Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best Second In a Triolgy Ever

Book club loved Illuminae so much that Gemina was the next choice, and thank god because 1) weren't we all dying to read it? and 2) I needed a densely action-packed page turner to balance my other reads and my state of mind.  It was just the roller coaster I wanted it to be.

As I was reading Illuminae, I wanted to talk all the time about the big questions the book posed, about the lies an organization tells to keep its constituents safe, about the renegade whistle blower and whether being right means everyone needs to know everything, about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few--I could go on.  Gemina didn't raise that kind of question nearly as much--it was a much more personal story, about a few humans against a few humans.

I still want compulsively to talk about it, though, only this time I want to talk about it as a work of craftsmanship. I want to discuss how in the world the authors built this incredibly intricate machine full of moving parts. In Illuminae, the hits just kept on coming; in Gemina, the pieces were there, laid out for you, and you watched them click together.

The story takes place at the same time as the first book--the Illuminae characters are fleeing toward the Heimdall station, where they can jump through a wormhole back to a busier part of space and be rescued. Gemina is about all the awful things that are happening on Heimdall during that time--the intended cover-up on the attacks from the first book.  Heimdall is taken by a team of commandos, and on one level, it's pretty much just Die Hard in space.  Plus terrifying space worms and a malfunctioning wormhole.

The parts that go into this! To make the assault team interesting bad guys, individual people, and sometimes almost likeable, in spite of everything--that alone is not a simple task.  (There are photos of the team in the book; the fact that they are all hotties in their early 20s who look like vampires from Twilight--and that the team leader literally looks like one of the specific vampires from Twilight, may be the weakest part of the book.)  

This face just screams "head commando"
You've got a hero and heroine who are about as far from Kady and Ezra as you can get--if Kady is the goth geek girl at the back of the class, Hanna is the prom queen who is also a black belt in marital arts.  Ezra is your boy next door clean cut good guy; Nik is a fast talking hustler who's not quiet bad enough for his crime syndicate family.

And Ella.  Oh, Ella, who is a delight. I will spoil nothing, but I love Ella very much.

Like, I said, moving parts. Gemina is in many ways (though not page count) a smaller book than Illuminae. There are fewer individual players acting, and though there aren't actually that many fewer elements in the big bubbling cauldron of plot, most of the action plays out on a hand-to-hand combat level. This is about an assault team taking the station and the renegades stopping it; there is a lot more at stake and a lot more balls in the air, but this is a book about boots on the ground.

I'm going to say it officially; I think this is the best second installment in a trilogy that I've ever read.  It doesn't sag at all.  It doesn't suffer from trying to force some kind of weak stakes to tide us over while we set up the pieces for part 3.  It doesn't suffer from giving us a new set of characters--quite the opposite--though it also gives us a some time with some of our favorites from the first book.  It advances the overall plot while working perfectly well on its own level.

Best. Sequel. Ever.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Page to Stage

I've been reading Fingersmith on a hard deadline, almost frantically, because we had tickets to a new play at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. I've read a couple of Sarah Waters books before--The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests--and loved them both, in very different ways. But I listened to them both as audiobooks, and I'm surprised to find that this made a difference in my enjoyment.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The combination of smart, twisty plotting and gorgeous, literary writing is really irresistible. But I think I might have enjoyed an audiobook more. Waters has a way of describing things perfectly, with such precise, clean, readable prose, but in great detail.  What I've found for myself is that when a narrator has a strong voice but there are parts of the story I find slow, the actor who's reading them can bring a lot to me.

But then, maybe I just felt the stress of my timeline, because of the play.  I can tell you that the play felt the stress.  The book is, not action-packed, but full of incident.  Each part builds to the next, and while you can slim them all down, you can't cut any of them--the introduction to Sue's life in the Borough at the beginning of the book is as important to the plot as it is to the flavor and character and can't be ignored.  It's a story of many acts, and plays may only have so many.

I have a few quibbles with the production, as well--they could have used amplified audio; I sometimes had trouble hearing through the accents--but mostly, it's that it felt like an adaptation.  There's something about watching an adaptation of a book you know, a feeling that they're trying to hit the important beats of the book, rather than make its own story.  I've always assumed this is because a book has a lot more space than a movie--you can't squeeze as much into a movie as you can into a book.  There are exceptions--Harry Potter movies work well as movies, in my experience.  But your standard BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel is more about hitting the moments you know--summarizing the story--than working on its own, sometimes.

This play suffered from that.  It hustled from plot point to plot twist, scrambling through the memorable lines and moments to keep them all in. There was also a bit of a problem with tone--they added a lot of humor, which worked well by itself to alleviate the grim tone of the story (which is not as pervasive in the book). But it made the whole thing feel very uneven, especially the secondary characters and some of the darker themes.

The book, though, is full of great twists and thrills, an enormous, ongoing tension, and a really sweet love story.  I wish I had read it at a time where I had more bandwidth to give it, or that I had listened to the audiobook. I'm going to position my next Sarah Waters novel more carefully in my lineup.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Comfort, or No Apocalypses for a While

I think there are two reactions, bookwise, to the current political situation.  Some people are stepping up in their reading--reading about politics, social justice, and activism.  Aarti's been posting some amazing, thoughtful reviews this week.

I, on the other hand, am going the other way.  I am avoiding the real world in my reading life--which meant actually dropping a couple of books I was in the middle of, because they were too much about oppressive regimes or fear-mongering charmers who turn the world against your heroes.

Instead, I'm thinking comfort reads.  I was already reading Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, but it's been my go-to this week, because the whole story is so immediate and intimate.  Sue may be a thief, but she's plucky and smart, and reading the book, you could believe that there were only two houses in the world--the little pawn shop and the great dank manor.  I also love an imposter story, and a thief pretending to be a lady's maid seems like the best thing ever. Mike and I have tickets to see the show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in a few weeks, so this is kind of perfect to read right now.

I have also turned aggressively in a nunward direction.  In following Jenny's recommendation of the book The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, I wound up in the nun aisle of the library, which of course means I walked away with more than I bargained for.  So I just finished a book called New Habits: Today's Women Who Choose to Become Nuns, by Isobel Losada.  The book was published in 1999, so most of the women were interviewed when I was in college, and there have been a lot of changes in the Catholic church since then.  This book very much made me want to find an even more recent book on a similar subject.

I'm also thinking of rereading Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs, one of my longstanding comfort reads.  I think watching people be heroic in World War II--especially in a world of clear good guys and bad guys (without ignoring that the good guys were no always as good as you wish they were) might be right up my alley right now.

And finally, I'm avidly reading a Buffy fanfic that is so good I can't even tell you.  Just yesterday I caught up on he published chapters; it's near the end, but from now on I have to wait a chapter a day like everyone else.  It's called Otherwise, by one of my favorite fanfic authors, Sigyn, and it's sweet and hard at the same time.  It's a time travel story--sort of--which often just end up being wish fulfillment, "if I knew then what I know now" stories about how much better things would have turned out if the characters had done what we wanted them to.  But this is about might-have-beens, and about what you lose by dwelling on what you already lost.  I love Sigyn's older Buffy, who is harder, but also much stronger in her feelings and sense of self.

So, sweethearts, this is what I read when my heart doesn't know where to turn.  What about you?  I am always looking for another comfort read.  I think it will be a while before I read any dystopian fiction.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Review: Everything Belongs to the Future

Note: This post was written several days ago.  This book is truly excellent and amazing, but I think it would have devastated me if I'd read it today. There's a lot of anger about haves and have-nots here, and right now it's hurting my heart to think about any subject like that.  You should read this book, but if you feel like I do, you might want to wait a couple of weeks.

There are so many levels on which to love Everything Belongs to the Future that I almost don't know how to talk about it. It's about politics and terrorism and friendship and power. It's about haves vs.  have-nots and about innocence and the health care system and time.  I want to unpack the whole thing and lay it out for you, but I can't do that without spoiling it (and the slow unfolding of details here is so beautifully crafted that I can't bring myself to spoil any of it).

In this future, there is a drug that halts aging.  If you take the fix--one pill every day--you will essentially stay healthy and not age indefinitely.  But of course, the drug company can charge a fortune for it, and does, and so only rich people--and those who are chosen by them as great artists, musicians, actors--can afford the fix.  The rest of the world muddles through outside their inner sanctum.

So right there, you have a very basic fact that I've always thought was interesting about the gap between rich and poor; a lot of what the rich have is time, in a lot of ways.  They can afford to pay others to do tedious, time-consuming parts of day-to-day life--someone to clean your house and mow your lawn. A drive instead of a long bus commute, a job that gives you paid sick days so you can take care of your health.  There are a thousand little ways in which money buys you time.

This is only the tiniest pinpoint of light in the constellation of this novella's thoughtfulness.  Ask about terrorism and betrayal and sacrifice and you imagine a huge, sweeping story, but this is about a bunch of poor kids trying to make their way in the world and maybe make the world a little better.  Every character in here is smudged and shining, broken and beautiful.

Laurie Penny did something here that I want to talk about--every moment that slides past you in the book is worth stopping over and examining, whether it's the politics and economics of the food truck, or the real fraught intensity of making out with someone so as not to get caught doing something worse, or what it means to be an old woman in a world where that is theoretically optional.  I wish I could do a book club about just this book.

Many deep thank yous to Netgalley for my review copy.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Romancing My Heart of Stone

I need to stop reading romance novels that do not come recommended by people who know what they're talking about, like Sarah.  And I really need to stop being tempted by romance novels on Netgalley, because I'm far too picky and far too inexperienced to choose things that fit my very niche romance needs.

The Lady Who Drew Me In is a novel by Thomasine Rappold, third in a series but I didn't realize that till I was almost done and there was nothing lost there at all.  It's the story of Daisy, a young widow of an older, not particularly loving husband who can draw images from other people's minds. This has caused trouble in her life before and she's sworn to herself not to do it again.  Then handsome rogue lawyer Jackson turns up with a case where her talent might be the only thing that can save a little boy's life. So now they're embroiled in an adventure.

Daisy has a soft spot for kids--she desperately wanted children but her older husband was controlling and frigid (of course); now she wants to start a day home for poor children. She really likes kids. Kids are her thing. Kids.  One thing leads to another, and yada yada yada, Daisy and Jackson have to get married. But it's cool--they'll get married, have fun sex, not get emotionally involved, solve the mystery, and then go their separate ways, right?

Nothing unexpected or even really troubling there.  The mystery is actually pretty great, with suspicious townsfolk and sabotage and clues. Jackson is trying to be a better person, Daisy Loves Kids. And they fall in love but of course they can't tell each other--actually, this book is a lot better than some in this respect, in that they often tell each other things that they overhear or why they're being reserved or whatever.

I think the biggest weakness is that there is a lot of internal monologing about how much they love and want each other.  I mean, you expect a lot of emotional thought processes in a romance, but there's no actual forward motion in the feelings department, but a lot of repeated thoughts about how much the love and want each other in spite of all that stands between them.  I'd estimate that it was fully a third of the word count of the book, which was way too much.

That said, those parts were pretty skimmable, and I truly did like the mystery.  I had hoped that the spirit writing thing meant that this would be a slightly magical universe, but it wasn't; it was more like the spiritualism fad of the Victorian era was actually real.  So it wasn't as special as I'd hoped, but it wasn't bad.  Not the highest praise, I'm afraid, but solid.  And thanks to Netgalley for the review copy. And advance thanks to Sarah for further romance recommendations.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Opposite of the Literal Best

Just after the amusing, charming, and edifying pleasure of whimsical nonfiction that was Unmentionable, I was so excited to have the opportunity to follow it up with The Science of Game of Thrones--pop science themed around one of my favorite shows! Perfect follow up to pop history themed around one of my favorite authors!

Yeah, but no.  I mean, not that I had a lot of hope that there would be a lot of actual science to talk about in GoT.  Dragons, white walkers, the Wall, and how long does winter last?  There's not a lot to work with here.  But the fact is that I will take any excuse for a good science niblet, so all you really needed to do is put a little theming around the edges.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  First, Helen Keen's sense of humor is not my cup of tea.  Maybe it's how very British it is, but there's a combination of silliness and mean spirit that I just can't connect with.  She reaches REALLY far to make silly puns, makes fun of people's names and bodies and hobbies.  And while yes, people who speak Klingon recreationally are an easy target, she doesn't tease them in a fond or respectful way.

Even the science, though, is a little--well, rough around the edges.  I was kind of hoping for a set of deep dives into areas that are touched on in the story, but there was no deep dive at all here.  No topic is covered for more than a couple of pages, and some of the concepts are kind of a reach to associate with the show.

Take wildfire.  This is a burning substance that is used in war (Tyrion fires it at Stannis's invading army to defend King's Landing) and it's horrible.  So how does that work?  Now, the Mythbusters would have tried to come as close as they could to it, chemically, which I think would have been interesting.  Keen took a different tack and went with something more historically related than scientifically and talked extensively about napalm.  Okay, that's definitely an acceptable angle.  But first: napalm isn't funny, which I think she struggled with.  And second, it wasn't a very interesting history of napalm.  It was more like a compare and contrast of napalm vs. wildfire, which is not that edifying, since a) I know they're different, and b) wildfire isn't real.

My favorite parts were about the genetics of inbreeding and about possible astronomical (am I the only one who always wants to write astrological when I mean science and not horoscopes?) causes of a winter of unpredictable and dangerous length.  Those were the two sections where I felt like I really learned something. In the wild, inbreeding can actually be beneficial to animal populations--in an environment where weak individuals die off quickly, the "good" genes are the only ones left pretty quickly (though scientists admit this is hard to test, since by the time your population is so low that everyone's inbreeding, you're just on big rockslide away from extinction). And winter could be caused by something besides the orbit of the planet--passing through clouds of space debris that changes the way the sun strikes the planet--which would account for the unpredictability.

But most of it ended up being fake history lessons, and I hate fake history lessons.  I'm all there for worldbuilding, but stories about war machines and the history of armed combat that touch on but don't elucidate how war happened in the real world as an excuse to basically ramble on about Westeros with a lot of bad puns...I was very disappointed.

And now, I shall go read a bunch of the nonfiction suggestions from Jenny at Reading the End, which will make me smarter and happier as a person, I bet.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Literal Best

Having very carefully thought for a full 20 seconds, I hereby declare the title of Most Fun Book I've Read This Year will have to go to Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners.  The entirely unscientific process of selecting this book as the winner is based on the sheer delight of the whole volume.

There are plenty of nonfiction "what was life like back in the old days" books.  I've got another one on my shelf right now that Li was reading for research--What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. It looks like fun, but it seems like more of a reference book--the first chapter breaks down British money (which is SO helpful. How does a pound relate to a crown, you ask?  Well, this book explained it, though I'll admit I still don't know).  So: great research, and interesting if you're immersing yourself; good, readable facts.

Oh, but Therese O'Neill's Unmentionable, this is not for researchers.  This is for people who have been mainlining Mr. Darcy all day and find themselves dying for a walk in the garden with a restrained young man.  It specifically pokes at the parts you're dreaming about, and the parts you're leaving out of that dream.

For example, more time is spent on the bathroom than in any other nonfiction I've read.  Well, not the bathroom--it's more of an outhouse, and a lot of the things you're thinking of were done in your bedroom.  There's information you didn't know about your undergarments, and how you'd go to the bathroom at a ball (the answer may shock you!). The actual smell of a London street is...easier but less pleasant to imagine after reading this.

The facts are the facts, but the fun is all in the telling.  The author is hilarious, addressing you, a time traveler into your favorite Austen book, with an intimate and frank humor, walking you through what your new life is like.  We skim the surface of a lot of subjects, and I'll admit that the social parts--strict rules of behavior and propriety--were not the most interesting, but mostly because I didn't know anything about how Victorians dealt with their periods.  Seriously, how can you not be dying to know?  It's hard enough with flush toilets!

The author's big-sisterly charm and sympathetic pats on the arm as you learn about the hard parts here just draws you through the book, and the frequent inclusion of old photographs and advertisements are hilarious.

This book made me miss The Toast.  It's not as cutting as Mallory Ortberg's work, but that's what it reminded me of--that perfect blend of hopeless love for an era and clear insight into its flaws.  I still want to wear the bonnet and walk through the garden, but I have a much deepened appreciation for modern sanitation.

I got a review copy of this book from Netgalley.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Poster Girl

Ugh, I'm behind again.  I reduced myself to a two-posts-a-week schedule and I'm still behind.

And I have so many great books to write about.  City of Stairs! Unmentionable! (Oh, I'm gonna review the heck out of those; they're both great.) 

But right now I think I need to read Fingersmith next, plus City of Blades and Gemina.  The latter two are sequels that I've been dying for; the former I'm going to see as a play next month.

Do you listen to the Reading the End podcast?  You should!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don't Cross the Streams

I've been reading books that tweak reality a bit, and the overlap can be confusing when you can't keep your head on straight. Like, is this the guy who needs to be careful not to touch anybody, or is this the guy who needs to get shot in the head in case of emergency? It led to moments of weirdness where I was nervous about all the wrong things.

Like, in Claire North's Touch, in which the narrator is a "ghost" who takes over people's bodies, moving from person to person by touch, there's all this tension around exposed skin and physical contact.  The terrified, violent people who are tracking down these ghosts wear body suits and gloves, or hazmat suits. Every time a ghost touches someone, even when there's no jump, there's a moment of tension.

I've liked the last two books I've read by North very much; I think I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August best.  Touch actually felt very much like The Sudden Appearance of Hope, to the extent that the similarity was a bit of a drag.  In all three, you learn about a person whose life is strange because of an impossible affliction--reliving history, being instantly forgotten, moving from body to body.  In each there is an opposition--those are very different, thankfully--whose work is made possible by some vague, generic, hand-wavy science-like goal or quest or tools, and our protagonist explores the moral significance of his/her life in the context of that adventure.

In Touch, the moral part is particularly interesting--the narrator can only live by stealing bodies. He steals time and resources, lies to loved ones.  It's not a choice; even to die, he (a pronoun I choose arbitrarily) would have to use someone else's body.  Sometimes he strikes a deal with someone down on their luck or in need of certain services.  Sometimes he uses an "estate agent" to find a suitable body. Sometimes he flits in and out of people for such a brief moment that they never know he was there.

There is, of course, a paranoid agency trying to destroy these ghosts, and also an evil ghost who is prone to mass murder, so there's a lot of traveling, quick sketches of train trips through Eastern European countries.  Again, if you read The Sudden Appearance of Hope, you know what this looks like.  It's good, but I think I liked Hope better, both as a person and as a book.  Or maybe I just read it first.

But periodically during the tense moments here, I would think, "well, why don't you just let him shoot you? Then everything would be all right."  That's not because I thought suicide was the answer; it's because of the audiobook I was listening to, John Scalzi's The Dispatcher.

In this world, anyone who's been murdered comes back to life.  Doesn't happen if you die by accident, or natural causes, or suicide--only if you were actively murdered by someone.  You disappear from the murder site and reappear at home in your bedroom, body back the way it was a few hours ago (so no pesky bullet holes or broken bones from that fall off the roof). 

This is a new development, something that's only been true for a few years, and there are no explanations. But there's a new system of people called dispatchers who are authorized to take people who are near death and ensure that those deaths will be murders and that, therefore, the person will live. Presumably because the whole weirdness is so new, a lot of people find it hinky.  And apparently there is a lot of grey- or even black-market use for dispatchers.  So when a coworker goes missing, our narrator Tony helps the police track him down.

This is a novella, and it's available only on audiobook, with an acceptable performance by Zachary Quinto, who did a good job with the characters, but whose first person narration was pretty emotionless.  Still, I got used to it, and I'd highly recommend the book--the mystery is good, the worldbuilding is good, and hey, if anything goes wrong, Tony can just shoot you in the head and you get to reset back to zero.

Except that the whole time I was listening to it, any time anyone made physical contact, I'd get really anxious.  Till I realized that I was expecting them to get taken over by a serial killer ghost.

Like I said, too much worldbuilding can get confusing!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Recommendation Request: Two-Author Epistolary Novels?

Let me ask you this: what are your favorite co-authored novels? I'm especially interested in those with an epistolary format, or with a format where there are multiple points of view or storylines and the two authors are crafting those different points of view. I'm going through all the ones I can think of, love 'em or hate 'em, looking for good examples of how these are structured and what kinds of stories they tell.

Some examples that clearly fit this and come to mind right away:

Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. (Charming!)
Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. (Schmoopy!)
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. (Romantic!)
Which Brings Me To You, by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott. (Off-putting!)

Some other co-written novels with this kind of episodic format that have less clear-cut roles for the authors:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. (Delightful!)
Illuminae, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. (Thrilling!)

I can think of others that might fit that I haven't read--David Levithan co-wrote a couple of other  novels that I think had similar divided approaches (You Know Me Well with Nina LaCoeur; Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green).

What else can you think of? What do you have for novels (especially brisk, well-plotted stories) where two authors tell a story in partnership or in parallel through two characters?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Tagged: Real Neat Blog Award

Elizabeth has tagged me!  I've been tagged! For the Real Neat Blog Award! Flutters eyelashes, presses hand to chest and curtsies neatly.

Here’s how it works:
  1. Thank and link back to the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the seven questions set to you.
  3. Create seven questions for your nominees.
  4. Nominate seven other bloggers.
So thank you, Elizabeth, and here are my answers:

1. How many books are currently on your (pick one) Goodreads TBR / Amazon wish list / library hold list / whatever other app you use to track books you want to read?
 Oh, this one is always brutal.  A) There are so many different metrics to use, and B) all the answers are kind of embarrassing.  I mean, I have 319 books on my Kindle right now, unread, waiting. Poised. That's my "to urgently read" list.  If you want to look at the whole-whole list, we'll look at Goodreads, where To-Read is 1,283 books long.  But that doesn't count the second category, B-List, where another 1,466 are waiting in case I can't find anything interesting on that list.

Kids, I have a problem.

2. Out of those books, if you had to pick just one to buy/borrow next, which one would it be and why?
 Well, in a way I do, right? Eventually.  I think I want it to be V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic, because I've been meaning to read it forever and amazing reviews keep popping up, even years after it came out.

3. When you walk into a bookstore, what’s the first section that you go to?
 Fantasy/Sci Fi, forever and ever, amen.

4. What future-release book are you most looking forward to reading and why? When does it come out?
 Oh, my Coming-Soon Goodreads is my favorite--poking around at what's there, adding things, seeing which ones have come out since I last checked!  I think it might be a tie between the someday dream of Patrick Rothfuss's Doors of Stone (no date set) and Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff's Gemina, sequel to the thrill ride Illuminae--coming out on Oct. 18 and already preordered, thank you very much!

5. What book have you re-read the most? How many times?
 This is a hard one to answer, because I used to be a terrific rereader, but I haven't been for many years--there's too much new stuff to take in!  If I had to guess, it might be The Secret Garden, which I read so, so many times as a kid, or it might be Clan of the Cave Bear, which I read a lot as a teenager, and even more often if you count the going back to your favorite part.  The book is huge, so going  back to read whichever 50 pages pop into my mind has been an ongoing life hobby.

Runner up to Shining Through, Susan Isaacs' WWII thriller romance and ultimate comfort read.

6. What was the last book you DNFed, and why?
 Just yesterday in fact!  Trolling the library's Kindle collection, I found something called The Academy, by an author I'd never heard of, but promising me a girl-disguised-as-a-boy (ding!) goes to boarding school (ding!) and has to save her brother from an evil plot (ding!) in space (ding ding ding!). So I grabbed it, but the first 20 pages just didn't catch me.  It was mostly still exposition at that point, but it was just not very subtly crafted; it read like really good high school writing.  I might have finished it if not for the twelve hundred and something on my to-read hanging over my head!

7. What was the last book you stayed up past your bedtime reading?
 Illuminae.  Because once you're on that roller coaster, you can't get off.  Like, I didn't even know time was passing for a lot of it--each page just flits by and before you know it you're 300 pages later and it's 2am and well, that was probably not healthy.  But so good!

That was fun!  Thank you, Elizabeth!  I like your questions, too--I might steal some of them. So many of my favorite blogger friends have been on hiatus lately, but I'm gonna tag you anyway, because I miss you; no pressure at all!

I hereby tag:
Rhonda (who doesn't know my blog exists but I really want to know her answers)
Jenny (now I'm just dreaming)

Your questions:

1) What bookish activity have/do you participate in (besides actually, you know, reading)?
2) What are the five most recent books you've put on your radar (to-read, library hold, acquired, etc.)?
3) What book or author do you push into people's hands most often?
4) Library or bookstore?
5) Ebook or print? (Feel free to get emotional on the subject.)
6) What was the last book that you did not finish?
7) Who do you share books with?  What are your bookish communities?

Thank you for the tag, Elizabeth!

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

How To Talk Like A Proper American

It's so charming when a British writer writes Americans. I imagine it goes the other way, too, and I hope that someone in England is delighted by our errors, too.

Whispers Underground is the third book in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, and it is just what I expected--a lovely audiobook, expertly read and acted by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, full of details about the magical world of London and oddball characters, especially pragmatic cop Leslie, fussy Nightingale, and our favorite scientific magician's apprentice, Peter Grant.

And as with most mystery novels (in my experience), 80% of the investigation is simultaneously red herring and the best part.  The actual murderer is someone whose name I had forgotten by the time they brought him back up.  And it's beside the point, because I was more interested in what that Nolan punk was doing with the third-rate vegetables he was peddling.

But the fun part was the American FBI agent, and Holdbrook-Smith's flat Midwestern accent.  He did a decent job, but the fun part was all on Aaronovitch.  There are small subtleties that ring wrong.  I think my favorite is "about" vs. "around."  Americans don't hang about or mess about, and I suppose English people don't hang around or mess around.  We also rarely queue up, or have a proper cup of tea--though we might learn the proper way to make a cup of tea, if you can see the distinction..

Always a charmer, and I'd listen to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith read from the phone book.  Peace out.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Giant Step Backward

I blogged about Maximum Security Book Club, the nonfiction book I've been reading about an English professor running (as the title implies) a book club in a maximum security prison.  And I talked about how I found the narrator slightly off-putting but wasn't sure about my reaction.

Well, kiddies, we got to the last chapter, where she picks Lolita as the book to share with her group.  I'm not at all against that decision--it's a brilliant book in so many ways--but there are a lot of things you can learn about someone's personality when you discuss Humbert Humbert.  The things I've learned about Mikita Brottman have me taking one enormous step backward from her.

This is a quote from her comments to the prisoners:
"I disagree that Humbert's only interested in sex. Sex always spills over into other kinds of experiences and emotions, like the need to be loved, or to express power, or to leave your mark. Remember, Lolita had a huge crush on Humbert at first. And she'd had sex before. If he exploits her, she also exploits him, to a degree. It's complicated, like all relationships."
 An exchange from the class discussion:
"There is no 'bottom line,'" I said. "This is a love story."
Charles, sitting to my right, muttered, "That's a crock right there."

"What's a crock?"

"What you just said," he sneered. "This isn't a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to the lowest common denominator, and it's a grown man molesting a little girl is what it is."

"But you can't do that!" I was outraged. "This isn't a court case where we're trying to work out what happened.  We can't throw out everything that doesn't matter. It all matters! This is literature!"
So, by the end of the chapter, she has a revelation that you're not supposed to blindly identify with Humbert Humbert, and that Lolita's suffering matters.  Reading the whole thing, I have to assume she was setting herself up as the fall guy there to make a point about the insight of the prisoners, because I have trouble imagining that no one had ever pointed out to her that the tension between HH's bewitching prose and his horrifying subject matter is most of the point of the book.

But even if she was exaggerating her feelings to make a point, just reading that chapter left me feeling dirty and kind of ruined my day.

Then there's the afterword.  Throughout the book, she feels this closeness to the prisoners; she describes a tension between the crimes she knows they committed and the connections she makes. But in the last chapter, she gets to know some of them outside of the prison and she realizes that they aren't the simple, wise, one-dimensional creatures she's imagined them to be.  What she saw of them was only one very small part of who they are.

I have to say that I'm curious whether most of the book was written before Steven and Victor got out of prison, and the afterword added on because she realized how much she'd oversimplified things, or if the afterword was always intended to be a part of the story structurally, and, as with the Lolita chapter, she was setting herself up as wrong so we could watch her learn about the world.

I have to say, though, I imagined the greatest moment that didn't exist here. When Mikita is talking about how hypnotic Humbert Humbert is, how one should empathize with his pain (and, I will point out, not just acknowledging this but actively denying Lolita's far more justified pain), I imagined this book club: a room full of convicted felons who have committed murder and spent years living with other violent criminals, sitting in a circle of folding chairs, listening to this pretty, enthusiastic college professor go on about how she identifies with Humbert Humbert.  I picture the men looking at each other silently around the circle and the knowledge passing between them--that she might just be the most dangerous person here, but there is nothing in the world they can do about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I've been so distractable lately, I'm having trouble focusing on what I'm reading for more than a few minutes at a time.  Life has been busy and interesting, but also kind of stressful (mostly because being busy stresses me out--in the best of ways!).

Anyway, I've been listening to some podcasts lately, because I can focus on them a little better than on audiobooks.  In addition to Reading the End (which is delightful) and This American Life, I've been listening to The Black Tapes.

This reminds me a bit of Limetown, premise-wise.  It's an NPR-style faux documentary with the premise of a weekly show examining stories of the supernatural, with the throughline of looking at the work of a paranormal debunker. A female reporter named Alex Regan is following the work of Dr. Richard Strand, looking into his unsolved cases--he's the Scully; she wants to believe--and also rummaging around in the mysterious circumstances of his own life.

Now, the show itself is, I would say, only okay.  The through story of Strand--his missing wife, his stand-offishness, his tenuous friendship with Alex--is actually pretty interesting, but the case-of-the-week material is quite thin. Each one is basically the outline of a case, rather than an investigation; it seems like just when the story gets interesting, when I have questions that would either get weirder or debunk it, they declare it unsolvable and move on.  (Note: I'm only about half a dozen episodes in; the teaser for next week implied that some of these stories might tie together in upcoming episodes.)

Anyway, what really has me fascinated is the format, and the mechanics of the show.  Like I said, it's NPR-style, and it's modeled on the tried-and-true This American Life style of storytelling.  I mean, I'm sure they didn't make it up, but that's where I learned about this kind of story, and maybe you did, too.  RadioLab, Serial, all these other shows that tell these little research/investigation of regular folks stories have a sound and a feel and this is going right up the middle for one of those.  The canned music that they use is *literally* music they use sometimes on TAL.

The acting, though, is not quite what I want it to be.  I feel like, in an effort to not make it sound theatrical or acted, everyone sounds very calm and quiet.  Not like they're reading, but very much like reality show characters reconstructing a conversation for the producers.  The guy who's described as a fidgety ball of energy delivers his answers softly and evenly.  People describe things in rehearsed sounding ways, even when they are theoretically having a spontaneous conversation. There are almost always pauses between questions and answers, even when, in context, you would expect the character to BURST out with the answer that you know is coming.  There's a very subtle note of human nature that's missing from the acting or directing here, and it puts a bit of a dent here.

(Also, Alex does not seem like a very good reporter in a lot of ways.  That, though, might be written into her character, because her producer sometimes calls her on it.)

But what this really has me thinking about is the podcast as a format for fiction.  A couple of friends and I have been talking about doing a podcast together (hit me up, E & L, we should make that happen in the new year!), likely talking about books. And there are a lot of fun comedy or talk-show style podcasts (How Did This Get Made is a favorite around here).  But what kind of fictional stories can you tell in this format?  Horror is one I keep seeing, especially based on the faux investigative reporting.  I wonder what other fictional podcasts are out there.  And I've been wondering what it would be like to make one.

Really, I've been thinking about making a bunch of things lately.  I'm considering doing NaNoWriMo this year (note that I've dropped by posts to two a week to spend some time thinking about that).  But I've also been thinking about writing a short play (seeing a lot of theater and I'm inspired).  A podcast script would be so interesting.  What's the premise?  How do you shape it around a recording in a believable way? What kind of non-horror story lends itself to serialized storytelling in an audio format--that is, through interviews, explanations, and conversations?

I'm messing around with something.  I have no idea whether I'll do anything with it.  But the challenge of writing in a way that truly sounds like people talk--that just seems so interesting to me. 

(I've also always wanted to cowrite an epistolary novel with someone, if any of my blog-reading writer friends has a great idea and would like to mess around on a project like that!)

As you can see, there's a lot going on in my head.  I didn't even mention the half dozen theater performances I've seen or bought tickets for lately--it's going to be a performance-heavy winter.  I'm pretty excited about it, actually.  Upcoming post for that, I guess!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Romance Title Quiz, Part 5!

We are WAY past due for another romance title quiz, and there are some doozies on the new acquisitions page at the library. And I'll admit, they suffer for being piled together, like when my sister used to make fun of the fact that all the books I read were called By the Sword, Up the Sword, Through the Sword, On the Sword, etc.  There are patterns, is what I'm saying.

Part 4 is here, and has links to one through three. As usual, one made up title in each category.

It's Like Top Gun In Here
A) Her Tender Maverick
B) A Maverick and a Half
C) Pregnant by the Maverick Millionaire
D) Do You Take This Maverick?

Verbed by the Someone's Noun
A) Bought by Her Italian Boss
B) Taken for a Highlander's Bride
C) Crowned for the Prince's Heir
D) Commanded by the French Duke

Babies, Okay? There Are Babies
A) The Kentucky Cowboy's Baby
B) The Pregnant Colton Bride
C) An Heir to Unite Them
D) Expecting the Rancher's Child

And If You're Not a Baby Person...
A) Puppy Love for the Veterinarian
B) A Dog and a Diamond
C) The Puppy Proposal
D) For the Love of the Puppy

Burning the Candle at Both Ends
A) Seducing the Cowboy Surgeon
B) Billionaire Boss, MD
C) The CEO Daddy Next Door
D) Courting the Cowboy Boss

Pregnant by Your Exotically Named Lover: An Oddly Specific Genre
A) A Ring for Vincenzo's Heir
B) Expecting Contini's Surprise
C) Demetriou Demands His Child
D) The Di Sione Secret Baby

All Alliteration
A) The Bridesmaid's Baby Bump
B) Make Mine a Marine
C) A Kiss for the Christmas Cowboy
D) Bound by the Unborn Baby

Bad Career Moves
A) Waking Up With the Boss
B) In the Boss's Bed
C) Her Brooding Italian Boss
D) Seducing the CEO

Probably Kinda Racist
A) Enslaved by the Desert Trader
B) A Virgin for Vasquez
C) The Sheik's Baby Scandal
D) Yeah, No, This One Is Just Icky

Bonus: Just The Best
A) The Detective's 8 lb, 10 oz Surprise
B) Snowbound Surprise for the Billionaire
C) His Badge, Her Baby...Their Family?
D) The Greek Tycoon's Love Child

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Unpopular Opinions Book Tag

Lianna tagged me, and far be it from me to refuse a challenge.  (That's not true.  I refuse challenges all the time.  But an opportunity to write about books...)

Anyway, this one's going to be pretty hard, because I agreed with almost all of Li's answers--many were the first things that popped into my mind (I do not understand Catherynne Valente; I just don't). But I'm going to purposefully avoid duplicates.  So if you wonder why I didn't say Outlander for number one--now you know.

1) A popular book or series you didn't like: Archivist Wasp. The Book Smugglers so rarely steer me wrong, but with this one, I literally cannot figure out what book they were reading.  I mean, it was not without its interesting qualities, but it was mostly a jumbled mess.

2) A book or series everyone seems to hate, but you love: Gah, this one's hard.  My taste is so mainstream! Instead of "everyone hates it" (I can't think of a book like that!) let's go with "how can you possibly even  notice that this book exists?" There is a romance novel called Beloved Wife.  It's a straight up Harlequin Historical by Lynda Trent, and it came out about 20 or 30 years ago, and at a point in my life my friend and I were buying HHs for $1 per grocery bag full.  It's just another one of those, your standard mail-order-bride story ending in true love.  So why have I owned it for two decades, read it half a dozen times, and love it more than any HH ever deserved to be love?  Reader, I know not.

3) A love triangle or romantic pairing you're not a fan of: Okay, this is an obscure one, but since I love Sharon Shinn, this mistake sticks out like a sore thumb to me.  The implied romance at the end of The Safe-Keeper's Secret is just a dozen kinds of messed up.  I'm not going to spoil it for you, and it doesn't ruin the rest of the story (I don't think) but there is a definite moment of WHAT. THE. HELL? going on there.

4) A popular genre you hardly ever reach for: Mysteries. There are tons of great mysteries, and some of them are my favorites, but it's hard to find the best ones, and when I'm reading a less-than-awesome mystery, I find myself really confused and distracted.  So I only follow strong recommendations in that genre.

5) A beloved book character who gets on your nerves in a major way: (Please don't hate me) Harry Potter.  I love the books, but let's all be honest: Hermione is the real hero there. Ron's a great sidekick; Harry's only there to be tortured and anguished. Sure, there's justification in his history for him being sullen and kind of whiny, but man, he makes an art of it.

6) A popular author you can't seem to get into: Jasper Fforde.  I've read a couple of his Thursday Next books, and even enjoyed them, but I can't seem to want to come back to them. And the other books of his that I've picked up, the ones that are not in that world, I never made it very far.  You'd think they'd be right up my alley, but they just never quite clicked for me.

7) A trope you're tired of seeing: These adults don't know how to run the world!  If they'd just do whatever straightforwardly obvious thing that we teenagers suggest so that everything could be fair and reasonable, then the world would be a place of peace and plenty and all the bad guys would be defeated.  But they're just overcomplicating things like international relations and crowd control and physics because of fear and inability to think creatively!

8) A popular book or series you have no interest in reading: Ender's Shadow. I loved Ender's Game and really enjoyed Speaker for the Dead, but by the time the new series rolled around, I had two problems: 1) I realized that at least the beginning involves rewriting some of the events of the original book from a different point of view, and that a bunch of what we understood to be happening gets a lot more shady with the new information, and 2) Orson Scott Card is a vocal and rampant bigot. So I'm not going back to that world, not even to see what happened to Bean.

9) The saying goes: the book is always better than the movie. But what movie or TV adaption did you like better than the original book?  Little House on the Prairie.  I never read those books as a kid, so I don't have any nostalgia for them.  And while I am generally really into books about the nitty gritty details of survival in a harsh environment, I find rereading it to be somewhere between dull and racist/violent. But the TV show! Michael Landon should be everybody's dad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Kickin' with Nonfiction

It's pretty uncommon for me to be reading two nonfiction books at the same time, but here I am, tempted by a prison book club and octopuses, and finding patterns--probably not in nonfiction in general, but at least in this kind of book.

My friend Lily pointed me at Maximum Security Book Club, by Mikita Brottman. As the title implies, it's about a book club that takes place in a men's prison. Lily's dad teaches in a college program in prisons, and if you want to tear up you should watch one of the videos of the commencement ceremonies for this program. I've been reading and thinking about prison reform lately, but that's not really what this book is about; the author is not (at least in the context of the book) an activist.  She's working within the system, running a book club-slash-English class for these men.

I'm enjoying the book, because I mostly enjoy reading about people discussing books. The prison history, characters of the convicts and their thoughts on the books, and the stories of Brottman's experiences going to the prison--being reprimanded for wearing red or very short sleeves, kept waiting for no discernible reason, interrupted by guards.  It's a really interesting book.

I'm not sure how I feel about the narrator, though--or rather, about the teacher.  (I hate talking about memoirs--there's author as narrator, author as character, and author as author, and it's hard to pick them apart.) She starts the book with some disclosure about how she doesn't romanticize the convicts and is very aware of how much coincidence went into the differences between her life and theirs, and I believe that.  And I do admire that she completely respects them as people.

But sometimes it seems a bit disingenuous, or to work against her.  The first book she chose for book club was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  She says she chose it because the themes of alienation and isolation from the human race might appeal to the men, but she also talks about how damned hard the book was to read when she read it the first few times--studying literature in grad school.  Even completely acknowledging that these men are equally intelligent and worthy of respect as yourself, it seems like setting them up for failure to pick a book that she only came to appreciate after years of education on how to read hard books. Her first few choices are all like that--hard books that even she struggled with a great deal.

The other book I'm reading is The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery, which I got from Netgalley ages ago because OCTOPUS! but which I put down almost immediately because, again, the author/narrator/main character bugged me a little.  In this case it was the narrator, really; she spent a long time trying to convince me that octopuses aren't creepy, to the point where it felt more like she was trying to convince me that I thought they were before.

She also drifts off into talk about Jung and the collective unconscious, or the meaning of souls, or the transcendent experience of touching an octopus.  It's all very woo, and assumed that I had to be talked into liking octopuses--which is ridiculous. because I love them and that's why I'm reading the book.  (I eagerly await the arrival of our squibbon overlords.) She takes her title as a mission statement; this is about the question of whether animals--particularly "lower" forms of life--might have souls.

The reason I came back to the book recently was because someone suggested in the comments thread on a Reading the End post about a different book about animal intelligence (which I'm also eager to read), and I was reminded how much I love octopuses.  And sure enough, as the poster said, once I got past the introduction, the stories about the octopuses and other inhabitants of the aquarium are totally worth it.

At times there are parts where she starts sounding like she's anthropomorphizing--even when she's making points that are totally valid.  The idea that an octopus has moods and that you can perceive them when you know it well enough is completely believable. When you start comparing them to your own moods and attributing facial expressions to fish, I begin to doubt you. And there are times where it lapses into memoir, or even worse, long vacation recaps, listing off the animals she saw scuba diving. Her experience with sea life is not as interesting to me as sea life itself.

Still, it's a fun book, and I really do love animal stories.  We've been watching a bunch of BBC nature documentaries lately, and they are absolutely delightful; this book fits in with that pleasure.

I'm still reading both books, more than halfway through each, and I'm enjoying them. But I am reminded that spending time with a book is spending time with its author, and that not every author is my favorite person to hang out with.  In a novel, there are layers that hide the author's personality from you, though you may get hints and make guesses.  In nonfiction, their agenda and even their thoughts are more clearly on display.  I wonder if this is part of why I don't read more nonfiction.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Farewell to the Three Thieves

One of the most amazing things about Netgalley is when a series that I'm reading comes up there and I get a jump on my VERY REAL NEED to keep up with it.  This is what has happened with most of Scott Chantler's Three Thieves series, and I just finished the final volume, The Iron Hand, thanks again to Netgalley.

When last we left our heroes, a bunch of dramatic and spoilery things had just happened on an island, and some people had been rescued, but some tragedy had befallen our heroes.  In this final volume, we finally get our favorite characters teaming up and heading back home to set things straight.

The first six volumes set up some really complicated mysteries around Greyfalcon, and it takes a dense section of flashback monologuing for the villain's history to be laid out; not a lot of surprises there, and I'd say 15% less backstory and the equivalent more adventuring would not have been misplaced.  But that's because the adventuring is SO good--the alliances, the conspiring, the army, the siege, the intrigue!

Everything plays out, your questions are answered, and matters are resolved. A couple of things happen a bit too neatly--there is one happy ending that I would have actually changed if I could--but most of the neat resolution is exactly what you hope and expect to happen, with enough dramatic twists to keep you surprised. 

This series was really a pleasure, and I can't wait to read the last couple of volumes with my seven-year-old son!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

There Are No Fairies In the Tale

Fairy tales retold in different times and places--a classic storytelling choice. There are a lot of ways this can go; I know people who are always on board, but for me it really depends.  Fairy tales themselves are relatively abstract and impersonal; they are about strings of events that have meaning in the context of the culture the story comes from, not about characters who grow and change.

When the string of events is used as a starting place, an author can tell a great story with the twist that I know what's going to happen, and it adds a layer of pleasure, of conspiracy, and of anticipation, but only when the author allows me to connect with a character who, in the original [Grimm/Andersen/Perrault] version, was barely recognizable as a human being.

Matt Phelan wrote Snow White: A Graphic Novel, and his choice of setting--the '20s and '30s in New York--caught my eye.  This is where Genevieve Valentine set her excellent novel The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I wondered what someone could do with Snow White. At the very least, I figured the comic would be pretty.

And it was pretty.  It was done in what I think is called inkwash, which is a mostly black and white watercolor style, which was lovely and dreamy and reminded me of the old French silent film of Beauty and the Beast. It was lovely to look at.

I wish there was more I could say about it, but I don't have a lot more.  It was...fine. It worked very nicely on the level of a fairy tale: Snow White's father is a stockbroker and her stepmother is an actress and she is sent away to boarding school and her father dies and she inherits his money and her stepmother tries to have her killed so she runs away and it's the '20s so all the poor people live in Hoovervilles and some kids take her in (seven of them!) and the evil stepmother poisons her with an apple and she sleeps till she is woken by a kiss and the stepmother dies through her own actions and everyone lives happily after.

I just ruined it for you, except that it was already ruined, because it was Snow White, and there was nothing you didn't know here.  There is no particular connection between the rich stockbroker and royalty, no comment on the stepmother's greed and envy or on Snow's pure innocence. In fact, both of those, and the father's passivity, are so broadly displayed that they're almost worse than in a standard fairy tale.  It's not just "she's innocent," which works as a shorthand for something I can picture a real person being--she's talking to a bunch of boys who are living in the street with no one to take care of them and telling them that most people are good and everything's going to be okay.  Her father doesn't just neglect his daughter in one sentence where we can fill in the blanks of all the ways a man can be mesmerized by an attractive woman; we are shown him loving his daughter and neglecting her, with no direct address of this discordance.

And I was actually kind of offended by how flat Snow was, and how evil her stepmother, and what an old sucker her father was.  The "gorgeous showgirl pretends to love an old man to get his money but is so, so evil!" is a nasty story that we've heard a million times and it kind of squicked me out here. 

So yeah, this was essentially a lovely illustrated edition of the same old story you've heard a million times.  It's really pretty, which is not nothing, but there isn't much else to recommend it.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for review.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Ninefox Gambit

This is an example of a book title that cannot be improved upon to title the post. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a smart, complicated, book; the title is pretty perfect.

Ninefox Gambit owes a debt of gratitude to Ann Leckie's marvelous Ancillary Justice, not for anything about the book itself--which is very different in plot, worldbuilding, characterization, and writing style--but for teaching me how to read really complicated scifi world building.  There is a mental place I learned to go to while reading that book, where I was taking everything in, whether I understood it or not, and filing it away for later, that served me well with Ninefox Gambit.

I was able to follow the broad strokes of the story, and those of the worldbuilding, very well.  (I would love to hear Ada Palmer and Yoon Ha Lee talk about epistemology, by the way.) On a physical level this is a world where mathematics can dictate reality, if you wield it in the right ways.  If you set up an appropriate calendar and get people worshiping and sacrificing on the right days, if you arrange your troops in certain formations, you can create different effects--weapons, defenses, tools.  In effect, it's magic, but translated completely into a scifi context.

Culturally, you have a society that is built to take advantage of this.  Celebrating the correct calendar is paramount, and control of the populace is important.  It doesn't feel particularly oppressive to the reader, but it's hard to tell, because our point of view is from within the military. Society is run by six factions--the hexarchate, the government--and each faction has a trait that they bring to the stage.  The Kel are the warriors, the Shuos are the spies, the Nirai are mathematicians, and so on. Together there's an uneasy balance of power.

Then comes the plot: a space station, the Fortress of Shattered Needles, has been taken by heretics, and calendrical rot has set in.  A soldier named Kel Cheris is singled out as unorthodox enough to maybe handle it.  She is given an ally, of sorts--the ghost of a mad general named Shuos Jedao.  Three centuries ago he slaughtered an entire space station and his own soldiers, but his genius was too valuable to give up; his mind was downloaded into a kind of cold storage, and they bring him out when they have an unwinnable war.  He has never lost.

Now he's hooked to Cheris, talking to her inside her head, and she's commanding a fleet with his advice, and they have to retake the fortress. Okay, so that's a lot of explaining, and I understood everything here. There's a lot of jargon about weapons and formations and ships and how the hexarchate works, but it's true that you can let it roll over you and you find yourself knowing what you need to know.

I realize I don't sound excited in this review; a lot of other people have.  The fact is that I didn't feel excited, though.  I found the book confusing in a different way, a way that I'm struggling to put my finger on.  I think it might have been emotionally confusing, in that I couldn't quite figure out where the book was coming down on the value of human life.

I mean, it's a war book.  There are lots of battles and lots of people die, and all the characters we meet are warriors of one stripe or another, whether Kel infantry or Shuos spies or Nirai strategists.  There are a lot of deaths, and a lot of moments where a character has to choose a strategy that will result in the fewest or least problematic deaths.  For most of the book, it felt like background noise to me, the kind of concern for life that you expect in a novel that is specifically about soldiers--not that life is cheap, but that we call came in here knowing what we were in for.

By the end, however, I've come to believe that this is the main point of the book--wastefulness of life, war as unnecessary. I can't quite figure out what it's about if it's not about that.  But the amount of death that every character puts toward that meaning confused me--like, the characters I came to think of as opposed to war were some of the killingest ones, and I couldn't see the lines.

There were a lot of scenes where we followed a character for one scene only, usually into a battle of some sort.  And a lot of the characters we meet die horribly, with exotic weapons that work because of mathemagical calendrical technology. "War is hell" is a fair summary of this story, and "politics begets war" is a good underlying message.  There are a lot of lessons on how to play with people's minds that I didn't follow, a lot of conversations where one thing is being said and another is meant, and the characters recognize the second meaning--and maybe the narrator even tells the reader what it is--but I can't see how the surface information leads to that result.

So yes, I was able to read this complex science fiction book because Ann Leckie taught me how. And for the most part I got it, and I'm pretty sure that the story that was being told here was a rip-snorting thrill ride.  But there was a gap in my understanding of the mental and emotional heart of the story that left me just a bit adrift.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for an unbiased review.)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

August 2

August novels we've covered; let's do August short stuff.  I know I promised you a real review of Ninefox Gambit; Wednesday, I promise.

Here we go!

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, by Daniel Pinkwater, was the book that Sophie reads to her chickens in Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, which Adam and I adored.  We liked the title, so we gave this book a try.  It's a tiny bit dated, and more than a tiny bit odd, but it's also pretty adorable.

A kid named Arthur is sent to buy the Thanksgiving turkey, but can't find one anywhere.  He ends up accidentally acquiring a 266 pound chicken named Henrietta as a pet.  He brings her home and teaches her tricks, but she proves to be too much trouble and his parents insist he get rid of her.  This is not as easy as it sounds.

Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy, by Philippa Perry and illustrated by Junko Graat, is...odd.  First of all, "graphic" in the title refers to the fact that it's a graphic novel, although I guess there a couple of moments where we see what's in the characters' minds and it's a little less than family friendly.  Anyway, it's basically an account of the therapeutic relationship between Pat, the therapist, and James, her patient.  It shows us chunks of James's therapy and there are annotations that comment on what's happening in the encounter--places where Pat fumbles, why she makes the choices she does, and what's going on behind James's replies.

Like so many books by psychologists about how their chosen forms of therapy work, it's got a heavy-handed faith in its system.  Unsurprisingly, James's stealing compulsion is tied to his childhood relationship with his wealthy but distant parents. It turns out this is also tied into his relationship with his girlfriend.  These realizations solve all of James's problems.

I actually very much appreciated the outline of what the sessions actually looked like, and the notes on what the therapist is thinking as she steers the conversation. And I'm sure this is what successful psychotherapy often looks like.  I guess I'm just really not into psychoanalysis as a solution to many concrete psychological problems, and I'm skeptical about the enthusiasm this book has for its efficacy.  

The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a novella by Fran Wilder and another one that I already posted about. The short story is that I really liked it even though I sometimes found it hard to connect with.

I Work at a Public Library, by Gina Sheridan, is a blog-to-book that was an unsurprisingly quick read.  It's an assortment of strange and sometimes charming stories of wacky things that happen at the library, but when read all at once in book form, but as separate anecdotes without context (as in blog form), it actually came off as a bit abrasive.

Many of the stories are adorable, and some are outright hilarious (as when a man dismissively calls the teen section where they keep the sexy vampire books and his friend looks at him and says "do you even read, man?"). There are grateful patrons and cute kids and wacky situations, which is just what I'm here for.

But there are a lot of stories that are about elderly people who are confused about the computer, or people who clearly have special needs who as confusing questions and get agitated.  It's the kind of thing that I can absolutely see writing down in your blog--because it just happened to you, and you're shook up, and it's fine but you're kind of like "what is this job I have!?" But when you put them in the book, it feels like you're rolling your eyes at those people in kind of a snide way, and that's the aftertaste that this book left for me.  It's a shame, really, because dang if I don't think this is a great idea for a book.  I think I want more of a memoir format for this kind of thing.

Finally, there's The Governess Affair, Courtney Milan's prequel novella to the Brothers Sinister series, which I am lapping up with a spoon. This is about how Oliver's parents met, and Serena's stubbornness in the face of overwhelming odds and Hugo's ambition and hidden humor are just so charming and irresistible.  It was a short book, and that worked fine; Milan's B stories are delightful, and every character gets their full due of nuance and depth.  I love that these characters whom we meet many years later as the parents of protagonists in other stories feel perfectly natural in their own tale.

And that's August.  I feel a great burden lifted now that I've shared it with you, dear readers.  I don't know that I'll do a lot of monthly wrap-ups, but I do feel like a lot of my books have been getting short shrift lately.  I'm being too uptight a blogger.  I need to cut loose a little!  Blog from the middle!  Be less analytical! Let my hair down!  Let's kick September up a notch, shall we?