Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Best of Flashbacks

Did you know that there's new Bloom County? Was everyone else aware of this but me?  Berke Breathed has been producing new Bloom County strips online this year!  And now they're coming out in a collection called Bloom County XI: A New Hope, and I got it from Netgalley to read and my heart, it grew three sizes that day.

I don't think I can overstate how much Bloom County meant to me when I was a kid.  I learned about satire there, about politics and the press and what it looks like to be sincere in the face of cynicism.  Opus the Penguin was the mascot of my New Sincerity movement. Milo Bloom is the guy I'd want running my political campaign.  Steve Dallas is the ur-slimy-dudebro to me. Bill the Cat...well, I've got nothing for Bill, but as a prop he gets the job done.

The new book drops right back into the middle of the series when it comes to art and style, but drops into the modern era.  The cover made me worry that the art would be more like Outland, the trippy spinoff that marked the end of Bloom County, but it's not; it's got the friendly feel of the best comics from the late '80s. And the stories are not spun out of the 1985 material, but take the same sensibility that the comic had in its heyday and bring it into the modern world: naive and determinedly optimistic Opus tries out internet dating, Steve Dallas tries to find a place for his particular brand of masculinity in the world, and Milo runs his Bill/Opus ticket for the Meadow Party in the 2016 election.


Reading this was amazing.  It was like getting back a part of my childhood, and remembering how it felt to learn so much of what I still know today.  Welcome back, Opus.  I missed you.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hit Me Where I Live

When I picked up Gemini, by Sonya Mukherjee, from Netgalley, I'll admit it was mostly because conjoined twins is a sensational story.  How do they manage the day to day? How do they manage relationships? Get along with their parents? I was in it for the melodrama.

Which is why I was seriously knocked on my metaphorical, emotional butt when this book reached right into the darkest and most secret parts of my heart and laid them out on the page with great sympathy and perfect comprehension.

This sounds like hyperbole; it's not.  This is what happened, and there were totally non-dramatic moments in the first 30 pages of this book that had me near tears because I felt exactly like that in high school.  Hell, for years into adulthood. I was Clara.

Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins, joined back to back and sharing too much of their nervous and digestive systems to have been separated.  Their mother is firmly insistent that they are perfectly normal--and they are, for the most part. They're smart and funny and generally healthy.  In their small town, everyone knows them and they're no more remarkable than anyone else--no staring, lots of friends.

But Hailey and Clara know they're different.  Hailey knows she's unmissable, so she dyes her hair pink.  Being conjoined isn't even close to the main thing about her, and if she can't blend in, she'll stand out in her own way.

Clara knows she's a freak--she understands that she's smart and a good friend and all her strengths, but she also knows she's a freak, and she keeps a tight, firm clamp on any feeling that might look like wanting what other girls have--to travel, date, or dance.

The book is about their senior year, about looking ahead at staying in their small town or reaching further into the world--and trying to be brave enough to reach.  I love Hailey, who is scared but determined. I love how they complement each other, and how they recognize that.

But oh, I am Clara.  There are words that Clara says to herself in this book that I literally wrote to myself in my diary when I was a teenager.  There is a tight control that she keeps on herself, because she knows that she is not one of these normal people whom someone could love. She knows that she lives in the world on sufferance, and she will not ask more than she's entitled to.

So when I tell you that this book is in so many ways perfect, when I tell you that it's beautiful, and that I love all of these characters who are doing the best with whatever they have to work with--when I tell you these things, I hope you believe in the tender beauty here. The whole thing is a breathtaking, heartwarming experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Favorite Thing About Hamilton This Week: Teach 'Em How To Say Goodbye

Well, the original cast of Hamilton is splitting up.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Philippa Soo, and Leslie Odom, Jr. are leaving the show.  On one hand, it's the end of an era.  On the other, Chris Jackson, Daveed Diggs, RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry--when I go see the show in February, I will still see some of the people I've been goggling over for months.

But, back to the subject: my favorite thing about Hamilton this week, in honor of LMM's big goodbye, is the song I can't stop listening to, sometimes with tears in my eyes:

The final curtain call was streamed live on Facebook, which is pretty cool, but I would also like to point out how incredibly cool it is that the theme song from The West Wing played there at the end.  LMM is so my kind of nerd.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Detective-ish, Thriller-ish

So, I've been reading a book called The Widow, by Fiona Barton, which I got from Netgalley a while back. And coincidentally today, I ended up listening to Slate's Audio Book Club episode from last year about The Girl on the Train, which I read a while back. It's a good episode (I really like that feature, especially for books I've already read); I have my agreements and disagreements with their points, but it's a good talk.  But there's one interesting point that they make that strikes me as very true of Girl and also of The Widow.

The titular widow is Jean, whose husband has recently died and who is living through a media circus. We also see the reporter who's getting close to her, and the police officer who's investigating the event that made Jean and Glen the target of so much attention. The details unfold gradually, but it's not too spoilery to say that it has to do with the disappearance of a little girl named Bella four years ago.

The observation about Girl that the Slate piece makes is that it doesn't really work like a mystery, nor precisely like a thriller.  In a mystery, you have a detective who, while often tragically flawed, uses skill, intellect and character to uncover the details of what happened. None of these really applied to the main character in that book--it's not about watching her figure things out, it's about watching her stumble around. But it's not quite a thriller, either, because most of the "what will happen" we know the answer to--the question is more of a mystery's "how did it happen?" So the book is somewhere between a very slow thriller and a lumbering, semi-backwards detective novel.

This conversation immediately made me think of The Widow. And I know that sounds really pejorative, like criticism, but I think it's just a genre I don't have a name for (or maybe it's just a thriller).  The Passenger was sort of like this, too.  You have two parallel stories, one in the past and one in the present.  The present one is very much fallout of the past one, and the present is happening as the details of the past are revealed.  Usually--as in The Widow--the characters mostly know the details (though only Jean knows the whole story) and it's the slow tease of revelation for us as the readers--kind of a reverse dramatic irony.

I'm not completely sold on a story where the tension comes from a secret that's being kept from the reader.  It very much requires me to trust the author that the secret is a good one, since the secret itself is important; in a more standard structure, the secret is only part of the tension, and how the characters will react to it brings its own question.  But here, the characters know the secret, so we're watching layers of characterization being revealed, not watching character development happen.  It's an entirely different experience, I think, and a more precarious one.

At this point in The Widow (almost halfway), I have a theory about the whole thing. That's often true, but here's the thing--in a book like this, if I'm right about the theory, the book has failed.  If what I've "figured out" is really what happened (and I won't spoil it), then the author has not successfully concealed enough from me, and the slow unfolding will just be a kind of waste of my time. 

I suspect I'm wrong, though, because I feel like the indicators that are pointing me in this direction are far too clear. There is no way this is me being a perceptive reader; some of my expectations are clearly red herrings. I guess you could see those as two different ways to get off track--either make the answers to obvious, or make the red herring too obviously false.

This review won't post before I finish the book, so I'll probably follow up with at least an update about whether I was right.  I really think that this is the kind of thing that the story hinges on--how subtle is the author being in her misdirections? The hints that seem to be dropping so heavily--are they really hints, or are they sending me off on wild goose chases?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Impulse Read

Netgalley is so bad for me.  I see something interesting and I grab it and then my to-read list (which by my calculations is at least 15 years worth of reading) is one book longer.  I try--I have rules that I can only get books whose author I know, or that I had been actively waiting for.  That lasts five minutes; I'm a sucker for a good blurb.

[Warning: severe overuse of parentheticals ahead.]

Ice Massacre, by Tiana Warner, had a great hook: mermaids can kill any sailor with their hypnotic charm, so the besieged island of Eriana Kwai. I'm not generally into mermaids, but Mira Grant's Rolling in the Deep was creepy and scary and I thought that mermaid massacres sounded like fun. (Because I'm sick.) (Also, I just realized that I never reviewed Rolling in the Deep. It's a great little horror novella; go read it.)

So even though the cover image for Ice Massacre has a mermaid pet peeve of mine on it (there's no reason for their tails to bend right where the knees would, and at the same angle; there are no legs in there IRL!), I dove in (ha, accidental mermaid pun!)

Meela lives on a small island off the coast of British Columbia.  Eriana Kwai used to be a prosperous, independent place, before the mermaids came.  But now, any ship near the island is attacked; they can't fish, or easily get supplies from shore, and people are hungry. 

Every year, a new class of warriors emerges from training and goes off to fight the mermaids.  Some years they slaughter enough to give them a few months of safe fishing, but for the last few years, no one has returned home, and things are getting dire.  Meela lost her brother to the Massacre when she was a child.  But now the island has a new plan: train girls, who are immune to mermaid hypnosis.

But Meela has a secret; as a child, she had a mermaid friend, and only she knows that they're not violent animals, but people, with minds and a society. Meela's massacre is personal; she wants revenge.

But of course it's more complicated than that--there are personal rivalries among the twenty girls on the ship, and danger and hardship and loyalties tested.  And there are some loose threads here--mermaid society, as told through Lysi, sounds a lot like high school. And the book seems to take place in a modern setting (with the fantastical mermaid thing added), but you'd think there would be other proposed solutions besides the yearly Massacre. And how do the showers work on this ship, and does it make sense to sleep in nightgowns if you might have to fight at any moment?

So no, you should not try to fill this bucket with water and carry it across the desert. But it's more than adequate to play with at the beach (my GOD I'm nailing the theming here). Meela is stubborn and young and she makes some really stupid mistakes, but they're very standard stupid kid mistakes, and realistic.  The book sags a bit in the middle, as we get a lot of repeated mermaid battles while the tensions on the ship are fraying--not enough build in the middle and a lot more (dare I say it) treading water.

BUT. The conclusion is satisfying. And the friendships here are varied and fraught in ways that I like--Annith, Blacktail, and Lysi are all different kinds of friends to Meela, and even mean-girl-turned bad Dani has different friends and alliances with different meanings.

One thing I'll say, hopefully not spoiling too much (but if it is, here's where you stop reading, because I warned you): I wondered for a while here if I was being queerbaited. Don't worry, dear reader; I was not.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

On the Way Out

Corinne Duyvis's On the Edge of Gone actually came out a while ago; I got a copy from Netgalley, but the formatting of the reviewer copy was messed up, so I had to wait till I got it from the library to read it.  It was definitely worth reading.

A comet is going to hit the earth, and people have been preparing.  Some are on generation ships, self-sustaining biospheres that will find other planets to inhabit over years in the stars.  Others lucked into permanent shelters, where they're provisioned to wait out the years it will take for the earth to recover from the devastation.

The rest of the population weathers the impact in temporary shelters and then tries to survive the year-long winter, the storms and floods and dangers.  Denise is one of these, and at the beginning of the book she and her mother and sister have just a few hours to get to their shelter before the impact. But her sister is missing, and her mother is dithering, and they're going to miss their window. When they stop to help the victims of a motorcycle crash, Denise knows they've missed their chance at the shelter.

But the women they rescue lead her to something better--a generation ship, not yet launched.  Can they get on board? What will happen to Iris? What will happen to the world?

It's damning Duyvis with faint praise to say that one of the most impressive things about this book is the representation. It's rather glorious how all sorts of people inhabit this world so casually.  Iris is transgender, Denise is autistic, and her mother is an addict.  Iris and Denise are also biracial. Other characters are gay and Muslim and also autistic and all kinds of other things, and some of these things are plot-relevant and some are relevant only as they matter to the characters themselves.  But the most interesting question, the one that Denise poses by her very existence, is whether the fact that someone has needs that are different from the average means that they shouldn't be met?

There's so much great stuff here--how different everyone's emotions are during intense experiences; how hard people work to try to help each other and stay calm, even when not everyone can. How everything has consequences--can I tell you how great it was to read a book where a character is seriously injured and is actually prevented from doing a lot of things for days and days after the injury? It's refreshing that an accident, or a death, or the end of the world is freaking people out, and that those emotions come and go in cycles.

Another theme that I always find fascinating is scarcity. We live in a world where, while we're not exactly post-scarcity, many of us have the privilege of thinking in post-scarcity terms.  It's easy for me to say that everyone should have enough to eat when I have more than enough to eat.  But if there wasn't enough food for everyone, what does fair and righteous look like? Does someone being a drug addict make them less "deserving" of resources? If not the fact of her addiction, what behaviors would do so?  What about Denise, whose autism makes her uncomfortable in many situations (being touched, being rushed), but who is otherwise a functional young adult?

In the end, the book shies away from answering the scarcity question with an ending that's not only optimistic but with lots of room for sunshine and lollipops.  But the book asked the questions and addressed consequences, and I wish more books would do both things.

It wasn't perfect.  It sagged a bit in the middle, treading water (ha, literally! It takes place in Amsterdam) while all the pieces got in place for the final act.  The story was good, but it's the ideas, the questions, and the characters that are great--warm, compassionate, and challenging.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated

Oh, I'm stealing this one from Elizabeth, because she was right, I was shocked at how many of my most beloved books don't have more than even 1,000 ratings on Goodreads! The Top Ten Tuesday feature is from Broke and Bookish, and today's list: Top Ten Books We Enjoyed That Have Under 2,000 Ratings On Goodreads.

So, I'm going to skip the really old or obscure ones--I mean, Rumer Godden doesn't need my boost, even on her "backlist," and the translation of that French nun book from the 1950s was terrible.  Let's just go with the stuff that I am truly shocked to learn is not being scored by 100 new people every day!

1) Lifelode, by Jo Walton.  Really, there isn't enough love for Jo Walton by definition, because All The Love would not be enough love.  But this one is definitely underrated.  There's a lot going on here with time and memory and alternate family situations.  But what it comes down to is just a beautiful glimpse of a moment, and the lives of some incredibly real people--some likable, some not--doing the best they can.

2) Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow. The Scorpion Rules is getting great buzz, but don't be afraid to go back to this fantasy novel with a Native American feel, because the friendships here are incredible.

3) Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham.  If Veronica Mars was Muslim and maybe a little supernatural.  But that dark noir bite? Is so hard to find.

4) I'm going to put a bunch of K.J. Parker novellas here, because I'm not going to choose between Blue and Gold, The Devil You Know, and Downfall of the Gods. (Oh, who am I kidding? Go read Blue and Gold.) Suffice it to say, all three of these books are clever and snarky and twisty, and clearly underrated, if only in that they're not often enough rated.

5) Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan. Once again, I assume that because the word of mouth reached me, it reached everyone. The combination of cultures and mythology and way more about Muy Thai fighting than I ever believed I'd love to know.

6) Ursula Vernon--really, everything she writes.  I mean, maybe it's just that kids' books don't get many reviews on Goodreads, but seriously, Danny Dragonbreath, Harriet Hamsterbone, and my personal favorite, Castle Hangnail, are exactly what your children should be reading.  (Yes, Danny can be annoying when he finds girls weird. Even though he learns, some kids aren't aware of the boy/girl thing yet. Still.)

7) The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis. I mean, okay, this just came out, but the far-future old-West feel is amazing, and Elka is one of my favorite not-quite-likeable characters ever.

8) Point of Honour, by Madeleine Robins! All the Sarah Tolerance books, people! Fallen woman turned private detective (living in the guest house behind her aunt's bordello) in the 1800s. Sarah is a badass, and if you guys don't start reading these there won't be more--please, for me!

9) Gena/Finn, by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson. Maybe this one just hit me really close to home, but in the age of internet friends, it means so much to have a picture of what that kind of a bond can be.

10) The Golden City, by Kathleen J. Cheney. This one--this book was so great.  Fantasy set in turn of the century Portugal, with selkies--and, even better, a potential romance built on mutual respect and admiration before hormones.  This deserves way more attention.

I'm leaving out so much.  So many comics series (Princeless! The Three Thieves! Hexed, and its tie in novel, which was really surprisingly great!), so many old favorites (A Patch of Blue, The Nun's Story, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane), so many kids' books and novellas and brand new books that I have faith will still get their buzz.  I thought I was behind in my reading and reviewing; you guys have to get on the ball!