Sunday, October 20, 2013

On Rainbow Rowell

So I kind of slipped that last entry in without comment. I know it's been a while. What have I been up to?
You know, everything that comes with a new job...
But now I'm back! I missed having this little space on the internet. Today I want to talk about Rainbow Rowell, one of my new favorite authors.

So it seems like everyone in the world has read this already, and I'm kind of late to the party. Mostly that's because I wasn't really expecting to like this book. For some reason, I was anticipating that the two title characters would be pretentious, kind of self-consciously clever in a grating way. I have no idea how I got this impression since I have yet to see an unfavorable review of this book. But I was expecting to find Eleanor and Park unlikeable as characters. 

Go ahead and roll your eyes as you wait for this totally shocking reveal

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvator

I didn't start this book with the highest of expectations. I didn't have low expectations, exactly, hadn't heard anything bad about the book...I just couldn't really remember how it had wound up on my to-be-read list in the first place. It happens; I put a dozen books on my list a week and can't get to them all right away. But I have to say, I'm so freaking happy I finally got around to this one.

I read a lot of YA books. Obviously. And I like almost all the ones I read because my current reading philosophy says life's too short to waste on books I don't enjoy reading. But I still had a shock reading this because the characters really got to me in a way that doesn't happen often. I'm a fast reader, which is why I need to get back into blogging, so I can give myself a chance to reflect on what I've read. If left to my own devices, I'll blow through books like a tasty package of crack-Oreos and be left wanting more more more. Nothing sticks. Except to my...hips. (This metaphor just died. Can you imagine walking around with stacks of books attached to your hips? This is why I need writing practice.) ANYWAY, I swear I had a point, and it's that, much as I enjoy most of the books I read, it's rare for me to fall absolutely head over heels in love with the characters. I hadn't even realized how rare it was until it happened to me with The Raven Boys. Because I love these characters. Every one of them is flawed in real, consequence-having ways. And they make lots of bad choices. They behave badly. But we root for them anyway. They're the real deal. Stick-to-your-ribs characters.

Let's break this down a little with as much plot summary as I can bear to give: There are psychics. Lady psychics. Awesome lady psychics, living their own lives and being their own complicated human beings and not just brushed aside as "the grownups." There's Blue, the lone un-psychic who just happens to have grown up under the prophecy that when she kisses her true love, he'll die. (Blue kindly requests more information, but the cosmos aren't budging. Pesky unhelpful cosmos.)

And then there are the Raven boys, attending the nearby school for capital-R Rich Boys. Gansey's the leader, charming as hell except when he's being unintentionally insulting. He's all obsessed over finding the possibly-mythological sleeping king Glendower. (He has his reasons.) Oh, and he might be dead in a year, but Blue couldn't get any more info on that, either. There's his roommate Ronan, who's all corners and acid and surprises. And Noah, the other roommate. It wouldn't do to forget Noah. And Adam, the poor one putting himself through school, heartbreakingly determined to make his own way.

And there's magic. Lots and lots of magic, the kind that gives you chills through its pure weirdness. The other book that springs to mind that gave me a similar feeling is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I mean as the highest compliment.

I loved the book. I loved seeing how class played into the boys' friendships, especially Gansey and Adam. I loved the examination of privilege. I loved the raven named Chainsaw. I love that these characters are still so strong in my mind a week after I read the book. I love that I loved it's follow up book, The Dream Thieves, just as much. About the only thing I don't love is that now I have to wait for the next installment. But for once, I'm not worried that I'll forget to keep an eye out for it. I can't wait to see what happens next.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Too many dicks on the dance floor

...Except substitute "books" for "dicks," and, um..."various surfaces in my apartment" for "dance floor."
This is what my apartment looks like. Dancing, singing...books.
Does this happen to anyone else? I think it happens to me when I'm having a particularly strong run of good reads. I start to get cocky. And I crave more and more, until I honestly think I can read ALL THE BOOKS at pretty much the same time. And I check out half a dozen from the library and wind up sending most of them back unread, or half-read, because my focus gets fucked when I have too many good books staring at me.

And today it will get worse because I'm getting Neil Gaiman's new book in the mail, and Stephen King's Joyland, and I still haven't finished my books from the library (or the last several from the road trip), but I literally don't know how to hold a new Neil Gaiman novel in my hand and not read it. I don't think it can be done. And I'm avoiding all my favorite book blogs today because they've all got reviews of it and I don't want to be spoiled. I basically need to take care of all my errands and productive things before the mail comes, because once it gets here, I mean to be Occupied.

But anyway! In the interest of not letting myself stagnate too much on the blog front, I thought I'd share this article. It's titled "Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop," and there are some gems in there. 
"Show us how these characters process memory, language, abstractions, and the urban landscape through stream of consciousness, don’t just tell us."
"Caught some allusions to The Odyssey. Nice."
"“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” So true."
...and hee! Literary humor ftw. Check it out, if you're so inclined.


Monday, June 10, 2013

I'm the One that I Want, by Margaret Cho

Sometimes I am just not on board with those dust jacket reviews. I mean, seriously..."Savagely funny?" "Refreshingly, uproariously raunchy?" "Funny and compelling?"

I can only assume The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle were talking about Margaret Cho's stand-up routines and that they didn't read this book. Because this book? Not funny. Not unless you're the type to crack up over someone spilling a vein onto the page. No, this book is painful. Margaret Cho is unflinching in telling about her experiences with racism, body-shaming, sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, and a career that took years to get off the ground (due in part to racism, body-shaming, and drug and alcohol abuse).

But the painful stuff is easily the most compelling and best-written part of the book. The rest has its funny moments, but falls far short of her stand-up routines without her voice and comic timing to boost it into the stratosphere.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Homeland, by Cory Doctorow

I've been sitting on my review of Homeland for the better part of a week now. I'm feeling kind of intimidated, to be honest. Because there's a lot to say about this one. And what with all the nifty NSA surveillance coming to light at the moment, the book feels particularly prescient.
It's the sequel to Little Brother, which was probably my favorite road trip read. We meet up with narrator Marcus Yallow about two years after the events of the first book. We find characters (and, you know, the world) still reeling from those events. Marcus is clearly suffering from PTSD after being tortured, and the country is in economic turmoil. Kind of like reality, except worse.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Joe Hill's N0S4A2

I adore Joe Hill. I love his comic book series Locke and Key. I think I love it even more than Sandman, and that's saying a lot. I think his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, is brilliant, and I don't particularly like reading short stories.

I saw Joe (we're tight like that, so I can call him just Joe) speak at Beachwood Library last year. My mom used to work with the librarian who had set up the talk, and this librarian told us Joe was really nervous, because he hadn't spoken in front of such a big crowd before.

That's fucking endearing right there.

This all sounds like I'm gearing up for one big BUT about his newest novel--he's so great, but this book was shit--but I'm really not. I loved it.

A lot of reviewers are making much of the fact that this book contains a lot of overt references to his dad's books. And there are a bunch--I counted references to It (I mean, obviously--it's my favorite book of all time, so I wasn't about to miss those), The Stand, The Dark Tower series, homages to Christine...I don't have to specify who Joe Hill's dad is, right? It feels like something everyone should know now. Saying it would be like specifying that Daniel Radcliffe played Harry Potter in some films when he was a kid. We all know.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Running myself in circles

I'm stuck on the story I'm working on. I've been trying like hell to get it off the ground after it's been too long in the drawer, and it's just not working.

Last night, I figured out why.

I do this thing where I have mysterious things happen to my main character. And she spends a lot of time being all what the shit is happening?! until she finally runs into a character who can enlighten her. And then there's this massive conversational info dump. And then I stall out, because I don't actually like massive conversational info dumps. They're no fun to write, and usually they're no fun to read. And my MC is usually demanding answers from this dude who's being kind of smirky and withholding, so half her questions don't get answers anyway, and she's just asking and asking and asking and it's really no wonder I can't write these scenes, because they're horrible. I've done this to myself with the last three books I've worked on.

HELLO PATTERN, I'VE SPOTTED YOU! It's pathetic it's taken me so long to realize what I keep doing to myself, but whatever. I'm there. The question is, how do I break out of this self-defeating rut?

I think about authors who get it right, that's how.

In Stephen King's It, the kids figure out what's happening to the kids in their town because they experience it for themselves, barely escape, and draw their own conclusions. There are conversations, sure, but there's never the dynamic where one character knows everything and the others know nothing. So the talking actually gets somewhere. (This might be key.)

In Harry Potter (a series which contains some of the greatest plots ever), Harry often gets hints from other characters about what's going on, but then he has to figure it out for himself.

In Neverwhere, nobody explains much of anything to Richard Mayhew. He has to figure it out as he goes along, and adapt to London Below by experiencing it.

I think my mistake is trying to make my main character a stand in for the reader, and then not giving either of them enough credit. My MCs wind up being too passive--things happen to them, other people need to explain it all to them. I write myself into this inevitable corner and these unwriteable scenes.

I'm not sure if my current project is salvageable. It might be, but I'm feeling so frustrated with it right now, I'm not sure it wouldn't be better for me to stick it back in the drawer and try something else for awhile. Make use of this new batch of self-knowledge, try to break my pattern.

At least I see the pattern now. Finally.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Question Tuesday! (Didn't even mean to do that, but Nerdfighters FTW!)

Okay, let's get real. It's the day after a holiday weekend. I don't know how it is where you are, but it's a gray chilly day in my 'hood, and I'd really like to crawl back under the covers. But I'm trying to Act Like a Grownup over here in Looking for a Job-land, and so I soldier on!

But let's ease into it today. There's a book meme going around Tumblr. I figure I'll go out on a limb and answer some of the questions. We're still getting to know each other, so what the hell.

1. Favorite childhood book? 
Oh my god, this is already impossible. How do you pick just one? But okay, one I remember reading over and over again was There's a Boy in the Girls'
Bathroom, by Louis Sachar. Bradley Chalkers (that name!) wasn't like any of the main characters in my other books. He could act mean, but he wasn't. He had an incredible imagination. He was funny. This book is so awkward sometimes, I'm cringing just thinking about it. So good.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? 
I had to check. It's The Fifth Wave, by Rick Yancey, and Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull. I don't even remember anything about that second one. That's okay, it's fun to go in blind.
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

I like to go through 'em one at a time. It feels frustrating to juggle a bunch at once and not make progress on any. That said, I can do it if one's a book of short stories or essays and the other is fiction.  

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Fiction. I enjoy almost any genre, but fiction, and specifically novels, is my sweet spot.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

I've been burned before, but I'll still do it. When I really want someone to read something, I find it really expedites things to hand them the book. And then ask them how they're coming along with it two to forty times a day...

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

I love recommending books to friends I think Have It All Wrong about some author or series. Harry Potter's a lot of fun to foist on people who expect it to be a simple children's book, and then get totally and completely hooked. And I can always suggest a Stephen King book to people who expect them to just be gross, forgettable horror stories. I love suggesting John Green's books to people who think YA books must be stupid. Basically, if I genuinely think they'll love it, I'll recommend it. Subverting their expectations is a bonus.
25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

You guys are going to get sick of me telling you I love everything I read.

It's just that I have a strict reading policy! Since there are too many amazing books for me to read in my lifetime, I don't waste time on the ones that aren't doing it for me. This doesn't mean abandoning challenging books, just boring or badly-written ones.

Here endeth my reading habit PSA. Moving on.

I'll say this up front: I need to read more diversely. I read in all the genres, sure, and I lean more towards books by women these days, and that's great, but I need to put the effort into finding more books by women (and men) of color. Americanah deals heavily with questions of race, and it is fascinating.

The book follows Ifemelo and Obinze, two Nigerians who elect to immigrate to the US and the UK, respectively. We see them through their childhood, their teenaged romance, their painful estrangement, and their reconnection years later. Through Ifemelo, we get to see an experience I'm ashamed to say I never really thought about before: that of a non-American Black in America.

For Ifemelo, race doesn't exist before she arrives in America. The color of her skin just isn't an issue in Nigeria. In the US, she has a whole new set of rules and social norms to adjust to.To help her keep track, and to observe her new situation, she starts a blog, which becomes a great success. Excerpts of her blog are peppered throughout her chapters, with titles like To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby, and Thoughts on the Special White Friend. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mini-Review Roundup, part one

Is it weird I've been wanting it to rain all week? The little weather app on my phone keeps saying it's going to, but I'm looking at another sunny day. I think I have this misguided idea that my responsibilities will be put on hold if it's gross out. No, I couldn't possibly go to the bank, it's raining!

It's possible that's not how that works.

Anyway. As long as we're avoiding errands, we might as well talk books. These are most of the non-Diana Wynne Jones books I read on our road trip. It's been awhile so I'm just gonna do short reviews. I hope you don't mind.

 I enjoy the hell out of Kate Morton's books. She tends to stick to a certain formula, using a number of female narrators, usually separated by anywhere from ten to fifty years. There's generally some family secret that a daughter or granddaughter investigates, and there are some twists along the way. They're not always the deepest books, maybe, but Morton does a great job of crafting these stories.

I love her unabashed use of women to tell their own stories. She fleshes out her characters well, gets you to root for them, while still letting them be secretive, sometimes cruel, sometimes awesome. Basically, she lets them be whole people.

That said, this wasn't my favorite of hers. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, and there were some really beautiful moments for the characters. But the "twists" were pretty obvious--not often the case for Morton--and the final payoff was a bit of a let-down. For anyone new to Morton's books, I'd recommend The Secret Keeper, my favorite.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Road trip reading

View in The Strand
Okay, so my husband (we'll call him Chef, because that's what he is) and I just got home from a 7 week road trip around the country. We hit New York City, Philly, Asheville, Nashville, New Orleans, Houston, Tucson, San Francisco, Portland...others...It was kind of epic. It was a lot awesome. It's been an adjustment getting used to being home again. It's nice to have a bed. And privacy. And cats.

But it's hard not to miss it. How often as adults do we get to have that kind of freedom? It was great not to think about jobs or bills or, for the most part, grocery shopping, for almost two months.

What does any of this have to do with books? Welp, here's a thing about my book habits: I'm a library person. My mother was a librarian for 35 years, I've always had a library card, always used it. Who has the money to go around buying books all the time?

Okay, so you know how, when you're on vacation, the normal money-spending rules kind of cease to apply?

Yeah. We bought 35 books on this trip. (Just because we had sooo much extra room in our car. Not.) We couldn't help it! I don't know if you know this, but there are some damn fine book stores in this country. And we only made it to a few. The stand-outs, for those of you keeping track, were:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Railsea, by China Mieville

I dig the cover, too.
Every now and then, you read a book that just makes you say, "Damn. Now I have to start a book blog, because I can't not talk about this one!" For me, China Mieville's Railsea is that book. 

I've attempted Mieville a few times in the past, first with Un Lun Dun and later with Kraken. I can only chalk up my failure to finish them with the assumption that I just wasn't in the right mood for them at the time. To be fair, when I started Kraken, I loved it. It was so magnificently weird. But I got stuck in one of those unhappy reading lulls, and never finished. (Also, true fact, it was on my honeymoon, and I was a bit, erm, distracted. ANYWAY.) I think Railsea is just the push I needed to inspire me to go back and finish Kraken. And, well, everything else Mieville has written, ever.

Because I loved this book.

It starts off a bit slow. I had to push myself to keep going forward with it--until I was forty pages in or so, and things just took off. 

In the world of Railsea, most of the earth is covered in tracks, and people wend their way around in trains. To walk the earth is to risk fairly-certain, definitely- icky-and-painful death at the mouths of one of any number of enormous moles, birds, or insects. Mieville's descriptions are incredibly three-dimensional. Yes, he shows us what everything looks like, in great, quirky, readable detail. But he also shows us what the rhythm of the train feels like under our feet. We hear the sounds and smell the smells get the idea. I sometimes get impatient when there's a ton of description. I like for things to be happening, preferably to characters I give a damn about. Railsea delivers it all.

I don't really want to do an in-depth summary. Will you just go read it if I say it's one of those books where the main character learns something they weren't supposed to and then get chased across the world by pirates and the navy and giant moles? That it's one of those books that's Moby Dick-esque, except funny?(Possibly unfair. I haven't gotten around to actually reading MD yet. But one hears things.) It's one of those books with Women Being Awesome (see also: Women Being Powerful, Women Being In Charge Without it being a Big Deal, Women Looking Out For Number One, Women Being Ambiguous and Women Being Girls Being Badass Adventurers).

Aside from the story, which I loved, and the characters, who I loved, I loved Mieville's voice throughout the book. It wasn't exactly a character, but it did interrupt the story with the occasional short chapter to explain this or that and to be generally awesome. This kind of technique can be intrusive and annoying, but I thought it was successful here. Plus--how to put this?--I loved how he used that narrative voice to keep from having to tell us every last detail. To wit:

[Robalson] put down a bowl of food & loosened Sham's bonds, & Sham began to shout even as the dirty cloth left his mouth. "What the hell are you doing my captain's going to find me you're going to pay for this you crazy pig," & so on. Sham had hoped it would sound like a bellow. It came out more like a loud whine.
Many trains kept records of overhearings like sightings of megabeasts, of any talk of sports & monsters they encountered, knowing molers they met might be searching. Shiverjay ran a finger down a rumour-list, past tales of the largest badger, albino antlions, aardvarks of prodigious size. Some had the names of captains marked alongside. Some had more than one: oh, those were awkward occasions, clashes of hunts..."Ah, now," Shiverjay said. "Here's a thing." He had a superb stock of stories. "You know where the Bajjer roll?" Naphi nodded a vague nod. The sail-nomads gathered & hunted across great swathes of the railsea. "A deep-railsea spearhunter, she told me something that she'd heard from a furrier who'd been trading with a salvor crew--" 
The lineage, the genealogy by which the story was delivered at last into Captain Naphi's ears, was convoluted & not important. What mattered was this: "A solo trainsman saw our quarry."
This just makes me so happy. I struggle in my own writing with the compulsion to show every last (occasionally boring) thing. Mieville just punches right through with humor and gets on with the story. Good man.