Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Accounting

As 2011 draws to a close, let's summarize what we've experienced together over the past twelve months.

According to Goodreads, I've read 106 books.  It will be 107 by tomorrow, since I'm only four pages from the end of The Weathermonger.  This count isn't a perfect representation of the picture, though, since it includes five novellas, thirteen graphic novels, and at least one audiobook performance that only sort of counts as a book.  Still, it's a good way to grasp how things have been going.

I can't tell you what the best book I read this year was, but I can give you a sampling of the five-star ratings I've given.  My star ratings (like everyone else's, I suppose) mostly reflect my reaction in the moment, and looking back on them, I'm sometimes surprised--something I only moderately enjoyed stayed with me, or something I loveloveloved loses its luster.  But sometimes, great books are just great books.  So:
Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell.  I read some good comics this year, but this one just makes me so happy.  It's an ongoing webcomic (the image links to Amazon, but he link goes to his site), and I read it through in about three days.  Halfway through, I sent the author a donation through PayPal; when I got to the end I sent him another.  There are robots, animate shadows, a mysterious boarding school, an ominous forest, teenaged relationship stress, and Coyote the trickster.  Also laser cows.  Read this, please.

Troubled Waters, Sharon Shinn.  Reviewed here.  I love Sharon Shinn.  I don't love every one of her books uncritically, but I think that makes me love her more--I know it's not just that I'm bewitched or she has a gimmick; it's that she writes such good books.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin.  Reviewed here.  I'm also reading the sequel right now.  This is one of those books that kind of blew me away with the world building--including things that I'd never seen done so well, like gods as characters--and some outings into very tricky literary ground, like irregular timelines and characters without enough information.  In my memory, it's just a really good fantasy book, but looking back to when I finished it, it really blew the doors of your average good fantasy book, and was totally worth it for that.

The Warrior's Apprentice (The Vorkosigan Saga), Lois McMaster Bujold.  I'm finally reading the Miles books.  They're just as much fun as I was promised.  I read two quickly, and now I'm dawdling so I don't finish too fast.  I can't say much about how great these are that hasn't been said a million times--the Amazon reviews alone are so glowing as to be bottomless.

Some nonfiction....

Bossypants, Tina Fey.  Reviewed here.  This is definitely one of those that I look back on with a little less enthusiasm than I had when I starred it.  But belly laughs will do that to you.  Her reading was a performance--I highly recommend the audiobook.  I laughed so hard, and I loved that she actually had a lot to say about the challenges of being a woman in an odd, male-centric field like comedy.

Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick.  Reviewed here.  Even more timely now that Kim Jong Il is dead and North Korea's about to go just a little wonkier.  Amazingly well-painted portrait of life in the modern world but cut off from it.

Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney.  Spiritual journeys--complicated ones by intellectuals, especially--are one of my favorite types of stories.  This is actually an audiobook/performance, so I'm not sure it counts as a book, but I'd like to recommend it here anyway, because I really liked the way all Sweeney's considerations orbited around trying to reconcile her experiences as a believer with the mythology she had grown up with.  Moving, and thoughtful, and funny.

And a couple of novels...

Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork. Reviewed here.  I found the ending a little problematic, but it was such a thorough, touching, and sensitive portrayal of Asperger's, I was really moved.

Rules for Virgins, Amy Tan.  This one is a novella, and absolutely lovely.  It's an instructive monologue from an experienced geisha to her student.  The subtleties of relationships--power, sex, culture--and the delicate pressures everyone is exerting are intricate and fascinating.  And the hints of character that are revealed through the lessons are equally compelling.  I wish it had been longer.

Overall, I'd say it was a pretty good year.  I found a lot of great new authors and had a lot of fun in a lot of great fantasy worlds.  There are all kinds of things that I imagine myself reading in the new year--more literary fiction, more classics--but I'm having so much fun the way I'm going, I'm not setting any goals.  We'll trust where the wind takes me.

Welcome 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sequeltown III: The Revenge

Don't think I was done.  I'm hardly reading anything these days that doesn't come from a proven author with a proven set of characters, world, and pre-approved plotlines.  Keeps things streamlined.

I liked-but-didn't-love Ally Condie's Matched, but was interested enough to keep rolling with the next one, Crossed.  It's coming at the Perfect Society Dystopia from the other side; while the first book took place in the happy, locked-down part of the world, this one takes place on the fringes, on the run.  In spite of that, it has a very similar feel to the first book, and I have a very similar reaction to it.

I think this series may have suffered from overhype.  That's a real risk, especially when you're an adult reading YA.  Because the main audience for these books is young, you have a fresh set of folks reading their first dystopian fiction and being blown away by it.  Books are wildly popular because most readers are coming at everything with fresh eyes.  Even reviewers in this genre are often librarians, teachers, and people who service young adults and who (appropriately) look at the work through that audience's eyes.

Crossed shares some of what I'd consider the weaknesses of Matched, especially the reliance on true, deep, enormous teen love as the main driving force, and the seamless monolith of the Society's machinations.  The former is usually my biggest pet peeve, but is almost tolerable here; I can really get behind the romance being mostly a way for the characters to pursue something (freedom) that they wouldn't know how to reach for or even really define on its own.  So I'll give it a pass.

But the absolute tight control that the Society has--every piece of information monitored, every piece of paper accounted for, every ounce of food measured and accounted for--seems entirely impossible to me.  I think that's a very adult perspective on my part; over the years I've become aware of how almost everything that looks structurally flawless is fraying just out of frame.  Still, I'm finding it to be a weakness, if only because I never know what to expect from the Society--the omnipotence they seem to have in the story, or a more realistic veneer of omnipotence.

As flaws go, these are in no way deal-breakers, though.  I like how little information everyone has, how hard Cassia finds her decisions (though her unflinching willingness to rush toward death is kind of startling), how conflicted Ky is.  I really like the secondary characters, who really feel like full characters we've just met, with back stories and blind spots and everything.  There are types here, but they're all their own.

My other current situation is The Broken Kingdoms, sequel to N.K. Jemisen's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  I only just started it, so it almost doesn't count for a blog post, but I really liked the first one, and I'm pretty excited about it.  The world-building was incredible; the incredibly complex problem of gods living side by side with people was deftly handled.  I've barely begun this one, but as a follow-up--with new characters and set a while later--it's already very promising.

I think that's it from Sequeltown for now.  But hey, maybe I'll come out with another trilogy 25 years from now.  They'll probably be pretty mediocre, though.  This is probably my masterpiece.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Someone Else's Blog

Kristen Cashore (of the inimitable Graceling and Fire, and the forthcoming (squee!) Bitterblue), posted a link to this from Tui Sutherland, whose blog I hadn't read before.  That post has some fabulous stuff in it, both as Christmas gift ideas and just good reads, and I may or may not have run out and made myself an impulse buy based on it. 

I know Tui through a friend and she's very cool--I can't believe I hadn't found her blog before.  She's the author of a bunch of books for young readers and young adults, which you should check out!

Anyway, I know it's last minute, but a good book is a great gift.  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Slasher Fic

In the afterword to the ebook Trapped, by Jack Kilborn, the author explains why the ebook contains two versions of the novel.  He wrote one and his editors asked for some revisions, because it was too violent.  He wrote the second, but refused to make further revisions, so it sat unpublished till it came out in this form.  He requests that reviewers please rate the version they prefer, rather than averaging the two for a rating and thereby "punishing" him for including two versions.

Jack, honey, I'll be happy to.

This is a slasher movie of a novel, all gore and guts and cannibals and torture.  It's not just that it's violent--I've read some violent stuff.  It's that it's so purposefully violent.  It feels very much like the only thought that went into this story was "how can I be gorier; what would be the most horrifying thing that could happen to this person?"

It's pretty poorly written, although I don't entirely hold that against the author; there's a strong sense that this is a first draft (second, actually; I'm reading the LESS violent revision).  There are typos, a lot of exposition is thrust into the middle of the action in a clunky way, a lot of the character histories read like the author hadn't really figured out which details were important and which weren't.  All these I can let slide, mostly because I wasn't expecting much when I picked this up.

But there are some serious, major plot holes in the surprise twist that I really don't think, at this point, are going to be sewn up.  Things like: nobody noticed those campers never came back?  Really?  No insurance because you missed a Medicare payment?  Is that how it works?

I'm skimming almost all the back story, and almost all the tension-mounting moments in the dark woods, and almost all the really violent scenes--well, the whole book really.  There are some good moments about planning and logistics, but oh my word, the do-gooder's heroic thoughts and the inner city slang of the troubled youths being chased through the woods--it's a parody of itself.  It's the novelization of Really Freaking Scary Movie, with Gore

It's almost high art.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sequeltown, The Sequel

The Thirteenth Child was a pleasure, and I'm hoping Across the Great Barrier is just as good.  As a sequel, that's always tough, but the style of storytelling here really lends itself to continuing in the same vein as the first book.  This isn't a story of glorious highs and terrifying lows--it's about living on the American frontier, coming of age as a girl who's always been outshone by her twin, and trying to find what you want when it's always been easy just to slip by.

And also magic.  Wildlife, really.  Magic is everywhere, always used.  On the frontier, magic runs wild and the magical animals make homesteading incredibly dangerous.  And our heroine, Eff, wants to be a naturalist and to study these animals.

I don't know what's going to happen in the story, but explaining what happened in the first book wouldn't tell you much.  Eff grows up, her brother goes to school, they visit the Rationalist settlement, she learns Aphrikan magic.  I'm a sucker for a book about the patterns of life in a well-built fantasy world, and that's what I'm hoping to find in Patricia Wrede's sequel.  I think I've got a good chance.

Unfortunately, I recently threw in the towel on another sequel that I've been struggling with for a while.  The Parable of the Talents, which is Octavia Butler's follow-up to The Parable of the Sower, started out with the spark of hope that concluded the first book and slowly, painfully scattered dirt on it till it was snuffed out.  Sower was grim enough that I would not have expected to be overcome by the grimness of the sequel, but darn if I wasn't.

I'll admit that I actually really want to know how it ends.  I wish I'd been able to stick it out to find out.  But as the precarious little world that the characters have built is dented and shredded, as the outside world gets worse, as the story is framed with comments many years later that describe the emotional fallout of what we're about to read, it just wore away at me until I never wanted to pick it up.

The more I think about it, the more the visceral discomfort was an intellectual strength.  When everything falls apart, that's when anyone's faith is tested, and more so those whose faith states that God is change.  The introduction by Lauren's grown daughter opens a wider window on the harsher aspects of the protagonist's character--her ambition, her cold practicality.  The most useful traits are not always the most endearing ones.

But in the end, I couldn't read it.  It just made me tired, and sad.  That feels more like a weakness in myself than in the book itself, though.

But oh, baby, I'm not done with sequels yet!  While I've got some one-off irons in the fire, I feel like there's a wonderful bounty of great series that I'm swimming in right now.  Huzzah!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

RIP Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey of The Dragonriders of Pern fame passed away almost a month ago. I was very sorry to hear it, although I'm not very familiar with her work.  I will always remember the Pern books as the first stories I read that started out medieval/fantasy style and turned out to be post-industrial space colonies (see Dragonflight and Dragonsdawn--the only two Pern books I've read).

(Spoiler Alert)

But I read these books long ago, and I have a question for McCaffrey fans.  I loved Dragonsdawn, but my memory of Dragonflight involves a flaw that really bugged me.  Dragonriders have lived on Pern for thousands of years at this point, presumably.  And they travel to distant places by visualizing them and going "between."  But somehow no one has ever accidentally traveled through time until Lessa did?  And she did it by picturing her target place as she remembered it?  No one else ever did that before?  Then what were they picturing?

Can someone who's read this book more recently, and/or who loves it and knows it well, tell me whether this is as far fetched as it seems to me?  Am I remembering it wrong?  Is it addressed in the story?  Am I the only one who noticed this?  I'd appreciate it, because I'm very tempted to read some of these books, but just the memory of that is bugging the heck out of me.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sequeltown, Part the First

During my long break, I waded hip-deep into a bunch of YA fantasy (surprise!), and I've been devouring series in one big gulp.  It's kind of fabulous, actually.  A quick, fun read, and I walk to the library while I'm finishing the last 10 pages so I can check out the next on.  Or, heck, the next two, why wait?

Tamora Pierce is an incredibly popular classic, but it took me a while to understand her.  I think this is because she straddles the line between YA and middle-grade--she's NOT a YA writer who ended up in that section because of marketing.  Her books have younger characters, simpler moral dilemmas, and straightforward writing.  Ages ago when I read the first Circle of Magic book, I considered that a weakness. I've gotten much more comfortable with the genre since then, so I thought I'd try another one.

Alanna: The First Adventure is the beginning of the Song of the Lioness series.  It falls clearly into that same category--the main character ages from 10 to about 14 in the book, and the target audience is right in the lower range of those ages. Because I understood that, I could deal with the simplicity, and of course you know how excited I get with books about learning how to do stuff.  Knighthood, jousting, girls disguised as boys, magic lessons, court politics.  Simple fun, small stories, a kid growing up.

I barely finished the book before I went back for In the Hand of the Goddess and The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (which, good God, don't even look at that awful cover.  Alanna is not sassy.  Alanna is a knight.).  They took about three days to read total, and now I've started Lioness Rampant, which is the final one in the series.  She's an adult and traveling around and having adventures.  Starting with the second book, Alanna has had sexual relationships (no direct sex scenes), which has thrown off my understanding of the age bracket thing, but basically, I am having a blast reading these books in the same way that I enjoy watching a lot of simple, fast-paced TV shows: stuff is happening to these characters I know and like, and I'd like to see how it turns out.

If I was 14, I'd probably feel impassioned about these books, but for right now, what I'm feeling is a Pez-level pleasure.  And baby, I'll take it.

The Changes series by Peter Dickinson is extremely different in tone.  For lack of a better word, it's very British.  There is something charmingly, weirdly British in a book about people who do a lot of walking that is described in great detail, but somehow that doesn't work against these.  The first book, The Devil's Children, I think I found on a "help me find the name of this book I remember from childhood" website; it was the answer to someone else's question.  (I know; I need to stop reading those).

One day, England suddenly changes.  There's a brief prologue that hints someone in a mine opened up something, but essentially everyone woke up one day hating, loathing, fearing all machines.  Cars ran off the road as the drivers tried to jump away from screaming engines, people smashed the electronics in their houses.  People wandered the streets, sanitation ended, there was death and mass exodus.  People are affected differently--children feel it less acutely than adults; white people more strongly than other races.

The Devil's Children is the story of a girl who is left alone and falls in with a group of Sikhs.  They keep her around as a canary in the coal mine--to test whether things that they want to do are likely to get them lynched--and they end up forming a community that lives somewhat peacefully near a feudal-style village.  That's almost all there is to the story--it's about looking for a good spot to live, learning about Sikh culture, what mass fear looks like.  A small, everyday story.

The second book, Heartsease, is set in a different part of England, five years later.  A "witch" (someone who uses technology) is stoned in a small town, and is rescued by some children who aren't as frightened as they should be.
They keep him hidden for months, then smuggle him away to a boat and upriver to the sea.  That is all that happens in this book--all the tension is around getting caught, misleading the lynch-mob adults of the town, wandering around at night, and trying to get up the canal.  And along the way, teeny-tiny little clues about why The Changes happened are dropped. 

I'm DYING to know what's up with The Changes.  The third book is sitting here beside me.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

I Read That

Isn't it funny that it hardly occurs to me to review books I recently finished with, as opposed to those I'm in the middle of?  Why would I talk about those?  They're yesterday's news.

Literally yesterday.  I'm not always a mystery reader, but the Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin has a firm grip on my love of historical fiction. I had Grave Goods
on my desk/table/floor next to the table for over a month before I picked it up from the long list.

But oh, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think I'd forgotten how much I love this series.  Tightly plotted, full of historical detail, and just the right amount of color and flavor.  I hate a mystery where you know who did it by the Law of Economy of Characters, but I also hate a mystery that rambles around and mostly isn't about the mystery.  That's never a problem here--place and time, political intrigue and love and fire and superstition are wrapped up tightly and hurl you through the story.

I think it helps that I love Bones, since it's basically Bones in the Middle Ages, like some time travel episode of a sitcom. Adelia is a doctor, trained in Italy where social mores are liberal enough to allow a woman that profession.  She's scientific, literal, and not very socially adept; her expertise is the dead.  In the first book she comes to England to assist Henry II with an investigation.  In this book, she's trying to establish whether a disinterred body is that of the legendary Arthur, whose proven death might help quell a Welsh rebellion.

But there's so much more to the story.  The innkeepers, the abbot, the huntsmen, the bard, the knight, the friend, and of course the Bishop of St. Albans (wink wink).  All the subplots come together neatly (but not too neatly), and there is just the right amount of peril, confusion, and diversion.  And there is comeuppance, though not all exactly what one might wish for.

As I said, I'm not a mystery person.  But I've already reserved the most recent book in the series, A Murderous Procession, from the library.