Thursday, September 27, 2012

Undying, Not Undead

Once again, my Diverse Universe book reflects another ongoing theme in my reading.  This time, it's October (or it's going to be) and I'm reading thrillers and chillers. Besides discovering Gillian Flynn and rereading some of my favorite Dean Koontzes (Twilight Eyes), I picked up My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due.

Let's start with her name, because it's lovely and fun to say.  I found this book on one of the lists Aarti posted at the beginning of the blog tour.  It's kind of a thriller--it's actually got a Dean Koontz vibe, in that normal people are living normal lives until something abnormal starts happening.

Jessica is an up and coming young reporter at a newspaper in Miami.  She's got a great, loving husband that her friends call Mr. Perfect, a beautiful five year old daughter named Kira, and a good shot at the Pulitzer for her investigative work on elder abuse in nursing homes, as well as a book deal in the works.  Everything's coming up roses.

What she doesn't know is that her husband's past is about to catch up with their perfect life--and it's a long past.  David has a secret from his wife--and everyone.  Five hundred years ago in Africa, he underwent a secret ritual to become part of a brotherhood of immortals.  David can't die. Membership in this brotherhood comes with a lot of rules, though, especially around secrecy, and his brothers are coming to make sure he obeys the rules.

Now, the thriller is really good--you get the story from Jess's side of the weird things that are going on, stuff she notices about her husband, mysterious happenings.  And you get David's point of view--memories of other lives he's lived, previous loves, and how immortality has affected  his personality.

And that, I think, is the absolute coolest part of this book.  We spend a lot of time with David.  There's almost nothing factual that we don't know--details, sure, but there's no big mystery.  We know where the immortality came from, how he feels about it, and how the brotherhood works.  What's fascinating to read about, though, is his personality.

There are so many layers to it.  First, he's Jessica's perfect husband, who makes breakfast for their daughter every morning and cried when the dog died.  He really is the Mr. Perfect that her friends describe.  But the more you get inside his head, the more you--not start to wonder, but start to see how different facets of a personality work.  How love for one person can make someone change the way they act, and you wonder how much is because she inspires him and how much is because he wants to please her.  You see how an immortal might see a mortal life as meaningless, and how moving through life in a world full of people who are dying could chafe.  You wonder whether callousness is natural, or fiendish.  You wonder what he was like before he was like this.

And the thing is, I don't know the answer.  There are so many aspects of this character that are straight out of the abuser's handbook, and in a lot of ways (a LOT), David is pretty explicitly a bad guy.  But he truly loves Jessica and Kira, and that makes you wonder what exactly love means from someone who is, on a very fundamental level, a bad person.  It's not like it redeems him, and it's not even like his past explains his evil.  It's more like his evil resides right up against his love, and that he doesn't really seem to know the difference.  And Jessica lives with him and doesn't see so many things about his personality when he's not trying to hide them; he's doing what comes naturally, which is pretty kind and loving where she's concerned.  This is the absolute creepiest part of the book, and I'm finding it really creepy.

Really fun book--definitely more of a thriller than a fantasy novel, but if a working mother, a mystery, and a bunch of African immortals sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot.  I know I'll read the next one (next one--yay!), My Soul to Take.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Amazon Made Me Do It

This review is posted as part of the A More Diverse Universe Reading Tour.

At just about the time I was looking into more speculative fiction by authors of color, Amazon slapped up a big ol' ad for Angelfall, by Susan Ee.  And while I have avoided a lot of the YA fantasy trends (vampires, werewolves, and, yes, angels) for quite a while, I was very much in the mood to say "yes."  So I said it, and clicked it, and Amazon sold me a book.

Well played, Amazon.

This fits right in with the rest of my summer reading--it's fast, action packed, and fantastical.  It starts out with a pretty standard YA end of the world feel, and the YA feeling is enhanced because all the characters speak in a very modern way.  You don't know where the angels come from, but they talk like they're from California or Kansas--the here and now.  There's no high drama in the language.

What you get is nonstop action.  Good action, too.  This is a world that has been ravaged by angels who have rained destruction down on the major cities.  What people remain hide in fear of roving bands of angels, and of the gangs that have filled in the gaps left in the absence of civilization.  Penryn is a resourceful young woman who takes care of her mentally ill mother and her wheelchair-bound sister.  When they are caught in an angel-on-angel battle, Penryn's sister is taken, and Penryn reluctantly teams up with a wounded angel to save her.

Now, there are a decent number of plot points here that don't bear close scrutiny.  A few well-chosen conversations would make things a lot clearer, for the reader and the characters.  There are some things that are treated as fact that seem wildly unlikely, even within the confines of the story (why didn't they just kill that person? given what we know about angels, is it likely that they'd be able to do XYZ?).  But the book this reminded me of most was Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study.  Not that the stories are anything alike, but that they rocket along so fast and so thrillingly that if there are holes and weaknesses, I hardly notice them, and less do I care.  

Reading the book for A More Diverse Universe, I was probably more conscious than I would otherwise have been of Penryn's ethnicity, which is not identified in the story at all.  Aside from having long, dark hair and being relatively small, there are no physical descriptions of her, or of most of the main characters.  I pictured her as Asian as I'm reading the book, but there's very little in the text to support that (her childhood nickname is Ryn-Ryn). 

I don't think it makes sense to lay any particular expectations on the author just because I'm going into this with an awareness of her ethnicity.  This isn't a book about a Chinese character, though she might be Chinese-American.  What matters in this story is that Penryn is tough, strong, trained in martial arts, and devoted to her sister. 

Speaking of her martial arts experience, though, I'm reminded of something somewhat problematic about the book.  Penryn's mother is schizophrenic.  This is a pretty big plot point--she's off her medication (end of the world, you know), and so is intermittently violent.  On one hand, there are some really touching passages about the complexities of having a mother so ill--not knowing who you're going to find when you come home, having to be the grown-up in the relationship, loving her and fearing her and being angry at her all at the same time.

But on the other hand, the book really emphasizes how violent--horrifyingly violent, really--her mom is.  There's a line: "We now play a permanent game of I-am-crazier-and-scarier-than-you.  And in that game, my mother is our secret weapon."  I don't know a lot about schizophrenia, but the intense emphasis on the really unpleasant violence her mother is capable of is not doing any favors for the image of mental illness.  Not a lot of schizophrenics are violent, especially not like Penryn's mom.

The violence is another aspect of this to note--it starts out as an actiony book, but by the end, there's some really, really horrifying stuff.  Like violent, gross, intensely horrifying moments.  I don't want to spoil it, but I am hard to shock, and I was pretty shocked.  It almost came out of the blue--I think I'm reading a book with one level of awful, and then a whole other level shows up.  It's like you're reading a book about Nazis and then toward the end Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft pop up, and the ending gets all woah.

Still, the upshot is that I'm really having fun reading this book.  It's nice to start out this blog tour with something fast-paced and fitting with my light reading mood.  Oh, and I should warn you: it's a trilogy.  I know, I know.  Sorry about that.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Diverse Universe!

It's here!  Aarti has announced the lineup, and you'll see my first post tomorrow.  I cannot WAIT to read a bunch of these posts and am a little intimidated by what my to-read list is going to look like after I get through all this cool stuff. 

Of course, it happens to come during a week of complete madness, so I'll be lucky if I'm not reading all these blog posts next week when the work rush is over.  But I'm reading fun books for this, and I'm looking forward to reading a bunch more when it's done.  Very exciting!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Not Urgent

It's late and I was supposed to go to bed ages ago and work is CRAZY, but I wanted to share that I might not finish the book Insurgent, by Veronica Roth, which is a sequel to Divergent, which was slight but at least compelling in an action packed kind of way.

So at the beginning of this book, Tris and Four and their little band of misfits has just escaped the battle in the city toward the Amity compound.  While I remember the overarching story of the previous book, I remember almost none of the secondary characters or the complicated plot, so right off, I have very little idea what's going on.  How did Tobias's father end up with them?  And that violent jerk Peter?  But okay, whatever, let's follow along and see what happens.

But without the sort of shallow, straightforward training montage of the first book, this one just can't hold me.  Because none of this stuff makes any sense!  Only very rare, unusual people have this special brain chemistry that causes them to have more than one character trait.  No one can imagine a world in which people have multiple character traits.  This is extremely weak.  Those nasty Slytherins--I knew they were up to something!

And plot-wise, lots of very intelligent adults with lots on the line say, "Yeah, it's true that they broke into our homes and tried to kill lots of us, but you're just a kid, so whatever you advocate, no matter how sensible, we'll do the opposite."  Tris is angry that strangers are keeping secrets from her, when she's full of secrets herself.  It's just one dumb move on top of another, by everyone.  It's all angsty and mournful, and that would be fine if I could follow what the hell is going on, but they're all just fighting and breaking into each other's compounds and shooting each other with simulation serum, and it's boring boring boring.

This book and Crossed belong in the exact same category: the first book takes a not-quite-convincing future dystopia and tells a very simple, relatively enjoyable personal story.  In the second book, things get political and complicated and hard to follow and just ridiculous, and the plot holes pop up, and now I'm feeling very meh.  I don't think I'm going to finish.

Two notes before I go.  One: I maintain my firm conviction that the third book will be called Emergent, and I expect someone to congratulate me if I'm right.  Two: Brenda, my image is left-aligned.  Is it totally blowing your mind?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sucker For a Parody

A) Any book themed parody song
B) ALMOST (key word) any parody of That Song
C) This one specifically because of kind of awesomeness.

Thanks, Sarah and Molly, for the link!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Define Miracle

I decided to read the book club runner up before the actual selection, so I'm most of the way through The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker.  I was pretty excited about it, mostly because of some positive reviews by some of the folks I get my book recs from.  The premise is quite promising, too--it's a coming of age story set during a time when the Earth, for no discernible reason has begun to slow in its rotation. 

Each day is longer than the one before it, the light lasting longer, the night stretching on.  The story begins on the first day when the phenomenon is announced (most people haven't noticed in their day to day life; sunrise is barely an hour off of where it should be).  There are changes that are chronicled--gravity is stronger, and the birds suffer.  Crops struggle.  Something called slowing sickness affects certain people.  There is social and political tension about whether the world should function on clock time or daylight time.

But really, this is all background.  I wouldn't say that the amount of detail is dissatisfying, but the fact is that, even when the world doesn't just keep on spinning, the world just keeps on spinning.  Kids go to school, marriages contain tension, middle school friendships come and go. 

In fact, this entire review so far is misleading, because really that's what this book is about.  It's not about the world changing at all; it's about a girl going through a tough transition in middle school.   She struggles to fit in.  There's a strain on her parents' marriage, and though Julia (that's the narrator, 11-year-old Julia) pinpoints the slowing as the beginning of it, it's pretty clear that it was coming anyway. 

So really, what I see here is a coming of age novel--fairly straightforward, middle-of-the-road, slightly boring "literary fiction" (if by that you mean closely observed details of a mostly unremarkable life)--with an extended metaphor that serves as a setting and framework.  It's not bad--not at all--but I almost feel like I was sold a bill of goods, because there's just not much new here--not much insight into human nature, either through observations of the slowing or of Julia's adolescence.  I'll admit that I'm less surprised that Julia's troubled adolescence is kind of boring than I am that this account of the basics of physics being upended is kind of dull.

Again, it's not a bad book.  I think my favorite thing about it is the little hints the narrator gives to the future as she tells the story.  In some places they're short term (the car was silver, though the police report would describe it as light blue), whereas in some places they're tantalizingly long term (that was the last time we ever tasted pineapple). 

I don't expect to get a satisfying glimpse of the world post-slowing, though, because that's not what this is about.  It's not a speculative book.  In fact, the world pictured here is probably most remarkable in its mundanity in the face of 60 hour days.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Romance Titles: This Never Gets Old

Every time the library gets a new batch of ebooks, I start to giggle.  Okay, this one is a quiz.   Which one am I making up? (I swear to God, two out of each three are real.)

1) Book titles: who did what?
   A. Led Astray by a Rake
   B. Taken by the Devil
   C. Twice Tempted by a Rogue

2) Series titles: there's more than one of them?
   A. The Wicked Temptress Trilogy
   B. The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy
   C. The Stud Club Trilogy

3) Place names: I want to go to there.
   A. Kiss River
   B. Gossamer Ridge
   C. Satin Hollow

4) Sounds like/might be an '80s power ballad.
   A. Take Me There
   B. All I Need
   C. Against All Odds

5) Title and summary, all in one.
   A. Stranded with Her Ex
   B. Love and Danger in a Highland Castle
   C. Rancher's Twins: Mom Needed

I hope you don't get tired of this game, because I never, ever, ever will.  I'd offer a prize if you guessed right, but I don't trust you not to use Amazon.  Also, it's entirely likely that my made-up ones really exist.  And now I'm really tempted to start reading Lady Drusilla's Road to Ruin.

(PS. I hope no one things I'm mocking the books.  It's the titles that are so much fun!)

Monday, September 03, 2012

Farm Stories

I'm reading this book that my father recommended--The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball--and I'm really enjoying it.  It's about--

Wait, hold up.  My father? Recommended?  Tom, you mean.  Tommy Smith.  This guy.  Recommended a book?  That he read, himself?

Yeah, yeah.  It takes a while to let that sink in.  Pa doesn't have time to read, so he doesn't do much of it.  But the farm in the book is just a few miles from my uncle Bouncer's house, so the book came into his path.  And of course, it's right up his alley--it's about starting a farm.

I sit in a strange place when it comes to books about how awesome it is to get back to the Earth.  Whenever someone asked it I was going to go into farming, my father would say, "I've worked very hard all my life so my kids wouldn't have to go into agriculture." Farming is really, really, really hard work, and there's no money in it.  It is not for the faint of heart; it may be rewarding but it's only very occasionally fun, and you won't have any health insurance.  It kind of reminds me of parenting like that--there are plenty of great moments, but as many or more horrible moments, and a pervasive exhaustion that makes it really hard to parse why you're doing this--but you'd never give it up.

Very few memoirs about farming let onto that.  Yeah, they'll talk about the dirt and the work, the hours and the weather.  But a writer who's got a book in them about farming is generally not motivated to really communicate how all those things pile on themselves to the point of oppression, or how much of a factor luck is--how too much or too little rain at just the wrong time can cost you half a year's income. 

The other side of this book is the love story, if you will--how the author met her husband and left her life as a writer in NYC to move with him to upstate New York and milk cows.  Whirlwind doesn't even begin to describe it, and I frequently found myself thinking "the man is CRAZY, you should RUN!"  My favorite example: while they were looking for land to start their farm, they had rented a house.  Mark "mistrusts" modern plumbing, so he build a compost toilet in the living room of their rental.   This is beyond endearingly quirky--this is someone who's going to end up living in a shed keeping his toenails.  (He actually does save his used dental floss, just in case he needs it for something.)

But the really crazy, creepy part is how many of his wacky quirks, again, REMIND ME OF MY DAD.  He doesn't like driving anywhere, and is mistrustful when she decides to leave the property, too.  (Not mistrustful that she's doing anything he wouldn't want her to.  Just uncomfortable when she's not home.)  He wants to do things his way, even when it's not entirely sensible, and they have a lot of arguments about things.  He sounds exhausting, really, and I'm rather startled at how much of his crackpot scheming he manages to pull off.

Because I think that's the thing, in the end.  My horror at getting up at 3:30 AM to do 3 hours of chores BEFORE you start your full day of work (chores means feeding, milking, and cleaning up after the animals) is almost dwarfed by the thrill I feel at the idea of this self-sufficient food empire they've created, and at the notion of fresh dairy, and at the fact that they've made a success of it, with supporting members and volunteer workers.  And I can't pretend I don't envy that sense of place and focus. 

I think what this book really feeds into is the same thing I love about nun books--it's about putting aside the easy parts of life to shape yourself around something that really matters to you.  It's about doing something hard and transformative and permanent.  It's about living a life that is not only shaped by your values, but is defined by and entwined with and in every way formed around those values.  I could never do that, but I'm always in awe of the people who can.