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Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the John Scalzi's latest book. It's a bit of a departure from the other books I've read of his, but he was visiting Saratoga Springs on his tour to promote it, so I thought I'd give it a listen. Audible gave me copies narrated by Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson with my pre-order, and I decided arbitrarily to listen to Ms. Benson's version.

Lock In takes place in a near future that could've been post-apocalyptic. A virus that first manifests with flu-like symptoms has forever changed the world. Not in its decreasing the population, though that is a thing. Some percentage of survivors of Haden's syndrome are locked in, bodily paralyzed but fully aware of everything going on around them. The story opens 25 years later, after the technology to adapt Hadens (the shorthand for those locked in) to normal society is so well established, the government is cutting funding for further research.

Our perspective character is Chris Shane, the child of a former basketball star, and brand new FBI agent. Shane was afflicted with Haden's very young, and can't remember ever moving around in a human body. Instead, Shane became the public face of Haden's, and those struggling to integrate into normal society with the adaptations created for them. Shane is assigned to a special Haden unit within the FBI, and immediately has a case, on top of security for planned rallies protesting the aforementioned legislation.

Shane's gender is never given within the story, and, believe me, I listened. Shane is always called "Agent Shane," never Mr. or Ms., and Chris is Marcus Shane's child, not son or daughter. Even the scene where Shane looks down on the lifeless body technology frees Shane from, there's no physical marker, no remark on the body's attractiveness, no descriptor of hair length or necessary personal grooming. Part of it is that Shane doesn't appear to identify with the body lying in the cradle. Shane has lived through the movements of a threep (a sort of personal robot Hadens can use to move around and experience life) for so long, the shape of the flesh Shane was born into doesn't seem to matter.

This adds a layer of meta to the story. Because, while Shane is integrated with the threep to experience the world, the reader is integrated with Shane, who's a blank slate. Reading as an analogue for integration is an easier explanation to wrap one's mind around than any amount the narrative might've offered. It's a much easier leap.

Scalzi peppers in a lot of other descriptors that make it easier to grasp Shane's experience. The first time Shane compares the threep to a car, it clicked into place for me: necessary to get around, an extension of yourself if you're comfortable enough with the technology, expensive and far from disposable, but not the end of the world if it's damaged. With such easy imagery, Scalzi makes this world seem very real.

That it's grounded very much in modern politics and attitudes also makes suspension of disbelief that much easier. I work with people with disabilities. I've seen very similar attitudes to the ones Shane encounters, and some of the conversations are, word-for-word, ones I've had with employers about the people I advocate for. The attitude that allows the gutting of funding for Haden's research is the same attitude that has our funding sources dwindling while people shout about wasteful Medicaid spending. The dehumanization experienced by Hadens is a sad reflection of how I see the population I represent perceived.

As much as the story wouldn't exist without Haden's, it's not about Haden's. It's an exciting mystery in its own right, populated with multifaceted and compelling characters. Shane might be genderfluid, but that doesn't mean every aspect of Shane's character is so hard to pin down. This is a smart, snarky character who views disability as just a facet of self, and one open to self-deprecating jabs. The story rests on Shane's very capable shoulders, even if they are made of machine parts.

This story works on so many levels. I was deeply impressed. It's a neat concept, taken to some intriguing places, with some well-thought-out worldbuilding. It's a futuristic police procedural filled with surprises. It's a character study about disability and what a mind can handle and what some people are capable of. Mostly, it's an entertaining story, with a low cost of admission. You don't need a degree in epidemiology to understand Haden's, nor do you need engineering or programming background to get the concept of threeps and integration. You can just pick up this story and enjoy the many levels it works on. Or, you can just enjoy the story for what it is.

And I'm not just saying that because of how appreciative Mr. Scalzi was of the apple cider doughnuts I brought him from Bella Napoli when I saw him on tour.

As I noted above, I listened to this with Amber Benson's narration. I don't know if it would've been that different with Wheaton's, but she did a wonderful reading. She captured Shane's voice superbly. If I hadn't been listening so closely for gender markers, I would've been convinced that she'd been hired because she was the closest human analogue to Chris Shane. It was an excellent reading experience. I recommend it.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11) by Jayne Castle

The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11)The Hot Zone by Jayne Castle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is another book read for a book club, and quite possibly the straw that broke the camel's back. I can't keep clogging up my reading time with this tripe. My to-read is 773 items long, for crying out loud.

This is the third book in a series, the eleventh in a larger series. It follows Sedona Snow, recent kidnapping escapee, and Cyrus Jones, guy in charge of an organization Sedona has every reason to mistrust.

Maybe I'd've liked this better if I'd read the earlier books. This gave very little context. I managed to glean that they were on an alien world, that the world brings out psychic abilities in everyone, and that Lyle is some otherworldly critter whose abilities are whatever the plot needs him for, called a dust bunny by all the characters. Beyond that, I just had to trust that all the world-building elements had been established in earlier books. So, if nothing else, this book showed me the importance of catching a reader up in a series as if they haven't been following from the start.

The book might've worked on the strength of the relationship between Cyrus and Sedona, but, no. It's pretty formula romance: circumstances throw them into close proximity, there's tension, there are reasons to resist, they're all over each other, then they're in love. A lot of their reasons for being drawn to one another hinge on their psychic abilities, so it was beyond me.

The writing stood out as clumsy and artless, too. For all their "as you know, Bob," dialogue, the characters might've bothered to catch me up on what I needed to know about the world. Instead, they clunked around about a mystery I didn't particularly care about, and that doesn't come into play until the last 50 pages. The pacing needed work.

Normally, I might've gone back to read earlier books, to pick up on the context I missed. I won't punish myself with more of this author. This is one, in all her various pseudonyms, to stay far, far away from.

At least now I can say for sure I've tried out paranormal romance, and it's definitely not my thing.

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Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Journey to the Center of the Earth: A Signature Performance by Tim CurryJourney to the Center of the Earth: A Signature Performance by Tim Curry by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another of those classics you almost don't have to read. The main points are already such a part of popular culture that reading it is mostly a matter of waiting to see when each part will come up. Still, when I saw it was narrated by Tim Curry, I thought it worth a shot.

The story opens with the discovery of a strange document inside the pages of an old book which brags of a journey through the planet, undertaken some centuries before. Our reluctant protagonist is talked into joining his uncle, the intrepid Professor Lidenbrock, on his own such exploration. Lidenbrock is a geologist, and believes the journey is possible, while Axel holds to scientific convention that says the Earth is full of magma. Of course modern science has borne out Axel's view, but it would be a short book if Lidenbrock didn't turn out to be correct. His theory is sound, by the scientific knowledge of the time.

The book's greatest value lies in its snapshot of scientific inquiry during Verne's time. Verne extrapolates several suppositions, based on the scientific knowledge he's working with. There are several points where he flirts with the truth (he dances all around the theory of continental drift, for instance), only to fall short because he lacks a crucial piece of later discovery. The fantastic creatures the explorers find living underground say a lot about the fossil records that existed then.

The story is fairly straightforward: Axel and his uncle go to Iceland, hire a guide, find the entrance the long-ago explorer used, and travel as far down through the earth as they can before circumstances force them to surface. Most of the narrative involves what Axel sees, rather than what he does. When he does make a decision, it's often the worst one possible. The greatest danger he faces is when he's separated from his uncle and the guide, and his light goes out.

So it's not the most exciting narrative. Still, it's interesting to see Verne's various theories about what an underground explorer might see, and how he came to those conclusions. There were times when I hoped the characters would move toward sources of danger, just to spice up the narrative a bit, but these characters were far too prudent for that.

If it hadn't been Tim Curry reading this to me, I wouldn't have soldiered through it. He adds a much-needed spark to the story. His narration is dynamic, and was often the only reason I kept listening. It was nice to experience this book for myself, but I would've felt the slog a lot more keenly in a print version.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt

Thief of Shadows (Maiden Lane, #4)Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is the latest in my quest to find a romance novel that doesn't make me roll my eyes. While it had promise, the idea behind it is silly, and it was determined to take away everything I liked about it.

The premise of the book is that the Ghost of St. Giles runs around in a harlequin costume by night, protecting the weak and rescuing kidnapped urchins. By day, he's the mild-mannered Winter Makepeace, headmaster of a school for orphaned children.

And why does he go about in a costume and mask, risking his life? So he can meet Lady Isabel Beckinhall when she rescues him from an angry mob, brings him home, and strips him naked (except the mask, of course) to treat his wounds. Several more fortunate coincidences throw these two together, and the tension grows. She tells him how sad she is she can't have kids, and why there's a boy who isn't her kid running around her house. He tells her why he's a virgin, and plans on staying one. (Guess how long that one sticks. Go on. Guess.)

I could believe these two liked each other by the end of the book, though his quick study in the bedroom had me raising an eyebrow. I could believe he'd question his life as the Ghost in light of his relationship. What I couldn't believe was how easily she made the sacrifices she did for the relationship. It robbed her of a lot of the things that made her such a strong character. I'm all for compromise in a relationship, but must romance novels always end with the heroine losing herself in the hero?

I also feel that, if there's a beta hero in a story, the author should let him be a beta. Stop reminding us how virile he is. Stop making the heroine swoon under his power. There are plenty of alpha male stories that cover those tropes. Let the beta male show his strength in recognizing and respecting the heroine's.

If you like historical romance with a masked hero, and you read a broad range of romance with no quibbles with the tropes, this one will suit you fine. It's a story about a beta finding his inner alpha by putting on a mask, until the woman draws it out of him. Personally, I don't find the transformation an improvement.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: The Winter Long (October Daye #8) by Seanan McGuire

The Winter Long (October Daye, #8)The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in Seanan McGuire's October Daye series. I think I say every time that they get better with each installation, but, well, it's true. McGuire does her homework, building intrigue and tension into earlier books that pay off handsomely with each new installment.

The Winter Long opens with the Winter Solstice ball, and Toby's official designation as the realm's hero. No sooner has she dropped into bed to recover from her long night of social obligations than she gets a visit from Simon Torquill, brother to Toby's liege and the one responsible for her spending 14 years as a fish. He wants to help her, only his definition of "help" is wanting to turn her into a tree for the next century so she can't be killed.

There are a number of reveals in this book that have been building for 7 books, and that I won't spoil if you haven't yet had the pleasure. Toby's nemesis is all the more formidable for blindsiding Toby. Alliances shift, relationships change, Toby empathizes with characters she had every reason to hate, and the Luidaeg gets to step outside her snarky-cryptic-adviser role to show off why she's the subject of parents' warnings and children's nightmares.

If a young writer asked me how to write foreshadowing, I would plunk down this series and say, "Get reading." All of the shocking reveals have been telegraphed from the start, yet they still blindside us, because Toby was (and we were) off investigating this shiny clue over here. As I posted elsewhere, McGuire was dropping breadcrumbs while we were following the shiny stones.

Everyone's favorite Cait Sidhe is here, backing Toby up and lending emergency transportation through the Shadow Roads, and providing much-needed levity. His role at the end of the book is probably the least surprising reveal, but it's a pleasant surprise.

The pacing of this book is lightning fast. The bulk of it takes place over a period of 24 hours. The only reason Toby stops is because she's unconscious. That's not a spoiler, because, of course she is. She tests the very limits of her magical abilities (and her body's blood capacity). She's far from the strongest magic user in Faerie, but she's probably the most determined.

There are hints of things to come in future books. I suspect we'll see some way of getting around Elf-shot, because Rayseline and her break with reality is too good to let lie. Er, no pun intended. And there's plenty stirred up by Simon's return that needs addressing. Lastly, the series can't come to a close without Toby having conversation or three with her mother, Amandine.

Beyond that, I won't make any predictions, because this series is too good to pick apart with speculation. It's best enjoyed when you trust McGuire to do what the story needs, and wait to see what that is. I'm still going to take note of clues I pick up along the way, because chances are good they'll pay off nicely, but I'm not going to cling to my predictions. I like how she handles them better every time.

If you're not reading this series yet, go pick up Rosemary and Rue, then
  A Local Habitation

, and so on until you're caught up. I'll wait. Because I need more people in my life I can talk to about my love for these books. They're so much fun. You don't hate fun, do you?

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alison Bechdel is best known for the Bechdel test, which a movie passes if it has two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a male character. It's a low bar for gender representation, and yet a minority of mainstream films pass it. Bechdel introduced the test in her webcomic.

Fun Home covers far different material than what Bechdel has online. It's a memoir in graphic novel form, of a childhood spent in rural Appalachia under the shadow of her closeted gay father. She only learned the context for a lot of the events of her childhood after her father commits suicide (maybe) and her mother reveals the truth young Bechdel was sheltered from. Bechdel blames herself for her father's suicide, which she's convinced was sparked from her coming out as a lesbian.

The story is told mostly as a series of flashbacks and musings. Bechdel starts each chapter with a seed of memory: a photograph, a letter, a book, or just musing about a childhood recollection. The picture emerges in pieces, of her father's perfectionism, about her museum-quality house, of the family funeral home business and the strange attitudes about death that lends itself to.

Interestingly, the father is never presented as a villain. Bechdel could have exposed his lies and secrets, and blamed him for all the ills in her life. Instead, she presents him as a flawed but sympathetic figure. Her mother suffers for his choices, and Bechdel never glosses over that, but her own attitude is of curiosity and regret. She seems to find, at least in these pages, the sense of closure her father's death left her craving.

Some of the narrative is woven into classical allusions that, unfortunately, went straight over my head. Fun Home assumes some familiarity with Ulysses, which I've never read, and it offers none of the contextual clues that would've brought it together. I can only assume this book is more profound if you share Bechdel's reading list.

I wouldn't have thought the graphic novel format would lend itself to a memoir, but it was used to good effect here. Bechdel illustrates several concepts that don't work in prose, and reproduces photographs to offer context that we'd otherwise have to take her word for. For all the strangeness of the relationship with her father she describes, nothing captures it quite like her vividly illustrated dreams, or her scene stagings that show him off to the side, engaged only with his inner world. And her childhood home is hard to grasp without the illustrations capturing their pristine perfection.

This is probably the most profound graphic novel I'll ever read. It's short, but that doesn't mean it's a quick read. It's dense with meaning and emotional resonance. It was excellently done.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the ninth book in my 2014 TBR Challenge. My sister gave it to me as a Christmas present years ago, but I set it aside for a time when I could get over the intimidation factor. Interestingly, I would not have appreciated it the way I do if I'd read it right away.

Toru Okada is unemployed by choice, living in a house that belongs to his uncle but would otherwise go empty, and has no idea what he wants out of the future. As the story opens, his cat is missing. The cat is named after his brother-in-law, who he dislikes. Then one day, his wife fails to come home from work. The aforementioned brother tells him she wants a divorce, but Okada is determined to find her and talk to her, himself, to get to the bottom of it. She writes him a letter explaining her actions and telling him to move on, but he remains unconvinced. His quest to find her becomes an inner journey, fueled by sensory deprivation inside an old, dried-up well, the mystical sisters Malta and Creta Kano, and his friendship with a flippant teenager who's stopped going to school.

Had I read this book years ago, Okada's passivity would've driven me up a wall. I would've been yelling at him to do something, instead of waiting for a solution to come to him. But two years ago, I found myself in similar circumstances. My husband left, with no hint to where he'd gone. He'd left only a note that explained nothing. Okada's and my stories diverge there; his wife, Kumiko, needs rescuing, and she's worth the effort, whereas my separation was an inevitability, and I'm better off now. Still, I can understand Okada's paralysis, his sense that the solution is out of his hands, his increasingly odd decisions. I didn't have any encounters with a prostitute of the mind, but I can relate to Okada's mental state. The story resonated with me.

The book is beautifully written. Even as a translation, the language is musical, full of vivid imagery. Haruki Mirakami works in impossibility alongside the mundane, and he makes good use of these elements. He has a parallel narrative about a Japanese soldier during WWII running throughout that even this historically illiterate reader can follow.

To call the narrative dreamlike is cheating, because dreams are such an essential part of the story. The story depends on the line between sleeping and waking being porous and blurry.

I was worried this book would feel like homework, or at least that it would be a slog to get through. I expected that I would need to paste a polite smile on my face when my sister asked what I thought. Instead, I find myself hoping she's read it, so we can talk about it. I owe her my thanks for this one. She didn't know it when she gave it to me, but I needed this book.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I initially marked this book as science fiction. Connie Willis is best known for writing SF. But, there are no science fiction elements in this book. Some of the science is fictional, but it's too modern-day and plausible to be classified in the genre.

Sandra Foster is a sociologist working for a research corporation, studying fads. HiTek wants to know what starts them, so they can start the next one. The  incompetent office assistant, Flip, misdelivers a package, and Sandra meets Bennett O'Reilly when she tries to return it. He's a chaos theorist, and she's so used to analyzing fads that her entire thought process grinds to a halt when she sees he's not following a single one. Intrigued, she sticks close, even combining their research projects when his funding hits a major snag.

The plot is fairly light, with few surprises. Sandra researches trends, is stymied by Flip or HiTek's management, grows closer to Bennett, and accidentally reaches a goal almost every background character is striving for. She spends a lot of the book musing about the happy accidents of science, so the ending manages to feel nothing like a deus ex machina.

Sandra's voice is dryly sarcastic. She presents the people around her like an ongoing sociological observation, noting their quirks and patterns while remaining curiously unaware of her internal world. Her lack of self-awareness plays a part in the overall plot, so it's entirely forgivable.

The book is social commentary with a lot of insight into human nature. While the book's answers to what causes fads is too pat for the real world, the insights about their spread and how people regard them is spot on.

Sandra's observations about HiTek's management are satire at its best. She pokes fun at corporate speak, red tape, team-building exercises, useless meetings, and the disconnect between management and the people doing the work. Through Flip, Willis illustrates how the least competent are often the best rewarded.

Flip stands for a lot more than that, though. She has even less self-awareness than Sandra, and she actively undermines a lot of HiTek scientists' efforts. Every bit of progress is stymied by Flip's carelessness, and she lobbies to get rid of the only person who can neutralize her disasters. Not out of jealousy, but because the woman is a smoker when the fad is to treat smokers like second-class citizens.

The subject of fads has interested me for a long time: how they start, why people pick them up, why they die. Despite its status as fiction, this book had a lot of answers for me, and many of its views coincided with my own. I found it hilarious and entertaining, and the theme is one I can get behind.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Kate Reading. I've listened to books she's narrated before, and she's always impressed me with her crisp, professional delivery. She gets across Sandra's voice well, and captures Flip's attitude by giving her a lazy drawl. Some of the other characters sounded similar to one another, but it was forgivable, because Sandra rarely talks to large groups of people at a time. I could always tell who was really speaking.

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Review: The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection

The Neil Gaiman Audio CollectionThe Neil Gaiman Audio Collection by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very quick audio collection of Neil Gaiman's stories for young readers. It includes three stories and a poem.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is about a boy who trades his dad to his friend, then has to keep going farther and farther from his house to trade him back. It's a funny story, mostly in how nonplussed the father is, and each child's disappointment to discover the dad was the worse end of the swap.

The Wolves in the Walls is about a girl who hears noises in the walls, and warns her family. Nobody believes her, though they each remember a dire adage about what happens if they come out. Young Lucy is brave and sensible. It's a fun, whimsical story.

Cinnamon is in the classic fable style, about a princess who won't talk, until a tiger shows up to claim the reward offered by her father. The solution is easy, of course, to someone willing to look at the problem from Cinnamon's perspective.

Crazy Hair is a narrative poem about, well, hair, and what happens when a curious 3-year-old tries to tame it. It made me think of my own father, and I had to track down a video of its being performed so I could share it with him. Very cute.

The very end of the collection includes an interview between Neil Gaiman and his daughter, Maddy, who sounds like she's around 8 years old at the time. She has some excellent questions, but the best part is how she wraps it up.

Overall, the audio collection is charmingly entertaining, and, though aimed for a very young audience, enjoyable by anyone who likes Neil Gaiman's writing. This is read by the author, who's an excellent narrator.

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Balancing Foreshadowing

I've been thinking lately about foreshadowing, and how to strike the balance between giving the plot away and coming out of nowhere. The most recent October Daye book just came out, and the latest installment's greatest strength (perhaps) is the groundwork done in earlier books to build up to this point. Also, I was thinking about why a bit of obvious foreshadowing in Fuzzy Nation didn't make the book predictable or boring.

Incidentally, this is why most writing advice includes a strong recommendation to read a lot. Seeing what works or doesn't work lets you pull apart those elements to use them, yourself.

But I digress. Frequently.

I've also been doing a lot of editing. Now that I know how the books I'm typing up end, I keep adding in hints to later events. Or I keep feeling really proud of myself for having already put them there. So, foreshadowing is on my mind a lot these days.

The October Daye series handles foreshadowing in a couple of ways. There are hints sprinkled throughout that the unreliable narrator doesn't dwell on, but that turn out to be essential to the later plot. Or, she misinterpreted these hints. Foreshadowing-as-misdirection can work really well, especially in mysteries. The way foreshadowing is woven into these stories, an astute reader feels rewarded for paying attention to these clues, but there are still plenty of surprises.

In Fuzzy Nation, the narrator also fails to pick up on important hints. But, it turns out that what the narrator misses isn't the key to solving the problem. There's something else going on, too, and the plot hinges on that harder-to-anticipate element. The predictable one does come into play, which made me feel smarter than the narrator for picking up on it, but it didn't spoil the ending.

Are you recognizing a theme yet? In the most satisfying books, readers feel like they were engaged enough to use their brains, but the author didn't give everything away. Also, the more obvious foreshadowing works as its own kind of misdirection. There may well have been hints in the narrative about how the stories would end, but I was too busy examining the more obvious clues.

Good foreshadowing, then, doesn't give an ending away. It doesn't reveal everything until the last page ties it all together. If you've done it well, your reader will pick up on some of it, but not all. So, if you want to deliberately insert clues to your ending, make sure it's only to a contributing factor, not to the ultimate solution.

Now, off to take my own advice. Expect a progress post in a month or so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually wait until after my book club meetings to review the month's selection. But I read this month's so far in advance, I'm backing up the rest of my review list if I delay it that long.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a classic, in that I first heard of it from underclassmen being "forced" to read it in public school. It deserves better, but I don't know a better way to get in front of students' eyes than assigning it as mandatory. It bridges the period that spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and shows the hardships of descendants of freed slaves, and everyone who looked like them. It lends a perspective on a piece of history we commonly associate with the Dust Bowl and WWII.

The book tells the story of Maya (Marguerite) Johnson, who grows up in Stamps, Arkansas. She and her older brother, Bailey, are sent there to live with their grandmother when their parents separate. Their mother briefly claims them in Chicago, but they're sent back to Stamps after a rape by her mother's boyfriend leaves Maya unwilling to speak. Racial tensions eventually lead their grandmother to take them to their mother's new home in San Francisco. While it's less overtly racist, Maya still runs into a lot of limitations, most notably when she decides she'll be a street car operator and has to persist at this ambition for weeks while the gatekeepers politely hope she'll go away.

The book reads as a series of loosely connected vignettes, rather than a single novel. It is autobiographical, so it's no coincidence that it reads more like a memoir. I kept waiting for a connecting narrative thread, and, while the themes and tone and voice remain the same throughout, it felt uneven. The resolution at the end of the book felt anticlimactic.

Despite the horror of rape, that's one of the easier parts of the books to read. Young Maya puts the reader right into her head leading up to the event, and in its aftermath. She depicts the violence done to that young body and mind without ever describing it in violent terms. Through her eyes, one sees the absurdity of asking an 8-year-old what she was wearing to provoke the attack, even while modern news outlets describe a young rape survivor as looking older than her years.

The language in this book is lovely. I've often found that poets are better at prose than novelists are at poetry. Despite the disjointed nature of the story, it felt like every word was there because it needed to be, and that to remove one was to destroy the whole flow. Angelou captures sentiments and experiences vividly in a few well-chosen words.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn't always a pleasant book to read. It shines a light on a lot of aspects of history the majority of Westerners have been allowed, even encouraged, to overlook. Racism is easier to stomach when it's evil Germans perpetrating it. When it's the people we've been identifying with throughout history, it's jarring. That is precisely why this is a valuable book to read, despite the difficult themes and the terrible ordeal young Maya survives. We could all do with a little more empathy.

I listened to this book on audio, read by the author. Generally, I've found the audio books I've liked best were read by the author, who, after all, knew exactly where the emphasis was supposed to go and how to pronounce all the names and places. It's the closest you can be to curling up inside the author's thoughts while she wrote. There were times when Angelou sounded exasperated with her own words, but she was definitely the best narrator for these words.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories #1) by Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories, #1)Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up when it first came out, but, unlike most Seanan McGuire books, I didn't immediately tear into it. I was familiar with Rose's story thanks to the serial fiction published in The Edge of Propinquity. It turns out the book is as far removed from the serial as the serial is from the original song that inspired it.

Rose Marshall is a road ghost. If you've ever heard the tale of the hitchhiking ghost who vanishes before reaching its destination, you know the other side of Rose's story. Rose is a benevolent ghost, but there are those who don't think so, and want her stopped. And then there's Bobby Cross, the reason she's been stuck at age 16 for the last 60 years. She lives in fear of being caught by him, at the same time as she rescues those who die on the road from his grasp.

The story doesn't entirely lose its serial-fiction roots. Rose repeats herself frequently and explains things the reader might already know. Each chapter could easily be read as a stand-alone story, though you'd lose the overall narrative arc. Rose warns the reader early on about the fluid nature of time to a ghost, and so it makes sense that she might go over things she's already said. She's not sure where the reader is jumping into the story.

Rose's voice is more lyrical and rich than Seanan McGuire's other first-person narrators. She speaks in metaphor and imagery, evoking the sort of rambling thoughts that can only come to mind when you're alone on a lonely stretch of road with nothing better to think about. That's not to say the book rambles. She often sets the mood with a few well-placed words. Her voice reads as a combination of road metaphors, 1950's slang, and trucker shorthand.

If you've read the serialized version of this story, you'll have the bare bones of the plot laid out, but you'll have missed out on a lot of details that tie the story together. I couldn't do a compare-and-contrast, because I can't be positive if I forgot certain details from the serialized story or if they weren't there. I do know that this version of Rose's story is the richer and more vibrant.

Rose's story takes place in the same universe as McGuire's InCryptid stories, which start with
  Discount Armageddon

. Rose refers several times to the Healy family and its creepy, possibly-haunted house in her hometown, though none of the family members make an appearance. Rose is seeing another side of that world. I can see where she might cross paths with a future InCryptid story, but there's no room for it in this tale.

Once upon a time, the "Sparrow Hill Road" short stories made me interested in looking up road ghost stories to learn more about the tales Rose refers to. Sparrow Hill Road in its polished form makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived through, and finishing it makes me miss a friend I've never met. Unlike in the short stories, this version leaves room for more of Rose's story. I look forward to visiting more of the second America Rose guides us through.

I've been recommending this book all over the place to friends interested in ghost stories and local tales and urban legends. It's an excellent compilation of those tales, at the same time as it gives them a face and their own voice. I can't overstate how highly I recommend this book.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in my 2014 TBR Challenge, which puts me right on track for a book a month. I requested this as a gift on the strength of Audrey Niffenegger's debut, but delayed it because I suspected it couldn't stack up. What a good instinct I have.

Her Fearful Symmetry is about twins and isolation and death. It starts with the death of Elspeth Noblin following a long illness. Her twin, Edie (short for Edwina) Poole finds out when Elspeth's lawyer contacts Edie's twins, Julia and Valentina, telling them they've inherited her apartment and a tidy sum of money, with strings attached. The apartment is across from Highgate Cemetery, about which Robert Fanshawe, Elspeth's grieving lover, is writing his thesis. When the twins move in, Valentina and Robert start to fall in love, until Elspeth's ghost lets herself be known.

The first two-thirds of this book are compelling, and promise a build to a strong finish. Unfortunately, the book devolves in the last third to an object lesson in how bad it is to be selfish. All of the characters choose selfishly, to everyone's detriment, including their own. If I could remove one trope from the literary canon, it would be characters who screw themselves over. I read the last several chapters with a growing sick dread, and wanted to throw the book when it played out exactly how I feared. Unlike in The Time Traveler's Wife, the ending isn't hopeful. It's just bleak. One character is celebrating her fate at the end, but it feels tacked on.

The book has a lot of missed opportunities. I understand the appeal of a sad ending to make it seem more poetic, but I hate watching characters develop into worse people throughout the narrative when I started out liking, or, at least, understanding them. The more I learned about Elspeth, the more I questioned Robert's initial devotion and why he didn't see through her earlier. I started out feeling sorry for Valentina and Julia, and wound up feeling they deserved one another. Even Martin, the character I liked best, does something unforgivable, and the narrative lets us guess just how deep his betrayal runs.

I don't insist that all characters are likable in a book, but I hate watching the inevitable fate they deserve unfold. It makes me embarrassed for them that they couldn't learn any other way.

If you liked The Time Traveler's Wife, I can't recommend this one. It tries to capitalize on the elements that worked in the earlier book, and instead stumbles all over itself in a clumsy narrative about terrible people. This is one of those reads that made me angry with its wasted potential. It had such a compelling premise and promising setting. That this was the result infuriates me.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles #2) by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know what made me give Scarlet a try when I found

such a chore. I suppose I'm just more forgiving of debut novels. Or more of a sucker for fairy tale retellings than I'll admit. Either way, this is a vast improvement.

Scarlet introduces the title character, who lives in rural France, wears a red hoodie, and has bright red hair. In case it's not perfectly obvious yet, it's a futuristic take on Little Red Riding Hood. We open with Scarlet furious the police have given up on finding her missing grandmother, when she meets a mysterious and very strong man who goes by Wolf. He knows where to find her grandmother, and off they go to Paris to rescue her, with a jaunt through the woods breaking up their journey. Her story is interspersed with Cinder's, who escapes from prison with a roguish thief who has a space ship, and tracks down Scarlet's grandmother, too, in hopes of getting answers about her past.

The narrative tension is vastly improved from the first book. There are no easy choices for our characters; they're often faced with causing one person's death, or causing several more, or their own. Cinder's reluctance to embrace her true identity costs her, but it also works to Scarlet's benefit. Nothing just works out for anyone; they have to use all their resources to fight a powerful enemy, and they still come out behind.

This book, at least, has a kind of resolution. It's not the resolution we might hope for, but there is a brief lull for the characters to catch their breaths before launching into their next task, and we have a good idea where they might start when the next book opens. The story ends on a hopeful note, with these two resourceful young women having found one another.

The love story in Scarlet is more compelling than in Cinder, though it's not without its predictable turns and cliché tropes. The characters are aware of how quickly it happened, yet it doesn't feel forced or rushed. Considering the circumstances, they'd both have to be fundamentally broken to feel nothing.

This is a promising progression of this series, and it's convinced me to pick up the next book. I feel like all Cinder lacked was another plot to offset the main one, or to introduce some of the greater conflicts we see in Scarlet. All of that is fixed in this installment. And now I find myself looking forward to book three.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Rebecca Soler. Her voice was better suited to Scarlet's fiery temper and Wolf's quiet menace. Another narrator might have exaggerated the French accents the story called for, but they were subtly done. One of the android voices was rather more screechy than I liked, but it did fit the character.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say what inspired me to pick this up, except that it was available as an audio book through my library, and I didn't know what I wanted to listen to next. I'm glad I went in without expectations, because I think the author did a lot of things with this book I might have closed my mind against if I expected something else.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a US-born Dominican boy named Oscar de León, cursed to never find love. The narrative takes us from modern-day America back to the early reign of Trujillo, the Dominican dictator assassinated in 1961, and forward into the narrator's hope for the future. The story is actually a first-person account by Yunior, who doesn't step into the story until about halfway through. He falls in love with Oscar's sister and becomes Oscar's only friend, and witness to the curse plaguing him and his family.

Oscar is the consummate nerd. He's overweight, obsessed with all things SF, and spends much of his copious free time writing out his epic tales. In college, Yunior finds Oscar sitting in his room watching Akira most days. I was worried the narrator would blame Oscar's lack of a love life on his nerdy habits, but Yunior, himself, is also into geeky things, and he has no trouble attracting two, sometimes three women at a time. (Not that the women know how many he's seeing.) There is some fat shaming in Oscar's depiction, and, though we see how hard it is for Oscar to try to take up running, Yunior isn't terribly sympathetic to Oscar's struggle with his weight.

The story's attitude toward women is hard to pinpoint. As Oscar treats them like an unattainable goal to keep throwing himself at until he racks up enough Nice Guy points, and Yunior treats them mostly as interchangeable objects to have sex with, it would be easy to call this a misogynist narrative. Except, we also get several sections in the perspective of Lola, Oscar's sister, and we hear of their mother's struggles in the Dominican Republic as an attractive, dark-skinned girl. So the female characters we see in any depth are just as fully developed as Oscar and Yunior.

Most of my interest in this book lay in the perspective of Dominican culture, both in the Dominican Republican and in the immigrant communities in the US. I know precious little of the history and culture, and, while this is hardly a comprehensive lesson, it did lend me a lot of insight. Yunior is proud of his heritage, but he doesn't romanticize it. He's well aware of its limitations and how it shaped the immigrant communities he and Oscar are a part of.

The choice of language in this book can be disorienting. Yunior can go from talking like a professor to spouting Spanish profanity to a street lingo peppered liberally with the n word. It was discomfiting to hear that word dropped so casually, even by someone reclaiming it. Yunior's language choices are essential to understanding Oscar's troubles with fitting in, though.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of those books I'll keep thinking about long after I've finished reading it. There's a lot going on, even in what look like the most straightforward scenes. I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone who wouldn't be angry with me for not preparing them, but the best way to approach it is unprepared, with your mind open but aware of where it's coming from.

The edition I took out from the library also included Drown, a short story collection. Most of the stories are about Yunior, the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. They cover his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his life in New Jersey and girlfriends he's had, and a boy without a face who features in two of the stories. The final story in the collection tells how Yunior's father came to the US and gained citizenship, and why it took him so long to bring his family to live with him. The stories lend some perspective to Yunior's characterization, and they offer more cultural context, but I wouldn't have picked them up on their own.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. I thought the former narrator did an excellent job of carrying most of the book, and the latter did a fine job on reading the few female-perspective sections. Davis sounded authentically Latino when the narrative called for it, though I can't comment on whether he sounded Dominican. He treated the material as a performance. I felt he stepped into Yunior's role in the story, rather than just reading his words. I'm glad I listened to this on audio, because the Spanish interspersed throughout the text is easier to get in context if you know how it's supposed to sound, and Davis's inflection made it a lot easier to follow.

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