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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

100 Sideways Miles (Andrew Smith)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review!

And thank goodness for Andrew Smith. Seriously. All of us ought to raise him to the heights as a new leader of YA fiction because his books have perpetually stunned me. I'm so lucky to get to read his books, and we're all so lucky to have him around.

100 Sideways Miles is about Finn Easton, who is in high school and on the baseball team and generally cool and normal. Except he has epilepsy. Because a horse fell on him. The same horse that killed his mom and broke his back. His best friend is Cade Hernandez, maybe the only guy who fully understands and accepts Finn, even with his seizures. Cade is known for his charm and constant talk about his own sexual arousal.

When Finn was young, his dad wrote a science fiction novel about human-devouring angels coming to our world, a novel that upset a lot of people, including Finn. Why? Because one of the important characters is named Finn, and he has the same-colored eyes, and the same scar on his back. It makes Finn feel like he's not a real person.

Julia Bishop moves to his school, located in one of the more remote areas of California, and he falls in love with her. She's beautiful and perfect and understanding--one of their first interactions is her taking care of Finn after a seizure strikes, which always leaves Finn embarrassed, angry, and rude. And despite that, she likes Finn, too. So they have a relationship and it's cute and nice but of course something comes up (and I won't tell you what it is, so read the darn book).

Out of the three Smith books I've read (and all in the same year!), this one feels the most like a YA novel. I don't mean that in a bad way, because of course Smith takes the idea of a standard YA novel and injects it with actual, real feelings. Specifically, I was reminded of a John Green book, except it was a good book and not something that felt formulaic and boring and manufactured. Imagine that! A YA novel that deals with love and embarrassment in a straightforward way: no characters spewing pretentious statements at every possible moment, no quirky details that make you want to stab your own eyeballs, and no bossy writer behind the pages cackling and saying "Cry, you ugly fools! Cry!"

The story is realistic, and perhaps that doesn't mean sound like a compliment, but I am amazed by how realistic the relationships are. Finn knows he's not being nice to his parents but it happens anyway. There are no signs of bratty, entitled teen nor controlling parent. It's wonderful! He knows that his relationship with Julia might not work out, and he likes her for real reasons in spite of the challenges a relationship like theirs faces. I hate books that feature characters that fall in love with one another instantly, and though it would never work out in real life, they are happy together forever (at least until the book ends). But Smith is better than that, and it shows.

There's something so uniquely enjoyable about an Andrew Smith novel. The stories he tells are crazy, but they never lose their grasp on the truth inherent in their narratives. That's what amazes me every time I read one of his books: they are drenched in truth but never preach it; the characters never open their mouths and recite aphorisms that make me gag.

My point: Andrew Smith rocks. Stop wasting your life and read his books.

My rating: 5/5
100 Sideways Miles on Goodreads
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