RSS Feed

The Nobel Prize and the Great Catch-Up

Posted on

Working in a bookstore, I was very excited all this week for the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. There was a lot of speculation–personally, I really wanted Murakami to win, simply because I could say “Oh yes, have you read his magnum opus, 1Q84? I thought it was brilliant! I love how he uses surreal, fantastic storylines to capture the essentials of human existence.” So basically, I wanted bragging rights. And if it wasn’t Murakami, then I was looking forward to familiarizing myself with a brilliant author I hadn’t read before, as I did last year when Alice Munro won.

My dreams were ruined, however, on Thursday morning when I checked online and saw the winner. Patrick Modiano–some French guy I’ve never heard of, nevermind read. Oh well, I figured, we’ll get some of his books in and I can check him out. I’m sure they’re very interesting.

Nope.

Not that they’re not interesting. I don’t know if they’re interesting. I can’t know if they’re interesting, because none of his work is even available in the United States. I don’t even think it’s been translated into English. And, seriously?

I’d like to ask everyone reading this (so, you know, Mom) to think about the point of the Nobel Prize. Is it to tell some French guy, “Hey, you’re a pretty darn good author, even if no one has seen fit to translate your work,” or is it to reward someone whose work has had a positive effect on the world, captured something of what it means to be human in a way that people can relate to? And, above all, isn’t the point to get people to come buy books so we can make money? (Okay, I realize that’s not the point. I was still hopeful, though.)

Anyway, I’m a little disappointed. I don’t think I’m the only one, because even the NPR host on the show we were listening to sounded a bit confused when discussing it–he admitted he’d never read Modiano in a tone of voice that sounded more like, “As a matter of fact, who the heck even is this guy?”

Fortunately, all was remedied the next day when Malala won the Peace Prize. At least she’s written books we can sell.

And now for the catch-up. I keep reading, and I keep not updating here because I’m busy reading and doing a million other things that go into functioning as an adult and it’s hard to convince myself to take an hour to update my little blag here. But I’m in the middle of book #40, and I’ve only written up through book #21, and at this rate, I will never succeed in blogging about 50 books this year. So! Five books at once seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Here goes!

Book 22: Neuromancer by William Gibson

I’m fairly new to reading science fiction. I’ve been reading fantasy for a while and I’ve read a bunch of the fantasy classics, though still not nearly enough, but when it comes to SF I’m pretty much at a loss. So when I was at Porter Square Books in, oh, April or something, and they had a display of SF classics, I got excited and picked up a copy of Neuromancer to help build my nerd cred a bit. It’s a little science fiction classic that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards! There is no way this could possibly go wrong!

Except, you know, if it did.

I hated Neuromancer. In fact, for most of the time I was reading it, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. It’s a teeny tiny paperback, and it took me two weeks to slug through it. If I hadn’t already taken up a line on my meticulous little list of books for this project, I would have stopped after 50 pages. And I really don’t like abandoning books.

Okay, you probably want more than why I hated this book. I think it’s a situation where, in its time, it was amazing. It was exactly what people wanted from science fiction (and, in my opinion, the reason genre writing still has a fairly terrible reputation)–it was driven entirely by the plot and the world it took place in. This isn’t a story, this is a daydream about the types of technology that the future might hold. The characters have absolutely no depth. Half the words are cyberpunk tech lingo that is never explained. I spent a bunch of time going back and looking for the explanation of what certain words meant–did I read that part when I was falling asleep and not register it at all?–but found nothing. It seemed like I was just supposed to accept everything because “wibbly-wobbly techy-wechy,.” The characters are introduced, participate in the plot for a little while, disappear, than reappear later on and get some description–which threw me off, because with no description to begin with, I had tried to form my own mental image that the new description didn’t work with at all and as a result, I just had no idea who the character was. I think in the last 15-20 pages, I finally started to kind of understand what was going on…and then it ended. Halfway through, I’d even looked up a summary, thinking that the beginning would sound familiar and having read the summary would help me follow along. This didn’t work. And you know that this strategy did work for? Ulysses. This book makes less sense than Ulysses.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you hate yourself. Or if you go back in time to the 80s when apparently this was good.

 

Book 23: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

My friend explained this book to me at work one day and my immediate reaction was: Why was I never required to read this during writing classes in school? She let me borrow it, and I picked it up as my “I’m moving and need to be reading something that I can be sort of distracted for” book. It was perfect for that. Exercises in Style isn’t a novel–it’s the same short story told 99 times in a different style each time. The story, essentially, is this: The Narrator is on a bus. Also on this bus are two men, one of whom has a silly hat on and sounds like kind of a hipster, the other of whom is older and annoyed at the hipsterdom and keeps stepping on his foot. There is an altercation. Later, Narrator sees the man with the funny hat being told by a friend that the top button on his coat is in the wrong place.

It’s not an amazing story that’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life, but what you can learn from reading it in so many different styles might, especially if you’re a writer. The first style, “Notation,”  is very straightforward. It has precise descriptions and no extra words, and as such, it felt like reading a lab report. The style “Metaphorically” was only possible to follow because I already knew the outline of what happened, and a great demonstration of why yes, metaphor is great, but it should be used sparingly. “Retrograde” was told pretty much backwards, and it read very much like a memory, which can remind us when we’re writing memories that the brain jumbles things up quite a bit when we’re looking back. Some of the “styles,” however, were questionable: For example, in “Anagrams,” every word (or sentence, to be honest I’m not sure which it was) was jumbled up. It was impossible to read, and calling it a style seemed like a huge stretch. Overall, it was a fascinating read, and much of it seemed like it would be very useful in writing classes.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you like hats, plaited cords, or buses.

 

Book 24: The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith”

Wow, that circle is kind of obnoxious, isn’t it?

Everyone knows by now that this is really by JK Rowling, right? So if you’ve been following me, you know how I feel about JK. I’m not of the opinion that she can do no wrong, definitely not. I really wish she hadn’t published that article by Rita Skeeter about the DA members all grown up, because now we’ve got people saying “Neville’s an alcoholic?!” and completely forgetting that nothing Rita Skeeter ever wrote was even remotely reliable, so instead of feeling like, “Yes! More Harry Potter!” I feel like I read a horribly inaccurate tabloid article about some of my best friends.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, was not an unwelcome revisitation to the world of Harry Potter. It was something completely different. And, just as I did when I picked up The Casual Vacancy, as soon as I started reading it, I felt like I was home. Her writing style remains the same, familiar and pretty much perfect–I think I found one word in the whole book that I thought didn’t quite belong, and that’s the sort of thing I pay attention to. I’ve read criticisms that her style doesn’t work for adults–the formality and language makes more sense when talking about kids–but I’ve only ever heard Americans say this, and I think it’s more of a culture thing than a style thing.

I feel I should quickly address the pseudonym thing: This book kind of flopped when it came out. She wanted to write under a different name so people wouldn’t expect Harry Potter and compare the two, which I think makes perfect sense. Her publishers, however, knew who she was and marketed it as if everyone else did, too. This was not marketed as a debut novel; it was marketed as if everyone would automatically buy it because it was JK. And that doesn’t work. Especially when it takes forever to come out in paperback and when the cover really looks like a silly chick flick.

I’m not a big mystery reader, so I can’t say how this compared to other popular mysteries. I’m sure I would think it was better written than most, but from what I’ve been told, it didn’t add anything exciting to the genre. And I’m okay with that. I don’t need everything JK writes to be the next Harry Potter, because as I’ve discussed, there’s no such thing. What mattered to me is that the characters were well-developed, relatable, and interesting; it was extremely well-written; and the plot was interesting. Don’t pick this up expecting another Harry Potter, but if you like her style and mysteries and you pick this up expecting to really love it, you won’t be disappointed.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this if you like green dresses, cameras, and fantasizing that Billie Piper will be cast in a film adaptation.

 

Book 25: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Holy crap, you guys, I loved this book. I think I’m about 10 years too old for it to be socially acceptable for me to love everything John Green writes as much as I do, but dammit, he’s just so good, and this is no exception.

This is a book about two high school boys named Will Grayson who meet accidentally and how things change for them afterwards. It’s about love, but not romance: It’s a friendship book. It’s the sort of book that you can only really write for young adults, because what adult is going to pick up a book about friendship? I mean, maybe some would, and friendship is important in adult books, but as the main point I’m not sure it would work. And the thing is, that’s a problem. Because it matters. It’s not something that we should just ignore once we’re all grown up. And there’s this great little part toward the end but that isn’t really much of a spoiler so I’m putting it here:

“When you date someone, you have the markers along the way, right: You kiss, you have The Talk, you say the Three Little Words, you sit on a swingset and break up. You can plot the points on a graph. And you check up with each other along the way: Can I do this? If I say this, will you say it back?
“But with friendship, there’s nothing like that. Being in a relationship, that’s something you choose. Being friends, that’s just something you are.”

This felt really important. Of course, it’s a bit different as an adult. There are a couple of checkpoints, depending on the type of life you have, but even those are only good for a select few friends. There’s the “be in my wedding party” checkpoint, or the “be my kid’s godparent” checkpoint, I guess. But even just “Hey, let’s make plans” is kind of a checkpoint as an adult: Unless it’s a work friendship, you don’t see each other automatically, so each time you make plans to see each other, you’re saying: “Yes, I care enough about you to make some time in my hectic adult life to spend with you, because you matter.” It doesn’t feel like that when you’re younger, and we forget that. Relationships do the opposite, though: I feel like once you reach a certain point, you lose checkpoints. You get married and have kids, and there aren’t any more “I’m at this point, are you here with me?” because you’ve hit all those points. So maybe you’ve got to find a way to check in with each other.

Anyway, this book isn’t all serious. I think it’s the funniest book I’ve read all year. At least once, I laughed so hard while reading in bed that I woke Mike up, though he fell right back asleep and didn’t remember later on. So it’s important, and it’s hilarious, and basically, you should read this book.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you like Law & Order, glass bowls, Oscar Wilde’s ghost, and porn stores.

 

Book 26: Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I guess I went on a little bit of a YA kick in August. I’d heard a lot about this book since it came out, but mostly what I’d heard was that it was full of pictures. In fact, most of the descriptions I’d heard made it seem like it was just a book of pictures and not an actual story, so if you’ve heard things that make you think that, I’m here to help.

This is a really great YA fantasy book. If I’d read it in high school, it probably would have been one of my favorite books–as it is, I really, really liked it, and I can’t wait for the sequel to come out in paperback. It’s about a boy who goes to investigate something from his grandfather’s past and finds a school full of impossible kids. It uses old photographs as illustrations, and they’re seamlessly integrated into the text. I guess for a while it was really trendy to take surreal pictures of your kids, possibly much as planking and pottering and all these other silly picture fads are now. (Or 5 years ago. I can’t keep up with these things.) They build the world, though, and even know realistically you know they’re fake, they feel like proof: Look, these kids are real. This really happened. And it almost makes sense: If they were real, wouldn’t they have to hide? Wouldn’t it be necessary to pretend it was all a trick?

Unfortunately, I forgot to take notes as I was reading, because I am an addict and couldn’t put it down. I was left with hopes for the sequel and a burning desire to know what my talent would be if I were peculiar. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy adventure story, I highly recommend this one.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this if you like Ireland, psychiatrists, or caves.

 

So, that’s my update! I hope it wasn’t too much at once. It was helpful for me. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime! And I have a couple of series coming up that I can include all in one post, so maybe I’ll blog about 50 books after all!

Coming Soon…

27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
36. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
37. The Necromancer: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
38. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
39. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
40. A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

Hey, did you know you can follow me on Instagram? My username is–wait for it–ohrachael. I try to post Friday Reads every week, so it’s a good way to know what I’m actually reading even when I forget to update here for a long time, and it’s also a great way to keep up with what my cats are doing!

Return of Television, and Book 21: London Falling

Let’s make something clear: I love television.

I don’t know if that’s something that I’ve specifically declared on this blog before, but an astute reader may have picked up at least that I am not against television from references I’ve made to, for example, Doctor Who. The thing is, it feels like a taboo thing to admit on a blog that is mostly about books. The general cultural attitude seems to be very either/or: TV people don’t read books, and book nerds don’t watch TV.

I know that, in some cases, it’s true. There are plenty of people who do one or the other. I honestly don’t know how much overlap there is, though it’s been a long time since I’ve met someone who didn’t have at least one show that they enjoy. Even the people who say “Oh, I don’t own a TV” generally follow it up with something like “But I love Orange is the New Black on Netflix!” or “I watch Doctor Who online the next day, though.”

I’m here to stand up for those of us who really like books and also really like TV. I know it’s not just me.

I identify as a story addict.

So what do I like about TV? Let’s set TV apart from movies, because I’m not a big movie person. “But you’re a story addict!” Yes, I know. I’m getting to that. The difference is time. If a movie is 3 hours long, that’s a really long movie, but by the end, I usually haven’t had a chance to get to know and care about the characters yet. The development tends to happen all at once, which, while sometimes interesting, gets old quickly. TV, on the other hand: Even a show that gets canceled unjustly after one incredibly wonderful season has 13 episodes, 45 minutes each, that you can get lost in later on. And when you do, you get to know the characters, and you see them grow and develop naturally over the course of the story. You develop a familiarity with them, which is difficult to do in the time it takes to watch a movie. (Movie series, however, I tend to like a lot more. Go figure. Of course, they’re usually based on something else now, because god forbid anyone have a creative thought.)

Watching one episode a week just makes the story last longer. I like a story that lasts. And even the quickest, most addictive read generally takes up a full day of reading time. (I’m thinking this may be another reason I didn’t love The Fault in Our Stars as much as I was supposed to–I read it in five hours! That’s not enough time to develop a connection to anything!)

So, yeah–I love TV, because it’s just another way for me to get my story fix.

However, it’s not my preferred way. And now that seasons of more shows are starting up again, I’m looking back and realizing how much I read during the hiatus season (you know, summer), and I’m feeling torn. Because I can’t imagine just no longer watching Once Upon a Time, or Supernatural, or Doctor Who, or Sherlock (actually, ignore that, Sherlock seasons don’t last long enough to really count), or Agents of Shield. They’re amazing stories with amazing characters whom I’ve come to love. And then there are shows like The Mindy Project, New Girl, and The Big Bang Theory, which are all great when I just want a once-weekly “please empty my brain of all this stuff and fill it with silly nonsense instead.” They serve a purpose. And the remaining shows that I watch (this seems like so much, but it’s one show a day with an occasional comedy binge) are shows that Mike also watches, so they’re the stories that we get into together, and I like that. So while I don’t think I’d miss NCIS if I stopped watching it, I would really miss Burrito and NCIS Night (or whatever it will become now that we don’t have an easily accessible burrito place).

So my goal, with the return of television season, is not to have that hour-ish a night cut into my reading time. I would much prefer for it to cut into other screen time, whether that be Pointlessly Staring at Pinterest on my Phone Time, Diners Drive-ins and Dives Marathon Time, or Turning On My Computer and Getting Lost in Cracked Articles time. I’ll get more enjoyment out of watching TV than I will out of these things, which I do anyway because it feels like it lets my brain recharge. My brain can recharge while I stare passively at a TV and at least take in a good story, rather than just look at the exact same “40 Ikea Hacks!” pins that I’ve seen over and over.

Also, I feel I should mention this to anyone who got here by searching for Ikea Hacks: Painting something to make it a different color is not a hack, even if it does make said thing look nicer.

Book 21: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell is proof that it’s okay to like many different forms of media. He’s written for TV, including a few episodes of Doctor Who (because, I mean, he’s British). He’s written comic books. And he’s written novels, including, again, a bunch of Doctor Who stuff, and more recently, this. (And then a sequel, but I haven’t read it because I waited for this one to come out in mass market paperback and now I can’t get the sequel yet because it’s still in hardcover and the books in a series have to match. I’m looking at you, re-releases of every Terry Pratchett book.)

London Falling is an amazing book. Cornell is clever, and he tells things to you as he or his characters really see them. He is not going to tell you that a baby that has literally just been born five seconds ago smells like a honey-lavender ice cream, because that’s not what a baby that has been born five seconds ago smells like. Want to know what a baby that has been born five seconds ago smells like, according to Paul Cornell? Read the book, he mentions it at some point, and it’s wonderful.

The story itself is relatively straightforward. It’s a supernatural police procedural that takes place in London. It draws a whole lot on British culture–the history, the art, the other stories that have been created there, and the tendency to both want to apologize to something but also feel like it owes you an apology. It’s funny, and it’s creepy, and at times it’s a little heart-wrenching. Overall, it’s incredibly enjoyable.

Now, I recently read a short article about book recommendations that completely miss the point, and they made me want to read the books listed more than most real reviews ever have, so here goes.

You should read London Falling if you like: anything related to the Tudors, piles of dirt, waiting at bus stops, or gang violence.

Coming Soon…

22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1 by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 2 by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 3 by Michael Scott
36. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
37. The Necromancer: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, book 4 by Michael Scott
38. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

A Reading Nook, and Book 20: Lexicon

Those who know me may have noticed that, in the past six months or so, I haven’t shut up about my plans for my reading nook. Sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

If you’ve done it at all recently, you may remember that looking for a place to live is an incredible pain in the ass. I don’t know if having a deadline makes it harder–the “starting a job in this area on this date so need to be moved in by then” thing is kind of awful, and it seems like it might be easier if you could say, “You know, I’d like to buy a new house,” and start looking and not having any pressure and when one shows up that you like, you take it. I’m way oversimplifying. My point, though, is that the deadline means you have to hurry up and find something, and if it’s not perfect, well, you can’t be too picky because you’re limited to what’s available right now. And something better may show up, sure, but it also may not, and by then you’ve missed your chance.

When we were doing the housing hunt, it started like that. Every place we looked at had this “ehh, we could live with it” aura around it. And then Mike sent me a link to this one house on Craigslist. I went through the pictures thinking it wasn’t bad–two floors, two full bathrooms, a yard, and space for guests, and then. And then there was this room.

It’s a little bright orange room, shaped like an L, with the bottom of the L a bit wider than the top, which is more like a hallway–only slightly wider than the twin bed that’s in it in the picture.  Right at the very top of the L, right over the bed, is a big window with a pretty hardwood frame. I immediately fell in love with the house, and I responded to Mike, “It has a reading nook!”

When we went to look at it, we discovered that it also had other desirable features, one of the most important of which was a door leading to the stairs so we could keep our cats separated, but I was mostly excited about what I was absolutely set on making into my reading nook, especially when I saw that the very bottom of the L featured a huge built-in bookcase that wasn’t visible in the pictures.

We moved. We settled. We unpacked a bit, then got sick of it and stopped. We started working. We unpacked more. Life was happening. I was still talking about my plans for my reading nook, but a little part of me was worried that I’d just never get around to it, and the adorable little introvert cave that I dreamed of would never actually happen.

But for my birthday, Mike got me the thing I needed to get excited about it again: A Yogibo! And it arrived about a month early, so I had this giant purple bean bag chair sitting under a blanket in the living room, taunting me. So when I finally got to bring it upstairs and curl up in it and read, I knew where I had to go next.

Ikea.

Mike had never been to Ikea before. He was actually rather anti-Ikea, having very little experience with anything from there that wasn’t the absolute cheapest stuff they have that college kids get because they can’t afford the one that’s $20 more, and my bookcase, which is awesome but a pain in the ass to put together. Not complicated–just annoying. So it was incredibly entertaining to see how excited he got about everything.

Anyway, two weeks later, I finally had my dad install the thing that involved putting screws in the wall (which I’m sure I could do, but I’m not remotely confident in my ability to do it neatly), and my reading nook is complete!

WP_20140913_19_11_04_Pro

You can kind of see the tiny black foot on the left side of the picture, which is a giant T-Rex fossil wall decal that I got from Target because I’m an adult. I couldn’t get both it and the rug in the picture.

It’s just the coziest, comfiest little place! Books I own but haven’t read or really desperately need to re-read are currently living in the little side table, which is on wheels so I can pull it out and access the books in the back easily. And the Yogibo has two covers–the purple one shown, and a bright green waterproof one that I can take outside with me if it’s the right kind of nice day and I’m feeling extra motivated.

So if I never update this blog again, it’s not because I haven’t read anything. It’s because I don’t want to do anything but curl up and read in my little reading nook.

And speaking of books to curl up with:

Book 20: Lexicon by Max Barry

(If you actually follow this blog [so, Mom], you may have noticed that clicking the books always takes you to places to buy them. Up until now it’s always been Barnes and Noble, because while I hope people support independent bookstores, I hate hate hate the other big online book supplier and would much rather B&N get people’s business. However, it was recently brought to my attention that there are a few indie bookstores out there that do have pretty great online shops, so I’ll be linking to those from now on. Anyway! Moving on.)

THIS BOOK! THIS BOOK. OH MY GOD THIS BOOK.

I take notes when I’m reading. It just helps me remember the book, and if there’s anything specific I want to mention here, I can jot it down and then look later since I know it’ll take me forever to get my post up. My first note for this book was: “I’m on page 12 (which, I mean, the story started on page 3, so really page 9) and I’m already completely addicted.” My second note for this book was: “And I was so completely addicted that I didn’t take a single note. Oops!”

You look at the things it says on the cover, things like “An NPR Best Book of the Year,” and you think: “I’m sure this will be good, but it will also probably be dense and overly pretentious. I should find something fast to read after this, because this will probably take a couple of weeks to get through and I’ll need a literary cleanse.” And you are horribly wrong, because you didn’t notice the thing that said “thriller,” and you didn’t really get that sometimes NPR isn’t super pretentious and wants a fun read with an extra layer of depth to it if you want it.

The premise: We already know words have power, but how much? In Lexicon, a group of people has discovered that every person has a string of syllables that, when uttered to them, makes them completely suggestible. Once you figure out someone’s words, you have 100% power over them–they’ll do anything you tell them, no questions. And what’s more, this group has figured out a series of seemingly innocuous questions–Are you a cat person or a dog person?–that divide you into one of 228 categories and let them know what your words are. These people are called Poets, and one of the Poets has gone rogue.

Lexicon follows the story of Emily, who is taken from the streets where she lives to study with the Poets because of her skill with words, and the story of Wil, who is kidnapped by poets in hopes that he can stop the rogue Poet who threatens the world.

I couldn’t put this down. I probably read it in a day and a half. I really liked Barry’s writing (this is the first book of his I’ve read, though I can’t wait to read more). I especially liked how there’s a bit of a mystery to it, as there is with any thriller, and he lets you figure it out yourself (so you feel smart), but not so far ahead of when he tells you that you feel like he’s insulting your intelligence by acting as if you wouldn’t have figured it out already. You figure things out just about as the characters do, which means he doesn’t do that thing where he withholds information that the main POV character knew and you feel cheated afterward.

This is a great piece of science fiction. On the one hand, it was the type of thriller that I just couldn’t put down–a fun story with a bit of a mystery and no time to breathe. On the other, it really makes you think about words and the power they might have. We already know that certain people are more persuasive than others, while others are much more easily persuaded, but how far could that go? With everything we’re learning about the human brain, it’s beginning to seem more and more like a computer–could there be some sort of command code for the brain? Okay, probably not like this–it’s a little too magical to feel realistic. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t wondering what segment I’d be in, what my words would be, if I’d be the right type of person to join the Poets. (I don’t think so.)

Of course, when you think about how brains work, and how language works–I say “tree,” and that makes your eardrums vibrate in a certain way, which carries a signal to your brain, which releases or moves or something some chemicals that then make you think “tree.” Right? (My neuroscience is a little rusty.) But if I scream “run,” your ears do the same thing–they vibrate–but the signal they carry this time causes a very different chemical to be released. So maybe it’s not quite as unrealistic to think that there might be some sort of sound that could make someone more suggestible. I mean, people persuade people to do things all the time, right? Completely ridiculous things. Maybe they know something we don’t.

Am I getting a little paranoid?

So: Should you read this book? I think it has a fairly wide range of appeal. If you like fast-paced dystopic fiction, definitely! If you’re interested in words and want a fun story, definitely! If you like thrillers like Gone Girl and wouldn’t mind a little science fiction in your reading, definitely! And if you read it, you should let me know what you think in the comments.

 

Coming Soon…

21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1 by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 2 by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 3 by Michael Scott

Hear My Plea, and Book 19: Skin Game

Posted on

I have a problem.

Recently, I have noticed that no fantasy novel or series involving magic can be published without being constantly compared to Harry Potter. Reviews do this. Readers do this. Everyone. Does. This.

“The next Harry Potter!” “Harry Potter for grownups!” “If you liked Harry Potter, you’ll love this!” “If Hermione Granger had done x and y!”

I would like to ask that we, as a society, can please stop. Not every book about magic is like Harry Potter.

Nothing is like Harry Potter.

And I can hear people in the background arguing. “Well, obviously every book is different, if you were expecting something exactly like Harry Potter you should probably just go re-read Harry Potter! The point is that it gives you an idea of what to expect!”

And the problem with that argument is that it does give me an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, what it tells me to expect is pretty much unattainable perfection.

I know there are people out there who will argue with me. I know this because, in the last year, two completely different people have commented to me that the Harry Potter series is, and I quote, “horribly written.” This causes me pain. I’m sure you think I’m joking, but I’m not. I have a kind of visceral reaction to negative comments about Harry Potter. I usually have to take a deep breath and then calmly explain that, though perhaps it’s not your favorite style of writing, you’re expressing a subjective opinion as if it’s an objective fact, and that’s simply not the case. In fact, I’m going to take it a step further: If your opinion is that they’re not your style, that’s okay, you’re allowed to have that opinion. If your opinion, however, is that they’re horribly written, you’re wrong. And I look at these people, whom I otherwise respect, and I think: “How would you feel if I found your favorite professional in the field that you have studied and learned a whole lot about in the past eight of so years and told you that they were horrible at it?” Like, you don’t see me walking up to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and saying, “I mean, I tried to like the original Cosmos, but Carl Sagan was just a horrible scientist.”

I realize this is an extreme example, but I just can’t help but feel like, well…

Anyway, I realize I have gotten horribly sidetracked by my feeling that I have been personally insulted when someone thinks good ol’ JK is a bad writer. That really wasn’t my point.

My point is this: When you compare something to Harry Potter, it sets the bar ridiculously high.

Let’s talk about the layers of Harry Potter for a minute.

The first layer of Harry Potter is the story. The boy who lived. The young wizard whose destiny it was to destroy Voldemort and his two best friends as they go through school and grow up. It’s a wonderful story, but by itself, it’s nothing special.

The second layer of Harry Potter is the meaning behind the story. Sure, it’s about a boy wizard, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about love and friendship, courage and acceptance. It’s about standing up for what’s right despite seemingly overwhelming odds that you will fail. It’s about believing that the world can be better, and that if you work together, you can make that happen. And that is fantastic. But again, it’s nothing special. Lots of books have similar themes.

The third layer of Harry Potter is the world it’s set in. From the very beginning, you’ve got a clearly defined Muggle world that makes sense. And that’s the most important thing about good fantasy, I believe: The realistic elements have to actually be realistic. If we, the readers, don’t believe the real world part of the story, how are we supposed to believe the fantasy world? The minute we think “there’s no way that would ever happen,” our suspension of disbelief falls apart. The Wizarding world works, too: There are rules, and throughout the series, magic follows the rules. Now, I couldn’t clearly explain the rules to you, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that magic can’t do everything, because if it could, then there would be no point in writing a story. For example, let’s talk about the time turner in Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ve seen this picture a lot recently:

And while it’s kind of funny, it’s not accurate. Saving Buckbeak didn’t reawaken the dead. You think you hear Buckbeak dying, but once they go back with the Time Turner, you see what was actually happening. Buckbeak never died to begin with. In fact, if they hadn’t used the Time Turner to go back and save Buckbeak, that would have been changing the past, because they had already done it. It follows the rules. Lily and James, on the other hand, actually did die. They couldn’t do anything about it. And why would they? It’s awful, but their deaths brought about the boy who would ultimately defeat Voldemort. If they hadn’t died, Voldemort could have reigned forever. Does that sound like a good plan to you? But, yes, other books have good world building in them.

Layer four of Harry Potter is the characters. Every single character, even the fairly minor ones, have distinct personalities. They all have different ways of speaking. They have detailed, rich backstories. They’re three-dimensional. If you read the Harry Potter books and don’t relate strongly to at least one character, well, I’ll be shocked. And if you reread them a few years later, you’re sure to find someone else who makes more sense to you this time around. There are no good guys who are just good, and no bad guys who are just bad. Every character will surprise you at times. However, I can’t say that this is the first book with amazing depth of characters.

The fifth layer of Harry Potter is, of course, the writing. This is, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, the most important part to me. It doesn’t have to be to everyone, but it is to me. JK has a very simple and straightforward (and, well, British) style. She clearly doesn’t write with a giant thesaurus sitting on her desk next to her. The language isn’t flowery; why should it be? It is, however, detailed and precise. She doesn’t leave a single word out of place in seven books. I had this fear after I finished my Creative Writing degree: I’d gone back and re-read some books I’d loved in the past and found that there were now things that really bothered me. There was always a little piece of my brain getting ready to sit down with the author and workshop their book. So, for a while, I was nervous about picking up the Harry Potter series again. I was worried that these books, which were such a huge part of my childhood and my life, would fall apart under my newly critical eye. And I picked them up and started reading and I was immediately whisked off to Number 4, Privet Drive, and the writing was perfect. I started looking for something, anything, that I would change, that I thought was too much, or that I didn’t feel I knew enough about. I found nothing. In seven books, nothing.

The Harry Potter books aren’t the only books out there that are masterfully written. However, very, very few books are as well written as Harry Potter.

And as for books that have stories as good, meaning as important, worlds as well-built, characters as well developed, and writing as amazing… well, let’s just say I believe there’s a reason JK was richer than the Queen for a while. You know, before she gave so much of her money to charity.

So when you compare a book to Harry Potter, you’re setting me up for disappointment. If you say, “This is a really good book!” then I’ll read it and I’ll enjoy it and I’ll be fun. If you say, “This is a lot of fun!” then I’ll read it and have slightly lower expectations of the writing and I’ll just let myself enjoy the story and I’ll be fine. But if you say, “This is like Harry Potter!” then everything that isn’t perfect about it is going to feel, to me, like a punch in the face.

For these reasons, I almost didn’t finish the first book of the Dresden Files.

Book 19: Skin Game (Book 15 of The Dresden Files)

You may have guessed from the above rant and plea that, when I first started reading these books, I was told they were like Harry Potter.

These books are not like Harry Potter. These books are gritty and kind of pulpy Chicago detective stories. The detective is a wizard, and his cases tend to be otherworldly. The fact that his name is Harry does not make the books like Harry Potter. If anything, they’re sort of like Supernatural. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could say that they’re kind of like if someone who wasn’t JK Rowling wrote some stories about if Harry Potter were an American and never went to Hogwarts and had to learn magic in other ways and went on to be a detective in Chicago solving supernatural mysteries and it’s just a lot of fun and doesn’t quite have the substance that Harry Potter has but they are nonetheless super fun and exciting books (with bonus nerdy references), then, well, it’d be kind of accurate, but why bother when “gritty Chicago wizard detective” works just fine?

Over the course of 15 books, Jim Butcher’s writing has improved dramatically. (More than 15–he wrote a whole other series somewhere in there, too.) In the beginning, I had the opinion that they were pretty poorly written, but they were fun stories. I kept going because I forced myself to ignore the voice in my head saying, “They said this was like Harry Potter.” And I’m very glad I did. When Butcher wrote the first book, it was a reaction against a writing teacher he had who kept giving him advice he thought was bad. He finally went home and wrote a book following all the rules she’d set out and brought it in to show her how bad her rules were. She read it and told him to publish it. (Note: I got this story from Wikipedia. It might be wrong.) So, at this point, he wasn’t taking it seriously. It’s clear, as the series continues, that he begins to take his creation seriously. He puts a lot more care into the later books, and the endings of the past few have surprised me. He still has habits I don’t love–if anyone can find an instance where Harry says “Fuego!” and doesn’t snarl, I will give them five dollars.

So, they’re not books that you read for the masterful writing, and that’s okay. They’re books that you read for a fun story and pretty decent writing. In that, they are incredibly successful.

I can’t think of a book off the top of my head that has made me laugh as much as these do. Harry Dresden has a great sense of humor and some ridiculous antics. Jim Butcher is a huge nerd, too–I’m spotted a Sherlock reference, a Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog reference, and I’m fairly certain a Buffy reference, though that one was quite subtle so I can’t be sure. There are always Star Wars references, too, and I’m sure there are some that I just don’t notice. They’re extremely fun to read.

Minor spoilers ahead–nothing you wouldn’t read on the back of the book!

Now, if you’re a fan of the Dresden Files, you may have noticed the multiples of 5 pattern: Books 5, 10, and 15 have to do with a race of creatures called the Denarians and their leader, Nicodemus. The Denarians are weird and kind of difficult to explain. Basically, there are a whole bunch of fallen angels who were at some point trapped in coins, called Denarii, from ancient Rome. If a human touches one of the coins, that fallen angel has a path into their head. From there, the angel–the Denarian–can convince the human to pick up the Denarius and work with them. The Denarian now has control over the human, and they become extremely powerful. And, of course, because they’re evil angels, they also have some monstrous shape that they can transform into.

The Denarians are not my favorite bad guys in the Dresden Files series. I have a kind of hard time wrapping my head around them. I’m not quite sure what their rules are.

However, in Skin Game, Dresden is forced to team up with them. And I love when the good guy has to work with the bad guys. It always makes for an interesting story and, in this case, a whole lot of sass.

I really enjoyed the dynamic in this book, and I think it helped me to get Nicodemus a bit more. He’s much more developed at the end of this book than he has been in the past, where he seemed a little like an evil dude who had no reason to exist other than to be as evil as possible. But as Harry and Nicodemus work together to pull off a major heist, you learn a lot more about both of them.

MAJOR SPOILERS

LIKE I’M ABOUT TO RUIN THE ENDING

SERIOUSLY IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AND WANT TO STOP HERE

Okay, you were warned. I’m assuming that I’m good to say whatever I want now.

Were other people completely blindsided by Harry having hired Grey to be on his side from the very beginning? I’ll be honest: I always feel a little cheated when I get to the end of the book and there’s something very important that the POV character did that we didn’t hear about. I felt, right away, like I had to go back and re-read the entire book now that I knew what had really been going on. I think it would have made more sense if Mab and Vadderung had maybe collaborated to hire Grey and Dresden hadn’t known about it. However, if you’ve got to leave something out like that, Butcher did it pretty well. I didn’t see it coming at all.

I’ve wanted Murphy to pick up one of the Swords for a long time. I didn’t quite understand what would happen if she did it for the wrong reason; despite the fact that we’re told pretty clearly that it would destroy the sword, I remembered Harry picking it up once and using it wrong and it being fine afterward. I’d felt for a while like Murphy had this awesome card that she just failed to play, and why? Well, I get it now. The sword breaks and is lost. EXCEPT. Except it’s not! I hate to make a Harry Potter reference after my long rant up there, but holy Neville Longbottom, Batman! Let me tell you, my pre-book-discussion discussion up there, the one that is about how mad it makes me when people tell me something’s like Harry Potter, was almost about fandom as religion, and how when we really love something, we can’t help but believe in it, and what would be so wrong about embracing that? I sometimes tell people I’m a Whovian when they ask about my religion, and it’s usually joking, but I’m really only half joking. I’m saying, “You know, I don’t really want to talk about religion right now/with you…But I totally believe in the Doctor.” But I was a little worried that it was too much of a spoiler for the Lightsaber of Faith. Go, Butters. (Also: Did anyone else watch Psych? Because I can never keep Butters and Woody straight in my head.)

Overall, I loved the ending. It fit the story and set up some great questions about what’s going to happen next. I’m already really excited about book 16, though I’m sure I’ll have to wait a while for it.

OKAY I’M DONE WITH THE SPOILERS

So, what do you guys think? Have you read the book? Don’t post spoilers in the comments, because I know I have friends who haven’t read it yet, but let me know what you thought! (You know, cryptically.)

Coming Soon…

 20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1 by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Lastly, re: the Harry Potter discussion up there. How do people feel about that? What books have you read that you just can’t compare things to? And what’s the most important part of the book to you? Are other people generally all about the writing, or do normal people focus more on other aspects? I’d love to know!

Before I Die, and Book 18: Unsouled

Posted on

I think this is the first year in a very, very long time that I haven’t really done any re-reading.

At some point recently, I sat down and did some calculations. I’m almost 27, so if I live an average female lifespan (about 80 years as of 2011), I’ve got 53 years left. I have to assume that there will be points in my life when it is much more difficult to make time to read than it is right now–such as when I have young children–and that possibly, as I age, my reading pace itself will slow down. So maybe, for the rest of my life, I’ll read about 3 books a month on average. (In addition to not re-reading this year, I’ve been purposefully selecting books that I think will make my 50 book goal more difficult and my blog more interesting to any random internet user who happens across it. “I devoured this YA series in a weekend” is kind of boring, and feels like cheating, so I’m hitting about 4 a month right now. Normally I’d guess it’s more like 5.5.) So, 3 books a month x 12 books a year x 53 years: I’ve got time to read approximately 1,908 books before I die (but, you know, who’s counting?)

This means a few things:
1: I should maybe be a little pickier about what I read! Really get the most out of those books. I should look for books that challenge and enrich me, not just fun stories–more literature, less pulp. And if I don’t like a book, I should put it down and move on.
2: I should read a much higher percentage of fun stories than I do right now! More pulp, less literature! Then I could easily read a book and a half per week for the rest of my life and read a lot more books!
3: I should re-read books less often! How many times have I re-read the Harry Potter series, and how many new books will I never get a chance to read because of all the times I’ve done that?

And I’ve decided to completely ignore all of those things.

First of all, the first two contradict each other. If I have any goals in this matter, I should aim to strike a balance between the two, and I find that the best way to do that is to read heavy stuff until my brain feels like it’s about to fall out of my head from all the thinking, then do a quick literary cleanse by reading two or three books that require very little of me. (Of course, my favorites are the ones that don’t require much of you, but will reward you handsomely if you put a lot of yourself into them anyway. I’m always looking for books like that.)

As for re-reading: I like re-reading. I have an aunt who has asked me a few times how I can re-read books, so finally I asked her, “Well there are billions of people in the world you’ve never met before; how can you keep celebrating holidays with us?” And at first I was kind of joking, but after I said it I realized how true it is. There are books out there that are family. I already mentioned the Harry Potter books–I’ve probably read the series 25 times, if when you think “series” you think “everything that’s out at the time of my reading,” because there were definitely many, many times when I re-read everything that was out at the time before they were all out. And it’s gotten to the point where, when I read anything else by JK, even if it’s something I’ve never read before, I immediately feel like I’m home. I’ve re-read the City Watch stories in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series so many times that they’re pretty much completely falling apart by now, and I’m actually kind of relieved by this: The new books in the series are about 3/4 of an inch taller than my copies, which means that when I put the new one on my bookshelf, it made the shelf uneven. If the others fall apart, I can replace them with new copies and it’ll be even again. I can stop being angry every time I look at my shelf.

In summary, reason 1 to re-read books: A book that you love is like family.

Reason 2 to re-read books: You never catch everything the first time. Would you believe, in all those re-readings of Harry Potter, it wasn’t until about book 4 in my most recent re-read that I finally smacked myself in the forehead and said, “Diagon Alley. Diagonally. I am a fucking dumbass.” And sometimes you read something else in between your reads that sheds light on what you’re reading, like the time I re-read American Gods shortly after re-reading The Chronicles of Amber and tweeted at Neil Gaiman to ask if Roger Zelazny was one of his influences, and would you know it, he was. And sometimes a book has something at the end that completely changes how you would have looked at the rest of the book, and you just have to see how it feels to read it now that you know. And other times, a book is one of those “it’s a thinking book if you want it to be” types of books, and you want to read it when you’re in the other mode and get more of the fun story that you missed because you were thinking, or more of the thinking that you missed because you were tired and just wanted fun. There are a lot of reasons to go back and look for more in a book. More is always there.

Reason 3 to re-read books: The next one in the series just came out, and you remember nothing about the rest of the series. Or even if you remember a lot, you just feel better if you read them all in a row, or at least fairly close to each other. The continuity feels good, and you miss less that way. This is probably the cause of most of my re-reads. Of course, there are situations where it would be ridiculous to do this. If there are already 15 books out, that’s a lot of time. At time same time, it’s still not as much time as it’ll take when book 6 of the Song of Ice and Fire series comes out and I have to re-read 1-5 because there is just so damn much in those books that I remember almost nothing from the first time (and the show is great, but it’s not the same).

This post’s book, Unsouled by Neal Shusterman, would normally have fallen under reason 3. It’s the newest book (until, I believe, October) of his Unwind dystology. I tried not to re-read books 1 and 2. I went and found a summary of book 1, because I remembered nothing about it. That worked okay, though there was still stuff in Unsouled that I remembered being a reference to Unwind but couldn’t remember what the reference was. I know I still missed stuff. I looked for a summary of book 2, Unwholly, as well, but I couldn’t find one. So I figured I’d skim a little of the book to remember vaguely what happened, and I ended up re-reading the whole thing. I’m glad I did, because I had basically forgotten about most of the main characters’ existence who weren’t in book 1. Re-reading would have been the wiser thing to do from the beginning, but I was playing catch-up and didn’t want to take the time. However, I still don’t think I will when book 4 comes out. Maybe eventually I’ll go back and read the whole series from beginning to end. So far, it’d be worth it.

Book 18: Unsouled by Neal Shusterman

And the prize for most terrifying cover art goes to…

The premise of the Unwind dystology: A second American Civil War occurred, and this time, they were fighting over abortion. There was a pro-choice side and a pro-life side, and it went on for years. During this time, so much funding was diverted from education into the war effort that teens were left wandering the street all day, with no education, no skills, and absolutely nothing to do with themselves. Finally, someone sarcastically suggested a solution to both problems: How about if, instead of allowing abortion, parents could choose to have their kid “unwound”– surgically disassembled with every single bit of the kid being donated to someone who needed it–starting at age 13 and continuing through age 18? This way, no one would be getting an abortion, and since every part of the kid needs to be used, the kid’s not really dying, right? And though the suggestion was sarcastic, everyone agreed: This was the perfect solution. Both sides were happy, and parents everywhere had a way to keep their delinquent kids in line. Don’t misbehave, we’ll have you unwound.

If you’re pregnant and don’t want the kid, there’s an option put in place for you: Rather than having an abortion, you can have the kid and stork it. This refers to, basically, leaving the kid on someone’s doorstep. If a baby is left on your doorstep, you’re obligated to take it in and raise it as your own (until you can unwind it, of course), but if you catch the person leaving it there, they have to take it back.

And some ultra-religious families have an extra kid and raise him specifically to be unwound. These kids are called tithes, and they’re treated like royalty their entire lives (the whole 13 years) until they eagerly go off to experience the sublime joy of life in a divided state. They’re excited about it. They’ve been told how amazing it’s going to be their entire lives.

This whole series is fucked up.

The thing that makes it great, though, is that it’s pretty much believable. If someone showed up in my living room suddenly and said they were from 20 years in the future and the same civil war had happened, the funding had been taking from schools, the teenagers had roamed freely, and someone had suggested basically just killing all the teenagers, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. The book reinforces the realism constantly by providing links to real news articles that you can type into your browser and read on a real news site about something horrible that people are trying to do right now. For example, this article about an Arkansas candidate for the House of Representatives, Charlie Fuqua, and his desire to instate the death penalty for rebellious children because that’s how it worked in the Bible. He says, “I think my views are fairly well accepted by most people.” He also says that oh of course no one would actually ever do this, that would be horrible, but it’d sure be nice to have that to hold over the teenagers’ heads when they’re being little shits.

This series is fantastic. It is absolutely chilling, because while you’re pretty sure it would never actually happen, you then have evidence right in front of you that there are at least a few people who are already more extreme than the solution in this book–I mean, at least in the book the body parts have to be donated, right? Fortunately, with 3D printing technology advancing as quickly as it is, we’re unlikely to have that drastic a shortage of organs anytime in the near future, but that doesn’t mean some psychopaths won’t think this whole unwinding thing is a good idea. (I can’t help but wonder if anyone reading this books thinks that.)

The series is told from the point of view of a number of kids who were meant to be unwound but escaped. A rebellion springs up with them at the center, and they struggle to avoid the juvenile police officers who want to find them and send them off to the harvest camps where their society thinks they belong. By book 3, one finds himself forced into a cult leader sort of position. Two are at the front of different ends of the rebellion, and I got a very interesting Professor X/Magneto sort of vibe from them (okay, okay, a MLK Jr/Malcolm X vibe). Some just try to stay under the radar and get old enough not to be unwound. And one part of the story comes from the point of view of someone who was never born, but made: A secret organization built a new kid entirely out of parts of unwound kids, and he’s part science experiment, part marketing ploy, and 100% human–though he’s never been taught what that means.

Should you read this book? If you’ve read other YA dystopian lit and want something a little more thought provoking, this is the series for you. Or if you’ve avoided the YA dystopia craze because it seems a little silly and immature, this series is definitely worth a shot. The premise is realistic and terrifying in a way that no other series I’ve read really has been. The characters are flawed, but mostly lovable, and their story is riveting. If you have a very expressive face, your facial muscles will be well exercised after the insane rollercoaster of emotions in this series–I promise, there are hilarious parts. If you’re a member of the Tea Party, please don’t read this book. I’m afraid you’ll get ideas.

Coming Soon…

18. UnSouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

A Completely True Story, and Book 17: Warriors: Into the Wild

Posted on

 

People keep asking me how my move was.

Unfortunately, most people who have asked this have asked via text message, where it’s difficult for me to respond with more than a few words. “Not bad, hired movers–still unpacking, though!” It gets the gist across, but it leaves out a lot. So: It was stressful, and it sucked, and it killed a part of me I will never get back.

My name is Rachael, and this is the story of how I died.

For most of the move, nothing happened. Nothing at all. We packed, we cleaned, we hired movers to do all the hardest parts for us, which is absolutely the way to go if you’re in a situation where it’ll be reimbursed (which, fortunately, we were). We had this great plan for the Official Moving Day: The movers would get there. I would go on a coffee run, since they probably woke up around 5am to get there when they did and it seemed rude not to offer coffee. (Only one wanted coffee, but that was okay.) Then we’d load up my car and I’d head out, taking our cat, Zoombini, with me. Mike would take the other cat, Chloe, when he left later on, since Chloe’s less likely to get in the way or bolt out the door.

Some important backstory that I should share with you at this point: Zoomy is loud. She’s not always loud, but if she is displeased or impatient, you know about it. We’ve taken her to the vet a few times and she just yells for the entire 15 minute drive. She hates the car. When she hears a can open, she’s sitting right by the counter (or sometimes trying to jump onto the counter) making more noise than you’d think is reasonable for a cat to make. For this reason, I wanted to give her some Benadryl before the drive. I figured, she’ll sleep, and when she wakes up she’ll be somewhere new, it won’t be as traumatic for her! And she’ll be quiet, so it won’t be as traumatic for me!

But we couldn’t find agreeing sources telling us how much Benadryl to give a cat, so Mike found something online that said you can put a blanket over the cat carrier and, like a bird, they will think it’s night and go to sleep.

At the very worst, we figured, how long could she possibly yell for?

So of course, as soon as I start the car: MROWWWWW! MROWWWWW! MROWWWWWWWWWW!

I put the blanket over her carrier. It becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t going to work. It’s July, and the air conditioner in my car is pretty good, but I can hear her panting between MROWWWWWWWWWs. I didn’t even know cats could pant.

MROWWWWWWW! *pant pant* MROWWWWWWW! *pant pant*

This wasn’t going well. I pushed the blanket off. She kept panting. I tried reaching my finger into the cage to rub her head, but she pulled back. She’d have none of that.

At this point, I’m about 15 minutes into the drive and I’m already looking for a phone pole to crash into. Two hours and 15 minutes to go.

I decide to sing to her.

We sing to our cats at home. We take whatever song is stuck in our head, or playing in the background, or on the TV, or whatever, and make it about them. Occasionally that means some loose semblance of lyrics constructed that describe the cat, but mostly, it’s singing their name to the tune of the song. I don’t know if this is a normal thing people do–in fact, I’m sure it’s not–but they seem to like it.

I search my brain for some songs that she’d be familiar enough with and might comfort her. I’ve been on a Joss Whedon kick lately (okay, I’m always on a Joss Whedon kick), so I go with some Dr. Horrible. I go through “A Cat’s Gotta Zoom when a Cat’s Gotta Zoom,” “With my Zoomcat I will Hug my Cat,” and “I Cannot Believe This Cat.” Nothing’s working. I continue the Joss Whedon trend by trying out some stuff from the musical episode of Buffy (“She will Zoom Through the Fire” and “Let Me Hug My Cat”).

Nothing’s working. I’m sitting in my car trying to think of anything that I might sing to her regularly enough that she’d recognize it. I try Disney (“I’ll Make a Cat out of Zoom,” “Let Her Zoom”). I try Broadway (“Zoomycat,” to the tune of “Popular”).

Nothing’s working. I try turning the air conditioner up, thinking maybe she’s really hot, but the extra noise just seems to freak her out more. The MROWWWWWWWs become MROOOWWWWWWWWWWs, and she’s suddenly also bodychecking the side of her carrier. This is not better. This is worse. I turn the AC back down.

Finally, I realize what I sing to her most often: TV show themes. No specific TV show or anything–I just usually sing the theme to her.

I try the Doctor Who theme. Zoom-EEEE-zoom….ZOOOOOMY zoom….ZOOOOOOOMY zoom, zoom zoom zoom. MROWWWWWWWWW!

Sherlock. ZOOMY! Zoomy-zoom-zoom-zoom ZOOMY! Zoomycat zoomycat zoomycat zoomy zoomy zoom. MROWWWWWWWWW!

I’m grasping now. What else has an easily sing-able theme?

New Girl? Zoomy zoom! (zoom zoom zoom) Zoomy zoom! (zoom zoom zoom) Zoom cat! MROWWWWWWWWW!

Big Bang Theory?

Zoom zoomy zoomy zoomy zoom zoom zoom
Zoomy zoomy zoomy zoomy zoom
Zoomy zoomy–ZOOM!
Zoomy zoomy zoom, zoomy zoomy zoomy zoom
Zoomy zoomy zoomy zoom,
ZOOMY ZOOMY ZOOM!
Zoom zoomy zoomy zoom
Zoomy zoomy zoomy zoom
Zoom zoomy zoomy zoom zoom.
ZOOM!

……

Silence.

For the entire time that I sang the Big Bang Theory theme song, and about 5 minutes afterward, Zoomy is calm. She is quiet. She is kind of panting because it’s hot in the car (I try the AC again and the silence breaks), but she is quiet. And I am happy.

…..mrowwww….

MROWWWWWWWWWWWW!

The silence lasts about five minutes, at which point I begin to wonder: Will it work again?

I sing again.

Silence.

And five minutes later, MROWWWWWWWWWWWW!

I endure the yelling for a couple of minutes. It’s really only been about 40 minutes at this point (an hour and 50 minutes left!) and I’ve already done this song twice.

I try another song again. No luck.

I sing the Big Bang Theory them again. Silence.

We developed a pattern. I would sing, and it would buy me five-ish minutes of silence. At this point, her patience would run out and she’d start yelling again. I’d put up with it for as long as I possibly could, and then sing The Song again. I have never hated a song more. I begin to fantasize about the next time I’m at home watching TV and the show comes on and I throw the TV out the window.

Toward the latter part of the drive–probably the last half hour or so–the silences started getting a little longer. I glanced over, and she’s squatting in her carrier, tense, her eyes closed and her mouth open. She looks like she’s given up and is just waiting to die.

Inevitably, she starts yelling again, and I start singing again. I am wishing death on every person who has ever been involved in The Big Bang Theory. Zoomy is quiet, and I am grateful, now, for those very same people.

Finally, I get to the new house. I bring Zoomy inside. I set her up in one room with her food and her litter box, open the windows,  and close the door. She is hiding under something.

I look around. The house is perfect. It’s sunny, and warm, but not so hot that I’m uncomfortable. The gardens are gorgeous. I have a swingset. I go sit on it.

I realize, then, that I died. I have died, and this is heaven. At some point between the 15th and 30th rendition of “My Cat’s Name Over and Over to the Tune of the Big Bang Theory Theme Song,” I snapped and drove the car off a bridge.

I’m surprisingly okay with this.

Until, of course, I look at my arm and realize I have driver’s sunburn, because I broke my #1 Rule of Summer (never go outside without sunscreen) for the entire drive down. I’m not dead.

I hear a faint mrowwwww come from the house.

Book 17: Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter

From a story about my cat to a book about cats.

I like to take book recommendations from people I care about. If someone I like really loves a book, chances are, unless it sounds truly horrible, I’ll give it a shot. I figure there are two things that can happen. I could love the book, too. Maybe they have similar taste to mine, or they just have a feeling it’s something I’ll love. That’s a great outcome. But at the very least, even if I don’t love the book, I get to know that person better. It gives me a little bit of insight into them, what they like, what matters to them (and since I like buying books as gifts, what I should get them for Christmas).

So one day, I was at my dad’s house and there was this book on the table. It wasn’t Into the Wild, it was much later in the series. I look at it and laugh, because (a) the cover is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, and (b) it’s exactly the type of book I imagine Mia, my 11-year-old stepsister, would love.

At dinner, I ask her about the book. I always ask kids about books if I can. It makes for much more interesting conversation than “Soooooooo are there any cute boys in your class?” or “Oh my GAWD your HAIR is so CA-YOOOOT” (I hate myself right now), and there are much better things to talk about than boys and physical appearances, and I think it’s nice for kids to know that.

This book, though. Mia’s eyes lit up, and I knew this would be The Topic of Conversation for the Night. Never mind that my brother is with us, freshly home from Afghanistan, with crazy war stories. No, I asked about a book about cats. Everyone is pretty okay with it. Mia launches into a description of the books.

“These are the best books ever! It’s about these tribes of warrior cats that live in the forest! There’s Shadowclan, they’re evil, an’ there’s Riverclan an’ Windclan an’ Thunderclan an’ they’re the good guys!” She opens the book to show me a map. “See, Thunderclan lives here, an’ Shadowclan lives over here, an’ this here, that’s the rock where they have meetings! An’ that’s the thunderpath, and these are the houses where the twolegs live, and that one’s where Firepaw comes from! They’re sooooooo good!

“WAIT! LET ME GO GET YOU THE FIRST BOOK!”

So I sit, working on my dinner, and begin to question my decision to ask Mia about a book about cats.

She returns and gleefully shoves a book into my hand.

“You’ll love it! It’s soooooo good! An’ when you finish it, you can borrow the second one!”

At this point, I’ve accepted my fate. I’m reading the first book. But.

“Mia,” I say, “I’ll read this one, but I might be a little too old to read all of them.”

“Oh, but once you read the first one, you’ll have to read the rest! They’re just soooo good!

So I take home Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter (which, as I soon learn, is a nom-de-plume for a group of five people who write the Warriors series together). I hope it will offer me insight into Mia’s mind, but I doubt it’ll offer me anything I couldn’t figure out from the fact that she’s 11 and her favorite movie is still (I believe) The Lion King and she likes to roar.

She’s the coolest kid.

This book surprised me. SPOILERS AHEAD.

It was every bit as cheesy as you expect a book about four clans of warrior cats who rule the forest (which, if you look at the map, is really more like a small wooded area between some houses), but it was still much better than I expected. It worked well as the beginning to a series–I remember reading books as a kid that were the first in a series but solved every single problem by the end. This book didn’t do that. It left questions up in the air, which had me almost tempted to take Mia up on her offer of the second book. (Almost. I’m 26 years old.) I didn’t see the traitor immediately, though I did see him long before the book revealed him as such–however, even then, I didn’t figure out his treason right away. I just knew I hated him.

And that’s where it really surprised me. I felt something for one of these characters.

And later on, when the character I could have sworn was the  eventual love interest for the main character died, I was shocked. THIS IS A KID’S BOOK. YOU CAN’T KILL THE PRETTY AND SYMPATHETIC MEDICINE CAT. YOU JUST CAN’T.

But they did, and it really upset me for a minute, before I said to myself, Rachael, this is a kid’s book about clans of wild cats that rule the forest. Calm yourself down. (But to be honest, it still feels like a betrayal.)

END SPOILERS.

So even though it had lines like “Unsheathed claws glinted in the moonlight,” I liked this book more than I thought I would. The one thing that really bothered me was the prophecy at the beginning and how it plays out. The clan leader hears a prophecy that only fire can save their clan, and as soon as a bright orange cat (or rather, “kittypet”–a cat who is a human pet) shows up, she invites it to join their clan against all tradition and advice of her clan members and renames it Firepaw. I would have preferred for someone who hadn’t heard the prophecy to have renamed Firepaw, because it felt like cheating the way it happened.

For the most part, this book went the way I expected it to, and if “kid’s book about clans of wild cats that rule the forest” sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend it. I can imagine these being really fun beach reads if you’re the sort of person to go to the beach.

I made some predictions after I finished this book, and the next time I saw Mia, she confirmed that every single one of them does, in fact, come true. I, therefore, will not be continuing to read the Warriors series, but I look forward to future updates on the goings on in Thunderclan whenever Mia reads a new book. And even if it didn’t offer me some great new insight into her mind, I’m glad I know what she’s reading, and I’m glad I know they’re not quite as ridiculous as I expected.

Coming Soon…

18. UnSouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny

 

The Free Time Delusion, and Book 16: The Round House

Posted on

I know in my last update, I promised more updates soon. And I fully intended to have more updates soon. I thought, I’ll be unemployed! I’ll be packing and moving and unpacking, but it’s not like I won’t still have tons and tons of free time compared to when I’m working, right? Right? I will have so much time, I figured, to read and blog and read more and it’ll be awesome.

Well. You may have noticed that that post was almost a month ago, and I clearly haven’t written anything on here since. So I have come to the conclusion that I was deluded.

My delusion, though, was not that I would have free time. Free time, I have. And I have free time because I look at the still-enormous pile of boxes in our new living room and think, no rush. I got the kitchen unpacked, which was the most important thing, because it sure felt like we went two or three weeks without eating vegetables. Books, well, I have enough unread books that I either didn’t really pack or have bought since I got down here that I’m not so pressed for reading material that I need to hurry up and figure out right now what I’m doing with all my 15 boxes of books. Where do they go? How do I organize them? This house has a bunch of built in bookshelves, so I have options. Do I separate by genre? Do I put all the books that make me look smart on the first floor where guests are more likely to be? Do I just put everything in one place and use other shelves for things that aren’t books? What do you put on a shelf besides books?

The struggle, as they say, is real.

So if I’ve been putting off unpacking, what have I been doing? Well, I’ve been reading, so I was at least right about that–I actually just started book 28, so I have some serious catching up to do, blog wise. I’ve been exploring. We now live on Cape Cod, which is just absolutely beautiful. We’re right near the beach, right near an adorable little downtown, we’ve got the best fish and chips joint right near us. We’ve got two cute local bookstores that I’ve explored and a few more that I haven’t yet (you know, because I’m still unemployed, and going into a cute local bookstore inevitably means buying at least two books). Since we got the kitchen mostly unpacked, I’ve been cooking, and enjoying our wonderful little kitchen with room for absolutely everything. I have always loved cooking, but a bad kitchen just ruins it.

And, well, this is where I feel kind of guilty, the space where I could–should–have been blogging. Because when I’m done with all that, I’m exhausted. I’ve been exploring and cooking and kind of unpacking, and it’s summer and it’s warm (not, thankfully, disgustingly hot) and humid and I want to turn my brain off. So, well, I discovered that we now have HBO, and I’ve been watching Game of Thrones, which I previously had only seen Season 1 of because I didn’t have HBO. I’ve read the books, and I love the books, and it’s been long enough that the fact that I read and loved the books isn’t ruining the show for me–I’m not really having any “oh my god it so did not happen like that” moments. (Well, okay, a few.) And then, watching Game of Thrones makes me want to have some epic swordfights of my own. So. I’ve been playing Zelda. To be specific, replaying Twilight Princess.

What? I like games.

And this last weekend, I was down with my mom pet-sitting at my aunt’s house. I love doing this, because we’ve been going to the same place for so long that there’s not a whole lot of new stuff to do, so we can sit around and relax and read and not feel guilty about it. I meant to blog while I was there, I did, but when I finished book 26 (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) and asked my mom which of the three books I brought with me I should read next, she selected Gone Girl, because she’d read it, and she figured I’d get through it while we were there, and she wanted to know what I thought. She was right–I got through it while I was there. Damn that book was hard to put down.

So now, here I am, finally convincing myself to use my free time to actually post an update.

Book 16: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

This was absolutely one of my favorite books I have ever read.

I feel I should qualify this. Most of my favorite books–I mean, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you maybe have a sense of the types of books I read. I love fantasy. I like science fiction quite a bit. The Harry Potter series, obviously. Anything by Neil Gaiman. A bunch of Terry Pratchett. Zelazny. Even the classics that I’ve loved have had elements of fantasy in them–The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula are my favorites. And Susan Cain’s Quiet deserves a place on the list–it’s a nonfiction book about the power of introverts, and reading it made me feel like I’m normal, which was oddly empowering.

So to be a work of literary fiction with pretty much no elements of the supernatural (I say pretty much because…well, we’ll get to that) and make it onto my “favorites ever” list, that’s saying a whole freakin’ lot.

I never even would have picked this up, not in a million years, if it hadn’t been a book club book. A woman gets attacked, coming of age, blah blah blah…no thank you. But it was a book club book, so I did pick it up. And I started reading it, and then I almost immediately put it back down and read something else and skipped that month’s book club meeting altogether. Because what I did not realize was that when the back cover said a woman was attacked, it meant raped. Not robbed at gunpoint, or knifed, or anything friendly like that. And this, honestly, is probably one of the reasons I read so much fantasy. Once you get into realistic literary fiction, you start having to deal with problems in your books that people have to deal with in real life. I’m much more the type of person who likes to pretend real-life problems don’t exist whenever I can. I ignore the news as much as I can because it’s just too depressing, and I’d prefer for my fiction to–okay, I can’t say “not be depressing,” because let’s face it: A whole lot of fantasy is pretty dark. But I prefer it to be dark and depressing in a way that, deep down, I know is not even remotely possible. As soon as something happens in a book about which I can say, oh, yes, something very similar happened to this friend of mine, I shut out emotionally. So rape is usually off the table, with, what is it now, 1 in 4 women having actually gone through it? Why should fiction have anything to do with the real world?

So, yeah. I almost put the book right back down and picked something less horrific. For example, this may be the perfect time to introduce myself to some Lovecraft.

Why didn’t I put it down? Well, there was the fact that it was a book club book, but it’s not like I hadn’t ever missed a meeting before. To be completely, totally, 100% honest, I kept going because I had already written it on The List. The List is something that I have in the very beginning of the Moleskine notebook that I’ve been taking all my reading notes in for the past year. It’s a two-page spread, and I numbered the first 50 lines of this two-page spread. For some reason, it wouldn’t have been okay with me to just number as I went. This way, I can more easily visualize my progress, which is great! But if I decide immediately, as I almost did with this book, that I’m not actually going to read it, then my whole list gets messed up. I have to cross it out and then cross out and re-write every single number after it. The whole page would just be a mess, and since that would have been unacceptable, I kept going.

And at first, it was okay. It was clearly very well-written, but I was too worried that I’d hate it to realize how good it was. But as I kept going, I realized that even though the book starts with a rape, and the events of the book take place because of the rape, it isn’t about the rape. It’s not a Rape Mystery, as I originally thought it might be. It’s not even about the woman who was raped. It’s about her 13 year old son.

When a mother is raped, what happens to her kid? In this case, he has to grow up. He has to grow up and face the real world and learn how to take care of himself fast, because his mother had PTSD and couldn’t help him.

One of the things that I loved about this book was that the age and gender of the narrator had absolutely nothing to do with the intended audience. This wasn’t a book about a middle-aged woman for middle-aged women, or a book about a 16 year old girl for teenage girls, or a book about a 13 year old boy for tween/teen boys. It’s a book about a 13 year old boy for adults, definitely not intended for or even appropriate for a 13 year old boy. I loved that it put me in shoes so completely different from my own, shoes that I could never even think I could wear, and forced me to wear the shoes and identify with the shoes and understand the shoes and think of the shoes as equal to my own. It challenged me and dared me in a way that I honestly can’t think of a time that I’ve been challenged in before. I was absolutely blown away. I threw it across the room when I finished it.

Every character in this book felt real. Each of them was three-dimensional and inherently flawed; every single one of them had been through shit. It takes place on a Native American reservation in the 1980’s, so even if characters hadn’t personally been through shit, they dealt with all kinds of prejudice from the outside world, and even the young boys were aware of that. (That’s another thing I liked. I don’t like when people dumb down teenagers, acting like they can’t pick up on anything. They do, and Erdrich knows that.) The teenage boys will remind you of the boys you knew as a teenager, and if you had the good fortune to be a teenage girl, you might be a little shocked at some of the stuff that apparently goes on in a 13 year old boy’s head.

Now, I promised earlier that I’d talk about the elements of the supernatural in this book. The time for that has come. As I mentioned, it takes place on a Native American reservation, and Native American mythology is, accordingly, very important to the story, albeit in a purely metaphorical sense. There’s no point where any supernatural characters actually show up, but learning some of the mythology ends up being incredibly important to Joe’s personal development. It helps him understand what’s going on, and it helps him understand himself a bit more.

This leads me to my Funny Story About This Book. As I mentioned previously, numerous times, this was a book club book. Now, at the beginning of each meeting of Book Club, someone would ask, “Did anyone not like this book?” It’s a good question. Not everyone’s the same, and it usually makes for some interesting conversation, debate, deeper understandings, etc. So we started this meeting with that same question. Did anyone not like this book? And two older women raised their hands, and when pressed for reasons, one of them simply said: “Well, does she always write about…you know…Native American…stuff?” She was clearly incredibly uncomfortable just being at this meeting, and any time someone mentioned another one of Erdrich’s books as being worth reading, the woman would ask, “Does that one have…Native American stuff?” As if we can’t all tell that she’s just a horrible, racist bigot. (The other woman who raised her hand seemed to agree at first about the “Native American” part, but eventually it seemed more like she just couldn’t get into the more mythological aspects, which is slightly more acceptable than the tone of voice Woman #1 said “stuff” in.) So an important lesson, dear readers, is that if you’re horribly racist and your book club reads a book that takes place on a Native American reservation, you should probably just not go to the meeting.

And thus concludes my write-up of book 16! Has anyone else read it? I’d love to hear what you thought. And if you haven’t, you really, really should.

Here’s what’s coming up soon!

17. Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
18. UnSouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 240 other followers