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Losing an Author, and Read Harder Book 2: A Retelling of a Classic Story

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I hope that, by now, everyone knows that the beloved Sir Terry Pratchett died recently. I hope that people know that, because for a few days after I found out (which was pretty much as soon as the articles started going up, I think), I kept accidentally being the bearer of horribly depressing news when I went to talk to people about my feelings. And then I’d get a rather odd look from my fellow Discworld “fan” who has no idea why, when they compliment my Discworld shirt, I respond with immense sadness. (I put “fan” in quotation marks because, I mean, I feel like fans would know.)

I’ve never lost an author before. I mean, I’ve read books by dead people, of course. And I’m sure authors I’ve read books by have died in my lifetime since my reading of their books. I don’t really know. Or if I do, it’s something I find out much later, and say, oh, well, that’s unfortunate, she was good. And, to be completely honest, I’ve never quite understood the hysteria surrounding the death of a famous person. Please don’t leave angry comments, but: When Robin Williams died last year, and everyone I know began acting like he was their favorite actor to ever have existed when I know for a fact that a few weeks ago they had said something about how he’s not all that funny anymore, and suddenly they’re in full mourning–well, I grew up listening to the Evita soundtrack, and there’s a certain song that gets stuck in my head. Please know that I’m not saying that Robin Williams’ death wasn’t horrible or sad. He suffered from terrible illnesses and I really do hope that whatever happens after we die, he’s found peace. I do. But I didn’t feel it personally, and I had a hard time believing that all the hysterical mourners on my Facebook wall did, either. But after losing Sir Terry, I think I get it a bit more.

I think the first time I ever saw a Discworld book, I was in middle school and some girls I knew loved them. They were geeks, so I kind of wrote them off as books for geeks, completely ignoring that I could basically recite from memory every Harry Potter book. I came across them again in high school, again in the hands of geeks (different geeks, since it was a different school), but suddenly I had found that these geeks were my close friends, and oh, wow, I’m a geek, too! So they started lending me their books. I read a few and, honestly, I wasn’t thrilled with them. I didn’t dislike them, though, so they lent me more. I soon realized that I wasn’t all that into Rincewind (and, well, Sir Terry himself never recommended starting with A Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, so maybe that’s not my fault), but I really liked the others. I read EricThe Wee Free Men, Small Gods, and a couple of others, and I soon found that my worldview had changed completely. I wasn’t brought up with religion, but the way things worked in Small Gods made a whole lot of sense to me, and I still look at theology through that lens. Still, though, I wasn’t what you’d call a Discworld Fan. I had read a few of the books and mostly liked them. I borrowed a copy of Good Omens from a teacher who then got fired so I never had to give it back. It’s still on my shelf.

It wasn’t until college that someone gave me the right Discworld books, that I read about Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax and Moist von Lipwig, and I realized I’d been going about it all wrong. My copies of the City Watch books are almost as beat up as that copy of Good Omens, I’ve read them so many times. The pages are dog-eared so I can always find the funniest bits, though when I lend them to people they always kindly unfold the pages for me because they know that, as a book lover, I must hate it when pages get like that. (In a $30 hardcover? Yes. In a $7.99 paperback with frayed corners and 12 cracks in the spine that I’ll have to replace with the new taller edition anyway so the shelf lines up right? No.) I devoured the first two books in the Long Earth series, and finishing the rest, well, I’ve got a 2’4″ stack of books I have to make some headway on before I can buy anything else, but I can’t wait to get to it.

So even though I’ve never returned to the Rincewind books–until tomorrow, that is, when I will finish the book that I’m reading (A Slip of the Keyboard, Pratchett’s collected nonfiction, because how could I have picked up anything else?) and pick up The Color of Magic again, this time as an actual Discworld Fan–Pratchett’s work has been a huge influence on my life. Half my thoughts about life are in the form of sarcastic footnotes. The City Watch series is something I’ve been able to share with Mike, who better hurry up and read Night Watch and then Thud! because those two are my favorites, and I love being able to share books with someone and laughing hysterically at 1:30 in the morning at the suggestion of naming a future potential child we may have Dorfl.

Reading A Slip of the Keyboard is eye-opening in a way that feels similar to how I felt when Small Gods made so much sense to me eleven years ago. I want to write, and I’m realizing that I’m going about it all wrong. I’m reading all the wrong things, and, well, I’m not going to stop reading the things that I love, but there’s a lot of stuff out there aside from science fiction and fantasy, a lot of nonfiction, classics, mythology, science, whatever, that could inform me as a theoretical writer much more than just reading the types of books I want to write. You don’t bury an apple tree to grow an apple tree.

So thank you, Sir Terry, for all that you’ve given to me and the world. I cried a whole lot (awkwardly, at work, but fortunately with a boss who also loves him and understood), but I realize now that you also helped to create in me the mechanisms necessary to deal with this. You taught me that “a man’s not dead while his name’s still spoken,” and that DEATH is actually not too bad a guy, and maybe this is heaven and when we die we’re actually being born, and that after you die, you’ll end up wherever you believe you’ll end up. And I’m hoping that you’ve ended up on the Discworld, and that if you have, it’s somewhere that can offer you Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love, and a Hard Boiled Egg.

All the little angels rise up, rise up,
All the little angels rise up high!
How do they rise up, rise up, rise up?
How do they rise up, rise up high?
They rise heads up, heads up, heads up,
They rise heads up, heads up high!

(If you’re just here for my update on my Read Harder challenge, I’m not remotely sorry about all that. But the other part’s starting now.)

In the winter, I like to read fairy tales. Not necessarily classic fairy tales, but books that make me feel the way I imagine Lucy first felt when she stepped through the back of that wardrobe into a snowy Narnia with a lamp post sprouting out of the ground in front of her. I think I’ve inextricably linked that scene and snowstorms in my mind, which is why I always feel like something magical is going on when it starts to snow, while real adults just sit and complain about the shoveling. (At a certain point every winter, though, I’m over it. It’s pretty, but it can go to Hell.) It’s for this reason that I decided my second Read Harder Challenge book should be a retelling. There are so many retellings with so much magic in them, I knew I’d find the perfect one. So one kind of dismal and slow day at work, as I walked around neatening up shelves, I pulled a few off and read the backs, hoping to find the perfect fairy tale retelling to fulfill this slot on the challenge. And then something jumped out at me. Something I’d bought ages (okay, months) ago and had sitting on my TBR shelf at home just waiting for me. Something I’d been meaning to read since I did an independent study in epics back in college. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.

Not a fairy tale. Not what I was looking for or expecting to want to read. But the perfect book nonetheless.

When I say I did an independent study in epics, what I mean is that in the course of three months, I read The Odyssey and two modern epics that are heavily based on it, one of which was Ulysses, and guys, if you ever want to hate yourselves, design an independent study that you need a good grade in to graduate that requires that you read Ulysses in a month. And understand it. I guarantee you’ll never want to look at the book again. That’s besides the point, though.

At some point, something happened, some discussion occurred, and my professor recommended The Penelopiad to me. I hadn’t read Atwood at that point, so while I vaguely remembered the title, I wasn’t about to rush to the store to get yet another book based on The Odyssey. I’d had quite enough, thank you. But I’m pretty sure the discussion that led to this recommendation was about the maids. I’m pretty sure I didn’t like their death. So now, all these years later, I’m happy to say that Margaret Atwood didn’t like it, either.

The Penelopiad is a slim volume where Penelope recounts her experiences while her husband was on his famed Odyssey from a safe distance of a few thousand years, which she’s spent mostly in the sort of afterlife she believed in. The book was surprisingly straightforward. Penelope’s been planning this story for thousands of years; she’s not about to waste her time making things convoluted for us. She has something to say, and she’s finally ready to say it, and what it is is her story. Her side of the events. What she was doing the whole time he was gone. How she ran the household, built it up, tricked people who needed tricking, raised a frankly thankless son, kept an eye on the suitors while keeping them at bay, and how she lost everything for it. How the suitors took most of what she had, and when Odysseus returned, he took the rest, her twelve favorite maids who acted under her orders and were loyal to her throughout. All for the crime of having been raped.

The maids get their say, too, though not in the way you might expect. They’re the Chorus. They appear between chapters and sing a song, or tell a story, or, in one instance, give a university lecture on their significance to the story of The Odyssey.

If you’ve ever read The Odyssey and you’ve ever got a little free time, this book is worth picking up. It’ll present some new ideas, and those ideas that aren’t new will be put under a different light. Atwood doesn’t make much up, really; she tells the story so obviously lurking in the background of the classic–so obviously that most of us never really even notice it.

New Year’s Eve and the Last Twelve Books

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Well, it’s New Year’s Eve again. One year ago tonight (not to the minute or anything–I think it was later in the evening), I was sitting in my kitchen in Concord, NH writing a blog post about the five best books I’d read in 2013 when I decided I should read 50 books in 2014 and blog about them all.

Guys. I really sucked at the blogging part of that.

It’s the first time I’ve ever really made a resolution. I mean, maybe when I was little, but never before had I made a serious this is something I’m going to do next year commitment on New Year’s Eve. And I put absolutely zero thought into whether it was a reasonable thing for me to do–I figured I probably read at least a book a week. Actually, it was probably more. I think I spent a lot of the past few years taking a weekend and binging on a YA trilogy and rereading series that I’ve read a few times already and just fly through. I wasn’t figuring that a book a week was accurate to what I was doing at the moment. I was figuring that a book a week would be a good goal. Because if I’m reading too much more than that, then I’m clearly not challenging myself at all. And honestly, the books that took me a whole lot longer than a week were the ones I got the most out of.

I keep writing more, but I really wasn’t intending for this to be a reflecting-on-the-project type of post. I’ll do one of those soon when I discuss my 2015 project.

So this year, I’m having my favorite kind of New Year’s Eve. Reading and writing and maybe a little Mario Kart and some Chinese food. And the first thing I’m going to do is finish up last year’s resolution and blog about the final twelve books.

I didn’t read 50 books this year. Officially, by my notebook, I read 52 books this year. You could be really picky and say that since 1Q84 was three volumes in the edition I had but more commonly only one it should only count as one, but then I would point out the number books that I did not record. I read most of What If by Randall Munroe, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, and about 500 billion picture books but it seemed ridiculous to count every single Elephant and Piggie in my end-of-the-year tally. Anyway, even if you’re being picky and refusing to count 1Q84 as more than one book, I still read 50 books this year. (And my boss, aka the owner of a bookshop, says it totally counts as three books since they’re individually bound, so nyah.)

Anyway! Here are the final twelve.

Book 39: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Here’s the thing about reading Murakami. When you finish, it’s so easy to put the book down and get lost in questions about specifics, such as: What the fuck just happened? But if you do that, you’ll miss the point of his books. The story—the plot, the actual things that happen in the book—those things aren’t the point when you read Murakami, I don’t think. Those things make the point. And there will be some point in your future, whether it be five minutes later or eight months later, that you suddenly completely forget whatever you’re doing at the moment and say: OH! Because you figured it out. You realized what the point was. And not only did you realize what the point was, but you realize that it’s so applicable to your life at this very moment, because his books don’t make stupid small points. (In fact, he doesn’t try to make points at all, which is probably why whatever I figure out in terms of the points always seems super relevant.) If you’ve read this book, or if you’ve read 1Q84, let me know because I would love to hear what you got out of them.

Book 40: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve got to read this book. It’s about a group of scientists, human scientists, living in a research lab base on a planet that’s entirely under water (or some other sort of liquid, not sure if it was actual water), studying on of the native species there. But there’s another alien species out there that makes laws about this sort of thing, and the rule is that they can’t interfere, they can’t even let the species they’re studying know that they’re there. And the species they’re studying, it turns out they’re sentient, they’re intelligent, they’re scientific. And the thing that is so cool about this book, that brought it from being a pretty good science fiction story to something amazing, was that you get to hear each point of view. Each species has one representative with POV chapters. So instead of the whole book being about humans looking at the other, we get to think about ourselves as the other and realize that our point of view isn’t the only one that matters. And it was just so cool. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

Book 41: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I really, really like Saladin Ahmed. I follow the guy on Twitter, and his tweets either crack me up or make me think hard about something or, on a not-irregular basis, both. His book, The Throne of the Crescent Moon, was really good. I enjoyed it. It’s a fantasy detective sort of novel—well, he’s really a ghul hunter and not a detective, but it follows the same general idea—set in a medieval made-up Middle Eastern city. I loved the idea from the first time I heard about it, because, well, does anyone else get a little sick of everything in science fiction and fantasy being so…western? So that was this book. It was kind of like if you took the Dresden Files, except instead of making it about a wizard detective in modern-day Chicago, you made it about a ghul hunter in medieval Dhamsawaat. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, with detailed lives and thoughts going on behind their ghul hunting ways. The world is built well around the characters, too—I really liked that, while magic was a fact of this world, it wasn’t there only for the convenience of our main characters or villains. It was built into life in the city. Now, you might be reading this thinking, Rachael, this sounds like the sort of thing you’d love but up there you wrote that you “really enjoyed it,” which, I mean, I read your blog and you love saying you love books! And you’re right. I do love saying I love books, and I would be lying if I said I loved this book. I really liked it, and I wanted to love it, but characters had a touch more religious fervor than I generally like in my fantasy. So, since I was comparing to The Dresden Files already, if you’re a fan, imagine: Michael is Dresden’s constant companion through the entire series, but rather than responding the way he does to Michael’s religious comments, Dresden also talks about God a whole lot, just in a slightly different way. Now, I get that it’s completely reasonable within the context of the story for the characters to be highly religious. I didn’t think it didn’t make sense. It’s just not really my thing. On that note, however, I am very much looking forward to the next in the series.

Book 43: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Before I start talking specifically about Raising Steam, I want to talk a little about Sir Terry Pratchett. He’s hard to talk about right now because talking about him makes me sad and angry. For those of you who don’t know, Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer’s. I’m not sad and angry because I want more Discworld books than he will be able to write. I mean, I do want more, I want them to keep going forever, but that’s not why I’m sad and angry. I’m sad and angry because, over the years, I’ve read so many of his books and they have given me so much that I absolutely hate knowing what he’s going through. It’s awful. Of course, he writes about it better than I ever will, and I urge you to read some of what he’s written—both about living with Alzheimer’s and choosing to die.

Anyway. Raising Steam. Guys, this book was amazing. My two favorite Pratchett characters are Sam Vimes and Moist von Lipwig. I bought this book knowing it was part of the Lipwig series, but having no idea that Vimes would play such a major role! (Uh, I mean. Spoilers. Not big spoilers, though. Shh.) This is the third Moist book. The first, Going Postal, was about con man Moist von Lipwig after he’s saved from his execution only to be sentenced to a career as Postmaster General in a city where the postal system is a complete joke. Not surprisingly, a former con man is perfectly suited to government work. In Raising Steam, Moist has been a pillar of the community for a number of years when someone invents a steam engine. Like everyone else, Moist is drawn to the shiny new technology, but Lord Vetinari gives him a task that seems impossible…but is it?!! When I read these, I feel just like someone in the book: An outsider, looking in, completely enthralled, wondering how Moist is going to pull this off, completely convinced that he’ll fail, because how could he succeed? And it’s wonderful. If you want to read this book, though, I highly recommend starting with Guards! Guards! and reading all the Vimes and Moist books (at least) before starting on this one; you really need the context of both stories.

Book 44: Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll

This book was so good I added a sixth star to my rating system. It was like Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, Roger Zelazny, and China Mieville all had a brain baby and this was it. I read it while on a family vacation to visit my grandfather in Florida and at some point my brother asked what it was about, and I was about two thirds of the way through at that point, and I just—well that’s a really good question, I have no idea yet. If you don’t like being slightly unsure of what’s going on when you’re reading, or if you don’t like subtlety in your endings, this book won’t be for you. For everyone else, I still can’t tell you what this is about because there is literally no way to do that without spoiling the ending, so let’s just say it’s about humanity. It’s about the absolute necessity of human passion and curiosity and creativity. The one downside is that it’s only 280 pages. Over way too fast. (Also, has anyone ever taken a book on an airplane and had it grow? Like, even the guy sitting next to me commented on it. It tried to expand. Sadly, it didn’t grow more pages.)

Book 46: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I kept having to turn back to the front of this book where the author’s picture is located because, every few pages, I’d become absolutely convinced that “Robin Sloan” is a pen name that John Green used to write an adult book. I absolutely loved it. (I’m still wondering if authors who use pen names sometimes use a fake picture to really pretend it’s not them.) You’ve got a narrator who’s kind of in a weird point in his life, and he’s got this weird crazy group of friends who all have one completely random and very specific thing, and he meets this crazy weird fun quirky brilliant woman, and then weird stuff happens and there’s a crazy adventure and you learn something important about life when you’re done reading it. It’s so much fun, and you won’t be able to put it down, and then when you finish it you won’t be able to shut up about it for a while. Oh, and this is important: There’s nothing in this book that would make it inappropriate for anyone for whom John Green’s books are appropriate.

Book 47: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

There’s a science fiction book club in my town, and this book was the first book I read for it that I was actually able to make it to the meeting for. (The first meeting after I joined was about Neuromancer, which I read recently enough, but since the meeting was at a member’s house and he was cooking, I wasn’t about to show up and say, hi, you’ve never met me before, give me your food, I hated this book that you love. The second was for A Darkling Sea, and it broke my heart to be stuck on an airplane on the way back from Florida when they had that meeting because I loved it.) Everyone in the club who finished the book liked it, but no one seemed to have loved it. However, it did have a fascinating idea behind it that a lot of space opera fails to consider or creates an explanation around. Traveling faster than light seems like it’d be completely impossible. So let’s say, in a few thousand years, we’re at a point where people are scattered all over the universe. Traveling from one planet to another could take hundreds or thousands of years. So, in the book, they’re not human, they’re kind of post-human androids that can basically go into sleep mode for most of that time. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, what does that mean economically? Like, let’s say I hire someone. I pay them a certain amount to come do a job for me, and it takes them 400 years to get here. I’m still here and they’re still there because we’re kind of robots with uploadable consciousness, but what about the money? Economic systems and values change quickly enough that by the time they can use the money, it’s worthless. So in Neptune’s Brood, Stross writes about that. What does that mean? What systems might be put in place to avoid that? How could those systems fail? So if you’re into science fiction and economics, this is the book for you. If you’re not so much into economics, you might struggle through it at points, but it’s still a good story and fascinating to think about.

Book 48: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I very nearly read this entire book in a weekend, but I didn’t quite finish it, and then the week started, and the week was crazy and weird and I barely had any spare time so it took me a while to finish after an initial whirlwind of addiction (and a whole lot of exasperation when I really just wanted to sit down and read but had too much other stuff to do). It takes place in the early 1900’s in China, beginning in a first class courtesan house owned by an American woman named Lulu Minturn. The story centers around her daughter, Violet, as she grows up an outsider and is forced to face circumstances beyond her (or her mother’s) control. Over time, she begins to understand some of the decisions her mother had needed to make. In classic Tan style, it’s a beautiful story of the love that families have for each other, and it manages to be that without being even remotely boring. I absolutely loved it and I’m already looking forward to Tan’s next book. (I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything Amy Tan has ever written. I don’t think that’s true for very many authors who have written more than a book or two. Amy Tan and good ol’ JK are the only ones I can think of at the moment.)

Book 49: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

SO GOOD. (I’m becoming incoherent, huh? I can’t wait to go to bed!) I’ve decided that I’m going to continue buying any book that looks remotely interesting and has a quote from a review by Neil Gaiman on the cover, because seriously, I am never disappointed. This book is about a young hacker in yet another made up Middle Eastern city. He writes a code that shouldn’t be possible, then comes into possession of a book that shouldn’t exist, and finds himself on the run in the company of his next door neighbor, an American student, and a possibly evil djinn. This book has something for everyone—some politics, some love, some magic, some technology, all with well-rounded, interesting character and some beautiful writing. I absolutely loved every second of this book. It was about the importance of ordinary people doing things to try to change the world, even if they don’t think what they’re doing will matter, because everything matters. Or, you never know what will matter. It was wonderful.

Book 50: Dawn by Octavia Butler

How have I never read Octavia Butler before? I’m so disappointed in myself. This book was absolutely wonderful. I felt like I was reading a perfect episode of Doctor Who (except, you know, without most of what makes it Doctor Who). It’s science fiction, but the science is alien and so far beyond any understanding that we have of science right now that it seems almost like magic as you’re reading. And it’s about humanity, again, and I really think that all the best science fiction and fantasy is at its core about being human. Lilith has somehow managed to survive a world-destroying war, along with a small number of other humans, all of whom have been taken by an alien race onto their ship. But the aliens are going to use the humans to change themselves, and in doing so, change the humans and the future of humankind. As soon as I finished this I went and got the rest of the series and I’m looking forward to reading a whole lot more Octavia Butler in the future.

Book 51: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

You know what I said earlier, about eventually saying OH! and understanding what Murakami’s book was about? I finished this two days ago. That hasn’t happened yet. I’m still in the “…what?” phase of having finished a Murakami book. This one in particular is strange. It’s got a jacket that goes the wrong way around it. The font is huge and it’s got pictures taking up about half the pages, and the whole thing reads a bit more like a piece of art than anything else. It’s appropriate for younger audiences, but I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s a kids book like at least one review I’ve read. It’s definitely not a full-length novel—I think it’s a novella, or possibly a novelette, though I’m not sure what the difference is. Anyway, I’m looking forward to having my moment of epiphany and reading it again when I do.

Book 52: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Have you ever read a book that took place in a town where you lived? This book was extremely weird, because it took place in Concord, NH, where I lived for three years until this July. And damn does this author get Concord. It was so much fun to read it and say, yes, I know that place, I’ve been there, oh that restaurant where the people were having lunch makes the best burgers ever, and if you said the streetlight at Warren Street works I know exactly which intersection you’re sitting at, and that weird science fiction movie series is exactly the sort of thing that movie theater would do. It’s a pre-apocalyptic detective story. A giant comet has been discovered heading directly to Earth, and impact will occur in about six months. People all over the place are committing suicide, but when Detective Palace comes across what looks like another hanger, sometimes seems off. Most people think he’s crazy for pursuing it as a case, given the end of the world, but he’s got sort of a Batman complex and is determined to do his job. It had just enough science fiction in it to intrigue me, but I’m really not sure which shelf this belongs on. I read it in approximately two days and can’t wait to start book two.

 

Okay, readers, that’s all for 2014! I’ll be back soon for some big reflections on this year’s reading and details about what I’m doing next year, but for now, it’s almost midnight and I have plans tomorrow, so I’ll be watching the clock (well, no, okay, I’ll be reading) for a little longer and then going to bed. (Sorry about the lack of pictures and links here. I might come back and edit them in later, but I’m really not committed to it. I’m tired and I might actually have the flu and it just doesn’t sound like that much fun.)

Does anyone have any book-related resolutions?

On NaNoWriMo, Sucking at Blogging, and Playing Catch-Up

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Someone asked me at some point whether I was planning on doing National Novel Writing Month this year. I hadn’t been. I’ve never done it before, and I had this whole reading/blogging project going on and a lot of catching up to do with that, so I didn’t really even think about it. But then, at approximately 3pm on November 1st, I realized that this year was different from past years when I have declined to participate in NaNoWriMo: This year, I had an idea.

This isn’t to say that I don’t normally have ideas. I have three distinct books bouncing around in me, all of which I care deeply about. But every time I sit down to work on them, I get a bit bogged down in details. I can’t go any further with this story until I pick a city for it to take place in and there isn’t a city that exists that is perfect so I guess I’m stuck. Or, This isn’t working from this point of view so I’ll put it on hold until I think of a better POV for it. Which, inevitably, results in these books being put on hold forever, because I want them to be perfect. And I don’t want to write these books without a detailed outline, either, because whenever an author of a book I’ve read discusses in an interview whether they used an outline or just “pantsed it,” I end up saying, yeah, I could tell. So I’ve got a bit more percolating left to do before I’m ready to write those.

This year, however, I had a new idea: An idea for a story I didn’t care about. A story that I could have a lot of fun with and not have to worry too much about whether it took place in the exact right city or which character should be the primary narrator, because as it turns out, I suck at that sort of big decision. This story, I could just sit down and puke out onto a screen and see what happens, and when I publish it, maybe do so under a pen name so that perception of my big three won’t be affected by this silly little story.

And it was a little crazy, and I went a little crazy. There was one night when I went into the basement and opened up some packages of magnetic poetry and organized them on a fridge by part of speech while singing Schoolhouse Rock songs under my breath. There was a vacation to Florida halfway through, which I thought would make finishing much more difficult than it did–as it turned out, the time that my computer freaked out and reverted to a version of the document from 5,000 words ago was much more of a hiccup.

And I won! Over 50,000 words in a month. I took a total of 8 days off (actually, that’s a lie–more like 6 or 7 because one of the days that I’m counting as ‘off’ is a day that my computer just lost my progress for so I might as well have taken it off). I learned that I have a lot more time to write than I previously thought, but a lot less than I was taking during November, and it’s nice to eat real food and get real sleep again. I learned that on a day off, I have no problem writing about 4,000 words if I have a sense of where I’m going with the story.

So, the question I’m left with is: Why do I suck so much at blogging? I clearly have time for it.

And the only answer I can think of is: When I have free time that I want to dedicate to my reading project, I use it to read. And when I’m not using it to read, it’s probably at least in part that about 80% of my life revolves around books right now. I work at a little bookstore, so I spend 8 hours a day playing with books, talking about books, touching books, et cetera. I leave 15 to 30 minutes early so I have time to read and relax before the day starts, and I go on my lunch break and read, and I go home at the end of the day and read, and I curl up in bed and read myself to sleep. In between, I go on Facebook to check updates from pages such as Book Riot and I Have More Books than Friends and NPR Books and other book-related pages for those of us who are completely obsessed. And then, sometimes, I try to write books. Don’t get me wrong: I do other things. I like to cook and I have a number of TV shows that I thoroughly enjoy watching. But for the most part, it’s all about books.

(If you’re reading this thinking, Wow, you must be so much fun at parties! allow me to stop you. I’m not. There used to be an inner Rachael who was good at parties who I would let come out sometimes, but I discovered when I tried to call upon her last night that she’s dead. I specifically selected my fancy-dress purse because it can comfortably hold a trade paperback (or squeeze in a smallish hardcover). Small, quiet gatherings of good friends are great, but large gatherings with lots of noise result in me lamenting the fact that while it’s perfectly socially acceptable to pull out your phone and stare at it in the middle of a shindig, it’s still frowned upon to pull out a book and read. However, the Rachael who cares that it’s frowned upon is, likewise, dead.)

The point that I’m trying to make is that it’s no surprise that when I’m on the computer, once I’m all caught up on the book-related news I get via Facebook, my first instinct isn’t necessarily to run over here and write about books. However, I made a commitment to blog about 50 books this year, and I’m right on track reading them—halfway through number 47—but have only blogged up to number 26, so here I am with a sort of quick and very dirty update of the next, oh, let’s say 14 books on my list, giving me ten left afterward. Here goes.

Book 27: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Do you know how hard it was to find this picture and not the movie cover picture? Kind of. It was kind of hard.

I picked up Gone Girl before I got my job at a bookstore, but long after I had begun hoping to get a job at said bookstore, and I figured, everyone I know seems to have read this book. Maybe I should read it for, you know, product knowledge. And then one day when I was away with my mom for a weekend, I finished a book (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 we could talk. I finished it over the course of the weekend, and I absolutely loved it, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized that I loved it because I read it wrong. “How did you read it wrong?” you’re asking, confused, and I understand your confusion. It’s a book! You read it! Yes, I know, and here’s what happened: I read Gone Girl and thought it was absolutely hilarious. The same thing happened when I went to see the movie. All the big dramatic moments, everyone is creeped out, and I’m sitting there laughing hysterically. And if you’re reading this thinking that I’m some kind of psychopath, well, I have no way of proving that you’re wrong.

Book 28: Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny

Look! Paint!

Okay, I mean, just look at the authors. Philip K. Dick, author of the book that inspired pretty much every good science fiction movie ever made, and Roger Zelazny, one of Neil Gaiman’s biggest influences and author of the Chronicles of Amber, one of my favorite series. There was no chance that this would be bad. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a world, the man who pulled the trigger on doomsday has been elevated to the status of a god—specifically, the God of Wrath. Christianity has been reduced to this small fringe group, scrambling to survive. One of the greatest painters among the worshippers of the Deus Irae has been commissioned to do a portrait for their church of the God of Wrath, but he only paints from life, so he must go on a pilgrimage (“pilg”) to find his god. One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy is that it can handle real world issues in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy-handed, and this book handles the themes of art and religion (and each one’s role in the other) perfectly.

Book 29: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I’m still not sure what’s going on with this cover. I think they just wanted it to look like Snow Crash.

Holy crap, guys. This book. Everyone talks about Snow Crash when they talk about Neal Stephenson, but they’re talking about the wrong book. Not that I didn’t love Snow Crash. I did. But The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer blew my mind. It’s fairly difficult to describe. There’s a rich influential dude in an neo-Victorian society who thinks that children, young girls especially, are learning mostly useless stuff and should be taught how instead how to think and how and when to be subversive, so he commissions a book-like device for his granddaughter. It gets stolen and ends up in the hands of a girl who lives just outside of the neo-Victorian city who is poor, whose brother is a thief, whose mother is a drug addict and possibly prostitute with a string of horrible boyfriends. The Diamond Age tells the story of this girl, her life (from her mother’s pregnancy to age 17), and how that book in her hands ends up influencing the entire world. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It blew my mind.

Book 30: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

Look! An owl!

After two fairly heavy science fiction books in a row, I was ready for some literary cleansing. It’s necessary, once in a while, after reading a whole lot of intense books that involve a whole lot of thought, to cleanse your palate with a few lighter, fluffier reads. So I came across The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. A great work of feminist literature this is not. It starts with PhD student Nora, struggling with her thesis, recently dumped by her long-term boyfriend, going to a wedding and moping about being single and wanting to find a man. But she takes a walk in the woods to clear her mind, only bringing with her a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and finds herself in an alternate reality where magic and fairies rule. She’s immediately swept up in the glamor of the fairy lifestyle, and at first, seems to have found the happy ending she wanted, but something’s wrong. She eventually makes her way to freedom with the help of a local wizard, but seems to be stuck in this world. We follow Nora as she finds her place in this new world where women can’t be scholars or do magic. It’s clearly meant to mirror the plot of Pride and Prejudice—there’s even a red-headed suitor—but we don’t get the whole story in this book, and the author’s sort of teased a sequel though I’ve heard no official announcements as of yet. I, for one, can’t wait for it—this was the perfect fun, light read, a little magical adventure for when your brain is sort of tired. However, no matter what anyone tells you, don’t go into it expecting Harry Potter. And if you’re really looking for a sf/fantasy book about a thinking woman, go back one and read The Diamond Age.

Books 31, 33, 35, 37, 42, and 45: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott

This is the first book. They all look different.

This YA series about a pair of 15 year old twins who suddenly find that their world isn’t what they thought, but instead a world filled with magic and secret pathways to other worlds and mythological creatures and gods and goddesses and even historical figures who were supposed to be dead but, surprise, are immortal, was recommended to me by a friend. She told me it was just like Harry Potter. Guys, you’ve heard this rant before, so I’m not going to repeat it, but suffice to say that while I was reading book 1 of this series, I was writing my post about Skin Game, and the feelings that I had about that book may or may not have leeched into that post. That being said, this was a super fun series to read. I almost stopped after the first book. There were so many gaping plot holes that I couldn’t go on. But I did pick up the second one, and quickly found that the author answered many of the questions I had in there. By the end of the series, most (but not quite all) of the holes had been filled in. There were a few little details that bugged me, like when a character freezes a big chunk of ice around something and it immediately sinks in the water under the weight—if you can’t get past that sort of thing, don’t read this series. But it did have some really great points, and I was excited to pass it on to my 12 year old stepsister who I think will absolutely love it in part because of those points. My absolute favorite part of this series was that there’s no clear right or wrong throughout the whole thing. At the beginning, it seems very good guy/bad guy, hey twins, choose the right side which by the way is super obvious to anyone paying attention, but as it goes on, you learn about some of the not so great stuff the “good” guys have done in their lives, and the “bad” guys become more developed and you learn their histories and reasons for everything. And in life, things aren’t black and white, so I think it’s weird that in YA lit, things so often are. I love that this series gives kids heroes to look up to who have to make tough decisions about what they think is the right thing to do, rather than just whether they will be able to do it. That was wonderful. I also loved the multiculturalism. Every old god exists and they all know each other. Niccolo Machiavelli and Billy the Kid team up. An old Celtic goddess and Joan of Arc are BFFs and, hey, they all know Shakespeare pretty well. (Okay, yeah, I rolled my eyes a bit when Shakespeare turned up.) It was a really fun series to read, though if I’d tried to read it all in a row I probably would have gotten sick of it. I feel like the target audience for these is ages 10ish to 15ish, and in that age range I highly recommend it. For anyone older, I still recommend these, perhaps not quite as highly, as long as you’re able to overlook little details that don’t quite make sense.

Books 32, 34, and 36: The MaddAddam series by Margaret Atwood

You know what would make a really good Christmas present for anyone over age 16 who likes to read?

Have you ever picked up a new book, read the first paragraph, put the book back down because that first paragraph was so good and so, well, beautiful that you want to have a blank slate and experience it for the first time again, read it again, put it down again, read it again, then read it out loud to your cat because it was just that good? Yeah, Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam series (which, by the way, is the first series I’ve ever seen that’s named after the last book in the series), is that good. And, spoiler alert (is it a spoiler if it’s the first paragraph?)—that paragraph is about a homeless man waking up on the beach and rummaging through some trash to find some food or alcohol. I don’t know how she did it, but that was one of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve read in a very long time. I feel like, with this trilogy, Margaret Atwood read a bunch of the post-apocalyptic dystopian trilogies that are out there, and said, “Ugh. Guys, please. Let me show you how to do this.” The entire series blew my mind. I don’t want to tell you anything about it because it will be spoilers and I don’t want you going into it with expectations. Just read it. Please. All of you. It’s that good.

Book 38: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Even this cover is kind of depressing. Her head is fading away.

And now for something completely different: A murder mystery! Not my usual thing, unless of course J. K. Rowling wrote it under a pen name, but when fall rolled around I wanted a murder mystery. But I’m picky. I can’t just pick up any mass market someone else writing as James Patterson book. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with picking up a random not-actually-James Patterson book, but they’re not my thing. So I asked my boss what there might be in the mystery section that would appease both my desire for a whodunit and my desire for something more literary to balance my fun YA series out, she found this. Turn of Mind is told from the point of view of the primary suspect in a murder investigation, the victim’s best friend. The reason she’s the prime suspect is that she’s a retired orthopedic surgeon who specialized in hands and the victim’s fingers were all cut off with surgical precision. And the reason they’ve had such a hard time proving or disproving this suspect’s involvement is that she has Alzheimer’s. This book does an amazing job pulling the reader into the mind of a confused older woman who occasionally knows what’s going on, but is sometimes somewhere else in her mind, as the police question her and investigate her friend’s death. It was terrifying to read, and incredibly sad, but also amazing and beautiful and poetic.

Ten books left! And I still need to read three and a half of them, so it’s time for me to get back to reading. Or possibly make dinner. One of those things. So I’ll be back, and soon, like, this month, I promise, with the next five, starting with more Murakami. Hooray!

The Nobel Prize and the Great Catch-Up

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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!

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!

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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

Before I Die, and Book 18: Unsouled

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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

Transportation, and Book 12: Railsea

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I have this problem with writing blog posts on WordPress. If I put in the title of the post before I start writing, it will automatically create a permalink to said post using said title. If I don’t, it will create a permalink that just has a number instead of the title. Now, I’m free to go back and change that number to something having to do with the title of my post afterward if I want, but then it’ll really, really bother me that it’s not quite formatted in the way that WordPress would have formatted it if I had titled it first. And that wouldn’t be a problem if I ever knew what I was going to write about before I start writing. Blogging, for me, is a very casual, unplanned process. When I sit down to write write, I know what I’m planning, but in this case, I generally end up sitting and staring at a blank “new post” page and musing in my head for about 20 minutes to try to figure out where my stream of consciousness will take me before I start writing about the book in order to come up with an accurate title. And this time, I just kept getting stuck on one thought: Fuckin’ trains, man.

I don’t know what my problem with trains is. I don’t have a problem with any other form of transportation. I drive all the time. I absolutely love flying. I don’t mind buses in the least, though I haven’t had a reason to be on one in quite a few years. I’ve ridden in trolleys and gondolas and those little shuttle things they have at Six Flags and even the Monorail at Disney and I’m totally okay.

I love subways. Which are nothing but underground, overcrowded trains. (Okay, maybe I don’t so much love the overcrowdedness, but ignore that and I have absolutely no problem with them.)

Of course, put the “subway” above ground and I’m not so excited (I’m looking at you, MBTA Green Line), or up high on rails (ugh New York–though as I mentioned above regarding Disney, one rail is perfectly fine).

The weird thing is that when I’m on a train, it’s not as if I’m scared. I promise I’m not lying to you or deluding myself here: I really am not afraid of trains. There’s no panic or expectation of death. Not even a mild trepidation that something could go wrong during my journey.

No, I just hate them. It’s some sort of visceral, completely unexplainable loathing of trains. They infuriate me, and I have no idea why. It’s like that one person in your social group who, if asked for reasons for your hatred, you could come up with absolutely nothing, but you still want to punch them in the face every time you’re in a room with them, and probably feel like you deserve a medal for not doing so.

And maybe that’s why it took me so long to pick up Railsea by China Mieville despite having absolutely loved everything else I’ve ever read by him.

Railsea takes place in a world where, instead of oceans, there are train tracks. & not train tracks as we have them now, where they are few & far apart, but rather an intricate, patternless latticework of train tracks criss-crossing all over, covering the would-be ocean floor. Enough rails & intersections between said rails exist that trains can essentially sail all over, in any direction they want, steering as one would a ship. There are shores that lead to areas of increased elevation where all the people live, as the ground of the Railsea is filled with tunneling predators of various sizes, such as the Great Southern Moldywarpe, the Burrowing Tortiose, the Antlion, & my personal favorite, the Burrowing Owl.

Actual illustration of Burrowing Owl, (c) China Mieville.

The ground surrounding the rails is unsafe, but the animals leave the rails themselves alone. Train crews hunt these animals, with molers taking the place of whalers. There are pirates, salvagers, nomadic societies, & scientists studying the history of the rails. Religions try to explain the origins of the rails, and the nature of wood & how absurd it is that wood can be both rail ties & trees, & how trees must be sent by the devil to confuse us. (Mieville has fun writing, & the little one-page sections between chapters that help build the history and mythology of this world were some of my favorite parts.) Oh, & the word “and” doesn’t exist anymore, which you get used to.

Railsea tells the tale of directionless teenage orphan Sham Yes ap Soorap whose adoptive parents decide that being a doctor on board a moletrain is a good career for a young man to have, though Sham is much more interested in salvage. Sham ventures out on the moletrain Medes & is the worst apprentice doctor ever. But when the Medes comes across a bit of salvage, Sham finds a picture that changes everything. He skillfully manipulates Captain Naphi, using her own Moby Dick-esque quest to get her to take the Medes where he needs to go.

Despite my unexplainable hatred of trains, I absolutely loved Railsea, & perhaps now that I’ve read it, trains will be a bit more bearable because I’ll be able to imagine I’m on some sort of fantastical quest. I noted somewhat early in reading that I had taken almost no notes, & thinking about it, I realized it’s likely because the stuff I usually write down, particularly early on, becomes entirely unnecessary when you completely trust the author to answer all your questions and tell a perfect story. Granted, I don’t trust him to answer the questions in a way that I’ll like–I have some serious trust issues with Mieville, mostly thanks to Perdido Street Station hurting me many years ago.

Railsea is marketed as Young Adult, but I think that’s completely ridiculous. It is by no means inappropriate for teenagers; it’s just one of those books that would be perfect for any Science Fiction or Fantasy lover from age 12 on. If you were annoyed by how complicated my “Should you read 1Q84” paragraph was, you’ll love this:

Do you like adventures? Good! Definitely read this book.

Coming soon:
13. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
14. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
15. The Fault in our Stars by John Green
16. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
17. Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
18. Unsouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Depending on how long Unsouled takes me, probably Skin Game by Jim Butcher (Book #15 in The Dresden Files, which comes out on Tuesday), but if I finish Unsouled too fast, there’ll be something else for book 19 and Skin Game will be book 20.