Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Book

I don't read a lot of holiday themed books--I enjoy the holidays a lot, but that enjoyment feels very personal to me, and I don't really relate to the generic heartwarming thing that go into holiday-focused stories.  What feels universal is the stress, which I also feel, and which drives me so far, far away from wanting to read about it.  Let's not talk about all the holiday things I haven't done yet.

And book club never meets in December.  We tried this year, though!  And we picked Wishin' and Hopin', by Wally Lamb,

Yeah...not so much.  This book is the literary equivalent of the movie A Christmas Story, which I hate.  It's for people who are nostalgic for the '50s (to the extent that they extended into the '60s).  It's a great book to give to your father-in-law if he's a certain type of father-in-law.  My dad might like it, because it's about nostalgia for being a ten-year-old boy in an innocent world (and the world is innocent--there's only one black kid at this Catholic school in Connecticut, but he seems to suffer no prejudice.  The Russian girl gets a lot, but she can take it.)

It's also like a grown-up's version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which there doesn't need to be.  I mean, aside from a couple of dirty jokes that the narrator doesn't understand, there's nothing here that's any more complicated than in that kids book. 

So, yeah.  It's not that the book wasn't well-written, or amusing, but that there was no substance to it, and that the point of it is that life was pretty good back then, though maybe the nuns were stricter than they needed to be.  Big ball of meh.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Godling Watch

You may recall that I loved N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy.  It's come out as an omnibus (I also love omnibi!), and to with it we have a new novella set in that world: The Awakened Kingdom.  Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

As I mentioned, I loved these books.  They're complex but comprehensible, and they deal with some really intricate stuff--how would gods living incarnate interact with human beings?--without getting too abstract or too preachy.  Each book was close enough that they felt very cohesive as a trilogy, but they were not exactly sequels--not only were the main characters different, but they told about the same overarching world events from very different points of view, which prevented any of the standard trilogy things from happening (weak second book, awkward segues between them, etc.).

This novella also takes place quite a long time after the original series, and the narrator is a new godling, just born.  In fact, the language, attitudes, and behavior of the narrator change dramatically over the course of the book, as her vocabulary and understanding of the world increases; I can see how the beginning would be distracting, because the voice is so childish.  I didn't find it to be distracting, though--I actually thought the balance between vocabulary and understanding was quite artfully done, so there's that.

The newest godling, Schill, travels to the land where Yeine was born, hundreds of years after she became one of the Three, to learn more about mortals and to find her nature.  (This story is all about finding your nature.  You might say this theme was laid down a little heavy-handedly.)  She finds the land of Darre has become an oppressive matriarchy, with the rights of men severely curtailed and their humanity constantly questioned. 

This, too, might be seen as heavy-handed; some of these scenes appear almost exaggerated, with men being ignored and their beauty being discussed and their inability to be rational debated and women treating them roughly.  At first I thought some of these scenes were clunky, but if you twist them and rewrite them so the women are wearing carefully described robes and behaving modestly and the men are lecturing them, you realize that it's actually not heavyhanded at all--neither the behavior nor the writing.  If the roles were reversed, I wouldn't have noticed that the scene existed. 

This is pretty powerful, and if you came to me with the argument that this is an Issue book, I wouldn't be able to tell you you're wrong.  But because of Jemisin's care with character, because of her gorgeous depiction of cultures and subcultures and politics (national and familial), because of Shill's childlike straightforwardness and fast-developing wisdom, it's a lot more than that. 

I think the only criticism that I would actually level is that the book is structured into two halves, really, and the first one didn't have much at stake.  In the first half our narrator is born, and tries to find her place, and realizes all the impediments to this that she faces.  And it's interesting, and we like her and want her to succeed, but there's no risk, no tension, and no stakes.  The first half mostly takes place in the gods' realm, where time doesn't mean much, and power is so real and visible that it's not really something anyone is struggling with.  So while I loved the world- and character building going on here, it felt kind of weak to me.

When Shill's travels bring her to Darre, we being to get entangled in mortal politics, and we meet Eino, and things begin to feel more urgent, because there are now lives at stake.  Query Shark is always telling me that it's all about stakes, and it's true that without them, there's tension missing. 

As for the end--it fit with the story, and it was satisfying on some levels, but on others, it was a little out of left field.  I feel like Shill's path was perfect, but Eino--I think I needed Eino's story to fit together a little more tightly.

But reading about Yeine and Itempas and Naha and their children and their world--it's always a delight.  It's not without flaws, but it was a pleasure to read, and I can't ask for a lot more than that.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Under the Skin Before the End

That's an odd title for a post.  Let me clarify right away: this book, Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, is crazy and weird and fascinating, and I'm almost to the end but I want to talk about it SO MUCH.  I know myself; I need to write the post before I get to the end or there is no chance that I will say all the things I want to say. Therefore, this post.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that there's a reveal, kind of.  I mean, it's not a twist ending, but when the book opens, you don't quite know what's going on, and that's a huge part of the experience of the book.  So I'm going to talk about the book in two stages; in the second half, there will be spoilers.  I'll warn you when that happens.

As the book opens, Isserly is driving around rural Scotland hoping to pick up a hitchhiker. She's pretty anxious about it, actually--stressed, excited.  She wants one with broad shoulders.  She's got a system.  She's done this before.

Already, something is clearly a bit off.  At this point, you're intrigued in a horribly voyeuristic kind of way.  Does she have some sort of sexual compulsion?  Is she an axe-murderer?  You're pretty sure it's one of those.  You're looking for clues--how she pictures them, what she's looking for, the subtleties of the language.  The narrator is third person, but we're tight inside her thoughts, but this is just a normal day for her, so there's no explanation.  We're looking for clues.

Gradually, across dozens of pages, multiple scenes, I started to have suspicions.  I can honestly say there was no one moment when I knew what was going on.  Suspicion grew to a firm theory grew to real comprehension.  This reveal, this uncertainty, looks easy, but has to have been incredibly tricky to craft.

Okay, before we go to the spoilery part, let me just say that I just looked this up and realized that this author wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, which I've never read but have heard of.  This is fascinating to me, though I'm not sure why, or what it means.

One other thing before you stop reading (which you should because of the spoilers): they made this a movie, with Scarlett Johansson.  I have no idea how they did that.  It looks very stylish, which actually bugs me, because the book is not stylist.  It's very naturally written, very simple in its use of language, structure, everything.  This is deceptive about it, but it's also what allows it to get at the ideas it's trying to get at--style would take away from the real human core of this, and so I cannot see how the movie could do the ideas justice.  And the plot is kind of meaningless without the ideas.

Anyway, fair warning: you do NOT want to read the rest of this post if you are interested in the book.  Actually, you know what?  Go read the book and the come back to the post.  Because the unfolding is really half of the thing.

Here we go.

Time to leave.


So this book is about what makes us human, what makes one a person instead of a creature.  You could look at it from an overly simplistic point of view and say it's about animal rights and vegetarianism, but I don't think that's really the point.  I mean, all those points are contained in the actual main point here, which is that we define what life is worth, what an entity is worth, by some yardstick that we hold for what humanity is.

I'm not explaining this well.  But it's complicated to explain, which is why it kind of takes a novel to do.  Isserly's attitude toward vodsels made me think of colonialism, and the notion that "we" are civilized and "they" are barbarians, because of some arbitrary list of things that we have and they don't.  (I'm picturing an Englishman in a uniform with a walrus mustache mansplaining this to a lady with a parasol, FYI.)  So we have monogamy and corsets and chairs, so we are civilized, but they have none of these things, and so are savages.  And this is nonsensical, right?  Completely ludicrous.

But.  But then you go from the civilized/savage spectrum to the human/inhuman one.  This is a line that has always been blurred in the minds of people who are invested in the former spectrum.  (Note: I am working pretty hard not to start talking about race and social justice, because I am not currently coherent on the subject.  But if you notice how those topics relate to this review, rest assured that this is very much on my mind as I write this.)  And you can approach it from another point of view: what makes an animal--an intelligent social animal, like a gorilla or a dolphin--less a person than a human?

I think that most of us would end up saying language.  I don't know enough about animals to say whether this should change our thinking about dolphins, gorillas, or prairie dogs, but I do know that this book puts the question front and center. Isserly speaks the vodsel language, but it doesn't change her feelings.  But she hides the fact of that language from the soft-hearted Amliss Vess--the perfect picture of a rich kid liberal--because she knows it means something.

There is so much going on here, and it's late and I can't write much more.  But there are issues of class--being forced into the underground Estates, spending most of your income on your oxygen and water rations, and never seeing the sky; physicality--how much of who you are is your body, and when beauty doesn't fulfill its promises, and how looking different separates you (and here I'm thinking about the movie Avatar and the book Eva); freedom--what would you give up, what would you do, if your choices were the Estates or the Scottish coast? 

It's not even that I want to talk about the book, but that the book makes me want to talk about all these things, about what makes us human, and about what makes life worth living.  This is why I have a blog.  But even if you haven't read it, if you want to have a drink and talk about the meaning of humanity, please let me know.  I'm all in.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Kieron Gillen Round Up

Who is Kieron Gillen, you ask?  I did, too, when I started reading The Wicked + The Divine. Turns out, though, that I had two of his books from Netgalley, both just because they looked interesting.  (I'm kind of a Netgalley addict.  It can be a real problem for me.)  Anyway, they're very different and really good, and I think together they make a pretty good primer on KIeron Gillen, Comics Writer.

The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie, is a recent publication; the comic is on something like its seventh or eighth issue, and the first collection is just coming out.  There's something very up my alley about this one.

This is a book about pop stars, fame, and the cult of celebrity--literally. Once every century or so, twelve gods take human form.  They actually take it--each one inhabits a living person, usually a young adult, and those people live for a short period as the god (two years, I think?) and then die.  It's a high price and a crazy ride, and it comes with adoring fans, two sets of memories (human and god), and adoring fans.

The main character is Laura, a girl who is a kind of groupie, and she takes up with Lucifer (who embodies a crisply classy woman).  But things get complicated when assassins pop up, Lucifer is accused of murder, and the gods are turning on each other.  Their relationships are complicated, their personalities intense, and their motives vague.  Laura's trying to track down who's setting Lucifer up, and getting in deeper and deeper with these rock star immortals.

So I like Laura a lot--I mean, she's kind of an annoying teenager, but she's supposed to be, and you can see her trying to be more grown up, but not quite able.  And Lucifer is amazing--all the gods, really, are incredibly charismatic, even on the page.  In the story, they have a powerful, indefinable draw for people, but even as simple characters, each one just projects such personal competence, such perfect themself-ness (what is the word I want?) that they are intriguing.  Amaratsu is good, and loving, and friendly.  Lucifer is funny, and cynical, and razor sharp.  Baal is about power; the Morrigan is about madness. 

Okay, here's the flaw--there are way too many of them.  Very few of the names are familiar, and several are long and contain many of the same letters.  I'm supposed to be following conversations about the personal politics of characters I haven't seen or met, can't even quite pronounce, and don't know anything about.  I'm confused, is what I'm saying.  I'm able to keep going anyway, and the bigger plot points make sense even if you don't follow it, but it's kind of frustrating that I can't quite follow it.  I'm holding out a lot of hope that more volumes will give me more room to learn the characters.

Three, by Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, and Jordie Bellaire, has some of the same issues, especially the shallow one of everyone's names being complicated and hard to remember (place names, too).  That's because it takes place in Sparta.  There's an added layer here that The Wicked + The Divine didn't have, though, which is that all these Spartans look exactly alike--same hair, similar faces, same EXACT armor.  So yeah, it's not entirely my slow-wittedness that keeps em from telling them apart.

There's also a lot of history to learn here, and since this is kind of a side story that takes place during 300, it's a very different view of Sparta.  So much of the story revolves around history, though, that there's a certain amount of info-dumping that goes on, and I think the story that's here would have benefited a bit from being spread out more, so it could focus more on the people involved, instead of making them game pieces that illustrate their time and place.

Helots are lower than slaves--if you ever wondered how you can have a society that's ALL WARRIORS ALL THE TIME, it's because there are helots doing everything else.  They're considered inhuman; periodically strong helots are slaughtered just to keep them from rebellion.  Anyway, there is a massacre, and three helots end up on the run, while a troop of 300 Spartans is sent to chase them down and administer justice.

The story of the three runaways is great, and I wish I'd had a little more time with them.  Things felt a bit rushed, and what could have been subtle was painted in broader strokes.  The stories of the Spartans who follow them are probably more interesting, but this is where I got confused--there are two kings of Sparta, apparently?  And they answer to some other body? There's some political stuff that means an important guy ends up going after them; he's clearly got a complicated life thing going on, and I followed none of it, and I'm disappointed because I think it would have been worth it.

So, yes, this was a very good story that would have been better for a deeper, more robust telling, and for a chance to build the world more gradually.  Or maybe it would have been better for my having seen the movie 300.  That could be it.

I'm definitely going to read volume 2 of The Wicked + The Divine, though.  

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Christmas for Your Budding Bookworm

Bookworm or geek!  We're building a geek here.  I don't imagine you need toy recommendations--my son found a toy catalog in the mail and meticulously circled 95% of the items in it.  Toy ideas are easy.

But books!  The problem is that to find good books, you have to have read the books, and who has time to go around reading kids' books ahead of reading them to the kid?  So here are some ideas for books your kid might enjoy if they're anything at all like mine--which is to say, 5 or 6 years old and loving a big adventure story.

Adam's way into all things superhero.  Marvel, DC, you name it.  It's not always easy to stay age appropriate in this realm, but there is some good stuff out there.

Tiny Titans, by Art Baltazar and Franco.  Volume 1 is called Welcome to the Treehouse, but they are all wonderful.  All the sidekicks of the DC universe--Robin, Kid Flash, Beast Boy, Supergirl, Speedy, Raven--all hang out in a treehouse and go to a school where benign supervillains are the teachers.  There's nothing scary here--it's all about adventures of being a kid.

Calling All Super Friends, by Sholly Fisch, Dario Brizuela, and Stewart McKenny. This is the first in another series--the grown up DC heroes face some kid-appropriate baddies, like Kanjar Ro and his gong that turns all people into animals!  (Spoiler: the Super Pets save the day in that one.)

Power Pack, by Marc Sumerak and Gurihiru. Volume 1, The Kids Are All Right. Adam loves this stuff, tells me all the jokes right after.  The four pre-teen superheroes team up with Marvel favorites for kid-friendly adventures.  This one you might want to look at if you're worried about scariness levels--they have real adventures.  But it's definitely going to be the best Wolverine comic for a six year old, I'll tell you that.

Other Comics
Superheroes are Mike's domain; other comics are more my thing.  These are my absolute favorites; Amulet I actually started reading by myself, and Adam ended up looking over my shoulder till we were reading it together.

Amulet, by Kazu Kibuishi.  If you don't have a kid, put this one on your own wish list. Emily discovers she's a Stonekeeper, which gives her special powers but also demands great sacrifices.  She faces adventures with her brother Navin by her side, along with an amazing cast of robots, anthropomorphic animals, and sometimes their mom.  It's grand and epic and gorgeous.  So far there are six volumes in what I've heard will be a nine-volume series.

Zita the Space Girl, by Bet Hatke.  An absolute freaking delight.  Zita is friendly and impulsive and so, so brave, and when her friend Joseph is in trouble, she dives into a wormhole to rescue him and finds herself on a strange world of creatures and robots.  She gains allies and has adventures!  There are some scary bits, but mostly it's girl power and robots.

Missile Mouse, by Jake Parker.  The only drawback here is that there are only two volumes--this is some rip-roaring adventure, with a galactic superspy named Missile Mouse who gets himself into all kinds of trouble, and out again.  This one, unlike the others mentioned above, is very much a shoot-em-up, and there are laser blasters everywhere--but, of course, only in the best possible way.

Picture Books
This is the category that's easiest to give if you don't know kids, or don't know the particular kids you're giving to very well.  These choices are guaranteed winners--gorgeous, adorable, fun books that I promise the kid will love.

Julia's House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke.  By the author of Zita the Spacegirl, this is an adorable book about a girl who, when she's lonely, puts out a sign to invite lost creatures into her  house.  The creatures are adorable, their problems are charming, and I just want it to have a dozen more pages of illustrations.

Max's Castle, by Kate Banks.  This was a recent library find, and a lucky one.  Max and his brothers build a castle out of their alphabet blocks, and everything that happens in the castle is made up of letters, from the DRAGONS to (with a few blocks rearranged) the DUNGEON.  They get in trouble and out of it with their alphabet blocks (they turn a dangerous SPEAR into some delicious PEARS), and my beginning reader had a great time seeing the connections of the sounds.  Definitely one for kids who are sounding things out.

Elephant and Piggie, by Mo Willems. There are a dozen of these books, and they're all hilarious.  They're easy to read and the drawings are so simple, but there is SO MUCH emotional complexity in there, and the reading becomes a delightful performance.  Most of them make me laugh out loud, but Adam's current favorite is A Big Guy Took My Ball.  I like We Are in a Book! because it's so meta, and I think There Is a Bird on Your Head! is my favorite, but I Am Invited to a Party gets quoted the most often around our house (we must be ready!).

Whew!  This barely scratches the surface; there are runners-up in all these categories, including Superman Family Adventures, by Art Baltazar and Franco (by the team that brought you Tiny Titans); Bone, by Jeff Smith (I recommend the colorized version); and anything else by Mo Willems, especially Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator!  Plus I didn't even get into chapter books, since we've had somewhat uneven results there--though I highly recommend Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin.

So go forth and buy books for children!  Buy them by the pile--parents love gifts that are quiet and don't need batteries or take up a lot of room.  Enjoy the giving season!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Memory Lane

I don't get to do much rereading; it used to be one of my favorite things, but now that they've invented the internet, I know way more about what's coming out ahead of time, and now that I have an e-reader, I get my hands on things fast, and there's just no stopping me.

But Open Road Media has rereleased Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, and they generously gave me a review copy.  I've wanted to reread this specific book for a while; I had pulled my paperback out of wherever it was hiding and put it on my "active" shelf.  Synchronicity.

Have you read this book? I remember loving it, and finding it a little confusing, but that was true of a lot of things I read as a teenager.  Since then, I've read a lot more Robin McKinley and developed a very clear sense of her writing style--it's very high fantasy, with archaic sentence construction and a great deal of royal formality.  There is a lot more explanation of what takes place than there is dialog or scenes unfolding; it is as if the author is writing you a letter explaining what happened, in plenty of detail and appropriately paced, but with circumstances often explained in summary.

This sounds bad; it's not.  She pulls it off.  A full 80% of this book was absolutely wonderful as I'd remembered it.  And the confusing part...was still confusing.

But now I understand why it's confusing, and I can explain it.  The first half of the book is about Aerin not fitting in.  She's the king's daughter, but she's different from her family--her mother was a foreigner, a witch-woman, and Aerin shows no sign of the powers that run in the royal family.  She has only one friend, her older cousin Tor, and she's tormented by her other cousins.  She spends a lot of time with her father's old out-to-pasture horse, and reading.

She starts to find a place for herself when she makes herself a dragon-killer--though the only dragons that are still in the kingdom of Damar are small, they're dangerous, and she learns to fight them and finally become useful.  But when the Great Dragon awakes--unheard of for hundreds of years--she is overmatched.

So that's the first half of the book, and it's sooooo good.  It's about insecurity, and how it can keep you separate from people who love and cherish you, and it's about finding yourself, and it's full of good details about how Aerin struggles to shape a life that fits both her and the world she belongs to but doesn't belong to.

Then the book changes, and she goes on a quest.  And she learns more about herself, and that maybe there are other places where she might fit, and that's excellent.

And then.  And then there's this weird interlude where she has to face a Big Bad Guy, and this part reads like an odd fairy tale, and I could nitpick why this part bothered me, but mostly it's because it comes out of nowhere and is like a long dream sequence, which really removes a lot of the menace and immediacy.  The bare facts of the incident are effective, but I found it more confusing than anything else, almost like a page that tied in from another book and had to read a certain way to match the facts.

And then, after this, we go back to the story we were reading, where the two parts of Aerin--the one that belongs to Damar and the one that does not--have to find a way to live with each other, and to find a life that works for her.

So you've got more than half of a very good book, a weird little fourth act, and then a really lovely, satisfying ending.  And it's enough--I love this book, and I love Aerin and Tor and Luthe and Arlberth and Teka and Talat, and I love to hate Galenna.  It's beautiful, and if it's still a little confusing, I would take twice the confusion for another dozen pages, for an epilogue one hundred years later.

Which is probably why I now need to go reread The Blue Sword.