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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!

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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

Hear My Plea, and Book 19: Skin Game

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I have a problem.

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

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

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

Nothing is like Harry Potter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAJOR SPOILERS

LIKE I’M ABOUT TO RUIN THE ENDING

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

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

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

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

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

OKAY I’M DONE WITH THE SPOILERS

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

Coming Soon…

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

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

Winter Sick, and Book 4: This Immortal

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I’m going to warn you right now, this review is going to be awful.

I don’t mean negative–not at all. I mean the review itself is going to be crappy and unhelpful.

See, this book shouldn’t have taken me over a week. Not at all. It’s a fast-paced 213 pages. It should have taken me between 2 and 4 sittings. However, I spent about a week coming down with something, plus about two days being actually sick curled up in bed watching Dollhouse marathons on my tablet and trying to move as little as possible so I don’t throw up again.

All this adds up to a brain that isn’t working very well. I’m pretty sure there was a day that I fed the cats, crawled into bed, and asked Mike to feed the cats, and he told me that I had just fed the cats, and I absolutely didn’t believe him. That might have been a dream. I don’t even know. I know similar things happened. For example, I also asked my boss about something that she had hung on the wall that I swear I had never seen before, only to find out that she had pointed that out to me a while ago and we’d talked about it for 20 minutes or so.

And about halfway through my book, I realized that what the characters were doing didn’t make any sense, at which point I flipped through to the beginning and suddenly understood something awful. See, there are some characters who only really are referred to by their first name, and some who are only referred to by their last name, and the whole time I’d been reading, I’d been equating them. So halfway through, I realize there’s no Phil Myshtigo. There’s Phil, and there’s Myshtigo, and they are not remotely the same person.

After I got that cleared up, the book made a lot more sense and I finished the rest of it rather quickly.

This book takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where most humans have escaped to live on other planets, where they cohabitate with an alien species called Vegans. (Another source of confusion to my sick-addled brain–I wasn’t quite sure why the characters all seemed to hate vegans so much. Were they really pushy vegans who wouldn’t let you enjoy your steak in peace?)

This Immortal straddles the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy, though in general, I would classify it more as SF and recommend it more highly to SF fans. I’m pretty sure I mused a bit in my review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about the differences, but reading This Immortal and thinking about how to classify it, I’ve come across something else that I’ve noticed. I find that most amazing fantasy that I read makes me feel, while most science fiction that I read makes me think. It’s an emotional vs. philosophical difference. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course–American Gods, for example, is definitely fantasy and definitely a thinking book.

I was going to talk about how it’s a little bit of both. I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic thing: Highly radioactive bombs have destroyed most of the Earth, and what life is left is pretty much forced to live on islands. Those who remained on the mainland are horribly mutated and have reverted to an animal-like state. Vegan tourists come to see the Earth, tour its monuments, and take it as a warning of what can happen if they stop living at peace with each other. Humans who have left the Earth and share worlds with the Vegans are treated as inferior and of lower caste, partially because, I think, their species was so stupid it destroyed its planet, and partially because they lack some natural abilities that the Vegans have–we can’t, for example, see nearly as many colors as they can. The people remaining on Earth want the Vegans gone and struggle to maintain control of their planet. “Rachael,” you’re saying, “This is definitely just hard science fiction. I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say it’s both.”

Sheesh, I haven’t gotten there yet, okay?

The main character, Conrad Nomikos, is a creature out of Greek mythology. He is suspected to be a Kallikanzaros, which I just looked up and is apparently some kind of goblin thing that tries to ruin Christmas, and this is one of those situations where I really don’t think Wikipedia is giving me the whole story because I believe the actual word for that is “Grinch.” He is immortal. His son is Jason, of Greek myth fame, and his wife may or may not be Cassandra, also of Greek myth fame, though that was only kind of hinted at and we don’t really know if she’s immortal. There’s a group of Satyrs, a hellhound, and a giant boar. So, definitely fantasy.

Definitely both.

The book follows Conrad as he reluctantly gives Cort Myshtigo, a powerful Vegan surveyor and writer, a tour of what’s left of Earth’s landmarks. They’re accompanied by an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I can’t really tell you anything about because my brain wasn’t working well enough for the first half of the book to really have any idea what was going on to talk about them without giving away major spoilers, but the general gist is this: Some of them want Myshtigo dead, and Conrad isn’t sure if he agrees.

I definitely enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and I loved the second half once my brain cleared up a little and I figured out what was going on. I definitely need to re-read this, possibly the next time my brain isn’t fully clear to be able to actually understand what’s going on, because two half-understandings might lead to a full understanding. In the meantime, I have a few more Zelazny books that I’ll get around to before too long.

And, for book 5 of the 50 Book Project…

 
Paper Towns by John Green. I’m determined to go into this with a complete lack of expectations. When I read Looking for Alaska, for some reason I expected something fun–I’m blaming his YouTube channel–and got something heartbreaking. After that introduction to his writing, I read An Abundance of Katherines expecting it to be painful, when really, it was quite fun. As you can see, the cover of this claims that it’s “Profoundly moving,” which could mean a lot of things.

Book 1: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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I don’t usually read a whole lot of science fiction. It’s not that I don’t like to. Really! I love science fiction. But I tend to read fantasy a lot more, and when I’ve been reading a whole ton of that and need a break, I tend to lean more toward realistic fiction than something equally unrealistic (well, sort of… I’ll get to that later). The real problem, though, is that I’m so familiar with fantasy that I know where to start with it, and I know where to go from there, and where you’re eventually likely to end up and once you’ve ended up there, where a few other paths might take you, and so on. I can read a review or a teaser or even just a “If you liked THIS, you should read THAT!” and be pretty confident that I’m making a good call when I pick up a fantasy book. I’d say 95% accuracy. And even that 5% isn’t usually bad–I somehow avoid the bad stuff. But when I start looking for science fiction to read, I have no idea where to begin.

I was very lucky, then, that a coworker gave me a list of science fiction starters over the summer.

On it were two–maybe three? I don’t remember–books by Philip K. Dick (“I’m a huge ‘Dickhead,'” he wrote on the side–I laughed), one of which was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So I picked up a copy when I was shopping before Christmas (I had a 20% off coupon at my local indie bookstore–most valuable coupon I’ve ever had), this one specifically because it had an introduction by Roger Zelazny, and I figured I should start my project with it, since this coworker will be going back to school… hmm, I really hope today wasn’t his last day back. I still had 15 pages left when I last talked to him. And, well, it’s nice to have someone to talk to about the book you’re reading.

Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?

This book scared me. Not in a huddled-under-the-sheets-in-terror sort of scared, or a wow-I-am-so-horribly-creeped-out-by-that-really-creepy-thing scared, or even a general-sense-of-foreboding scared. This book scared me in a way that I first remember being scared when I was 12 and saw The Matrix, and that, in general, I don’t get from anything aside from science fiction (which is perhaps another reason I tend toward fantasy most of the time), which is: The whole thing seems so possible. Science fiction, I believe, turns into fantasy the instant it does something that makes the reader say, “No, that’s impossible.” As long as it’s reasonable to think that, maybe not now, but in 100 years, or 1000, or 5000, we could totally actually do that, then science fiction is generally terrifying.

And Philip K. Dick is awesome at it.

I also need to say this: Philip K. Dick is a manipulative bastard.

I was upset every time I had to put this book down to do anything. From the very beginning, with the introduction of the mood organ–by which people in this world can turn a dial to select a mood, from 481, “An awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that–” (at this point the character is cut off, so we don’t know what the hope is, but there’s hope), to 594, “pleased acknowledgement of Husband’s superior wisdom in all matters,” to 888, “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it,” even setting 3, “a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial”–I simply had to know more about this world. Moods can be scheduled (I laughed at “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” we’ve all been there, right?) and adjusted and… well, it was creepy.

I was immediately intrigued by the animals. It was clear that they were very important to the people of this crazy, futuristic, post-apocalypse world. Rick, the main character, and his wife Iran have an electric sheep, and the fact that they can’t afford a real sheep is deeply embarrassing and they feel that they’re missing out on some hugely significant aspect of life by not having a real animal.

I needed to understand Rick’s job. Rick is a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, and his job is to find and kill (“retire”) androids who have made it back to Earth from the new colonization on Mars. It’s difficult, because they’re impossible to differentiate from humans without administering a test that measures their empathy–the one thing the manufacturers haven’t been able to copy. But the test is getting more difficult to do on the new model of android.

Spoilers start here!

As it turns out, androids who get back to Earth do so by killing their owner and sneaking back under a false identity. They’re not supposed to be here, and if they are, then they’re evil. And there were three points in the book that made me say, “Damn, those robots are bastards.

First: When Rick goes to the Rosen corporation, and Eldon Rosen has him test Rachael to see if she’s an android. It was a rollercoaster: “Your test showed she is! But she’s not, really, she’s human. Oh, but did you hear what she just said? Maybe not! Test again! Hah! You were right all along, she’s an android. Go away now.” I understand that they were testing him, that much seemed obvious. At the time I read this part, I thought they were testing him to make sure he had the right instincts to hunt the rogue androids and knew how to rely on them, but having finished the book, I think, maybe, they were trying to figure out if he was good enough to bother going through all the rest of their manipulations with him. Good enough to need to be taken out of the game.

Second: Right after the Luna Luft interview. I read the interview on my lunch break, and when my “clock back in and go work” alarm went off, I was so mad. I could tell that I was in a really important part by the fact that I was beginning to question every premise that the entire book had been built on so far. And then in the end, it was all a ruse and everything I believed was true actually was true! After I got back from lunch, I spent the entire rest of my shift thinking: Wait, is Rick an android? Is he insane? Has he been hallucinating this whole thing? Or possibly did he get stuck in a coma and somehow wake up and not know and try to keep going about his day as he had been before but years later? Are any of the people I’ve read about so far real? Was his consciousness recorded, saved, and uploaded into an android years later? What is happening? Oh… exactly what I thought was happening to begin with? Oh. Huh. Okay. Thanks for the stress, Dick.

Lastly: At the end, Rachael’s reappearance. I’ll admit, I was PISSED when she told him she loved him. I was sitting, reading, thinking, “Oh my god, fucking hell, you’ve met once before, and you’re an android, and shut up, you just have no effing cue what you’re talking about so please everyone just shut up” and then Rick said he would marry her if it was legal and I’m fuming and then about a page later Rachael reveals her master plan! Why do they always do that? And the whole thing is to get empathy, to extend his oh-so-human empathy to the androids so he won’t be able to kill any of them ever again, except of course he will. So you try one last thing and make sure he goes nuts by killing his brand-new goat. Only an android could do that, of course. Humans are too good.

I’ll admit, after the difficulty Rick had killing his first few androids and all the buildup to the Batys, I didn’t expect them to be so simple to kill. I expected another elaborate ruse. And when Mercer showed up (and we’ll talk about Mercer in a minute), I thought, this must be it, this must be the manipulation beginning. But it wasn’t. And then I realized that it wasn’t necessary at all, because while it’s simple, it won’t be easy, since Paris–another android to retire–looks identical to Rachael, the android he slept with and had feelings for. Simple, but painful. And the Batys after that, well, it’s nothing. He’s done.

So let’s talk about Wilbur Mercer. I realized early on that it’s some sort of religious experience, where everyone who holds onto their empathy box at the same time is somehow connected and shares their feelings and thoughts and pain. Through it, they understand and feel the connection that exists between all living things, which separates them from the androids and makes them part of something greater. What I want to know is how it developed. Was the empathy box made, and the videos inside it recorded, after the philosophy took hold? Or did an entire religion form basically around this one thing? Of course, I have no way of ever finding out how Mercerism came to be, but it interests me. (You know it’s a good book when you find yourself wanting to read up on the fictional history of the world of the story.) So when it was revealed that it was “fake,” that didn’t surprise me and didn’t matter. Though I thought it was really cool how the androids expected it to ruin the humans, when in fact they understood that the importance of the religion is that it goes much deeper than something as simple and basic as “real or not real.”

But Mercer’s appearance–how is that explained? It could have been a hallucination, but then how did it give him information he didn’t have? And then he fused with Mercer, right down to the rock thrown at him. And how did the toad get to him? (I did love that Iran got all the electric flies to feed Rick’s electric toad. I thought her development was great.)

I hate having questions left when I finish a book.

I love having questions left when I finish a book.

And what’s the takeaway at the end? Androids are manipulative and ruthless, while humans are empathetic and good. How do we feel about that? I know I’ve known some pretty bad humans. And even humans that, while not bad, still don’t really have much empathy. And I think, here, it’s important that the androids look just like us. Because, much like J.R. Isidore, we have no idea, when that cute new girl moves to our apartment building, that she’ll turn out to be the type of person who cuts limbs off small animals just to see what happens. So, I guess, the androids are here, among us, and they’re completely and 100% human.

Either that or Philip K. Dick was a crazy motherfucker (but a brilliant crazy motherfucker).

END SPOILERS

So, how about you? Have you read this book, or perhaps seen Blade Runner, which is based on this book? (I haven’t seen it.) Do you have thoughts or reactions? Did you even make it this far? Should I maybe try to keep it a bit shorter next time? Sorry, I do tend to go on about books, and this one was so good. Perhaps in the next year, over the course of my project, I’ll learn to be a bit more concise.

Anyway, speaking of the project! It’s time to start book 2!

Book 2 of the 50 Book Project will be…

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I was going to choose something more realistic, but I’ve been in the middle of this crazy snowstorm, and for some reason snow puts me in a mood for magic. I’m blaming The Chronicles of Narnia. I can just picture Mr. Tumnus standing there with his furry little legs… anyway! I’ll be reading this next! You’re welcome to join me, if you’d like. It’s a bit longer, so let’s see if it takes more than three days.