Thursday, August 28, 2014

Swinging at Shadows

Shadowboxer, by Trish Sullivan: yet another highly anticipated (by me) ARC from Netgalley!  I've been on a roll lately--possibly because I've been practicing at least a little restraint and requesting books I'm really, really interested in reading, rather than anything that looks good and I can see myself maybe being into.

Check out that cover (and if you're interested, check out the Booksmugglers post about the cover)--you've got your gifted Latina girl from New Jersey who can fight like a demon, and the forests of Thailand behind her, where she goes to train when her uncontrolled temper gets her in too much trouble at home.  There's magic here, and mystical happening, and a whole other character besides Jade to follow.  But Jade is the heart of the book, and her fight career feels almost as important as the life and death (and beyond) problems that are facing our characters here.

The mystical part of the story revolves around the Forest, which is a mystical place between worlds that some children have the power to visit.  Adults can travel there, too, with the help of certain drugs and these children, and one man named Mr. Richard uses his knowledge of the Forest--and a little girl named Mya--to develop new drugs and deliver illicit packages around the world.  Mya has been in his care for a year, but she's starting to realize that she may not be safe with Mr. Richard--and others may be in danger, too.

Now, a description of the plot would be too confusing, but I find that true of almost every plot description.  The best part of this book by far is Jade, who is tough and insecure, a great fighter with impulse control problems that keep getting her disqualified, a loving, supportive family and a fondness for cats.  When she punches someone she shouldn't, her manager sends her to train with his brother in Thailand, and when she comes back, trouble seems to have tagged along.

The weakest part of this book by far was getting all the pieces in place--Jade crosses someone she shouldn't, but a lot of the things that happen only seem to happen to her because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Really, for the first half of the book, Jade is living the life of a Jersey fighter while the real problems happen to Mya.  But when they all come together--once everyone is in it up to their eyeballs--everything starts rolling fast and they completely had me.

Jade was my favorite part of the book, though.  I loved her warm relationship with her cousin; I loved her ongoing determination to get better at keeping her temper (which was ROCK SOLID except during the 30 seconds when it would have been useful); I loved her relationships with the other fighters, both in her gym, at the school in Thailand, and those she meets in the ring.  I loved how this book was full of people not just of different races but of different cultures, from around the world, and that is absolutely just a matter of course.

And I learned a lot more than I ever thought I'd know about Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts.  And you know, I never though I'd be at all interested, but they are handled so perfectly, with just the right amount of actual information and Jade's reactions to things that she understands and I don't, that there's some really fun competence action going on here.  I ended up surfing the web for videos of the dance you have to do before a Muay Thai match.  It's pretty awesome, and I definitely found that part of the book way more interesting than I would ever have expected.

I do think my only wish is that Jade and the main plot--Mr. Richard, the investigative reporter, Mya--had come together a little earlier in the story, and that the supernatural parts that were about gods had been blended a bit better with those that seemed more straight out magic-is-natural.

But these are clearheaded observations made quite a few days after I finished the book.  While I was in it--well, I read it all through vacation, never put it down.  (Though I will admit that I had Fiona Apple running through my head the whole time!)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PTSD, Horror Movie Style

The internet has been telling me to read Daniel Gregory.  Possibly the internet primarily consists of Jenny at Reading the End, but I don't keep track of how things end up on my to-read list, so we can just assume that the internet is to blame.  On Wednesday I read her review of We Are All Completely Fine and immediately requested a copy fro Netgalley.  They sent it, I started reading it, and I read it in one big gulp last night.  She was right; I should be reading this guy.



I think I was turned off because his books are hard to blurb--a combination between complex world-building that doesn't read well in succinct, back-cover layout, and somewhat grim, grotesque images that seem offputting without the context of a gripping story.  Check the blurb for The Devil's Alphabet; long, confusing, and not actually that appealing.

But we all know what a good author can do with a complicated story. 
We Are All Complete Fine is a novella, and its simplicity belies all that's going on here.  First, the premise is so intuitive that I wish there were more stories like it; this is a support group for people with...unusual histories.  Really, it's made up of five people who have survived, essentially, horror movies.  I won't give them away, because the unfolding stories are half of the book, but the point is, if you are that one person who survives to the end of The Ring or The Hills Have Eyes or whatever horror movie I haven't seen but seriously, how do you go on?

There's always this point made at the beginning of a movie like that of how normal life is, how this person is Just Like You, living in a world where Weird Things don't happen, and then suddenly reality changes for them and they are in a horror movie.  There would be some emotional fallout there, right?  This is what I always liked about The Hunger Games, that there's no pretense that you come out of that just tougher, stronger, more cynical.  You also come out confused, and broken, and miserable.

So we have a therapy group.  And I mean "we" literally, because each chapter is framed in the first person plural, then zooms into the third person singular to follow a character.  This was a weakness, only because the group goes from "we" to "they" and back to "we" in each chapter, which is just weak.  I know first person plural is tough to pull off, but if you're going to do it, commit to it.

That's my only complaint.  It's complicated, rich, creepy as all get out.  It's about survivor guilt, but also about how much responsibility we should actually accept for what we suspect or know about, about how small, casual choices can have big repercussions, and how no bystander is completely innocent.

And now I ran out to the library and have more Daryl Gregory on my stack.  Because Jenny was right and I should really be reading him.

(Thank you to NetGalley for my review copy of this book.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The End of the Bees

It's always sad when I put down a book I was really excited to read.  Laline Paull's The Bees got a lot of buzz (oh, that wasn't going to be a pun, but look, there it is!) earlier this year because of some NPR coverage.  It promised to be odd and charming and informative.


Well, I definitely found it odd, and it's pretty informative.  Unfortunately, I'm not charmed enough to finish it--which I'm pretty sure puts me in the minority.  I'm finding it a slog, actually, and I'm putting it down about 1/3 of the way through.

This is the story of Flora 717, and it begins with her birth, when she hatches from her honeycomb cell to begin her life as a sanitation worker in the hive, for the love and benefit of the goddess/queen/Holy Mother.  She is plucked from obscurity by a Sage sister (categories of bees are identified by their "kin," with plant names, and individuals with numbers) and taken to the nursery--an experiment, to see if a sanitary worker can be taught to feed the larvae.

Through the following days, Flora moves from area to area, changing jobs and learning new things in a world where life is strictly regimented, where nonconformity is policed and treated with the Kindness (execution), and hierarchy is clear, firm and biological.

Except it isn't.  And I think this is my problem: in order to anthropomorphize something as alien as bee society, you need to layer on all these features of independent mind and free will that are--for a human audience--human traits.  So, from this human point of view, bee society is horribly repressive and messed up.

Except, it's not, because they're not human--they're bees.  Being a human in bee society, even outside the obvious issues of size and wings and trivia like that, would stink.  Life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

What I think she was trying to do is what a science fiction author would do with an alien culture, which is to use it as a lens for us to look at humanity, so we can step outside of the familiar and see things from a new angle.  Which is great, but the reason that works is because the SF author gets to make things up.  This book is more like an extended analogy, and because nature limits what you have to work with, it doesn't seem to work very well for me.  But then, I've been pretty frustrated with Oppressive Societies Are Oppressive fiction lately.

On the subject of bees, though, let me give you a positive recommendation: Clan Apis, by Jay Hosler.  This is comic book with essentially the same objective as The Bees--to dramatize the life cycle of the bee and to teach us something about humanity at the same time--and I believe it was much more successful. 

First of all, it's funny--it a broad, kid-directed way, but funny.  It's quite direct about its educational sections--at various points, a young bee gets lectured about the life cycle by older characters.  It's a comic for kids (in spite of a little bee sex and plenty of death), but I found it absolutely charming and heartwarming, and I cried a couple of times when I was reading it.  I recommend this one highly.

One thing I will say about The Bees--it's left me seriously wanting to reread Watership Down to figure out how Richard Adams made that whole "real facts of nature and anthropomorphic drama convincingly wrapped together" thing work.  That book was amazing.  I think it has to do with the characters, but I haven't quite figured it out yet.  I'll let you know if I do. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Verity Revisited


This month, book club read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.  I read and loved this quite a while ago, and I was excited to get a chance to talk about it.  My fellow clubbers were not as excited about it as I was, though they mostly liked it.  It definitely ended up on that list of books that weren't bad, but didn't give us a lot of conversational fodder.

Which also means this reader's guide will be pretty short.  They're some of the things that I was thinking about on this read-through, along with points that were made at book club.  It's funny how I am never surprised or thrown off when someone else doesn't have the same feelings or opinion about a book as I do, but I am surprised when they have different perceptions or expectations. 


1) This book has been much reviewed and discussed in the blogosphere, and it's generally known to have a "twist" in the middle.  Did you see the twist coming?  Do you even think it was a twist, or was it more of a reveal?  What's the difference?

2) What expectations did you have going into the book? The cover blurb tells you that two women crash in occupied France--this small amount of information removes some tension that would exist if you were reading blind (which I did the first time; I had an ebook with no cover blurb).  Between cover information and other background knowledge, how was your perception of the book affected by what you knew before going in?

3) Related, what do you think of this cover?  This was the cover when I first read it, though I don't think it's current now.  The cover led some of my fellow clubbers to expect the story to take a romantic turn, possibly even a sexual one. 

4) Springing from that, what do you think about Julie and Maddie's friendship?  "It's like falling in love, finding your best friend."  Julie says they would never have been friends if not for the war; even if they had, do you think this type and intensity of friendship is ever replicated outside of wartime? 

5) Do you think Maddie and Jamie end up together?  (There's info on that in Wein's companion book, Rose Under Fire, so I know the answer, but it was a discussion at book club.)

6) This is one I've thought about a lot, and it applies to a lot of books.  When you have a book where the narrator's reason for telling the story is part of the narrative--basically a story that is being written by one of the characters, as opposed to just "told"--there's a certain stylistic bar that needs to be cleared.  This is true in epistolary novels, books that are structured as diaries, and book like this, where the narrator sitting down and writing the account is part of the account.  The fact of voice is a huge deal in a book like that, because real letters and diary entries don't sound like novels, and very few people actually writing their life story are going to sound like they're writing a novel.

The way I see it, there are two problems faced by a writer working like this.  First, providing information to the reader of the novel in a way that is narratively pleasing while remaining authentic to the in-story writer's intent.  Like, when I sit down to write in my diary about the day Something Big happened, I probably don't start with all the details of how it was an ordinary day and I ate breakfast, etc.  Honestly, in my diary I start with the BIG point and then maybe backtrack to details, but there's no tension in a diary entry, because I'm writing for someone (me) who already knows the end of the story.  Similarly, if I write a friend to tell them Something Big happened, I make an announcement.  I'm not likely to draw it out with a detailed account that leads up to it.  Maybe some people do, but I don't.  So it's on the author to come with a voice that seems to be someone who would authentically write like that.

The second problem is related--backstory.  Someone writing in their diary is not going to describe the fight they had with X today while giving details of the history of their friendship with X, and info about X's parents and history and all the info that the reader needs.  Some of that info might come up peripherally (I mean, I know her mom is critical, but that doesn't mean blah blah blah), but you're not going to find a way to get an incident from years ago that informs this one into the document.

Verity solves that by making Julie a) a very literary writer, who b) is purposefully rambling.  There are in-story explanations for why she wants to give so much detail and history and go over every bit--self-comfort, stretching the time out, and other, below-the-surface reasons.  Maddie, on the other hand, is a blunter, more practical person, and while her writing because she has literally nothing else to do makes some sense, I think the image slips more here.  Wein does a good job using a different voice, but she does get into narrative parts and it starts to sound like a novel, and not like what Maddie would write. 

And heaven help us, one of my pet peeve lines in literature is "I have to write this down or I'll go crazy" or forget, or it won't seem real.  If you have to tell me that, it's because you know I'm not quite buying it.

So to summarize the question: how does the semi-epistolary nature of the novel work for you?

It's really my one critique--I don't mean to sound like I hold it against the book.  I love the book, and I love how Maddie's cold hard facts reveal so much about the truths behind Julie's narrative.  Really, though, I just love Maddie and Julie, and that they have each other and love each other.  I've read a million World War II books, and I think this one might have touched me the most.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Wackademic

There is something about rarefied atmospheres that appeal to me.  It's what I love about books set in convents and boarding schools, and occasionally I find myself drawn to a book set in the Ivory Tower.  I enjoyed Allegra Goodman's Intuition (though I agree with Kris's criticism that the science is not good science); I was very bothered by Francine Prose's Blue Angel.

When I read a blurb for Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher, two things caught my eye: epistolary novel, and "droll and inventive."  A comic novel is hit or miss, and a comic novel that sounds like it might have an axe to grind--a beleaguered academic writing reluctant letters of reference promises to be thinly veiled whining from someone in a similar position--sounds just awful.  But...but.  I don't know what the "but" is--"but" I requested it from NetGalley anyway,

I needn't have worried--it is NOT about whining.  I mean, the character whines a lot, but he's genuinely hilarious.  I did get annoyed with him when he went off-topic--I completely understood why so many people couldn't stand him--but I also found it kind of charming when he wrote way-too-honest letters:

"This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of campus.  I've known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.  This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that's what you're looking for.  A transfer student, she appears to be suffering under the delusion that a recommendation from any random faculty member within our august institution will be the key to her application's success."

This would get old, but it's just the framework and the vehicle for telling the story--the story of his life, and the story of this school year.  He writes to his department head and the dean, complaining about cuts to the English and Creative Writing departments.  He writes to his exes and old classmates, who work at other institutions, in other parts of his university, or in business.  He recommends students and tries to find a position for his protege. He soothes exes, complains about the state of academia, and worries about old friends.

And over the course of this, we get a clearer picture of him--his early literary success, his conflicts with his exes, his reputation as a crank in the department.  It's not just a character sketch, though--you can watch the relationships work out in this one sided correspondence.

I also learned more words in this book than I ever have.  My Kindle is earning its props for instant definitions; I've highlighted mephitic, senescence, strabismic, ding an sich, and yclempt, and that's just in the last quarter of the book when I started highlighting.

If this review does not adequately convey that I found the book amusing, whimsical, and touching, then it's because I'm still kind of jet lagged.  Sometimes it's the books you really like that you have a hard time explaining.

(Received a free copy from NetGalley for an honest review.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Of Rings and Crowns

I was wooed into reading this book by several skilfully deployed marketing factors.

The Ring and the Crown, by Melissa de la Cruz

1) Gorgeous cover.  Seriously, GORGEOUS.  Look at this cover.  I am drawn in by packaging, but usually for its hints, not for its sheer beauty.  Here, it's just lovely.  And the endpapers are marbled!  I had no idea I was such a sucker for things like marbled endpapers!

2) Ungettable galley.  It was on Netgalley, I requested it because the premise sounded great (an alternate early 20th century England, where magic is real and has allowed the British Empire to essentially conquer the Western world).  I was turned down for the galley--not too surprising, I'm a small-time blogger.  But it put the book on my radar much earlier than it otherwise would have been.

3) Tight blurb.  Besides the basic premise, the blurb teases some straightforward story possibilities: four women of different characters and fortunes come together during a fateful London season and determine the fate of the Empire.  Also: two girls, one who will be queen, the other her loyal servant.  And one is a traitor!  Which one is what?  Who now?  Between the back cover, the preface, the inside flap, some copywriter had convinced me that this was just my kind of book.

It is....not.

The titular Ring is the marriage ring, because this is the story of the London season and everyone trying to find love and/or someone to marry.  The Crown is just the crown you think it is--a princess and several princes are among the MUCH TOO LARGE cast of characters looking to mate.  These people are all 16, and they act like it.  They want love and money and whatever, and the princess wants to not be a princess but this other girl wants to be a princess, and arranged marriages and poor but beautiful girl looks for a sugar daddy and a prince has to break one engagement for another and and and. 

Not enough politics.  Some characters come on screen, have their little parts, and then wander off.  There's a diabolical plot at the end, and I think this one whole character only existed in the story so her cousin could look suspicious for about five minutes. It feels like the last 10 pages of the book contain the last 25% of the action as the characters summarize what happened since the second to last chapter.  And then everyone has a change of heart spontaneously and everything is okay the end.

People in this England, 1901 say things like "okay" a lot, and a lot of other modern slang that no one seems to have noticed in the editorial process (I am NOT going back to look for quotes, sorry).  Also, empires are GREAT, and thank god they are preserved, because otherwise ANARCHY.  The guy who's ruled with an iron fist for 1,000 years is totes the best guy for the job and has everyone's best interests at heart, even when he's blatantly manipulated and POISONING THEM.

But there are gay people just fitting in with society, so that's cool, I guess?  Honest to god, that alone is probably all that got the book the second star.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My Crush on Kristen Bell

Due to the fact that my phone can only hold one audiobook at a time (because of it being a classic/antiquated/having buttons), I had to put aside The Thousand Dollar Tan Line for a while after I started it, at least until I had finished The Two Towers.

Once we were back in business, though, I just listened to it pretty much straight through, lending only one ear to things like my child and traffic, and even then, only on occasion.  Short, punchy chapters, packed with action, twists, and sketchy characters--as well as old favorites.

Many familiar characters make an appearance, though a lot of them only get a cameo.  I think Weevil's drama is being saved for the next movie or something, and Logan is relegated to a couple of awkward video chats.  (I like this--that relationship is huge and messy and I feel like it would be too much to ask of the book to flesh it out, unless the personal stuff was going to be the focus.)  Dick shows up at some pivotal moments, and there are some really nice moments with Veronica and Keith and Veronica and Wallace.  Mac is present throughout, and Cliff (her dad's lawyer friend) gets a nice cameo.  Sheriff Lamb, Jr. is, of course, a major antagonist.

You can tell Rob Thomas did some real writing here, because the dialogue is SO Veronica Mars perfect.  But I give a lot of credit to Jennifer Graham (whom I haven't read), because the plot of a mystery novel has to be more complicated than a movie or episode of a TV show, but less string-alongy than a seasonal story arc.  The pacing here is just right, and I was surprised at several points in the story.  One of the investigative lines did sort of peter out in a way that I wish it hadn't, though--there was a lot of potential there.

Anyway, the best part--absolutely, hands down best--was Kristen Bell's audio performance.  Listen to the sample here, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend that you listen to this book.  Her performance is amazing.  It's like Veronica is RIGHT THERE.  I know, I know.  But her Mac, he Wallace, her Keith are all just so perfect at capturing them without imitations.  Her bit part characters are wonderfully fleshed out and distinct.  There are a few voices she doesn't quite get as dead on--Logan is one--but even those are as good as anything I've heard from another voice actor.

I love Kristen Bell--LOVE--and Veronica Mars, and I hope like anything that they'll make another movie, or a revived TV series, or webisodes.  And heck, definitely more audiobooks.  In fact, look!  The next novel, Mr. Kiss and Tell, is coming out this fall!

You can bet I'll be on Audible on release day.  Strike that--I'll be checking the website periodically until it's possible for me to preorder it. 

I love you, Kristen.  Do you wanna build a snowmanOr feed my new pet sloth?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Skeletons in the Garden

Three Graves Full, by Jamie Mason, is the reason they invented the three star rating--though I'd give it 3 and a half if I could.  It is incredibly excellent except for the flaws.  I loved every page but had a hard time getting all the way through it.  Compelling except that it dragged.

What you've got here is a thriller. Jason Getty is a nervous little fellow with a body buried in his backyard, which jacks the nerves up a bit in and of itself.  It's not hard to keep the lawn guys away from it--unfortunately, they find another body buried in the front yard.

So now the house is swarming with cops, there are two bodies in the front yard, and Jason--who is not the confident, quick-thinking type--is trying to stay half a step ahead of the cops.  Into the mix we bring two smart detectives, Body #1's girlfriend, Body #1's husband (widower, I suppose), and the true story of how Jason of all people ended up putting a body in the ground behind the tool shed.  There's detecting, there's chasing, there's menacing, there's a con artist.  It's a thriller.

So, the good part: the writing is absolutely wonderful.  It's not so much about style or anything particularly artistic--it's straightforward great turns of phrase.  You've got clever metaphors, you've got spot-on imagery, you've got word games that turn cliches on their ear.  Literally, you can flip to any page and with one page turn max, you can find something that you want to read out loud to someone because the sentence is so great, the image is so clear, the observation is so spot on.  The language is SO good.

There just isn't quite enough story to carry it.  It's more than a short story, but the plot here is more of a novella than a full novel.  There are no twists, no real subplots, and very few revelations.  In a thriller, there needs to be some mystery, but there really isn't here--since we're following the criminal(s) as well as the cops and the victims, we know everyone's details, who did what and where the body is.  And while the chase scene contains all the "can they get away?" tension you could hope for, there's no longer, broader tension to draw you through the story.

The exception, I suppose, is the question of whether Jason will get caught.  I wanted to know the answer to that.  But I wasn't particularly invested in what the answer would be--Jason is not evil, but he is very, very pathetic, and so I didn't hold out much hope for him, or even root for him very much.  I had plenty of other people to root for, but none of them had any tension behind them.  There wasn't a romantic subplot, there was no will they-won't they, and all the sketchy pasts are outlined as back story early on. 

This also leaves you with a little less meat than you need to fill up 300 pages.  This filler is in the descriptions--the book is full of darlings, and not enough of them were bumped off in the making of the story.  Sometimes you see a good description taking up more sentences than whatever is being described is worth, just because the metaphor is so perfect.  You can't begrudge it, but it doesn't make a page turner.

So you have a really well told description of a bunch of interesting things that happen.  Which leaves me with three stars, and a suggestion that it might be worth reading just for the words, which are wonderful words. 

And I will say this: I'm absolutely and without question going to read whatever Jamie Mason writes next.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Open Flame

The first thing I want to say is that Kat? Is totally Faith Lehane, only without relying on Eliza Dushku's hit-or-miss acting skills.  And I LOVE Faith Lehane, and I LOVE Kat, with all her bluster and vulnerability and competence and doubt and eyeshadow and motorcross boots.  Love.


Mary, in my mind, is played by the girl from Fifteen (God, do you remember that show?  I didn't even watch it but I can picture the locker room.  Also, super young Ryan Reynolds!), Laura Harris, who later went on to star in the FABULOUS and DEPRESSINGLY cancelled Defying Gravity, which seriously, go watch it on Netflix and wonder why they didn't make another season.


Then you've got Lillia, who is in my mind somehow modeled on a slightly older version of Tricia Joe, who played Claudia is the movie version of The Babysitters Club.  Of course, Lillia does NOT have Claudia's fashion sense--she dresses more like Lucy Liu in my mind--but this face plus about four years is my Lillia.


So there you have my casting if I was making Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian's Burn for Burn into a movie 15 years ago.

God I liked this book.  I liked Kat's character a lot.  I liked Mary's sketchiness, and the sense that there's something off about her.  I liked how all the voices were so different--three totally different characters, and you could pretty much tell from a random sentence which one is narrating each section.  I liked the secrets that were hidden--what Reeve did to Mary, what Nadia's up to, what's going on in Rennie's evil little brain.

I shouldn't have liked it.  I should have been turned off  by the utter high school of it all.  But there's a SENSE that this is bigger than that, and also a sense that some high school things matter more than others.  Especially in a small place like Jar Island.  Especially when class is an issue as much as it is here.

(There is a spoilery prediction in the last paragraph of this review--I warn you now so you can skip it if you choose.) 

I would like first to echo what Raych said about this book, because yes, all this. And then say that I love it when things go all the way off the damned rails.  And then also say that there's something uncanny going on?  And then also point out that I acquired Fire with Fire before I actually finished reading Burn for Burn, so yeah, this was a blast of well-executed, character-rich, emotionally affecting, slightly trashy YA crazy, and bring on some more!

(Spoilery prediction: do you think Mary's a ghost?)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Scott Chantler, My Hero

The Three Thieves is the greatest.  Just, so much fun.  Dessa is an acrobat and ragamuffin trying to find her lost twin brother.  Her circus family--Fisk, the super-strong one-headed Ettan, and Topper, the wiley pickpocket--have her back as she tracks the clues that lead her in flight from the city to the royal chamberlain's secret hideout.  The chief of the Queen's Dragons--the elite guard--are chasing them, and it's all a ripping yarn.

I've been reading these since they came out, and I wish I could remember who to thank for the recommendation; someone on the internet, I know.  The newest volume came out recently, and the next one is due in the fall, and they are both absolutely great.  Book four is The King's Dragon, and it follows the thieves' head pursuer as he starts to catch up with them, faces interference from his own guards, and flashes back to how he became the head of a questionable law enforcement body.

This is probably less of a kids' book than the other volumes, not because it's scarier or more dangerous, but because it's about looking back on your life and wondering how you went from where you were to where you are.  It's about doubting whether who you are is who you ought to be, but forging ahead anyway, because you're committed to the path.

Drake's character reminds me of no one so much as Javert from Les Mis√©rables, who hunts Jean Valjean long after it is (or should be) clear to him that he is facing a difference between the letter of the law and the notion of justice.  While I am a huge fan of plucky, swashbuckling kid heroes, I found this volume really affecting.  I'm left with a strong faith that Chantler's going to redeem Drake before the end of the series, which I'm really, really looking forward to.

Book five is Pirates of the Silver Coast, and here we get right back to swashbuckling, and I'm even happier.  There's more Drake in this one than in others--we are now interested in his story and happy to be following him. Most of the story belongs to Dessa again, though, and there is some serious sailing going on.  When the trio hires a ship to take them to a mysterious island that no one has ever been able to find, they find themselves learning the difference between smugglers and pirates--in the most hands-on manner possible.

There are surprises, there is loyal friendship, there is day-saving and swashbuckling and acrobatic tumbling galore.  There is a Pirate King who is more than he seems, and there is a BIG REVEAL at the end of this one that makes me absolutely ITCH for the next one, because we are getting into it now, folks.

I have two quibbles with these books.  The first is pretty trivial; I really wish there was some kind of "previously in The Three Thieves" at the beginning of each one.  I read these close together, so it was fine, but it had been months since book three, and longer since they set out on their quest, so I had completely forgotten that the object of this journey is finding Dessa's long-missing twin brother, and I still can't remember the story about why he was lost to begin with.  I think, because of these lost details, I might be missing some hints to what's going on, especially in Drake's story, since he's closer to the inside of the nefarious plotting.

Second--and this was MUCH more an issue in Silver Coast than King's Dragon--I do sometimes wish there were more still moments here.  The adventures are great, but they move FAST.  I love these characters, love how they act and react and interact.  I'd like more time with them, and I'd like to spend a little more time watching them consider each other.  Believe it or not, I want more emoting here, especially in a book like Silver Coast, where so much happens that it's hard to fit it all on the page.

But if my biggest complaint is "more, please!" I think you can safely say that I love this series.  Love love love.  Can't wait till Adam's old enough that I can share it with him.

(I received ARCs of both these books from Netgalley. SO exciting!)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Liars' Club

Reviews have been quite mixed about E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, and weirdly, I agree with all of them.  I agree that it's kind of hard to sympathize with the poor little rich girl narrator, and also that the story is poignant and heartbreaking.  I agree that the writing is gorgeous, and that the narrator's unreliability is done with a deft touch.  I agree that the "twist" is made too much The Thing about the book..

Actually, no.  I'm going to break entirely with the word on this book and say that there is no twist.  There's a reveal--a couple of reveals, actually, but the one that everyone's been calling the twist is, I would argue, quite clear from the narrative.  I definitely figured it out right away, and my feeling is that Lockhart intended me to, or at least wasn't hiding it.  (And I apologize to anyone who didn't see it coming.)

Because I'm not sure that I have coherent things to say about this, some points.

  • I read this book while on vacation at an arrive-by-boat getaway spot with an old friend, whose family has been coming to this retreat for years (and sometimes sniping at each other while there).  This element was kind of surreal, and I honestly couldn't tell you if my experience/understanding/visualizations about Big Generational Family Retreats colored how I saw Cady's life on the island.

  • Why were they the Liars?  There is NO indication why they were called that--she says that they always had that nickname, and it's crystal clear that the Sinclairs are all liars, that this is their family legacy.  But how did this group of teenagers get the name?  There is no hint, and that felt like a big hole to me, especially in a story where the persistence of images, of roles in a family, and of memory in shaping the present are all strong themes.

  • Johnny and Mirrin kind of get short shrift compared to Gat.  I sometimes felt like they were there to flesh out the quantity, the magnitude of the group, and to explain Gat's presence, and to keep this from being Just About Love.  But Gat is the most powerful presence in the group, by far.

And this next one is super-spoilery, but I think it's the thing most worth talking about here, and it's the reason it's a tough book to blog about.

  • I think the most interesting thing about the Tragedy is that it was entirely preventable.  So often, when overwhelming guilt is the narrator's problem, we have this long build up of why they feel guilty, and it ends up being that they didn't stop someone else from doing something, or that they contributed in a tiny way to something.  Essentially, it's the kind of guilt that a third party doesn't feel was justified, and we as the audience forgive our hero right away. 

    But this ISN'T.  Cady came up with an awful idea, got too drunk to do it properly, and then screwed it up in a horrifying way.  And while there's a little guilt to go around, it's mostly her fault.  I think the question of how someone lives with the fact that they are at fault in something terrible is so rarely addressed in fiction--probably because there's no good answer.  It's just a big ugliness that's nearly impossible to face.  It fits in with our moral ambiguity theme of earlier this year: how do you deal with these impossible questions?  

So, We Were Liars.  In the end, we're left with ugliness cleaning up after ugliness, and maybe finding some humanity underneath?  I think in the end, I could go back and forth about whether I liked the characters, or thought their growth was worth my time, or whether the reveals made sense or were kind of sloppy.  But I don't actually care about any of that, because this book was just beautiful--gorgeously written and full of so much love.  I don't mind that it's not perfect, because it's worth reading, just as it is.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Huh?

Can someone explain Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation to me?  I mean, I kind of get where it's going, but I don't understand why I'd want to go there.  And people love it so much!

The sci-fi premise is that, suddenly and inexplicably, a big chunk of the southeastern US got turned into primordial jungle.  It's full of strange, exotic, and giant plants and animals, and has weird psychological effects on people who go in.  Expeditions have been sent; the people come out strange, or not at all.  Our narrator is the biologist on the twelfth expedition.

I love this premise, but I expected something quite different.  I expected more of a mystery, I guess, an exploration.  I expected layers of revelation, about the environment, about the secrets, about the characters, maybe?  It's a strange, intriguing premise.

I made it halfway through.  As far as I can tell, the story doesn't really go anywhere exploratory.  There are a couple of key questions I'd like answered, but I think the dreaminess of things lost me.  It's like, things didn't shock me, because nothing made any sense--the strange and inexplicable is not unraveled.  There's no revealing anything, since we start out with "this place runs people mad, and everything there is impossible," and when we get there everyone starts to run mad and there are lots of impossible things.  This deprived me of wonder, and without wonder, there wasn't much there.

The problem with a big "how did this happen?" question is that you eventually have to either answer it or admit that you're not going to.  I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure this book was committed to not answering the questions; the Southern Reach (I think it's called) just is, and we'll get to explore it, but not explain it--not in this book, at least.

Not that this leaves the book with nothing--enjoyable stories are often built on something besides discovering the source of the weirdness.  But this also isn't terribly character-driven, not exactly.  The narrator (she is the biologist; the characters are all unnamed and referred to by their jobs--the surveyor, the psychologist) is a sharp, unlikeable person, and the fact that she's likely going a little bit crazy doesn't help much.  The others are no-nonsense, and the fact that you have four competent, businesslike women on an exploratory mission should be pretty interesting, except that they all get suspicious of each other right away, without actually getting access to any real perceptions about anyone.  Even our narrator is mostly scheming and fretting.  It's like watching the movie Aliens from the point of view of that guy who shouts, "That's it, man! Game over, man!"

If someone who read this would like to tell me more about it--about what, besides the admittedly lush, detailed, interesting descriptions makes this book great, or about how the ending (or the next book) make it all worthwhile--I would be really interested.  Is it the character study of the chilly, obsessed narrator?  I could see that, though it didn't catch me.  Is it about uncovering the mystery of the territory, and is there more to that than, "yeah, this is crazy, isn't it?"  Is there some level on which it's about mankind's search for understanding in an ultimately unknowable universe?  I'm taking theories--hey, even if you haven't read it, I'd love to hear yours.