advance.  Once I got that, I was able to let it go, though it still bugged me a bit--mostly it just bugged me that the story was ABOUT their love, instead of about Karou trying to find her family and solve her mysteries.

The Instalove between Madrigal and Akiva didn't bother me as much, because their first moment together--on the battlefield--was really more of a sensible moment in context.  They had a moment of shared humanity, and there was some intensity and attraction there, and it stayed with them as a snapshot memory.  It meant more to Akiva because he was already kind of disillusioned, and because the seraphim have more inhuman/irrational negatives about the chimaera.  

But the fact that they threw themselves at each other so aggressively was a bit of a problem.  At that point, though, I just wanted the Madrigal backstory to go fast so I could get back to Karou, so my disbelief was sacrificed to speed reading. 

Aside: I tell Adam stories at bedtime--Mike reads, I tell.  No repeats, so I often end up bowdlerizing whatever I'm reading for him.  He's been dying to hear what happens next in this book, and I can't figure out how to explain flashbacks, never mind reincarnation! 

1) Why does Instalove not do it for me, Romance-wise?
2) Why is Instalove so appealing to teenage readers?
3) What is the role my own personal taste in men plays in the way I judge Romance plots?
4) Is there a way to do the "our love will save the world!" plot that isn't eye-rolling to anyone over the age of 19?

1) is easy--I've never been someone who was all about the physical stuff.  I mean, instalove is clearly based heavily in physical attraction--at least, a reader's sympathy for it is.  And, forgive the TMI and the high-handedness, but I've never been someone who's so swept up in the FEELINGS of the moment/body that I have not known where I was.  So it just doesn't hook up with my experience in general, and I suspect that for most people, the further you get from adolescence the less familiar that sense of "lust/not thinking clearly" becomes.

2) goes the same way--this is something we discussed in my library science YA class.  Basically, young adults are dealing with all this stuff for the first time, and so it's way more confusing and intense to them.  It feels more REAL, because they haven't felt all excited about someone and had it mean absolutely nothing a million times the way us grown ups have.

3) I agree that Akiva did almost nothing for me, and standard hotness does pretty much nothing for me.  I mean, I'll look at the guys in the movies as much as the next lady, but what I'm going to pine for is the personality, and Akiva is definitely thin on that.  Another reason the book took a dive when he showed up.  

4) Three words: His Dark Materials.  Literally the only books I can think of that really gave me a reason why two people could actually matter that much without being the Chosen Ones (which is ludicrous), and why their relationship would matter.  I mean, I guess Adam and Eve, but they were the whole world at the time, so not a fair comparison.  For examples of this done poorly--oh, I could go on forever.  I actually love the ending of The Amber Spyglass just because that whole relationship turned that expectation--our love will Change the World!--on its head.

Okay, I'm going to bed now and haven't even finished the book; more tomorrow though.  And I'm already waiting for Days of Blood and Starlight (which title already has a dozen permutations in my head involving words like Nights of Dust and Diamonds and is starting to sound like a romance novel) from the library!

Lianna:  I guessed the reincarnation because of the way Karou kept seeing glimpses of an "other" Akiva-- smiling, with less tattoos, etc.

And yes about the book becoming about their love instead of their love being one of the things happening in the book. It's like the love story ate the rest of the book.

Sharon: I think the problem was not that the story was structured around their love story--because if you have a story about two people who defy their nations to bridge a gap of war, there are only so many kinds of bonds you can make that about.  It's that all the MEANING of the story was tied up in their love.  I definitely think it's partly a factor of being an adult that you really understand all the many variations of motivation that exist in the world.  Honestly, the relationship between Karou/Madrigal and Brimstone seemed way more compelling to me than the relationship with Akiva, but of course, the Akiva one is going to change the world.  I love the idea of Brimstone "using" her like that, and how morally ambiguous that is, but also how good and right. 

But now I'm rewriting the book, and that's not fair.  You can't judge a book on what it could have tried to be.  

I'm actually hoping the next one might be a bit more interesting, because Akiva is clearly kind of cranky and grim, but his fluctuation in his feelings about the seraphim and chimera vary so widely that I'm really hoping his trajectory gets more interesting.  But I'm also hoping that we stay with Karou a lot more.  

Akiva is now firmly in Gale territory with me--I was fine with him till he got all warlike, and then he lost me.  And he only regrets it now that she's back--boo hoo.  I kind of wish he'd turn out to be the bad guy, or a character who has to die to be redeemed.  Not likely in a romance, though.

I assume it's a trilogy.  I hope the next one doesn't fall prey to middle book syndrome!

Lianna: I'm looking forward to watching Karou get her vengeance on.

I've realized I'm doing quite a bit of complaining about a book I really enjoyed. Allow me to touch upon the Awesome again: Daughter of Smoke and Bone is smarter and grittier than most YA Fantasy I've read. Karou successfully walks the heroine line between kickass and vulnerable, and I loved the world building so much I want to jet over to Prague and wander the meandering back alleys until I come across the entrance to Brimstone's shop. And that's pretty much the highest compliment I can bestow on a work of Fantasy: it makes me wish that it was all real.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Never Should You Ever

I realize that writing straight reviews is  not my strong suit.  And writing reviews a week after I finished the book--well, I'm out of my element.  But I'm going to give it the old college try and talk a bit about The Never List, by Koethi Zan. 

This is a thriller, and if you're not someone who would read a book whose main character is a survivor of five years chained up in an evil guy's basement with three other girls, then you should just not pick this one up.  It's not terribly explicit in its violence, but the narrator here was kidnapped and tortured and this is a book about that.

Rather, it's a book about the aftermath of that, which I thought was very interesting.  It's ten years later, and the three survivors have gone in very different directions--one is living a quiet, peaceful life as a shut-in, one is a polished, shining, wealthy mom whose husband has no idea of her past, and a third is a radical feminist academic.  The fourth, Jennifer, was killed by their captor, though her body was never found.

The lack of a body means that, ten years later, Bad Guy is up for parole, and that's enough to bring Sarah out of her apartment for the first time in five years.  Jennifer had been her best friend, and Sarah wants to finally find her body and lay her memories to rest.

There are some interesting things going on here that really drew me into the book--the first part, about Jennifer and Sarah's childhoods, is told almost as though they were one person.  Everything is "we" and "us."  I almost wondered if it was going to be a story about someone with multiple personalities or some other psychological twist.  This blurring of personal boundaries comes up at other points in the story, and it's interesting when it brings characters together as a team when you might not expect them to be.

Unfortunately, some things don't hang together as well as they might.  It's another example of authorial trust--the beginning was strong and I found myself trusting the author.  But there are some major plot points here that hinge heavily on people making obviously bad moves because they feel "right" or "like something I had to do."  You do not ditch your police protection to do something incredibly dangerous just because you want to be empowered!  You take the police WITH YOU on that trip!  There is no reason at all that you should do that without a SWAT team.

The further in I got, the more of these moments there were, right up until the end, which was unfortunately predictable in its broad strokes, though the details were pretty engaging.  If I'd been willing to suspend my disbelief, or if the author had done just a bit more hand waving regarding why our Paranoid But Intrepid Heroine was doing all this stuff by herself, it might have hung together better.  As it was, I felt like it was the first half of the final draft of the book, followed by the second half of the first draft.

Sigh; Netgalley's going to hate me if I keep ripping on their stuff like this.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pardon My French

Public Service Announcement:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paroxysms of Joy

Oh, guys, I'm so excited.  A bright little world has opened up before me.

Did you know that my Kindle has speakers?  I did not know this.  I knew it had a text-to-speech feature (not using that; it's for pros), and the ability to play audiobooks.  I knew it had a headphone jack, and I even knew that it could (theoretically) sync up the ebook I'm reading with the audio version so that I can switch back and forth.

What I didn't know was that it has speakers.  I do not need headphones, earbuds, or anything else with a cord.  And this tiny revelation has changed my world.

Because when I started listening to an audiobook on here, I realized how much of a pain in the butt my iPod is.  It's great for music, but I've just never liked it for books.  You have to navigate too far to get from music to books.  The chapter divisions in the books don't make sense, and if you lose your place, you'll never find it again.  The fast forward and rewinds are not great.  It's just not ideal.

Thank you, Brenda (and Jason), for pushing The Dresden Files on me.  I'm listening to the first book right now, and aside from it being a really good book, it's read by James Marsters, who is aurally smokin hot.  (Also in other, non-audiobook-related ways, but let's stay on topic.)  His acting--at least is voice acting here--is really excellent, the characters distinct without sounding silly, and the hard-bitten detective thing really captured without overdoing it.  I'm having a lot of fun.

I have strong opinions on audiobooks.  I used to listen to a ton of them; when I worked in Back Bay, I'd add a 20 minute walk to my commute to listen to books.  I had an Audible subscription, and a very clear idea of what I was looking for in a reader.

Then there was no commute, and I can't listen to audiobooks when Adam's talking (read: when he's awake and in my presence).  I had a bus commute--good for reading, not listening.  And now I have a bike commute--except when it's raining, or when I have large things to bring to or from work.  Or when I'm not feeling well, or my bike isn't.  It's not infrequent, that drive to work, and being able to plug my Kindle--which is always at hand--into the car stereo and just press a button is so much better than wrestling my iPod out and drilling through the menus.

Guys, I might just have to reinstate my Audible membership.

Life. Changing.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Pilgrim's Progress

Everything I knew about Hillary Jordan's When She Woke before I started reading it was that it was a futuristic Scarlet Letter, where the adulteress was dyed bright red.  This could have gone a few ways--The Scarlet Letter is a great book, but the resetting of a story that depends so heavily on the cultural mores of a moment is quite tricky.  I was afraid that the author would shape a future dystopia that looked just like Puritan New England, which seems kind of redundant and forced.

Happily, the Scarlet Letter is just a launching point for this story.  For some reason it made me think of The Handmaid's Tale, even though the world wasn't so foreign as that.  It was more the tone, the sense of sexual repression being pervasively in the air.  I also thought of Citizen Ruth, the movie with Laura Dern.  Again, one woman's body becomes a political issue.

Even more, though, I'm reminded of the way that movie went through specific phases. Ruth starts in one place, gets swept to another group of people, moves on to another life.  It seems like there ought to be a word for stories like this, where the acts are basically very different worlds that the character travels through--Watership Down, Ursula LeGuin's Powers, all kinds of books do this.  When She Woke is one of these.

It starts out all Hester Prynne--Hannah has been treated with a virus that turns all her skin bright red.  She's serving one month in a small cell.  Her crime was having an abortion, but her sentence is longer because she won't name the father.  You can guess, perhaps, who he is.  Anyway, the prison sentence is short, because the "chroming" is long--for 16 years, she will be instantly recognizable by everyone she meets as a felon. 

Her very religious family is not okay with what she's done.  To be honest, she's not, either--Hannah is a true believer in everything she's been raised to, in a future Texas where her pastor has just been named the nation's Minister of Faith.  So after prison, she goes to a halfway house.  From there she moves into other worlds, meets other groups of people with other values, other goals.  With each experience she re-examines her beliefs, and her understanding of the world is adjusted.

This is an overtly political book, and its greatest strength is in showing how a kind, generous person can hold unexamined, simply-justified beliefs that are oppressive and harmful.  Even better, we get to watch her mind change, to see which of her beliefs need to be examined.  I'm not sure if it's a bit simplistic, or if it really is a very simple process.  Either way, it's an educational journey for Hannah, and some good, creepy worldbuilding for us.

I'm not quite done, and I have to say, though, that it's getting a little extreme as we approach the end.  Things might be going off the rails a bit, in terms of Hannah becoming open minded; I'm not sure yet if it's part of her psychological journey, or if it's overkill on the author's part.  We'll see.

I love me some world building, and this one hit eerily close to home.  If only for that, I'm definitely glad I finally got around to this one.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


I'm swimming in middles right now.  I keep starting, and when I get print books from the library, I have to dive in because there are time limits, you understand.  So here I am reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but slowly, because the last two chapters spent way too much time on instalove, but also reading Ruby Red, because everybody recommended it but then I couldn't renew it and it turned out to be pretty good.

Except--let's move into an aside here, because when I try to organize my blog posts I end up not posting for weeks at a time, so we're going to do a free-form, stream-of-consciousness thing here--that Ruby Red suffers from a problem that is right up there on my pet peeves list next to instalove, and that is unnecessary reticence.  That is, when a lot of this person's problems would be solved if they just enlisted the right ally, but they don't, because then the story would be over.  This happens a lot in YA books, because if you bring in an adult there's a good chance they could solve the whole problem.  A book has to explain to me why that won't work in a way that I'd believe it.

Gwendolyn, the main character in Ruby Red, has a cousin who's going to be a time traveler, and her whole family is waiting with bated breath for her to make her first trip.  There is no reason on earth to suspect they'll think she's crazy if she admits to time traveling herself.  This contradiction is a thin excuse for her to keep a secret that the story requires be kept, not a rational reaction on the part of the character.  I'm still reading, though, because otherwise it's quite good.

Then there's still In This House of Brede, which is long and nunnish, and I will bask in as long as I can.

And let's see, what else?  I figured out how to use audio books from Audible on my Kindle (did you know that my Kindle has speakers?!?  I can just set it next to me on the counter when I'm in the kitchen and it will read to me!) and James Marsters is reading me Jim Butcher's first Dresden Files book, Storm Front. He's doing a bang-up job, too; I could listen to him talk all day--and now I can!

Kris really liked the Wool Omnibus, and I had already gotten it from Amazon ages ago, so I poked in on that.  It's a collection of story/novella-length pieces, and I'm enjoying it.  So far it's basically another take on far future dystopia, doing something similar to Maria V. Snyder's Inside Out, but I'm hoping that the thematic stuff gets a little more complex, because I think it's going to get better and there's a lot of room to explore some cool issues about resource allocation and how the real world requires unpleasant choices.

Oh, and I can't forget When She Woke, because it's great.  In fact, I think it'll probably get a review all its own when I'm done, but for now I'll just say it's kind of like The Handmaid's Tale meets The Scarlet Letter meets Citizen Ruth.  It's very explicitly political, but the first half, at least, is so thoughtful in portraying the point of view character that it works very well as a novel in spite of that.

So, that's the run down.  I have a couple of real reviews coming up, but I really think they're not my strength as a blogger.  I do better when I babble--at least, I post more consistently!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Double Rainbow!

I have come up with so many embarrassing puns about the name Rainbow Rowell that I just couldn't bear to put in the subject line.  It's a woman's name; I don't mean to make fun, I just want to be clever.  So Rainbow Rowell, if you ever make your way here after you read the thousands of other rave reviews of your recent book, I apologize.

Everyone was telling me how good Eleanor & Park was, but I had to wait for it from the library.  Somehow, the library patrons all seem to have missed her first novel, Attachments, so I snagged it and fell in love.

Lincoln works nights in the IT department at a newspaper in 1999.  The rather paranoid owners of the paper want to ensure that their employees are not misusing their fancy new technology (like email).  Lincoln's job is to make sure the servers don't crash and read people's email.  It is, needless to say, kind of a depressing job.

Lincoln isn't exactly depressed.  He's just sort of drifting.  He's been in college for a dozen years, and now he's back living at his mom's house.  He never quite got over his first girlfriend, and he doesn't quite know what he'd like to do.

Reluctantly reading his daylight-inhabiting coworkers' emails, he gets to know Beth, whose rock star boyfriend might not be right for her, and whose best friend Jennifer isn't sure if she wants kids, or if her ambivalence will cost her marriage. Lincoln falls for Beth, with the slight complication that they've never met, and that every email he reads is a little betrayal of this woman he so wants to meet.

I loved reading this book.  Beth and Jennifer are so much fun, their emails so funny and sweet, their friendship so real--they support each other, question each other's bad choices, even get annoyed with each other.  I liked Lincoln, too, and his comfortable, laissez faire attitude was as uncomfortably familiar as anything.  Even the fact that he's reading her email didn't bother me that much--though objectively it's kind of gross--probably because a) I'm an oversharer, and b) the voyeuristic part of reading the book in the first place muted the effect for me.  I didn't feel bad for reading their emails, so it didn't feel bad that he did it, either.

This is the part of the review that I'm never sure what to do with, though.  Spoiler alert, I guess?  This is the beginning of the spoiler alert, so this is where you should stop reading if you don't want any spoiling at all.  Because I have to tell you, the end of this book kind of sucked.  Like, not unsatisfying--it's the ending you wanted.  But I couldn't figure out as I was reading how the book was going to get there fairly, resolving all the issues.

And the answer is, magic.  Well, the magic of authorial intent.  Poof, everything is resolved!  After the very real, very human build up, it was a huge letdown.

I loved it enough, though, to head straight into Eleanor & Park when my library hold came up. And let me tell you, all those other people who've already told you to read this book?  They're right.  You should read this book.  High school romance, falling for someone you just met, cool kids drama--it even takes place on the school bus, for crying out loud--and I was really expecting I would have to be bored to tears here. 

But oh, no.  Part of the whole point of the book is about putting that kind of high school bull into perspective.  Explicitly, it's about what it's like to be different--good different, okay different, bad different, hard-to-explain different--but implicitly, it's about the fact that all those other opinions both do and don't matter.  You have to live through high school, and then after that you have to live in the world that really exists.

And your internal life, your wants and goals, they're big and important and they mean a lot, but they don't exist in a vacuum.  Your parents, your classmates, your friends and even enemies, they all shape your life and they matter.  Eleanor & Park shows you that we don't exist in a vacuum, however much we might think that's better.  And really, in the end, it's not.

Also?  Best love story.  Best.  And I'd like to point out that the overly-self-conscious blurb of dialogue that's on the back of the book--about Jerry Lee Lewis and Bono and Romeo and Juliet?  That was precious and it put me off the book, but that's not what the book is like.  These are NOT ironic, tough, too-smart kids bluffing their way through.  These are sensitive, skittish kids, somehow, magically, finding each other.

In short, Eleanor & Park--go read this book right now.