Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I'm so far behind in blogging about the amazing, awesome stuff I've been reading lately.  I'm just going to have to gush incoherently and in random order about a bunch of incredible books that I've finished in the past few weeks, because I can't bear not to talk about them.  But I'm hoping to catch up with the stuff I'm in the middle of soon.

Okay,  I'm big on fantasy and scifi, but I often find the blurbs surprisingly irritating.  The books with the most worldbuilding often tease you with it in ways that just sound stupid--"a time traveling robot, a socialist guinea pig, and a sassy French horn team up to fight crime!"  I'm supposed to be excited wondering how the author makes it work, but mostly I end up being doubtful.

So the problem comes when I'm trying to talk someone into reading a book with a plot that is so--complicated isn't the word, because it's very easy to understand.  But complex, with lots of moving parts, many of which make good poster blurbs for exciting movies.

You've got a teenage love story set against the backdrop of an interstellar corporate war.  Okay, that's a thing, sure.  And the girl's a gifted hacker and the guy turns out to be an amazing pilot and they've just broken up, but fate throws them together(ish).  And their planet is attacked, and they are evacuated, and the fleet is on the run from the attackers.  This is a reasonable scope for a story, and it's a really good story.

But then you have to add in the rogue (possibly insane) AI.  And the plague--don't forget the plague.  Which is kind of a zombie plague?  Not really zombies, but your standard psychotic rage plague.  We've all seen these movies, read these books.

But this one is SOOOOO much better!  Illuminae, by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, is insanely good.  It's incredibly ambitious--it's formatted as a story of found documents, chat transcripts, official records, etc.  This is always a risky proposition, because it's SO easy to fall out of voice, but this is just so well done.  There are a few places where I'd like to debate about the format--the AI logs, especially, seem very linear relative to what they're trying to do with the computer, but I'm not sure how else you would do it.  And the transcripts of the video logs are charmingly narrated--the "tech" who transcribed them was clearly an author who hadn't had a chance to be sassy in a while.

But I think the BEST thing about this was Kady.  She is tough as nails, and damn if I don't mean that.  She's not a softy underneath; she's shoe-leather to the spine, but that doesn't mean that she's dead inside or anything.  She's just hard and fast and passionate and on fire.  And brilliant.  And also 17 and stubborn, and powerfully resistant to authority. 

Honestly, when you're running a refugee camp and a fleet of spaceships on the run, authority isn't all bad.  A maverick can be dangerous.  But so can the powerful making narrow minded decisions.  And, you know, the plague.  Did I mention the plague?  Or the rogue AI? Anyway, Kady knows they're keeping secrets, and she's determined to dig them up.  With all the antagonists pulling the refugees in different directions, one random 17 year old might be the one to hold things together.

Kaufman and Kristoff coauthored the book, and the bio says that they're a combined 12 feet 5 inches tall.  I find that one of the most fascinating things to ponder.  Are they both over six feet?  Is one of them almost seven?

You absolutely should read this book.  And NOT on the Kindle--you need to have a physical copy.  There is some very complicated typography that is not going to translate well to different screen sizes.  Okay, yes, go now and read this.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Vacation Holding Pattern

Not the going somewhere type of vacation, but the days off work type.  Getting ready for it sucks up energy; being on it give me time (I hope!) to write the posts about all the really good reads I've had in the past couple of weeks. 

So, happy holiday prep and I'll be back this weekend!

(Photo via)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


So I'm putting down this book that I was pretty interested in reading: The Cage, by Audrey Schulman.  I even got the library to order it for me, but I'm not even 20% done and I think I have to put it down.  And that's feeling kind of fraught to me.

The Cage is about Beryl, a nature photographer who has mostly only taken photos near where she lives in New England, but who wins an opportunity to go on an Arctic expedition where she'll sit in a protective cage and take photos of polar bears from close up.  This is a huge deal; most photos of animals like bears are taken with telephoto lenses. So this is an enormous opportunity for Beryl, who got the job because she was pretty much the only applicant small enough to fit in the cage that they had already built.

This is a metaphor for how Beryl is a tiny, quiet woman who is full of fear in a world of big, loud men who barrel through life.  The world is full of threats--people who interrupt you at parties, men who walk behind you down a quiet path in the park and might have been meaning to assault you, other photographers who are loud and full of themselves.  Literally every man in this book is actively obnoxious.  Beryl's father is the least awful one, because he's mostly just overprotective and kind of distant, in a traditional dad of 30 years ago way.

There aren't many women in the book at all, except Beryl's mom, whose life is one long experience of anxiety, mostly about how you might get assaulted. 

Okay, so there is no sense here that anyone is just a flawed human being making their way through the world.  People range from thoughtlessly brutish to selfishly brutish.  But see, this is very much Beryl's point of view.  I mean, it has to be--it's so extreme that I can't believe it's the author blithely telling me that this is how she views the world. 

But even if it's Beryl's view of the world, I don't feel very sympathetic to her.  I feel put off.  When she meets the reporter, Butler, who will be writing the copy to go with her photos, before she even knows him, he's awful. Literally, the first moment: "He'd introduced himself only by his last name.  Beryl guessed that his frist  name must be something effeminate, like Ceciil or Francis.  He wore the practical outdoor clothes of someone who wished for a short and common name with hard consonants, like Nick or Ted."  She's judging a guy who wears rugged, outdoorsy clothes on an Arctic expedition as compensating for something?  Besides the cold? 

So yeah, I don't have a lot of respect for Beryl, and I don't think I can read a whole book on her point of view.  But this feels fraught, because I feel like I'm giving up on something that's trying to show me a certain lens of the world.  I mean, this is about how a small, shy, introverted woman gets kicked around for not being one of the guys.  That's a story worth telling, right?  And honestly, when I put it that way, yeah, that's a story that needs to be told--it's okay to be small and shy; the system will try to tell you that you don't matter, but you do. 

Except.  Except I don't admire Beryl, or like her, or sympathize with her.  I've developed a taste for unlikable characters who are more active, or who are just doing their own thing.  But Beryl isn't doing her own thing--or rather, when she is (photography), she's actually interesting and tolerable.  But as soon as she enters the world of people, she becomes completely inert, and seems to exist only as a lens through which to despise things.

I don't know.  I feel like there might be some important feminist point to the stuff I don't like about this story.  But I can't stomach it long enough to find out.  Which is a shame, because I was really curious to see what happened when she actually go into the cage.  Just not curious enough, I guess.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


I want to write this post in all caps.  I want to come through the computer and grab you, gentle reader, wherever you are, by the lapels and shake you and tell you that you do not have a choice, you have to and absolutely must read this book!  I mean series! All of it!  Ancillary Mercy for the win!

Okay, I know that I can't write the review that I want to write; this is one of those moments where I want to write a long and detailed review with elaborations on how the book worked on a technical level, and how I felt about the characters and plot, and the things it made me think about regarding society and humanity.  And I would not be able to do all those things--at least not coherently in the time I have available--so I would never get it written if I tried to write the whole thing.

So what you're going to get is the rough outlines of how wonderful this book is.  And then you will read it yourself (YOU WILL READ IT, YOU MUST) and then you will know how wonderful it is, forever and ever amen.

The first book in Ann Leckie's series is Ancillary Justice, which I read months ago for book club.  It was good--a bit on the hard-scifi side for me, and kind of hard to follow sometimes.  There's a lot going on, including two separate timelines ("present" and a 20-years-ago past), plus flashbacks to other periods and political background.  That, plus the gender thing (everyone is "she" in Radch language; they don't distinguish gender) can be a bit confusing.

Ancillary Sword was the second book; I didn't write a review, because I basically downed it and Ancillary Mercy in one big gulp. It's a lot more straightforward than the first book--the politics are all set up for you, everything happens in the present, and the gender thing is really not at all confusing when Breq isn't running into non-Radch people as often.

(I'm sure there's a whole post on gender in these books, but it's taking me forever to write this as it is. In the first book, I kept trying to guess people's sex because in our culture, that has a powerful effect on the nature of interpersonal interactions.  And since Breq was interacting with gendered societies in that book, that guessing served a purpose.  But once we got to hang out in the Radch, where gender just plain isn't a factor, it just went away.  Like, no confusion, no nothing.  There's one character whom, based on the description, I was picturing as Idris Elba and my friend who had just finished it was picturing as Queen Latifah.  But it doesn't matter, really, because gender has no meaning in their interactions.  It's AMAZING.)

Anyway, in Sword, Breq has a ship and a mission.  The first third or so of the book is her establishing herself with her new ship and crew, and us getting a real picture of how a crew functions.  The rest is her arriving in the region she's supposed to protect and dealing with local politics, kicking ass and taking names.

Mercy flows right out of Sword, impeccably.  I NEVER read a series of books in a row, because I hate the transition where we retreat from all the tension I'm invested in to the beginning of another book, where the tension is down and we're building a new set of tension.  I find that very off-putting.  No problem here--the worldbuilding carries you right through that, and she throws you a few little nuggets of "remember what's going on here" and then just keeps things rolling out.  It worked really well as a seamless read.

Sword is also very much a book about local politics, while Mercy comes back to the galactic stage, bringing the Anaander Mianaai problem to the front again.  And over the course of this, it examines SO MANY really huge issues through enormously satisfying fiction.

I feel like I'm going to jinx it, make it seem less awesome if I say this, but I will: Breq is a literal social justice warrior.  She has an objectivism that lets her say "there is no reason at all for anyone to be oppressed besides the greed of the oppressor," and she has no tolerance for that.  She dismantles these structures left and right.  You get sympathetic characters on both side, and people who believe what they believe, often without consideration.  Even the bad guys, almost all of them, are acting in good conscience, according to their understanding of the world.  The people who act worst are those who have thought least about how others might come to feel the way they do.

You've got colonialism, social status, capitalism, oppressed ethnic groups.  This is a detailed examination of every kind of privilege and what it looks like to fail at checking it.  Even when you're trying--there are characters who are actively trying to be more openminded, even being a bit smug about it, who fall down at that.  There are so many lovely illustrations of what it means to be truly considerate of other people.

There are so many ideas that I want to just think about and talk about here, so many nuggets that would make a whole book themselves but are just throwaway observations here.

It is possible for someone to have traits you respect and admire, but to believe in things that put those traits to the service of something abhorrent to you--and for them to do that in good faith.  Conversely, it is possible for someone horrible and unkind to have beliefs that are good and respectful, and to act on them in one circumstance, even when they would act cruelly in another.

The bad guy never thinks she's the bad guy.  She believes in her cause, and that what she is doing is right, in that it's more important than whatever is opposed to her.

Never confuse a system for the thing the system is meant to do.  (I find this one fascinating, and I feel like it's something I think about a lot when I watch superhero shows--vigilantism vs. faith in the justice system is a big question there.  But it's true; if you confuse, say, having a Department of Veteran's Affairs with taking care of veterans, you can too easily wind up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  The bureaucracy isn't the enemy, but it's supposed to be a tool; if it gets in the way of the task, it's not doing its job.)

What makes a person a person?  The whole question of the humanity of an AI is almost jumped over here, since our main character is an AI and is obviously a person.  But there's the bigger question of what makes a person herself?  Characters are "reeducated" and ancillaries are made over to be part of a different consciousness--what does it mean to be yourself?  Who are you if you are remade with other memories? Who are you if you are taken entirely out of your context?

See, the thing is that this is, for all of its huge social injustices, kind of a happy-feeling story.  It's about a character who is insanely competent in every way--Breq experiences growth, especially personally, but her ability to handle people and situations (interpersonal, political, physical) is already thousands of years perfected at the beginning of the story.  She handles everything perfectly.  A story built around a character like that can so easily be trite, because it's just about Captain Wonderful being Wonderful.

But when you're looking at the kind of huge, empire-spanning political situations involving oppression and justice, there's no simple answer, so Breq being able to do everything right doesn't  mean anything is easy.  I think the ancillary question is the best example of this.

Ancillaries are made out of people, who should have autonomy--there's no way that ancillaries are just, by any definition.  But ships are built so that parts of their bodies are made of ancillaries, and they're not really complete unless they have them.  How is it even possible to reconcile those two situations?

Not everything has an easy answer.  But that's okay, because in this book, everyone is truly, truly, doing the best they can, toward whatever their goal is.

Okay, you go read this book now.  I'll close with this: if someone told me that I had to get a tattoo, no choice, I honestly think that "What Would Breq Do?" is the closest I've ever come to something I might voluntarily want on my body permanently.

Read it.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Haunts and Jumbies

I have two kinds of experiences reading middle grade novels: either I'm reading them to my son, who's seven, or I'm reading them for my own pleasure.  Tracey Baptiste's The Jumbies is a book that I read recently for my own pleasure, but that I really hope to either read to my son eventually, or at least give him to read for himself.

He's not ready for it yet, though.  As Mrs N at Between These Pages points out, this is a good book for a target reading level of third or fourth grade or higher.  While I do think the vocabulary (especially the introduction of new words, which I know still confuse my first-grader), I think part of that is that this is, believe it or not, a perfectly targeted children's horror story.

Because it is a horror story.  The appealing woman who is slowly transformed into something grotesque reminded me of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. The forest full of jumbies--a collection of supernatural creatures of all shapes and sizes and sorts--is eerie, and the specific creatures are quite terrifying.  I don't think Adam would have been able to sleep after I read him this.

There was so much I liked about this story, especially the first half.  I love Corinne's confidence and independence, and her loving, trusting relationship with her father.  I love the friendships that are modeled here--with Dru and Bouki and Malik, how they all have flaws and they really annoy each other sometimes, but that doesn't mean they don't stick together.  I love how Dru's big family takes care of her, and Bouki and Malik stick together with no one else, and how many different ways there are to be a family here.

Really, I just love the setup of the island--the market, the forest, the fishing boats; the legends, the villages, the witch.  The first half of the book, where you meet everyone and everything, was by far my favorite.

The second half was good, too, but it didn't appeal to me quite as much.  The second half was where the action happens--the figuring out and the battles and the stakes.  I think all of this would have worked great for a kid of the appropriate age, but I am not that. The big build up, the grand showdown, the pacing--all of these were fine, but they were pretty expected, and they didn't blow my mind. 

What I loved, though, and what I'll carry away, is how Corinne was strong and brave when she needed to be, and how she knew what was right, even when she didn't know what she needed to do.  She was going to save her father no matter what, and that determination was beautifully drawn.  The path that takes her on--this is the magic thing, and here is where the power comes from, etc.--is something I think I'm too old for; I've read this before, and it's fine.  But Corinne carried me through all of that on her sheer strength of will.

Great book--a must for the creepy-loving ten-year-old in your life!

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I've been so bad about reading sequels in the past few years; there's so much new stuff dragging my attention away.  And I can never read a sequel just after its predecessor, when my interest is high, because I always get all bummed that it's a whole book of its own, not just more of what I loved in the last one.

BUT!  But I finally picked up Ancillary Sword, sequel to the excellent Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and I cannot put it down.  Like, not for a few minutes, it's so good.

Summarizing it isn't really important: Breq has been sent to manage a system that I guess is important, while Anaander Mianaai fights a war against herself.  This is about Breq as captain of a ship, ranking officer in a system, managing the politics of a station and the loyalty of her crew, including some characters we know and some new ones. 

I think what I love about Breq is that she don't give a damn.  She wants things and cares about them--with the cool passion of someone who is very rational but also very empathetic.  Breq is my hero, I want to be her.  And she's so good at things; she gets politics, she has poise, she takes no crap and while her emotions can be riled, she doesn't lose her cool.  The first book was about Breq learning her humanity; this one is about her applying it.

The story is a bit complex, and honestly, I can't tell at every moment what the wider goal is, where the big political stuff stands.  I don't care.  I will follow this book to the end, follow Breq into battle because I know that even if I don't make it, I will have died for the right cause, in the best chance we had at the moment. 

Damn, I'm sorry, I need to go read now.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wish List

Guys, this is going to be really bad for my self-control.

Both the BPL and the Minuteman Overdrive networks--my source for library ebooks--have added a "suggest a purchase" feature.  You search for the book you want, and if it's not in your library, you can expand the search to overdrive, and suggest they order it.

And they do!  They will!  They have!  They were wise to put in a maximum (though I haven't quite figured out the limits, I know I hit them at one point), because every book I asked for they have bought for me.  They bought them!  Because I asked!  And now anyone who wants can read The Empress Game by my sister's childhood friend Rhonda Mason, or Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan, which looks kind of trashy but delightful, or the new Mindy McGinnis book, A Madness So Discreet.  Anyone!  Because I asked for them!

Guys.  Guys.  This is a  power that should never have been put in my hands.  Someone warn the librarians, and maybe get me some smelling salts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

All In My Head

Okay, I'm going to tell you something that's either going to convince you I'm nuts or just give you a glimpse of my rich inner life.  I would like to apologize in advance for this glimpse of the crazy that is in me.

Okay, so there are these two authors, Genevieve Valentine and Catherynne M. Valente. They are not really related, but for a while there I got them confused.

Valente wrote The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and its sequels, which I wasn't able to finish, and Six Gun Snow White, which I read and enjoyed but didn't love.  She is quite popular, and her writing is beautiful, but it's like poetry--you have to dig into it to appreciate it, rummage through the language to find the point.  Not for me, not at all.  Still, famous.  Popular.  Prolific.

Valentine broke onto the scene more recently with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.  She'd published stories before, but this was her breakthrough novel.  This was an excellent book, and I immediately considered myself a Genevieve Valentine fan.

Kingfisher is a retelling of the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the Jazz Age.  It was bold and stark, and it used the structure of the fairy tale to tell a story with its own villains and hero's journeys.  It made me care about twelve separate sisters, for crying out loud. It was about power, and all the small kinds of power that a person has or doesn't have in the world, including many that you and I take for granted in our day to day lives.  It was really lovely.

Summary thus far: I love Genevieve Valentine, I don't care for Catherynne Valente, and I get them a little confused sometimes (wait, which one do I like? Oh, yeah, the other one).  Because of this, I see them as being in a little bit of a rivalry--note that this has no bearing on their books, which are in two totally different styles, and which actually share a lot of fans.  But somehow, I have set them up as opponents in my mind, and of course, I'm totally on Team Genevieve.

So here we come to the point, the reason I'm telling you this story about this odd little system that's been in my head for a while: I just learned that Catherynne Valente is publishing a new novella.  It's called Speak Easy.  Can you guess what it's about?

It's a Jazz Age retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I want to say "OF COURSE," but that's ridiculous, because only in my head is there a rivalry because their names are sort of a little bit similar.  But really, am I taking this too personally (on someone else's behalf)?  Sure, I didn't think the literary world needed another Jazz Age Twelve Dancing Princesses story, but maybe there's room for two?  Maybe this is not a "ha, I can do better" moment.

But I'm still feeling really resentful.

There you go.  Guided tour of the nonsensical interior of yours truly.  Bitter rivalries playing out entirely in my mind. 

Is your inner life this rich?

Monday, November 09, 2015

Gotta Love a Pip

As a parent reading to their first grader at night, there is a very special moment when you're enjoying a book just as much as your kid is.  I mean, there are the books that you grit your teeth through because the kid loves them (I'm looking at you, Amelia Bedelia Unleashed), and there are the ones that you love from your childhood and they kind of put up with them out of kindness (our current My Side of the Mountain experience).  And plenty of kids' books are fine and pleasant and I'm perfectly happy to read them for him.

And then there's the book that I like so much that I'm glad it's a kids book just so I have someone to share it with as I'm reading it.  The book where I'm glad to be a parent so there's a perfectly good reason for me to be reading this, and to buy the sequel the minute it comes out.  Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures, by Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce is that kind of book.

It's hard not to like a character named Pip, right?  I mean, has there ever been a non-spunky Pip?  I didn't think so.  This Pip is no different--she's in fourth grade (I think; it's been a few weeks), and she lives in a world that is pretty much just like ours, except that magical creatures exist.  There are unicorns and miniature silky griffins, just like there are cows and alligators.  It's just part of the world.

Pip can talk to these creatures and understand when they talk to her.  But however much magic there is in this world, this is not a talent anyone else has, and no one believes Pip.  So she goes through life carrying her dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Higgleston's Guide To Magical Creatures, seizing any opportunity she can to chat with them and marking up the margins of her Guide.

But sometimes her talent gets her into trouble, and after The Unicorn Incident, Pip goes to spend the summer with her aunt, who is a magical creature veterinarian.  It's an amazing opportunity to learn about all kinds of animals, and maybe make some friends. (Pip's not very good with people.)  But when her aunt's town gets an infestation of Fuzzles (which are adorable, but with a nasty habit of bursting into flames), Pip might be the only one who can solve the problem.

This book is adorable, and hilarious, and charming.  I love Bubbles, the cranky old miniature silky griffin.  I love Tomas, Pip's new friend who is allergic to (almost literally) everything--especially magical creatures.  I love her awesome aunt and her oh-so-teenaged cousin, and Regent Maximus the paranoid unicorn, and the horrible Mrs. Dreadbatch.  I love the chapter names and the sassy ducks and Tomas's houseful of non-allergic rough-and-tumble brothers.  I love the illustrated pages from the Guide, complete with Pip's insider annotations.  I love everything about this book.

I am heartbroken that I have to wait until, apparently, next FALL to read Pip Bartlett's Guide to Unicorn Training, which is book two in the series.  And the best part?  Adam's going to be SO EXCITED!  It's like the best book club ever.  When he's not interrupting to repeat his favorite lines, that is.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Girl After Girl

Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and you can pretty much immediately see why.  (I'm going to try to walk you through it with minimal spoilers, but you know, be warned.)  You've got your multiple unreliable narrators, you've got your cast of intensely dislikable people, you've got your missing person mystery that keeps unfolding into a more complicated and darker tale.  The moving parts are in place.

So you've got Rachel, who rides the commuter train to London and back every day, and at a stopping place on the track, she has a favorite couple she watches, on their deck or through their windows.  A harmless little fantasy, though perhaps she's got more invested in these strangers than it strictly normal.  It makes a little more sense when we learn that they live just a few houses away from where she used to live with her husband, and where he still lives with his new wife.  No wonder she likes to focus on someone else's house when the train stalls there.

But Rachel's life, we find out, is kind of a mess--she drinks, she has blackouts, she harasses her ex's new wife. And when Neighbor Lady goes missing, Rachel worms her way into the investigation.

Then you meet the woman she's been watching, Megan.  You find out about her "perfect" marriage and her husband and her rather run-of-the-mill but not-quite-right life.  Her secrets start to unfold, bit by bit. Her timeline runs earlier, interspersing her life over the past year with Rachel's "present day."

And there's her neighbor, Anna, who is Rachel's replacement in her old home.  She provides a counterpoint (an objective one?) to Rachel's blackouts and emotional confusion. 

So: multiple points of view.  The present and the past intertwine, and the story unfolds as we learn what secrets the narrator's been keeping from us.  Gone Girl, right?

Gone Girl was better, though. I'm not sure I can articulate why, but I can tell you a few things I've noticed here.  One, for example, is that part of the mystery hinges on missing memories.  It's not that we can't know what happened or find reality, it's that key information is hidden from us--and the character--because she can't remember.  And I don't think it's a big reveal to tell you that things start to resolve because she eventually does start to remember things.  Missing memories feel like kind of a copout to begin with, but when spontaneously getting them back (by, presumably, trying really hard to remember?) is the resolution--well, it's kind of deux ex machina, if you know what I mean.

Also, here's a big one that's bugging me: again, lots and lots of characters who are unlikable to varying degrees and with varying kinds of icky personalities.  But all three of these women are driven by the notion of motherhood--specifically, having a baby.  Rachel couldn't get pregnant; Megan doesn't want to have a baby; Anna has a child around whom her life focuses.  This book is about all the ugly, messed up ways that women obsess over babies and having them or not having them. 

It just kind of makes me want to throw my hands up in the air.  I mean, if all three of them were related to each other--if it was one pregnancy/child that the whole plot revolved around--maybe?  But it's three different women with different off-putting obsessions with babies.  And you know, I'm a mom, and I am the one at the party who is holding the baby so the parents can go do whatever they want--I lurve babies as much as the next person, and I love my son and have my own complicated relationship with parenthood.  That's not a boring topic. 

But being obsessed with the concept of babies--with the idea of getting pregnant, with the vague notion of motherhood that doesn't have to do with an actual kid--and filling your book with people whose brains (ugly, scheming, weird brains) revolve around that feels kind of reductive.  Like, not one woman in this story has some other motivation?  This isn't a book about parenting or parenthood; it's kind of about sex and suburbia and secrets, but for some reason that's all boiled down to getting pregnant. Not adopting, not parenting, not forming a specific relationship with this little person who is your family now and whom you must both command and obey.  Nope.  Getting pregnant.

It's not that this overwhelms the book.  But it's there, and it feels reductive to me.

And also?  Once they start giving the hints we needed, the right pieces of information, I immediately figured out what happened.  Withholding information till late in the game is how mysteries work, but the very best mysteries give you the information but make it hard to put together.  This one was somewhere in between.

So, not as impressive as Gillian Flynn.  But hey, I'm reading it fast and furious.  And Rachel is a very specific portrait of a person who can tell you every single thing she's doing wrong, even as she does it, again and again.  She sees the car wreck she's living in, but she can't steer away.  That is actually pretty fascinating to watch, and probably the most well-crafted part of the book.  If you ever wonder how bad decisions happen, Rachel's your go-to girl.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read the last 10%.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Space Operetta

I love a title that tells you just what you're going to get.  The best example of this was Louisa May Alcott's A Long, Fatal Love Chase, which, as Mike pointed out, kind of spoils the ending on the front cover.

But if what you're going for is truth in advertising, you can't do better than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers.  The story of the book is one of those plucky-Kickstarter-self-published-upstart-makes-good heartwarmers.  The story in the book is pretty much exactly as cuddly and lovable.  It's one of a genre that I think of as Firefly stories, where an oddball crew of deep spacers muddle along as a ragtag family of sorts, getting into scrapes and laughing along the way.  The beginning of Rachel Bach's Paradox series, Fortune's Pawn, kind of reads like that, and I think losing the ensemble cast to focus on Devi was actually a weakness in the later books. 

But wow, do I digress.

Angry Planet starts with Rosemary, who's just been hired as a clerk on a deep space drilling ship.  Their job is to punch wormholes through subspace (or something) to create pathways between distant planets. Rosemary is running from something (but who isn't in deep space?), but the ship just got a sweet new job that will, unfortunately, involve a year of travel before they can punch their hole and get home instantly.

That's pretty much the whole summary.  There's action, but it's not action-packed.  There's a lot of incident, a lot of story, but they work as anecdotes, introducing and deepening character development; the things that happen to them don't build to a crescendo.  For a while, I expected things to build--Rosemary's secret (when we learn it) to be relevant to, say, Sissix's family life or Ohan's health situation.  But they're not; most of these things are just people living their lives.  It's episodic, and the things that happen are small and very important.

It reminded me of Hellspark (which is amazing and out of print and you should read it, you can borrow my copy), in that there was a very interesting focus on how hard it can be to live every day in a culture that is different from your own, even if you're used to it, and even if the people you're surrounded by are people you love.  Culture is pervasive, and we often don't even realize how it affects us. 

Kizzy was probably the biggest knockoff character, since she was so obviously Kaylee from Firefly.  Sissix was probably my favorite, somewhere between glamorous and maternal, and also a lizard person who I picture very much as looking like Vastra from Dr. Who (who, I'm sorry, needs a spinoff).  Dr. Chef (you couldn't pronounce his name) and his cheer in the face of sorrow; Ohan, whose pronouns are plural and who doesn't really know how to interact with his crewmates; Jenks, who I kind of pictured as a little person Naveen Andrews, I don't know why.

The ship's AI was a character, and while that storyline got a decent amount of time, I feel like it could have gone deeper.  There are a lot of places where things could have gone deeper--some cultural hurdles to interspecies dating are addressed, but I can imagine some psychological and hey, anatomical ones, too.  The moral and ethical issues around how the Galactic Commons is dealing with the eponymous small, angry planet were definitely laid out, but that was another place where the deep alienness of an alien culture could have been looked at with a finer eye, and maybe some deeper conclusions drawn.

But sometimes, you just want to read a book where good people go off and have adventures--not big or scary ones, just small ones.  You want to watch someone use paperwork to save the day (ooh, like Myfanwy in The Rook!)  Have you noticed how many of my favorite books and TV shows are getting callbacks here?  This is not edge of your seat stuff; it's a heartwarming, curl-up-with-cocoa, let's watch movies together with the characters book. And I want another one.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sha Na NaNo

I just want to wish a good luck to all my NaNoWriMo participating friends!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sarah Vowell, or Author Q&A

I love Sarah Vowell, as y'all might know or remember, so I was very excited to go see her read from her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.  We got two tickets, but Mike wasn't feeling well, so I took my sister instead.  She'd never heard of Sarah Vowell, but Vowell is funny, so I was pretty sure it was worth Marsha's time.  We ran into my friend Kris there, and it was a good reading--dry, witty, etc.

Now, you may all remember the worst Q&A I've ever been to was the last Sarah Vowell reading I went to.  It was humorously bad and kind of embarrassing (though there was a Lafayette callout there that predicted this book, which is kind of cool).  Anyway, that was more than made up for on Friday with the BEST Q&A I have ever attended.

Sarah (I'm going to call her Sarah now; we're tight like that) finished her reading and then said that the problem with a Q&A is that when you have a microphone, the only people who ask questions are the ones who are willing to walk up to a microphone, but when you don't, no one can hear the questions.  So she was going to have a special guest come up and repeat the questions into the microphone. 

And lo, from out of the crowd rose Nick Offerman, to stand beside Sarah on the podium with his own mic.  Apparently they're old friends, and since he's in town rehearsing a new production of Confederacy of Dunces, he showed up to support her.

It was hilarious.  When the questioners were too quiet to hear, he repeated the questions helpfully.  When they were full on loud enough, he would interpret them amusingly.  The question about her trips to France to research the book he repeated as, "Speak to us of cheese."  The one about the Puritans was, "Speak to us of corn."  When Sarah asked if he'd ever been to France, he talked about a trip he'd taken with his wife in which they scouted the guard patrol patterns in the sculpture garden at the Louvre so that they could take a photo of him posing naked with one of the statues.  He was charming and effusive in his love of the book, and she answered questions in her self-effacing but really smart way, and it was just delightful.  Marsha totally got her money's worth.

So now I'm not only enthusiastically awaiting my copy of Lafayette, but I have to rush out and get Paddle Your Own Canoe, to figure out what Nick Offerman writes about when he writes a book.  Poor me!

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Any hope I had of doing NaNoWriMo is really fading distantly into the background as I fail to write brief blog posts about the books I read (among other things I fail to write).

God, is there anything more boring than a blogger apologizing for not blogging?  So, new plan for the short term: little posts, mostly about comics I've been reading.

Just discovered Hexed, which is amazing and I can't wait to read the new arc, The Harlot and the Thief.  In the first book, though, Lucifer (Luci Jenifer) is an art thief with supernatural talents.  Her mentor, Val, gets her jobs, but she's also got her own past, and her own troubles.  A former client is unsatisfied with her service, and if she doesn't do some nasty things for him, Val could be in great danger.

Lucifer is smart, capable, and usually a step ahead of the game--but not always.  She's extremely competent, but she not only has flaws--she makes mistakes, even careless ones.  But she's not the only super-competent one around--I want to spend so much more time in this world.  So much so that I'm going to overlook the fact that she's in her underwear on the cover.  That was completely unnecessary, guys.

Anyway, it turns out there's a novel, too, and I'm going to try not to get my hopes too high, but I'm already very excited.  I'm also planning to read Michael Alan Nelson's Cthulu comics, because I think he might be amazing.  Let's find out, shall we?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Seriously Scary

The reason I wanted to pick up Wytches by Scott Snyder was because it takes place in Litchfield, NH, which is right next door to where I grew up; our high school served Hudson and Litchfield.

The reason it took me so long to get around to it is because the coloring has kind of a pointillist, spattered style that I found a bit confusing.  I tend to strongly prefer comics with clear, legible art; I hate not being able to figure out what's happening or who's who.

Finally, I got it from the library and started up.  It starts out kind of sad with a healthy dose of creepy. A family going through some tough times moves to a small town in New Hampshire to try to get their feet under them.  The mom has been in an accident and is in a wheelchair; the daughter had a bad experience with bullying that ended in violence.  They need a fresh start.

Some creepy things start happening around town--seeing things that seem ominous; hearing things that shouldn't be there.  It's all very atmospheric and eerie. 

And then, about halfway through?  Holy crap, the horror hits the fan.  Like, there are people and creatures and pacts and threats and people are threatened and taken.  This is about a family trying to hold together against the most terrifying, implacable forces of freaking EVIL with TEETH and it's so scary, guys, so scary.  And you never know where the enemy will come from.

This hit some serious parenting sore spots for me, which made it even more effective, and I have to say that I love and admire Sailor more than I thought I could.  My heart is kind of broken at the end, but I'm absolutely dying for the next book.

Do not read alone at night, but definitely read as Halloween approaches.  Holy crap.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Diversiverse: Love in the Time of Tinder

Welcome to the More Diverse Universe blog event! Check out Aarti's site for all the great posts from other participating bloggers!

I'm not sure if this is cheating, because I started reading this book without even thinking about Diversiverse.  But in addition to seeking out new authors and voices, it's worth spreading the word, so let's talk about Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

The craziest thing to me is that this book exists at all.  Aziz Ansari is a comedian and actor whom you may know from the incomparable TV show Parks & Rec. Seriously, that is the best show ever, go and watch it, and then check out Ansari's stand-up.  And then come back to this book and think about the fact that when this comedian decided to write a book, he didn't write a memoir or a humor book. 

No, he decided to write about modern romance--not as a comedian, but as a sociologist.  So he went out and teamed up with a real freakin' sociologist and just took this thing to town.  The book was coauthored by Eric Klinenberg, who is the director of something called the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU (according to Wikipedia) and author of several other books.  This is really a book about what dating is like in the modern world--with cellphones and texting and Tinder and OKCupid. 

And it's not from the point of view of a comedian, though there are plenty of laughs here.  Ansari talks about his own dating experiences, and relates stories that are familiar (if not personally--because I stopped dating before I was able to text--then through the osmosis of popular culture) and often funny. But the core of this book is real data, and the conducted focus groups and interviews and solicited information from people on message boards and basically aggregated a ton of data.

This talks about how instant communication has changed things like the wait to hear back from someone (leaving a phone message with their parents is NOT like texting); about how dating is very different whether you're a maximizer or a satisficer; about the inconsistencies between how people hope they will be treated and how they sometimes treat others. 

I listened to the audiobook, which means I couldn't see the graphs, but it also means I got to listen to Aziz Ansari tease me about how I couldn't see the graphs, which I think was a fair trade off.  The jokes were funny, and while a lot of the delivery is pretty straight, when he wants to make a point, he's a great performer.  My only complaint about the performance is that all of his quotes from interview subjects sound whiny--he sounds like he's making fun of whomever he's quoting.  My friend Noah does that when he's telling a story; even the people you're supposed to like in the story sound kind of dim.  I might be a little sensitive to that after hearing Noah quote me in anecdotes over the years.

I love pop sociology; "pop" as in "popular," but also as in "popcorn"--light, fluffy, delicious.  In the world of pop sociology, Aziz Ansari (and Eric Klinenberg) delivers.  Totally worth a listen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Diversiverse: Creeping Terror

Welcome to the More Diverse Universe blog event! Check out Aarti's site for all the great posts from other participating bloggers!

No, wait, the Diversiverse isn't the creeping terror; it's Stephanie Kuehn's Complicit that is a creepfest of a book, in the best possible way.

Jamie's a bit of a nervous guy, and you can't blame him, because he's got problems.  The biggest one is that his older sister's just gotten out of jail, and he doesn't know what she's going to do. Cate was put away for burning a barn to the ground, an accident that killed several horses and severely injured a girl.  Jamie's nervous about what Cate's going to do.

And when Jamie gets nervous, his body betrays him.  His hands go numb, or he passes out, or loses time.  His memories are spotty; he can't remember anything before he was six, and almost nothing before he and his sister were adopted by their wealthy parents a few years later.  He has just the vaguest, distant images of his birth mother.

So when Jamie's phone starts ringing, and Cate starts calling, telling him that there are things he needs to know and to understand, he's not sure what to make of it.  We follow him as he gets closer to a girl, Jenny, at school, as he searches his past for understanding of Cate and of things he can't remember, and as he navigates school and therapy and his parents.

The sense of suffused dread that's going on here is insane.  You can tell from the very beginning that there is something going on, a lot more than what Jamie is telling you.  Jamie is the perfect unreliable narrator, because he is so straightforward.  Jamie's own confusion is enough of an indication of what is going on.  But the book still had me guessing at what the reveal would be, and I speculated my way through every possible permutation of any given character being actually dead, actually alive, or actually imaginary.

Really, I figured out the reveal well before the ending, but it wasn't one of those realizations where you then get frustrated that the book is lagging behind your understanding.  Instead, it's about watching the realizations unfold, and wondering where on earth this roller coaster is going to take you.

In addition to the aforementioned roller coaster, there is a lot of really great, meaty stuff going on here.  There are issues of class throughout this book that are dealt with in so many ways; Jamie and Cate are unique in their wealthy community, because they come from a poor, dangerous place, but now have all the privileges of their new family's status.  But they don't quite fit in, and they get trouble with a lot of people for that, in a way that makes you wonder where the loop of these troubled kids from the wrong side of the tracks being problem children started out. 

In so many ways, I felt like this was Cate's story, even though she's only in the book for a few minutes total.  Her presence looms large in Jamie's mind--really, all of his history, his memories (bot present and missing), and even the memories of others (their adoptive parents had two children who died years before) shape his life.  But Cate is the holder of the memories; this entire book is the process of Jamie figuring out what Cate knows--what she lived through and remembers, he is uncovering bit by bit.  And the more you learn about her, and the complex mess of her life and the actions she's had to take, the more you're kind of knocked over by her.

I love a book where you can look at any character and imagine how the story would look from their point of view--not just how the plot would unfold, but what angles and tangles would be added with their perspective.  This was a brilliant example of that kind of book.  And very, very creepy.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ironically Titled

I finished the book Abandon, by Blake Crouch.  I kind of wish I hadn't.

(Got a free copy from Netgalley; this is definitely an honest review.)

I'm cramming this post out because I want to put this book behind me.  It's got a great premise that totally pulled me in: a hundred and some-odd years ago, a small mining town in Colorado became a ghost town.  Every resident disappeared, leaving behind no bodies, no clues, no indication of what had happened.  In 2009, some hikers are exploring the town.  We get the two parallel stories--Christmas in 1896, and the modern expedition.

When it comes to characters, we're starting off kind of weak.  In the 1890s, of course, we know everyone's going to disappear.  And by the time things really start happening, it becomes clear that that's not misleading--they're just all going to die.  The fact that it's dragged out and a lot of people die horribly in a lot of horrible ways, well, that's the part that makes it kind of like watching a slasher movie.  Sometimes there's blood and guts and sometimes horror and torture.  It's pretty disturbing, without a lot of psychological payoff.

In the modern parts, we get something similar.  It's straight out of a horror movie, between twists and double crosses and that moment of safety when OH NO THAT'S THE KILLER and random coincidences.  And even though you have nominally likeable characters--Abigail, our heroine, who's a reporter trying to connect with her estranged father while writing an article about the ghost hunters who are investigating the town; the ghost hunters themselves, Jane and Emmett, who seem well-intended and maybe to know some things; even Laurence, who's trying to reconnect with his daughter--there is zero character development.

Abigail doesn't start out meek and find her courage, or start out cocky and find her humility, or start out a flatlander and find her mountainous spirit.  Technically I guess she starts out comfortable and finds herself able to walk with lots of injuries, but Laura Dern's limping run across Jurassic Park to trip the circuit breaker stands out in my mind way more than the novel that I was reading literally an hour ago.

And let's talk about the details.  Abigail is a reporter, but during the two day hike to the town of Abandon, she asks no questions of her subjects.  They don't discuss their backgrounds, she doesn't chat them up.  The group talks a bit about their trip generally, but it's not till they've known each other for three days that she asks, say, "how did you get started in paranormal photography?"  She's a crappy reporter.

Really, I didn't like any of these characters.  Of course, tons of them turn out to be evil, or at least nasty, so that's deserved.  But it gave me nothing to hang my hat on.  I kind of liked a couple of the mining town residents, in an "interesting character" kind of way, but lots of them turned out evil, too.

I think I'm gonna keep thinking of things that bugged me about this book for ages.  I should probably just let it go.  The world is full of other great books to read.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Club of Books

So non-work book club appears to have fallen by the wayside: Persis is having a baby, Molly's super busy, and Natasha got married. A summer hiatus turned long-term.

But work book club has taken up the slack.  This month's meeting wasn't our best; I think the book didn't grab everyone, so most people hadn't finished it (which I consider to be a book club tradition, but which is a first with this group of overachievers).  I was halfway done at the meeting, but I'm almost through now, so I figured I'd at least give you a rundown.

Across the Nightingale Floor is the first book in the series Tales of the Otori, by Lian Hearn. I feel like I have many things to say about it, but they're not particularly complex.  Let's see, where to begin?

Summary: when the warlord Iida slaughters a village, there is one survivor.  He is taken in by a kind nobleman of the Otori clan, who opposes Iida.  Otori gives our orphan the name Takeo and adopts him as his own son, and Takeo and his adopted father plan to free the realm of their mutual enemy.

First thought: there are only so many tropes you should be allowed to have in one book.  I think the only YA trope that isn't here is the love triangle.  But you've got the Chosen One who is Naturally Good At Everything; you've got your standard Instalove, which tops out with a neat Falling Into Each Other's Arms During a Moment of Danger.  Some of these are so sticky I'm still trying to scrape them off--it turns out that Takeo's unknown father was a part of The Tribe, which is a group of people with ninja superpowers.  So Takeo has magic ninja powers and Only He can assassinate Iida!

So, yes, dense with tropes.  Rich in tropery.  There are parts I really like--a ton of kick-ass female characters, and some delighful set pieces of Takeo using his superpowers, people you think you trust making the wrong choices.  But between the tropes, the narrative style, the stoic characters and the major off-stage plot happenings, I felt like I was kept at a distance from some core part of the story.

It led to an interesting (if slightly awkward) book club, though, with big fans and big haters squaring off.  Which is usually worth it--though maybe not so much this time.

Speaking of, though, Kris and I have decided that we should resurrect Non-Work Book Club in the new year.  It needs a better name, though.  We'll need to get on that--clearly, top priority.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thrilling and Chilling and All Kinds of Creepy

So let's talk Lovecraft.  I have never read H.P. Lovecraft before, but it's one of those things that one picks up by osmosis if one spends enough time in certain circles.  Purple prose, Cthulu, racism, Arkham, the Old Ones, tentacle people from horrific fishing villages.  That kind of thing.

But I'd never read anything by Lovecraft, in spite of the fact that he's one of Brenda's absolute favorites, so I was interested when I saw a review copy of The Zombie Tales of H.P. Lovecraft on Netgalley, and I picked it up.  And to my actual surprise, I kind of loved it.

Surprise because I figured it was one of those things that had to be overhyped, you know?  Like, it's old, so maybe you recognize it for the precedents it set, or because you can see its influences down through the years.  But you don't actually enjoy those books, right?  The overwritten ones with interjections like "the horror!" in the middle of sentences?  They aren't actually successfully building atmosphere, are they?

But yeah, they are.  These stories are really surprisingly readable, not the rambling concatenation of fifty-cent words that mean "horrifying" that I was expecting.  Most of them are stories about generalized dread that build to a final, punchy reveal at the climax--a reveal that you've already figured out, but that still packs a bunch when it's laid bare and bald the way he does.

So let's see, which Lovecraftian milestones do we hit?  Purple prose: check, though not as much as I expected.  Cthulu: nope, not in this zombie-themed collection, more's the pity; ditto Old Ones.  There's a hint of the tentacle people in one of the stories, a delightful one about a man whose shy friend marries a woman of questionable background and ends up having his body gradually usurped (ooh, that one ended creepy). Arkham: yes, we spend plenty of time there, at Miskatonic University; the linked stories about Herbert West, Reanimator take place in that area.  Now that's a creepy one; I think I got the most creepiness out of the fact that the narrator is West's assistant, and as his doubts creep in, you wonder at how a person finds themselves involved in digging up a potter's field to try new reanimation substances.

Which brings us to racism.  Only a couple of instances here, just because it doesn't come up.  But honestly, one of those instances was literally one of the most offensive things I've ever read.  Basically, one of the corpses that Herbert West strives to reanimate is a black man who was killed in an illegal boxing match.  The way the narrator describes the body is the most outrageous, offensive thing I've ever read. 

Honestly, this is why it took me so long to review this book.  I meant to write this post a week ago, but I felt like I needed to address this, and to talk about how moments like this affect a book.  About how the fact that the book is nearly a century old would normally affect my reaction, but this is beyond the "times were different; atmospheric racism" defense.  About how to like problematic works. About a controversy that's I'm following on my Tumblr about a fanfic I've been loving, wherein the villain uses a racial slur, and how that author was failing her readers.  About social justice and all kinds of things.

But I just don't feel qualified.  So many great people are saying all these things, and I am a good solid step behind.  So I'm just going to go with how much I liked this problematic thing, and say this: there are a total of 2 racist moments in this book, one horrific and the other just icky.  There is no defense of this. 

But this book is also horrifying and creepy and atmospheric and evocative and full of meticulously crafted moments of dread.  And on the whole, I really, really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Over My Head

I have a half-written post about H.P. Lovecraft, but while my opinions of the book are quite straightforward (and generally positive), and my opinions on the racism in the book are very straightforward (and holy WTF!?! negative), my opinions about how to write about those things together is not clear and I'm not up to it tonight.

But this week I also finished a charming little novella by William Ritter, a sweet little Jackaby story that's worth reading if you're a fan, called The Map.  On Miss Rook's birthday, Jackaby takes her on a little adventure.  It's slight and sweet and delightful, with all the best parts of the Jackaby stories--strange creatures and esoteric mythology and odd places, but especially Jackaby and Rook.

In this short format, their banter--which is a bit anachronistic when you're trying to build up the historical part of the historical fantasy--works beautifully.  And since the story is so small, stepping briskly through all its paces, you don't get bogged down in exposition or in trying to make the adventure bigger than it is.  Reading this, I think I would love to read a book of Jackaby stories for Ritter's next one--case files, like Holmes and Watson.  I think that would work better for the strengths in this series than a longer novel like Beastly Bones.  

So I offer you this, and I'll give you more on Lovecraft (and hey, could there be two books more different in tone?) shortly, when I feel ready to wrap my brain around Real Issues.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


I'm in the middle of many things, and I've gotten out of the habit of blogging from the middle.  And to be honest, I'm not yet sure what I think about either of the books I'm reading.

Vengeance Road, by Erin Bowman, sold itself to me by promising something like Charles Portis's True Grit, which was a delightful book.  I got Vengeance Road from Netgalley, and it's definitely working on the same template--a teenaged girl on her own in the West, trying to avenge her father's murder.  It's got the language down, and I love that Kate's a practical girl, doing what's needful toward her goals.

I would say that this book is a bit more emotionally complicated than True Grit is, but it's also a bit less stylish.  Maddie's voice permeated that book, and a lot of its appeal was her vast competence, even in areas she knew nothing about (where she knew to hire the right men and manage them properly).  Maddie was distant and odd, and that's a large part of her charm.

Kate, on the other hand, is much more recognizably human.  She's practical, but not always completely rational.  This works in favor of the story, actually, because it's about the cycle of revenge, and how damaging it is, and the messes in Kate's life are a big part of that.  I guess I was expecting the story to be a bit more cleanly adventurous, rather that emotionally and ethically messy.

I make it sound preachy, but actually, this is what I love in a story--when the things that are taken as given as "good" and "bad" are thrown into question.  The tension between the real world's ethic of turning the other cheek and the great storytelling history of revenge being justice makes this a complicated and authentic story; to get her father's killers, Kate has to become a killer herself, and there's no way to do that without hurting people along the way.  This is something I wish more stories addressed, and this one really does stare that in the eye, which I admire a great deal.

But I'll admit, I feel a lot more satisfaction when Kate's using her rifle or drinking whiskey.  The more allies she gathers and complicated plans they put into motion, the more contemporary this story feels, which let me down a little bit, what with Kate's great voice, and her straightforward intent.  There's a hint of romance that feels very contemporary, and very YA, too, I'd say, and I could almost do without it.


So this is unusual.  I got sick this week, and never posted this entry, and then I finished the book.  It makes for an incoherent review to jump in here at the end, but how I felt about this one changed as I was reading. 

My expectations were definitely for something unusual and interesting.  From the beginning, it was promising, and that's what I was feeling when I wrote my thoughts above; there was a promise of something really interesting and unusual--in terms of plot, yeah, but mostly in terms of character.  Kate is singleminded and focused and suffering badly.

But as we get further in, the story conspires to bring everything back to the mean--it's a good story, a very good YA Western adventure, but I had hoped for something more, and I don't think it was.  There's a nod at the end to how romance doesn't just magically fix everything, but even that nod kind of undermines its own point by having things, eventually, be wrapped up neat. 

The book's truly about revenge, and about how revenge makes you hard and cold, and that's lonely and not healthy.  But while the beginning had some promising treatment of some of the themes--what makes revenge seem so appealing, and how loneliness can make you cut yourself off more to protect yourself--it ended up feeling very much like a "love can heal you" kind of feeling.  There were a couple of interesting twists that felt shoved in there at the end. 

I'm not completely sure how I feel about the treatment of the Apache characters here.  While on the one hand, they are treated quite respectfully as individuals, they do fall into a strong stereotype: impassive, spiritual, threatening the White Eyes who would harm Mother Earth.  There's that magical, all-knowing sense of "otherness" that makes Liluye feel more like a prop than a character.

I liked the book, but I didn't love it.  My hopes were too high.  I guess I'm still looking for that magical Western that I want, somewhere between True Grit and Six Gun Snow WhiteRapunzel's Revenge.  There are some promising leads this fall: Walk on Earth a Stranger, Silver on the Road.  But if you have other candidates, let me know!


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

This Is the Way the World Ends

I don't track how books end up on my to-read list, but I vividly remember where I first heard of Katie Coyle's Vivian Apple at the End of the World.  It was in Rookie magazine, in a round-up of book recommendations, and I remember it so vividly because it was, at the time, impossible to find.  Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, as it was called at the time, had only been published in England, and I waited for almost a year to see signs of it around here.

I was excited to get a copy from Netgalley, but since it was a PDF I couldn't read it on my kindle, and so another year or so has gone by.  But I've cracked the PDF problem (mostly), and I joined Vivian Apple on her cross country trek in the face of the Rapture just as the sequel, Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle, hits the bookshelves.

We open with Vivian at a Rapture's Eve party; her parents are Believers and members of the Church of America, like almost everybody, it sometimes seems.  The party is a blast, but when she gets home to find her parents gone and two holes in the ceiling, she knows she's living in a different world.

Vivian and her friend Harp, between one thing and another, end up on a cross-country trip, seeking a movement of non-Believers called the New Orphans, Vivian's estranged extended family, and possibly the secret compound of the head of the Church of America, whose name is Beaton Frick.  Along the way from Pittsburgh to California, they encounter dangerous zealots trying to earn their way onto the "second boat to heaven," old friends in new life situations, and adults ranging from scary to cold to loving.

The best part of this book was Vivian herself; she spoke not only to actual-17-year-old me, but also to 30-mumble-year-old me who looks back on that 17 year old and wishes she could smack some sense into her.  Vivian is a good girl, a poster child, but always a little discontent with it.  Following the rules never quite got her what she was looking for; she's not even sure what that is.  In the aftermath of the Rapture, she starts out looking for the structures that she knows how to navigate, and only gradually does she find herself to be someone who can take action outside of the system.  This is kind of a theme in my life and my personality (no Rapture yet here), so I really loved that Vivian didn't start out as unstoppable. 

I loved Harp, too.  I love that sometimes she's the sidekick and sometimes she's the chief action-taker--you could write this book as Harp's story, if you wanted to.  She and Vivian each have moments of shining and moments of weakness, and they carry each other through them. 

I would have liked this book more, but the honest truth is, I've read too much dystopia.  Vivian's great, real, convincing--the end of the world is less so.  This book absolutely fails as process dystopia.  There are holes, and in the battle between my finely honed disaster preparedness plan and my richly experienced suspension of disbelief, the part of me that's ready for civilization to collapse walked away shaking its head. 

If only 3,000 were raptured total across the country, how do things collapse so thoroughly?  Heck, how does word get out so fast?  If gas is $14 a gallon and it costs $50 to go to Taco Bell, how come everyone you meet has a fridge full of the same food they've always had?  If the Church of America really believes that God is going to save just Americans, how does the rest of the world feel about the diseases and natural disasters that are sweeping the world?

The ending was pretty satisfying, actually--not entirely closed-ended (both in that there's a sequel, and in that there is room for belief and disbelief in the explanations for the apocalypse), but with a lot of good explanation and more to explore.  But it opens itself up to more questions--not the kind that the sequel will answer, but the kind you want to ask the author about, the kind that my mind keeps calling "holes."

I think I'd say this book is quite successful as a fable.  You can't look at the worldbuilding very closely at all or it falls apart, but if you don't look too closely, if you see the whole world as a set for Vivian to learn and love and live and grow, it's a really charming and fulfilling story.  It's the epitome of a young adult book. 

And I'm going to read the sequel; I guess I'd call that a thumbs-up.