Sunday, January 30, 2011

As If January Wasn't Slow Enough...

Does an "omnibus" count as one or two books?  Because while I'm unable to put down this 600 page compendium of fantasy/science fiction/romance/political intrigue called Cordelia's Honor, it's really a collected reprint of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and so shouldn't it count as two books?  I should think so.  Because I've been reading it for a month and I'll be lucky if I finish it in January.

But oh, it's so good.  Brenda told me not to bother with it, but if the Miles books are better than this, I'm going to have to start reading immediately and not stop for months and months.  They're all available online, too, which makes me ache for some sort of ebook reading device as I never have. 

(Aside: Cordelia's Honor has the worst cover ever, including the tagline "When enemies become more than friends -- THEY WIN!  Please do not let this deter you.)

So I'm sorry for the slow month, and I'm sorry to say that February won't be much better.  My goal is to do a little postponed NaNoWriMo event in February--known around here as ShaNoWriMo.  A small group of  hardy, daring folks are diving into this together and aiming to write 50,000 words before the end of February.  I'll keep you updated around here, and if I get any reading done I'll let you know, but we'll have to see how well that goes. 

Believe me, it hurts.  I have a huge stack of library books that I'm very excited about that are going to get returned unread.  But sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it.  I'm thinking of making a list of what I have out right now, returning it all en masse, and then celebrating on March 1 by checking them all out again.  What do you think: clever plan, sick need, or overkill?

Wish me luck.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How's That Working Out For You? Being Clever?

There are certain maneuvers that only really great authors can pull off.  Things like second person narration, unconventional narrators (children, animals), tricks like that.  Most authors realize they're too gimmicky and don't use them without a lot of thought, hard work, and good cause.

Multiple narrators, though, is just too tempting for a lot of people.  I think an author's relationship with the first person is going to vary a lot from individual to individual--for some people it's trickier, because you have to more fully inhabit your character; for others (and I'd be one of these), it's almost a crutch, because speaking with your character's voice allows you to write without thinking--the way I imagine method acting to be.  Imagination straight to the page, no interpretation required.

So when you have a lot of main characters, giving them each a first person voice seems like the logical thing to do.  But it's deceptively complicated and should not be attempted by amateurs.

Now, I'm not calling Karen Maitland an amateur.  She wrote Company of Liars, which I absolutely loved, and which I thought was well-crafted and deft.  But so far, I'm feeling pretty disappointed in The Owl Killers.

And part of it is definitely the fact that it's narrated by over a dozen characters.  In fact, I give her a lot of credit for doing an artful job with it--each one is clearly thoroughly imagined and realized--their voices are different, their motivations, the information they have available, their takes on reality. 

At this point, though (100 pages in, so nothing to sneeze at), it doesn't feel like it's coming together.  Most of what I feel is frustration at the misunderstandings, the secrets, the fears of the powerless.  But there have been so many little plotlets introduced--the priest with hidden passions (which, it's really hard to ignore the fact that there are no gendered pronouns in that postcoital scene, so if that's supposed to be a secret, um, sorry), the girl who's been raped, the Owl Killers themselves, the tension between the beguines and the villagers.  I assume they'll all come together, but it's too many balls for me to keep in the air. 

And, as is often the risk with multiple narrators, the focus jumps quickly, sometimes within a few pages, from one story to another, completely unrelated one.  I'm not sure where I'm supposed to be investing my energy.  And lord, life in medieval England is pretty crappy--there's a lot of pity and fear and emotional energy being demanded of me. 

I need a little focus, is what I'm saying.

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Not To Handle Adversity, by Joshua Ferris

Okay, I'm getting into this.  There's a lot of Stuff going on in The Unnamed, but it's starting to fit together for me.  There's a whole pathetic fallacy thing going on, where Tim's unexplained health problem is paralleling or tied to the strange, pre-apocalyptic weather.  There's a cycle of suffering, mourning, relief, and fear, which I think is powerfully illustrative of how gradual change can feel like repetitious cycles, only in retrospect revealing itself to be a circuitous path from point A to point B.

But really, this is about What Not To Do If You Get Terribly Ill.  I'll try not to spoil much.

1) Don't try to pretend it's not happening, especially if the job you're going to every day but can no longer competently do is a matter of life and death.

2) Don't lie to your boss and coworkers, telling them you have to rush to the bedside of a dying relative.

3) If you're rich, hire a freaking visiting nurse already.  Don't make your spouse do all the work.

4) Speaking of which, if you're rich, maybe you should move to a part of the country where an illness that compels you to go outside no matter what the weather is won't be as much of a problem.  Say, Los Angeles, or maybe divide your time between a nice island off the Carolinas (for the mild winters) and a lovely cabin in New England (for hurricane season).

5) Really, what it all comes down to is a very Zen idea of acceptance, which is not about giving up on change, but about acknowledging reality.  The fact is, if the life you had is gone--your old idea of health, of choice, of ability--then you're better off looking at the new reality and making plans around it, rather than pretending you can hold onto what you've already lost. 

The impression this book leaves me with reminds me most of The World We Live In, by Susan Beth Pfeffer, because the whole time I was reading that book I was thinking, "When are you going to get some UV bulbs and build a greenhouse powered by a windmill and become self-sufficient already?  What are you waiting for?"  This book is leaving me with a very similar feeling--though I give it more credit for doing this intentionally.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What Ought Not Happen

This is the second in what appears to be a new series of posts about things I'm afraid are going to happen at the end of books I'm reading.   

The Unnamed is the new book by Joshua Ferris, author of the clever and eerily on-the-nose Then We Came To The End.  I liked The We Came To The End, in spite of its rather precious first person plural narrator gimmick.  Its depiction of office life was perfectly observant and truly captured both the warmth and frustration of the family-like relationships you're trapped in at work.

This book is different.  The main character has a condition--he has spells of walking.  It's like sleepwalking, only he's awake.  But he can't control it, can't decide where he's going, can't stop.  He's been to doctors, tried home remedies like sleeping pills and handcuffs--nothing helps. When he's not having these spells, he's a rich, successful New York lawyer with a beautiful wife, loving daughter, and huge house.

Now, this is a Metaphor, right?  About how even when we think we have life under control, we don't, and about how what looks like contentment can mask restlessness, and probably for a dozen other things I haven't thought of.  The Metaphorical Nature of the plot is so overwhelming that I can barely read the book. 

And this is the big trick: the problem is that I don't trust the author enough to assume it's all going to fit together in a satisfying way.  I'm asking myself why they haven't moved to, say, a small island (since he doesn't seem to walk himself into physical danger) in a warm climate (since the big concern right now seems to be him freezing to death in a Connecticut January).  If the end of this book involves him moving to the Outer Banks to live a lower-key lifestyle, this whole book will have been a monumental waste of my time. 

Someone let me know if this book is worth it?

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Real World

I am so loving Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork.  I won't be the first one to compare the narrator's voice to that of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I'll say I like this one much better.  Marcelo is more self-aware than Christopher, less trapped inside himself.  He doesn't have an official diagnosis, and he seems to be "higher functioning" than the other character.   I think this can make it easier to relate to him.

It helps that the problems he has are very easy to relate to.  He's nervous about his new summer job and feels in over his head, unsure of all the politics and machinations that are going on around him.  His father wants him to leave his special school, where he trains horses and takes Social Interaction classes along with history and science.  Marcelo and his father have a cautiously respectful relationship, but they really don't understand each other.  It's a story that could play out even if Marcelo thought like other people; his problems are mine, too.

I find myself rooting so hard for him that every little success or stumbling block seems monumental.  Will he finish the photocopying on time?  Will he connect with his father in this conversation?  And, through it all, the question of whether he'll get to decide where he goes to school in the fall--to his comfortable Paterson or the "real world" school his father wants him to attend? 

I'm afraid I can guess the answer to the last question--the after school special, pat answer is that he'll succeed at his summer job and his father will follow through on their bargain and let him choose, but, having found that he can handle the real world, he'll choose the regular school.  That would kind of suck, because he's not "normal," typical, whatever you want to call it.  Marcelo IS special.  I'm afraid the book won't give that fact enough honor in the end. 

But I won't spoil it for you.  Nothing I've said here isn't in the first two chapters, and if I have to come back and rant or rave about the end, I'll do it in the comments.  So if you don't like spoilers, you'll probably want to skip the comments on this one!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Year in Review

When one has a blog, one ought to wrap the year up with retrospectives and top ten lists and things, right?  Unfortunately, I have a hard time looking back that far--I can understand why the Oscar hopefuls all come out at this time of year.  When you read a book in February, by December it's hard to think of it as part of "this year's" crop.

According to Goodreads, I read 108 books this year.  This comes out to 9 per month, but you have to remember that this includes comics and kids' books--not picture books that I read to Adam, but the chapter books that I read for my own pleasure.  I suppose by some scales that's a lot, but it seems kind of thin to me.  Mike points out that this is more a function of my being crazy than my not reading enough books (though he phrased it more kindly), and I'm inclined to agree.

Some highlights of the year, according to my Goodreads ratings:

The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer.  Can't believe I read it this year, it seems so long ago.  I was hesitant to read this for a long time, because it seemed kind of gloomy and (irrational, I know) because it takes place in a desert.  But it brings together character, world building, and moral complexity in an amazing way. 

Fables, by Bill Willingham.  Several volumes got five stars from me this year.  War and Pieces, the culmination of the war with the Empire, just blew me away.  It was so visceral and satisfying--I loved the fact that there was no special trick or magic twist.  They planned, developed strategies, armed themselves, and blew the Adversary out of the water and it was freaking awesome.

Beat the Reaperby Josh Bazell.  Fast, funny, violent, witty, and did I mention fast?  Footnotes about anatomy, 24 hours of ER meets The Sopranos

Sabriel, by Garth Nix.  So much "high fantasy" is dense and ponderous and takes itself far too seriously.  I think this is one of the first fantasy books I've read that takes itself seriously but doesn't become ponderous and pretentious. 

The Merry Misogynist, by Colin Cotterhill.  I've liked the whole series, but this was a particular favorite.  The supernatural angle in these books has always seemed a little out of place and awkward, but in this one, it's a minor point that fits right in.  This mystery brought me back to the fun from the beginning of the series, and reminded me how very much I loved The Coroner's Lunch.

Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon, Nathan, and Dean Hale.  Okay, I love Shannon Hale up and down, and think everyone in the world should read Princess Academy.  But my reaction to Rapunzel's Revenge was doubled, because the excitement of finding a new book you love by a favorite author is boosted by the excitement of finding a really good comic book.  It's such a shot in the dark most of the time, but this was a great, well structured, fun, attractively illustrated, well written, just fun kids' comic.  So cool.

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.  I have never read a better book about mean popular kids in high school.  Usually they're so mean that you wonder what "popular" means, anyway, or they're revealed to be hiding crippling insecurity behind such a thin veneer of brittle happiness, or they hate their best friends and are thinly veiled sociopaths.  But Oliver got inside her narrator so completely that you can see how Samantha can be who she is without being deeply evil.  You can feel for and sympathize with someone who is sometimes casually cruel.  I would not have believed that could be done.

Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern.  This book was just really freaking funny.  I laughed out loud pretty much the whole time I was reading it.  Picture a 10 year old reading a joke book--that kind of laughing. 

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam.  I was a little surprised to go back and find that I'd given this book five stars, but I think it won me over by surprising me.  There is nothing standard about this future dystopia story--it's as realistic as I can imagine.  It starts with Y2K, moves on to gradual environmental degradation (between punishing storms and drought, large portions of America become unlivable).  But there's always a government, a job, some way for the narrator to scrape by, reinvent himself, and survive.

Room, by Emma Donoghue.  I've gushed about this already, but I'll just say it again--read this book.  It's sweet and visceral at the same time.  It's about a child who doesn't know how strange and terrifying his world is until he finally encounters the real world.  It's about being alien even to those who love you, about finding out what is "normal" and when it's better not to be.  And it's about motherhood--enormous, terrifying, mundane, magical.

The Reapers Are the Angels, Alden Bell.  I think this is my favorite zombie book.  It's got a standard road trip story arc, and a very traditional Old West feel to it.  But the dust has settled in this world (it helps that they're slow zombies, not fast zombies), so this isn't a story about fear, running, hiding, or fighting.  It's about drifting, about seeing the world and the beauty in the world where the structures that we've laid over God's creation are gone.  Temple is a teenager and a survivor, and she's making her way through the world, not going anywhere particular.  She's not afraid, and there's nothing really she wants--just to see what the world is made of.

Bayou, by Jeremy Love.  This is probably my favorite comic discovery this year.  It comes from a web comic, but the site that sponsored it has come down and I can't find it anywhere else.  That's okay, I'll wait for the next volume.  Lee is the daughter of a sharecropper in rural Mississippi in the '20s (I think).  When a local white girl goes missing, Lee's father is blamed; only Lee knows that her friend was taken by a creature in the swamp.  With her father waiting in jail for a lynch mob to come for him, Lee has to get her friend back from the dangerous world beneath the swamp.  The creatures and characters, the danger and fantasy in this story is incredible.  I'm so glad my local library had it sitting out for me to notice.

So, there you have it.  Year in review.  Bring on 2011!