Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rose and Roza

Elizabeth Wein set herself a very high bar with Code Name Verity.  This is often a problem with the first book--by an author, in a series, etc.

Rose Under Fire suffers from the comparison, which is sad, because it's a very good book.  It's powerful and tragic and the characters are so brave and sad and human.  And there are such moments of triumph, without lies or glossing over what a concentration camp was.

Verity had two things going for it that Rose didn't: one, there was a twist, a big reversal that I didn't quite see coming but that created in me a love that I suspect will be everlasting for Elizabeth Wein.  She went from being just someone who wrote this book to the Mind behind it, someone who was steps ahead of me and meticulously crafting the story.  I mean, when it was revealed that there was more going on than I realized, every piece was in place, every clue was there, and every detail fit together.  That's craft.

Secondly, Verity was a story I'd never read before.  Female pilots, women captured behind enemy lines, spies in German custody--all fresh to me.  There were parts that were familiar--Maddie's time spent hiding reminded me of the resistance fighters in the book Tamar, for example.  But there was so much that I knew nothing about, and that much was exciting.  Julie felt powerful, even when she was truly powerless. 

But Rose's story is at least close to ones I've read.  I don't want that to sound like a complaint--it's a powerful story and a poignant one.  But there are so many books and movies that have had parts of this story in it that it was not unfamiliar to me--the premise itself didn't surprise me. 

Enough with the complaints, though, because it was really so good.  I didn't know anything about the Rabbits (well, I knew the existence of Nazi medical "experiments," but not much about the victims), and I'd never met Rose, who was worth meeting.  And Lisette, and Karolina, and Roza, and Irena.  Each of them was so different from the others, each completely her own character, and all amazing in their own rights.  I loved Rose's poetry, which kind of surprised me in and of itself. 

Every character was trying to survive, but every one had moments of selflessness.  I won't say it was unbelievable in that--it's very believable, it's what you want to believe about the human spirit--but it was so exciting, so satisfying, to see everyone struggle for each other, keep each other alive, in spite of everything.

I loved Rose.  I loved her best, I think, in the Paris hotel room she inhabited after she left Ravensbruck, alone and frightened and finally safe, unable to figure out where she was or what was supposed to happen next.  I loved her in that moment, and I loved the maid who took care of her and all the lovely people Elizabeth Wein put in the world to make up for the horror.
Let me just follow up this post on Premeditated by saying that yes, I did turn out to be right in the prediction I made VERY early in the book, and it was quite frustrating watching the protagonist blunder around not realizing what I realized, especially since she had ALL the information I had.

Except, I suppose, the fact that she's in a novel.  That's a strong predictor for plot twists that rarely occurs to someone in real life.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Young We Were, And Far From Free

Teen suffering round-up!

(Note: I will not include Rose Under Fire in this post, even though Rose is a teenager and Roza is even younger.  It just wouldn't feel right.)

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin, is a process dystopia book, about how civilization comes to an end via the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, and how Alex, one boy right on the edge of the disaster zone, survives.  Most of the book is exactly what I want from my post-apocalyptic YA: clever people figuring out how to get food and stay alive.  It's really well done in that respect, and there are some very nice bits of altruism and the acknowledgement of the limits of altruism.

There's a chunk that takes place in a relocation/concentration camp, and that's much less enjoyable.  Not only is it very unpleasant, it's just so ugly--I know there's no reason to think that Americans wouldn't act like that in the months after a devestation, but seriously, it's pretty much Blackwater being hired to deliberately imprison and starve American citizens.  I know it's not implausible, but it doesn't feel like it makes sense.

That part was relatively short, though, and there are some great sections about what community looks like in this world--trade, and good fences, and also small towns being all self-reliant.  There's definitely some love for the Midwestern farming ethos here.  Alex's journey from spoiled teen to self-sufficient young man and across the barren state of Iowa (accompanied by his too-good-to-be-true mechanical genius girlfriend) is gripping and readable.  Yay!

Then you have a very different kind of end of the world: Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardener.  In this oppressive, North Korea-style regime, Standish Treadwell is living with his grandfather, since his parents and best friend's family have been taken away.  They are struggling to survive in a place where there isn't enough food and people inform on each other.

This unnamed nation is about to launch a spaceship to the moon, to prove to the world that they are superior.  Standish finds out secrets about the launch and finds himself facing decisions that are bigger than himself.  The book does an amazing job with the oppressive ignorance and horrible isolation of the world they live in.  And yes, I was crying a little at the end.  But there were some plot holes, and more places where the book has a tone of winning that maybe should be more like triumph of the human spirit in spite of horrible events.

And then you have Stupid Perfect World, which is somewhere between a novella and a short story.  Slight, slim, gauzy, but Scott Westerfeld can write distant future teenage society with flare.  Kieran's taking Scarcity class, for which you have to spend two weeks suffering something that people used to suffer way back in the day.  Someone picks the common cold, someone else gives up teleporting, Maria chooses normal teenage hormones.  Kieran picks sleeping, and he and Maria both find that these individual physiological changes have huge effects. 

I like Scott Westerfeld's books, mostly for his writing and world building.  They're very teenaged, though.  Passions, rebellion--like Maria, there are a lot of teenaged poets in his books. I don't have a lot to say, except not bad.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


One of the hot new young adult writers this year is Josin McQuein, who wrote Arclight and Premeditated, both of which were published this year.  The sequel to Arclight, Meridian, is coming out next year.  I haven't read that book yet, though I got it as a Kindle Daily Deal last week, so I might eventually. 

But I've been really excited about Premeditated since I read this post on QueryShark (an amazing blog you should read), well before the author had sold the book.  I bought it right away and started it last week.  I'm maybe halfway through, and it's time blog it.

That's because what I really want to read right now is this blog post about the alternate ending to Premeditated.  But I don't want to spoil the actual ending, so I'm about to spring into action and zip through the book.  But I think I've guessed the ending, and I want to talk about that, as well as some other things.

First, when I read the premise (Dinah's cousin/best friend attempts suicide, and when Dinah reads her diary, she realizes that there's a boy behind it and plots revenge), I was intrigued.  Thinking about it, I figured there was no way a story like that could work as a straight revenge story.  I mean, there's always going to be more to a suicide attempt than the high school boy who wronged the girl, even if the wrong is pretty massive.  So I have thought from the beginning that if the book's going to be any good at all, it's going to bring some depth to the idea that you never know what's going on inside someone else's head, or heart, or life.

So far, there's nothing terribly surprising here, in that Dinah's trying to be all single-minded about how evil rich jerks are, but she's finding that their lives are sometimes more complex than she expects.  This is pretty nicely done.  In fact, the sympathy for these different characters is maybe a little too powerful, and Dinah starts losing her focus pretty quickly.

I guess I feel like the whole story could be more pointed, cleaner, tighter.  A lot of the characters have the same sarcastic voice, and sometimes I get completely lost about who's involved in a conversation or what's being discussed.  The revenge part is all pretty vague--Dinah's not playing her "private school" character as tightly as I expected, and really the whole plan thing is pretty loosey goosey.  I think that story--what Dinah intends to be the plot of the story--could be a lot sharper and more driving.

[Warning: if I'm any good at predictions, there are spoilers ahead.]

But the real story is how nothing turns out to be quite what Dinah expects.  And here we get to the ending that I'm pretty sure is coming, and if it is, I think it might have been teased a little too heavily: I'm betting she's after the wrong guy.  The fact that there's no photographic evidence--not even something inconsequential--and that the description is so vague says to me that the non-evil-seeming guy she's stalking is not actually the bad guy.  I actually have a guess about who the bad guy is, but I'm not as worried about committing that to electrons; "ha! knew it" will do in that case.

In fact, it says it to me so clearly that I'm really hoping Dinah starts to doubt it herself.  I think that because the revenge plot is so loose, now that I'm pretty sure I know the twist, I'm impatient for it to come.  It's not like she's actually doing anything much, just kind of lurking and meeting people.  If she was at least busy doing vengeful things with tight efficiency, I'd be willing to watch her hurl herself aggressively up the wrong alley.  But this meandering needs to be in the right direction.

And if I'm NOT right?  Well, I hope there's an even bigger twist waiting.

(I'm writing this ahead and scheduling its post; by the time you read it, I'll probably already have my answer.  But that's another post, I suppose.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Sad, Sad Life of a Superstar

I do not read Us magazine, or People, or follow celebrity culture in any way.  But there's a level on which you can't be unaware of lives like those of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, and you can't imagine them to be anything but hard and sad and lonely.

Well, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus are here to tell you just how sad and exhausting and horrifying it is in Between You and Me.  These are the writers who brought you The Nanny Diaries, which is essentially about how incredibly awful rich people are and how they mess up their kids with their selfish shenanigans.  That sentence entirely encapsulates this book, too, though it'd be more precise if you put the word "famous" into that sentence somewhere.  It almost doesn't matter where.

Logan Wade's got a decent mid-level job and a decent mid-level twenty-something life in Manhattan when she gets a call out of the blue to visit her long-estranged cousin and childhood best friend, Britney Spea...I mean, Kelsey Wade.  She finds herself embroiled in Kelsey's exhausting life, including controlling parents, aggressive paparazzi, grueling 20-hour workdays, and petty indignities that you have to suffer with a smile on your face.

It's a "normal" person's view inside the insanity of celebrity life, as well as a very sympathetic account of Britney--sorry, I mean Kelsey!--'s public implosion.  Five minute marriages, kids at a young age, messy family relationships, and all in the public eye.  But there's so much the public eye doesn't see, because narrative is always neater than life, and the collective narrative of the media leaves no room for messiness.  That's the big virtue of this book--it's an excellent picture of the answer to the questions we ask ourselves about other people, questions like "how did she end up in such a mess?" or "what was she thinking?"

This is pretty much always what I'm looking for--a book that takes someone who's completely unlike me and makes me truly understand how they can go about being the way they are and feeling like it makes sense.  There are so many factors going into this in Kelsey's life, and the fact that she's actually a talented musician and a pretty savvy marketer are definitely on her side.  But the fact that her parents are and always have been A HOT MESS and are all up in her business (literally; they're her managers) and you can see where every bad decision makes sense, where every eager wish she tries to fulfill is going to fall apart, and just why she can't see it coming.

In the end, there are definitely good guys and bad guys.  But the grey area that I'm always looking for in characterization is right where it needs to be: Kelsey Wade, America's sweetheart.  It really makes you want to take care of her.

(I got this book free for review from Netgalley.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Club, Three Weeks Gone

Book club met on Monday [n.b., I started this post a a full month ago; we met on Monday, September 30. This is my blogging shame.], and then I developed some sort of bottomless pit of an influenza or something[and went on vacation, etc.] and have been off the grid. 

But the book was so seriously good, I want to make sure I talk about it. So: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Bloggers who speak much more intelligently than I have already talked about how wonderful this book is; what I can add is mostly just my discussion questions.

Ifemelu is moving back to Nigeria after many years of living in America.  As she contemplates the move, she also thinks about making contact with her high school

I have some discussion questions based on notes I took (I took notes!) at book club.  Because this was one of the smartest books I've read in a long time, and my book club is, overall, smarter than I am. 

(Warning: general-ish spoilers ahead)

1) Ifemelu is often passive in her relationships.  She keeps her thoughts to herself, she follows the flow of the group she's in, and her life changes significantly as she moves in different social circles.  But the voice in her blog is clear and sure, opinionated and angrier than she ever expresses in her "real" life.  Where do you think this contrast comes from?  What do you think it says about her, or about the world around her?  And do you think that seems to be changing at the end of the book?

2) Look at some of the individuals and groups of people that Ifemu meets.  Do any of them reflect people who seem familiar to you?  (The college roommates, the nanny employer, the grad student social circle, the hairdressers.)  Do they seem realistic, nuanced, representative?  Do your assessments of the realism of characters who are more familiar to you affect your feelings about the characters who feel less familiar? 

(This is one of those questions I have an answer to: I think the parts of the book that felt less familiar to me had an immediate believability because the parts that were familiar were so well-crafted.)

3) Why do you think she had so much trouble finding a job when she first came to the states?  Was it just an unlucky streak of interviews, or do you think there was more going on?

4) What do you think about that one character's suicide attempt?  What was behind it?  How do the issues you think are behind it relate to the central themes and ideas of the book?

5) Do you think this is a love story?  I've heard people say at its heart, the book is a love story.  I'm not sure I agree; I think the idea of how you're shaped by where you're from and where you are, and how being of more than one place is not something the world does a good job of encompassing right now.  How do the different stories--love story, immigration stories, personal stories--serve each other?

6) One of the most amazing things about this book is how broadly and directly it addresses race.  As a white person, I feel like I learned a lot, was given a lot to think about and a lot of new perspectives, without feeling confused or defensive.  What ideas or observations about race stuck out most to you?  Is there anything that you learned or got a new perspective on from this book?

This is probably the objectively best book that I've enjoyed in months, maybe even all year.  It's a human story, a literary story, and I think it was the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar and the very familiar that really made it so irresistible.  This is kind of a lame compliment that says more about me than about the book, but I feel smarter for having enjoyed it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Through the Weeds

Guys, I'm so backlogged.  I'm sorry.  I was sick, and there were some big, substantial books that I wanted to review, and now here we are.  Let's roll out a Table of Contents for the next few days, with the warning that some of these books will probably get mini-reviews because gosh, there are so many.

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin
Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardener
The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum
Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Between You and Me, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Plus maybe a Stephen King/Joe Hill short story, In the Tall Grass, but maybe not.  How many times can I complain about how much I used to like Stephen King but don't anymore? And I don't know if I have much to say about Scott Westerfeld's Stupid Perfect World, except that he's good at future world building and Kindle singles are addictive.

Okay, so these are my promises.  Reviews, mini-reviews, and other things.  Plus all the other things.  Welcome back from vacation!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


You're supposed to post the "sorry, I'm going on vacation" message before you go instead of after you get back.  Sorry about that!

So: more soon!