Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Quick Takes: What Is Possible?

It's a summer of impulse books from the YA display!

The Possible, by Tara Altebrando, is about a teenager whose life is being featured on a podcast that is kind of like Serial.  "The Possible" is the name of the podcast, and the teenager, Kaylee, is the biological daughter of a convicted murderer.

Mostly this doesn't affect Kaylee's life.  She lives with her adoptive parents and has pretty much a normal life.  She knows that her biological mother is in prison for killing her baby brother--she testified at the trial as a small child--but it's an old memory that she hasn't thought about in years until the reporter shows up.

Her adoptive parents are against her getting involved, but Kaylee starts looking into the rest of the story, the parts that her childhood memories have nothing to do with. She learns that her birth mother Crystal had been a notorious teen psychic when she was young.  It had been a national sensation, people trying to prove or disprove her powers. As Kaylee tries to sort through who her mother was, she decides to get work with the podcast creator to try to figure out the past.

This one kept me turning the pages--I appear to be all in for YA these days.  Kaylee tends to get what she wants, and she's kind of a brat as a result. And maybe, just maybe, she has some powers of her own.  But her investigation into Crystal's past keeps her life turning in circles around her, and my loyalties changed every few pages throughout the book. 

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how it traced what it's like to be a feature of a story like this.  She cooperates with the reporter, but she only knows her part of the story, and as she listens to the radio show each week (like Serial, the reporting happens in real time between episodes), the story ends up much bigger than she expects, and she's not always on the same side as the storytellers. 

Watching the narrative of Kaylee's life unfold with so little control for her is the best part of the book.  It actually reminded me in some ways of Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, in that the main character is a self-centered jerk who you still root for, and you're grateful as they develop some self-awareness over the course of the novel.

There's a final "showdown" that is so silly as to be unbelievable, but it's darned cathartic so I'll let it slide.  This book is definitely for YA readers; the growing up that happens here is real and pretty touching.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Quick Takes: Here Lies Daniel Tate

YA reading frenzy!  Here Lies Daniel Tate is the sophomore novel of Cristin Terrill, whose debut, All Our Yesterdays, was such a fun and fascinating time travel storyDaniel Tate is the story of a con artist who takes over the life of a boy who's been missing for four years.

The narrator doesn't give us any name besides Danny, so I'll just use that.  He's a homeless hustler in his late teens; to get out of a jam, he flips quickly through a missing persons website and picks out a kid about his age and look who's been missing for a few years.  He only needs it to buy him a few hours; he figures it'll take the cops that long to reach the right jurisdiction.

But Danny Tate's family, it turns out, is rich and powerful, and they show up within hours to whisk him home to their luxurious Los Angeles mansion.  Danny expects to be caught at any minute, but it seems to be working.  Mom is a fragile drunk; Dad is in jail for a white collar crime, and his older brother and sister seem determined for everything to be happy and healthy.  His slightly younger brother seems more skeptical, but of course the five-year-old is on board.  Maybe, Danny thinks, this is actually a great opportunity.  Maybe he can finally have not just a normal life, but a life of luxury.

Naturally, things aren't that easy.  This family has plenty of secrets, and Danny's own secrets might ruin everything.  And of course, the question that hangs over his whole scheme: what really happened to Danny Tate?

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm so excited that Terrill's second book was so different from the first and yet with its own very ambitious and complicated goals. There were definitely some things that made me cock an eyebrow in skepticism, but the book did a great job of taking them in stride--it's definitely a case where something that seems off doesn't throw me out of the story, because I completely trust the author to have everything as part of a greater plan. 

The melodrama runs thick and deep--the minor plot point that several characters are soap opera addicts is a charming nod to some of the outrageous shenanigans within the story--but there's an extent to which I'll believe anything of the uber-rich.  And everyone here has a complex that is just as complex as it ought to be. 

The end is a bit out of left field, but I think it works, and I won't say anything beyond that. I ripped through this one fast, and it was a pleasure to read, which is what one asks for from YA in the summer.  Can't wait to see what Terrill does next!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Fifth Season: Dream Cast!

I's real! It's really real!  I've actually been percolating this post for a couple of weeks, just as Hollywood was percolating the deal, and it finally came together: The Fifth Season will get a TV series!

Who wants to fantasy cast it with me? (Observation: when you say you're fan casting The Fifth Season, a large proportion of people will say "the fifth season of what?")

I've been thinking about this for days, ever since I realized that I really wanted Lance Reddick for Alabaster. He often plays hypercompetent (see The Wire), which is very Alabaster; I think he could do haughty and despairing with the same skill.

Lance Reddick via IMDb
So that got me thinking about who else I'd cast.  After I saw The Girl with All the Gifts, I was thinking that Sennia Nanua, who plays Melanie in that movie, might be great for Damaya, who is first learning that the world is going to hate her and what that will mean in her life.  It's a more vulnerable role than Melanie in a lot of ways, but Damaya has a stubbornness that I think Nanua would bring to the role.
Sennia Nanua via IMDb
Then there's Syenite.  She's a young woman with a lot of controlled anger and frustration, talented at her job and infuriated with her new mentor. I'm thinking Keke Palmer. I haven't seen her in a ton of stuff, but I found her in my research and she seems like a really smart actress with a lot of range.  It's tricky to pick a photo for her, since most of her shots are glamorous, and Syenite is practical.
Keke Palmer via IMDb
And of course, Essun.  Essun is the key, the second person heroine, the one who will be around for all three books. She's the one with the past, full of sorrow and a driving, unstoppable focus on her daughter. She's a bit more mature--a parent, and someone whose illusions have all been shattered so many times that it's amazing she's still walking around.  A big role.

Danai Gurira. She's proven herself playing an action role (The Walking Dead), but the rest of her resume shows so much of the range I want to see in this character.
Danai Gurira via IMDb
For Innon, I can't get past picturing Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, because the role calls for a big, cheerful, goodhearted fellow who makes everyone happy.  But I think he might be too much of a celebrity for it, and it might be too dark for his image as an actor. So I'm coming around to the idea of Okieriete Onaodowan, better known as the originator of the role Hercules Mullligan in Broadway's Hamilton. I think he can do that big, genial, lovable, powerful fellow.
Okieriete Onaodowan via TheaterMania


I was completely stumped when it came to Schaffa, and I was ready to post this without him.  He's supposed to be pale and lean, with dark hair and ice-white eyes, a very still, often gentle character who is reassuring until you get to know him and thereafter menacing as hell.  My problem was that I kept thinking of very old men for the role, but both by physical description and based on the action of the series, Schaffa is, not young, but in the prime of life.

But Lily had the perfect answer to this question: Aiden Gillen. He's almost too perfect, because it's so perfectly in his wheelhouse--he is the most civilized, friendly man in the room.  But he will not flinch when he breaks all the bones in your hand to prove a point.

Aiden Gillen via IMDb
Lily also had an alternate suggestion for Essun that leaves me torn: Gina Torres.  Again, kind of perfectly on the nose--stoic badassery is her thing.  Honestly, the only thing I'm not sure of is whether she can do the brittle vulnerability that Essun barely keeps under wraps, because Gina Torres is made of pure steel. She could capture Essun's very precise balance of "I could kill you where you stand and I literally can't think of a reason not to, but it will not get me what I want, because that is something that can never be."  It's a very specific brief, and it's right in her wheelhouse.

Gina Torres via IMDb

Lily also helped me with Hoa; I was totally stumped there.  She had a suggestion of the kid from Parenthood, which I had never seen, but that kid is in his 20s now.  But the picture made me think of Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, and I think he might be my choice for Hoa.  At the very least, he is delicate and pale but also, I could believe he was made of marble.

Finn Wolfhard via IMDb
The only character we couldn't be sure of was Tonkee.  I feel like there are a lot of people who could do her--Tracee Ellis Ross came to my mind, though I've only seen her in photos, never seen her act.  But she has that intense, physical, focused kind of energy that comes across as slightly manic (at least on the red carpet) that would fit Tonkee to a T.  I think she might be my choice, but I could definitely be wrong; let me know if she's a good choice.

(I don't want to be too spoilery, because I know a lot of my friends haven't read the books yet but plan to, but I will say that I thought about a different type of actress for Tonkee, but could not ultimately come up with a choice that seemed right, partly because of Tonkee's age and partly because I just don't know enough actresses who meet that criteria.  But suggestions are welcome!)

Tracee Ellis Ross via IMDb
So there you have it; the line-up that Lily and I have come up with.  I'm absolutely sure there are lots of other great choices; suggestions, critiques, etc. welcome.  Let's dream big, guys!

I absolutely cannot wait.  The Stone Sky is here on my Kindle.  Squee!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Andy Weir ARC Score!

If you loved The Martian, as I did, you have been waiting for Andy Weir's next book.  No one else does exactly his sassy, Capra-esque, hard science thing. I wanted more of The Martian, but I'll also admit that I didn't have a lot of hope that I would get much more than a rehash of the same thing that worked so well the first time.  I was eager, but I can't say that I was optimistic.

But I was wrong!  Artemis was so much fun, and I won't say it didn't have a lot in common with his breakout book, but it's definitely not treading the same ground. If I say to you, "imagine Andy Weir wrote a heist novel on the moon," you will be able to picture Artemis.  If what you picture sounds like fun, well, you're into a treat, my friend.

Jazz Bashara lives in a closet on the moon.  Most people do--square footage is expensive.  But her life is going all right--she's got her little private bunk, her courier job, her local watering hole.  She's even got a solid side gig (well, main gig, really) as a smuggler--Artemis, the moon's only city, doesn't have a lot of rules, but the ones it does have are somewhat strict about things like cigars. 

Jazz is a rough-around-the-edges underachiever, a supergenius (natch) who never finished school because of a series of skeevy boyfriends and a streak of sheer stubbornness.  She's mostly estranged from her father and she's pissed at a lot of people--most of the characters we meet in the first quarter of the book are people she's annoyed with for one reason or another.

When an opportunity to make a fortune for one day of (illegal) work falls into her lap, she jumps on it and the caper is on.  She needs to sabotage some equipment that's outside Artemis's protective bubble.  Here begins the science, as Andy Weir does what he does best, figuring out just what the failsafes and equipment in a place like Artemis might look like, and how a supergenius might sabotage them.  Of course, things don't go smoothly (what heist does?) and Jazz finds friends and allies along the way as she heads in the direction of saving the day.

I loved that there was a big cast of characters and that the relationships in Jazz's life were a big part of the book.  I wasn't really sure Weir could pull it off, but it's heartwarming.  Admittedly, it's not high-level emotional arc or characterization going on here, and the prose is the complete opposite of purple (green prose? is that a thing?). But I liked Jazz the way I liked Mark Watney, and I loved that I got to see her argue and grouch at people, ask for favors and figure things out and trick people and be tricked.

Lately I've been pretty careful with male authors writing female characters, but I haven't got much fault to find here--mostly because there isn't a lot of sex or gender here at all.  I mean, Jazz is a woman, and she talks about how good-looking some men are (which is kind of stilted but not distracting), but mostly, Jazz is just a person, and she's convincing as such.  She's foul-mouthed and irritable and stubborn as hell, which serves her well--Weir is not trying to write "woman," but rather lets her be who she is.

I loved this book. It was so much fun. There were big laughs and low-gravity fight scenes and complicated science explanations and life-or-death ticking clocks.  It's not for everyone, but if you liked The Martian, you want to read this.

(I got a copy of this book for free from Netgalley for an honest review.)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Romance Titles Algorithmed


Finally they have an algorithm for a girl like me, who is just trying to generate fake romance titles! Check out this article with a fabulous list of names generated by mashing 20,000 romance titles into a neural network.

Now, most of the ones in the article are delightfully wacky--although, as the author of the article who built the neural network points out, actual romance novel titles can be almost as fun. So here's a mini-quiz that covers some of that place where they meet in the middle.

A) The Sheikh's Marriage Sheriff
B) The English Millionaire Investigator
C) Her Billionaire Rancher Boss
D) The Consultant Count

A) The Prince's Virgin's Virgin
B) Virgin Viking
C) The Italian's Virgin Acquisition
D) The Virgin Date of Sexy

A) Christmas of the Year
B) Winning for Christmas
C) A Cowboy For Christmas
D) The Santa Wife

This had me thinking about how I would do by hand what the network did--trying to really operationalize the patterns in the titles and the keys that fit together into them.  I've done part of it before: Verbed by Someone's Noun; His Adjective Noun; Verbing the Adjective Occupation.

In some of the series, it's laid out pretty black and white. Here's the current publisher's page for the Harlequin Presents line. Plenty of Someone's Adjective Noun to go around.

The Tycoon's Outrageous Proposal
Cipriani's Innocent Captive
The Italian's Virgin Acquisition (gave that one away!)
The Sicilian's Surprise Wife
The Prince's Stolen Virgin

But then sometimes you can see the pattern, but you can't quite define it.  Like, if you leave out the prepositions, you've got State of Being [possible preposition] Adjective Direct Object. 

Engaged for Her Enemy's Heir
Protecting His Defiant Innocent
Carrying the Spaniard's Child
Bought for the Billionaire's Revenge

Except that Adjective isn't quite the word for all those possessive nouns.And I'm not sure about the Protecting one really fitting.  I don't know, it's late at night, and I'm looking at these lists and just feeling like

This means something
via Imagur

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Waste of Space

You'd think a nice staycation would be a great time to get some blogging done, but you'd be wrong.  The beach is exhausting, people.

I got Gina Damico's Waste of Space as an ARC from Netgalley quite a while ago, but I didn't read it till recently because of the PDF Problem. Books with interesting formatting often offer PDFs instead of Kindle files, and with some, like Waste of Space, the formatting can't translate onto my e-ink Kindle.  I ended up reading it on my computer, and I'd recommend a paper copy if you're going to read it.

Waste of Space is a scathing satire of reality TV, modern stupidity, teenagers, and basically everyone.  An insanely slimy and deeply stupid internet TV producer named Chazz hooks up with an organization called the National Association for the Study of Aerospace and Weightlessness (NASAW, aka low-rent NASA) to fake launching a dozen teenagers into space for $$ratings!$$. 

The teenagers are awful, except our hero and heroine. Hibiscus is a mindless, crunchy hipster. Clayton is a rich ass after fame. Snout is...well, actually a decent person, but since he's the hick from the sticks, he talks with a heavy accent and only tells stories about his pet pig Colonel Bacon (who is on the ship with him). Bacardi is the woo girl who stays sloppy drunk and makes out with random people.  There's an overachiever, a girl who speaks only Japanese, a supernerd--every stereotype you can imagine.

Plus our heroes, of course.  Nico, whose parents died and who is really shy, and Titania, who is running from her Troubling Past.

They go into "space," with a weekly half hour show and a live feed. Unbeknownst to them, they're on a sound stage being managed by NASAW scientists at the behest of Chazz.  The world is watching with bated breath, though it's not entirely clear if the world is hanging on a bunch of kids in space or an audacious reality TV gambit.  Either way, the world is full of people who buy this hook, line, and sinker, in spite of it making not a lick of sense.

This is what it comes down to--the book is so heavy handed that it ceases to be satirical and becomes slapstick.  I'm not going to let the YA designation get it off the hook for that--reality TV can be such a parody of itself that you almost can't make fun of it, but that doesn't mean the solution is going so far over the top I can't see the top in the rear view mirror.

Essentially, every character here was such a parody, and the entire cast (including the watching world) was so devoid of common sense, that I didn't have anyone to latch onto.  Even our POV characters, the kids who were pretty "normal" in the cast, were just exaggerated versions of the characters you root for on reality shows.

The coolest thing about the book was its form, as a collection of found documents and transcripts of both broadcast episodes and unaired footage.  The anonymous intern who put the book together and sent it to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children is the person I'm most likely to sympathize with in the whole thing, and she barely appears herself.  But she is the only sign that the world that real people inhabit has any relationship to the one in the book.

I can't say the book wasn't pretty fun, especially the few characters who you learn more about at the end--there's no real development for anyone, but there are some revelations that keep you interested. The boredom of living in a reality TV house between stunts is pretty well-evoked, though I can't say that's a selling point.  But there are some great lines, and honestly, I kind of wanted to meet Bacardi and Snout.  If I had to spend a few weeks trapped in a fake space plane with a couple of teenagers, I suppose I could do worse.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

HIPPO COWBOYS, Y'ALL

Best. Premise. Ever.

First, go listen to this segment on This American Life: "Hungry Hungry People." (Or you can read the Kindle Single on the same story.) It's the true story of how, in the early part of the 20th century, Congress considered solving a food shortage by populating the Louisiana bayou with hippopotamuses.

In her novella River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey takes that proposal, pushes it back 50 years, and imagines the cowboys who would herd and manage hippo production.  This is an amazing alternate history premise.

It's put to the service of what is essentially a heist story, in which five sketchy folks team up to pull off an elaborate plan that will make them a big pile of money--clear this big stretch of water of all the feral hippos. (Also, one of the characters is out for revenge.)

Verdict: more heist than the book could handle; not nearly enough worldbuilding.

I am really hesitant about "I wanted more" as a criticism of a book, because the best books are able to create realism without drilling down into all the detail, and evoking a fully realized reality is often enough.  But I wanted more here because reality did not feel as concrete or specific as I wanted it to be.  It's not that I needed more heist, or more backstory, or more time with the characters.  I needed a deeper understanding of what was going on. 

One issue was that there were just too many characters for a novella.  Five folks on the job, the villain, and the lawman.  If the five on the heist had been an established team who fit together neatly, that might have worked out, but the amount of infighting and double crossing and getting to know each other was just overwhelming, and I felt like I got only a loose sketch of most of the characters.  They were all very different, but I still had some trouble keeping track (the two main female characters both had names that started with A, which confused me more than it should have). 

I'm a bit skeptical about the hippo lore, too.  I assume the author did plenty of research, and I know that hippos are violent and dangerous, but they are not generally meat eaters unless driven to it, so the "hungry" element of the danger of the ferals seemed out of place to me.  If it had been explained why they were so eager to eat people, maybe it would have felt more real? 

Also, we didn't find out what the heist was about for the first half of the book. There's the actual, legit job, the trick they have to make it worth their time and money (but if that was the plan, why did they need a con artist?), and the secondary goals of all the main characters.  It was too much and it never really came together for me.

Which is a shame.  Because hippo cowboys, y'all.  Hippo. Cowboys.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Back from the Land: In Which Hippies Take to the Woods

Alternate post titles I considered here: "Schadenfreude: Wood Heat Dries Your Sinuses; Hauling Water is Hard," or "On Not Knowing What We Don't Know."

This might be the first time I really wished I track where I find the books that end up on my to-read list, because this one was a direct reference from somewhere--another book, a blog post--and I found reading it to be SO interesting that I wish I could go back and retrace my steps.  The book Back from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s and How They Came Back, by Eleanor Agnew, started out by scratching a very particular itch that I have and ended up leaving me feeling like I had some insights into the author's personal defense mechanisms and personal narratives.

The itch--the reason I picked up the book--is because I love "huh, farm life maybe isn't so idyllic after all" stories. City folk moving to the country and trying to chop enough wood to get through the winter amuses me.  City folks being shocked at how heavy buckets of water are makes me feel--here, I'm admitting it--superior.

I'm not proud of it.  Honestly, I don't deserve the superiority; I'm not the one who woke up twice a night to feed the wood stoves when I was a kid.  But my parents did, every night.  My father had to tromp 100 yards through the snow to feed the greenhouse fires, too, every night of February and March and most of April, for years. I just had to fill the wood box in the entryway from the shed in the barn, and even then, not often.  I was spoiled.

But I know how hard all this stuff is, which is why I get satisfaction watching noobs learn things that my mom is an expert on (cooking on a wood stove is hard!). It's similar to what I enjoyed about Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love. Kimball brought a wry self-deprecation to her recollections of starting this out.  Or what I liked about the This American Life segment called "Farm Eye for a Farm Guy." Listen to it--it's only 20 minutes long and it's super great.

This is what drew me to the book, and the reason why, as I read the first chapter or two, I kept reading passages out loud to my family and chuckling.  These folks are so naive!

What kept me reading, I think, was the insights into the author. Eleanor Agnew moved from, I believe, Pennsylvania with her husband and two young sons to live on a homestead in Maine. (If you are going to live off the land, why would you pick a state in which winter lasts 8 long months? Did you even think about this?)

The book contains her own reminiscences and those of many other friends and acquaintances, back-to-the-landers from all over the country who lived everywhere from communes to wilderness to small farm towns.  She seeks out the threads of commonality to their experiences--including how they end--and that's interesting and worthwhile. But in the end, it is also very anecdotal, and the citations and statistics drawn from sociology and economics don't add any rigor to what is essentially a group memoir.  As a memoir, it works somewhat, even with so many voices and experiences represented. As a study, even a pop-social science study, it doesn't stand up to any scrutiny.

The author has an agenda: she knows that their philosophies were sound, even if they weren't strong enough to live them out.  She believes that "mainstream society" is full of materialistic sheeple, but back-to-the-landers--even those who have rejoined the mainstream and are now architects and college professors--are still pure of heart.  She describes how much she values nature, and how she gets such bliss observing the koi pond in her backyard in the subdivision she lives in.  See, she values nature in ways that other suburbanites do not. 

This sense that the internal lives of the people who share her beliefs are virtuous and consistent and justify whatever outward choices they're making, while the internal lives of others who make the same outward choices are suspect, is pervasive in the book.  She talks about how hippies didn't need fancy new cars, and then she discovers that wow, an old car in a Maine winter takes a lot of upkeep and often means getting trapped in your backwoods home. She even says explicitly that she would not mind at all having a new car, because it would be a safe and reliable connection to the outside world, but doesn't follow that line of thought through to the notion that maybe other people who get new cars have useful reasons, whether practical or psychological.

xkcd.com 
Maybe it's because I've been thinking a lot lately about intersectionality and other people's points of view, but this seems like a huge gap to me.  Maybe it's because she is thinking of the society of the late '70s, when Ronald Reagan was about to get elected, and that kind of cynicism is justified.  But the time she spends near the end of the book justifying how okay it is that they've gone mainstream but they're still more virtuous and in touch with the harmony of the universe than other people just frustrated me and really detracted from the point she never quite got to about what made life more authentic if you have to haul water instead of using pipes.

Also, darn it, she misused words and ideas in a few places.  I don't want to be pedantic, but "I was donned in my uniform" is not how you use that verb; the fact that the average life expectancy was 18 years does not mean that no one lived to grow old; the goal of the pioneers was not to live in harmony with the land, but to gain economic security and prosperity so they could improve their lifestyles.  They lived in dugout houses so they could later afford nicer ones, not because they wanted to live in dugouts.  They would not have said no to running water.

So in the end, my satisfied schadenfreude about the naive kids getting in touch with mother earth was replaced by a kind of sad schadenfreude about baby boomers who still think that they have it all figured out.  I'm reminded of my father's old saying: "My opinions may change, but not the fact that I'm right." Agnew has readjusted her view of the world so that no matter what they do, she and her friends have cornered the market on virtue.