Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Review


With each passing year, I try to be more conscious of keeping up with what's happening in the world of books. In 2012, I spent the month of December reading books published earlier in the year that had caught my eye. I decided to up the ante for 2013, and made an effort to read noteworthy/interesting books throughout the year. Some were really, really great. And of course, I thought some were awful.

Books--Best 
1. Life After Life -- Kate Atkinson
This experimental time-travel historical fiction novel was the book I have thought about over and over for almost an entire year. What an incredible creation.

2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman
My favorite Gaiman book. The sort of thing you read and internalize like fever dreams that return to frighten you or make you laugh at times when you least expect it.

3. The River of No Return -- Bee Ridgway
Ridgway's debut is the definition of mash-up. Time-travel (again!), Regency period historicism, Dan-Brown-secret-society stuff--this novel has it all. Seriously. My pick for most underrated book of 2013. Don't waste a moment in getting yourself a copy (I bought three).

4. The Golem and the Jinni -- Helene Wecker
A fascinating fantasy-historical-romance (a mash-up in in its own right) set in 1890s New York between two mythical beings. The memories of this book have been glowing in my soul like small embers since I turned the last page.

5. Burial Rites -- Hannah Kent
This debut is a chilling, atmospheric novel of 1820s Iceland and a convicted (historically real!) murderess. Guaranteed to soak into your skin and then cut you up from the inside. Ugh (the good kind of ugh).

6. Tampa -- Alissa Nutting
Cheers to the most nauseating, skin-crawling, deliciously mind-warping book of 2013. Celeste Price is the one of the most intoxicating, interesting villains ever. Also, she's a pedophile.

7. The Screaming Staircase -- Jonathan Stroud
I just want to tell everyone I know about how fun this book is. Seriously. Teenage ghost hunters! Alternate history London! GAH! It's for the 8-12 set, sure, but it's enjoyable for every age group, surely.

8. The Luminaries -- Eleanor Catton
This New Zealand Gold Rush novel got a lot of attention for its author being young and its style being experimental, but I was really blown away by how well Catton works her way through a cast of characters and sets them up for a delicious, twisty plot.

9. Joyland -- Stephen King
One of the two new Stephen King books from this year, it's a really good/sad coming-of-age but a less good murder mystery thriller. I care mostly about the first part. Still give it a shot because it's a fun amusement park novel regardless.

10. Tenth of December -- George Saunders
Short stories that will simultaneously fill you with disgust and sadness. "Why would I read it?" you ask. Because George Saunders is that good. You will want the despair.

The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson)

I mentioned in an earlier review of mine that adult fantasy is a realm I find inaccessible. Once again, I returned to the land of kid/teen magic with Brandon Sanderson's series-initiating The Rithmatist. I was a bit leery because Sanderson is by trade an epic fantasy author--he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, which is basically the embodiment of all things I fear and loathe in adult swords-and-sorcery--but it turns out my fears were a bit misplaced.

We are in an alternate version of history, at the beginning of the 20th century where Europe is ruled by some sort of East Asian power and the United States is actually a collection of islands called the United Isles. One island, Nebrask, has a mysterious Tower on it where creatures called chalklings dwell: living beings made out of chalks. A group of select citizens practice the art of Rithmatics, magically using chalk to create complex defense systems and chalklings of their own.

There are eight academies spread out across the isles where Rithmatists (chosen by a religious ceremony) study their arts, eventually spending four years fighting at Nebrask before returning to civilian life. Joel is a student at one of the universities, Armedius Academy, but much to his own disappointment, he is not a Rithmatist. His deceased father was a chalkmaker for the university and his mother is a cleaning woman.

One day, a newcomer professor named Nalizar challenges Professor Fitch, one of the old guard at Armedius. Through a chalk duel, Nalizar deposes Fitch from his position as a tenured professor of Rithmatic theory, a fact which angers and shocks Joel. Not soon after, a series Rithmatic student disappearances strike the campus, and Joel, Fitch and a failing Rithmatics student named Melody are on the case.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tampa (Alissa Nutting)

Tampa was one of the most-talked about books of 2013 simply because of its subject matter--it's the story of a female teacher preying on her eighth-grade male students. On Goodreads, it has a 3.27 average rating, and I can't help but feel that the poor reception is simply a knee-jerk reaction of disgust and moral superiority. I'm going to be real with you, this book was good, even if it did gross me out.

Celeste Price has designed her entire life around getting access to teenage boys. She is an eighth-grade teacher who has married into a rich family so she can afford all the best  youth treatments to stay attractive and young. When the first day of class hits, her body aches, aflame with desire for some new meat, and as her trailer-classroom fills up with pubescent boys, her hunt begins.

This book has been getting a lot of comparison to Lolita, but I think that's a bit too obvious, so I'm going to steer clear of such comparisons. Celeste is one of the most disgusting, horrifying, interesting characters I've ever read. She is a mash-up of every truly nightmarish woman out there, feasting simultaneously on naivete, virginal innocence and mommy issues. She doesn't feel in the way that normal humans do, nothing several times in the narrative that she has to consciously inflect her voice to provide a socially acceptable reaction (and she makes these comments offhandedly, which is just one of the many facets of Nutting's genius).

Our narrator is very devious, taking a lot of measures to ensure she never gets caught. The amount of careful planning she lays out before beginning her adolescent affair is frightening, like a terrorist planning a massive, devastating attack. And perhaps that's what it is, on a tiny scale: Celeste knows exactly how damaging her flings will be for her teen boy victims, and even that turns her on.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The School for Good and Evil (Soman Chainani)

More fairy tales to wind down the year. Yay! The School for Good and Evil is the debut novel (and first in a series) by Soman Chainani. The premise: once every four years, two children are kidnapped from the town of Gavaldon by the School Master, never to be seen again, except that's not quite true. They resurface down the road as characters in new fairy tales, stories which appear in mysterious books at the local book shop. One child is always Good and one is always Evil.

Accordingly, this event strikes fear into the heart of children everywhere, with one exception: Sophie wants to be taken. She wants out of Gavaldon, and, being the beautiful blonde that she is, aspires to one day be a princess. She works hard to perform acts of charity and even befriends a gruesome girl named Agatha, who lives in the graveyard. She is convinced that they will be taken together, Sophie for Good and Agatha for Evil. Agatha is less excited at the thought of being taken, especially since it means a lifetime of misery and solitude as she becomes a villain. And on the night of the kidnapping, Sophie is right. She and Agatha get taken.  But when the School Master drops Sophie in the School for Evil and Agatha in the School for Good, they are both convinced there's been a grave error and set out to correct it.

Of course the idea of a metafiction approach to fairy tales appealed to me. It was obvious that I was going to read this book. Chainani's manipulation of our familiar tropes is excellent and often humorous; the concept of a school that creates fairy tale characters is wonderful, and his execution of that concept is equally delightful. The Evers (that is, students of Good) get Groom Rooms where they can beautify themselves in hopes of finding true love (a concept which the author recognizes as ridiculous and lightly mocks in a very smart way), while Nevers take a class on Uglification. The book is overflowing with delightful nuggets like these.

And for the most part, the characters are just as delightful. I really enjoyed Sophie and Agatha especially, but Tedros, the son of King Arthur (who is interesting for his constant fear of any woman pulling a Guinevere on him, a trait I applaud for its intelligence and maturity), as well as a variety of side players like Hort and Beatrix and Dot, were interesting and well-created.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)

Through various times in my life, I have flirted with the idea of being a literary snob. There are periods in which I buy four or five books that are winners of the Booker Prize or perhaps the National Book Award (all at bargain price, of course) and, after two+ years of not reading them, I get rid of them. The problem with literary awards, at least in my mind, is that they intentionally ignore popular novels that deserve praise (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, obviously) and load praise onto obscure books that no one cares about that turn out to be rather boring anyway (I was going to include an example but seriously, just pick any major prize winner from the last decade). The Luminaries is the 2013 Booker Prize winner, and I only talked myself into buying it because it sounded interesting and I had actually heard of it prior to its award-winning buzz. So here I am, ten days after I began reading, to tell you how I feel.

There are two major things about this book that get mentioned when it comes up: the first is that the author, Eleanor Catton, is only 28, which makes her the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize and that her books is 830+ pages, which also makes it the longest book ever to win the award. The second thing you'll hear is a discussion of its experimental structure, where the book is divided into 12 sections ever diminishing in size with characters representing astrological figures; the book makes use of star charts in its representations of characters.

But I'm here to argue that all of that stuff doesn't matter--those are reasons that are not relevant to why The Luminaries is a good book, because it certainly is. The novel is set in 1860s New Zealand during the gold rush, and in my opinion, that's reason enough to read it--it's like a mashup of Victorian London drama and Wild West adventure. Why haven't more people written about New Zealand? Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, a mining town, at the same town that it experiences a big scandal: a man named Crosbie Wells is found dead, a prostitute named Anna Wetherell is found nearly dead of opium overdose and a miner named Emery Staines has gone missing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Splintered (A. G. Howard)

I cannot resist the allure of fairy tales. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trend is very popular right now; fortunately because it provides me with a lot of material to explore but unfortunately because a sizable portion of it is, frankly, not good.

I know Alice in Wonderland isn't a fairy tale, but it's fairy-tale-esque and is often reinterpreted, so I include it in this category (see also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). I am a big fan of Lewis Carroll's original books and I get very defensive of them; I hate when people swear that the book was written after an acid trip (LSD wasn't created until 1937 and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is from 1865), trying to cite the hookah-smoking caterpillar as evidence of something drug-fueled and insane, because I think if that's all you get from the book, then you've missed the point: that it's a funny, relentlessly punny story.

So imagine my displeasure every time I encounter a reworking of the trippy fantasy that focuses only on how bizarre and twisted a place Wonderland is. There is this cultural desire to tell stories about returning to Wonderland to find it a dark, threatening place: The Looking Glass Wars, the 2010 Tim Burton film, the 2009 Syfy miniseries, and American McGee's video games are all examples. I quickly get tired of these versions. I would argue any day that The Phantom Tollbooth is a better retelling of Alice than anything out there because it manages to capture the spirit of wacky, pun-heavy humor that I value so much in the originals.

Despite all of my reservations, I gave Splintered a shot. This time, we're with the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the girl who served as inspiration for Lewis Carroll when he wrote his quirky stories. The woman descendants of Alice are cursed: they hear plants and bugs whispering to them all the time. Alyssa (our narrator) has been hearing bugs and plants whispering to her for awhile and uses bugs to make bizarre but beautiful art. Her mother is locked in the asylum after an incident where she attacked her daughter in a fit of madness.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

I have a weak spot in my heart for children's fantasy, I really do. I can barely tolerate the adult counterpart (it often takes itself too seriously, gets caught up in having weird character/place names and invented languages while characters go on big, annoying quests to do...whatever it is they must do), but something about the playfulness of children's fantasy draws me back again and again.

One series in particular that I loved at an age where it was appropriate (I mean I was in the age group it was written for) was the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Those books captured my attention in a way that few series did--that is, I still remember them now as fondly as I enjoyed them then, which is not the case with a good many fantasy series I read back then. So when I saw the release of a new series by the same author, I jumped at the chance. Why wouldn't I?

The premise behind The Screaming Staircase is an alternate-history England in which ghosts are real and are a very serious problem. If a ghost touches you, you swell up, turn blue and die. And they're everywhere. Of course, a ghost-hunting industry pops up to combat the problem. The catch, however, is that children are far more sensitive to spirits than adults--they can see (and sometimes hear) ghosts, while adults can only occasionally sense their presence in the case of a manifestation.

So businesses appear all over England comprised of teenagers who can hunt ghosts, but they're generally controlled by adults. Except Lockwood & Co., a group of three who run themselves. These are our heroes: Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle (our lovely narrator) and George Cubbins. The story begins with their investigation of a haunting reported by a recently-widowed woman by a spirit she suspects is her husband. The problem turns out to be more complicated and leads to a burnt-down house and a larger mystery of a socialite from 50 years previously who disappeared mysteriously.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)

Sometimes books just reach out to you from the universe and beg you to read them and you can't shake them until you do. Burial Rites is one such book--the moment I discovered it existed out in the world, the thought of its existence has been slowly burning in the back of my brain. Fortunately, I finally treated myself to reading it, but now that I've read it, but it will continue to smolder in my mind for some time to come.

This book tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic woman from the 1820s who really existed. Historically, she was accused of killing a man and was beheaded for her crimes, widely regarded as a villian by the community. Kent's delicious debut aims to provide Agnes with a voice to speak about the crime and the result is absolutely spectacular.

Before reading this book, I had no idea about Agnes' existence or story. If you haven't, either, don't worry. This isn't the sort of historical fiction that requires you to know a lot about the original history to understand, and thank goodness. Those are generally very annoying books. If you decide to read this book (and I beg you, please read it), you needn't worry about lacking context.

Burial Rites is overflowing with goodness. The novel is breathtakingly atmospheric. I felt swept up inside ~1828 Iceland in the way that tells me how good the book is--I felt trapped there, enwrapped and ensnared in the unforgiving landscape. The last book to capture me in such a way was The Snow Child. In both instances, I never wanted to leave behind even the setting. For most books, the writing about a setting is a throwaway for me as I rarely care where a book happens. But Kent made me belong to this time and place. Incredible.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The House of Hades (Rick Riordan)

Ah, the fourth book in the Heroes of Olympus series. So nice to see you after a few months off. In my earlier reviews of Rick Riordan's latest Greek myth stories, I noted my weariness of his tropes. I was worried about reading book four, The House of Hades, for fear that I would burn myself out on what is a fairy well-crafted universe because of how formulaic the author is. I am happy to say, then, that the newest book in this series defied my expectations--Riordan navigates new waters with his characters, and dang if the results aren't interesting and captivating!

When we left our cast in The Mark of Athena, Annabeth had just recovered the magical, giant statue of Athena and she and Percy had fallen into Tartarus. It was, I admit, a great cliffhanger. And it finally allows the narrative some room to breathe! Thank goodness. Percy and Annabeth make everyone else promise to meet them on the mortal side of the Doors of Death, and the quest begins.

One of the reasons this book is so great is because we get a lot of Percy/Annabeth-only time. Clearly, this is what the people want, and Riordan doesn't fail to deliver in spades. There are tons of great moments between the two of them, with Percy delivering his trademark (actually funny!) humor. Oh, and Bob, the Titan whose memory Percy erased once upon a time, joins them on their trip through Tartarus. Bob is a really fun character. Sometimes he made me really sad. In a good way.

I care less about the other five characters on the quest--Jason and Piper are pretty boring people, as is Frank; Leo aggravates me more often than he amuses me, but Hazel's pretty interesting. The House of Hades is a great book for character development, though--Hazel learns how to control the Mist, which is a fascinating concept, and Leo has a whole episode that convinced me to like him (and then it broke my heart). Nico di Angelo also goes through a moment of really sad, really great character development, and I think his moment most of all is going to be what sticks with me until the next book comes out. No spoilers, of course. But the revelation about Nico is definitely the best part of the book.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Melissa Explains It All (Melissa Joan Hart)

I feel like this is a big, guilty embarrassment. But I must press onward. I READ MELISSA JOAN HART'S MEMOIR. There, I said it. And what a poor choice I made.

I don't need to explain much about the book--it's written by Melissa Joan Hart, child star of Sabrina and Clarissa Explains It All, whom I fondly remember from my childhood days as a spunky, cool girl. It seemed like a great idea to read her memoir and hear about how great it must have been to work on those shows (robot cat puppets and Caroline Rhea? YESSSS).

So I was very shocked  by what I actually got. The book is slim (288 pages), but this little book manages to be bloated, and that's one of its biggest problems. In fact, I'll start there. Now, the reason that MJH is famous? Those two TV shows I mentioned earlier. You would think those would get the majority of the text devoted to them (or, in the very least, two significant sections) because they're really the reason we care enough to buy her memoir.

But what do we get? Two very short chapters that whiz through her experiences (which lasted a combined 12 or 13 yearsof her life), providing few interesting details or anecdotes from either show's production. What we're left with is a general statement along the lines of "oh, I had a good time and people were nice". That's the best you can do for the two career-creating/defining moments of your life?

Hyperbole and a Half (Allie Brosh)

It's fitting that the back of this book features a blurb from Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess--who wrote last year's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which happens to be one of my favorite books of last year and also the funniest book I've ever read--because I was reminded of Lawson's book in all the best ways.

I don't mean to make a comparison between the two, just as a way to compliment the work of Allie Brosh. She, like Lawson, is a humor blogger whose comedy varies from serious and dark stuff to light-hearted, hilarious stories about her dog. The format is slightly different; most of the book's content come in the form of essays lifted from her site, which I am embarrassed to admit I wasn't a regular reader of.

These essays come with pictures, drawn in a style that Brosh is known for, which is to say crudely simplistic and violently hilarious. Those are often the best parts of her essays--the dramatic facial expressions and odd sentential constructions without fail made me at the very least giggle but more often laugh full-heartedly. Using my handy "how-to-judge-humor-books" system, this book is a great success because I laughed at least once in every section; generally, I laughed more than once, in fact.

And perhaps the highlight of all the essays was the most sobering. I saw a lot of praise before the book came out for her essays on depression (which are on the Hyperbole and a Half website), so I was excited to read them and nervous they would disappoint me. But they didn't. They manage to capture perfectly the way depression can capture you and crush you for evidently no reason at all, and despite how heavy that sounds, it managed to make me laugh!

Brosh is truly a master of comedic balance. The book is light and funny but meaty and emotionally penetrating. I hate when people talk about a book or a movie "getting" them (as in, "Twilight just gets me"), but I got the feeling that the author really does get people. It's startling how anecdotes about herself feel like they're about you. "IS THIS LADY WATCHING ME?" I asked myself, terrified how accurately she described me (that is, herself). Her humor is universal.

Even if you've never encountered her work, pick the book up for you and for your friends because it's a hard book not to love. I don't even like dogs but she's just so funny that I laughed in spite of myself.

My rating: 4.5/5
Hyperbole and a Half on Goodreads
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation (Tim Manley)

I have enjoyed the website Fairy Tales for 20-Somethings for some time, so jumped at the chance to buy a book form. The original concept was to update fairy tale characters into the life of struggling 20-somethings and everything that entails.

I was very surprised to see so much of the book with new content (it's my general understanding that blog-to-book often adds very little new material, but almost all of this was new to me). So that's definitely a plus for any fan of the website.

One of the best parts of the original site was how precise Manley's understanding of this age group is, the social media anxiety and the floating adrift in the jobless world. I don't want to make the mistake of saying that this generation's problems are so different and unique, because statements like that frustrate me. But the manner which in classic problems manifest are different, and Manley can capture these things perfectly--it's not always laugh-inducing, but I'm not sure that it's always supposed to be. I had more moments of "wow, I KNOW this character in real life" than "hahaha", and that was, for me, better than light chuckles.

The original concept is a little different in Alice in Tumblr-land: the stories of different characters--Alice, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, for example--are now continuous and stretched out over the course of the book. So you visit a little anecdote about Peter Pan and his blog, then jump to the Ugly Duckling pondering her Instagram selfie, and on and on until you revisit. The website demonstrated no continuity from one post to another, but I certainly enjoyed the way Manley restructured his idea for the novel.

It allows the characters happy endings, despite their pre-30s despair. It's uplifting without being treacly and nauseating. It's fascinating to see these archetypal, template characters being locked into our modernity and still come out with happy endings, and it's ultimately this redemptive quality of every story line that made me love the book so much.

My rating: 5/5
Alice in Tumblr-land on Goodreads
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Allegiant (Veronica Roth)

I have never really understood the Divergent series hype. The first book was written excitingly, sure, but I found Tris as a character to be incredibly annoying and, to be honest, boring. Book two didn't do much to improve on the first. So it was out of a sense of duty that I finished the series, which I didn't want to do. I honestly was not worried about how Allegiant would end. Everyone who read this book--even the superfans--have been attacking it for the ending. I, too, really did not like Allegiant, and the ending is not at the top of my list.

It's difficult to talk about this book without spoiling what are supposed to be the plot twists about the book. I'll try, but no promises. Read at your own risk.

One of the big things on my list of reasons not to enjoy Allegiant is the narration. Unlike Divergent and Insurgent, which are narrated only from Tris' point of view, book 3 takes turns between Tris and Four. I was at first excited for the change of pace because I am very tired of Tris' personality, but Four is not any better. He is lovesick and whiny and "internally conflicted" in very tiresome ways. How am I supposed to deal with not one, but two aggravating narrators?

Next, the plot. We finally find out what the reason for the factions is and how it connects to the video from the end of book two, and boy is it dumb. I'm just going to say it since I'm not sure it's an actual spoiler, or at least not a very fun one--there is some weird genetics/behavioral stuff going on where the Divergent are genetically pure and the non-Divergent are genetically damaged. Or something. I never actually understood what any of it meant; what I did understand was that Chicago was turned into a government experiment and people were segregated.

Friday, October 25, 2013

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

Joe Hill's newest novel, NOS4A2, has a premise that sounded kind of familiar to me. There's a serial killer with strange space-time manipulation capabilities, a victim who manages to escape, and a build-up to a confrontation between the two sometime later. In its plainest description, it sounded a lot like Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls (though NOS4A2 was published a few months before). Fortunately for me, Hill's book is much better.

Victoria McQueen, variously called Vic and the Brat, has a special talent. She can ride her bike across the Shorter Way Bridge, a structure from her childhood that no longer stands; it takes her to places that aren't on the other side of where the bridge once stood. She uses it to find things, things that have gone missing. As a child, it's innocent enough--she finds her mother's lost bracelet, a photo of her friend.

But then we jump forward to bad-teen Vic, who, in an effort to irritate her mother, rides the bridge to find trouble. And she does, in the form of Charles Manx. Manx has similar powers of space-time manipulation, but he uses it to "save" troubled children. He kidnaps them and takes them to his imaginary haven, Christmasland, which exists only in his mind. He can take them there with his classic Rolls-Royce Wraith. Vic encounters him and barely escapes, rescued by a man on a motorcycle named Lou Carmody.

And then we jump ahead a little too fast--Lou and Vic have a son (Bruce Wayne Carmody), Vic is slowly going insane because obviously she's traumatized, Vic gets locked up and loses custody of her child, she ends up in rehab and finally this overly-forward motion grinds to a halt when Vic and her son end up spending the summer together at a peaceful New England cottage.

Except Manx is back from the dead and now he wants revenge for Vic's escape so he grabs Wayne and, in the Rolls-Royce, heads off to Christmasland. So it's a battle against time as Vic struggles to pull everything together and follow him, using the Shorter Way Bridge to stop her son from ending up a soulless creature like Manx's previous victims.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Backwards (Todd Mitchell)

Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to preview this book before publication.

Backwards is a curious novel. It begins with the suicide of the main character, Dan, which triggers the birth (which maybe isn't the right word) of this unnamed spirit who begins to live Dan's life day by day in reverse. He makes it his mission to prevent Dan's suicide or, failing that, stopping an unknown danger from befalling Cat, the girl that Dan's spirit-thing (the book uses the term "rider") has fallen in love with.

So I liked the book. It was pretty short (something like 285 pages) and readable--is "readable" less complimentary than "engaging"? I'm tired of using "engaging" all the time but I feel like "readable" isn't an adequate synonym. I was certainly interested in both the premise and the outcome, but that's not to imply that the book was without weakness.

We'll start with the most glaring--it's a YA issue book. I mean, it begins with a teen suicide, and through traveling backwards, we find out that Dan has done something bad to that leads to his eventual suicide. The actual incident is also pretty YA-issue, and it's frustrating because the rider goes so long without knowing what it is (even though it's almost immediately clear).

Dan's rider spends most of the book loathing Dan, which is frustrating because I wasn't particularly a fan of the rider, either. While this book mostly avoids the "deep statements" nonsense of the YA curse, there is a scene in particular where the rider declares "everyone has a secret life" as if it's a big revelation to the world. Obviously. Obviously everyone has a secret, vulnerable part they try to keep locked up. Not a surprise.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)

Rebecca is one of those books that I have owned and put off reading for just about forever. For some reason, I lately have been very into the idea of reading it--for the past few months, every time I thought about du Maurier's most famous novel, it has been with a sense of excited anticipation and intrigue.

Of course, this made me very nervous to actually read it--what if I was disappointed by it? I had been internally hyping it for months. It would be difficult for the book to match or exceed what I was expecting, especially considering all the reviews I'd been reading that called it variations of the phrase "a romantic Gothic suspense thriller masterpiece". It seemed too delicious to be true. And thankfully, it wasn't. Daphne did not let me down.

The first line of this book is one of those famous openers: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", says the narrator, who spends the entirety of the novel unnamed. When the novel flashes back, we are with her in Monte Carlo, where she is a companion to a nosy older woman who ingratiates herself with a rich widow named Maxim de Winter. It's not long before Maxim has confessed his love for our narrator and they go off to his grand estate, happily married.

But our leading lady can't shake the ghost of Maxim's dead first wife, Rebecca. She haunts Manderley in every way--the decor is hers, the grand social events were her doing and the servants worshiped her for her charisma and great beauty. And of course we can't forget Mrs. Danvers, the head of the servants of the estate who loved Rebecca dearly and can't seem to accept the narrator as the new woman of the house.

The whole novel drowned me in a feeling of uneasiness: it's a tale of obsession and forgetting and never letting go. The twist near the middle-end of the novel caught me by surprise and served only to ratchet up the already-high levels of intrigue and suspense and dread. It's hard not to feel sympathetic for the narrator--anyone who has ever been in a relationship tainted by the hands of an ex-lover can understand her pain as she fights against everyone's memories of her apparently perfect predecessor.

There are strong echoes of  Jane Eyre in this novel, what with the whole estate-and-previous-wife setup. But where Eyre feels more focused on the love between Rochester and Jane, du Maurier wants us to examine what happens when the first wife has trapped everyone under her spell. It's all very sinister and dark and without a doubt a total delight. There are times when the book is more Turn of the Screw than Jane Eyre for me, and that's always a good thing.

My rating: 5/5
Rebecca on Goodreads
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Short Story Super-Review

Hello again. Lately I've been reading a lot of short fiction collections, and I figured it might be better to lump reviews of them all together since I can't quite write a full review of a book of stories (I mean, I tried it with Tenth of December and it turned out okay, I guess).

xo Orpheus
Thanks, NetGalley!

This is a short story collection of myths rewritten by a bunch (re: 50) of authors. I have a strong interest in mythology, so this seemed like a great idea. And certainly there were parts of it that were a great idea. But it's a big collection (50 stories and almost 600 pages); not every story was interesting or well-done. I will confess that I skipped through quite a few of the tales, especially if the original myth was one I didn't know (which accounts for a large percentage of the book's end stories).

Collections like this are difficult to review. I could go through and tell you about each one, but that's exhausting and boring and I didn't even read them all. So here are a few highlights: "Anthropogenesis, Or: How to Make a Family", Laura van den Berg: a retelling of the Norse creation myth; "Devourings", Aimee Bender: This one claims to be a take on Cronos, but it ends up being a beautiful, sad tale about giving and taking and love. As enchanting and haunting as all Bender tales are; "Galatea", Madeline Miller: This one is a story from the point of view of Galatea, the statue created by Pygmalion. Also very sad, but very good; "Wait and See", Edith Pearlman: I have no idea what myth this is supposed to be. The book says it's the myth of human pentachromats, but I am not familiar with such a myth nor can I find one. So let's just say it's an original tale about a boy who can perceive far more colors than a normal human.

"Birdsong from the Radio", Elizabeth McCracken: This one is about "child-eating demon, Greek/Lamia", and is a story about a mother who loses her children and starts eating loaves of bread that she imagines is them. I keep saying that all of these are "sad and beautiful", but this is the case; "Narcissus", Zachary Mason: This one tries to rectify the (what the author believes is) flawed myth compilation of Echo and Narcissus. What can I say? Tragic and sad and heartbreaking but beautiful; "Lost Lake", Emma & Peter Straub: A Persephone tale. The authors (father and daughter) mention that the story kept wanting to lengthen itself, and I could feel it. Kind of disappointing as a short story, but very promising as a sketch for a novel. Wouldn't mind reading more.

It's not a terribly consistent collection. Looking back at the table of contents, I'm surprised by how many stories I actually didn't finish because they're boring. But the ones I put forward as my favorites were fantastic, certainly making the whole thing worth the effort. I just wish there had been a little more precision in the editing of the collection; maybe instead of 50 stories, we could have had 20. Or 25. Something.
My rating: 3.5/5

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt / Willful Creatures
Okay, so I've admitted it before and will admit it again--I'm a bad book blogger. I read these two collections, loved them, but forgot to write down which stories I liked so that I could talk about them in a review. Oops. Here's what I have to say about both of these books together: Aimee Bender's short stories remind me a lot of George Saunders': they're occasionally hyperreal, sometimes overflowing with some element of unreality, but they always manage to evoke simultaneously the beauty and the despair of the world around us. Heartbreaking, evocative and lushly-written.
My rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook (Matthew Quick)

I apologize for this review. I saw the movie version in January, which is obviously a few months ago. I still wanted to read the book, but I'm inevitably going to make comparisons with the movie. Sorry. That's both annoying if you haven't seen the movie and improper for examining a book on its own, but sometimes it happens.

Pat Peoples is in an asylum. He is having legally-enforced apart time from his wife, Nikki, whom he loves more than anything in the world. He is obsessed with her--everything he does he considers in the eyes of Nikki: he's started working out because Nikki likes a well-developed upper body; he acts compassionate toward people because it's one of Nikki's biggest complaints about his behavior.

The book begins with Pat's mother coming to check him out and take him home--for good. Pat has to adjust to being in the real world, something he hasn't done in four years (one of the things that makes the book so sad is that Pat's conception of time has been heavily altered; he believes he's only been locked up for a few months, not four whole years). Everyone uncomfortably attempts to integrate Pat back into their world, despite his obsession with Nikki and his tendency to react violently to negative things. Eventually, he meets Tiffany, a woman whose husband recently died, something with which she hasn't been dealing well. They soon become friends, going on runs together. Pat begins to attend sessions with a local therapist and is sucked up into the world of Philadelphia Eagles football, a fixation that controls Pat's father's unstable emotions.

The Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the reintegration of Pat back into his normal life. In comparison to the movie, the relationship with Tiffany (which I would argue is at the forefront of the film) is minimalized; I'm not saying that it's good or bad. In fact, in terms of representing Pat's ongoing Nikki-centric lifestyle, it is fascinating to examine the way his first-person narrative and how he marginalizes Tiffany because she represents the rival to his affections to his wife.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

More Than This (Patrick Ness)

Thank you, NetGalley, for this eARC.

Seth drowns at the beginning of More Than This. That's not a spoiler. It's the prologue. He's in the Pacific Ocean, he's fighting against the current, and then he cracks his skull on a rock and he's dead. Then he wakes up in his hometown in England, unsure at first where he is. He remembers dying. So why is he alive? He begins to explore the place his family fled years ago (owing to a horrifying, traumatic incident involving Seth's younger brother, Owen) and finds it totally deserted. It is a wasteland, looking like it was abandoned years ago because of...well, who knows what, exactly? Seth begins to feel very lonely and desperate, the same feeling that led him to (spoiler?) kill himself by walking into the ocean at the beginning of the book.

This is part one of the book, and it was incredible. The events leading up to Seth's suicide are heartbreaking and devastating. Each time he falls asleep in this new world, he relives some of his most important past memories, and these are the scenes that I loved. I had moments where all I wanted to was read the book and simultaneously never read it again because of how lonely it made me feel. That's a strange feeling to crave, but I'm wonderstruck by the fact that there are things out there that can make me believe we're all so totally isolated from one another, that can overwhelm me so strongly with despair (see also The Social Network and The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Even the scenes where Seth is walking around his ghost-hometown manage to evoke those same feelings, because here he is so literally alone (versus his feeling alone before he kills himself). It's terrible. It's delicious.

I could rave about part one of More Than This for the rest of the review and slap on a five-star rating and tell everyone I know to read it. But this part is only the first third of the book--there is still the other 67% of the book, the other three parts of the book. And that's where all my problems lie. It's going to be difficult to talk about the rest of the book because it's all spoilery--there's no indication about what happens for the rest of the book in the blurb that comes on the book or in information about it. So I'll try my best.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)

Thanks to NetGalley for this eARC!

Perhaps the problem is that I am a cold-hearted beast who cannot feel sympathy. I suppose that might not be true, because there are plenty of books that have led me to tears. Maybe it's something about cancer narratives. I don't know. They seem a little too emotionally-demanding.

This is one of Patrick Ness' Carnegie-Medal-winning books. A Monster Calls is about Conor, a 13-year-old boy whose mother has been diagnosed with cancer. He is eternally optimistic about her recovery but increasingly annoyed with the way people around him have begun to treat him--with kind distance, or overbearing sympathy, or outright cruelty (obviously this last one is his peers, because children are just cruel).

Every night he has a horrible nightmare, the details of which we are not privvy to. And then one night, at 12:07am, a monster calls. It takes the form of the yew tree in his backyard, and it begins to tell him stories--there are three, and after the monster has concluded its tales, Conor must tell his own, true story. Trapped between the monster, his distant father and his unaffectionate grandmother, Conor begins to lash out.

Now, here's what I can say I liked about the book--the monster itself. Sections featuring the yew-tree creature are these wonderful, dreamlike passages that balance perfectly between fantasy and delusion. The stories it tells are archetypal and evocative. It's a great use of magical realism that serves as a metaphor that isn't too overbearing or heavy-handed. It feels like a fairy tale or a myth in its execution, and the effect is lovely.

But that's all I liked (which, granted, is between 1/3 and 1/2 of the novel). Conor is written very annoyingly--I suppose this ought to be a praise rather than a criticism, because the way Ness writes Conor is exactly the way younger children behave when confronted with big, scary problems. But that doesn't mean I enjoyed reading it. I would quasi-skim sections without the titular monster because of how much Conor irked me. So, I suppose, yay for being so realistic, but boo for making me not want to read it?

And the ending. I won't outright spoil, but the story's a cancer narrative, so you can see where it's going. This book has absolutely glowing reviews, and a good many of them mention how emotional the conclusion of the novel is. I just didn't feel it. I never felt like I was going to tear up or actually cry. And that's a problem, isn't it? When a book wants you to cry and you just don't? It is for me, anyway. I mean, it is sad. Just not that sad.

So I'll go with "meh", because some of it is really good, some of it is irritating, and some of it never manages to command my feelings like it should have.

My rating: 3/5
A Monster Calls on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith)

Here it is: my review of J.K. Rowling's pseudonymously-published mystery novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. I remember how excited I was upon discovering the news that this mystery novel, published rather quietly earlier in the year, was actually written by Rowling.

I've never thought of myself as a mystery reader, but for some reason, the idea has begun to grow more and more appealing (especially in the past three or four months, a phenomenon for which I have no explanation). So I was willing to give this a go because Rowling is talented and some of the Potter books read like mystery novels (in particular Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban). It wouldn't exactly be my first go-round under her hand.

Cormoran Strike is our heroic detective, a veteran of Afghanistan who lost one of his legs from the knee down. A few months prior to the novel's opening, the adopted, half-black supermodel Lula Landry falls from the third-floor balcony of her fancy apartment and the world mourns, believing it to have been a suicide due to her bipolarity. However, her adopted brother John Bristow doesn't believe it possible--he doesn't seem to think Lula would have killed herself and he comes to Cormoran Strike asking to reopen the investigation.

At about the same time, Strike gets a new secretary, Robin Ellacott, a woman who secretly wants to be a detective. Eager to work, she begins to help him investigate the circumstances despite his gruff personality (owing, of course, to his recent breakup with his love of many years). So they go about asking all sorts of people to speak again of the murder: the apartment complex's other tenants, the doorman, Lula's model friends and rockstar boyfriend--anyone and everyone is relevant to the investigation.

Unfortunately, I had several problems with the book, the first being the actual mystery--I wasn't compelled to find out who had killed Lula. I was willing to accept that she threw herself off the balcony because there was nothing really intriguing about the murder, no hook that looked really suspicious (I'm thinking of a door locked from the inside, like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or anything to give me pause). So it's a bit of a drag for a heavy portion of the book, or was for me at least. I was never gripped the way I think I'm supposed to (is that correct? Like I said, I don't read mysteries).

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Mark of Athena (Rick Riordan)

Okay, round three of Heroes of Olympus. I'm going to burn myself out by the time I read book 4, I think. Since this is the third book I'm reviewing in the series in such a short period of time, it feels silly to repeat a lot of what I've said, so I'll try my best. No promises.

The book starts with a bang as the Greek demigods (that is, Annabeth, Piper, Leo and Jason) sail toward Camp Jupiter in the Argo II, the ship Leo has spent months fixing (with Festus the dragon as the masthead). Of course, it's a trireme, AKA a war ship, so the Romans start panicking. It doesn't help matters that after Annabeth, Piper and Jason leave the boat, it starts attacking the camp from the air. They (along with Percy, Frank and Hazel) hurriedly get back onto the ship and head toward Rome/Greece, where the final showdown is supposed to begin.

But of course there are all sorts of side-quests: someone sees something in a dream that steers them in an unexpectedly helpful direction, and there's a surprise run-in with some minor god or something that points them to their ultimate goal. Not to mention the titular Mark of Athena, which is a special quest given to Annabeth by her mother.
That is the book's annoying secret that we are repeatedly told about but not told of. It seems to be a thing in this series that we must be dragged around knowing about a secret without being told. This time is especially annoying as it's the title of the book.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this book was how annoying it was at times. Of course the book is great when it's full of action and battles, but in the book's downtime, especially in the Annabeth- and Piper-narrated sections of the book, Riordan focuses heavily on romance. And it's not done well at all. I loved Annabeth in the original Percy Jackson series--she was smart and funny and driven. Not an airhead at all. So it was quite a shock to finally read something of Annabeth's perspective that makes her sound so...stupid. She is obsessed with Percy, acting as though he is the only important thing in the world to her, that she is lost without him, that she never wants to let him out of her sight. It's offensive and very out-of-character. Piper is not much better, but it's less of a problem because she has always been this way.

But the action is great, the cliffhanger is quite grabby, and it's nice to see Percy and Annabeth together again (even if Riordan has apparently lost his ability to write his characters behaving intelligently). Whatever. I'm still going to read the final two books.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Mark of Athena on Goodreads
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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey)

It occurs to me that the more closely I try to adhere to "what books are going to be big this year", the more unhappy I will be. If I don't like what the book is about, shouldn't I just avoid it? But no. Read The 5th Wave, they all said. It's gonna be big.

I mentioned previously how much I hate zombie apocalypse art. I suppose we can just say all apocalyptic fiction is not for me, because the same helplessness and "realistically, there's not a way out of this but maybe the characters will find a way" applies (but I still really don't like the zombie subgenre). So the fact that this book is an alien apocalypse novel should have been the reason I avoided it. But I didn't.

So. Cassie is one of the few survivors--the aliens have begun to eliminate humans through a series of Waves, premeditated acts of complete destruction. The aliens are very advanced, but aside from their apparent desire to eradicate all humans, not much is known about them. Eventually, Cassie and her father and brother Sam end up at a survivor camp; the military shows up, offering to take Sam to safety with a promise to return for the adult survivors. Sam gets onto a school bus and off he goes; immediately, the "army" shoots everyone else at the camp, except for Cassie, who manages to escape. With Sam's teddy bear in tow, she promises herself that she will find and rescue him.

I feel very torn about this book. The book is about 450 pages, but I read it in two days, so I suppose that says something about the readability? The book opens after four of the Waves have been started, and I have to say I was impressed with how Yancey handles the delivery of backstory--he very mixes it very naturally into the plot and I was interested in what was being said. This is particularly important because I've had some recent bad experiences with not-so-elegant backstory, so it was a relief to read Cassie's flashbacks.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

I think I'm going to struggle with the review for this book because I have spent the past three days wishing I could go swimming in it. The last time I felt this way wasn't too long ago (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), but feelings like this are not very common. So when the wonderful book comes along that makes me hesitate to begin reading something else comes along, I cherish it.

Our scene is 1899, New York City. A Polish man dies during the boat ride to America, leaving behind his recently-awakened golem wife (a golem, if you're unclear, is a giant creature made of clay whose job it is to protect its master and do its master's bidding, a very Jewish-mysticism thing). She jumps off the boat, and swims ashore, overwhelmed by all the wants and fears of people around her--as a masterless creature, she feels compelled to help everyone. A kind rabbi rescues her from a near-problematic incident involving food theft and takes her in, trying to train her to deal with the world around her.

Meanwhile, in Little Syria, a tinsmith accidentally unleashes a trapped jinni (or djinn or genie or djinni depending on how you're feeling, but we've all seen Aladdin I'm betting and therefore have the basic concept, right?) from an heirloom lamp. The man has no memory of the past millenium-and-some, having been trapped since the sixth century. He also cannot remember the time immediately preceding his capture, so he has no idea who captured him or how. But he is talented with metal (owing to his supernaturally warm body because he is a fire spirit) so he stays on as an apprentice, also trying to adjust to human life.

The book unfolds as we observe the two unnatural beings try to adjust to the life of a human. The entire novel is beautiful--the Golem and the Jinni are both flawed and lovable and their supporting casts are almost as luminescent as they are. As just a plain old story, it works great--it is a slow build to a rather actiony climax with an ending that is beyond satisfying. But it's literary, too: in the midst of all this incredible character-building and world-displaying, we are getting all sorts of thought-provoking meditations on things like humanity and free will and even perhaps my favorite motif in the whole world, the cyclical nature of time.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Gavin Extence)

Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to review this ARC! Per usual, I'm behind, so this book is already out and has been for a few weeks. Oops. I'm a terrible blogger. Do I get a prize?

This book definitely has an attention-grabbing opening--Alex Woods is driving back from Switzerland, trying to re-enter the U.K., but he is detained. In his car: lots of marijuana, the ashes of a dead man and a classical music CD blasted at full volume--when questioned about it, he reveals that he was trying to stave off an epileptic seizure. And then we jump backwards in time to when Alex was hit in the head with a meteor, which is the cause of his epilepsy. I mean, what about this isn't madcap and utterly fascinating?

The problem is that the book becomes progressively less interesting as we approach the point we read in the opening of the novel. It's great fun at the beginning when we're with epileptic Alex and his psychic mother and things are generally cuckoo. But slowly, things become very conventional within the framework of what could have been a delightfully quirky premise--Alex goes to school, Alex is bullied because he likes to be smart, Alex gradually becomes friends with a cranky, lonely old man, Alex learns a lot from the old man and the old man learns a bit from him, too. It's a collection of tropes from the coming-of-age tale, and it all feels disappointingly familiar.

And yet, I couldn't quite bring myself to dislike the book. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is just too goofy not to love--Alex remains funny throughout the book, his mother is delightfully nuts, Mr. Peterson (the aforementioned cantankerous old man) consistently got me to smile because of how accurately Extence wrote him. The quirk just does not stop, either: Alex and Mr. Peterson start a Kurt Vonnegut philosophy book club; there's a hospital breakout and a European road trip; Alex's cat can't stop getting pregnant. I can just feel Wes Anderson's hipsterometer throbbing--should he make this into a movie? Yes. Probably.

And so as entertaining as the thing is, it goes in such an expected direction. I wish it hadn't. Gavin Extence, if you're there: why? The book never gets too entrenched in its emotions, and I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, the dead man's ashes are Mr. Peterson's, so you know at the beginning that he dies by the end, but I was never sad. I'm not sure if it's bad that I wasn't made to care or better that the book doesn't take itself too seriously (AKA The Fault in Our Stars); if it's the latter, then what I ended up reading was basically a fluff piece. It doesn't quite go anywhere.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a book high on interestingly silly ideas but ultimately low on attention-keeping substance. The mark of the author's ability lies in his characters, who are just as loony as some of the contents of the novel I've already mentioned. But if he doesn't do anything interesting with the characters, and that's sad.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Universe Versus Alex Woods on Goodreads
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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)

I don't remember how The Wasp Factory made it onto my radar, but it did a while ago. I purchased it, where it sat for a long time on my bookshelf, unread. Earlier in the year, when I heard about the author's terminal illness, I decided that I would read it this summer before he died; unfortunately, I didn't read the book before then, so I suppose my reading it is more a tribute to his memory than a celebration of his life.

Anyway. It had been so long since I bought the book that I couldn't even remember what it was about. But I decided it didn't matter, so I just dived in. Frank Cauldhame is a 16-year-old boy, the narrator of our tale, and a complete psychopath. Early in the book, he reveals that he's killed three of his young relatives, apparently entirely without remorse. And that's arguably the most normal thing about him.

There's the titular Wasp Factory, for example, which is an artifact in the bizarre religion that Frank has created. It's a faith that's heavily superstitious, involving elements of voodoo and witchcraft; there's also a lot of small-creature-killing in the name of the religion. And then there's Frank's living brother, Eric, who's been institutionalized for lighting dogs on fire; near the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father (with whom he lives) find out that Eric has escaped, and they believe him to be coming back home.

Banks' first novel is not much of a book for happenings--most of the book is either flashbacks to Frank's killings/other formative events in his younger years (formative in his psychosis, that is) or present-day musings about how best to fortify the totems that protect his home (all part of his strange, self-created cult)--but it doesn't matter because the book does more interesting things than create an engaging plot. It's one of the bleakest, most perfect psychological portraits I've ever read, and it all happens in such a short time (my copy is only 184 pages).

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of The Wasp Factory is how normal Frank can be. He has a friend named Jamie that he meets regularly at a local bar, and the conversations they have are absolutely normal--he seems to be able to dissociate himself from the insane Frank, making particularly astute observations about his brother's illness that sound exactly like the sorts of things unknowledgeable/unsympathetic people might say about someone with a mental sickness. It's an astounding feat of writing that I can forget Frank the killer has killed.

There is a lot of interesting psychological rumination in the novel, things I won't talk about in this review because they're secrets in the book. The twist at the end happens to be a little unexpected, and perhaps that's a flaw, but it doesn't seem implausible in the furthering of our understanding of Frank. I don't generally read books like this that center on the vicious violence, but out of all the ones I've read (I'm looking at you, A Clockwork Orange), this is the most interesting and well-assembled.

My rating: 4.5/5
The Wasp Factory on Goodreads
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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Son of Neptune (Rick Riordan)

A few weeks ago, I read the first book in Rick Riordan's newest demigod series and was engaged but a little irked. The same is true of book two, The Son of Neptune. I mentioned in the previous review how startled I was by the transparency of the Riordan formula and the same is true of this volume.

It opens with a male hero who forgets his past but quickly finds his way to a demigod camp; this time, it's everyone's favorite guy, Percy Jackson. He finds his way to Camp Jupiter and is very confused--he has a hazy set of memories that contradict a lot of what he's seeing. It's not long before he befriends Hazel Levesque and Frank Zhang, two of the camp's misfits, and the three are sent on a quest to do an impossible thing in an impossibly short time.

Just like The Lost Hero, the book is narrated in turns by three characters: Percy, Hazel and Frank. In book one, there is a romance between Jason and Piper; here, the awkward, budding relationship is between Hazel and Frank. Frank and Hazel both have secrets about themselves that they eventually reveal (just like Piper and Leo), and while the secrets are more interesting, the manner in which the characters will think about but not explain their hidden information for much of the book is just as annoying as before.

In some ways, The Son of Neptune is more tiring than its predecessor because of how heavily it copies the "lost memory new camp" formula (not to mention the "sidekicks with secrets" thing). But in other ways, it's less tiring. First, we have Percy back. That's all I ever wanted, really. I love Percy Jackson, and even though the book isn't narrated in the first person, it's nice just to be around him. Hazel and Frank are a little more interesting and well-written than Leo and Piper, less single-minded/annoying. Halfway through the book, we meet Ella the harpy, who was a total delight. I hope she sticks around.

Importantly, Camp Jupiter is new to us. Part of what was so frustrating about The Lost Hero was how heavy the explanation was about Camp Half-Blood, as if we hadn't already spent 5 previous books learning all about it. There were huge chunks of book one dedicated to the retreading the information we already knew; here, those same passages are explaining the Roman demigod camp, which is very different to what we have already seen. Thus, the information is interesting and I didn't mind reading about it--in fact, I found myself wanting to know more.

And, as every other Riordan book I've read, the quest is exciting and engaging. As I said previously, it's hard to get angry about the formulaic quality when that formula is repeatedly used to make fast-paced narratives that always succeed in drawing me in.  I always enjoy seeing how the author is going to find new ways to mix in the pantheon of gods with modern society, and rarely am I disappointed. Riordan's inventiveness and love for Greek mythology are on every page.

No doubt, I'll keep reading. You ought to, too.

My rating: 4/5
The Son of Neptune on Goodreads

Friday, July 26, 2013

Super-Review #5

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee)
Martha and George are a middle-aged couple embroiled in the life of the local university, where George is a history professor and Martha's father is the president. After a faculty party one night, Martha invites Nick, the young new biology professor, and his wife, Honey, to their apartment in order to get to know them better. What ensues is three acts of vicious interplay between Martha and George, some of the most biting, needling dialogue I've ever read. This play is a horrifying portrait of middle-aged marriage in failure, but that doesn't make it unreadable. Just the opposite--I was in it for the long haul, waiting for the big fireworks finale that signaled their self-destruction. I know Gone Girl came out 60 years later, but I read Flynn's psychological thriller first and that's what it reminded of--despicable characters evoking sympathy and compassion unexpectedly from readers while we watch their lives burn. Seriously, George and Martha are a nightmare couple.
My rating: 5/5

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Bryan Lee O'Malley)
I saw the movie before I read this book, which only covers maybe the first 25 minutes of the film. I'm pleasantly surprised by how closely the movie resembles the source material, and despite it not having the same level of freshness, it's nonetheless enjoyable to see Scott Pilgrim's journey to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes begin. The pictures are an enjoyable mixture of traditional cartoon and manga style and the video game homages are always a delight.
My rating: 4/5

The Children's Hour (Lillian Hellman)
Our setting is a school run by two women, friends since college. When they punish Mary, one of the students, for faking a heart attack, she runs to her grandma and tells her about how the two women are lesbians. It's an interesting, certainly sad story once everything plays out, but it never reaches the emotional height I was preparing myself for. Mary is perhaps the best character, incredibly devilish and controlling, but her disappearance from the second half weakens the whole structure--no one is quite as interesting as the awful little girl, and I missed her in the third act.
My rating: 4/5

Once Upon a Time Machine
The idea for this graphic novel hodgepodge is to retell fairy tales through the lens of speculative/science fiction. Of course, I love fairy tales, so I couldn't pass up such an opportunity. The collection is mixed--some of the retellings are very well done, but others are less so. The variety of art styles is refreshing, as are the inclusion of tales from Eastern traditions with which I was not familiar. But I think the collection could have endured some trimming to remove some of the less-well-crafted stories (especially where there are two or three different retellings of the same tale).
My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (Chris Grabanstein)

I discovered this book by accident on Goodreads and everything about it appealed to the 10-year-old
inside of me: there is a library lock-in, puzzles and games. What about that doesn't sound like fun? Seriously.

Kyle Keeley is really into games, especially ones created by Luigi Lemoncello, a famously eccentric creator of board and video games. As it turns out, Lemoncello grew up in Kyle's hometown and he is responsible for the library remodel that has taken 12 years (the entirety of Kyle's life!)--Lemoncello has a passion for libraries, especially the one where he grew up planning ideas for all his games.

The Wonka-like figure creates a contest--twelve 12-year-olds will be admitted to the library two days early for an overnight lock-in; at first, Kyle is not interested: he doesn't even like books! Then he discovers that the library will be full of Lemoncello's games and that's enough to sell him on the idea. To his surprise, he is selected as one of the winners of the contest. So he and 11 of his peers get to have a sleepover in the fancy new building.

But when they wake up the next morning, they realize all the doors are locked. They're stuck. Until Mr. Lemoncello notifies them that this is part of the plan: whoever finds the secret exit to the library wins a fabulous (also Wonka-esque) prize: the official spokeschild for Lemoncello's game company (in other words, fame and fortune)! So the game is on.

Books like this are something that I loved when I was younger and I still love them today (secretly). And it was great fun, just like I hoped it would be--there are rebus puzzles and trivia games and unexpected bonus rounds and all sorts of wacky pleasure. The book moves along at a fast pace and the premise never feels old or stretched. The excitement is continuous.

The problem, then, is Grabanstein's writing--the dialogue is almost continually cringeworthy, markedly displaying his lack of understanding of children. The twelve kids are frustrating to read about because everything they say is annoying or, frankly, stupid. I'm fairly sure I would have been insulted were I an actual twelve-year-old because the author seems reluctant to give the kids interesting or likable personalities. Kyle is kind of strange as a main character because he acts like books are the worst and worships his brothers like gods.

But it's really hard to be mad at Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library: it's a book for kids (would they even notice the awful dialogue and poor characterization?) and the entire thing crackles with reverence for books and libraries and knowledge and it all feels very sincere. Luigi Lemoncello is a delightful character and just about every sentence he says comes embedded with a reference to a children's book. You can feel Grabanstein's passion for the written word in every page.

So read it. It's a fun time!

My rating: 4/5
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library on Goodreads
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lexicon (Max Barry)

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC of this book and sorry once again for my inability to read a book before it has been published.

The most intriguing part of Max Barry's Lexicon is obviously the concept: there is a society of people called "poets" (they even take the names of famous poets) who have a hyperpersuasive way with words--they make a study of personality types that allows them to use special, secret words to coerce people (in the book's lexicon [did you catch my pun {OMG triple brackets}?], "compromise" them).

There are a few words, however, called "barewords", that are so powerful that they can affect all people, words that have, in the past, been so destructive that they appear in various mythologies (the most well-known being the Tower of Babel story). Emily Ruff, a street girl and former student of the Academy, unleashes a bareword on the town of Broken Hill, Australia and kills all 3,000 people with it. The book opens on the aftermath of this event, with a man named Eliot (yes, like T. S. Eliot) trying to kill Emily in order to stop her from further destroying the world with the help of Wil Parke, a man who is somehow immune to the persuasive arts.

Part of the difficulty in explaining this story is the way it's set up--there are two different timelines running at the same time, one preceding the other. The book opens with Wil and Eliot, post-destruction, but it alternates with the story of Emily's time in the Academy years before. The opening is actually quite confusing, dumping us into the story with little explanation. It sounds like a criticism, but it worked for me (I know that's not the case for some other readers)--I didn't mind working for an understanding of what was happening, but it certainly was work.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)

Last December, I attempted to squeeze in every interesting book I hadn't read published earlier in 2012. Of course, I didn't get to read every book I wanted; one of them was Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The blurb made it sound incredible: there was a conspiracy, code-breaking and a bookstore at the center of it all. It sounded like a da Vinci Code but more literary, and I was hooked.

Clay Jannon gets hired to work at a bookstore owned by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra; the store (as you may have guessed by the title) is open 24 hours and Clay works the overnight shift. There are occasionally regular customers, but more frequent are a strange set of men and women who belong to a secret club; they get books from the back shelf, books that Clay has never heard of, that don't exist outside of the store.

Curious, he decides to use his rudimentary codewriting skills first to create a computer model of the bookstore and then to map out the pattern the strange club members are following with their borrowed tomes. In doing all of this, he involves his nerdy/wealthy CEO best friend, his apartment mate, and a girl he meets from Google that he happens to have feelings for. In creating these models, Clay accidentally initiates himself further into the mysteries surrounding the cult/club known as the Unbroken Spine.

The opening chapters of the book--perhaps even the entire opening section (the first of three)--are great fun. Sloan did a great job in crafting Clay, who is an amusing first-person narrator. I enjoyed his observations about the bookstore, its customers and aspects of his own life. There were aspects of the book that reminded me of Where'd You Go, Bernadette--where Maria Semple was satirizing Seattle and Microsoft culture, Sloan lightly mocks San Francisco and Google in the same knowing way. I'm sure I would have enjoyed that humor more if I were an insider, but I'm not. It was still enjoyable.

But that leaves the other two parts of the book. I read online that the book was an expansion of a short story, and I have a feeling that the short story's contents belong to the first section. The other two feel less polished by comparison--the attempt to ramp up the intrigue and suspense as the gang gets closer to solving the mystery of the Unbroken Spine isn't as interesting. The intentionally anticlimactic end to part two leaves part three a lot of work to do, work that Sloan packs into a too-short space in an attempt to wrap things up. Things happen too quickly and the novel's ending is too maudlin. The epilogue feels too much like the ending of one of those based-on-a-true-story movies, listing outcome after outcome for the characters rather than presenting them naturally.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore feels cluttered, with subplots involving romance that seem pointless and backstory that feels overexplained. The actual methods by which the members of the Unbroken Spine go about their business is difficult to follow; I walked away from the book feeling like I still didn't understand how exactly they cracked the codes and solved the Founder's Puzzle. The origin as a short story makes it self apparent in the way the book doesn't flesh out all the way. There's a curious amount of "look how contemporary my book is" with mentions of technology that will surely make the book look terribly dated in three or four years.

It's a pleasant read, though. There are plenty of humorous moments, even if you're not a Google employee from San Francisco, and the characters are amusing, too. Don't get too wrapped up in the technicalities and you should be fine.

My rating: 3.5/5
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on Goodreads
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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Bone Season (Samantha Shannon)

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read an advance copy of Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season! I, like a great many other people (I assume), heard and was excited about this book because the Daily Mail called her the next J. K. Rowling. This book, the first in a proposed series of seven, is set to debut in August. Most exciting of all is that this means I'm reading an ARC before it comes out! Weird.

The concept of this book: Paige Mahoney is a girl gifted with clairvoyance. She is a dreamwalker; she can sense the dreamscapes of other people (in other words, their consciousnesses). The problem? She lives in alternate-reality 2059, where the U.K. is controlled by a group called Scion who have outlawed all forms of clairvoyance. She works for a crime syndicate under a man named Jaxon Hall, who has organized a group of clairvoyants called the Seven Seals.

Until one day, when she gets on the train and is captured by Scion. She gets transferred to Sheol I, a prison camp located in Oxford, a city allegedly destroyed 200 years ago. She falls under the care of creatures called the Rephaim, otherworldly beings who train clairvoyants (shortened slangily to "voyants") to fight off frightening creatures called the Emim. Paige the other forty or so voyants taken from London are the harvest of Bone Season XX, the decennial harvesting of "sighted" (i.e., clairvoyant) humans.

Paige's keeper is named Arcturus Mesarthim, but she refers to him as Warden. He is the consort to the queen (or, in the book's lingo, blood-sovereign). He begins to train her to better harness her ability to dreamwalk so that they can leave her body and enter the dreamscapes of others, eventually possessing them. Despite the hype surrounding the book, I tried to keep my expectations low--I tried not to read reviews of the book before I got to it, tried to ignore plot summaries. I went into reading Shannon's first book as neutrally as possible. And I was still disappointed.

I'll praise first. The idea that will drive this series, illegal clairvoyance in alternate-future-London, is fascinating and promising. The most interesting part of the whole world the author created was that Edward VII was actually Jack the Ripper and that he controlled spirits to do it. And that's not even an important part of the story, or at least it wasn't in this volume. The beginning of the book was certainly exciting and well-assembled; I was gripped by the descriptions of the workings of mime-crime (use of clairvoyance) London. Also praiseworthy is Warden, who is a compelling character for his complex mentality and motives and his simultaneous tenderness and violence. He reads like some of the great male characters of classic literature.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)

The dang Quest! Perhaps more than any book I have thus discussed on this website, the way I reacted to this book has shocked me. For years I have seen clips of the movie, have heard people talk about how much the movie, and I felt infuriated--Scarlett O'Hara just seemed so stupid, so irritating and overdramatic. I, with much hesitation, decided to read Gone with the Wind because it seemed like a book designed for me to loathe with my entire being. So what a pleasant surprise that I, well, loved it. Yes, I loved Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War epic debut/only book she ever wrote and I don't care who knows it. And I even teared up near the end! How about that.

It seems silly to offer a brief plot synopsis as I usually do because I feel like lots of people have, at the very least, seen the movie and therefore know the plot. But that's my formula, so: Scarlett O'Hara is a Southern belle living in Georgia at the huge cotton plantation known as Tara. The book opens up immediately before the Civil War as Scarlett's heart is breaking--though she has kept many beau close to her, teasing them to gain their affections, her "true love" is Ashley Wilkes, who announces his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.  The day the announcement comes, Scarlett tells Ashley about her feelings, convinced that doing so will make him change his mind. He admits that he feels the same, but that they cannot be together because they won't be happy.

She, of course, is devastated, and doubly so when she realizes the devilish Rhett Butler has overheard their entire exchange. As a form of revenge, she decides to marry Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother. Shortly after their wedding, the Civil War begins. Charles, a soldier in the Confederate Army, dies (of measles) and Scarlett, now widowed and a mother to Charlie's baby, moves to Atlanta with Melanie and her aunt Pittypat.

I feel like I have explained the plot for a long time, but I've only covered the first 150 pages (of 950, in my edition, at least). This is why I earlier used the word "epic", which is frequently used to label really long books but sometimes is misapplied. This is not the case with Gone with the Wind, which chronicles the Civil War in its entirety and beyond, a tale that chronicles the fall of the kingdom that was the South, a story about love and war and feminism and slavery and so many things. The scope of the novel is astonishing.