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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