Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review

2012 was a year. That's really the best thing I can say about it. Even just focusing on the blog, I had a major hiatus in September, and dropped back to a once-a-week posting schedule that I didn't even manage to meet every single week. I did keep up my reviews, and I met my reading goal, so there were 125 book reviews posted to this blog in 2012, plus commentaries on books I like and overall remarks about beginner mistakes I keep running into. My blog hits also increased; I was getting over 2500 hits per month, a couple of months, and I topped 3000 a couple of times. I was pretty pleased about that.

I thought I'd recap with the books I liked best, and then tell you about which posts drew the most traffic. Please note that these are the best books I read in 2012, not that were published this year.

Best Humor: This goes to Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, though just barely. I did really like American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson, which only loses because it snuck up on me and didn't have quite as many laugh-out-loud moments. Let's Pretend This Never Happened made me helpless with laughter by page 5.

Best Nonfiction: In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood made me think about my reading choices in a whole new way. I like books that expand my mind. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris was excellent, but not in Margaret Atwood's league.

Best Reread: This was a year for rereading books, apparently. I found comfort in seven old friends, but my favorite was The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore. (For good measure, here's the review I wrote of it in 2011.) I guess it says something about me that this won out over Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Best Romance: Hands down, Ashes and Wine by Taryn Elliott. Heartfelt, warm, and unflinching. It's about finding love in the midst of grief, and you can only be forgiven for not picking it up if you don't have an ereader. I'm not just saying that because she's a friend.

Best Classic: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. It seems like such a simple tale about childhood games and nostalgia, but it turns into a tale of loss and what it means to grow up, and it broke my heart. I liked the Jane Austen books I read this year, but none hit me quite so hard, emotionally, as Dandelion Wine.

Best Kids' Book: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, no question. Honorable mention goes to A Circle of Cats by Charles de Lint, which was also excellent.

Best Serial Installment: I'm Starved for You by Margaret Atwood. Much as I enjoyed the InCryptid extras (No Place Like Home and One Hell of a Ride by Seanan McGuire), Margaret Atwood is hard to beat.

Best Latest in a Series: I was immensely pleased with Ashes of Honor, the latest in the Toby Daye books by Seanan McGuire. It made the wait worth it. Seriously, if you haven't started this series yet, you have until next September to catch up before the next one comes out.

Best Mystery: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. I just love these books. Which you might already know.

Best Book Club Book: Technically, I did a read-along for 11/22/63 by Stephen King, but that's close enough to a book club for my tastes.

Best Historical Fiction: Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia captures the feel of pulp novels, while delivering an excellent heroine and an engaging story. Loved it.

Best Series Conclusion: Blackout by Mira Grant. Wraps it up in a satisfying way I wouldn't have guessed in a million years. This series is full of surprises, and is required reading for zombie lovers.

Best Post-Apocalyptic: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. It's basically the same timeline as Oryx and Crake, but from a different perspective. And that perspective expands the world exponentially.

Best Mindf***: The Hollow City by Dan Wells. Told through the perspective of a man with schizophrenia, and not Hollywood schizophrenia. He hears voices, talks to people who aren't there, and suffers from delusions. That makes it hard to tell what's real and what isn't in the narrative, and yet it's obvious by the end what's really going on.

Best First in a Series: Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire. So good, it made me declare I have a favorite author (that being the ever-entertaining Ms. McGuire). The book reads like the author was just having a blast writing it. I don't know if she was, but I haven't stopped telling people they should read it.

As for the posts that got the most traffic:

  • Most people wanted to learn how to use hyphens. Or maybe just what they were; a lot of search queries were "-" or "what is a hyphen" or "what is a dash."
  • Next, people wanted to know about being a pantster. The answer always seemed self-evident to me; you become a pantster by stumbling into this writing thing, and bumbling your way through it. Maybe they heeded my advice about trying to be organized. One can only hope.
  • After that, people were interested to read about my new project. The one I abandoned. Moving on . . .
  • I'm sure my interview with Seanan McGuire was helped along by the giveaway I attached to it, but still, I was happy with the post, and glad a lot of people read it.
  • I have no idea why so many people were interested to read my review of Fluke by Christopher Moore.
  • Nor can I explain the hits on Home Improvement: Undead Edition, except that the post seems like something of a magnet for spam.
  • My post on parts 1—3 of 11/22/63 drew a lot of hits, most of whom were searching for information on the yellow card man. Understandable.
  • My review of In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood actually spiked above my hyphen post hits for a couple of days, which was remarkable. None of the other posts on this list managed that.
  • Lots and lots of people wanted to know how to write romance and sex. I hope my post helped.
  • My post about the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones drew some interest. I hope some readers found a new series to love out of it.
And, that's the best I can wring out of 2012 for you. Everyone have a safe and happy New Year's Eve, and I'll see you in 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this on audio, over the course of driving to and from my parents' for Christmas. I understand I missed out on a lot, not having the illustrations accompanying the text, but the story holds up just fine on its own.

The story follows September, a 12-year-old girl invited by the Green Wind to visit Fairyland. There, she gains a quest from a witch named Goodbye, meets the Marquess, the corrupt ruler of Fairyland, retrieves her mother's sword from the autumn woods, and then, as the title says, circumnavigates fairyland in a ship of her own making. Along the way, there are many whimsical characters and events, and the book is just packed with vivid and creative imagery. I suppose that's where the illustrations might help, but the descriptions can also stand on their own.

The book is told in a self-aware, almost meta way. The narrator frequently cuts in to interject something for the reader, whether it's foreshadowing or things September doesn't know or just a comment on storytelling or Fairyland in general. As the audio is narrated by the author, this seemed the most natural thing in the world, to me.

One thing that kept delighting me about this book is that Catherynne Valente is friends with Seanan McGuire, and she sprinkles several homages to McGuire's work throughout this book. September's name is compared to October, which is the heroine of McGuire's debut series. "I am not a toy," is a line toward the end of the book, which is straight from McGuire's song, "Wicked Girls." And September's favorite things being orange, fall, and Halloween are all traits she shares with McGuire, though the similarity does end there.

That's not to say there's nothing else to like about the book. Like I said, the imagery is creative and whimsical. I have no idea where Valente came up with some of this, though its inclusion in this version of Fairyland seems the most natural thing in the world. There are references that ground it to a fantastical world we know and love, but mostly, this Fairyland is populated with a slight twist on tired tropes, which is something I love to read. These elements are fused without seeming random or out of the blue, which is a tricky balancing act, one Valente pulls off without making it look difficult.

This would be an excellent book to read to a middle grade (age 7 and up) reader as a bedtime story. It's up there with The Hobbit for something adults can enjoy without being bored, while never talking down to the kids it's written for. I can see why people rave about this book, now. It's delightful.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: The Stupidest Angel by Christoper Moore

A Heartwarning Tale of Christmas Terror

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas TerrorThe Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third time I've read this book. It's becoming something of a Christmas tradition. I'm not the sort to get a lot of saccharine stories about the true meaning of Christmas, though; give me a tale of a jerk real estate developer dispatched with a shovel, only to be resurrected as a zombie on Christmas Eve, and I'm good.

The real estate developer in question is Dale Pearson, and he's dressed as Santa. The seven-year-old boy who witnesses this thinks this means no presents, so he wishes Santa back to life. Unfortunately for Pine Cove, the setting of our tale, Raziel, the title angel, is in town. (Readers of Christopher Moore will recognize Raziel as the angel who missed Christ's birth in Lamb and showed up a decade later.) Raziel is there to perform a Christmas miracle, and so he resurrects Santa and everyone else in the graveyard on Christmas Eve, just in time for the Christmas Eve party.

Pine Cove is the setting of Practical Demonkeeping and Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, so the residents know a thing or two about dealing with weirdness. We get reappearances by Molly Michon, the B-movie actress with a tenuous hold on reality, Theo Crowe, the pothead constable, and Mavis Sand, the old-as-dirt owner of Head of the Slug, the town's bar. Tucker Case, who starred in Island of the Sequined Love Nun, is there flying a helicopter for the DEA.

This is a really short book, so you'd think there wouldn't be a lot I could miss in earlier readings. And yet, I only now noticed that Tuck and his island love are divorced, while Molly and Theo are still going strong. Apparently, if you find yourself in a Christopher Moore novel, you're going to wind up happiest if you can keep things interesting.

There are references to many Christmas stories throughout The Stupidest Angel. "The Gift of the Magi" forms a subplot around Molly and Theo, and a paragraph on Dale Pearson's fate references A Christmas Carol. There's a lot of satire around Christmas themes, and some cynicism about the commercialization, as one might expect. Mostly, though, this is what you might expect from Christopher Moore.

Though this was the third time I'm reading this book, I still laughed out loud at some of the lines, though probably not the same lines I did the other two times I read it. I don't know if I'll read it again next year, but another reread is in my future. Until then, I have a movie to look forward to next November. I hope it's good.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson

American on PurposeAmerican on Purpose by Craig Ferguson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had no idea Craig Ferguson was a decent writer. Not that I know a lot about him, but this poignant and touching memoir is not what I expected from a comedian. Clearly, I've been reading the wrong memoirs.

This is the third book I've read this year written by a comedy writer/actor, and it's definitely my favorite of the three. While I'd gone in expecting something funny and light, I wound up a lot more impressed by his tale of redemption. Ferguson ties the story of his life together neatly through repetition, synchronicity, and highlighting moments when his friends chose differently than he did. The book opens with his meeting then-President Bush at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which later contrasts with a story he tells about Peter Cook and Prince Charles.

Were this fiction, I would've been yelling at the main character for being too stupid to live. Ferguson sugar-coats none of the truth about alcoholism. He describes it in an informed way that clearly divides an alcoholic from a person who drinks. He also shows the lengths he would go to for, and in consequence of, alcohol. He describes waking up in puddles of filth he hopes are his own, getting arrested, cheating on his two wives and numerous girlfriends, blacking out, and finally missing out on Christmas at home. Alcohol puts him tens of thousands of dollars in debt, breaks up both of his marriages, loses him jobs, and gets in his way at every turn.

Were that the only narrative thread, I might've given up on it, but there are others: that of his career, and that of his desire to live in America, formed when he went to New York City with his father instead of going on a high school class trip. These give the story some hope, which luckily pays off. He doesn't get sober because of his desire to live in America, explicitly, but it helps.

I was expecting something like an extended stand-up routine from this book, but I liked what I got, instead. I knew the energy of a stand-up routine couldn't maintain an entire book, but this is serious stuff. And yet, Ferguson includes moments of levity that often had me chuckling aloud.

I listened to the audio edition of this book, which is read by Craig Ferguson. At one point, he marvels about Americans' fascination with Scottish accents, at which I had to admit that was a major bonus of this edition. Ferguson has a good, strong voice for audio listening, and no one knows the comedic timing of his writing better than he does. If you're not quite sold on this book, see if you can listen to a sample of the audio book. If that doesn't persuade you, this book is not for you.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell

Weird Things Customers Say in BookstoresWeird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short but sweet read, and exactly what the title says. It's a lot of strange things people have said while inside a bookstore.

Most of the quotes came from Jen Campbell's own experiences working at a bookshop during college, and now at an antiquarian bookstore called Ripping Yarns. Both bookshops are in the UK, though the US edition has changed the spelling to make it more American-friendly (and changed "bookshops" to "bookstores"). There are a few cultural references I'd never heard before, but it was no more jarring than discovering there were new musical artists since the last time I listened to the radio. I understood from context that the Five was a YA series about a group of girls.

There were a number of additions from US booksellers, all of which were credited by name and bookstore. If you're expecting the stories from the US to be far different from Ms. Campbell's, though, you'll be disappointed. American readers are no more or less clueless or weird than English ones, at least going by this sampling.

This book was highly entertaining, and over all too fast. It took me less than an hour to read it through in its entirety. It seems better suited for something to have around so you can flip through when you need a reminder, or for sharing your favorites with others.

I would most recommend this to those who have worked in a bookstore, who will recognize some of these shoppers, or anyone who reads Not Always Right. These interactions are more succinct and coherent than some of the entries on Not Always Right. They're also more consistently funny.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human ImaginationIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a lot of Margaret Atwood's fiction, but not a lot of her nonfiction. I was hoping for some insight into why she uses the SF trappings she does in her books, and, in that, I was not disappointed. I also learned some things, along the way, including a whole other way to think of genre fiction, no matter how you label it.

Atwood is known for resisting a "science fiction" label, and she explains within these pages why. It's not because she looks down on science fiction, but because she considers her works to be speculative fiction, a branch she considers separate. (I use it as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.)

The book is broken up into personal essays and reviews or commentaries on specific works. The publication of these items is often years apart, and so there's some overlap and repetition. What's interesting is that there is no contradiction. By the time Atwood wrote the first of these pieces, she already knew things she's only grown to solidify.

Atwood's higher education background is in Victorian literature. A lot of this book, then, involves themes and novels of that time period, though she does branch out to cover mythology and modern science fiction and superheroes.

The result is a surprisingly cohesive package covering several concepts regarding science fiction's role in our lives. She addresses the snobbish literary attitudes toward genre, pointing out that its greatest sin is that people enjoy reading it. She discusses "ustopia," which is neither dystopia nor utopia, or maybe it's both. It's how she classifies her own works that others (including me) have classified as dystopian: The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. She goes into what influenced these books, and how she feels they distort the modern world, rather than predicting a probable future.

The reviews cover an array of classics and modern stories, from Gulliver's Travels to Never Let Me Go. I was amused to find that, with one exception, I'd either read the books in question, or never heard of them in my life. Luckily, with Atwood's commentary, it sounds like I've been spared having to read them for myself. There's only so much sexism, repression, and colonialism a modern reader can take.

The essays can be repetitive, but this only serves to underline her main points about the universal truths even pulpy science fiction is tapping into. Through these essays, Atwood helps to elevate science fiction, if not to the same level as literary, at least out of the mud into which many critics have kicked it.

If you want to think about your science fiction differently, as part of a greater whole in the history of fiction, I highly recommend you pick this up.

I "read" the audio edition, which is narrated by Margaret Atwood and Susan Denaker. I like to hear the author's intonation when I'm reading a book, though Atwood lacks Denaker's polish. Still, they picked a narrator who sounds similar enough to Margaret Atwood that I forgot the narrators had switched until it switched back. Atwood has a slight Canadian accent, and her voice fades every hour or so, but I enjoyed hearing her read her essays, and I wish she'd been able to read it all. I understand why she couldn't, though, and I'm happy with her temporary replacement.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems odd to call a book a "classic," after it's only been out for 20 years. Yet, Snow Crash was incredibly influential, both in SF and the SF fandom community. It's practically a requirement before one can call oneself a geek. And yet, this is my first time reading it.

I finally read it with a book group. I didn't give myself enough time to read it, which didn't turn out to be as much of a problem as I thought. Others in the group found it inaccessible, and had stalled before the 100-page mark. I'd found it too dense to read at my usual pace, and I actually got up to do the dishes to get away from it, once. But, I was only 40 pages shy of the end by the meeting, and I finished it that night.

The book is about Hiro Protagonist, a computer hacker and pizza deliveryman and the greatest living swordsman. At least, that's what his business card purports, and how ironically he means it is up for interpretation. The story starts with an exciting pizza delivery, with Hiro up against ten minutes left on his 30-minutes-or-less counter, twelve miles to go, and a smartass Kourier named Y.T. (short for "Yours Truly") stealing his momentum. Sadly, the pizza delivery stuff, exciting as it is, never comes up again. Instead, Hiro goes into a virtual reality, Stephenson's imagining of a future internet in 1992, and talks to a library for the next 300 pages. It's as exciting as reading Wikipedia.

There are other events going on, but the Library sections so dragged down the narrative that I can't blame my fellow readers for abandoning this book. There's no immediate connection between Sumerian myth and a virus that landed Hiro's friend and former boss, Da5id, in the hospital. But Hiro sure makes a valiant attempt to interrogate the Library until it gives him every bit of trivia on the subject. I might not have minded these intervals if I'd known what tidbit Hiro needed to get that ah-ha moment. Instead, it reads as two people having an involved conversation about something about which I know nothing, and care even less. They were words better used on character motivation and internal monologues, neither of which Stephenson seems to believe in.

This is most apparent when Y.T. meets Raven, an assassin who rides a cool black motorcycle. She falls for him right off the bat, and I'm left with the unsettling notion she did so only because chicks fall for bad boys. And she'd been doing so well, until then.

For all its innovation, Snow Crash is dated. It explains concepts modern readers are familiar with, like we've never heard of them before. I suppose Stephenson is one of the reasons they're part of the zeitgeist, but that didn't make paragraphs of description of connecting to the internet and using programming languages any less tedious.

None of the above means I didn't like the book. It's just that it's far less accessible than I'd been led to believe. I'd hate for someone just starting out in SF to pick this up, looking for the literary equivalent of Star Wars. It's dense, which means it's also packed with philosophy, social commentary, and shining a light on modern ills. The book group was reminded of
  Ready Player One

, with the character escaping a dire background into an online community where he's adored, and I certainly saw the influence. I saw more parallels to   Jennifer Governmen

, where everything is privately owned and Nike stages shootings over its shoes to generate hype. The financial collapse and open ownership by the Mafia seem to be direct ancestors of Max Barry's vision of a world where we're so owned by corporations, we change our names based on employment.

On a quick read-through to get this book read in time to discuss it, I felt like a lot of its commentary was drowned out with a plot too bogged down with infodumps to explore those points. Maybe, with a bit more time to read it, I would feel differently. Or maybe, without that motivation to finish it, I wouldn't have bothered to find out. Who knows?

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm writing this review on Jane Austen's 237th birthday. I didn't do that on purpose, but, since I am, happy birthday, Jane, you writer of entertaining books, you!

I first read Pride and Prejudice years ago, as part of an experiment to see if classics are worth reading for fun, outside an academic setting. More recently, I decided to reread it both because of my Austen in August experience, and because I'd been reading some commentary on Pride and Prejudice I didn't agree with. I kept reading that Austen was a precursor to modern rom-coms, and that she advocated for a guy to try harder to win a woman who didn't like him. I knew that wasn't the case, but I didn't know if I was misremembering, or if it was my interpretation that made me read it differently. I've addressed that question here.

The book does follow the story of a woman who doesn't like a man, those being Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. He's originally standoffish, and she overhears him making an insulting comment about her. He falls for her, at first because he thinks she has pretty eyes, and then because she's lively and a good sister and rather straightforward, for her time. She, meanwhile, hears all kinds of ugly things that reinforce her notions of him, and ignores anything that contradicts them. And then his proposal makes it sound like he's doing her a huge favor by stooping to liking her, and she reacts just as a straightforward woman would, by letting him know exactly what she thinks of him. In the end, she finds out the truth, and he makes a greater effort to come across as less of a snob, and all ends happily ever after for them.

What's interesting about this book is that it isn't just a love story for Lizzy and Darcy. It's also a cautionary tale about making the wrong choice. It's never said how Mr. and Mrs. Bennet found one another, but their temperaments and opinions are so often at odds that it's a wonder they're not at each other's throats. Lizzy's friend Charlotte Lucas consents to marry Mr. Collins, and her only saving grace is how often he's outside in the garden, leaving her alone. Lydia Bennet's impulsive decision about who she wants to be with nearly ruins her whole family, and, while she doesn't entirely seem to grasp the gravity of her situation, she hardly has Lizzy's happy ending.

Because I'd already read a paper version of the book, I thought I'd read it on audio, for a change of pace. I'm glad I did. The audio really brings out the satire and humor of the book. The reader never went out of her way to inject sarcasm or irony into what she was reading, but it was clear, listening to the words, where it was intended.

This is a classic that I think has aged incredibly well. I'm still looking for the modern book that handles love half as well as this.

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Progress Post: Writing Again

I think the last time I wrote a progress post was back in August, or maybe July. It's been a while, for various reasons.

When I resumed my blog, I mentioned I had some handwritten stuff to type up in the haunted house story I'd been working on. I'm not done with that. I've set that project aside, because I'm not in the head space to work on it. The story is, in part, about putting one's life back together and learning to trust people, and that is so not something I can wrap my head around.

What I am in the head space for is the trilogy I keep poking at, much to my former writing group's frustration. That's about betrayal and lies and the damage done when you leave out the whole story, which is much closer to my current mind set. Also, I've been working on it so long, the characters are like old friends. Even the homicidal ones. Especially the homicidal ones.

I've rewritten several scenes, and brought it up to modern day. Characters have cellphones now, and some communication is dealt with much faster. I also had to give my main character a reason to turn hers off, which made for a better story. I'm near the end now (page 239 of 293), and I keep wanting to start off each section with my characters swearing a blue streak, because of the situations I've dropped them into. I've been holding off, because, while entertaining, it wouldn't help the narrative.

It's also leading better into the second book, which may have to be rewritten from scratch. I'll read through what I have, and see if any of it's worth saving.

So, I'm writing again. That obstacle is past me. Now, if I could just get some discipline about it, I'd be content. This is not a good time for my willpower, though. I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got WrongLies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm glad I read this book. It's useful, presented in a readable way for the most part, and necessary. It works against the jingoistic tone of American History, stripping away the sugar coating to inform the reader how it actually happened.

Unfortunately, the book is sometimes uneven. The second-to-last chapter is so dry, I set the book aside for a week contemplating if I wanted to read the whole thing. There are some contradictions; the author wants race relations discussed in greater depth, but objects to the information coming from members of the oppressed race. The author objects to making heroes of our historical figures, but then spends most of the chapter on the Civil War building a shrine to Abraham Lincoln.

That's not the say the book is deeply flawed. It addresses several of my own observations about learning history in American schools. The picture in textbooks is scattershot and composed of names and dates, which this book does a lot to remedy. I got a much better idea of the big picture from this book, and how one event led to another. And, despite the author's stated distaste for POC sources, he does illustrate racism throughout history, and how it affects the present. Reading this book, it's clear that racism remains a factor despite slavery's ending 150 years ago, and it's in our power to fix it. Also, he very nicely debunks the "states' rights" myth of the Civil War.

The chapter on the first Thanksgiving told me little I didn't know, though it did highlight points I hadn't thought much about. I'd hoped it would have something I hadn't already unlearned. But then, Nathaniel Philbrick took an entire book, Mayflower, to expand on the concept, so I shouldn't be surprised his was more comprehensive.

Overall, I found this an informative read, and would recommend it to anyone who knew something was missing from the American History class in high school. Unless textbook publishers take some of his words to heart, I think this should be added to the curriculum. Despite its wide approach, it makes history a far more interesting subject, populated with human beings and a narrative instead of cardboard cutouts in flashbulb bursts.

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pride and Prejudice and the Friend Zone

cover for the Penguin Classics version of Pride and Prejudice
I'm veering a bit off-course of my usual blathering about writing and learning from books to share some thoughts about one book in particular. I recently decided to reread Pride and Prejudice, because I'd been reading commentary describing Jane Austen as the precursor to romance novels, and that it's her fault we have the attitude in fiction that women will come around if a guy is nice enough to them. They traced this back to Pride and Prejudice, and Lizzy Bennet's about-face regarding Mr. Darcy. I knew this wasn't the case, but I didn't remember the exact content of the book well enough to dispute this assertion.

I picked it up on audio, and I'm about 2/3rds of the way through it now. Luckily, I didn't have to read far to get the proof I needed.

In chapter 19, Elizabeth is approached with a proposal of marriage by Mr. Collins. She's done nothing to encourage him up to this point, and, the more time she spends around him, the less she likes him. Also, she's not the sort to hold back on her feelings. So, when he asks for her hand in marriage, she flat out but politely rejects him.

His answer is that he's heard it's customary, because of "female modesty," for a woman to reject a marriage proposal the first time, so he isn't discouraged. This goes back and forth several times, and she says, "You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say." When that fails to discourage him, she says that she doesn't know what she can say that will.

It was a surprise to hear this from a female character, even one as strong-willed and outspoken as Lizzy Bennet, during the Regency era. It's more direct than I'd expected, and it addresses exactly the point I was looking for to show that Austen didn't advise men to wait around for women to change their minds.

What makes Lizzy change her mind about Mr. Darcy is not that he changes, but that she finds out she's misjudged him. Within the book, she gets to see more sides of him. He's a textbook introvert, not the snobbish, cruel man she's been led to believe he is. He's a contrast to Mr. Collins, who really is that boorish and annoying, and who Lizzy was right to reject.

If readers are getting out of this that Austen wanted women to love the jerks who express interest, they didn't read very deeply, and they missed that line in chapter 19. She advocates, in this very book, for women knowing their own minds, and shows us how annoying it is to be pestered by someone they don't like.

I couldn't help but form parallels between Lizzy Bennet's predicament and that of the "friend zone" I've been reading a lot of commentary about lately. Mr. Collins feels entitled to Lizzy's affection, and won't hear otherwise, no matter how she feels, much like the "nice guys" who lament the attention their female friends lavish on "jerks."

It's interesting, that Jane Austen knew and wrote about something we still haven't grasped, almost 200 years later. I wish I read more modern stories that got it. Until then, I have my Pride and Prejudice rereads.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Shiver (Wolves of Mercy Falls #1) by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While this book is a great improvement over many YA romance tales, I was overall unimpressed with this love story between a girl and a werewolf. There was potential for an interesting story, but, instead, we're treated to pages and pages and pages of longing sighs and people wanting to do things to each other.

Shiver is about Grace Brisbane and Sam Roth, the aforementioned girl and her wolf. She's attacked by wolves when she's 11, and Sam saves her. Six years later, wolves attack and kill a boy in her school, and she runs out to stop the town's menfolk from shooting "her" wolf. But the gunshot makes him switch back to a human, for some reason, and she takes him home to keep him warm, because the cold is what makes him turn into a wolf.

The vast majority of the book is these two playing house. They sleep in the same bed, with nothing more scandalous than kisses exchanged. She makes him dinner. He eventually meets her absent parents. They talk about how much it'll suck when he turns back into a wolf. (And I was never sure how they knew he'd never be human again.) Grace goes to classes, sometimes, and occasionally the real world intrudes on their cuddling, but mostly, it's a book about teenagers in love.

Considering how aware they both are of how short Sam's time is, they certainly take their time with the relationship. Every time they pulled away from one another, I wondered why. They both consider the 6 years of mooning after one another (before she even knew he was human) to count, as far as how long they've loved each other. So why do they sit back and wait? Very odd.

It doesn't help their case at all that the threats to their relationship are abstract. There's no countdown, nothing they can fight against. The major conflicts (hunters in the woods, Shelby) just fizzle out. Without anything for them to do about the inevitability of winter, I had a hard time rooting for them. It feels like they spend most of the book puttering, wasting time until the conclusion.

It also felt like there was a lot of telling. The phrase "as if" seemed to stand for, "I don't want to describe what this looks like, so this is what they're doing." There were a few times when it was used correctly, but, for the most part, it stood in for describing character motivation. Also, we're told Grace is insensible to others' inner workings, but I never saw that reflected in her choices or judgments. She trusts Sam right off the bat, after all, and she isn't wrong.

There were aspects of the book I liked. Grace's parents were self-involved and neglectful, but they weren't bad people, just bad parents. Grace is an overachiever, because she's taken care of herself for a long time, to which I can relate.

I also liked Grace's friends. Rachel fades into the background a bit, but Olivia's role was fairly integral to the plot. I liked that Grace's friends didn't vanish once she "met" Sam. Other characters also matter, and they clearly have their own worlds and motivations.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Jenna Lamia reading the Grace perspectives, and David Ledoux reading the Sam perspectives. Unfortunately, even with different readers, it became clear to me that both voices sounded the same. Sam was meant to be poetic, always writing song lyrics in his head, but I never felt anything lyrical in his word choice. Grace's practicality didn't show in her sections, either. Ms. Lamia's reading had a wistful note that added humanity to Grace's character, but Mr. Ledoux's often sounded whiny, or younger than the 18 years he's supposed to be depicting. Weirdest of all were the parts where they're reading dialogue for the other character. They could've at least tried to imitate one another's cadence.

Overall, this book is better than a lot of YA romance, but that doesn't mean I'd recommend it. If you're fourteen and falling in love for the first time, it's probably great. But I never felt like the conclusion was anything but inevitable, or that anything they did would change it. Nihilism is fine for a life philosophy, but it's no way to write a book.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)Cinder by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went into this book with such high hopes that I suppose it was inevitable that I'd be disappointed. Still, it would've been nice if the book had met at least one of my expectations.

Cinder is a SF retelling of Cinderella, set in a dystopian world infected with an incurable (and 100% deadly) plague, and where world powers are truncated into a few major players. Meanwhile, up on the moon, there's a colony of people with the power to persuade, to make you see what they want you to, and to control people's movements. Our heroine, Linh Cinder, is a cyborg, a human girl implanted with computer and robotic parts. Because this basically gives her super powers, this is somewhat balanced by her low status as property of her "stepmother," Linh Adri, the wife of the now-dead Linh Garan who adopted Cinder before contracting the plague.

If the main conflict of the book was dealing with the plague, the book fails to deliver on that point. If it wasn't, it wastes a lot of pages on the subject. Cinder's beloved stepsister, Peony, contracts it, and Cinder is donated to medical research to help find a cure. By the end of the book, the most resolution we get on this point is that there is a cure, but that the evil Lunar Queen Levana has it, and is holding it hostage to gain political power.

One would hope, then, that the Lunar threat is addressed in some way. We get some answers about how it can be dealt with by the end of the book, in the form of the most frustrating conversation I've ever been privy to ("But I can't do all that!" "I was just getting to that, after my five paragraphs of clumsy exposition about why it's important you do it. But first, let me explain this diagram of the nervous system . . .").

As others have noted in their reviews, though, the ending just drops off. There are no resolutions, only a building of conflicts that ends with the heroine deciding not to give up. I wouldn't have minded the book ending there, if I'd felt the rest of the plotting was tight enough to justify the lack of resolution, but I didn't. I felt like there was a lot of back-and-forth and establishing of how evil Queen Levana was and why it was important to stop her and how good Cinder was. Conversations were interminable, characterized by info dumps and avoiding the point.

The book is set in China, in "New Beijing" (because the old city was razed in WW4, and you can't reuse city names, I guess). There are sprinklings of Asian flavor, but it felt more like what you'd see in Chinatown than China. There are blatant stereotypes (dragon ladies, packed-tight housing, kimonos and geisha makeup), but Cinder could've been strolling the streets of New York City just as easily without losing any cultural details. Perhaps it was supposed to illustrate a homogenization of this future world, but it came off as appropriative, to me. The fact that she's a white hero in an Asian world made me rather uncomfortable, too.

I listened to this book on audio, and the reading was good, though the female narrator doesn't modulate her voice at all for Prince Kai's dialogue. I was fine with the notion he might sound feminine, but it makes some of the scenes where he's talking to world leaders unintentionally funny. If that might bother you, I'd recommend against the audio. Otherwise, the narrator speaks crisply, though sometimes melodramatically. Her background is in voice acting for American dubs, and, well, there's a reason I pick subtitles when I'm watching a film that isn't in English.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading Challenge: 2013 TBR Pile

pile of books
I've decided to participate in a reading challenge in 2013. Generally, I avoid them, because I never know what I'll want to pick up next. But this one allows me enough freedom to read what I want, while nudging me to read things I've been meaning to.

The 2013 TBR Pile Challenge is to take 12 books from one's TBR (to-be-read) pile, with up to two backups. The book must have been there for at least one year, and I'm adding the "difficulty" that I must already own it. Further rules and tracking information is up at Roof Beam Reader.

Here's my list, alphabetical by author, which I'll update with links to reviews as I complete them:

  1. A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
  2. A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney
  3. In the Woods by Tana French
  4. Dumping Billy by Olivia Goldsmith
  5. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
  6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  7. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  8. Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon
  9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  10. Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
  11. Faithful by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan
  12. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
And my backups are:
  1. Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge
  2. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
That should give me a decent variety from which to choose.

If you want to challenge yourself to read 12 books that you've been meaning to read for longer than a year, visit Roof Beam Reader to sign up, and make sure to read the rules.

Hopefully I'll see you there!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: Succubus on Top (Georgina Kincaid #2) by Richelle Mead

Succubus on Top (Georgina Kincaid, #2)Succubus on Top by Richelle Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Georgina Kincaid series, about a succubus living in Seattle. I enjoyed it, though, if it was supposed to keep me wondering, it didn't do a good job. But, I still felt myself pulled through to the end, so clearly it lacked no narrative tension.

The book starts with Georgina earning an award from her demonic employer for exemplary performance. Per her agreement from Succubus Blues, she's stepped up to corrupt more souls and take more energy through sex. She's dating Seth Mortenson, an author whose books she reads avidly, but she refrains from sex, much to both their frustrations. Seth knows what she is, and why she can't have him but she can have half the guys in the city, and he's remarkably cool with this.

The conflict in this book comes from a few sources. The main one is that Georgina's friend, Bastien, is in town trying to seduce the local conservative talk show lady. Then there's another of Georgina's friends, Doug, who's acting strangely. I thought the subplot was far more emotionally investing for Georgina, where the main plot felt like a distraction, like she had to keep breaking away from her real life to go help Bastien. The fact that her friend is a jerk who doesn't appreciate all she does and nearly sabotages his big chance doesn't help the main plot's case. He also does his damndest to sabotage Georgina's relationship with Seth, for which there's far too much forgiveness going around far too early.

At one point, Georgina refers to Seth as an alpha male, which made me wonder if it's the author or Georgina who doesn't know what the word means. Seth is a textbook introvert who is happy to fade to the background. The biggest conflict he causes is when he's too busy writing to pay attention to Georgina, and he's so apologetic he more than makes up for it. He does have his moments where he shows alpha tendencies, but most of his role is to be accepting, supportive, and forgiving.

For all its involvement with demons, this series is rather tame so far. There was a body count in the first book, but this one brings down the violence, threatening Georgina with rape (which she gets out of) and unhappy friends. The stakes are lowered, but it's Georgina's charisma that keeps the reader interested.

I will definitely be picking up the third book, Succubus Dreams, at some point. I find this an enjoyable, if light, series, and I'm interested to see where the overarching plot is going.

Previous Richelle Mead reviews:
Succubus Blues

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest BestiarySquirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a really quick read. They're all short stories about animals by David Sedaris, illustrated by Ian Falconer. The animals speak and go about their lives almost as if they're people, but within their animal natures. So sheep are stupid, crows are mean, cats are vain, and chickens are judgmental. It's like a twisted Aesop's Fables, without the morals at the end.

Most of the stories are slice-of-life tales. The book opens with a cat going to a salon run by a baboon to get ready for a party. There's a story about a squirrel and a chipmunk who are dating, but it doesn't work out, and the chipmunk always wonders what might have been. There's another story about a motherless bear who tries to use this fact for sympathy long after everyone's sick of hearing about it. There's another story about what storks tell their children about where babies come from. The last story is about an owl who tries to learn new things to distract him from his grief over losing his wife, while his idiot relatives try to set him up with another owl.

It's hard to say this is all good: there are some rather disturbing stories. One is of a too-cheerful lab rat. Another is about a newborn lamb whose eyes are pecked out, and the accompanying illustration is rather ghastly. "The Judicious Brown Chicken" was also gruesome. Just because these stories about animals doesn't mean they're for kids, or even to be taken lightly. The natural world is actually rather cruel to the fuzzy creatures we know and love, and Sedaris doesn't sugar-coat any of that.

There is humor to be found, but it's mostly the darkly funny kind, not the laugh-out-loud. I'd worry for people who laughed while reading this, actually. Maybe the delivery is better in a live reading, but the words on the page didn't lend themselves to much chuckling.

If you like David Sedaris, or dark and twisted satire, pick this up. It doesn't take long to read. Though, I don't think this is a good sampling if you're trying to figure out if you should read more of Sedaris's books. His nonfiction tends to be lighter than this.

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Review: Peter and the Shadow Thieves (Peter and the Starcatchers #2) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Peter and the Shadow Thieves (Peter and the Starcatchers, #2)Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Peter Pan prequel books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. As I enjoyed the Peter Pan story long before this series came along, I was wary what they might do to the mythos. But all they've done is expand on it in a way that's respectful to the original, and true to the spirit.

In this book, Peter overhears some visitors to his island saying they're going to London to harm his friend, Molly Aster. He stows aboard their ship to help, but instead winds up lost and hungry in Victorian London. He's up against the Others again, this time with the formidable opponent of Lord Ombra, a being made of shadows who manipulates others by stealing theirs.

I realize this version of Peter was meant to have been raised in an orphanage, which made me wonder why he was so hopeless about how to survive on London's streets or how to get around. He was in an orphanage, not a prison. It could be his orphanage was outside London, and I can't remember if that was established in the first book. But, with the information I had, he seemed awfully unable to fend for himself.

This book establishes why Peter would return to his island, which he officially names Neverland by the end of the book. I thought it might also explain the wandering shadow that leads to his meeting Wendy, but, no, not yet. It does introduce him to J.M.Barrie, who helps him get away from a rather odious man on the streets of London, and also to George Darling, a good friend of Molly's.

This is good for middle grade, though the image of a man made of shadows may frighten smaller readers. It's a fun story, though, and jumps straight into the action. There are several stories going on at once, and all are compelling and full of danger. Peter is fully invested in the success of all of these subplots.

While the story is mostly told through Peter's point of view, the narrator is omniscient, and we see what enemies are up to and what they're thinking regularly. Within a scene, we get several characters' thoughts, though it doesn't feel like head-hopping. The story and perspectives are easy to follow.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Jim Dale. He's an excellent narrator, especially for stories geared toward younger readers. His delivery also allows for the humor within these stories to show. Though there are several menacing characters, he has enough of a repertoire of accents and deliveries that they all sound different.

Previously reviewed by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson:
Peter and the Starcatchers

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: Gone With the Nerd (Nerds #4) by Vicki Lewis Thompson

Gone With the Nerd (Nerds, #4)Gone With the Nerd by Vicki Lewis Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoy Vicki Lewis Thompson's books, but I want nothing more than to sit her down and read her dialogue aloud to her. I can forgive some of the flaws, but the consistently terrible dialogue makes me wince.

While this is the fourth in the series, it's not necessary to read them in order. They're connected by theme, rather than continuity.

Zoe Tarleton is a Hollywood actress, typecast in the sexy love interest role. She thinks she's up to something more challenging, and she's going to prove it by going against type and playing a "nerd," a woman scientist whose life is threatened because she's invented a pill that will help with weight loss, sexual dysfunction, and aging. I was relieved to find out, at the very end, it was meant to be a comedy, but that created more puzzlement: since when are comedy roles well-respected?

To research her role, she asks her contract lawyer, Flynn Granger, to spend a weekend away with her so she can observe him. He has a girlfriend, but they both realize while they're negotiating this agreement that they're attracted to one another. They push forward with the plan, anyway, and wind up in a rustic cabin in the middle of a small town gripped in Bigfoot fever. The townsfolk are hoping to prop up the local economy, stalled since the mine closure, by the fact that they've had several Bigfoot sightings.

I figured out the mysterious stalker/attempted murderer within 50 pages, but that's not why I read these silly books. I read them for the tension, which was more believable than in previous Nerd books. Flynn thinks he's serious about his girlfriend, Kristen, and initially doesn't want to cheat on her. How he figures some of his actions don't constitute cheating, I'll never know.

There are a number of factual and time inconsistencies. Characters go out to have breakfast, talk to people for about a half an hour, get back to the cabin, and are suddenly famished. I didn't get the feeling the author knows a lot about how Hollywood works, though she also sidesteps several clichés. Zoe may be approaching her mid-30's, but she isn't obsessing about her "expiration date" or hunting for wrinkles in the mirror. She's aware her age may become an issue, but it doesn't bother her yet. However, for her age, Zoe is strikingly naïve. It never crosses her mind that her attractive lawyer might have a girlfriend, she calls him a nerd to his face, and she assumes all nerds are alike. I suppose it's to highlight a theme that not all nerds are the same, but it came across clumsily and made her character skirt the Too Stupid To Live line.

As with Nerd Gone Wild, the antagonist has a kinky side to show how evil she is. I dislike this tendency of Ms. Thompson's, to associate deviant sexuality with mental illness and a tendency to do harm. Most of the people I know who practice BDSM are moral, sane people. They're not very open about their tendencies, though, just because of this societal attitude that something is wrong with someone who practices BDSM.

You may want to skip the last chapter entirely, by the way. It's saccharine sweet, and adds very little except the clarification that Zoe's nerd role was for a comedy. I didn't need to read about Zoe's life a year later to know they'd be happily ever after. It was too much.

These books are great for mindless escapism, and an alternative to the alphaholes found in most romance novels. But, I don't recommend going in with the expectation they're well-written, and definitely don't take this dialogue as a good example. I've seen log cabins less wooden.

Previously reviewed by Vicki Lewis Thompson:
Nerd in Shining Armor
The Nerd Who Loved Me
Nerd Gone Wild

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Stories You Don't Tell

Last week, I wrote about leaving out prose in strategic ways in your story. This week, I wanted to discuss writing stories you don't intend to show to the world.

Picture of underground waterfall in
Ruby Falls Cavern obtained here
One could argue everything I've written falls under this category, though I have gotten braver. I've shared pieces with my writing group, and I'm entertaining the notion of submitting something when things are less chaotic.

There are most certainly things I'll never show anyone, though. That writing I did when I was in middle and high school, typing away at all hours of the night with my parents a room away? I've read it. It's so bad, it's not even worth trying to polish it. There may well be something salvageable in that mess, but it's too painful to read. We're talking about some amateur attempts.

The notion of writing uselessly doesn't frustrate me, though. I wouldn't be the writer I am without that practice. Everyone has to start somewhere. It's because I made mistakes and recognized the imperfections that I was able to change them and do better.

Ask published authors how many books they wrote before they submitted for publication. Ask how many tries they made before getting an offer from a publisher. Ask how long they'd been writing before they were able to finish a book they were proud of.

There's no shame in writing just for yourself. You learn how to write by making mistakes, by trying new techniques, by stumbling into what works for you. Sometimes, that means doing a writing exercise that may turn into a full novel or a short story at some point, but is useless as-is.

It's not a waste, so long as you learned something.

Now, if you've been doing this for years and you feel like nothing you write is worthy of seeing the light of day, you may have a problem. You'll need a reality check. If you're truly awful and not improving, you'll want to take some writing workshops or read some books on writing for new approaches. Or, you may want to show what you've written to someone who can critique you, so you know where you're going wrong.

And, who knows? Maybe your only problem is that you lack confidence.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Woman Who Died A Lot (Friday Next #7) by Jasper Fforde

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Thursday Next, #7)The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Near the 2/3rds point in this book, I realized that I was utterly confused about what was going on. Then I reasoned that the confusion was deliberate, that knowing what was going on was just as important as what was going to happen next. The narrative tension lay in seeking answers.

Thursday Next is recovering from an assassination attempt, which keeps her from reading herself into the BookWorld. But her native world has plenty to keep her busy. Between a scheduled smiting, the disbanding of the regulators of the timestream due to the impossibility of time travel ("Oh, NOW you tell us!" I imagine some ChronoGuard director saying), and taking on a head librarian job, Thursday's hands are full. On top of that, she's trying to track down Aornis, helping her daughter, Tuesday, lead a normal teenage life, and helping her son, Friday, deal with his new, mundane future.

The only BookWorld presence in this installment is the presence of a character she bought Landen, her husband, to help him with his book. He's called "the Wingco," and he's researching Dark Reading Matter, which is the BookWorld's version of an afterlife. He can talk to imaginary friends, which are a different kind of fictional person.

When confusing things start cropping up, it's not immediately apparent why that might be. There are synthetic Thursdays walking around, Thursday's painkiller addiction, and the mystery of Aornis Hades that could explain any of the events that don't add up. There are enough clues to figure out at least one of the subplots before Thursday does (and you're apt to, for reasons that will make sense when you read this), but the complexity of the plot keeps the ending up in the air until the last page. There's a lot going on in.

My favorite subplot is that of Thursday and Landen's relationship. They've been married for decades, and they still gross their children out with how lovey dovey they can get. It's easy to see why they're still in love. They get one another's humor, accept one another for who they are, and support one another to the best of their abilities. At one point, Thursday remarks that Landen's career as a writer likely didn't take off because he was supporting her, but she doesn't wallow in guilt over this, nor does Landen try to make her. It's a nice reversal of the woman giving up everything to support her man. And, considering everything she did in earlier books to win him and keep him, it's good to see that he's worth it. To borrow romance novel parlance, Landen is a beta male, and a lovable one, at that.

I didn't know what to expect, going into this book. I thought One of Our Thursdays Is Missing wrapped things up nicely, and I couldn't imagine what could be left. Sure, there was the Goliath corporation, and BookWorld, but I was afraid the story might get stale. This was anything but, and the next book is rather nicely set up by the end of this one, while the main conflict is resolved.

Jasper Fforde is the most creative writer I read. That can be a challenge, for some readers, but I love books that play with tropes and take things in completely unexpected directions. When a blurb says a book will "keep me guessing," this is what I expect, and never get.

If you're a fan, I think this is hit or miss. But it's certainly not the same old story.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Libba Bray mentions in her brief "bio" at the end of the audio book that she should've written what she knows, and I found myself agreeing with her. Maybe this story wouldn't have been as compelling set in modern-day Texas, but it wouldn't have had so many problematic elements.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is about young Gemma Doyle, whose mother dies horribly on Gemma's sixteenth birthday. Gemma blames herself for her mother's death, which is why she's so mopey when she first gets to her new finishing school, Spence Academy. She's mean to the only girl who'll speak to her, then bemoans her lack of friends. She finally gains a friend in the most popular girl in school through implied blackmail, and her new friends help her figure out that she's magic, not crazy. She and her new friends go to a magic realm where her dead mother hangs out and says cryptic things and makes unhelpful proclamations about what Gemma needs to do, and Gemma creates conflict by ignoring every bit of common sense slung her way.

I didn't understand why Gemma's mother couldn't at least drop a hint about who Gemma was supposed to be looking for, or how she was supposed to do that in her current situation. When we get the full story on her mother's background, the cryptic approach makes even less sense. You'd think, in one of the scenes where they lie around looking for shapes in the clouds, she might've mentioned some vague geographic hints. Instead, she gives her dire warnings about the terrible things that might happen if she doesn't. Because if she approached it like a thinking person, there would be no plot.

The novel is set in Victorian England (after starting out in India), but the characters rarely seem to inhabit that time period. For young women growing up in 1895, their notions are awfully modern. They chafe at being owned by their future husbands and are defensive of prostitutes. I can see why Gemma's attitude might be more progressive, but hearing it from her classmates and a teacher was odd. The finishing school, Spence, also feels more like a high school with sleeping quarters than a proper Victorian academy for young ladies. Some of the details are authentic, but the tone felt all wrong.

The worst part of the book, though, is the racism. Gemma interacts with "Gypsies" who threaten to rape her, and holds her head high long enough to speak to their resident fortune teller. My mouth actually fell open at the jumble of racist stereotypes, and again in the author commentary section where the author asserts how proud she is of her research. Clearly, she didn't dig long enough to find out that Romani are real people and that the stereotypes have been used to persecute them for centuries.

There was also some mumbling about her exotically beautiful love interest, who was kind of useless in the narrative, and who apparently joins the Gypsies without question.

The story is told in first-person present tense, though Gemma sometimes reflects on things that she hasn't narrated yet. It detracted severely from the sense of immediacy.

The book isn't uniformly terrible, but the terrible elements certainly detracted from my enjoyment of the better parts of the narrative. I was interested to learn what happened next, even if I did wince every time Gemma started talking about Gypsies.

I listened to this on audio, which did enhance my enjoyment somewhat, though how much lower I might've rated this if I'd had to read it, I don't know. I also don't know if I'm going to seek out the other two books in the trilogy. This is a stand-alone story, and the conflict was wrapped up by the end, though I can see where the later stories might go. There's the possibility we may be spared Gypsy depictions in future books, and that Gemma may have learned from her experiences of the first book and will, therefore, be less of a twit. But, I have a lot of other books I could read, instead.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

What You Don't Say

During my hiatus, I ran across one concept several times. In a discussion on poetry, an author mentioned that a poem is about what isn't written. I ran across it on twitter in a couple of forms, and something I edited informally suffered from a need to have this lesson drilled in.

Optical illusion pic obtained here
When you're writing, what you don't say can be just as important as what you do, if not more. If you want a theme to emerge, constantly using the word or having characters say it may be the worst way to approach it. If, on the other hand, you can present a concept without ever explicitly addressing it, you've shown some level of skill. The narrative shapes itself around what isn't there.

The story I'm working on now is about a haunted house. Not that anyone calls it that. It's creepy, it's scary, locals have stories about daring each other to go near it, but it's never "the haunted house." My main character, who witnesses a number of impossible events, specifically doesn't tell her housemate, out of fear she'll scare her away and then have to be in that house all alone.

In dialogue, a character's refusal to address something, or a refusal to say something aloud, can create tension. People rarely spout their life stories and all their secrets at first meeting. There are things all of us avoid talking about, sometimes because it's too personal, sometimes because we don't know enough about it, and sometimes because it involves a secret. Get two characters talking, one of whom is keeping something from the other, and the conversation becomes a dance, as one pushes conversational boundaries and either confronts the one avoiding the subject, or accepts that the other person doesn't want to talk about it.

In my own dialogue, nothing makes me prouder than to have a character give an answer that's factually correct, but that doesn't answer the intent of the question. My dishonest characters are masters of lies by omission, rather than outright and blatant untruths. It amuses me to have my protagonists teased with something so near the truth, yet so widely misleading.

Bear in mind, this is a tricky skill to develop. You can't assume that your readers all have the same cultural context as you, and therefore that they'll fill in your gaps with the same things. Nor can you assume they'll have the reading comprehension to understand you've deliberately left something out. You'll want to call attention to it, either through repetition, by subtle cues that something's missing, or by having a character make note of the omission.

Remember, you're writing in your own world, with its own rules. If you leave something out, a reader doesn't know if you've left it out because it doesn't exist, or if it's on purpose to highlight a theme.

But, if you know how to use this skill, it's an excellent way to avoid bashing your reader over the head with telling. It's going to take some practice, but it makes for much more elegant writing, in the long run.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed In FlamesWhen You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the only one of David Sedaris's books not included in the
  Ultimate David Sedaris Audio Collection, not counting Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which is newer and therefore I didn't expect it to be included. It took me a while to warm up to Sedaris's dry, dark humor, but now, I find myself a fan.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames takes the same scattershot approach as his other books. There are stories about his childhood, about his struggle with drugs, about his longtime partner, Hugh, about living in France. The last quarter of the book is about how he quit smoking by going to Japan for a couple of months, where he revisits his hopelessness to learn new languages, as seen in Me Talk Pretty One Day.

In many ways, I felt like this was the most personal of Sedaris's books. He still talks about other people, but he also discusses a lot more of what things mean to him, why he makes the observations he does, and how he collects so many tidbits about the world around him. He still strikes me as a magnet for weirdness, but it becomes clear that anyone could witness all the strange things he does, if they had his luck and his little notebook.

There is one fiction story slipped in, a satire on Princeton and Ivy League education in general. He speaks as if he went to Princeton, but frames the story as if it were during Roman rule.

The funniest story, to me, was "Town and Country," about a NY taxi driver who gives him advice he inadvertently takes. "Crybaby" was the most touching of the stories, and, while it has its funny parts, it reminded me that Sedaris writes about humanity, not just its laughable moments.

I read this on audio, which means I'm quite familiar with the author's voice, by now. If you're unfamiliar with his softer, slightly nasally voice, you may have an adjustment period. I recommend listening to some of his live tracks, where the audience will help you realize it's okay to laugh at some of his darker observations.

Overall, I liked this book. It gave me a greater appreciation for David Sedaris. I'd like to see him live when he comes to Albany.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because of the novelty of a feminist comic, and because I remember Tina Fey from SNL Weekend Update. I don't know a lot about her beyond that, though, so reading this sometimes felt like going to a birthday party for someone I didn't know. Overall, it was entertaining, but a lot of the in-jokes sailed over my head.

Tina Fey starts with her upbringing, and brings us through her improv comedy at The Second City, being hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live, getting married and going on a horrific cruise, having a daughter, and making her own show, 30 Rock, based loosely around her experiences working for SNL. The narrative seemed disjointed, and it's told out of order, with very little to tie it together. I suspect if I watched 30 Rock, this book would have a lot more context, but I don't. (According to the book, that puts me in the majority, which failed to talk me into watching the show. Mentioning it contains racism and blackface also didn't persuade me I was missing anything.)

Fey goes well out of her way to explain that she's not attractive, which I suppose is true if she were comparing herself to actresses and models. She also doesn't include pictures of the awkward phases she discusses, for which I can't say I blame her, but it makes it difficult to tell if her sense of self-worth is just that distorted, or if there was something wrong with all the mirrors she owned. Maybe that's the point, that even a woman who looks like her sees only flaws in herself, but she seemed to take it as a given that the reader would agree she wasn't conventionally attractive.

I mentioned above that Tina Fey is a feminist, and she is. She even identifies as such. That doesn't mean she's immune to the trap many public feminists fall into, that of apologizing for it, softening it, blaming women for sexism's continued existence. She does present many facets of her life in a feminist light, but she also suggests that women suck it up and deal with sexism in the workplace. It was disappointing, and I hope she's reconsidered.

The book contains a chapter devoted to her Sarah Palin impersonation during the 2008 election. That makes it a bit dated, and I hope, in a few years, people reading that section have to look it up on Wikipedia. She makes some of her best points in that section, though. She points out how it's still sexism if she's a Republican, and that accusations of bullying paint Sarah Palin as far more delicate than she is. She also reproduces the text of the sketch that debuted Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, and gloats about sneaking feminism into mainstream comedy.

This book is funny. I laughed out loud while I was reading at least once a chapter. Unfortunately, it also felt like I was missing something. It wasn't as pronounced as when I read Mindy Kaling's
  Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

But the book also wasn't as funny as Jenny Lawson's   Let's Pretend This Never Happened

. But then, that's a pretty high bar, to me.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Back from Hiatus

October just isn't a good month for this blog. Last year, I only updated with reviews for the entire month. I had such plans of staying on track this year, and then I found my life thrown into chaos.

Picture of stormy skies obtained here
I'm not going to discuss what happened in this space, because it's all there on my Twitter feed. Suffice it to say that extreme uncertainty about my future, both immediate and long-term, fails to inspire me to write. I had to move to a new apartment, with all the cleaning and packing that entails. Reading nearly fell off entirely, and writing was so low on my priority list that I still have handwritten pages from August I haven't typed up yet.

I do find myself entertaining notions about my stories and characters more and more, which I thought made this a good time to start writing again. Or, at least, holding myself accountable for failing to write. The one short story I wrote that I don't intend on anyone ever seeing doesn't count. It's a laughably thin allegory, and it was pure catharsis.

In the meantime, I have built up some observations, through books and movies and reviews and blog posts and conversations with other writers about the writing process and craft. So I have some fresh material.

I'm still going easy on myself, so I don't anticipate writing more than one post per week, plus reviews as I finish reading books. It's still helping me to analyze what worked and what didn't. If I have an idea I have to share right away, I'll post it, but don't hold your breath. Committing to anything is still difficult for me, and I'm already fretting I'll forget. If there's going to be a blog post on a given week, it'll be up by Monday evening, at the latest.

I'm not participating in NaNoWriMo this month, but I'm here to offer encouragement to anyone who is. If you're struggling with your word count, feel free to drop me a comment, and I'll try to help.

My goal right now is to type up what's been waiting for over two months for me to type up. Maybe I'll do more, but I'm approaching one problem at a time, for now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where the Goodreads star rating system is inaccurate. I'm rating this a four, which Goodreads tells me means I "really liked it." But honestly, this story left me unsettled and disturbed. It's beautifully written, which is why it has the impact it does, and it would be a disservice to rate it lower. But I'm not rating it where I am because it was a pleasant read.

Never Let Me Go, narrated by a woman named Kathy H., starts out in an English boarding school. All seems normal, at first. Kids are bullied for standing out, the little ones are afraid of the woods bordering the school, and students trade and collect one another's artwork, skills of creating which they're encouraged to foster. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that something is off about the school, that the Guardians running the school aren't just keeping the normal truths of a scary world we know from the children. These students were cloned for the purpose of harvesting their organs.

Even this revelation is softened by the heavy use of euphemism. They're called "donations," as if the students have a choice in the matter, and dying after giving too many organs to survive any longer is "completing." Kathy doesn't explain this in lengthy infodumps; she gives us only peeks of the horror beneath her seeming idyllic life. The entire story is revealed in a way that feels far more real than any flashbacks I've ever read before. Kathy meanders, goes off on tangents, repeats herself, and tells events out of order as they occur to her. It adds to the sense that this is something real, and that Kathy is a real person. I listened to it on audio, which did even more to contribute to the feeling I was listening to someone narrate her life story. The audio edition is good, if you like audio books. It didn't detract from the story at all.

On the surface, there isn't a lot to this story. Going by just what happens, it's about people standing or sitting around, talking. The events aren't exciting. And yet, it's fascinating, because there is a gripping story between the lines. It's about people accepting their fates, even when people hate them for their sacrifices. It's about humanity. It's about love. It's about relationships, and the destruction toxic people can wreak. There's a theme about the need for medical ethics and putting a human face on those we'd dehumanize, but I think there was a deeper message about society's survival being on the backs of those we demonize.

The worst character in the story isn't the invisible forces consigning the characters to die on an operating room table, but Ruth, Kathy's best friend. She's selfish and manipulative and toxic, and all Kathy does is try to see things from her perspective. Even after Ruth admits her role in keeping Kathy and Tommy apart, Kathy has only sympathy for her.

This is an excellent story, beautifully crafted. It's not a joyous experience to read, though.

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