Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

Best Books
1. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith
This novel was the best thing I read all year--a really touching, precise, painful examination of teenage sexuality and the end times. It put Andrew Smith on my radar, and I'm so glad: I read three of his books this year, and none of them was like the other. I'm eagerly anticipating the two books of his scheduled for 2015, which promise to be equally as wacky and true.

2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
A masterwork from the master. David Mitchell is the king of voice, and he explores six different ones in this book with such dexterity and grace that you'd swear he is actual a cabal of writers using a pseudonym--each character breathes and blinks and batters you with their pure, imperfect humanity. Perhaps it's a little heavy on the sci-fi battle toward the end, but I didn't mind. I'd follow David Mitchell anywhere.

3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton
This is the saddest, most beautiful book I read all year, the story of a girl with wings and love and loss. Magical realism at its finest in a delightful showcase. A word that gets tossed around too often when reviewing books is "lush," but it's definitely one of the words I'd choose for this book, along with "delicate," and "glittering." A stunner of a book.

4. The Riverman, Aaron Starmer
Childhood, secrets, love, and fear--Starmer can conquer them all. This is the first in a trilogy (and I've already read the second!), and it's potent book that scared me and made me feel old and young all at once. I can't wait to finish this group of books, which is simultaneously like learning and remembering. This book wins "most likely to crawl up your nose and inside all your organs to haunt you forever."

5. Man V. Nature, Diane Cook
Short stories that thrilled me and chilled me and mined me for all of my deep, personal inside feelings. I have read few short story collections as good as this one, with every story a total knockout victory.

Graphic Novel Super-Review

I have a tumultuous relationship with graphic novels: the first time I picked one up was in 2010, after years of speaking out against them. My first was Watchmen, which I thought was good but not that good. I continued and found some that I really loved, most which weren't serial comics: Habibi, Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Stitches. At the end of the year, I basically threw in the towel, convinced that I had read every good comic that there was to read.

Each year, there would be a graphic novel or two that piqued my interested, and I'd read it: Sailor Twain (Mark Siegel), Daytripper (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) and Building Stories (Chris Ware) stand out, but it was much quieter on the visual narrative front for me. 2014, however, saw a redux in graphic novels for me; I became obsessed with reading them again, starting new series and revisiting old ones. Since it's hard for me to muster up more than a paragraph per book, I thought I'd collect some of the highlights of my year here:


Graphic Novels
Ant Colony (Michael DeForge)
This is my favorite graphic novel of 2014. DeForge takes us into an ant colony to share with us the struggles and turmoil of ants. Of course, they're more than ants: they're sentient, aware of the true-life weirdness of what it means to be an ant. They question the authority of their queen, they ponder existential questions, they have hopes and fears and dreams and sex. I have really fallen in love with DeForge's art style, which I imagine is frequently compared to Chris Ware's--that must get tiresome for him. It's lots of solid blocks of color and simple shapes, and I don't know how to properly express that I love how much it adds to the overall book. This is a treasure.
My rating: 5/5

The Southern Reach Trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

Annihilation
This book is the first in a trilogy, one that centers on Area X. It's a mysterious, quarantined area that we don't know much about. Every so often, the government sends in an expedition, people of various professional backgrounds to scope out the land to report what's inside the territory. Unfortunately, almost all of the expeditions end badly, with everyone shooting each other or disappearing under unknown circumstances, reappearing in their homes several months later, and dying not long after.

Annihilation takes us on the twelfth expedition to Area X; there are participants this time, all women: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist. We never learn any of their names, and maybe that's part of the point. The biologist's connection to Area X is particularly interesting: her husband was a member of the previous expedition, the one where they all disappeared and showed up at home without an explanation before dying of a brief illness. She's become obsessed with the world her husband died for, so much that she volunteers to go in, too.

What she finds is in turns horrifying and fascinating. The book gets pretty fantastical pretty quickly, but the images that VanderMeer makes for us are beautiful and frightening all at once. I don't want to go into much detail because everything about this book is atmospheric: it's important to let the unease creep into your bones and fill you with discomfort exactly as the author wants.

My only criticism of the book is that it gets a bit trapped in itself toward the end. It's a short book--only about 175 pages--which is a perfect length to do the kind of narrative exploration that VanderMeer wants to do while his characters are doing a physical exploration of Area X. Nonetheless, the narrator kind of collapses in on herself toward the end and I struggled to follow along, but it's clearly an intentional choice and one that I applaud even if I couldn't understand it fully. I'm very much looking forward to books two and three.

My rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Yes Please (Amy Poehler)

At random intervals, I read a comedy humor memoir thing (Hyperbole and a Half; Let's Pretend This Never Happened; Bossypants) and I feel compelled to make the disclaimer that "this isn't the type of thing I normally read I'm not sure exactly how to review it." I don't think it will ever not be a true statement, and I find myself wanting to say the same thing for this review. Yes Please is Amy Poehler's book. I have been looking forward to it all year. It's another case of high expectations and "meh" results. Blerg.

As I have said before, I have a hard time evaluating humor books. How often should I be laughing? Is the book a failure if I don't laugh "enough?" I didn't laugh out loud very often during this book--I'm not even sure I laughed aloud at all. If that were the only criterion by which I judged, this book would have been a failure. But clearly it wasn't, because I read all the way through relatively quickly.

What I will say I enjoyed about this book is what I enjoy about most memoirs: the gooey insides. There is something attractive to me about books filled with real people's inner lives, and I want to stress here that the "something" has nothing to do with celebrities or tragedy. I don't need convincing that celebrities are "real people just like us," because they are obviously not, so that's not the attraction. I don't want to exploit people's very sad and very real problems (AKA sad porn), either.

I just like reading about people's interior lives. I don't need sordid details or emotional appeals, just odds-and-ends details about what others are doing with their time. In that regard, Yes Please is very good. Poehler does a great job of spreading her net far and wide, gathering lots of stories from her whole life; she doesn't focus too heavily on her comedy roots, on her SNL-and-after stardom, or her list of celebrity friends. I felt like I was reading a diary that was meant for public consumption, and that's the best feeling.

So what didn't I like? For one thing, the book was messy. It's divided into three very loose thematic sections ("Say Whatever You Want," "Do Whatever You Like," and "Be Whoever You Are"), none of which felt very cohesive. That is, the arrangement felt randomized and arbitrary. Chapters within each section were all over the place--more than once did I feel lost while reading. It happened first in the opening chapter: she talks about her earliest encounter with improv, as Dorothy in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Man V. Nature (Diane Cook)

I have been reading a lot of short fiction lately. On my Goodreads page, I've been giving all these collections short reviews, mentioning stories that are highlights and perhaps pitfall stories that don't thrill me. I don't do long reviews of short story collections because it's at least four times as hard as reviewing a novel. I just lied to you, because I have written two long reviews of a collection--last year, I reviewed George Saunders' Tenth of December, and a few weeks later, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. After I did, I swore never to review another collection at length again.

Oops.

In the last year-ish, I have read some stunning stuff: the collections of Aimee Bender, my number one short fiction author, Laura van den Berg and Alissa Nutting, Eric Puchner, Daphne du Maurier--I could go on and on here, but I'll stop. I did not feel compelled to give these collections lengthy reviews, even though I found them to be absolutely marvelous. Just yesterday, I finished Man V. Nature, the debut collection of author Diane Cook, and I knew that I needed to tell everyone about every one of her stories. So here we are. Like much of the short (and, let's be honest, long) fiction I read, Cook's narratives are often surreal; they're not strictly fantasy or science fiction, but there's something off about their worlds.

The first story is "Moving On." The day I read it, I had to close the book and walk away because I needed time to process it. It's not often that a piece of writing shuts me down that hard, but the story about widow relocation (that is, if your spouse dies, you are required to marry again) hurt. It's a quiet story, but it ate at me. Ouch.

The next is "The Way the End of Days Should Be," which is a post-apocalyptic piece (but you probably guessed that). Like a lot of this kind of fiction, it doesn't ever really explain what happened to the world, and for a lot of readers, this is frustrating: they want to know the hows and the whys, and, to be frank, I don't care. This is the story of a man at the end of the world, a very selfish man. It's a great character study.

There are several thematic siblings in this vein: "Man V. Nature" is another "we're the last people alive" story that really plays with reader perception and narrative authority and unlikeability (i.e., how far can we go on hating our main character and still invest in him?). "It's Coming" is a Godzilla-esque story, but it focuses less on the destruction of giant buildings and more on the poignant--or grotesque--emotions that come when people are faced with the end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

I have a confession: I hate post-apocalyptic fiction. I've spoken on this before, specifically with regards to zombies, because it's a genre without much room to move--you survive as long as you can, but at the end of the novel you're either going to die or...die. There's no "suddenly everything was fixed" (and if there is, it's dreadful). There's just "everyone dies," which I already knew.

Perhaps my hatred comes from the sheer number of poorly-done books I've read. I still cannot figure out why everyone likes The Road. Anything with zombies is a no-go. Dystopian post-apocalyptics are just as much a drag (here's looking at you, Divergent). In spite of all of this, I can't seem to stay away. Some part of me must see promise in this type of fiction, because I always get sucked back in, and it's always a disappointment.

Until today. I can finally, with confidence and joy, announce that I have found a post-apocalyptic novel that I loved. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is what I have been waiting for my whole life.

The Georgia Flu is a perfect killer, and it destroys everyone. Billions of people die within days of contracting the disease, and soon almost no one is left. Kirsten survives, and twenty years after the pandemic strikes, she's touring the tiny communities surrounding Lake Michigan as part of a troupe called the Traveling Symphony; they play classical music and perform Shakespeare, trying to keep the old culture alive.

This book is the story of Kirsten, yes, but it's also the story of Arthur Leander, an actor who dies in the first few pages. Kirsten is on stage when a heart attack kills him; the narrative switches between Kirsten of the present and Arthur of the past, though frequently he is focalized through viewpoints of people in his life.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle)

Like so many books, I came to this one under false pretenses. Blurbs are so, so devious. Fortunately for Wolf in White Van, I was actually amazed by what I found. My initial understanding, that this novel was the story told in reverse of a crazy maniac who creates and runs mail-order games, is only about half-accurate. If you thought that was this book, too, it's not. Fair warning.

It is about a man, Sean Phillips, who creates and runs mail-order role-playing games. Think D&D, but you're playing alone and mailing in your moves to Sean. He is pretty housebound because his face was badly damaged in an accident, circumstances which we initially are not sure of. These games allow him to interact with other people without having to deal with their constant horror, sympathy, and scrutiny of his injuries.

This is a great life for Sean, except when it suddenly goes wrong. A young couple engrossed in his most popular text game, Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic survival story, starts to lose their grasp on reality. Thinking that the game is a reflection of real life, they venture out to the Midwest to find the hallowed fort that all players are struggling to reach. It goes wrong, there are serious consequences, and Sean is stuck feeling guilty and innocent at the same time.

So not at all about a maniac. And technically the story runs in reverse, in that toward the end we find out what happened to Sean, but it's more of a memory novel than a backwards narrative. I was initially disappointed to discover that my presuppositions were wrong, and then I was delighted. What you'll find if you read Darneille's debut is something way better.

Sean is a great character, one of the best I've read this whole year. He's sad, he's quiet, he's isolated, he's lonely, he's a loner. If you're looking for a thrilling, plot-based novel, then never you mind, because this is one that's all about character, and it's done deliciously. I can't express how gripping his psyche is, how enraptured the reader feels while he's lost in his thoughts. Typically, I'm not a fan of heady novels, but Wolf in White Van really did it for me.

It's a bit difficult to review, because so much of it is centered around Sean's inner dialogue. It's not even that there are spoilers (really, there aren't). It feels silly to explain how good the book is, how carefully it was written, when you could just read it yourself. It's a very short, but it's worth every page. I'm struggling more than I thought I would with a review for this book. My shortest summary then: this novel is a delight, a painful character study, and you should read it.

My rating: 5/5
Wolf in White Van on Goodreads
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (Rick Riordan)

Conclusions are hard. I read a lot of series in my youth, so I'm very familiar with the intense pressure of ending a storyline that spans multiple books. I can think of several big-name publishing events with bad finales, some which I haven't even read: the Sookie Stackhouse books, the Delirium trilogy, arguably Mockingjay, Allegiant! There are tons. I assume you're here, then, reading this, because you want to know if Rick Riordan screwed up his series with book five, The Blood of Olympus.

Well, he didn't. At the beginning of the book, we're only days away from the awakening of Gaea. Reyna, Nico, and Coach Hedge are en route to Camp Half-Blood with the Athena Parthenos via Nico's shadow travel, which is draining him of his life: he becomes less corporeal and functional with each trip. The rest of the gang (with a gravely-injured Jason in tow) has to find the goddess of victory, Nike, at Olympia, whose warring personalities are making it hard for the demigods to win the war against Gaea and her minions.

Of course, there are obstacles in the way, the most notable of which is Orion, a hunter who once loved Artemis, was killed, and has come back to fight for Gaea. He pursues Reyna, Hedge, and Nico as they get closer and closer to New York, and it prompts a lot of interesting conflict between, for example, him and the Amazons and the Hunters of Artemis. In general, I found the Nico/Reyna/Hedge story far more interesting to follow, not in the least because Nico and Reyna are probably the two most intriguing characters in this series. Reyna's backstory is really well-developed in this novel, in a way that's touching and painful, and I am always up for more Nico, whose complexity is, in fact, unrivaled by any character in the Heroes of Olympus series. While Percy may be my favorite character (I mean, isn't he everyone's favorite?), Nico wins the prize for most-thoughtfully-constructed.

But they're only about half of the novel. What about the other half? It was okay. I again took issue with the characters who get chapters of narration. We hear from Nico and Reyna, of course, but our other two perspectives are Piper and Leo. I'm not the biggest fan of Piper, but she is better in book five. The less she talks dreamily about Jason, the better (obviously). Leo, on the other hand, remains the most frustrating character to listen to. I've been pretty vocal about my distaste before, and it's entirely because of his unfunny jokes, which are so awkward. Nonetheless, I was a little more invested in his character arc than normal, and have been ever since the Ogygia/Calypso incident.

There's a shockingly little amount of Percy, Jason, and Annabeth in this book; Frank and Hazel aren't incredibly present, either. One of my biggest problems with Riordan's writing is the moments where he tries to sound like the age group he is writing for. Slang terms, awkward sentences ("Jason nodded at Percy like 'Sup?" or something very like it appears in the book, for instance), and stilted dialogue between characters (having Jason and Percy refer to each other by their last names to demonstrate their rivalry reads like every bad '70s sports comedy) marred my reading experience. If it's bad enough to pull me out of the book, then it should have been fixed.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cress (Marissa Meyer)

We're back! Don't read this review if you haven't already read Cinder or Scarlet, the first two books in this series. I will spoil those two books, because duh. It's book three. You've been warned.

Our focus now shifts to Cress, who is, in the world of the Lunar Chronicles, Rapunzel. A shell (if you're rusty on your terminology, that's a Lunar who can't manipulate people's bioelectricity to do the sort of illusions and persuasion we've already seen from Cinder and Queen Levana) deemed useless to society, Cress is taken by the Queen's head thaumaturge, Sybil, to a satellite to monitor just about everything on Earth. She's lived alone her whole life, become a skilled hacker and programmer--she even wrote a computer program modelled on a younger version of herself so she has company.

Mistress Sybil has asked Cress to find Cinder and give information about her whereabouts, which Cress does easily. However, she's hesitant to turn the gang over to her mistress, and not in the least because of the dreamy Carswell Thorne, whom we met in Scarlet. Instead, she signals to Cinder so that they might come to her rescue, but it backfires--Carswell and Cress end up trapped in the satellite, Scarlet is taken hostage by the thaumaturge, Wolf is grievously injured, and Cinder is saddled with a ton of guilt. And then the novel really gets going.

I will admit that I was disappointed with the second book in the series; I thought that Scarlet was an annoying character, hated how much page time she got, and felt the plot lagged too much. I was nervous to continue the series: what if The Lunar Chronicles squandered all the promise I felt in Cinder? Fortunately, that's not the case in Cress, not by a long shot. The first of my complaints--too much Scarlet, whom I didn't like--is handled by her kidnapping. She gets almost no time in this book, which for me was gratifying, and the scenes she does have are way more interesting than anything she was doing in the second book.

The plot is also far more interesting than in book two. I don't want to get into much detail for fear of spoiling more of the story, but suffice it to say that there is a huge desert sequence that has a lot of fun. It touches on ideas about marginalized communities and human trafficking in very meaningful ways that don't ever feel like smacks in the face (that is, these are serious issues and the book knows it, but chooses to subtly educate us instead of preaching about them). There's a "heist" sequence, too, and I'm always up for one of those. As is typical, we end on a really fantastic set of cliffhangers, which manage to ratchet up the excitement--I didn't realize how excited I am to see how Meyer ends everything until I got to the end of this novel.

For me, it's important that this series maintain a balance between external conflict--the fight sequences and the rapidly-approaching royal wedding--and internal conflict within the characters. I didn't feel that Scarlet achieved that balance, and I'm happy to say that I think we get that in this novel. Some of the issue relies on who is telling the story--I've already spoken about my distaste for Scarlet, but how does Cress fair?

She isn't the greatest narrator. There are things I really like about her--the early scenes of her in her satellite are touching and sad, for example. To think of that sort of extreme, total isolation is heartbreaking but fascinating, and the author does a terrific job of using the Rapunzel trope. On the other hand, Cress is a bit daffy, dreaming about love very naively and earnestly; she's perhaps at her worst when her thoughts turn to Carswell Thorne, who finally starts to breathe as a character where I felt he didn't in book two. I can't tell if these sort of loopy love scenes are reflections and commentary on the fairy tale genre or if it's maybe a systematic laziness.

Regardless, Cress is pretty well-balanced with Cinder, who far-and-away continues to be the best character in the series. Any time I get to spend with her is time well-spent, certainly. Her internal struggles remain the most interesting of any character in the book, because she's grappling with such huge decisions. It's strange to say that the more impossible her choices are, the more realistic a character she is--name one person you know in real life who finds out she's the secret queen of a world intent on destroying another. But it's exactly because of this ridiculousness that Cinder seems so well-realized.

I'm really looking forward to how this series concludes, first with an interquel (is this really the terminology? ugh) coming out in January about Levana (Fairest), and then the conclusion to the series, Winter, in November. Yay!

My rating: 4.5/5
Cress on Goodreads 
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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.