Monday, July 30, 2012


Everyone's talking about Gillian Flynn's new book, Gone Girl.  So very many people are talking about it, in fact, that I couldn't wait for the million years it was going to take me to get it from the library--I had to go out and get one of Flynn's earlier books, Dark Places, to see what all the fuss was about.

Have you ever tried to explain the plot of a thriller, or a mystery, or even an episode of House?  Yes, take an episode of House. So the blonde guy got a haircut and House is trying to figure out why, but then there's this fifteen year old who's bleeding from her fingernails and they think it's cancer, but it turns out it's NOT cancer, and then the other guy got a haircut too so maybe it's a conspiracy?  Yeah, it doesn't translate in a plot summary.

I'd say the same thing about Dark Places.  I can give you a brief description: Libby Day's mother and two sisters were killed in horrifying violence 25 years ago.  Libby, 7, hid in her mother's closet and testified against her teenaged brother Ben, who is now in prison for life.  Now, Libby is a mess and popular opinion is Ben was innocent.  For various not-particularly-virtuous reasons of her own, Libby begins investigating what really happened that night.  We also see flashbacks of the day leading up to the crime, and we learn more and more about what was going on in the life of Ben and their mother Patty. 

So, that's the summary.  You can pile things on, though--no money, small town gossip, creepy ex-husband, Satanic cults, serial killer aficianados.  When you make a list like that, it starts to sound silly, right?

But this book is absolutely masterful.  First, it's structured in the most gradual, creepy, foreboding way.  You start out with basic information, and more trickles in.  Each successive chapter adds a layer to what's going on.  Hints pay off, characters appear, there are reveals and surprises, and it all makes sense as you're cruising through.

And I don't mean to make it sound like it's a slow book.  That's the great part; each revelation is important, exciting, a moment.  We learn what Libby knows, and Libby learns more and more, and we learn things she doesn't know. 

There are two other things that really impressed me about this book, but they're really connected by the notion of really good writing.  One is that it's smart, witty.  Libby is snarky and bleak, but she's funny--not laugh out loud funny, but just intelligent and angry.  She has no investment in what people think of her, and no filter on her thoughts.  She's profoundly depressed, and doesn't seem to have a lot of control over her life, which makes her a keen observer of her own problems.

The other aspect of this is how perfectly things are portrayed.  The claustrophobia of a small town; the blank fatigue of someone who's depressed and hopeless; the impossibility of being a farmer with four children and no money, none, not at all.  There are amazing portrayals of depression here, without being boring (which is HARD).  There are some really clear, brilliant insights into how children can be manipulated unintentionally, and how the things that you're responsible for as a child affect you for the rest of your life.

One element of a book that was so tight and affecting is that it's sad and grim and harsh, and that feeling is pervasive.  Emotionally, it was a little hard to read--besides the violence, which wasn't that explicit, though the results are described in various places--the entire tone of the book is tense and unhappy, and, as with everything else, it's very successful at communicating that.

I really can't wait to get my hands on Gone Girl.  I think I'll probably be reading a lot of the most highly recommended thrillers soon. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Trilogy Blues

I know so many people who just won't read a book when it comes out if it claims to be a first book in a series.  Intellectually, I understand that, but it hasn't bothered for me in a while. Books come out so quickly these days!  I mean, if you waited 10 years for the next Clan of the Cave Bear book, you're not afraid of the eight months it takes to get the next popular YA title of the moment.  Amateurs.

But I've just finished No Safety In Numbers, by Dayna Lorentz.  There's no warning on the cover, no "Book One of the Hydrogen Prophecies" or "First Book in the Magnesium Cycle."  No, you start reading, and you think it's just your average YA about a bioweapon bomb planted in a suburban shopping center, a quarantine, and four kids facing the dangers and pressures that come with the situation.

And then you start to get it into it.  I mean, it's really a trapped-in-a-mall story--no one knows what's going on, or for how long they'll be there.  The teenagers are making trouble, the pharmacy is running out of toothbrushes, and Ryan has a crush on Shay, while Lexi's mother is being a pain.  Maybe you're a little skeptical that people are still selling food instead of giving it away before it goes bad, or wondering how much contact lens solution a group of this size is likely to need.

But in general, you're rolling along, feeling the mall-claustrophobia (which seriously, I have.  Malls used to make me hyperventilate when I was in high school), getting a little bored with everyone, and a little paranoid as you realize that we're worried about contagion but not taking the proper precautions, and that there's really no one from stopping the jock-bullies from being buttheads.  Things are building to a head--Marco also likes Shay; Lexi needs to step up and take care of people; Mike might be a jerk but he takes care of his own.

And then BANG!  The absolute climax of the book, seven days into this nightmare with five pages left and you're like what?  How can this end?  And it DOESN'T!  We're still in the mall.  Tune in next--what, year?--to find out what happens.  The presumed sequel doesn't even have an Amazon listing yet.  "End of Book One" my Aunt Fanny.  That's not book one, it's PART one of ONE BOOK.  This is not an ending to a book, it's an ending to an episode of a TV show.  Blargh!

At least be gracious enough to get an Amazon listing.  I want to know the title.  Because I really, really want to read it.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Party

As a former video producer, all I can think about is how much work this must  have been.

But as a reader, I am completely smitten with this video and want to go to the book party.

(This is from the website of a bookstore called Type Books, found via Hark, A Vagrant!)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Caroline B. Cooney: Enigma

I can't figure out if this book is a joke, or a first draft, or a sign of some sort of mental breakdown.  Caroline B. Cooney is a bit of an icon, for kids who read a certain type of book during a certain decade (say, 1987 to 1997).  I've loved her, too--from the super creepy Fog right up until my recent Janie Johnson reads.  But Diamonds in the Shadow, so far, just defies description in its levels of badditude.

Okay, so premise: midwestern Ohio family sponsors a family of African refugees and gets in for more than they bargained for.  It's unclear so far what that "more" consists of, but there's some messed up stuff going on.

First, the 12 year old, super-annoying and perky caricature of a younger sister is named Mopsy.  I mean, she's already a really silly character, and you name her Mopsy?  Seriously?

Secondly, while it's pretty clear she must have done some research about African civil war, there's a weird, thriller aspect to the story that doesn't quite sit right.  It doesn't fit together--I can't really explain it.

And then you have my pet peeve--the book's complete inability to adhere to a single point of view.  It's told in the third person, and I can handle it when there's a section from Jared's point of view, and then a different section from Mopsy's.  But when you jump quickly from the refugee orientation specialist to the refugee--no section break, no nothing-- but only really hint at what the refugee's thinking, it just gets confusing and frustrating.  Purposeful obfuscation.  Blargh.

If it wasn't so short, I'd give it up, but right now it's almost an adventure in badness.  Onward!

Update: No, I give up.  It's just so bad.  The traits of the African family read like a list of Traits You Might Find in African Genocide Refugees.  Not that these are not valid traits, but seriously, each family member represents a different psychological problem, and there is a LOT of telling, not showing.  Onward, indeed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Janie Johnson

After finishing the somewhat iconic Face On the Milk Carton, I'm just wrapping up the sequel (there are actually THREE sequels!), Caroline B. Cooney's Whatever Happened to Janie?  It feels really silly to give it a deep and thoughtful analysis, since it's a late-'80s after school special of a book, but there are some really interesting aspects of it.

I often have trouble with old YA books, wondering if they feel dated to me because 1990 was such a different time, or because 14 was such a different age.  This is a good example of that feeling, for a lot of reasons.  One very basic one--Janie spends a little while being shocked that people go on talk shows and discuss their most personal feelings, say things that will break their loved ones' hearts.  Everyone in this book is keeping silent--no one is saying what they feel, putting it out there for others to react to, even though everyone's feelings are obvious.  Is that how people used to be in the '90s?  Or is that something a modern 14 year old might still wonder?

Really, most of the mysteries of this book are about people not discussing their feelings.  Sure, I don't expect the teenaged characters to have much understanding or appropriate expectations of what happens when a teenager is reunited with a birth family that she never knew existed.  But the adults seem bewildered, too.  Was there every any adult who thought that taking a previously happy teenager out of her home and delivering her to a different family--however entitled that original family is--and insisting she cut off all contact with everyone--friends, boyfriend, parents--is going to make everything go much more smoothly?  Or is this a sketchily thought out plot point? 

What this book has me thinking about a lot is actually adoption.  There are a lot of issues of identity here that are the same as the ones present in thinking about adoption--what makes someone a parent?  What feelings are "supposed" to be there for a biological family you've never met?  What do you owe someone who's been through a lot emotionally on your behalf, without your input?  What does it matter who your genes come from, and what does it mean to be part of a family? 

And this book seems to get all those answers wrong.  I mean, in the end it comes around to them, but nobody in this book seems to feel on any level that the bonds of parent and child have anything to do with a lifetime spent parenting the child.  Not that the suffering of Janie's birth family should be dismissed, or their needs tossed aside, but that they don't trump everything. 

Even the end, where (spoiler!) Janie decides to go back to her "real," raised-her family doesn't feel quite right, because when she chooses this, there's no sense of the importance of this new tie, no sense that the new bonds might matter, too.  It's tough because the situation is so traumatic, I can imagine it playing out this way in real life--just get me home, forget you people.  But when Janie gets letters from her new family and sees them in her own behavior...well, it just made me wonder why so much of the book is spent negotiating the practicalities, but none on emotional compromise.

Anyway, this is way more thought than the book really entailed.  As I said, an after school special.  If you ever get a chance to see the made for TV movie starring Life Goes On's Kellie Martin, do.  If you like made for TV movies, you'll get the full book experience.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Two Castles

Yesterday I finished A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, and I suppose that since I've almost forgotten about it I shouldn't be too worried about getting it into the blog, but I am.  Partly because my reaction to Levine's books is all over the map, and partly because my reaction to this book is all over the map.

For the record, I really like much of Levine's work.  Loved Ella Enchanted; really liked Fairest; thought Ever was romantic and soppy except for the interesting take on gods; couldn't get into Two Princesses of Bamarre at all.  The intended audience for her books ranges from middle grade to YA, so I'm sure that's part of the equation.

The interesting thing about this book is how many different reactions I had at the same time.  At its core, the story is a mystery; one of the things I noticed most is that there's a LOT of detail piled into the storytelling.  This serves a lot of purposes: it sets the narrator, Elodie, up as someone who is observant and intelligent, which is a big plot point and an important part of why we like her.  It serves as some rich world-building.  But, most interestingly, it prevents you from knowing which details are the ones that will be relevant to the mystery.  If there are two horsemen riding past, a man with a basket of kittens, and a woman offering a bite of sausage to her father, which of these details might be relevant in who stole the ogre's dog? 

On one hand, the world she build was great, with lots of fun details and richly imagined layers of culture.  Actors are called mansioners, because their traveling caravans are like mansions with many rooms, and each color represents the tone of a scene (tragic scenes are set in the black mansion; love scenes in the green).  Cats are considered good luck, so everyone has a few.  A dragon's gender is no one's business but ITs own.

Elodie's family sends her to the city of Two Castles to apprentice, since they're too poor to pay for a place.  Her plan is to run away and become a mansioner.  Neither plan works out, and she finds herself in the employ of the city's only dragon.  The dragon sells roasted skewers and advice, and Elodie's first job is to help the local ogre, Count Jonty Um, solve the petty thefts and poaching that have been going on at his estate.

Now, here's where we get into the trouble.  This story was SO confusing.  The mystery was hard to solve, because it was hard to figure out.  There are so many strands of problems (thefts, dognapping, poaching, and others that come up later in the story), and how they tie together is unclear.  There are almost no clues left for the reader (as far as I can tell), and honestly, even now I couldn't trace a timeline of who was doing what and why.  All that rich and glorious detail made it even trickier to follow, and slowed down the pace of the story more than I wanted it to be.

Which is a shame, because I loved Elodie, and Meenore the dragon, and Count Jonty Um.  One of the big themes of the book is that you never know who is or isn't what they appear to be, so even the bad guys have good layers (though the good guys don't have a lot of bad ones).  And the mystery of who can be trusted--which is as important to the story as the mystery of who was committing the crimes--is also sprung on you.

I think my mixed reaction is based around the idea that I like the message of the book--in real life, the truth doesn't broadcast itself with sly looks and foreshadowing; the important details aren't the only ones that jump out at you.  But it made for a book that is paced and structured in an unfamiliar and, in the end, kind of uncomfortable way.  Reading this book was a lot of fun, but I didn't really follow it very well.  And when the reading level is 7 or so, that's kind of startling.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Brief Reviews

Finished three books in quick succession.  I already blogged about some of them, but some final thoughts.

Almost a Scandal, by Elizabeth Essex.  How I love Harlequin Historicals.  There's such comfort in their familiar rhythms, even when they don't make perfect sense.  This book, for example, didn't have a misunderstanding keeping the hero and heroine apart, but rather a practical situation.  So the resolution was almost unnecessary--they were in perfect agreement by the end.

But the best part is that my calculations were proven true.   A HH novel is between 280 and 320 pages long.  Let's say 300 for mathematical purposes.  On my Kindle, that means that each percent that I tick off is three pages.  So if I'm right, they'll have sex at 180 pages = 60%.  I think 59% is well within the margin of error.

As I said before, this is a great book for someone who wants to read about the British navy but with some romance and a chipper girl as your heroine.  There's a lot of naval lore here.  It's like Bloody Jack only a bit less convoluted.  Good stuff.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson.  Dude is an old crank.  It made me so sad to dislike Bill Bryson so much, when I've loved him so much in his other books.  Admittedly, only one was a memoir (A Walk In the Woods), and the others all research-based (At Home, A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Mother Tongue).  And in Walk, he does get awfully opinionated in a cranky old man kind of way (why is the Adirondack Trail so woodsy?  In England they'd have charming farms and cottages with privet hedges.  All this nature is so dense and thick--where's the fun in that?).  But anyway--I'm reserving judgement on him in general till I've read the  next one I picked--In a Sunburned Country.  I am neither defensive nor knowledgeable about Australia, so I think this will be a good test.

Finally, The Face On the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney. That cover makes it look creepier than it is--this is the story of a girl who sees her own childhood portrait on a milk carton, and the fallout from that.  I saw the movie--After School Special?  Made for Lifetime?--ages ago, and I really liked it. 

Turns out this book is only the first half of what the movie covered, which made me a little impatient with it.  This book is entirely about Janie Johnson's internal struggle with the question of what this Missing Persons photo means.  Are her parents not really her parents?  Are they kidnappers?  Who can she trust?  What will happen if she tells?  There's a lot of good, complicated family stuff here, though it feels a bit dated--Janie's parents are so great and perfect, they're all so close, and there's an underlying assumption that it's all either-or.  Her parents are the wonderful people she assumes, OR they're monsters who are terrifying and evil.  OR maybe they're crazy and have amnesia about what they did?  Black and white--is that because she's in high school, or because the book is from 20 years ago, when "suburban" meant "safe" instead of "soul deadening?"

Anyway, it's all worth going through, but I was much more interested in the complexity of what happens after this all comes out, and that's really where the book ends. It reminded me of The President's Daughter series in that way, actually.  I liked the ones about PTSD and the character dealing with her life being turned upside down more than the one where she's actually kidnapped.  But I'm definitely going to read the next one, Whatever Happened to Janie?, which promises to be exactly what I'm looking for to follow this up.  Too bad the library doesn't have it for the Kindle.

So, now we're up to date.  Hopefully I won't fall off the map again.  Toodles!

Monday, July 09, 2012


Not a lot of time today, after a busy weekend.  A couple of one-line observations, though.

First, Bill Bryson is cranky.  This is probably a risk of compiling a weekly column into a book, but I'm a Stranger Here Myself is just a series of one moaning rant after another about how lazy, impractical, bureaucratic, dangerous, and selfish America is on various levels--sometimes as a society, using statistics, and sometimes as individuals, using examples.  It's funny, because the book was written in the late '90s and can often go for long periods without seeming dated, and then I'm hit by something really surprising and I remember, oh, yeah, he's talking about when I was in college.  America's attitude toward the environment was more cavalier, England's airport security was comparatively much weaker, and people faxed letters to their far-off friends.

Second: Stephen King really believes that ugly people are ugly.  Which is to say, people who are mean, frightening, shrill, or horrible in Stephen King books are almost always sweaty, distended, bug-eyed, crooked, and poorly dressed.  Good, kind people, on the other hand, are at worst plain, and mostly attractive and pleasing to the eye, if not downright good-looking.  This kind of goes along with some of his other problems--I've always noticed that his women have intuition coming out of their metaphorical ears, and someone (Nnedi Okorafor, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Who Fears Death, which has just gone on my to-read) pointed out in a blog post I just read that he also falls prey to the Magical Negro problem.

Another interesting factoid I learned from Okorafor's blog is that H.P. Lovecraft was a HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE racist.  I've only read a couple of his stories, so I didn't realize.  This is why I don't like finding out about authors/actors/creatives whose work I admire.  Learning about their personalities and personal lifes is almost always a bad thing (cf. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Orson Scott Card).

(As an aside, I've been very interested in reading and thinking about the idea of how to be a fan of things that are problematic--how to recognize racism and sexism in books and movies that you really like.  It can be easy to get defensive about stuff you love and try to pretend the problems don't exist, but that's so much worse than facing up to it.  I have friends I love who do things I don't like.  I'd like to do a whole post about it, but I think it'll probably just be passing along good links.)

I suppose this post is now a bit of a ramble, but I was away all weekend and didn't have any time to post or much time to read.  I'll keep you as posted as I can, and know I love you all, Dear Readers, and have missed you!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Scandal On the High Seas!

As I may have mentioned before, I'm not much for romance novels.  I've read a few, and there are even a few that I love and reread.  But invariably, those are the ones that have something going on besides the romance, whether it's grand adventure or a detailed look at ranching in the 1880s.

What I am into, though, is swashbuckling.  And girls who dress up as boys and run away to (fill in the blank).  So I picked up Elizabeth Essex's Almost a Scandal on a whim, with trepidation in my heart.

But oh, it's so worth it! Ignore the cover--I'm halfway through and Sally hasn't worn a dress yet.  You see, when her brother, Richard, ran away to become a parson instead of following family tradition into the Royal Navy, she simply had to preserve the family's honor by showing up in his place.  Luckily, at 18, she can pass for a 16-year-old boy.  She's soon faced with an overbearing midshipman and a suspicious commanding officer, but she was raised by the navy, so she's ready for anything.

Now, the big risk with any girl-disguised-as-boy romance novel is the fact that the hero naturally doesn't know she's a girl.  So the requisite barely-repressed longing becomes confusing, especially for romance.  It's not that the authors aren't open-minded, but romance novels cross a lot of political divides, and when I see that particular dilemma coming, I'm never sure if the author or the characters are going to be able to handle that confusion of throbbing organs without some horrible pangs of homophobia. 

Bless Elizabeth Essex (if that is your real name--who believes that?), she sidestepped the question entirely.  Mr. Colyear recognizes the little sister of his old friends very early on in the story, leaving him free to be maddened and bewitched, and to feel electricity shoot through his body and all sorts of other feelings that permeate every fiber of his being. 

Because that's what feelings do in romance novels, and yeah, it's a romance novel.  But really, those parts are just punctuating things.  Again, halfway through, this is really a story of Sally doing her thing, and Col admiring her and not being sure what to do about her.  Yeah, there's the occasional bout of thinking about each other too much, and the occasional unfeminist desire to teach her a lesson (spanking or kissing, not sure).  But mostly they respect and like each other and are trying to manage the situation--with the added difficulty of his being the commanding officer of a great sailor who's also kind of stubborn. 

Of course, since this is a Harlequin Historical, they won't have sex until page 180, and they won't end up together until at least 275.  I did a careful study during my misspent high school years.

So yeah, this book is, thus far, pretty awesome as romance novels go.  Really, if they were all like this, I'd read them all the time.  "Headstrong" is too often a word for flaky in these books, but not this one.  This book reminds me very much of Bloody Jack--the first one, before Jacky's life started getting more and more hypermanic--and of the Temeraire series, in its fun, detail-filled picture of the Napoleonic war.  In short, I'm seriously loving it.

Here's where I disclose that I got a free copy for review.  And I'm so glad I did, because I can tell you I never would have paid money for a romance novel, but knowing what I know now, I really might for this one.  And I think I might give another Elizabeth Essex book a shot.  It depends on how the rest of the book pans out--if she maintains a strong, smart, competent female character who doesn't fall apart just when the man needs to pick her up, nor do stupid things that prove that the guy's the only logical one in the story, then yeah, I'm all over the Essex oeuvre.