Friday, May 31, 2013

Advance Reader Reviews

It occurs to me that most of the reviews I do of the books I get from Netgalley are very positive, and that this might seem a little sketchy.  What you don't see are all the books I get from Netgalley, read two pages of, and groan out loud.  I don't finish them, dear reader, and I can't in good conscience review a book that I read two pages of and said, "My eyes! Get it away!"

So, let me give you a quick no-title run-down of some of my advance reader experiences that I have been sparing you.

  • Girl meets boy, girl loves boy, boy turns out to be AMISH, girl gives up her iPhone to join the Amish people for her boy.  This book used the phrases "that fateful day" and "couldn't imagine a world without him" in the first two pages.  It hurt my eyes, ladies and gentlemen.  In spite of its Amishness, because of the instalove problem, I put it down.
  • A comic book adaptation of a traditional fairy tale turned out to be ALL BREASTS, ALL THE TIME. The images were practically writhing on the page, people.  I had to avert my eyes.
  • Nuns!  I love nuns. I even love nonfiction about nuns. And this one started out good--when did they start convents here?  Who were those first sisters? What did they do, how were they received?  There's a good chapter on that at the beginning.  And then--AND THEN--begins the litany of each chapter that was founded, and where, and who financed it, and which nuns worked there, and whether it ran a school or a hospital.  It was brutally, unforgivingly boring.  It was as bad as that anthropology class in college that was just about teeth.  (Do any of my college friends read this blog?  I'm pretty sure Emily, Kaiva, and Noah were all in that class.  It was the worst class I ever took, bar none.)
So this is what I've given up on lately.  Looking back, though, I can see that I've given some lukewarm reviews, mostly of books I've just about forgotten (The Tragedy Paper, anyone?  One Step Too Far?).  I guess maybe I don't look as biased as I was feeling.  Well, I already wrote the post, so what the heck--we'll leave it here for you.

And I'll add a discussion question; right now, I post reviews  here and on Goodreads.  Should I start reviewing books on Amazon?  That seems like a whole other ball of fish (kettle of wax?), and I'm a little intimidated. I feel like I might want to write tighter reviews for that, and I'm worried about the time commitment.  Anyone have any thoughts?  Anyone?


Thursday, May 30, 2013


I love cults!  Sects and cults, totally my thing.  I mean, I'll take Catholic nuns, Hasidic Jews, Mormons, or the Amish, but I'm also up for a juicy Scientologist, a Jonestown, or, in Gated, the good folks of Mandrodage Meadows.

Lyla and her family live in the Community, which is mostly a back-to-the-earth, simple-living group who follow their charismatic leader, Pioneer, and raise their own food in their gated community.  Less widely known is the fact that they believe that the Brethren are going to destroy the Earth soon, but that the Community will survive this in their underground bunker and later be transported to a new world by these powerful Brethren.  Pioneer communicates with them, so everything should be fine.

(Let me put in the disclaimer here, that I got this free for review from Netgalley.)

Straight-up YA here, with a definite high school target audience, and I respect that.  This is really well-constructed; it's just what I want a book like this to be.  The whole point is to get into Lyla's head and to really understand how these crazy beliefs can make sense to her.  And you do--Pioneer is so loving, and her parents believe this (there's a really intense story about Lyla's kidnapped older sister and the panic of 9/11 to make even that more understandable), and all her friends do.  Her family has been happy at Mandrodage Meadows, and her life is good, and if things are a little rigid and there's target practice and talk of the evil of outsiders, well, it really does seem perfectly natural.

Then Lyla meets an outsider boy, and she goes all gaga.  This, too, is really well-handled--she doesn't do anything stupid (by my standards or her own), but she wants to, and this starts her thinking.  And these small mental rebellions open the way for bigger ones, as the pressure increases from both inside and out.

It occurred to me to wish for a more emotionally complicated end game--no spoilers, but at the end of the book, the good guys/bad guys thing is very black and white.  And I couldn't help thinking it would have been more messy and human if that had stayed gray all the way to the end, as it was so convincingly at the beginning.  But if you think about Jonestown, and Koresh, and any number of other examples, you'll realize that a big, ugly meltdown isn't unrealistic or sensational.  One kind of person starts a cult, and another kind joins one, and who's more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?  

I'm not going to universally recommend this as a YA book that transcends its intended audience and should be read by everyone.  But when I was a teenager, I would have gobbled this book up, and I'll admit that as an adult, I kind of did, too.  It was a quick, fun read, with some good, thoughtful psychology going on, which is more than I can say for a lot of cult books.  I'm really glad I picked this up.

Monday, May 27, 2013


One of the reasons I don't read a lot of high school YA (which is to say, YA that takes place in an actual high school, as opposed to fantasy, science fiction, or generally speculative YA) is because of the predominance of romance plots.  I generally find straight-out romance to be a pretty tedious basis for a story, though it makes delightful subtext, fun B-story, and generally great background content.  But even my romance novels need some other pretty serious conflict going on--even if it's all personal/emotional--if I'm going to tolerate it.

High school stories, especially, also run the risk of the instalove problem, which is where two characters meet and are immediately in a romantic entanglement.  As in, there's no getting to know each other, no reaction besides attraction and affection and desire, and their feelings take on the same weight of importance as other, actually weighty things in the real world.

And example of this is Every Day, by David Levithan, which I loved, but which, it was pointed out in my book club, really rides on the fact that A and what's-her-name are meant to be together, and that they both feel instant, life altering feelings (and not just pants-feelings). At least that book was entirely about the life of this one person; the things that changed and were considered important because of this instalove were the things that are actually affected by being in love--your motivations, your life choices, whether you should try to date them.  Too often, instalove is also supposed to Change the World.

And oh, here's why Daughter of Smoke and Bone has ceased to charm me as much as it did when I started it. The first half is about Karou and her unusal life, her at school and wishes and friends and dangers and it's wonderful.  There's the mystery of what's going on with Brimstone, and the strange handprints and the ominous angels, and it's just really coming together.

And then Karou and Akiva make eye contact, and they are in LURVE.  And after almost no conversation, they know that they need each other, and they trust each other, and they're considering (one more than the other) giving up everything for each other.  And the story becomes about what's more important, your love or  your family, and UGH.  There's a promising undertone of what happens when your morals don't align with those of your loved ones, but it's muted by OMG HE'S SO GORGEOUS and you're so impressive, let's just be together. 

It's to the point where I'm almost disgusted, although really, it's just a chunk.  I think if could just get past the insta- part and take the -love as given--pretend the drama had been earned--I might be able to get back to enjoying the story, like what's up with Brimstone and what are Akiva's siblings going to do, exactly?  But oh, how his manly soul aches for her, and I can really hardly bear it.

Now, I just read another book, Gated, which had a much more appropriate use of the immediate infatuation thing.  First, it was very clear that the attraction was mostly physical--it was very much a 16 year old girl realizing that looking at this boy was just really, really enjoyable, and she'd REALLY like to look at him more, to the point where she makes what she would normally consider some bad decisions.  This is entirely reasonable and realistic--I'm not pretending teenagers don't get crazy over lust-crushes.  I'm just pointing out that I, the reader, am going to think they're being idiots if they treat them like life partnerships.

More on Gated soon; it was a lot of fun.  I really hope that, by the end of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I can say that about this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Deconstructing Fusion Literature

Book club time again, kids!  We read Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight.  My nutshell opinion: eh, probably don't bother.

If I say that the book is Gossip Girl meets Gone Girl, that will make it sound much better than it is.  I think it's more like it's trying to be that kind of one-two punch. High-powered lawyer and loving single mother Kate is called to come pick up her daughter at school, and when she arrives, Amelia has fallen from the school roof to her death.  Why would this down-to-earth, bookish girl do such a thing?  Kate can't imagine, and as she emerges from her grief, she decides to find out.

Two stories unfold--Kate's investigation into Amelia's death, and Amelia's account of the last few months of her life.  There are text conversations, Facebook updates, and posts from an anonymous gossip blog at Amelia's elite private school.  There are secret clubs, sexual awakenings, and Bar Association scandals.  The two stories--high school drama (crushes, clubs, love, friendship) and investigation of a tragedy (motives, anonymous texts, bribery, lies)--play out on pretty different levels. 

To be honest, the high school story worked better for me, which was surprising.  Each step Amelia takes makes sense to me.  When she chooses not to tell her mom or her teacher something, it seems like, if not a good decision, at least an understandable one.  They're teenagers, they're smart, but they want teenaged things and react in dumb, teenaged ways.  It was very human, and very believable.

The investigation, though?  Was daytime TV-worthy.  X was sleeping with Y, who was secretly the father of Z!  Did the principal know?  Did the cop get paid off?  Those texts were sent from where? By whom?  Wow, seriously?  Who was Amelia's father?  Woah, did we see that coming?  Yes, actually, we kind of did--so how come the characters didn't?  And since when does Lennie Briscoe let the grieving mom accompany him to interrogate witnesses? 

Another peeve--Kate.  Willfully blind, painted as a loving-if-overextended mom, she's not there for her kid.  When your kid is trying to talk to you and your phone rings, you don't say "I'll talk to you if it's important, but if not I'll take this call."  You weren't talking about what to watch on TV--she was trying to tell you something.  I could see that, even before we got the same scene from the daughter's point of view.  Kids don't beg for help--they need you to be standing there extending a hand before they reluctantly take it.  Even I know that.

So all her self-blame that I feel like the book wanted me to brush away--no, of course it's not your fault, there was nothing you could have done--kind of seemed reasonable to me.  Yeah, you weren't the great mom you thought you were.  Absent with good intentions is still absent.  And I'm not sure how much redemption you get for your pursuit of the truth after she's dead.  It's great and probably all you've got, but it would have been better to be there before.  Jeez, I'm mad at Kate--I generally don't like guilt-inducing pile-ons, but I feel like the book wanted me to dismiss her as a player in Amelia's tragedy, which she was not.

Ultimately, the tangled web was pretty messy, and the twists were so twisty as to be a little silly.  Did it keep me reading?  Sure.  Did I want desperately to know what had happened?  Absolutely.  Do I think you should pick it up because you're missing something cool?  No, not really.  Read Gillian Flynn for twists and Eleanor & Park for intense high school experiences; give this one a pass.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Uncaught Up

I was really expecting to use my vacation this weekend to catch up on some blogging.  Note to self: next time, double check to make sure the hotel has internet access.

I'm also finding that photos I took with my computer can't be located (which is a problem with Windows 8--everything is an "app" instead of an application, and it's frequently non-transparent with no visible Help.  So I can't show you the delightful photo I just took of my newest library book--suffice it to say that I love library bindings with those plain covers and white block letter imprinted titles on the spine.

I finished a couple of really good books in the past few days, which was kind of overwhelmingly satisfying.  I've been feeling slow as molasses lately, and I've finally figured out why; I lost a huge chunk of my reading time when I stopped taking the bus.  That was a full hour a day, probably more than half of my reading time--even more since the office moved and my commute is now a bus to a train.

Now, that's morphed into biking time most days, which is good for me and really enjoyable.  But it's completely changed my reading life, and that gap has become seriously noticeable.  Without that dedicated time, a lot of my reading is snatched in brief moments, and I get a lot less submerged in my books.  It's changing my brain, and I don't love it.

The question is what to do.  Any suggestions?  How do you fit reading time into a busy life?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Me vs. Book Club

As part of our "folks with funny names series," I present you with the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Flight Behavior: Dellarobia Turnbow.  That's about all the mockery I have for the book, but I have to say that almost every time her name was mentioned, I was startled again by how weird it is.  It's meant to make you see how it would be hard to take her seriously, and I can't argue with that.

My book club considered this a 2-to-3 star book.  They thought it was slow and heavy-handed in its Message about Global Warming.  I can't argue too much with their specific points, but my feelings about the book were very different; I really enjoyed it, as I almost always enjoy Kingsolver's books.

First, I love the way she writes about rural people.  They are frequently poor, uneducated, stubborn, and hard, and their worlds contain all of the ugliness that poverty and ignorance can result in.  But they are not unintelligent, not evil, not some foreign, less-than "others."  The characters--Cub, Hester, Dellarobia, Bear, even their neighbors and friends--are individuals with their own histories and motivations, and their virtues are not just the "noble savage" virtues that a lot of "positive" images of rural people display.  I feel like she acknowledges their humanity without sugarcoating the difficulty and even brutality that can be a factor of living in rural poverty. 

The story in this book is about a flock of migrating monarch butterflies that end up in the wrong place for the winter.  Instead of a comfortable mountain in Mexico, they're in Tennessee, which is too cold for them.  They're discovered by Dellarobia, a somewhat dissatisfied farm wife, and become a scientific, local, and national phenomenon.  The monarchs' visit to the Turnbow forest stirs up a lot of issues--Dellarobia's crush on the scientist who comes to study them, her growing intellectual life and how that conflicts with the path she's been on, the small town vs. wider world thing, money troubles and logging rights, etc.  But over all of this, driven home and home and home again, is climate change.

The winter is wet and rainy and strange.  The butterflies are off course, when we don't even know how they ever kept their course.  The world is going to hell in an ecological handbasket, and the red states won't listen!  This is hammered home explicitly by angry rants, patient explanations, heated arguments.  Climate change is real and urgent and bad, and Kingsolver is letting you know that in no uncertain terms.  Repeatedly.  And this--justifiably, I think--detracted from the enjoyment most of my book club found here.

For me, though, I felt like climate change was the setting on which the personal story played out.  I didn't feel preached to, maybe because I've read enough other Kingsolver books (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle--wow, that's kind of a lot) to feel comfortable with her sermon-like way of telling a story.  I feel like she writes like she's lecturing even when she's not, and I like that--her certainty, her firmness, her earnest conviction.  Honestly, the hardest part for me is that she does love nature and lavish descriptions thereof; sometimes she can get going on natural description and leave me in the dust.

I do think that part of my reaction here was around the setting and the people.  The town I grew up in was nothing like the town here, but I grew up on a farm that my parents ran with my grandparents, and my grandparents were rigid people in many ways.  Dellarobia's relationship with and perceptions of Hester and Bear were very familiar to me, and reading especially about Dellarobia and Hester was quite poignant for me.

I really liked the book.  It was long, and took a long time to read, but I enjoyed every minute.  I guess this one is for Kingsolver fans--and I guess I'm a big one.

Friday, May 10, 2013

So Much Reading

You know how sometimes a blogger will disappear for a while, and then they'll come back and say "sorry, guys, but there was SO much going on in my personal life that was rough/awesome/in defiance of the laws of physics, but now I'm back and I'm not going to talk about that" and then never tells you what was going on?

Well, you're lucky, because guys, there was SO much going on in my reading life that was rough and awesome and in defiance of the laws of good taste, but I am SO going to subject you to all of it.  The only problem I have is that there are so many thoughts they are having trouble coming together to form coherent posts. 

I've been deeply immersed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer this year. I watched the entire series through the course of several snow-day binges and a few weeks of a very tolerant husband letting me do my two-episodes-a-night thing.  It was almost unhealthy, how into it I got.  But guys, it's a really, really good show.  The acting is great, the balance between the personal and the adventurous is excellent, and of course the writing.  I mean, if you're not already a fan of Joss Whedon--well, I'm not sure why you're reading my blog, because I can't imagine our tastes overlap much.

When I ran out of episodes, I tried to watch Angel, but that kind of sucked.  I suspect it's mostly just that the first season sucks, but honestly, I don't like Angel very much.  Tortured doesn't do much for me.  I might try some more when I'm desperate, but for now, I've turned instead to the comics.

Now, here I'm going to go about things a bit backward.  Again, I am so intensely immersed in this experience that I can't really sort out my feelings, so I'm just going to start in the middle, somewhere I can explain what I'm thinking: Angel & Faith.

So the Buffy comics start with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, which I'm not ready to talk about yet, but will be shortly, don't you fret. (Seussed!)  Sufficient for now is that it's deeply flawed, but also full of all those characters I loved and missed so much.  And at the end of that series (mildest of spoilers) Angel is a mess and Faith is taking care of him.

Thus begins the spinoff, Angel & Faith, which is part of the Buffyverse Season 9.  It takes place at the same time as the Buffy Season 9 stories, but they don't share any characters or story elements (yet). (Caution: things get more spoily as we go on.  No direct giveaways, but if you know the characters you might end up figuring some things out.)

Okay, so all that is the backstory of my reading life that has kept me from writing this post for so long.  Anyway, here's the thing about this series.  Buffy Season 8 was kind of a mess, plotwise.  It read very much like a bunch of people passing the story around between them--major plot elements fell out of the sky (sometimes literally), Important Truths about the Nature of Magic that had been previously unknown to everyone were revealed and then messed with.  It was story whiplash.  Here, in the first book of Season 9, you're watching a gifted writer, Christos Gage, dig his way out.

He does an admirable job, really.  He takes some of the prepostrosities (a word that I just made up, thank you, and am quite proud of) that he was left with, runs with them in the only reasonable (albeit ridiculous) direction, and then has someone in-story say, "wait a minute, this is kind of nuts."  And then suddenly it's not badly written nuts, but just post-traumatic vampire nuts.  He pulls things back from the edge quite admirably, and for that I am grateful.

Now, Eliza Dushku is as convincing an actress as a three year old with a mouthful of cookies.  I have always kind of liked Faith for her badassness, but Mike can't stand her, even in the comics, because he reads her dialogue with her stiff delivery.  I personally think Faith is the only role for Dushku--like Keanu Reeves in Speed, she'd be fine if she just stayed typecast--so I'm cool with that.  And her voice, of course, is captured full of its slang and catchphrases.

The problem--the whole problem--is Angel, in the long and short term.  As I said, I've never cared for him; he jerked Buffy around (mostly motivated by wanting a spinoff, but still), he turned into Angelus at the drop of a hat, and he actively shunned happiness because he thought pain made him sharper.  Sounds like a 23 year old living in a garret and writing his memoirs to me--not someone I want to know.

Here again, you have him actively facing his own suffering and refusing to come to terms with it.  I'm not against atonement, or even the notion that he needs his powers to do the good that constitutes that atonement.  It's all the little ways that he could be less-than-miserable while doing these things that don't make sense.  It's his totally counter-Buddhist insistence on focusing on the past at the expense of the present or the future. 

And see, that's something (Buddhism again) causes EVERYONE'S suffering.  Mine too--I do that!  But I know that trying to undo the past--as opposed to make the best future possible--is pointless.  I know it intellectually, even as I struggle to live it day to day.  Lots of people do.  But in a fantasy universe, you can get away with trying to undo things that can't be undone for a lot longer, and it's hard to tell a denial-like character flaw from a virtuous determination to right a cosmic wrong.  (Sorry to be vague; I'm actively Not Spoiling.)

Anyway, this was a problem with his TV show (to the extent that I watched it), as well.  I'm never quite on board with his logic, and I'm never quite sure if the writer wants me to be.  Am I supposed to admire his determination, or wonder if maybe he's a little, you know, insane?  On TV, I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to admire him.  In the comic, though, Faith frequently steps up to say what I'm thinking--"Maybe this isn't such a good idea."

Angel doesn't give up (of course), but neither is faith seduced into his world of Sisyphean struggle.  This makes the overarching tension one I'm really digging--the comic is looking askance at the same things I am!  My sensibilities, are being honored!  I'm all over this!

At least in volume one.  Halfway through volume two, we're pushing the other side of this balance a little; one's understanding of mythology allows one to recognize the bad guys and prevents one from siding with them, even when the good guys aren't making as much sense as you'd like them to.  It's like the X-Men problem--Magneto's politics seem way closer to justice and pragmatism than Xavier's.  When the Big Bad is making sense to me, I start to worry that the writer is going to a) try to make me change my mind, or b) duck out the back door with the logic and bring a convenient deus in from the machina to wrap everything up without addressing the real issues.

See how much I have to say here?  And this is just the SPINOFF series.  I haven't even begun to discuss Buffy, seasons 8 OR 9.  I'm exhausted just thinking about it.  Can you forgive me for taking so many weeks to post this? 

And, to begin a little overarching theme in these upcoming posts: what kind of name is Buffy, anyway?

Monday, May 06, 2013

Let's Rant

Wow, it's been a while.  Spring is a busy time, and I started a bunch of books and then put them aside to read for book club.  So it's been a while since I finished something.  Also, I have some Big Things I want to talk about--Buffy! Comics!--some vast, sweeping subjects that have been quite intimidating when I sit down to them.

So let's start out with a little rant.  Lianna, this one's for you.

I read this book about three years ago.  I'm going to give away the entire plot, so I'm not going to give the title of the book, but it's got enough searchable keywords that you'll have no problem finding it if you want to.  I can't believe, looking back, that I gave it two stars--it speaks to something that it made enough sense at the time that I gave it the benefit of the doubt. 

But last week, I suddenly thought of this book, and I started laughing.  For two days, every few hours I'd belt out a laugh at how ludicrous the whole damned thing was.  A girl is at a gas station and she sees a guy in a full-on rabbit costume kidnap a kid from the back of a car where she's waiting for her mom.  Now, it turns out that this girl just HAPPENS to have a traumatic childhood memory that is at least loosely associated with a man in a full-on rabbit costume, as well as a best friend from childhood who disappeared when she was young.  So this is a mind-blowing experience for her, and she gets involved in the investigation.

First off, let's think about how preposterous that is.  I mean, on one hand, if you're going to kidnap a kid, there's no better way to hide your appearance than a complete body costume.  On the other, in a small town, how hard can it be to track down the guy who owns or rents a rabbit costume?  And then, I'll point out that the fact that the witness is childhood-bunny-memory-girl is a complete coincidence, not some sort of gaslighting psychological torture on the poor girl.  So, this small town is pretty messed up, right?

Okay, so that's one level of ridiculous.  Now let me tell you the big reveal at the end.  Because when it's revealed as a twist, it's kind of shocking, but when you think about it as something that was lived through, you're like, WHAT?!?

So the wife of the convenience store owner had a best friend who disappeared when she was a small child.  Apparently, this messed her up royally because now, 40 years later, she felt the burning psychological need to get involved in a missing person investigation. So she had her nephew come kidnap a kid as a harmless prank.  All in good fun, right?  Why did he wear the rabbit suit?  Well, because kidnapping a kid in a rabbit suit is a good plan.

Now, he was supposed to just take her across town and hide her at a campsite for a day or so.  Then auntie could come out as the hero.  But the kid panics in the car and there's a kerfuffle that ends with her falling out of the car on the highway and DYING.  Because apparently kidnapping someone for kicks is not as frigging foolproof as you might think.  So the dude hides the body and then shows up to help with the search like nothing happened.

In the meantime, in a startling demonstration of Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters, he spends a couple hundred pages being a love interest for the girl who was traumatized by a guy in a rabbit suit years ago.  If only there was a layer of meaning about how she's being haunted by the rabbit suit.  If only it made any sense at all!

If only.

Anyway, I got a laugh out of that book, many years later.  But I somehow can't bear to put the title, and I really think it's because I'm afraid the author will Google herself and find this and be really hurt.  That's a pretty thin protection I'm leaving, isn't it?  Eh, well.  It's not a very good book.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Those Magic Words (and Some Musings)

IN TRANSIT.  As in the library system is sending the books I want in my direction.  Calloo-callay! 

I'm sorry about the dearth of posts.  I have about four half-written, but spring has impinged on my time, and I'm busy being a social butterfly.  But I'm planning to write a rant later tonight--watch for it!

Also, I just spotted this in an old post at Jenny's Books, which I think is very useful.  I don't know why I didn't recognize it--I've read that post twice--but somehow today it struck me.

"I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it. This is a pretty broad scope of things....It’s also why I do not enjoy books about how stifling the status quo is and the search for meaning within a routine world. Boring! Boring! Boring! Have some new situation for your characters to confront and then we can talk."

I'm aggressively not reading her recent review of Days of Blood and Starlight, because I'm only halfway through Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  And oh, I so love it!