Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

The Tough Guide to FantasylandThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, and, again, I'm left wondering why I put off reading this book for so long. I found this an immensely entertaining and satirical book.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is written as a guidebook or encyclopedia to traveling in fantasy realms. It assumes the reader is from our world, or one like it, and has ported into this fantasy world, the one where most fantasy novels are set.

There is no narrative in this book. To get a whole story around the concept, you would have to read The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which Ms. Jones wrote after the Guide, having been inspired to carry the concept further. The Dark Lord of Derkholm is about the lives of fantasy world people and creatures, who have to set up an elaborate show of being beset by an evil Dark Lord so that tourists can come by and vanquish him.

This book, instead, is a series of satiric zingers, better enjoyed the more familiar with fantasy tropes you are. It reminded me of The Devil's Dictionary, with some worldbuilding built in. It pokes fun at the flimsy worlds most fantasy novels are set in, and the assumptions one must make to accept the worlds at face value.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy but has found worldbuilding lacking, or is tired of the same old tropes. I would also recommend this to fantasy writers, so you know what to avoid.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: The Back Channel (Human Division #6) by John Scalzi

The Back Channel (The Human Division, #6)The Back Channel by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sixth of thirteen installments in The Human Division, a serial novel by John Scalzi. New installments are released on Tuesdays, though the entire book will be released, as well. As much as it might frustrate a reader to jump around between installments all at once, we're almost at the halfway point, which may be too much for some to catch up on.

This episode introduces members of the Conclave, a group of alien races allied for common benefit. Apparently they've encountered humans before, and came out far worse for the confrontation. They lost ships, while the humans lost nothing. Understandably, they're wary about facing them head-on.

The story is told mostly through the perspective of Hafte Sorvahl, a very tall and imposing alien woman, who's sent to encourage the Colonial Union to remove its "wildcat" colonies (colonies who happen to have CDF officers among them) from unauthorized worlds before it starts a diplomatic incident. Along the way, she eats some churros and negotiates with some white supremacist types.

The human who speaks to Sorvahl has shown up in previous installments, and I'm starting to wonder where he stands. His actions in this episode serve the greater good of the CU and all sentient races, but he's involved in so much that I can't imagine his ability to keep secrets hasn't come in handy in other ways.

We'll see.

I listened to the audio version of this episode, as with all the previous ones, and found no change in the quality of narration or sound. If you're an Audible member, these actually turn out to be less expensive on audio than on ebook, and they're a quick listen. If you do want to catch up, I recommend you pick up the audio versions.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful ActsMistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent resource for anyone who wants insight into human nature. Namely, it goes into why people refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes, and why they may not even realize they're to blame. The subject held a lot of interest for me, but I can see its appealing to all kinds of readers.

Cognitive dissonance is explained in the first chapter, and it forms the basis for the self-justification discussed throughout this book. Cognitive dissonance occurs when two conflicting thoughts are present in a person's mind, such as, "I'm a good person," and "I did a terrible thing." The mind seeks to reconcile dissonance to reduce stress, which often means softening or throwing out contrary evidence.

The book goes on to tie this into what we think of others in general, memory, scientific exploration, the justice system, troubled marriages,  politics, alien abductions, recovered memories, and family feuds. The same line of thinking that makes people blame the victim is the same that makes people cling to party lines even when they're indistinct, and dismiss an idea in a meeting from a co-worker we don't like.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book is the psychology behind why people are more apt to blame a victim the more helpless that victim is. We're less likely to sympathize with the person we've bullied the more helpless our victim is. Cognitive dissonance asks us to come up with a reason why that smaller, helpless person deserved it, and cements it harder the more guilty we'd feel to learn we were wrong.

Another fascinating chapter discusses alien abduction and recovered memory, and how these events are explained through cognitive dissonance. It was sickening to hear how therapists, convinced they're right, have been planting traumatic memories into their patients and convincing them they're real. The alien abduction explanation was a bit more lighthearted.

The book does not take into account how mental illness affects these processes, though it does briefly touch on how a negative self-image  affects cognitive dissonance. A person with a negative view of him- or herself will find no contradiction with the bad things they did, only the good. The introduction describes a situation where a person might obsess on mistakes to the point of paralysis, which sounds like textbook anxiety or depression. Mental illness is an outlier, I suppose, and the authors wanted to discuss how this works in a healthy mind.

The book was published in 2007, which means that a lot of its political discussion centers around the Bush administration and the War on Terror. I'd be interested to read an addendum discussing the most recent election. More specifically, there have been some surveys of the public, putting the opposite party's views into the mouth of the candidate the person supports. When people think their candidate supports it, they support it, but, even if they agree with it, they don't support it if the other guy does. It proves a lot of the points in the book, but I'd like to see it pulled apart and expanded on.

All-in-all, this was a fascinating subject, written in an accessible way. I didn't find the jargon difficult to wrap my mind around, though I can't say whether that's because it was written in a simpler way, or because I studied psychology in college. In any case, I feel enlightened, and less apt to dig my heels in when I make a mistake, in the future.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Marsha Mercant and Joe Barrett. Ms. Mercant did the majority of the reading, with Mr. Barrett reading sections involving transcripts of conversations and some quotes. Some of the pronunciations sounded strange to me, but I can't say it's because they were wrong. I'm more apt to believe the narrators were correct.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Editing Drunk

Photo of empty bottles found here
There's a piece of writing advice, commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that goes: "Write drunk; edit sober." In other words, do what you can to get your words down, but go about polishing and perfecting them in an orderly and serious way.

It's not terrible advice, but I realized recently that I was going against it. Not because I was editing drunk, or writing sober (though there were a few times when I'd hit the wine a little harder than others). I was getting the bulk of my editing done when I was almost too tired to keep my eyes open. A couple of times, I fell asleep in the middle of editing, and woke up with evidence the cat had taken a stroll across my keyboard while I napped.

Tiredness isn't quite the same thing as being drunk, though apparently it's just as dangerous behind the wheel.  It does lead to a change in perspective, though. For me, it slows my thoughts down, makes me more suggestible, confuses me more easily, and my attention wanders.

In other words, it turns me into a low-comprehension reader who's unfamiliar with my story. Had I been polishing the story on a sentence level or checking for grammar errors, I would've made a greater effort to edit when I felt better. But, because I was looking for overall readability and whether I could understand the story, it was the next best thing to crawling into a stranger's head to read his or her mind while he or she read my story. Passages I hadn't connected stood out as needing better transitions. Character motivations I hadn't spelled out confused me, and so I had to stop and give more insight in the text. Weak metaphors didn't make as much sense as when I'd written them, and those sentences that made perfect sense when I put them down were ripe for deletion.

Had I waited to feel better before I worked on edits, I wouldn't have finished them until far more recently. I'm glad I didn't wait. I learned something. There are edit passes that require a certain level of sobriety. But sometimes, there's an advantage in reading something you've written while you're not at your best. It's not the same as reading it with fresh eyes, but it'll certainly lend a new perspective.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

A Fine and Private PlaceA Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read for my 2013 TBR Reading Challenge, because I've been meaning to read it since I picked it up and got it signed by the author, several years ago. I find it astounding that this book was written when he was 19, though it does read like a debut.

A Fine and Private Place follows several characters' lives (and unlives) in a cemetery in New York City. Jonathan Rebeck is a hermit who lives in a mausoleum, and who comforts the dead as they forget who they are. Michael Morgan and Laura Durand are ghosts, people dead before their time. Campos is the night guard. His ethnicity is never directly given, but he sings in Spanish. Mrs. Gertrude Klapper is a widow who spots Mr. Rebeck, and learns that he lives in the cemetery.

The cemetery, being set apart from the world, proves a slow and easygoing setting. Most of the book involves musings on life and death and souls, musings that are far beyond anything I might've concluded about death at 19. They're far wiser than what I think of it now, even. The characters speak of death with a quiet acceptance and a willingness to move on I can't imagine a teenager able to grasp.

Having met Peter Beagle, it doesn't surprise me that he's always had such self-aware contemplation, but it still awed me.

The book still reads as a debut novel because the pacing is uneven. The main conflict stays on the back burner, as ghosts fall in love and Mr. Rebeck refuses to leave the cemetery and the raven (unnamed, and so not listed in the characters above) brings Mr. Rebeck his meals. There are several mentions of the trial of Michael Morgan's wife, but the repercussions don't arrive until the last 50 pages.

Along the way, the language is downright poetic, and so the meandering pace of the story didn't bother me. It's the jarring shift to tension that stood out, the sudden urgency to reunite the ghostly lovers.

After this book, Peter Beagle went on to write the classic The Last Unicorn, which is different in subject and pacing, but not in atmosphere. The language is all there, the potential to write everything he's written since.

As a debut novel, it's excellent, but overshadowed by his more popular work. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend it to those who wish to contemplate love and life and death.

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Review: Tales from the Clarke (Human Division #5) by John Scalzi

Tales From the Clarke (The Human Division, #5)Tales From the Clarke by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fifth of thirteen installments in John Scalzi's serial novel, The Human Division. This one focuses on Captain Sophia Coloma, the captain whose rash selflessness saved the Colonial Union from a diplomatic incident.

Once again, the serial format works in the installment's favor, as a character we've only seen glimpses of comes front and center. Scalzi doesn't waste words telling us why we should root for her; he simply reminds us of what we've seen of her character so far, and reinforces it through her decisions and motivations. I found myself wishing we'd had more of her perspective, though the story so far doesn't justify such choices. She's resourceful, loyal, and quick-thinking.

I'm curious to see where all of this is going, or if Harry Wilson, the soldier at the center of most installments, is starting to see a pattern. We haven't yet seen where "A Voice in the Wilderness" fits into all this, though it's clear there's some greater force at work, and it may not be to everyone's benefit.

We shall see.

I listened to the audio of this installment, once again. William Dufris, luckily, does not affect a falsetto to narrate female characters. They wind up sounding perhaps a bit tougher and more hardened than the author may have intended, but it works for me.

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Review: Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce #5) by Alan Bradley

Speaking from Among the Bones: A Flavia de Luce Novel (Flavia de Luce #5)Speaking from Among the Bones: A Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been borrowing these from the library to read, but I decided to pick this one up outright. I'm enjoying them far too much to not give the author some of my money for them.

This is the fifth Flavia de Luce mystery, and one would think the fifth murder in a year in a small town in the English countryside might be implausible. Not so. One gets the notion this is only the fifth time Flavia has heard about local murders, now that she's looking for them.

The victim this time is the organist, Mr. Collicut, who disappeared some weeks before and who is found during the exhuming of St. Tancred's tomb, the saint for whom the church is named. Mr. Collicut is found wearing a gas mask and clutching a piece of the internal workings of the organ, inside the sealed inner chamber of the tomb under the church. Flavia has to do some digging, literally and figuratively, to figure out how the body got in there, who did it, and why.

Meanwhile, the family is in real danger of losing Buckshaw, the family estate. Debts have mounted and the legalities are a mess. Flavia finds herself at the receiving end of some affection from her family, for a change, as they all wonder what they're going to do. The matter isn't settled by the end of the book, but it is thrown into disarray from a startling revelation, declared in the last sentence of the book.

Flavia remains a delightful narrator, and her growth in this book is fun to watch. She uncovers some of her mother, Harriet's, past, obtains a pet chicken, and proves scientifically that she doesn't have bat's blood, as her sister asserts.

Some of the transitions in this book are odd. It seems like Flavia spends the first half of the novel dashing about, forgetting to do what she came to each place to do. I often felt like I'd missed the part where she left one place to go to another. Considering the excruciating detail put into how she cleans the mud off her bike, I felt the transitions could've spared a few words.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I strongly recommend it to mystery fans and those who love a dynamic narrator.

I listened to the book on audio, which is still narrated by Jayne Entwhistle. She continues to do an excellent job with narration, injecting a lot of heart and soul into Flavia's telling.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic LifeDon't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club in February. I certainly wouldn't have picked it up on my own, though I did learn a few things.

Sandra Beasley has severe allergies to several foods, among them milk, nuts, soy, and eggs. Her reactions close up her windpipe, give her hives, make her throw up or have diarrhea, and generally alienate her from social events and restaurants. Despite all that, she's determined to still travel, eat in restaurants, and hang out with her friends. Miracles within the book come from a sympathetic waiter, a vegan friend, and the constant vigilance of her mother.

I can't imagine what it must be like to not only look out for what I eat, but where that food came from, what everyone else eats, and what my food has touched. I found myself craving ice cream and cheese and cupcakes, just from the knowledge there's someone who can't enjoy them.

I also learned a lot about the psychology of allergies: why my friends with food allergies will try a little of something they know they're allergic to, knowing they'll deal with the consequences later. Why a person would rather go to the hospital than use an Epi-pen. Why mothers of children with allergies are hyper-vigilant.

The transition between folksy (and sometimes terrifying) anecdotes about reactions and the science behind them aren't always smooth. It may be because this was my bedtime reading, but I didn't always follow the technical jargon. Beasley uses medical abbreviations that are her whole life, but that made me scratch my head. I followed it well enough, and I suppose this works well as an introduction. But, it is neither textbook nor simple memoir. The packaging indicates it's the latter, while some of the language seems to indicate the former.

Overall, I learned a few things, and I found this to be more readable than I'd expected. The narrative is broken up well, and the sections on science are fairly short.

If you know someone with allergies and you'd like to understand more of how his or her life works, I'd recommend giving this a read. It's fairly quick and entertaining. I'm sure there are much drier books on the subject.

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Review: A Voice in the Wilderness (Human Division #4) by John Scalzi

A Voice in the Wilderness (The Human Division, #4)A Voice in the Wilderness by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fourth in John Scalzi's serializations of The Human Division, a story taking place within the same world as Old Man's War. There will be thirteen in total.

This installment takes us to Earth, to radio personality Al Birnbaum. As the story opens, his ratings are on a downward spiral, and he's planning a tryst with a "groupie," when he's approached by a man who calls himself Michael Washington. Washington offers increased ratings in exchange for Birnbaum's slanting his show into pro-CU rhetoric. He does, and the ratings come, but at what price?

This is a departure from the main plot, though I'm sure we'll find out how it ties in once all thirteen episodes are out. After all, Walk the Plank seemed so out of the blue, but We Only Need the Heads tied it back in to the main characters nicely. So, I trust John Scalzi knows what he's doing.

Scalzi is using his format to great effect, I think. With a novel, it's difficult to switch back and forth for entire chapters or long sections to seemingly unrelated plotlines. But, with the serial format, it invites the disparate elements, tied together in later episodes.

I listened to this on audio, as with the last three. William Dufris really seemed to enjoy narrating with the near-religious fervor of a radio personality. Other reviewers have compared him to Glenn Beck, but I thought of Rush Limbaugh. I guess there isn't that much difference. In any case, it was a pleasure to listen to.

I'm looking forward to the next part.

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Review: A Little Bit Wicked by Kristin Chenoweth

A Little Bit WickedA Little Bit Wicked by Kristin Chenoweth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know next to nothing about Kristin Chenoweth. I've seen the episode of Glee she guest starred in, but I didn't have cable while Pushing Daisies was on the air, and I've never had the disposable income for a trip to NYC for a Broadway show. Nonetheless, I found her memoir funny, enlightening, and overall enjoyable.

Kristin Chenoweth is deeply spiritual, and she makes no secret of that fact from the first paragraphs of her memoir. Initially, her singing brought her to several Oklahoma churches to show off her talent. She also references her grandmother, who advocated against using religion to judge, and befriended people across religious lines. Chenoweth says little about religion or spirituality I can argue with, though I don't feel her fervor. Hers is the gentle, loving, accepting religion that's a lot more palatable than the evangelical type.

The story is told through vignettes about her current life (as of the book's publication, at least), which spark flashbacks or long stories about how she got where she is now. The narrative jumps around in time, but still manages to paint a whole picture of how she got where she is. She discusses her struggles with Meniere's disease, an inner ear disorder that leaves her nauseated and useless for random periods of time. She mentions only briefly that she struggled with depression, though it doesn't show in her narrative. Mostly, the story seems like one charmed-life anecdote after another. Her coming in third in a Miss America beauty pageant, after all, leads to a lucrative offer to attend a prestigious singing school free and clear, which allows her to stumble into her Broadway career.

It's possible I'm too cynical for this book. It seemed easy to espouse her philosophies of "keep on keepin' on" and regarding everything cheerfully and being kind to people when you've led this sort of life. She describes her parents as not being well-off, but she certainly has a lot more opportunities than a lot of the people I grew up with. It probably helps that she knew what she wanted from day one, and that she had the luxury of choosing only what was fun to her.

Despite the sometimes saccharine outlook of the book, though, I enjoyed it. It's frequently funny, sometimes wry, and I found myself liking her by the end. She never uses her platform to tear anyone down, and she comes across as very down-to-earth, and deserving of her success.

I listened to this book on audio, which is narrated by Kristin Chenoweth. She sometimes bursts into song, and punctuates with laughter. She has a lovely voice, and I think there would be a dimension missing to read this on the page instead of hearing it. I was lucky enough to find it through my local library, and it was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary week.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English VersionFairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is the first time I've read a collection of Grimm fairy tales at once. I'm familiar with most of the stories and the tropes, but I've never sat down to read a whole book of them. This was definitely an entertaining way to do so, and I wound up reading some stories with which I was unfamiliar.

Philip Pullman is quick to point out in his introduction that the Grimms didn't wander from town to town, collecting folk tales. Most of their storytellers were people they knew, or who came to them. The shattering of that myth doesn't detract from the tales; it gives them context.

Pullman has commentaries at the end of each tale, explaining what he changed, where the tales came from, the other stories that use the same themes, cultural context, what the Grimms changed from earlier versions, or other remarks about the stories. Pullman doesn't make any major changes, except to clean up tales or give characters something to do besides serve as set dressing.

Something that stands out, reading these all at once, is the trickster/witch dichotomy. If a male character tricks someone, the person tricked was stupid, and the trickster deserves what he stole for his cleverness. If the person tricking someone is female, however, she's a witch and deserves gruesome punishment for her misdeeds. There are few clever women.

There are some common threads throughout these tales, but these are no fables. The heroes and heroines of these tales are not meant to be held up as paragons of virtue nor models of behavior. Some of the characters work hard and are rewarded, and others fall on hard times through sheer bad luck. Some serve as cautionary tales, while others are comic and absurd. Their greatest utility is in giving us insight into the mind set of the time. One can learn a lot about people by reading or listening to the stories they tell.

If you like fairy tales, I recommend picking up this collection. If nothing else, you'll likely read a story you haven't encountered before.

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Review: We Only Need the Heads (Human Division #3) by John Scalzi

We Only Need the Heads (The Human Division, #3)We Only Need the Heads by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third of thirteen installments in The Human Division, a serial novel by John Scalzi. This wraps up some questions from the previous installments. The tie-in with the greater plot is subtle, but it is there.

In this, we find out that the colony from Walk the Plank is there in defiance of a treaty. Ambassador Abumwe is sent to negotiate a new treaty with the very race who owns the planet, while Harry Wilson is on the planet, his initial goal to clear out the unauthorized colony. Of course, it's not that simple.

The characters in the first section who decided to send Ambassador Abumwe on the sticky missions seem to contradict their decision, giving her a direct order to go against the instincts that served her so well in The B-Team. Left to her own devices, who knows whether she could've salvaged this disaster? And setting her up to use Harry's intel, then catch her in it, also seems counterproductive. I have to believe this is part of some game, but why?

I'm not one for speculating, so I'll just have to check out the next installment to see if my questions are answered, and the next, and the next. Darn.

I listened to this on audio. William Dufris's narration is seamless; it never stands out to me as a poor choice. Considering the challenge he has in narrating alien voices that are meant to sound alien, it's a feat.

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