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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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Review: An Election, by John Scalzi

An ElectionAn Election by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up either for free or at an extreme discount, and forgot I had, for a while. I'm glad I remembered in time to give it a read. It was a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read.

"An Election" is a short story about a city with alien inhabitants. The science fiction elements are presented as if we, the readers, are already familiar with them, and just as blandly as the fact that the man running for office has a husband. His sexuality is no obstacle at all; what almost proves his downfall is his lack of political connections and the fact that he's human in a sector dominated by aliens. David is hopelessly uninformed about his alien would-be constituents. His most visible election moment is when he literally gets between two squabbling candidates, to embarrassing effect.

The story works because it's short and sweet, and has some biting satire to impart. The relationship between David and James is cute, and follows the trope of the exasperated spouse trailing after the clueless one, rather than stereotyping them as gay men.

I did have an unsettled moment, as I realized I was rooting for the human to oust the one alien-controlled area of local government, thereby taking away their voices. I think I was supposed to feel comfortable with it because David was obviously listening to the alien residents and would give them that voice, as well, but the implications left me feeling colder toward the story than I would've if it had been clear there was another alien voice in power. David deserves the position more than the corrupt politician, the easily-manipulated alien who's running on a platform of eating people's pets, or the squabbling sisters, but does that really make him the best for the job? Maybe that's part of the point of the story, that we're often choosing the least worst option, ourselves.

If you don't have a Kindle, the story is available for free on John Scalzi's blog, Whatever. As there's another election coming up, the timing of my picking it up now seemed appropriate.

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