Wednesday, August 31, 2016

They've Found Me Out

Did you see today's Indexed?

From Indexed, 8/31/16

Ouch.  That hits kind of close to home for someone who checks the library website multiple times a day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Nope Out

I didn't know that Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote another memoir until I saw it on my library's ebook site, and I grabbed it right away.  To recap, I read her first memoir, She's Not There, about coming out as trans, about a dozen years ago.  I enjoyed it very much the first time I read it, though going back to it later I remember feeling that it was a little all over the place. Then I read her first novel, The Planets, published as James Finney Boylan, which I found just flat out confusing, jumbled, and unfunny. [Warning: I knew very little about trans anything 10+ years ago, and my use of quotes may look like scare quotes and just general awkwardness and insensitivity in that review, kthxbai.)

Which brings us to Stuck In the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.  This sounds like such a fascinating story--Jennifer and her wife Deedie stayed together after her transition and raised their two children as a family. They're not lesbians, and I've been curious about how their family works, because there are so many ways.  Even more, I'm curious about Deedie's perspective on the upheaval in her life that she had no way to see coming, and that did not fulfill any lifelong need of hers.

Alas, I'm only about 30 pages (10%; page numbers are a guess) in and I have to give it up.  As much as there's a story here that I'd like to know more about, I'm vividly reminded of all the reasons I don't want to spend time with Boylan as a narrator.

The main one is how much mockery is happening already.  It's clear that she's invested in seeing herself as funny, but some of the places where she reaches for a witty phrase turn glib and cruel.  Like describing how she met Deedie, she detours (the long way around) to make fun of a guy with a lisp who acted in Richard III when they were in college.  Like, a LONG way around--Deedie was in a play with a friend of James named Boomer, who had previously been in a play with a guy with a speech impediment and a Brooklyn accent.  Cut to a half a page of phonetic Shakespeare. There is literally NO reason for this to be in the book except for a laugh at this guy's expense, which isn't even really funny, because phonetic spellings rarely are.

This is after Jennifer sits down next to another parent at a fencing tournament that her son is in and ends up chatting with a woman who is named after a liquor. There's an actually-funny riff on how this is a thing in Maine (I'll take a good Maine joke any day), which detours into a pointless thing about how often Jennifer gets hit on, which is probably making a point about her sexuality, but really just seemed to make fun of everyone who'd ever hit on her.

And then back to Grenadine or whatever this poor lady's name is, who overshares right off the bat about how her husband is in Iraq and maybe it's better if he doesn't come back because he's so angry and frightening.  Jennifer compares their lives and says something about this woman whose "fondest wish is that her husband would die," which looks to me like MISSING THE POINT OF YOUR OWN STORY.

So this is how far in I am, and I've got almost nothing here except meanness in pursuit of a laugh, often a cheap one.  She tries to be self-deprecating, and those jokes land okay, but it just reminds me of Does This Church Make Me Look Fat and how Rhonda Janzen seemed to think that all the examination she put into her own life gave her the right to be glibly dismissive of everyone else's.

So yeah, I'm done.  Sorry, Boylan--I'm going to read If I Was Your Girl or Redefining Realness or Alex as Well or None of the Above or one of the many other thoughtful books about being trans.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Delicious Trouble

I was promised Sherlock meets Veronica Mars meets Ferris Bueller.

I was not in any way disappointed.

At this point it's been weeks since I read Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, by Stephanie Tromly, but I'm still going to gush, because it was just so much damned fun.  Maybe it was a little too clever, but if it was, then so are most of my favorite things and I don't care, I will love them anyway.

You start with Zoe Webster, new in town, coming off her parents' divorce with a chip on her shoulder.  When her path crosses with Digby, she finds him infuriating, but also the least boring thing about her new suburban town. He's equal parts insufferable and intriguing, and soon she's sucked in, straight up John Watson style.

Oh, fine, let's have another adventure then.
The book cover says he's attractive, but to be honest, that's not what's going on, and I love that.  Digby is weird (wears an ill-fitting suit) and his step-ahead style of interaction is really infuriating. Honestly, it's his friend Henry who's attractive, and even then only incidentally.  The fact that there's not a lot of romance here is huge to me, and the end doesn't ruin that.  (Also, in my head Henry is Asian instead of Greek; I'm sticking with that headcanon, thankyouverymuch.)

Anyway, Digby is looking for a local girl who's gone missing, following up on leads the police aren't, and investigating his own sister's disappearance a decade ago--an incident that destroyed his family.  With Zoe and Henry at his side, they investigate a shady doctor, a local drug ring, and a religious compound. He works half a dozen jobs, never shows up at school, and will eat your meal out from under you.

I appreciate that the obnoxious dude is acknowledged to be obnoxious, and that he's legitimately brilliant and kind of not normal.  I love that the adults are not stupid, and that they work with the kids when it's appropriate. I love Zoe's hard exterior and how it's weird, prickly Digby who softens her heart, like caring for a mangy stray puppy.

But none of this can capture the pure pleasure of the sass and wit and banter in this book. Veronica Mars is at its heart, because it's dark and everyone has secrets, but it has a warm marshmallow core.

You want to know how good it is?  I have preordered the sequel, which comes out this fall.  Paid money for it, so I don't have to wait.  THAT is how good this book was.  So there.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Rogues

I had this whole post planned about how I feel about theme anthologies where a bunch of authors are given a topic and write about zombies or homewreckers or whatever, and how those anthologies are really hit or miss.

And then I realized I'd only ever read about two of those. Turns out, I just had a conflicted relationship with Zombies vs. Unicorns.

Setting that aside, though, the fact is that work for hire, written on a topic given by the solicitor, can be kind of flat.  There's a difference between inspiration and workmanship, and sometimes you can see it.  But "rogues" is a pretty broad category, and I don't think anyone was feeling very restrained when George R.R. Martin asked them to write a story for an anthology called Rogues.  Whatever else, the quality of these stories was pretty uniformly high.

Not that they were all for me.  It was both an advantage and a disadvantage that a lot of the heroes here were old favorites of their authors, coming out for another adventure.  No complaints--they all played pretty well coming in blind.  But some of the more detective-y stories were not anything I would normally have chosen to read (though I liked the idea of a black market in stolen band instruments), and some of the fantasy ones seemed to have a lot of backstory I could have used (this guy travels with a wizard who is also a puppet?).

I'm not going to run them all down, but I think my favorites were "Tough Times All Over," by Joe Abercrombie, "The Caravan to Nowhere," by Phyllis Eisenstein, and "The Lightening Tree," by Patrick Rothfuss. Oh, and Neil Gaiman's "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" was pretty great. And of course, Martin's own "The Rogue Prince" was the first thing of his that I've read, and it was pretty wonderful.  Oh, and the characters in Carrie Vaughn's "Roaring Twenties" were really cool.  Oh, plus Gillian Flynn's creep-out--that was fabulous.  See where this is going? A really great anthology.

Anyway, pretty much all the fantasy ones were really enjoyable; the more modern settings I could mostly take or leave.  The Joe Abercrombie one was really a ton of fun; basically a criminal relay race where the MacGuffin is stolen from each character in turn.  And whatever I think of Patrick Rothfuss as a dude, the guy can write--Bast going about his day in "The Lightning Tree" is one of the most fun reads I've had in ages.

So, despite what I may think of Zombies vs. Unicorns, I guess anthologies can be pretty great--if you get a bunch of the best authors going together and give them a loose but definitely crowd-pleasing topic.  Guess I shouldn't be shocked.

The funny thing is that it took me more than half a year to finish this book (aside: thank heaven for the Kindle, so I could carry this huge tome around and pop a story in whenever I had time), and I kind of wish there was more. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Chickens

So many great kids books lately that I haven't been recording!  Did I tell you about Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer?  It's by Kelly Jones and if the title alone doesn't have you hooked, you've gone the wrong way in life and should really reexamine the foundations of your book selection process.

Sophie's dad has lost his job and her family has moved from the city to a farm that they inherited from her great uncle.  Her mother keeps them afloat with her freelance writing while her father applies for jobs and struggles with low-grade depression, and Sophie tries to figure out what this new life has to offer for her. When she starts finding chickens that used to belong to Great Uncle Phil and realizes that these are no ordinary chickens--well, maybe country life is for her after all.

This is an adorable book. Let me tell you what I loved about it: it's about making the best when life deals you a crap hand.  It's about a family that is struggling but loves each other a lot.  Sophie is determined and excited about becoming an expert in something.  It's an epistolary novel! There are psychic chickens. Sophie loves the library.  There are references to other chicken books (which Adam and I went on to read and enjoy!). Sophie is biracial, and dealing with people's reactions to that is a part of her life, but not a huge one. The bad guys aren't villains so much as they are a little wrong and maybe a little selfish. But most people are good guys.

Did I mention the psychic chickens?

This book was really fun to read to my seven year old, and I bet he could have read it himself if he'd been willing to try. (How to talk him into reading chapter books himself is another thing, and advice is welcome.)

Also, one of the chickens is invisible.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Stiletto

I mentioned this book briefly in another post where I talked mostly about the exposition style. But now that I've finished it, I wanted to point out Stiletto.

Okay, so you discover an amazing book by a new author and you're insanely excited about it.  The Rook was this book, and I will shove it into people's hands (three or four people in my office are reading it right now). I've reread it about three times.  I love Myfanwy Thomas, both before and after, and that book is a delight.

And then there's a sequel--only the second book ever by the author--and you're very excited, but of course it's not quite as good.  Some of the reasons are psychological: you picked up the first book with no expectations, so mere excellence made your heart leap; you'd never read anything like this before, so there is the frisson of new discovery. The second one, you're expecting it to be excellent, so excellence doesn't make your heart leap.  You've read something like this before, so the thrill of novelty is gone.

Plus you find out that your heroine from book one--who hadn't yet met her brother! who was just becoming besties with that metal chick from the Croatoan!--is more of a peripheral character in book two.  Still there, still kicking ass and taking names, but not the primary POV character.  That's a big let-down--again, I LOVED Myfanwy Thomas and wanted badly to hang out with her more.

So yes, the experience of book two can't compare to book one.  But that doesn't mean it's not pretty darned delightful on its own.  You get to meet the Grafters, the ancient enemy of the Chequy, and to learn that yeah, they pretty much have their own deeply held hatreds. There are some great twists about the villains, and a really lovely story of grudging respect!  Who doesn't love the reluctant development of grudging respect?

So is it as great as The Rook? No. Few things are.  But it was pretty damned great on its own.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Doorway

Kinda wanted to put the book title as the post title, but that would feel like stealing; it's a great, great title.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan Maguire, is another novella, this one about a school for children who have passed through portals to other lands and been sent back for one reason or another.  When Alice comes home from Wonderland, or Dorothy from Oz, or any of the Pevensie children from Narnia, are they really going to be able to go on in the mundane world as though nothing had happened?

Nancy was gone for two years, living in the Land of the Dead, learning to stay perfectly still and become like a statue.  She loved it there, so it broke her heart when she found herself at home again, and it was only worse when her parents wanted her to be the same old Nancy she had been before, to "recover" from an "ordeal" that they didn't believe and couldn't understand. 

What she finds at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is not what she was looking for--a doorway back to the Land of the Dead--but it is comfort, of a sort--the comfort of being understood and recognized, even by people who are very different from you. 

The story is structured around a murder mystery, which is good because it adds momentum to what would otherwise be a really delightful pile of worldbuilding, but is also a bit weak, because the murderer keeps killing the interesting characters with whom I want to spend more time.  I've read reviews that wish there wasn't a murder mystery, but I think I just wish there were fewer bodies--in such a short book, there weren't quite enough characters to spare.

I did love all the characters, and the depiction of the discomfort of living in a new place full of new people. The representation was great--characters are trans, asexual, and all kinds of other ways of being, and if these things are discussed in somewhat stiff language--the words that you'd use in writing rather than conversation--they are described (as far as I can tell) with accuracy and sympathy, and their experiences are there.

I just found out that there will be more books in this series, and I'm so excited.  This is a world I want to revisit--I want to go to the sister school for children who want to forget they were ever gone; I want Miss Eleanor to find her way home.  But mostly, I feel so, so sorry for the spider queen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Lapidary

The number of little books that I've knocked out lately without writing them up has me feeling kind of chagrined--especially since I'm not deleting them from my Kindle until I blog them.  Now, of the 250 books on my Kindle, only about 3 are finished, but still; I have housekeeping to do. So let's send out a few little reports, shall we?

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilder.  The title doesn't give you a lot of info to work with, but the cover is much more on point.  Lin is a Jewel, a princess in a kingdom that is protected by magic gemstones.  Her faithful servant Sima is a lapidary, who has the magical ability to hear and sometimes talk to these gems.  Between the Jewels and their sworn servants, the Valley has been safe for hundreds of years.

But a lapidary has gone mad and Lin's family has been slaughtered.  Invaders are coming, and the only protection the kingdom has left are two teenage girls who know their duty but have never shouldered a burden like this before. 

This book is full of little things to love--the clear-eyed look at the power structures in this kingdom, the very real danger in the magic system, and especially the relationship between Lin and Sima.  It's short--a novella--but it never glosses over the layers of truth behind so many things.  Sima is devoted to Lin, but she is also bound to her service, both by custom and law, and by the very dangerous realities of the gems she can hear speaking.  Lin is called upon to be a leader in ways she never had been and never expected to be, and this happens at the time when she has the least support. The same system that gives the Valley the protection of the gems is dangerously dependent on a wild magic that can drive a person mad. There is a heft an thoughtfulness to this slim book that you don't see every day, at all. 

The closest thing I might come to calling a weakness is that it can be a little confusing.  I think this might be a me-thing, though--I really require direct lines to be drawn between the things that happen in the world and the reactions that people have.  When characters make emotional decisions or experience revelations, when someone's actions make another character realize something about them, I need it spelled out.  I do not do implication very well.  And there are moments here where characters are undergoing a lot of internal struggles that are described as a process, but not from the source.  There were moments when I couldn't figure out what Lin was realizing, or what Sima was tempted to do.

Again, this is a big weakness I have in general--it's why I can't read plays, and I suspect why I will never get along with really literary fiction.  Even around that, though, this was a great, scary, kind of shocking story. And the teasing hints of the future--the little epigraphs from a guidebook written years after the events we're reading about--were an amazing touch.

I really need to read more of these Tor novellas--I'm just so glad they exist.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Little Smile

Yesterday I bought some cherries at the grocery store, and when I was eating them in the evening I thought of the chokecherries that Brian eats in Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, the classic kid-lost-in-the-deep-woods story. FYI, chokecherries (and being lost in the woods) sound terrible.

This morning on the train, there was a grown-up in a nice business-casual outfit reading a very beat-up copy of Hatchet on the train. He seemed pretty into it.  I wanted to ask him if he'd gotten to the chokecherries yet.  It made me smile.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


I haven't had a two-library day in a long time, but today I really wanted to get Adam some of Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books--he's into pigs, and they're right at his reading level. I happened to be driving past the Arlington library and I happened to know that several were available there, so I just pulled over and stopped in. 

Turns out they also have a really impressive Juvenile comics collection, and I got a bunch of fun stuff that I think Adam's going to enjoy.  And then I got to check my books out by just stacking them on this electronic pad and scanning my library card.  The RFID reader read all the books at once and emailed me a receipt.  I was startled. Technology!

And then of course I stopped by Medford, to drop off some supplies for tomorrow's craft at the Friends of the Library table at Circle the Square, and to pick up one more Mercy Watson book, and to return a video, etc. etc. I saw some of my library friends--helped Sarah move some boxes, chatted with Tamar while she did some shelving, and got the summer reading list from Sam to see if the Friends have any extra copies of the summer reading books we can give her.  Offered to do the same for Nicole in YA; just have to pick up the list.

You know, it's not just the books.  I love the library.  I love the librarians, who are so patient and cheerful when they deal with a lot of tough situations all day.  I love the programs that my son has so much fun at. I love the Friends, which is a great group of people working hard at something worthwhile and fun.  The library just makes me happy.  So yeah, it was a good day. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Once again things come together and I find myself surrounded by books of a common theme--though from completely different angles. This month is all about utopias.

I finally read The Philosopher Kings, the sequel to The Just City.  It's a big jump from the first one--20 years later, some major characters lost--but it adds another layer to the irresistible premise of the first one: philosophers dealing with the real world.  When they start talking about excellence, you kind of want to roll your eyes, but the book shines when they try to decide whether running water is too indulgent, or face the fact that you can't live a life of the mind when you have to spend most of your time putting food on the table.

In this second volume, the city has split, and they interact with the outside world.  We meet all kinds of cities that aspiring Platonists might develop, and what an anti-Platonist city might look like.  Christianity rears its fraught head. Really, the point is to watch the next generation doing their thing.  In the previous book, we watched the Children grow up and the Masters figure out how to run the city.  Now, the Children are figuring out how to run the city, and the Young Ones are growing up.

The weird thing here is that the reality of the Greek gods becomes such a big part of the story.  On the one hand, it's interesting to see how people react to divine intervention when they know it as fact.  But on the other, the nitty gritty of how to be a god pulls this off the path of being the book of ideas where it shines and into the realm of fantastic worldbuilding.

These are quibbles--less than quibbles: observations.  The book brought me the same pleasure as The Just City; I loved Arete, and I was fascinated by Apollo's struggles with human suffering.

I'm also reading Eutopia, by David Nickle, a book with the subtitle A Novel of Terrible Optimism. I'm only just starting it up, but it's got a creepy solemnity that has me convinced I'm going to be scared out of my skin.  I'm also dying to figure out why a bunch of eugenicists in the early 1900s hired a Black doctor to work in their perfect community.  So far, we've got the Klan, and an ambitious and bright-eyed eugenics researcher, and a mysterious, 100% fatal illness (which may actually just be an irrelevant plot point). Plus some kind of inhuman somethings and maybe some naked moonlight sacrifice worship?  This book is full of potential is what I'm saying.

Because the world really can be a better place.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

25 Bookish Facts About Me

Grabbed this one from Lianna again, which is good because I can't get the images to work in the other post I'm working on.  

1. I'm told I learned to read when I was 3.

2. My first grade teacher was impressed that I knew the word "architect."

3. I read Charlotte's Web at least a half dozen times in my childhood, but I was in my 20s before I read the last chapter myself. Before that, I always made my mother read it out loud to me.

4. I must have read The Secret Garden at least a half dozen times as well, and I always spoke with a Yorkshire accent for hours and days while I was in the middle of it.

5. Between James Herriot, The Secret Garden, and Code Name Verity, I want very badly to go to Yorkshire some day.

6. I refused to take honors English in fifth grade because I thought "reading and discussing novels" sounded too grown up and scary for me. I signed up for honors math and science instead.

7. The first fantasy book I ever read was Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen, which my aunt gave me for my 13th birthday.

8. I attended a semester and a summer of classes toward a MLIS at Simmons College before my son was born and the economy tanked at the same time.

9. During the first year of Adam's life, I made it my project to hit at least 12 libraries with him in 12 months.  We visited a lot of very cool libraries in the greater Boston area, and we actually made it to 15.

10. I have a weird quirk where I can't bend my thumbs properly without bending my fingers, which makes it hard for me to hold a book open and read lying on my back.  Ebooks have changed my life!

11. I used to be in a writer's group but just as a reader.

12. I completed NaNoWriMo one time--meaning I hit the 50k word count, though I didn't finish the book.

13. I read the Clan of the Cave Bear series way too young.  My father said, "isn't that book a little mature for you?" and I tried to prove it wasn't by showing him some cave paintings that I later realized were very...vulva-ish, let's say, in appearance. (Also, later, my college roommate and I would speculate on what wonders Ayla would invent in the next book.)

14. A guy hit on me on a subway platform once by asking what I was reading.  He was clearly very nervous, and I feel bad for shooting him down so brusquely--he was very polite. I don't think he even noticed that I had a brown paper bag book cover on my borrowed book to protect it from wear and tear.

15. I have a pile of bookmarks on the sideboard, so I am never without one when needed.

16. My sister still thinks I'm going to write her a YA fantasy series someday.  It seems less and less likely, though.

17. I enjoy Harry Potter very much, but I think it's a bit overrated.  It's charming, but His Dark Materials is far more compelling and well-imagined.

18. If asked what my favorite book is, at various points in my life I would have said The Prince of Tides, Shining Through, The Nun's Story, and Fool.

19. I check my library ebook account to see how my holds are doing and whether any new books have come into he system every day, many times a day.

20. I have three borrowed books from people I'm no longer in touch with that weigh heavily on my soul. (I have other borrowed books, even ones I've had a long time, but I know right where they are and who they belong to, so I don't mind that.)  I'm thinking of getting in touch with someone I haven't seen for five years to return a copy of a book she probably doesn't even remember that I have.

21. I have started at least five book clubs in my life. And I would start another one in a heartbeat.

22. I am pretty much always in the middle of a minimum of three books at once--a graphic novel, an audiobook, and a novel.  More often there's also a read-aloud with my son, and the novel is usually two or three novels.  So I guess I'm saying six; six is the number of books I'm usually reading at once.

23. Goodreads tells me that the author I've read the most of (not counting graphic novels) is Stephen King.  I find this a little embarrassing, especially since the period where I read Stephen King more than "incredibly rarely" only lasted about two years.

24. In high school, my friend Lani and I used to play a game where we'd act out death scenes from books we'd both read (usually in English class, but not always) and the other person would have to guess the book.  Shakespeare was popular because we'd read a lot, but there's a decent amount of fodder for this game in the high school curriculum. (Lani was super-popular; no one would have guessed she was secretly the best kind of dork.)

25. I love the sense of community of being a book blogger, even in my tiny little corner of blogland.  I really like being able to think about other bloggers' posts and post my own thoughts, and I (kind of weirdly, I think) don't mind that I don't have the big readership. I still feel like part of the team.

Yay internet! Love you all!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Know the Rules, Break the Rules

You know how you're supposed to show, not tell?  I've read a couple of really tell-y pieces lately, and I've been thinking about when it works and when it doesn't.

The primary example is The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, which is an amazing and hilarious book and you should really read it because of how fun it is.  It's a book with a lot of telling, which works for a couple of very good reasons.  Right now I'm reading the sequel, Stiletto, which is also hilarious and fun (though not quite as great as the original, and I have thoughts on that subject, too), but the telling really sticks out in this book--I don't think I noticed how telly The Rook was until I noticed it about Stiletto.

The things that the two books share that helps them work are the worldbuilding and the humor.  The premise of both book sis that there is a top secret government agency that deals with supernatural emergencies in England.  This is not a new trope, but the level of detail that O'Malley brings to the history and bureaucracy of the government organization is a nerdy delight.  It's not just what's happening to the characters that's fun--even the history books about this organization are fascinating.

It's also hilarious--the dry British voice discussing the weather and the impending end of the world was just so steadfast and matter-of-fact.

So those things--the humor and the intriguing backstory--make the telling instead of showing work in both books.

But what The Rook has that Stiletto lacks is an in-story reason for us to need all this explanation.  I mean, this kind of telling is basically a backstory info dump, which is poor form unless you're writing the second chapter of a Babysitter's Club book.

But in The Rook, there was a reason that you needed this information; the main character starts the story off by losing her memory.  A good chunk of the beginning is her reading letters that she wrote to herself before the memory loss, outlining all the things she'd need to know to impersonate herself. So there was a reason to get a multi-page summary of a character's life story, or an historical event, or a general description of what it's like to be raised at the Checquy boarding school.

Stiletto has less of an excuse.  I mean, Marcel's story of his experience in the war was one of my favorite parts of the book so far, but it was straight info dump, describing broad swathes of decisions and actions with single sentences, stating how groups of people felt about things succinctly, summing up a few years in a sentence.  It's not that it's not fun to read, but it's not exactly narrative, if you know what I mean.

The other thing I read recently that made me think hard on this subject was George R. R. Martin's story in the anthology Rogues.  It's an historical story from the world of Game of Thrones; I haven't read the books (though I watch the show religiously), so I can't tell you if all his writing is like this.  I do know that he gets into lineage and the complicated web of relationships that makes up the real world in a way that I respect a great deal (there is NO use here for the Law of Economy of Characters), but which makes a lot of telling necessary.

This story covered many decades; it was basically the story of a king's brother who aspired to the throne.  But it was told like a history lesson--almost exactly like one.  The only quotations were the ones that were spoken about or remembered; chroniclers are cited and rumors explained but not stated as fact.  It was like listening to a very good history teacher (Miss Lavoie!) talking about the Tudors.

All of these are stories that work, and that I'm enjoying a great deal.  But it's interesting to see how much stronger the book was when it had an internal reason, or the short story when it had a clear history-book structure.  The telling was nearly seamless there, where what happened was more important than how.  It wasn't till I got to the book where it was unexpected that I even noticed it.

More on Stiletto in a future post; I have a lot of thoughts on book 2s, as well as general comments on the heart pounding thrill ride that is the second half of the book, where the "telling" really kicks in.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Pointe, and Ballet Books In General

I've been thinking about what ballet books might have in common with nun books, because I feel like there's a common thread in what draws me to them. I've talked about nun books before; I think there might be more people who are into ballet books, but for me they're a distant second.

What they have in common, I've decided, is the singleminded devotion of the character's life to an esoteric calling, a search for perfection, where perfection is rigorously defined and everything else can be stripped away.  That simplicity of vision is what makes both of those lifestyles so fascinating to read about, and to try to understand.

It turns out I haven't read many ballet books, though I have a lot of my list (incidentally, the prevalence of titles including a pun on the word "pointe" is almost embarrassing).  Maybe at some point(e) (sorry) I'll have enough to give a top 5 list, like I did for nun books. For now, though, let's talk about the one I just finished.

Pointe, by Brandy Colbert (point(e)s for using the word straight instead of in a pun) is a decent book, but I'll tell you up front, is kind of disappointing as a ballet book. The main character is a serious high school ballet dancer who's planning her professional auditions, but that is such a small part of the book, it really feels kind of divorced from what the book is actually about.

Theo is a junior in high school and things are going pretty well--she has friends, she does okay in school, and she is one of the stars in her dance class.  When a friend-of-a-friend is hired as the pianist to accompany her class, she's worried about worlds colliding, but Hosea is cool (and hot), and things are going all right until the news breaks: Donovan's been found.

Donovan, it turns out, was her best friend until he disappeared four years ago.  They were the only two brown kids in their suburban school for a long time, and they were super tight.  When he disappeared, Theo's life and her family and her community all suffered under the strain.  But it had been four years, and things were mostly back to normal--until now he's back.

The unfolding of the story involves a lot of revelations about the past, which I find to be a weak way of maintaining tension in a book; if your narrator knows what her big trauma was, and the people around her mostly know, why keep it from us?  That's not exactly what's happening here, but the way information is doled out slowly, I can't quite tell if it's supposed to be tension or pacing.  Theo is in recovery from an eating disorder; she had a messed up boyfriend years ago.  These important story elements are doled out gradually as Theo keeps secrets from everyone important in her life.

Theo and her friends drink and smoke pot--Hosea's their dealer--and I actually found it pretty refreshing that this was all treated as fairly trivial--they don't get wasted, and pot is not treated as some sort of signifier of moral turpitude.  (Though the line between ballet, school friends, and her family gets clearer with every detail that one or the other group is unaware of.) 

But the kind of distancing issue about these normal teenager things is that they are so far away from a life of dance.  Theo goes to class several days a week, but she has a lot of time off--time to go to parties, volunteer at the school fair, hang out in a diner with her friends.  There are comments made about how her devotion to ballet separates her from the crowd, partly because of the time commitment, but you never see it--you never see her stressed by her responsibilities, or missing out on anything. 

Basically, ballet is a small part of this story.  It's what makes Theo special, and what connects her to Hosea, but it didn't feel as integral to the story as I would have expected from the title and cover.  The story itself is dark and intense, and I would like to ask someone who's read it what they think of how clean the resolution was to the very messy issues the book raised without really addressing some of the shadowy parts (Theo's secrets damage more people than just herself). But as an aftermath of an abduction story--a story of survivor guilt, of how lives are shaped by things that happen around them--this is a good read.

(Also, FYI, the best ballet book is The Cranes Dance, which you should read immediately.)

Monday, August 01, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Romance!

I've read so many books in the last couple of weeks, but I was away and then I was busy being back, and now I have a backlog and I'm terrible at blogging a backlog (and also at saying that five times fast, but that is neither here nor there).

So this week is all mini-opinions!  I'll start with a book that I'm so far behind on I cannot possibly be introducing you to it: The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan, book one of her Brothers Sinister series.  I  have no idea how it took me so long to get to this book, after all the hit-or-miss searches for romance novels with plots that were not based on pointless secrets and lies.  So many people told me this was the book I was looking for, and yet it took me literally years to get here.

Minnie is trying to land a husband before her secret past comes out; it's the only way to secure her future.  Robert is a duke who's secretly printing handbills urging the workers to rise up against their masters.  When Minnie is accused of writing the handbills, she's afraid that the investigation will reveal her true past, which is one of those things that's only shameful in a Regency novel, but okay, strict society, whatevs.

So when Minnie figures out that it's Robert, she does the reasonable thing: confronts him.  And he is equally reasonable in admitting that he did it, and so they are playing a game of chicken with the rage of the aristocracy as a threat.  And they fall in love (obvs).  And they treat each other with respect, except when they don't, in which case they get mad and argue and forgive each other.  And sometimes he doesn't listen, and there are consequences to that, and he realizes it, and apologizes, and then listens.  And when she decides that it can't possible work, she also comes to her senses, through logic and rational thinking.

God this was good.  I think my favorite thing about it was how Minnie learned how much she had contorted herself to make herself invisible, and how, as soon as someone saw the real her, she realized she couldn't go back to hiding.  That feeling that you should be something other than yourself, and the simultaneous realization of how impossible that is, is so beautifully communicated.

And Robert's friends! And Minnie's friend!  So many friends!  This book was sweet.

Now I just need to NOT wait another handful of years before I read Trade Me as everyone has been (again) telling me I should.  Courtney Milan = yes, please.  Even if the guy seems like a jerk on page 1.

(Also, poll: should I wait till winter to read the Brothers Sinister novella A Kiss for Midwinter? Minnie's BFF is sweet and I kind of want more.  What's your take on reading holiday themed books in summertime?)