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.