Tuesday, December 31, 2013

End of the Year Thingie

Everyone's doing a wrap-up post, with statistics and analyses and best-of lists.  Do you all think more coherently than I do?

Anyway, since Goodreads crunches the numbers for you, I figured I might as well throw this out there.  So here are my stats.

Total titles for the year (according to Goodreads): 132

But wait, some of those are books that I gave up on but logged anyway: 17

Okay, now how many were comics?: 38

(Slightly embarrassing aside: how many of those comics were from the Buffy franchise?: 18)

What about kids' books--like, chapter books from the children's section?: 11

And sometimes you put in a short story or novella: 8

So how many "actual" books does that leave?--YA, nonfiction, novels: 59

So much good stuff.  Above were a few of my favorites--not necessarily my most-most favorite, but the ones that I am not seeing on everyone else's top 10 lists.  Fangirl, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Saga, Eleanor & Park, Americanah--a lot of my favorite bloggers are raving about these, so I'll just add some to the mix.

I'm back in a groove with some great reads in process now, so hopefully there will be more posts to come.  And I am already making a list of 2014 releases I can't wait for. In the meantime, happy new year, everyone!

(And, once again, I edited this because I left out a book!)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Time Travel Done Right

Let's skip over my long absence, and please don't expect a year-end post because not today.  Let me just give a quick shout out to the best book I've read this month, just what a lot more books should be: All Our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill.

Time travel narratives can rarely stand close deconstruction, and there's almost always some "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" hand waving to make things go smoothly.  All I ask is that you explain the rules and then stick to them: check.

 You've got all kind of sort of things here that might drive me nuts--there's kind of a sort of love triangle, but oh, it's not like that.  There are so many kinds of love  here, just among the few main characters--siblings and like-siblings, parents and like-parents, crushes and longings and necessary-friendship-has-brought-us-together.  They're all sensitive and complicated.  Marina knows full well her parents are useless as parents, but it still breaks her heart anew whenever they fail to come through for her.  Her best friend's brother and guardian is an amazing guy and knows his brother's friends and has inside jokes with them.  It's so real.

It grabs you at the beginning--Em is trapped in a cell, periodically tortured, thinking about escape, her only companion a voice from the next cell through the vent.  A hidden message, an escape, a time machine, and the story unfolds, in the present and in the past to which she travels.  You get enough information that you're not confused, but there are plenty of secrets.

And thank you, Cristin Terrill, for not making your suspense depend on keeping secrets that we all figured out early on.  With an author I've never read, I always worry--once I figure something out, are they going to pretend or assume that I don't know this until it's the big reveal at the end?  No, no--there are plenty of reveals, all along the path.  Yeah, I knew who was what early on (mostly), but there were more surprises.

A lot of the sense of the story relies on awkward emotional truths--basically, on a determined but really unhappy about it assassin.  At first, the whole "can't bring myself to do it" thing worried me, but god, do you remember that really good friend of yours that you once had a crush on--no, loved--who was so wonderful to you, but just so obviously didn't see you that way that you never even said anything?  But you hoped, and you accidentally leaned against them sometimes, and god, if only they'd see?  Yeah, I am so right there with you, Cristin Terrill and Team All Our Yesterdays.

There will be a sequel.  It does not need one.  This book made me really happy.

Update: 12/30: I am editing this post because I left out my favorite thing about the book! So, so many books about big world changers ignore the dark side of this stuff, the moral ambiguity that exists when the world is going to change.  Everyone wants to make the world better, but the stakes are already so high that there's no way for that to happen without something ugly taking place.  That recognition is what makes the bad guy bad AND what makes the good guys good.  I have so much respect for this complexity.  So I wanted to add that.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Stalker Follow-Up

For the record, I'm more than halfway through this book, and it's absolutely awful, and here's the quote that is probably going to make me quit it:

"I began to feel that I and other men were beginning to occupy a position in our society like that of women in repressive traditional societies, where the merest suggestion of sexual transgression could mean death."

There are so many things wrong with this sentence.  So. many.  First, death?  A tainted reputation is not death. The notion that someone might give him the side-eye because someone spread a rumor that he had an affair is NOT COMPARABLE to the possibility of being stoned to death for making eye contact with a man you're not related to. He'd be better off comparing himself to a Victorian lady--his vapors would support the comparison.

Second, your white dude suffering is definitely EXACTLY like what third world women go through. How perceptive of you to relate the experiences.  You know exactly what it's like.

And yes, men in general suffer like that, on an institutional level!  Poor widdle guy. 

He's a freaking doink.  I hate him. Not sure if I can finish the book.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Everything on Stalking, Please

The title of the book is Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. But the cover distinguishes between the title and subtitle only by the color differentiation, so it can be read as though a guy walked into a library and asked the librarian to "give me everything you have on being stalked."  And yes, this book would be on that list.

This book is very much a memoir, and it suffers, as some memoirs do, from the fact that I don't like the narrator very much.  I feel for James Lasdun, and unlike a lot of Goodreads reviewers, I don't assume that he was having an affair with this woman, or is misrepresenting his role in what happened somehow.  But the guy comes across as seriously self-absorbed, a complete snob, and maybe a little socially awkward (that could just be a reflection of his full-of-himselfness).

Now, I'll admit, I'm writing this before I've finished it (if I wait till I'm done with a book I never review it), so it could be that there's something at the end that will make me say, "Yes, my god, they are right. He must have slept with her."  But have you read The Gift of Fear?  (If not, you should.  Between this book and that one, Everything You Have may be the more literary, but Gift of Fear is the more compelling and psychologically honest.)  There are people who are just like this, who will fixate on you to one degree or another and not obey any of the social rules, without your doing anything out of line.

So yeah, I believe that things happened, even as he described them.  And yeah, his protests that he recognized her flirting but ignored it is probably disingenuous--either that or he's really dumb.  But engaging in an online flirtation does not mean he "asked for it."  It just makes his surprise less believable.

And then--here's where his negative Goodreads reviews get more on point--he starts to examine the exact emotional place he was around the time that their correspondence took place.  Really, this structure is weird for a lot of reasons: first, he relates the whole story in a relatively succinct and matter of fact way--a very interesting, long-article-length piece that is very factual and not speculative.  Then he backs up and puts layers of context and psychology and introspection on top of it, which is kind of tortured. 

This is clearly a man who's been taking notes for his memoir for years and has FINALLY found something interesting enough to sell to people, so is squishing all his favorite entries from his journal into this book.  Seriously, your emotional state during the period when you were not writing to her does not relate in any way to what she did.  Your silence over email conveyed no subtleties of the human condition.  Get over yourself, dude.

And if you do take this at face value--if you say, okay, being stalked gave this guy a reason to blather on a bit about Life and Art and things.  Let's measure him by that yardstick.  Really, this is where I really start to dislike him.  He wishes he wanted to write poems about Big, Important Things, instead of just personal, introspective poems about things like his relationship with his father.  But he's not compelled to write about those big issues, and he hates himself for that, considers himself a small man without any claim to High Art.  His father, now there was a guy who knew High Art.

Etc.  Seriously, you guys can guess how I feel about High Art, particularly as distinguished from The Kind Of Art That Appeals To The Masses.  I try not to misuse the word "pretentious"--it's not pretentious to like classical music, it's pretentious to fake liking it because that's what classy people like--but I'm pretty sure this is the worst kind of pretension.  He's horrible.

And that's pretty much where I am with this.  I'll finish it, because I want to know what's going to happen with the stalking.  But I'm not going to recommend it.  I think enjoying this book might mean you're pretentious.  But hey, tell me if I'm wrong.

Friday, November 29, 2013

One Misty Moisty Morning

There's nothing like getting into a new Epic Fantasy Series.  There is nothing so consuming, nothing quite so satisfying, and--to my mind--nothing quite so intimidating.  I mean, this is a thousand page book with a cast of zillions.  Maybe there's a pronunciation guide or six pages of maps, or the dreaded family tree.  And even if you're ready to read it, you know there are two more in the trilogy, and then a few other equally ponderous trilogies set in this world.  It's a lot to ask of a reader.

It's a lot to ask of a writer, too, which is one of the reasons I'm always so reluctant to invest in one.  When you pick up a thousand page book by an author you've never read, you are making a commitment that could bring you to readerly grief--wasted time! accidentally getting invested in events that are poorly written and being forced to suffer through more of the book to find out how they turn out!  The humanity!

So the good news--the great news--is that Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire (which sounds like the name of a video game, right?) is definitely worth my time.  Once you break the seal on a new author like this, tons more pages pour out, and I'm going to be reading Brandon Sanderson's universe for probably years--and that's just to catch up to where things are today.

So here we have some cool worldbuilding--the Lord Ruler is in charge of the Final Empire, which is to say the whole world, and he's just the despot you'd expect.  It's all anyone's known for a thousand years--nobles killing skaa, brown plants that barely produce enough food for the population, misty nights you can't go out in.  We've got rich spoiled nobles and poor downtrodden serfs, plus those people who lurk on the fringes of things--the thieves and beggars.

You've got some very interesting characters, most notably Vin, a street urchin clinging to the edges of  crew of thieves, no friends and no connections.  When she meets Kelsier and his band of specialized criminals, she finds herself caught up in a plan to overthrow the Final Empire.  Her participation leads to her first close-up view of the lives of the nobles, and she examines her own understanding of the world and those of her new friends.

Okay, there's a summary.  And the characters are really engrossing, though describing them wouldn't do much good. (God, don't read the back covers of epics till you're done with them.  Long explanations of intricate power plays are what the actual text is for, not the back cover!) The parallels between Kelsier and his singleminded desire to destroy the Empire and everything we learn about the Lord Ruler at the time when he created the Empire centuries ago are really great. 

There's a but; how big a but depends on how you feel about this sort of thing.  First, Vin is the only female within miles of this book for the full first half.  Around the middle, a nasty, snooty noblewoman tries to involve Vin in her political maneuverings.  I'm 2/3 of the way through, and this is literally every female speaking character in the book.  A big point is made of how women in particular are abused by nobles (half-blood babies cannot be permitted to exist, so if a nobleman sleeps with a skaa woman, they have to kill her after), and how most women in the criminal world end up being prostitutes.  The particular oppression of women is not counteracted by any examples of female characters at all--to the point where it's freaking conspicuous.

There's also a lot of talk about boring and vapid court ladies, which comes off as femmephobia when you look at the fact that everyone at court seems kind of vapid, but only the women are described as such.  It's not like most of the men are leading lives of the mind or anything.  Everyone's gossiping, but Vin complains about having to listen to women gossip.  Oh, and on a more plotted level, Vin falls clunkily in love very early on.  I mean, okay, you need her to fall for this guy, but you've set her up as this incredibly guarded, experienced criminal, and then she turns into a Blushing Teenaged Girl in front of the Cute and Maybe Not So Bad Enemy?  Please.

Plus, the machinations are AWKWARD.  The snooty noble lady says things like "you should be grateful to be used by your betters."  It made me long for the intricate levels of courtly intrigue in a book like Dune

Oh, man, Dune.  Now THERE'S an epic.  I wish the sequels weren't so unabashedly weird.

Anyway, I'm listening to The Final Empire as an audiobook, and I had my doubts about the reader at first--he has a harsh voice and it too him a while to really get the voices of some of the characters.  But I'm totally into it now, and I'm really glad I'm listening to it.  I feel the sweep of it a bit with the distance of the book.

And I have a guess that one of our trusted crew members is a traitor.  I won't tell you who, but I think Kelsier ended up at Hath Sin because of one of their crew, and that his wife was framed.  I am waiting for the betrayal.  No spoilers!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Club for the Time Being

I still don't know what that means in the context of this book, "for the time being."  There's a LOT going on in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being--like, a LOT; maybe more than is good for the book--and the idea of time and time beings is just one of many, many things.

Well, wait, I guess it's not so much that I don't know what it means--a person, anyone who lives in the flow of time, is a time being.  It's more like I don't quite know why that observation is useful.  As I said, a lot of things going on here.  As usual, I think a question list is a good place to start, although I also think that the last question will be the most important one.

1) Time: since it's in the title, let's talk about it.  This is a multipart question, though, and some parts work better than others.
   a) Where does time come up?  What kind of references, what kind of metaphors?  Explicit references and the ones that are built into the story, like the relationships between all the threads of narrative and how they unfold.  (I am really tempted to spew out a list here--the Friends of the Pleistocene, Ruth pacing herself as she reads, Proust--but you could go on forever.)
   b) How do all of these references to time support or relate to the actual themes of the book?  Is time actually a theme, or more of a motif?  Why are these references there?

2) Okay, so we've done time.  Let's do other themes.  There are tons--alienation and the character against society; nature (the island/the temple) vs. civilization (Tokyo/New York); death (duh).  Can you think of more?  Are they related to each other, or just piled on top of each other?

3) Does this book contain too many symbols and motifs?  Like, what's up with the Jungle Crow?  And pet cats?  What about the protagonists' relationships with little old ladies? French language and literature? Did all the parallels between Nao's life and Ruth's seem meaningful or add to the story for you? How?

4) Is there a difference between magical realism, surrealism, and dream logic?  And do you hate dream sequences as much as I do?  I also hate drug trips and mad ramblings (OMG JOSS WHEDON I'M LOOKING AT YOU), but what this book had in spades was dream logic.  Is this book magical realism?  Like, what do you think was going on with the pages of the journal? And what about the scene where Nao goes to class after the attack?  Is that her telling her story the way she wants it, or is it dream logic, or magical realism?

5) What's your general opinion of books where the protagonist has the same name and many of the same characteristics of the author?  Do they make you suspicious, seem overly precious?  Do you ever wonder what it must be like to know that person and either look for or see yourself in their books?  Have you read Everything Is Illuminated?  Do you suspect that Jonathan Safran Foer is too precious to live?  Woah, wait, that had a lot of magical realism in it, too.  Do you think the books are related in other ways? 

6) Back to Time Being and eponymous characters, how did you feel about Ruth's relationship with Oliver?  Did they seem to kind of hate each other?  Was this just standard long-marriage stagnation, or was it actual disdain?  Were you rooting for her to maybe leave, move somewhere with a good internet connection and a Starbucks? And harking back to question (5), how would you feel about this book if you were the real Oliver?

7) Did you feel like the story was hitting you over the head with things, or did they creep up on you?  For example, did you figure out what was going on with Babette before Ruth explained it to Oliver? (I didn't.)  Did you figure out what was going on with the internet bidding war before Oliver explained it to Ruth? (I did.) At what point did you realize that the book was not actually going to be the remarkable life story of a Buddhist nun that you were promised in the cover copy?  Were you resentful?  Are you still?

Dude, there is a lot to say here, and I've been writing this post for days (around getting a new computer due to a major crash experience).  I don't know how much I loved the book itself, but I did like it.  And I truly did love that it had me asking so many questions.  If I knew the answers to half of them, I think I would have loved the book itself, too.  I do like questions, but I'm very, very big on answers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Unthinkable Unfinished

The thing about having an enormous reading list of exciting books that I'm dying to read is that my tolerance for a three-star book is minimal; something I might push through on another day is not going to hold my attention when so many tantalizing books are waiting in the pile.

Thus the sad fate of Nancy Werlin's Unthinkable.  In the afterword (which I skipped ahead and read; go figure, right?), she discusses how the book came about--how someone suggested she do a prequel to her excellent book Impossible, and she ended up writing a sequel instead.

Impossible is the story of Lucy, whose family is cursed.  In every generation, a baby girl is born.  That girl grows up to have a baby at 16 and then go insane.  Lucy and her adoptive parents don't believe in the curse--until Lucy finds herself pregnant and haunted.  Now, they need to find a way to break the curse before the baby is born. This was a lovely book, about the power of family, and how important it can be to have allies, and how cycles can be broken. 

Someone suggested the author write a prequel about Lucy's ancestor, Fenella, who was cursed centuries ago by a jealous fairy and has been his prisoner ever since.  Werlin declared a prequel to be a terrible idea, since of course we all know that the story has a sad ending.  Instead, she writes a sequel--Fenella, released from Fairy at last, has to earn her last bit of freedom by committing three acts of destruction--the counterpoint to the three acts of creation that saved Lucy originally.

So we have Unthinkable, which tells of Fanella reentering the world to free herself by harming others.  Interspersed, we have the story of young Fanella walking blithely into her curse.  It's all just so sad and depressing.  And frustrating!  There are so many places where things didn't have to end up the way they did, but by the time the book is underway, the whole thing feels like an exercise in cruelty, like one of those thought experiments where you have to decide which of your most precious loved ones you would save from a fire.

I'm sorry to set this aside; I really did love Impossible.  But as I said, there is a stack of exciting books beside me, and in a tight race like this, Unthinkable just isn't going to place.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


I'm done with Fairest; let me tell you why.

I talked about my concerns in my review of the first volume, and my feelings about all these things have only gotten stronger.  Fables is an amazing, epic story with just as many strong, flawed, complicated, fascinating female characters as male--maybe even more.  I appreciate the desire for a spinoff series to tell one-off personal stories and fill in backstory, but the implication that women need this special place when Willingham had given them such a great seat at the table is just infuriating.

And then there's the imagery.  I linked to a bunch of covers in my previous post--do you want to see some more?

God I hate these.  I mean, they're lush and sexy and provocative, and I'm not offended by sex.  The one on the left I even find kind of gorgeous.  But I'm offended by the fact that this entire series seems to be about reducing the breadth of these characters.  Gah.

Anyway, these are reasons that I thought about stopping.  But ultimately, I'm driven by my baser instincts, and I will follow a good story into a lot of ugly places (The Color of Light comes to mind as a book I have loved for a long time that, as Jolene finally pointed out to me about 10 years ago, really hates women).  So I actually kind of liked the first volume, and I was really looking forward to the second.

Unfortunately, Bill Willingham did not write this volume.  Apparently the reason for the spinoff series is to give other writers a place in the Fables universe.  Amazon tells me this volume was written by Lauren Beukes.  I know nothing about her, but I do know that this story didn't make any sense at all.  I read the first two issues in the volume, and I could not for the life of me follow what was going on. 

There was this random paper crane the flew in through the window and suddenly Rapunzel knew that her children who she thought didn't exist did exist and were in trouble.  And then they're in Asia and we're flashing back to a time when the old world Rapunzel ended up in a Japanese fable realm for some reason.  And then we flash back forward to her unauthorized trip to Japan to track them down, where she runs into all these relevant characters on the same streetcorner in one night and then goes to this place with one of them that is--what, somewhere?  I don't know.  I don't get it. 

I can tell you that the most interesting part of the story was the problem of how to hide the fact that her hair grows four inches per hour on a 20 hour international plane flight.  I found this to be a fascinating problem.  They solved it with magic.  Snore.

Yeah, so I'm done.  The next volume of Fables proper comes out next month.  I'm just going to hang my hopes on that.

Monday, November 11, 2013

One Week Becomes Two

Ah, blog drag.  It's a thing, and I'm going to take this opportunity to appreciate the fact that my small (but loyal! and well-loved!) readership means that I get to take breaks when I don't have much to say without causing as much crisis as it would if I was a big name blogger.

I'm in a bunch of middles; I don't think there's anything from the last few weeks that has stuck with me long enough to talk about (at least, not that I don't have a plan for posting about--Sarah, I'm talking about The Tightrope Walker!).  So, just a quick rundown of my in-the-middle-ofs.

1) Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  It's really good, but I think that Mary Roach is better when she's looking at the places where science and culture intersect.  So this book is better than Packing for Mars, but not as good as Stiff or Spook. I enjoy her loving treatment of the scientists who study these things, though, and it's still a Mary Roach book, which means it brings charm and wit, and that I now know why we use the terms flammable and inflammable interchangeably, and why (probably) mythology contains fire-breathing dragons..

2) Nancy Werlin's Unthinkable.  Not as good as Impossible, and with a much less comfortable premise.  Fanella is cursed with immortality until she commits three acts of destruction that hit very close to home.  It's kind of emotionally frustrating--heartbreaking, and never quite addressing head-on the fact that, if this is the no-win situation it appears to be, it was stupid, blindly made decisions that got us  here.

One thing that's driving me crazy, though--and it's the most inane thing--is that the company that I work for does business under the name Fanilla, Inc.  So whenever I pronounce her name to myself, I'm lifted out of the story and into a scenario where I'm perusing my paycheck.  Just...weird.  Like dating someone with the same name as your dad.

3) Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  I have many thoughts on fandom about this one, but it's about to get back-burnered in favor of the book club selection; I fully intend to come back to this one.  I'm enjoying it SO much.

There's more: random library pickups (Love You Hate You Miss You), Netgalleys that aren't holding my attention (Palace of Spies), a really good high fantasy novel that I'm just realizing doesn't come anywhere near passing the Bechdel Test (Mistborn: The Final Empire).  But I don't have much else to say right now.  I'll see what happens when my opinionated kicks in--or maybe just my excitement over the next batch of reads.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rose and Roza

Elizabeth Wein set herself a very high bar with Code Name Verity.  This is often a problem with the first book--by an author, in a series, etc.

Rose Under Fire suffers from the comparison, which is sad, because it's a very good book.  It's powerful and tragic and the characters are so brave and sad and human.  And there are such moments of triumph, without lies or glossing over what a concentration camp was.

Verity had two things going for it that Rose didn't: one, there was a twist, a big reversal that I didn't quite see coming but that created in me a love that I suspect will be everlasting for Elizabeth Wein.  She went from being just someone who wrote this book to the Mind behind it, someone who was steps ahead of me and meticulously crafting the story.  I mean, when it was revealed that there was more going on than I realized, every piece was in place, every clue was there, and every detail fit together.  That's craft.

Secondly, Verity was a story I'd never read before.  Female pilots, women captured behind enemy lines, spies in German custody--all fresh to me.  There were parts that were familiar--Maddie's time spent hiding reminded me of the resistance fighters in the book Tamar, for example.  But there was so much that I knew nothing about, and that much was exciting.  Julie felt powerful, even when she was truly powerless. 

But Rose's story is at least close to ones I've read.  I don't want that to sound like a complaint--it's a powerful story and a poignant one.  But there are so many books and movies that have had parts of this story in it that it was not unfamiliar to me--the premise itself didn't surprise me. 

Enough with the complaints, though, because it was really so good.  I didn't know anything about the Rabbits (well, I knew the existence of Nazi medical "experiments," but not much about the victims), and I'd never met Rose, who was worth meeting.  And Lisette, and Karolina, and Roza, and Irena.  Each of them was so different from the others, each completely her own character, and all amazing in their own rights.  I loved Rose's poetry, which kind of surprised me in and of itself. 

Every character was trying to survive, but every one had moments of selflessness.  I won't say it was unbelievable in that--it's very believable, it's what you want to believe about the human spirit--but it was so exciting, so satisfying, to see everyone struggle for each other, keep each other alive, in spite of everything.

I loved Rose.  I loved her best, I think, in the Paris hotel room she inhabited after she left Ravensbruck, alone and frightened and finally safe, unable to figure out where she was or what was supposed to happen next.  I loved her in that moment, and I loved the maid who took care of her and all the lovely people Elizabeth Wein put in the world to make up for the horror.
Let me just follow up this post on Premeditated by saying that yes, I did turn out to be right in the prediction I made VERY early in the book, and it was quite frustrating watching the protagonist blunder around not realizing what I realized, especially since she had ALL the information I had.

Except, I suppose, the fact that she's in a novel.  That's a strong predictor for plot twists that rarely occurs to someone in real life.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Young We Were, And Far From Free

Teen suffering round-up!

(Note: I will not include Rose Under Fire in this post, even though Rose is a teenager and Roza is even younger.  It just wouldn't feel right.)

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin, is a process dystopia book, about how civilization comes to an end via the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, and how Alex, one boy right on the edge of the disaster zone, survives.  Most of the book is exactly what I want from my post-apocalyptic YA: clever people figuring out how to get food and stay alive.  It's really well done in that respect, and there are some very nice bits of altruism and the acknowledgement of the limits of altruism.

There's a chunk that takes place in a relocation/concentration camp, and that's much less enjoyable.  Not only is it very unpleasant, it's just so ugly--I know there's no reason to think that Americans wouldn't act like that in the months after a devestation, but seriously, it's pretty much Blackwater being hired to deliberately imprison and starve American citizens.  I know it's not implausible, but it doesn't feel like it makes sense.

That part was relatively short, though, and there are some great sections about what community looks like in this world--trade, and good fences, and also small towns being all self-reliant.  There's definitely some love for the Midwestern farming ethos here.  Alex's journey from spoiled teen to self-sufficient young man and across the barren state of Iowa (accompanied by his too-good-to-be-true mechanical genius girlfriend) is gripping and readable.  Yay!

Then you have a very different kind of end of the world: Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardener.  In this oppressive, North Korea-style regime, Standish Treadwell is living with his grandfather, since his parents and best friend's family have been taken away.  They are struggling to survive in a place where there isn't enough food and people inform on each other.

This unnamed nation is about to launch a spaceship to the moon, to prove to the world that they are superior.  Standish finds out secrets about the launch and finds himself facing decisions that are bigger than himself.  The book does an amazing job with the oppressive ignorance and horrible isolation of the world they live in.  And yes, I was crying a little at the end.  But there were some plot holes, and more places where the book has a tone of winning that maybe should be more like triumph of the human spirit in spite of horrible events.

And then you have Stupid Perfect World, which is somewhere between a novella and a short story.  Slight, slim, gauzy, but Scott Westerfeld can write distant future teenage society with flare.  Kieran's taking Scarcity class, for which you have to spend two weeks suffering something that people used to suffer way back in the day.  Someone picks the common cold, someone else gives up teleporting, Maria chooses normal teenage hormones.  Kieran picks sleeping, and he and Maria both find that these individual physiological changes have huge effects. 

I like Scott Westerfeld's books, mostly for his writing and world building.  They're very teenaged, though.  Passions, rebellion--like Maria, there are a lot of teenaged poets in his books. I don't have a lot to say, except not bad.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


One of the hot new young adult writers this year is Josin McQuein, who wrote Arclight and Premeditated, both of which were published this year.  The sequel to Arclight, Meridian, is coming out next year.  I haven't read that book yet, though I got it as a Kindle Daily Deal last week, so I might eventually. 

But I've been really excited about Premeditated since I read this post on QueryShark (an amazing blog you should read), well before the author had sold the book.  I bought it right away and started it last week.  I'm maybe halfway through, and it's time blog it.

That's because what I really want to read right now is this blog post about the alternate ending to Premeditated.  But I don't want to spoil the actual ending, so I'm about to spring into action and zip through the book.  But I think I've guessed the ending, and I want to talk about that, as well as some other things.

First, when I read the premise (Dinah's cousin/best friend attempts suicide, and when Dinah reads her diary, she realizes that there's a boy behind it and plots revenge), I was intrigued.  Thinking about it, I figured there was no way a story like that could work as a straight revenge story.  I mean, there's always going to be more to a suicide attempt than the high school boy who wronged the girl, even if the wrong is pretty massive.  So I have thought from the beginning that if the book's going to be any good at all, it's going to bring some depth to the idea that you never know what's going on inside someone else's head, or heart, or life.

So far, there's nothing terribly surprising here, in that Dinah's trying to be all single-minded about how evil rich jerks are, but she's finding that their lives are sometimes more complex than she expects.  This is pretty nicely done.  In fact, the sympathy for these different characters is maybe a little too powerful, and Dinah starts losing her focus pretty quickly.

I guess I feel like the whole story could be more pointed, cleaner, tighter.  A lot of the characters have the same sarcastic voice, and sometimes I get completely lost about who's involved in a conversation or what's being discussed.  The revenge part is all pretty vague--Dinah's not playing her "private school" character as tightly as I expected, and really the whole plan thing is pretty loosey goosey.  I think that story--what Dinah intends to be the plot of the story--could be a lot sharper and more driving.

[Warning: if I'm any good at predictions, there are spoilers ahead.]

But the real story is how nothing turns out to be quite what Dinah expects.  And here we get to the ending that I'm pretty sure is coming, and if it is, I think it might have been teased a little too heavily: I'm betting she's after the wrong guy.  The fact that there's no photographic evidence--not even something inconsequential--and that the description is so vague says to me that the non-evil-seeming guy she's stalking is not actually the bad guy.  I actually have a guess about who the bad guy is, but I'm not as worried about committing that to electrons; "ha! knew it" will do in that case.

In fact, it says it to me so clearly that I'm really hoping Dinah starts to doubt it herself.  I think that because the revenge plot is so loose, now that I'm pretty sure I know the twist, I'm impatient for it to come.  It's not like she's actually doing anything much, just kind of lurking and meeting people.  If she was at least busy doing vengeful things with tight efficiency, I'd be willing to watch her hurl herself aggressively up the wrong alley.  But this meandering needs to be in the right direction.

And if I'm NOT right?  Well, I hope there's an even bigger twist waiting.

(I'm writing this ahead and scheduling its post; by the time you read it, I'll probably already have my answer.  But that's another post, I suppose.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Sad, Sad Life of a Superstar

I do not read Us magazine, or People, or follow celebrity culture in any way.  But there's a level on which you can't be unaware of lives like those of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, and you can't imagine them to be anything but hard and sad and lonely.

Well, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus are here to tell you just how sad and exhausting and horrifying it is in Between You and Me.  These are the writers who brought you The Nanny Diaries, which is essentially about how incredibly awful rich people are and how they mess up their kids with their selfish shenanigans.  That sentence entirely encapsulates this book, too, though it'd be more precise if you put the word "famous" into that sentence somewhere.  It almost doesn't matter where.

Logan Wade's got a decent mid-level job and a decent mid-level twenty-something life in Manhattan when she gets a call out of the blue to visit her long-estranged cousin and childhood best friend, Britney Spea...I mean, Kelsey Wade.  She finds herself embroiled in Kelsey's exhausting life, including controlling parents, aggressive paparazzi, grueling 20-hour workdays, and petty indignities that you have to suffer with a smile on your face.

It's a "normal" person's view inside the insanity of celebrity life, as well as a very sympathetic account of Britney--sorry, I mean Kelsey!--'s public implosion.  Five minute marriages, kids at a young age, messy family relationships, and all in the public eye.  But there's so much the public eye doesn't see, because narrative is always neater than life, and the collective narrative of the media leaves no room for messiness.  That's the big virtue of this book--it's an excellent picture of the answer to the questions we ask ourselves about other people, questions like "how did she end up in such a mess?" or "what was she thinking?"

This is pretty much always what I'm looking for--a book that takes someone who's completely unlike me and makes me truly understand how they can go about being the way they are and feeling like it makes sense.  There are so many factors going into this in Kelsey's life, and the fact that she's actually a talented musician and a pretty savvy marketer are definitely on her side.  But the fact that her parents are and always have been A HOT MESS and are all up in her business (literally; they're her managers) and you can see where every bad decision makes sense, where every eager wish she tries to fulfill is going to fall apart, and just why she can't see it coming.

In the end, there are definitely good guys and bad guys.  But the grey area that I'm always looking for in characterization is right where it needs to be: Kelsey Wade, America's sweetheart.  It really makes you want to take care of her.

(I got this book free for review from Netgalley.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Club, Three Weeks Gone

Book club met on Monday [n.b., I started this post a a full month ago; we met on Monday, September 30. This is my blogging shame.], and then I developed some sort of bottomless pit of an influenza or something[and went on vacation, etc.] and have been off the grid. 

But the book was so seriously good, I want to make sure I talk about it. So: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Bloggers who speak much more intelligently than I have already talked about how wonderful this book is; what I can add is mostly just my discussion questions.

Ifemelu is moving back to Nigeria after many years of living in America.  As she contemplates the move, she also thinks about making contact with her high school

I have some discussion questions based on notes I took (I took notes!) at book club.  Because this was one of the smartest books I've read in a long time, and my book club is, overall, smarter than I am. 

(Warning: general-ish spoilers ahead)

1) Ifemelu is often passive in her relationships.  She keeps her thoughts to herself, she follows the flow of the group she's in, and her life changes significantly as she moves in different social circles.  But the voice in her blog is clear and sure, opinionated and angrier than she ever expresses in her "real" life.  Where do you think this contrast comes from?  What do you think it says about her, or about the world around her?  And do you think that seems to be changing at the end of the book?

2) Look at some of the individuals and groups of people that Ifemu meets.  Do any of them reflect people who seem familiar to you?  (The college roommates, the nanny employer, the grad student social circle, the hairdressers.)  Do they seem realistic, nuanced, representative?  Do your assessments of the realism of characters who are more familiar to you affect your feelings about the characters who feel less familiar? 

(This is one of those questions I have an answer to: I think the parts of the book that felt less familiar to me had an immediate believability because the parts that were familiar were so well-crafted.)

3) Why do you think she had so much trouble finding a job when she first came to the states?  Was it just an unlucky streak of interviews, or do you think there was more going on?

4) What do you think about that one character's suicide attempt?  What was behind it?  How do the issues you think are behind it relate to the central themes and ideas of the book?

5) Do you think this is a love story?  I've heard people say at its heart, the book is a love story.  I'm not sure I agree; I think the idea of how you're shaped by where you're from and where you are, and how being of more than one place is not something the world does a good job of encompassing right now.  How do the different stories--love story, immigration stories, personal stories--serve each other?

6) One of the most amazing things about this book is how broadly and directly it addresses race.  As a white person, I feel like I learned a lot, was given a lot to think about and a lot of new perspectives, without feeling confused or defensive.  What ideas or observations about race stuck out most to you?  Is there anything that you learned or got a new perspective on from this book?

This is probably the objectively best book that I've enjoyed in months, maybe even all year.  It's a human story, a literary story, and I think it was the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar and the very familiar that really made it so irresistible.  This is kind of a lame compliment that says more about me than about the book, but I feel smarter for having enjoyed it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Through the Weeds

Guys, I'm so backlogged.  I'm sorry.  I was sick, and there were some big, substantial books that I wanted to review, and now here we are.  Let's roll out a Table of Contents for the next few days, with the warning that some of these books will probably get mini-reviews because gosh, there are so many.

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin
Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardener
The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum
Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Between You and Me, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Plus maybe a Stephen King/Joe Hill short story, In the Tall Grass, but maybe not.  How many times can I complain about how much I used to like Stephen King but don't anymore? And I don't know if I have much to say about Scott Westerfeld's Stupid Perfect World, except that he's good at future world building and Kindle singles are addictive.

Okay, so these are my promises.  Reviews, mini-reviews, and other things.  Plus all the other things.  Welcome back from vacation!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


You're supposed to post the "sorry, I'm going on vacation" message before you go instead of after you get back.  Sorry about that!

So: more soon!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Second Book Syndrome

I mentioned that I really enjoyed The Crown of Embers, but what I really want to talk about is why the second book in a series so often sucks, what can be done to avoid said suckage, and how this book actually fails to avoid most of the traps but doesn't suck anyway.

Some examples?  Crossed, Insurgent, Magic Study. I liked Matched, Divergent, and Poison Study to various extents, but each of the sequels fell down, and I think in very similar ways.  So you're an unknown author (all the ones mentioned so far were), and you're writing your first book.  Trilogies sell.  If the first book is good, people will come back to read more about their favorite characters.  So you write one book, self-contained but with an open enough ending to leave you room to tell more story.

This means that to some extent or another, the first book needs to wrap up at the end and leave some open space, not just for new stories with the same character, but for more of the same story.  Is this a weak point?  Is a totally different adventure about the same characters better?  Maybe that's it, but Catching Fire didn't have that problem; it closed off the occasion of the 74th annual Hunger Games neatly, but left us with the fallout from that experience and the same larger political scenario, then introduced the 75th games and turned things upside down again.  And it did a great job with this. 

So maybe you're ending on a cliffhanger, or a moment of transition, or maybe you have a temporary peace that you know will only be a lull, or maybe you just have more room to explore the problems in your world.  The problem is that you can't build tension in a second book the same way you built it in the first.  The elements that go into the beginning of a story--setting the scene, introducing the characters, introducing the problems, foreshadowing the troubles to come--some of these have been done already, some need to be changed or skipped. The proportions are going to be very different; depending on the strengths of the writer and the reader's relationship with the book, the proportions are likely to be a bit off.

(I'm thinking this through as I write here, by the way; this is not some frequently given, thoughtfully conceived rant.)

So you're building two stories: book one, and the trilogy.  You need two sets of pacing, two arcs, two sets of character development to occur simultaneously.  But as you're writing, you really need to sell the first book.  So even if the first book ends on a cliffhanger, there's got to be some sort of emotional wrap-up, catharsis, payoff. 

Which means that when book two opens, you're starting from a new "beginning."  But you've already got your characters; likely you're going to bring in some more I've never met before.  You've pushed down the bad guy; you'll either need a new one or some renewed threat.  But wait, did you spend your best bad guy stuff in book one?  Or did you leave your main character gasping in the dust, and now you have to spend a bunch of time picking them up out of the dust, brushing them off, and pointing them in the direction of the new adventure, all without character building (which has been done) to fill the time?

In that case, you're going to have to make their situation really horrible.  Things were bad in the first book, but if this is going to be a trilogy, they're going to have to get worse.  Is there anywhere worse to go?  Better be.

I feel like there's some nugget of truth I'm not getting at here, some kernel of what makes a good and exciting book that a second book has a hard time pulling off.  What did Days of Blood and Starlight do that was so good?  I think the two conflicts--book level and series level--were present in the right proportions in the first book.  It helped that it was a big chunk of flashback--the "present day" story dealt with the mystery, and then there were revelations to the mystery that gave you all this other story that was waiting there, that you were already invested in.

Did Crown of Embers do that?  A little; winning a decisive battle leaves you at a turning point in a war that you probably haven't won yet, and also leaves you with a war-ravaged nation. 

There are also, of course, the external truths, which are not the fault of the stories, but of the world they're being read in.  First, finding a new book that you love is always surprising.  A sequel will have a much harder time surprising you than the first book did, putting it at an immediate disadvantage.  Second, a first time author probably spent some time span on the scale of years on that first book.  The second one has been coming along, but now there's a timeline.  Ravenous fans like me are salivating and you have to finish it NOW.  There's no way you're going to have as much time to sharpen book two as you did book one.

This post was not as well-structured as I hoped it would be.  A few days ago I thought I had a grasp on this elusive question, but I feel like maybe it was like one of those understandings that comes to you in a dream and then is gone.  Ah, well; they can't all be life-changing inspirations.  I hope my use of italics and caps lock has made up in conviction what I lack in coherence.  Thank you and good night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Queen of (Sexy) Hearts

I want to think about what second book syndrome is and why it's a problem, why it's so hard to avoid.  But I also really, really want to talk about the two big problems I had with Rae Carson's Crown of Embers first.

Okay, right off the bat, I really enjoyed reading this book.  It's not fabulous or a stand-out by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a good, fast, engaging YA read, and I like Elisa.  The book actually did a very good job of minimizing the Second Book problems (they were there, but they weren't as problematic as they often are).  But there were two big glaring annoyances that I want to just get out there.

First, Elisa's body.  In the first book, Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa starts out as a very fat whiner.  Over the course of the book she becomes strong and thin.  The point is made several times that she'll never be truly thin, of course, but she's not fat anymore, so thank god for that, right?  Yeah, ugh.

But in this book, her awakening to romance is accompanied by discussions of her body, and if this book had a face I would punch it.  She talks about how she can't imagine someone being interested in seeing her body--a very sympathetic concern--and the point she cites about that is how her thighs brush together a bit while she's standing. Seriously, I hate it enough that here's the quote: "Would someone look past...the way my thighs just brush together when I stand?"

Seriously?!?  In what normal place and time is THAT the standard of a good body image?  Only here and now in America, and I am appalled that this is even in here.  The other stuff in the scene--her scars, her soft belly--either make sense or can be read to make sense (a soft belly can mean different things to different people), but that line....ugh.  (Tangentially related: see Rainbow Rowell's blog post on what it means that Eleanor in her amazing book Eleanor & Park is fat.)

The other issue is tied to this: when the romance kicks in (which you can see coming; Elisa loves Hector, I love Hector, this is all very good), but when it really starts to be a thing, it is SO CHEESY.  It is cheesier than the cheesiest romance novel than I've read.  The cliches that are used to describe her feelings, the ways he touches her, the totally macho things he says that are maybe very sexist I haven't decided yet--it's all just boring to the point of being ick.  And I LOVE a good romance.

Geez, this is already huge.  Okay, I'll finish up the review and come back to talk about Second Book Syndrome next time.  I've told you the things that drove me crazy, but seriously, we're talking about two passages of body stuff and then about thirty pages 3/4 of the way in where the romancing gets all brie and Roquefort and you just have to skim. 

Other than that, as I've said, a ripping good read.  I love Elisa's competency and uncertainty, I love that she has different kinds of relationships with all these different people in her life, and that many of those relationships change in both good ways and bad ways over the course of the book. 

I think the other positive stuff will come up soon, when I talk about why this isn't a problematic Second Book.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

England: Still Classy After All These Years

I have two posts worth of things to say about The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters.  One is about the ghost story and how it's constructed, and is basically a review of the book.  The other is all about the British class system, and involves my thoughts on the book Assassin, as well.  But I've been kind of overwhelmed by all the things I want to say and not quite able to tie them all together.

But you can't put things off forever; perfection is the enemy of completion.  So I'm going with a list format, with apologies for my intellectual laziness.

1. The Little Stranger is an excellent book.  It's a ghost story, technically, but that is almost (not quite) a spoiler, because there is nothing strange going on for almost half the book.  It's about an English country doctor in the years after World War II who enters into an unlikely friendship with the impoverished but genteel family at the local estate. 

I am so against slice-of-life books and intense character studies, but the first half of the book was little more than that, and I found it intensely compelling.  The doctor is--I wouldn't call him an unreliable narrator, but he's very biased, and the more he tries to explain things fairly and with a doctor's clinical distance, the more you become aware of the lenses through which he views things.  This was marvelously executed and kept me reading.

2) Well, listening.  I had the audiobook of this from before I canceled my Audible subscription, and that's why I picked it up.  The performance is amazing.  It's told in the first person from the doctor's point of view, and the narrator, Simon Vance, did an incredible job in capturing the doctor's layers.   The variation in his accents is great, and he does an excellent job with the female characters, which is often very hard. 

What he really captured is how the doctor believes thoroughly that he's being objective, rational, and scientific at every stage, but how quickly and easily swayed he is by his feelings.  He doesn't know it, would never acknowledge it, but the clinical clarity with which he describes how his feelings change over the course of a conversation, or how someone's comments make him angry, or how he does something impulsively, is so complex but so clear. 

3) I've never read Sarah Waters before.  I hear amazing things left, right, and center, and now I believe them and will have to add books like Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to my reading list. 

4) Now here's where I was really going with all this: class.  I know that this is a thing in English history and society, and I remember a line in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow about how if they'd had an Englishman with them they might have recognized the complexities of the caste system before it was too late.  And then you have YA books like Assassin (whose author is listed as Lady Grace Cavendish, who is the diarist-narrator, so weirdness there) where ladies in waiting don't understand why they can't be friends with laundresses and jesters, as though she was completely unable to understand the social structure she lives in.  It makes her seem stupid.

But then you have this book, which is so infused with class that it makes up the large part of the tension, especially in the first half.  The Ayers family is aristocracy, with an enormous house, Hundreds Hall.  Dr. Faraday's mother used to be a nursery maid at Hundreds, years ago, and he's very aware that, as a doctor, he's little more than a skilled tradesman in the family's eyes.  But they (an elderly mother and her two adult children) have no money and few friends, and he has a fascination with their house, so an odd friendship develops.

Everyone's awareness of his not quite being of their class glares from every page though it's almost never mentioned.  The house's very slow collapse, the money troubles, and the way things "used to be" all combine into the strange miasma of the place.  Someone I know said that, reading it, you picture everyone at Downton Abbey in that same time period, with no money to keep the house up.  Mrs. Ayers would be just the same age as Mary Crawley, and you can picture her going through photographs, sewing by the fire in the parlor as the ceiling sags toward the floor in the library.

It's so sad, and so poignant, and so rich.  It's delicious.  I'm eager to hear more.  You should really get the audiobook--it's 16 hours long and so worth it.