Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Last Post of 2014

I hate those end-of-the-year lists, as if everything that happened in an entire year can be summed up in one painfully self-aware article whose writer desperately wants another writing gig, thanks!

I personally didn't have an awful year, but the world as a whole sure did.  Planes kept disappearing, with loved ones mourning for the lost.  There have been frightening and gross injustices in this country alone, particularly regarding race, and these acts begat violence.  It feels a bit like the "powder keg" of 2014, waiting to blow, only this time it's not Kaiser Wilhelm versus the world, it's citizens against citizens.  People who steadfastly refuse to check their privilege.  People who refuse to acknowledge their privilege.

All of what I see informs my criticism of the books I read.  I've noticed I've become much more sensitive to sexist, misogynist, racist, and oppressive language in books.  I'm not afraid to call authors on this--and if they want to pull a Kathleen Hale, shame on them.  Woo, that fiasco.

At work, it's been difficult because we are doing a ton of amazing things to get our library up to speed, but we're years behind other libraries.  It's a definite handicap, and it's kind of like we're going through an emo teen phase where everything is the end of the world, GOD MOM AND DAD, what is WRONG WITH YOU?!?  However, it's made me strive to be better at my job, to provide better customer service, and to learn to manage personality differences.  Or at least try.

Because I'm a realist, I don't think that 2015 is going to be any better.  It will probably be just as bad, or worse, in some was, as years past.  However, the turning of the year gives us hope that whatever bad things may come, at least they'll roll in fresh and sparkly!  Hm, maybe I should just delete that last bit, and end with hope.


Bad Days in History

In the break room at work, we have television on a cart.  You know, like the kind your teacher would roll into the classroom on random days and you would rejoice, even if it meant you had to watch Swing Kids for like the fiftieth time (oy vey.  Sorry Christian Bale, but not your best movie).  Anyway, on our t.v. cart, we keep all the adult ARCs that come in because ... I have no idea.  That's just where they live.  I noticed one last week called Bad Days in History and it promised me that it would be "gleefully grim."  Being a minor history nerd, I took it home.

I am pretty sure he didn't talk about the Trojan War at ALL.
There are certain people to whom I would not recommend this book--not because it's bad, but simply because you probably know most of these factoids already:
  • The history major.  You probably know most of these.
  • The non-history major who nevertheless enjoys history and had to study a lot of it in college (me!).  You also probably know about these.
  • People who read articles on Buzzfeed or Cracked, which tend to do a lot of "weird history" lists.
I would also not recommend this book to people who don't enjoy history.  A really successful book that engages readers no matter what their interest level is has to have a particularly witty or even slightly over-the-top writing style.  The only times I actually laughed while reading this were when what was actually said or done by the historical figure in question was funny, not because the surrounding expository text was humorous.  Most of these times related to George Bush (the elder and the younger).  

Ugh, I'm boring myself with this review.

Basic premise: author talks about one "bad thing" that happened on each calendar day.  Some are more interesting than others.  That's it.

This is also the first ARC that I've read that really needs a lot of polishing up before final publication, and I find this mildly ironic since the writer works for the Washington Post.  I expect more from people whose profession involves writing.  Yes, I understand he's not an editor or a proofreader, but for heaven's sake!  How many classic novelists had beta-readers and proofreaders and spellcheck to fix mistakes?  I'm being harsh.  I know I am.  I certainly don't write perfectly.  However, I'm not being paid to write this.  So there's that.  I bookmarked a few places, but I won't quote them in their entirety because then the publisher will come after me.  One particularly bizarre "correction" made by the author was to write [sic] after Queen Victoria wrote "defenceless."  If you are in Britain, as Queen Victoria was, being Queen, Empress, and other Sundry Titles Besides, then "defenceless" is perfectly proper.  The author seems to think that Queen Victoria couldn't spell.  She may have gone off the deep end after Prince Albert's death, but I'm pretty sure Her Majesty could spell.

Another piddly thing, which also happens to relate to British royalty, is that the author refers to "King George VI and Queen Elizabeth."  That stopped me cold for a moment because I know that Queen Elizabeth II is George VI's daughter.  If he had written "King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth," it would have been clearer.  I don't think it's technically wrong to refer to the Queen Mother (now deceased) as Queen, but it's confusing because she and her daughter have the same name.  To clarify, he could also have called her "Elizabeth of York."  Then again, you could just chalk this up to me being excessively dense and stupid.

I just realized that I pretty much said nothing of real import about this book in this review.  Perhaps that tells you something?  If you want a fun take on history, this isn't really it.  I grew up reading the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary (which now seems to involve a lot of rats (???)), which actually taught me a lot of what was rehashed in Bad Days in History.  Those books were funny but they were also very real about what life was like.  I'm now tempted to buy a bunch of used copies on Amazon because I think the ones I own are somewhere in the rafters of my parents' garage.

All in all, this isn't a bad book, but it's rather dull and needs some serious polishing before being published.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Swan Song

There's a roller coaster at a theme park that's pretty close to my house.  The coaster is called Raging Bull, and up until last year it had the steepest drop of any coaster at the park.  When you go down the first hill, you shoot into a tunnel and it feels like the earth is going to devour the car and you'll never come back out.  It's a long ride to get towed to the top of the hill--something like a minute or longer?  The anticipation and fear and excitement build in that funny place in the gut reserved for terror.  It's an intoxicating thing, though.  

Swan Song read like a roller coaster that only had one hill, and then you just coasted along, lazy river style, through a jungle of cliches and facepalms until you reached the blessed end.  I'm just giving this 3 stars because it evenly splits part 1 (5 stars) and part 2 (1-2 stars).

Okay, sorry, that was a sadly tortured and mildly mixed simile.

I like post-apocalyptic novels.  I really like excessively long post-apocalyptic novels.  I loved The Stand by Stephen King, and really enjoyed Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, and Justin Cronin's The Passage was a great newer entry into the genre.  After reading Swan Song, I felt a bit cheated.  McCammon pulls so much from The Stand that it's almost humorous.  Almost. 

And yet, while I could see the parallels right away, I still found myself sucked into Swan Song.  The beginning was compelling.  There is no disease, no Captain Trips, but merely something that was a great fear in the 80s: all-out nuclear war with the USSR.   I was born in the late 80s.  My first globe had USSR on it instead of Russia, but by the time I was old enough to use the globe, it was no longer accurate.  I really had no idea what was going on.  I don't remember the Berlin Wall falling or the shattering of the Soviet states.  However, I find the time period fascinating ... probably due to my obsession with the film The Hunt for Red October (the book is great, too!).  In fact, I had to rewatch that film while reading this book because I was jonesing for some awesome Cold War action.

Tensions are at a breaking point between the US and the USSR.  One wrong move on either side could mean global thermonuclear war.

How about a nice game of chess?
Well, the President of the United States, a former astronaut whose favorite phrase is "A-OK," finds himself convinced that the US must strike first.  After sending the First Lady and their child to a bunker underneath Washington, he gets on the MCC and starts exchanging a rather esoteric set of phrases with the launch control box.  You know, the one that's handcuffed to some suit.

Meanwhile, the rest of life in 80s America goes on, mostly unaware of the impending doom flying over their heads in the form of the President's plane.  In New York City (this is the scary NYC of the 80s), a vagrant named Sister Creep wanders the streets of the peep shows and X-rated movie theaters preaching about Judgement Day and Jesus.  Focusing on the Lord's work keeps her from remembering that night in the past with the blue light, and the man in the yellow slicker, and the child.  In Kansas (or thereabouts), Darleen takes her daughter Swan and heads back home after years of living with boyfriends and johns.  Swan is sad to leave their trailer, because the garden that she's made grow in the hard-packed dirt won't have her there to care for it.  And a family of preppers (I think this was before preppers were preppers, you know?) heads from the Southwest to a bunker in Idaho to ride out the impending nuclear disaster.  They seem like they'd be the best prepared to survive, but shoddy workmanship and the leadership of an ex-Vietnam POW with a personality disorder does not make for a bright and shiny future.

McCammon's descriptions of the destruction wrought by the bombs and ensuing natural disasters are compelling and scary, and I couldn't stop reading.  It's not like in the movies where the main character gets off with nary a scratch, burn, or blister because that would ruin their dashingly disheveled good looks.  No.  Our main characters: Sister Creep, Swan, Josh (a wrestler and ex-football player), Colonel Macklin, and Ronald Croninger all suffer horribly.  Even six-year-old Swan has her hair burnt off by the blast, and the skin on her face puckered and scarred from burns.  

Thinking about the whole reading experience now, I certainly don't regret reading Swan Song, but I can see that in the beginning I was swept up in the excitement of a new post-apocalyptic doorstop (one of my very favorite kinds of books!).  I trusted that the characters would be nudged along in interesting ways, and that the deeper ramifications of nuclear armageddon would be explored.  

I could sit here and write a detailed synopsis of the book (not helpful, and if you really want, you can go to Wikipedia or something), but I really just need to work through what went wrong with Swan Song.

The story and character archetypes are very, very similar to The Stand, but whereas I always feel an affinity for King's characters, I felt very little about the ones that McCammon created.  I know that Stephen King is going to kill off a bunch of characters in his books, but he develops them so well that I'm always devasatated when they die.  Vague hints and foreshadowing indicate that many characters in Swan Song will die--indeed, it seems to be a hallmark of this kind of book--but I didn't feel as though I'd be crushed if Josh died, for example.  Even though he was Swan's protector and a good man, I didn't feel anything about him.  He just was.  He also filled the seemingly required role of Magical Black Person (ugh).  Swan is, of course, the Chosen One.  

Out of all the characters, I liked Sister the most, but even her transformation from raving streetwoman to poised leader was rushed and slightly unbelievable.  And really, the Man with the Scarlet Eye (who seems to be some sort of personification of death) just can't compare with the Walkin' Dude.  

McCammon really lost me in part two, when we suddenly skip ahead seven whole years.  Dang.  In seven whole years, Sister, even with the aid of her magical glowing glass crown and survivalist buddy Pete, couldn't locate Josh and Swan.  Neither could the Man with the Scarlet Eye.  You know who could survive with them, though?  Mule, the horse, and Killer, the psychotic terrier, and Rusty the clown (I am not making this up).  Meanwhile, Colonel Macklin, Roland (his henchman), and an ex-drug dealer and prostitute named Sheila Fontana form the nucleus of an army of fanatics.  They're not the only ones with this idea, because evidently there are a bunch of armies led by megalomaniacs marching around the West, and they fight each other a lot.  The AOE, Macklin's army, engages another force that claims to be marching back east to West Virginia because that's where God lives with his black box and silver key.  Okay, after we've spent seven years trekking west, everybody run back east!

There are a lot of practical issues that are simply glossed over.  How do these armies keep finding ammunition for their guns?  How do humans survive seven years of nuclear winter?  How is there a large enough supply of canned goods to support as many characters as we're following in this book?  How are there PLs (Pleasure Ladies) in the AOE but none of them--NONE of them--get pregnant?  Other characters have children after the war, so it's not like everyone's sterile.  I guess it would just be inconvenient for kids to be popping up in the army.  Oh, and that random romance with the wild boy named Robin (har har har)?  That can just go away.

I was also disappointed that I was able to guess a lot of the plot twists pretty early on in part two.  The book could have been shortened dramatically, because the last two hundred pages just meander around, giving the author enough time to kill off the characters he wants to kill off.

From all this, it sounds like I should by all rights really dislike this book.  And yet, I don't.  It's kind of like one of those disaster movies.  Popcorn movie.  Engaging and fun to read but ultimately not profound.

I would just go with The Stand or The Passage instead, but if you need another romp though a post-apocalyptic wasteland, grab Swan Song.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Balancing Act

I become extremely emotionally invested in stories.  Sometimes it's worse than others.  I actually avoid going to movies unless it's a straight-up mindless action movie because I can't deal with all the emotions a film can provoke.  Seeing something painful or wonderful or frightening, frame by frame, is more intense to me than reading the same type of material.  I can't escape it.  I can't subconsciously push the uncomfortable things into the background.

Therefore, when I read, I'm always reading a few things at the same time.  Right now I'm finally reading Jude the Obscure by Hardy.  I don't think any of Hardy's novels could be classified as the least bit positive or happy, so I knew what I was getting into.  It's a testimony to his ability as a writer that almost every sentence imbues my soul with a sense of dread and malaise.  Jude will never escape.  He's trapped.  And he knows it.  And I've got about 300 more pages of him being thwarted at every turn as he pursues happiness.  That takes a toll.

Which is why I also read fluffy books!  They are not literally fluffy, like Elle Woods' notebook in Legally Blonde, nor do I use "fluffy" to mean "romance."  Perhaps I should say "popcorn" instead--like you go see a "popcorn" movie.  My fun reads of choice are generally end-of-the-world thrillers or light speculative fiction.  I'm currently racing through a First Reads pick about a time-traveling Nazi cruise ship.  I know how that sounds.  It is, however, more believable than Sharcano.

And then there's skewing too far into the woo-woo sector of fiction.  I enjoyed The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, struggled through The Atlantis Prophecy, and now find myself stuck at 20% of the final book in the trilogy, The Atlantis World.  Somehow I've made it 1/5th of the way through the book and the only thing I can tell you is: aliens.  The whole secret-army-counter-espionage aspect of the first book was done really well, and I was disappointed that that was abandoned in favor of wormhole travel, alien memories, and unending threats of IMPENDING AND CERTAIN DEATH.  I understand that a lot of the book involves alien memories of being galactically AWESOME.  If I wanted to read sci-fi, I would read hard sci-fi.  I wanted a thriller.  And to the reviewer who called this "space opera": no.  Just: no.

So I'll flip back and forth between The Last Passenger and Jude the Obscure until I can balance out my emotions to an acceptable degree; or at least not feel completely gutted by The Passion of Jude Fawley.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Lazy week...

It really throws me off my schedule when I have two days off in the middle of the week--I'm always convinced it's the weekend.  Alas, here I am at work today.  Unlike in Europe, it's not kosher to faire le pont to le week-end when you've got holidays midweek.  Pout.

Anyway, I meant to, but completely forgot to, post a What I'm Reading Wednesday, so it's going to be Weekend Reading today!

I've been neck-deep in Robert McCammon's Swan Song for the past few days, so I really haven't had anything new to review anyway.  I'm a bit miffed, because things were moving along really well, and then I started part two and it was like hitting a literary brick wall.  I would give the first half 5 stars (although it is devastatingly similar to The Stand, and in my opinion, nothing can stand up to Uncle Stevie's writing in that book) simply for pacing and how it grabs you and drags you along, but now ... I'm not so sure.  We'll see how it ends.  When I figured out two major "plot twists" early on in part one ...

But I'm at 86% finished!  I can do this!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Netgalley: The eARC Taco Bell

Infographic courtesy of Taco Bell
So, let's talk about Taco Bell.  This partially has to do with my review, and it's partially just stalling for time because I really don't want to have to revisit the comic I just read.  As you can see above, Taco Bell sells a buttload of tacos.  I mean, 1 billion Doritos Locos Tacos.  That's like 4 billion hours spent in the bathroom regretting your decision, as the human race, to purchase and eat 1 billion Doritos Locos Tacos.  I'm not saying I don't eat Taco Bell--I lost my second tooth in a bean burrito, for heaven's sake--but when I do, I take necessary precautions and I go into it fully aware of the probable outcome.

It took a while to learn that, though.  Sometimes I'd eat a Nachos Bell Grande and think, "Whoa, why do I feel like there are fighting weasels in my intestines?" and totally not connect it to the food.  I'm still on that stage with Netgalley.  So many free books--specifically, comic books/graphic novels--to tempt me.  Occasionally I'll find a few that are quite delicious.  Particularly in my graphic novel choices, however, it has been ... let us say ... unpleasant.

A few days ago, I found myself, moth drawn to the flame, looking at the downloadable graphic novels on Netgalley.  I saw one called Sovereign that was written by Chris Roberson, a name I recognized in my feverish haze, and that was supposed to be about gods and monsters and mythology and stuff.  I thought, "Sure, why not?"  Here's why not:

First of all, I remembered halfway through that Roberson was responsible for some of the not-so-great entries in the Cinderella Fables spinoff.  

Secondly, the art in this was so atrocious that it actually made me feel better about my artistic ability.  I thought to myself, "Hey, if this person can make money drawing like this, I could illustrate comics too!"  There's no consistency in characterization from one panel to the next, people's faces look like smashed potatoes (and those are the handsome ones!) and several characters have long hair that blows in the wind ... inside, where there is presumably no wind.  I guess it just sticks up like that in an "artistic" fashion.  Another character has a thick mop of blond hair, but it's drawn in such a way that it doesn't move at all, and resembles a turban of hair rather than, you know, real hair.  In one panel, a woman has breasts so large that they could belong to one of Rob Liefeld's anatomically incorrect ladies. 

Thirdly, the story made no sense at all and attempted to hobble along as a misfit Frankenstein-monster creation cobbled together from history and myth.  The main political characters are the infighting Rhans, whose forefathers built a sweeping empire with their sturdy horses and fearlessness.  Oh please.  Every time I saw "Rhan" I read it as "Khan" so why not just go with the Mongol Empire?  Is it copyrighted or something???  The main religious/spiritual belief system seems to be vaguely based on Hinduism, but with the caste system based on what kind of magic a person can do.  They worship gods like Shiva the Destroyer, who is here a woman (but I know that Hindu gods have many incarnations, so Shiva could be a woman.  I suppose).  I mean, you couldn't even be bothered to create a slightly different version of an existing deity?  The ending story with the slave women came way out of left field and I have no idea what is going on here.  

Finally, there's inane dialogue like, "You're a seer, aren't you?  You can perceive reality with your mind!"  Okay, buttercup.  That's not a special ability.  We all have minds (for some there is doubt) that use the electrical impulses sent via neurons to "perceive reality."  We see the world around us; we hear it; we taste it; we smell it; we touch it.  That is how we know what reality is.  Unless you're going for some metaphysical concept of "reality" in that it's something we'll never know, something beyond our comprehension.  However, once you start questioning the essence reality you get into some seriously mind-warping business, and I leave that to people who have lots of degrees and make lots of money writing long books about what reality is or is not.  So, anyway, to sum up, the character tells another character that she is using her brain exactly as everyone else uses their brains: to perceive reality.  He could have said something like, "You see beyond reality" or "beneath reality" or something else--anything else!

So, before you go download that graphic novel, stop and think.  Will this give me the equivalent of mental indigestion--or worse?  Will I regret this in two hours' time?  

Of course it will.  And I'll keep going back for more, just like everyone who eats a Doritos Locos Taco.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Willoughbys

Every library and bookstore I've ever been in has consistently shelved Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in the children's book section.  I disagree.  They are middle grade fiction at the least, but I only appreciated them as an adult.  When the author is pulling from Dante's Divine Comedy for the names of the lovers (okay, so Dante isn't exactly the same as "Lemony," but his pining for Beatrice is spot-on) and the overall grimness of the series would probably daunt younger readers.  Even the whole interrupting-narrator schtick makes more sense when you've read books with different narrative styles.  That's certainly not to say that kids can't enjoy ASOUF, but something like The Willoughbys might be a good introduction to that snarky style of writing.

Lois Lowry is a woman of many talents.  As many others do, I think of her first and foremost as the author of The Giver, a book that was problematic to me as an immature fifth-grader and that I really need to reread.  However, I noticed this slim volume on the library shelf, and, having very little--okay, fine, zero--impulse control when it comes to free books, I took it home with me.  And I bypassed all the other sad books waiting on my bookshelf and read it.  Granted, I was still feverish from the stupid flu (seriously, this virus is like Justin Bieber: it won't go away), so I needed something a bit simpler and less depressing than Jude the Obscure.

Looking at other reviews, I think that some reviewers just aren't quite sure what to make of this book.  It's quite clearly a loving parody of all of the books Lowry talks about: the "old-fashioned" novels like The Treasure-Seekers, Matilda, Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, etc.  It's not mean-spirited in any way.  Au contraire!  You can see the love for each book as Lowry takes aspects of it and then twists it into something new and a bit naughty.  I think that sometimes parody, not just imitation, is the highest form of flattery.  It means that you think something is too good. 

Anyway, it's a brisk little story, following the four old-fashioned Willoughby children: Tom, Barnaby 1 and 2 (twins), and Jane.  Unlike most children in, oh, E. Nesbit's novels, for instance, the Willoughbys are rather devious, with Tom being downright nasty and bullying.  He browbeats the other three while making them sing his praises.  But it's a small price to pay considering that their parents want to get rid of them.  You see, the Willoughbys (elder) find it dreadfully inconvenient to have children, and often forget about Jane entirely.  Therefore, they hatch a scheme to sell the house with the children in it.

At the same time, the children have decided that they would be better off orphans (hello, what have we learned from Annie, The Secret Garden, Oliver Twist, etc.?), so they trick their parents into going off on a crazy cruise that involves volcanoes, earthquakes, and other Sure Causes of Death.  But parents being parents, they keep surviving!  And so the young people must endure ... the Odious Nanny!

Well, actually, she really isn't odious at all.  She's quite lovely and very un-Mary Poppins (I refer to the book version, not the film version).  With a bit of good cooking and some quick thinking, she even begins to reform Tom.

The final players in this romp through children's literature are the Lonely Old Candy Magnate Hermit and the child left at his doorstep (by the Willoughbys!), who's named Ruth.

The chapters are rather short, and I think this would be a fun read-aloud for older kids who aren't ready for Snicket.  Lowry's also included a cheeky glossary in the back so hey, it's learning!  Just don't tell anyone that!

All in all, this was thoroughly delightful with just the right touch of naughtiness.  Alabaster Aphrodite, indeed!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Iron Thorn

If you're not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his oeuvre, I'm not sure if you'll like this book.  It relies quite heavily on the Cthulhu Mythos and makes myriad references to the world Lovecraft created.  Just a warning.  This doesn't mean that you cannot possibly enjoy it if you haven't read Lovecraft, but you might be a bit puzzled.

With that out of the way, this is an amazing book.  It's the sort of book you want to linger over, searching for hidden allusions and building up the fever-dream world in your mind.  Kittredge has created her universe meticulously, and in keeping with the dark and sinister things out of time, has not sacrificed artistic integrity for a light and fluffy book.  This is mellifluously dark, with a sensuous bite like very bitter chocolate.  Delicious and a bit dangerous.

Aoife Grayson feels like an orphan.  Her mother has been placed--for her own protection, naturally--in a sanitarium, and Aoife's elder brother Conrad, has disappeared, leaving Aoife as a ward of the state in Lovecraft.  There, she attends school with her friend (well, her only friend) Cal, and aspires to be an engineer.  The only thing that has made sense in her life this far has been engines and clockwork.  It's the great engine beneath Lovecraft that generates enough power to keep away the nightjars, the ghouls, and the springheel jacks--not to mention those infected with the necrovirus.  The engine, however, can't save Aoife from her fate.  This was the fate of her mother and brother before her: a curse of blood.  A dormant strain of the necrovirus that activates on the carrier's sixteenth birthday, causing madness.

Many readers felt that this was too complex and overwritten (in a rare moment, I disagree with Kirkus) with Too Much Plot and Too Much Steampunk.  In my world, there is no such thing as Too Much Steampunk, and an abundance of plot twists is welcome when it seems that every other book I pick up has a wan storyline about love triangles and super speshul snowflakes.

You might think, this being steampunk, that this is a Victorian setting--not so!  It's a version of America in the 1950s if the barriers between worlds had been broken and the only thing keeping Heresy--religion, superstition, and storytelling--at bay is the clear light of science.  The characters read pulp novels, comic books, and have experienced their own version of WWI and WWII.  There is no corsetry involved, surprisingly, and I liked this alternate timeline.

To give a full plot overview would be pointless, as I insist that you go read this for yourself, but here's the main gist of it: Aoife and Cal, seeking to find answers about her condition, break out of the protection of Lovecraft and engage the services of Dean Harrison, quasi-rogue and dashing criminal, to transport them to Arkham, where Aoife's father has a house.  On the way, they encounter spying ravens, Shoggoths (!!!), and references are made to Miskatonic University.  If you're a book nerd/Lovecraft lover like me, you'll be grinning from ear to ear.

Once at her father's ancestral home, she discovers that it is more than it appears to be.  The entire house is controlled by intricate clockwork, and she feels a connection to it--even more than she did with the mechanics used in her classes back in Lovecraft.  Her father's secret journal reveals that their family has a Weird (think of it as an elemental affinity) and that they are charged with keeping the balance between our world and the Fae world.  Her father was able to control fire, but Aoife isn't sure what her Weird is yet--but she'd better figure out soon, because an emissary of the Fae appears and compels her (with typical heartless Fae threats) to assist him in waking the Seelie and Unseelie Queens.  It's all a bit complicated, but if you're passing familiar with fae lore, or you're a fan of Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series, you'll be fine.

To be honest, when the Fae were introduced, I was a bit miffed.  Here we were, going along swimmingly in a clockwork world of monsters and heretics, and you had to toss in the Fair Folk as well?  However, Kittredge pulls it all together nicely.

There are plots, counterplots, counter-counterplots, and so many deceptions and escapes that I couldn't stop reading as I neared the end.  I can't wait to read the next two.

Not for everyone, but for those to whom this book speaks, it is very, very special.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Whipping Boy

I had assumed that this would have been more violent.  In fact, the title put me off in elementary school when this was on a reading list.  I do remember several of the boys in my class reading it and thinking that they had somehow "fooled the teacher" because it was a really short book.  Because the teacher obviously knew nothing about the reading list she handed out.  But such is the way of the fifth grade boy.

Flash forward a gazillion years.  I was scouring the shelves for books with large enough faces on their cover illustrations for me to tape a paper mustache on the cover (it's for a library display.  Don't judge).  I noticed that The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman had survived our recent, badly needed weeding, and the copy we had didn't smell like death.  I flipped through the pages and figured I could finish it pretty quickly.

The Whipping Boy isn't an awful book.  It's not a bad book or an offensive book.  It's just a very ... blah book.  It had potential to be funny in places, or poignant in others, and instead it just slid back into blandness.  It's not really a bad blandness, but it's a bit tiring, like when you've had a stomach bug and you really want something tastier than applesauce and toast.  There were bits where Fleischman briefly touched something with the potential to be very funny or very silly, but they slipped away from the narrative as quickly as they came.

It's a really simple story.  Once upon a time, in a kingdom (I know not its distance from us, so I cannot say whether it was far, far away or not), there lived a king and his son, Prince Brat.  That's not the child's given name, but it might as well be, because he was maligned by his father and his subjects alike for his horrid behavior.  However, the heir to the throne cannot very well be punished corporeally!  Enter Jemmy, the latest in a series of whipping boys to take the strokes intended for the prince.  It's like spanking by proxy.  Jemmy, having had a Dickensianly hard life, takes his new position in court rather stoically and simply refuses to cry out when he's beaten.  This irks Prince Brat, who orders him to scream and whimper and snivel.  No dice.  Jemmy tries to bargain his way out of the job, but then he realizes it does have its perks.

Perks?  Really?  Well, Prince Brat is so vile that he refuses to learn to read and write, and because of this, he's whipped.  Jemmy is always close at hand for the whippings to take place straightaway.  Being of a sensible nature, he learns to read and write while the Prince remains an ignoramus.

Then the Prince runs away and drags Jemmy with him, whereupon they are promptly captured by highwaymen who eat lots of garlic (I have no idea; I'm just going with the story).  Several chapters are devoted to arguments amongst the two criminals and their captives.  Eventually, Jemmy and the Prince escape, get captured, escape again thanks to a trained bear and his lady-owner, and become fwends.  Awwww.

Aside from the utter lack of any compelling story, what really irked me was Jemmy's unconditional acceptance of Prince Brat's reasons for behaving like a brat.  "Oh, no one hugs me.  Oh, no one likes me.  Oh, no one really cares about me.  Therefore, I will be a jerk!"  And Jemmy's like, "Hmm, he's got a point.  Let's go catch some rats in this birdcage I dug out of a riverbank!"  And he's supposed to be the clever one!

The ending is unsatisfactorily happy for a book with such a grim aspect.  I would have much preferred a Series of Unfortunate Events approach, but I suppose that's simply asking far too much.

Also, I did not think the illustrations by Peter Sís added anything to the story; then again, I am not a particular fan of that illustrator, either.  His recent "biography" picture book of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was particularly wordy and irritated me by reminding me exactly how many times I had to read that bloody book as a French major (hint: far too many times).  Bah humbug and all that jazz.

Avoid at all costs, unless you are a masochistic list-completer such as myself.

Friday, December 19, 2014


I really had no idea what to expect going into Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation.  I'd seen it on our New Book shelving units at the library, and wondered about it.  Such a small book.  Paperback.  But the cover was eye-catching (what can I say--typography!) and it rested, quiescent, in the back of my brain.

Then Goodreads did their annual brouhaha, AKA the Goodreads Choice Awards, and this popped up on the sci-fi lists.  I was woefully underread on the sci-fi books, so I attempted to remedy that by putting a bunch of them on hold at the library.

This weekend, I got the flu.  The actual influenza flu, not that horrible gastroenteritis thing that in vernacular English, we also call the flu.  This means that many of my friends were perplexed and even a bit revolted by my weird cravings for junk food (pizza, burgers).  Since my main occupation was lying in bed all day, punctuated with exciting moments of rolling over to my couch, I was too tired to cook, and hence, got really, really, really hungry.  This has nothing to do with anything, but you see how I was so completely out of it.  I could barely pay attention to a book because I was too busy wishing I could die and simultaneously plotting to convince someone to bring me a gluten-free pizza.

All of the books on my bookshelf looked too long and too wordy for me.  I saw Annihilation sitting there and thought, "Oh goody!  Sci-fi/horror in a small package!  I can do this."

I'm not sure if reading this while exceedingly feverish intensified the whole effect or distracted me from the beautiful danger of it, but either way: wow.

This is a book that people will either love or hate.  There's really no middle ground here.  It's got an unreliable narrator, a mysteriously deadly Eden, and conspiracies galore.  I adored it.

The Biologist serves as our narrator for this expedition into Area X.  It's the 12th expedition.  Its members know the risks: many expeditions simply vanished, while others never completed their mission and the members simply ... reappeared back in the "real world," with no memory of crossing the border out of Area X.  The Biologist really doesn't care.  She's extremely introverted, preferring to observe ecosystems for years on end than to interact with other humans.  There's nothing left for her on the outside--her marriage was failing, she had no real friends, her mother was a drug addict and her father a con man.

At times, the Biologist's narrative is so brutally honest that it stings.  One wonders if she is capable of love or empathy, or if this, too, is a façade put up for the reader.

She's not the only member of the 12th Expedition: their leader is a Psychologist who hypnotizes them after a rigorous conditioning session.  The Anthropologist is quiet, and the Surveyor is ex-military.  After having crossed the border into Area X, the Psychologist informs her teammates that the fifth member, the Linguist, decided to turn back.  Right away, the reader begins to wonder...

Upon reaching Base Camp, the four women are surprised to see a structure where no structure is marked on their map.  The Biologist insists on calling it the Tower, saying it is a tower that goes into the earth, but the rest of the members call it the Tunnel.  Inside, they discover cryptic words written in living fungus.  Written by whom?  And how?  And why?  What does it mean?  Sure wish we had that linguist...

After discovering the Tower, what little sense of camaraderie between the women dissipates with deadly speed.  Soon, we only have the viewpoint of the Biologist and her discoveries, which increase in weirdness.

So much is packed into this little tome that I can't cover it all; and to do so would be to ruin the slightly delusional experience of reading it.

In the end, the reader leaves Area X with little more understanding of it than when she entered, but with so many questions.  This is a book that is not meant to satisfy, like a Snickers.  It's meant to provoke and irritate and make you think.  I don't expect the rest of the trilogy to tie everything up in a nice little bow--in fact, if that happens, I'll be rather disappointed.  VanderMeer's prose is eloquent and sure, and his characters unlikeable in their stripped-down humanity (which happens to be just the way I like my characters!).

Highly, highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What I'm Reading Wednesday

Oof.  After a fun bout of sparring with a virus, I'm trying to get my reading back on track.

I decided it's time to tackle another classic.  This time?  Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

And that's it (so far)!  I currently have a bunch of work-related projects to catch up on all whilst trying to stay awake!  I keep trying books and then realizing a few pages in that they're just not for me.  I may just have to keep reading Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy because Annihilation was amazing.  Review forthcoming on that one!

Shutter, Vol. 1

I've really, really, really been meaning to read Saga.  I promise I have.  Several of my coworkers just run around praising it to the skies (not constantly, and not in a mad prophet way).  One of them called it "the best series out there today."  However, Volume 1 is always checked out when I feel like reading it, and as a lazy person with lots of other graphics right at my fingertips, I say to myself, "Ahhh, next time."

So I'm coming into Shutter with precisely zero (0) experience with Saga, and I can't compare the two, which it seems like happens a lot in the reviews.

Short version: I liked this.

Longer, meandering version: I don't think the publisher is doing itself any favors with the Indiana Jones comparison.  Not all people who go on adventures in fiction are like Indiana Jones.  So just ... ignore that part.  I'm not quite sure what the title or the cover art of the main character using a camera has to do with anything ... yet ... so maybe we need more issues.

Kate Kristopher is born into a family of intergalactic and transtemporal adventurers.  However, she's now out of the business and still mourning her father's untimely death.  On her birthday--and the anniversary of his death--she goes to visit his grave and is attacked by some purple ghost ninjas (I promise you that Del Luca's art makes this wayyyy better than I am making it sound).  More and more of her city's criminal denizens try to muscle in on the price that's been mysteriously put on Kate's head ... by her siblings.

But wait!  Kate doesn't have any brothers or sisters.  She even begged her dad for siblings and he told her it wasn't possible; it was too complicated; she wouldn't understand.  Well, Kate's now understandably flabbergasted, because a) obviously Pops was able to procreate and b) the results of those tangoes (or possible clonings--we don't really know) are now trying to kill her.

I was happily surprised by Shutter.  It's not perfect, and it does fall into some cliché traps.  But.  I've experienced so many eye-gougingly silly/ugly/stupid comics as ARCs lately that I practically danced when I finished Volume One.  It certainly helps that Kate's a POC leading lady, which we're finally seeing more of in Comiclandia (and I'm pretty sure her roomie is trans*).

Joe Keatinge and Leila del Luca have caught my interest with Shutter, and I'm eagerly awaiting Kate's further adventures.

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


I'm a bit puzzled by people who get a lot of reading done when they're ill.  I caught the flu (yes, the actual flu) from a family member this weekend.  Doing any sort of reading, which, unless you are reading Twilight or a James Patterson color-by-numbers book, requires thinking, was absolutely impossible.

I did finish The Iron Codex by Caitlin Kitteredge and I LOVED IT.  Ahem.  Quite enjoyed it.  I'm currently trying to get through Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer and for such a short book, it's taking me a disproportionately long time to read it.  I am, however, intrigued, because all my Unreliable Narrator Alarms are on RED ALERT and now I need to go watch The Hunt for Red October again because it's seriously one of the best movies ever.

Sorry, rambling much?  Told you: flu virus inhibits coherency and thinking ability.

Also, how do people have time to read when they're sick?  I'm generally too busy sleeping.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The "Secret" of Crickley Hall

I try to cull my TBR list regularly.  Okay, fine, regularly-ish.  I'm never as ruthless with my own lists as I am with, say, books in the library that need to be weeded.  If it smells like a troll died in it or the spine is lettered in white-out pen, it needs to go.  Pronto.  But my booklist?  What if I take something off and then I forget about it and it turns out it would have been one of my favorite books ever had I read it?  I'm not going to use that idiotic acronym, but yes: it's a form of the fear of missing out.

So, while I go through and delete books that were obvious reminders to buy it for the library, I mostly cull the list by actually checking out or buying the books and seeing if I actually want to read them.  Thanks to the library, this is generally free.

Like many listmakers, crossing off the things on the top of the list is the most satisfying in a weird, brain-chemical way.  James Herbert's The Secret of Crickley Hall has been at number 20 on my massive list for several years now.  The library doesn't own it, and I try to limit my ILL requests, so I took advantage of Amazon's Cyber Monday code and ordered it.

The first problem was entirely of my own making, and that is that I thought that this was James Thurber (of Many Moons fame) and I thought it would be intriguing to read a scary story by Thurber.  OOPS.  Same first name, totally different last name.  But hey, people were describing him as the "British Stephen King," so I felt that all was not lost.  Plus, I love a good spooky house story.  Yeah!  Let's do this!

Page one: "Gabe, her American husband, kept calling it [the interstate]."  Well, I suppose that depends on from whence Gabe hails in the U.S.  I call it the freeway, but one state down, in Illinois, it's the tollway.  Or you could call it a highway.  It's only an interstate if there's an "I" in front of the number: I-90, for example, but I still call that a "freeway" because it's my personal grammar.  Clearly, Eve, the Obviously Very British Wife, loves to nitpick.  Page two: "because his homeland was the States, Gabe had convinced their youngest daughter, Cally, that he had once been a cowboy."

Buckaroo on Make A Gif
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"The Captain seems to think you're some sort of cowboy."

Oy vey.  Gabe has been living in the UK for sixteen years.  I would think he'd at least pick up terminology.  Like does he still call the Tube a subway?  Who knows?  This could have been in 475 of the pages I didn't read.

Just keep in mind that pretty much the whole book (well, I made it to page 125, so for me that was "the whole book") beats the reader over the head with the fact that Gabe is American.  "The American."  It's really not that big of a deal.  Unless Herbert is still smarting from the whole Revolution thing over 200 years ago.

Actually, the whole hyper-focus on Gabe's nationality kind of sums up the book.  It's a waste of words on something that's totally mundane and that we all have heard or read a million times before.  The plot is color-by-numbers.

  1. Family suffers tragedy.
  2. Family runs away to escape awful memories of tragedy.
  3. Family moves into haunted house because ... reasons.
  4. Creepy things start happening.
  5. Family ignores creepy things.
  6. Really bad and dangerous creepy things happen.
  7. Family gets stuck.
  8. Enter the Medium.
  9. Family must break curse on house and free the spirits with help of Medium.
  10. Yay all the dead people are happeeeee!
It takes Herbert 600 pages to do this.  I think he managed the page count just by writing sentences that repeat themselves (this happens a lot; he likes to repeat himself, like this!).  I had no sympathy for or connection with any of the characters, except for maybe Chester the dog, who's the only sensible one in this whole family.

This is completely skippable (in fact, I'd advise you to run far, far away from it).  If you must get your spooky-house fix, stream a silly Hollywood horror film starring C-list "actresses" and "actors."  

Hopefully I can return this for a refund.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz consists of a series of brief, orphaned blobs of text with  accompanying pictures.  Many pages are blank because this stylistically represents memory gaps.  Please don't make it that obvious.

This is a desperate attempt at mimicking Edward Gorey and a fabulous example of spectacular failure.

Edward Gorey is not to be imitated.


ARC provided by Netgalley.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Titus Groan

Titus Groan has been on my to-read list since college.  Oh, so long ago.

I'm not sure what first alerted me to its existence, but the idea of a Gothic novel written in the non-Gothic time period (I'm talking both legit Goths and Visigoths and Ann Radcliffe-Goth) intrigued me.  Plus, the names were just this side of ridiculous--Groan, Gormenghast.

I managed a hundred and twenty-five pages of Titus Groan before I, too, groaned and gave up.  I'm not entirely ruling out finishing it in the future, but it's no longer a pressing matter.  I'm no longer itching to find out what's going on with this series.

This has about a million glowing reviews all over, so I feel like some sort of barbarian (Visigoth?) in not liking this.  Am I especially dense for not getting it?  Do I simply lack patience, and, like Luke Skywalker, must learn patience?

Those are all distinct possibilities.  But there is another thing, and it's that Mervyn Peake's prose takes Henry James' prolixity to new and even murkier depths.  It's as if Peake gathered up all the vaguely dark, sinister, and obscure adjectives he could find and hurled them at the narrative.  There's pages and pages and pages and pages devoted to describing the odd gabled roofs and towers of the manor.  Perhaps Mr. Peake took on a bet: "Say, Merv, I bet you can't write a thousand words about the sinister aspect of  a roof."  "Challenge accepted!"

The characters are mildly intriguing, but I could barely peer through the gloomy, overhanging sentences to find them in the murk.

Getting back to the adjective thing, I was musing this morning that when certain authors whose works are now considered "classics" get verbose, it's considered a mark of higher learning and linguistic achievement.  Nowadays, odd similes and metaphors get lambasted for being silly.  I thought of the oft-mocked description in The Prey by Tom Isbell (review here) of the "anvil-shaped face."  Yet, I think many characters in Titus Groan  are subjected to descriptions more grotesque than mere anvils.  This is praised.  I am confused.

The more I think about it, the less desire I have to return to the world that Peake has created.  You may enter at your own risk.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gabi, A Girl In Pieces

I booktalked this to a teen who came to my Hot Cocoa and Book Chat program last week, and she said, "Wow.  That's, like, my life."

BINGO.  We have a winner.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces isn't going to make the Goodreads Fangirl Cover Squeal List. Or is it Cover Lust?  I don't know, except that it usually involves a lot of frantic gifs that make my eyes want to die. It's kind of a messy cover, because (dude, watch out, metaphor coming!!!) life is messy.  Gabriella Hernandez's life is super messy.  Her dad's addicted to meth, her tía Bertha has embraced a strict religion to atone for her younger years of riding in cars with boys and possibly being a witch, and her best friend, Cindy, just told Gabi that she's pregnant.  Oh, and Gabi's other best friend, Sebastian, came out as gay, which shocked precisely zero of his friends but got him kicked out of his own house.

Plus, Gabi's never been kissed, never had sex, and has a crazy obsession with beef jerky.  All these points relate to her "fatness."  Gabi describes herself as fat, but really without any malice.  It's an adjective: "I am fat," just like "I am tall" or "I am flexible."  Yeah, so she does eat her feelings, but the girl also loves some most excellent Mexican food (like, the legit stuff made out of tongues and hooves and stuff) and takes joy in the simple act of eating.  I never, not once, got from the author that Gabi was "bad" for loving food, or that she was unlovable for being fat.  Girlfriend had dudes falling all over her, probably because she's smart and funny.  We don't really know exactly what Gabi looks like except that her skin is pretty pale, so much so that her "Mexicanness" is questioned.  Even her family worries that she's becoming too gringa.  Ay.  But none of that matters, because Gabi is also a kick-butt poet and all around creative volcano of awesome.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces follows Gabi's life through her pretty epic senior year of high school.  There's babies, death, more babies, boyfriend drama, rape, and lots and lots and lots of slut-shaming, with Gabi fighting back against cultural and societal stigmas.  Her family always tells her, "Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas" ("Eyes open, legs shut.") because obviously girls who get raped or get pregnant were "asking for it."  Gabi's 'zine, which appears near the end of the book, is her riff on the female body.  She points out how all of the female body parts have been objectified or labeled as "dirty," when really they're just parts of our body and not inherently bad.

This book is an experience that you need to have.  Like, right now.  Preferably you've already read it and realized how unbelievably awesome it is.  If not, run, don't walk (and if you can't run, drive or take some sort of public transportation--but for the love of Cthulhu please don't hitchhike!) to your closest library or bookstore and GET THIS BOOK.  Then, when you have it between your trembling, eager fingers, READ THIS BOOK.  Then, like me, you will probably have to ORDER MEXICAN FOOD (note: do this only if you've got a taquería auténtica in your city--Taco Bell is no bueno and also will make your intestines fall out).

If #WeNeedDiverseBooks needs a book mascot, this is pretty much it for YA literature.  I kind of wish I were an octopus with opposable thumbs because then I could give this eight thumbs up.  Two will have to suffice.

Also, I now have to try Flamin' Hot Cheetos with Tapatío sauce ... because that just sounds amazing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


"Urgh" is what I would say if I had to describe how my head feels.  This isn't because I'm having an existential crisis or anything like that (thank goodness!), but I just feel ... off.  You know, 'tis the season for kiddos at the library to sneeze on everything, like, you know, my face.

So what do you care about my wonky head and queasy stomach?  Actually, I hope you don't think about it.  This is just me, rambling, and possibly feverish.  I'm probably perfectly healthy but my cousin and I share a strong familial bond called hypochondria.  You're welcome!

Despite the fact that I can get on my laptop and let words spill out of my brain, I can't seem to find the motivation to pick up a book and let new ideas marinate.  I skimmed through an ARC today and thought, "Eh."  I'm not going to review it because I pretty much have zero feelings about it one way or another.

Oh my god, maybe this is an existential crisis?

Anyway, I've actually forgotten what else I'm reading and I'm too lazy to click over to Goodreads and see what I've marked as "currently reading."  I recently finished two absolutely brilliant books, Cruel Beauty and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  Both very different books, but marvelous nonetheless.  Reading a great book requires a bit of post-reading recovery (PRR).  Allow me to explain with gelato.

Yes, gelato.  Look, I live in Wisconsin, the Dairy State, so I take my dairy products Very Seriously.  The city I'm from is also Very Italian, so when I went to Italy, it was heaven.  Apart from the art and the coffee, the gelato there was simply divine.  And cheap!  I paid like 3 euros for a heaping cornetto of two different flavors made from scratch, not from a weird mix or something.  It was so freaking cheap to eat gelato that I ate it multiple times a day.  It would be like, "Dang, it's three o'clock!  I haven't had gelato in 45 minutes!  Let's get more gelato!"  When I got back to the states, gelato was becoming a "thing."  Unfortunately, this meant that it was ridiculously overpriced (hi, tiny coppa di gelato for $5.95!) and bland.  All of the vibrancy of the gelato I ate in Italy completely spoiled me forever and forever (amen).  Too much of a good thing isn't bad, it just identifies the sad, grasping wannabes of the good thing.

So, if the books I finished recently are Italian gelato, I feel like everything in front of me is American gelato.  That's not entirely fair, because there could be some hidden gems in there.  But right now I have book fatigue and also bodily fatigue and I might go take some cold medicine because in the course of writing this post, I started to feel markedly worse.

And that's what you get when a librarian has had two vacation days to spend in the winter wastes of Wisconsin: a jaded, rambling, cynical post on how Nothing Will Ever Be Good Ever Again.  Tchin-tchin!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Crimson Bound

This is why I read YA.  No, that's not entirely true.  This is why I read.  Full stop.

This book.  And Marcus Sedgwick's The Ghosts of Heaven.  And Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us.  Something about the words in these books, the characters in these books, the sheer beauty of the language in these books ... it reaches into my heart and grabs it and wrings it out until I'm gasping for breath.  And that's a good book.  I don't care if it's adult, YA, kidlit, or books for aliens.

As is so often the case when I'm, for lack of a better word, bouleversée by a particular book, I don't often feel up to the task of properly reviewing it.  I feel more like making squealing noises and tossing copies of the book at everyone who crosses my path (fear not, I cannot do this yet, as I do not have access to Crimson Bound in corporeal form).

Perhaps I should start more books expecting to hate them.  As with this one and The Ghosts of Heaven, I went in fully prepared to say, "Nope."  Instead, they charmed me and hooked me and dragged me in.  I love it when books do that to you.  To me.

On the surface, Crimson Bound sounds like another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.  "We've already had one of those!" you shout.  "Remember Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce?"  Erm, well, yes, but I didn't like it.  You are correct, though, that retelling fairy tales and myths is big business in YA fantasy.  There are so many ways it can go wrong.  Crimson Bound gets everything perfectly right.

Rosamund Hodge doesn't just use Little Red Riding Hood, but also The Girl with No Hands.  If you haven't read it, please do so.  So often, the moral of the Red Riding Hood story is all the Bad Things that happen to girls (specifically girls, and I'll get to that in a moment) when they "stray from the path" of morality, trusting in strange men (wolves).  There's all sorts of sexual politics that I could yammer on about, but better and more intelligent writers than I have tackled that already, so suffice it to say that I rather expected Crimson Bound to be about a submissive, Mary-Sue heroine who takes no initiative and blindly follows where the gorgeous men (for there must be several) in her life attempt to lead her.

WRONG!  As a perfectionist and introvert, I only enjoy being wrong when the end result is itself enjoyable,  i.e. this book.

Rachelle's aunt, the village woodwife, is training her to one day assume the duties of the woodwives in protecting the villagers from the Forestborn and the dangers of the Great Forest.  The mythology of this world is fairly complex, but here are the salient points:

  1. A Long Time Ago, a brother and a sister defeated the Devourer at great cost to themselves.
  2. Alas! The Devourer was not destroyed; only weakened.  He controls another dimension called the Great Forest and sends his animalistic servants, the Forestborn, to hunt and corrupt humans.
  3. If you are marked by a Forestborn, you become Bloodborn.  When this happens, you must either kill someone within three days or die an agonizing death.
Woodwives weave charms in yarn and thread to protect against the Forestborn, but Rachelle knows in her heart that it isn't enough, and that it will never be enough.  She unwisely leaves the path one day and tempts fate by speaking to a Forestborn.  She believes that she's strong enough to resist him--until the day he marks her.  

Several years later, Rachelle is in the service of the great king Auguste-Phillippe II as one of his corps of Bloodborn.  These elite hunters track down Forestborn in exchange for a stay of execution.  As Bloodborn, their souls are damned and they have obviously murdered at least once.  Wracked with guilt over the murder she committed in order to live, Rachelle nonetheless revels in the power of being Bloodborn.  She's faster, stronger, and a better fighter than any normal human.  She believes that she's repaying her debt in a small way by hunting those who turned her, and she is relatively content in this.  Until one day, when the king assigns her to be the personal bodyguard of one of his (many) bastard sons.

The social structure in Crimson Bound is very like the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King (as a French major and history nerd, I loved this).  There are intrigues upon intrigues, mistresses galore, even more royal bastards galore, and at the center of it all: a weak, old king who regards himself as divine.  Rachelle would really rather not guard Armand, but as the king commands, and as her Bloodborn commander and friend, Erec d'Anjou commands ... she must.

Far from being the fussy pretty boy so often paired with our heroine in these types of fantasies, Armand is just plain ... nice (or is he?).  He is the only person to have been Marked, not killed anyone, and yet not died.  His salvation came with great sacrifice: both of his hands were cut off, and he wears hands of silver that attach to the stumps on his arms.  The people regard him as a saint and a weaver of miracles.  Rachelle thinks he's a phony and a hack.  That is, until she realizes that he's not into this whole saint thing either.  

Yes.  There is a smidge of a love triangle here.  Sort of.  And I still loved it.  Am I crazy?  The book might just be that good.

Meanwhile, Rachelle attempts to navigate the multilayered hypocrisy of court with the assistance of her friend Amélie, who is a makeup artist (NO JUDGING.  Hodge's descriptions of makeup application and how it heals Amélie are really lovely).  Plots swirl around the king and his various children, and she has to deal with Erec trying to make her one of his many female conquests.  Oh, and the world is probably going to end in a few weeks, because the Devourer will manifest at the Summer Solstice and basically eat the world.  

I know this all sounds a bit odd--I'm probably not selling it well at all--but trust me when I say that it is beautifully written and that the characters are all fully realized.  Hodge kept tossing in these plot twists that literally made me look up from my Kindle with my jaw slightly slack, mumbling something like, "Whoa whaaaa whoa?"

And can we just talk about how great Rachelle is as a female protagonist? Unlike many YA assassins/murderers/bad girls, Rachelle actually is a kick-butt fighter and slayer of monsters.  She kicks mucho butt at every opportunity.  She also makes decisions about her sexuality and owns them. She's the first to admit that she makes mistakes, but she refuses to be slut-shamed for doing what all the men are doing as well, and with society's tacit approval.  Rachelle clearly understands the difference between lust and love, and doesn't run around proclaiming herself to be in love with guys.  She recognizes and acknowledges physical attraction, but still weighs the pros and cons of committing to an emotionally-invested romantic relationship.  

I have the sinking feeling that this may be one of the worst reviews I've ever written, which is an awful shame.  So, if you've made it this far, forget all of my rambling and incoherency and get thee on the waitlist/pre-order list for this book.  Or I'll send Rachelle to kick your butt.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Drunk Kitchen and Internet Celebrity

Full disclosure: I had no idea what or who My Drunk Kitchen was before I picked up the book, but I noticed it on the Goodreads ballot for the best cookbook of the year.  I figured that with a title like My Drunk Kitchen, it wouldn't be an actual cookbook, but something more along the lines of I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris.

I don't know if I'm not quite hipster enough, or not quite drunk enough, but I just didn't get this book.

I am always amazed at peoples' ability to keep up with what is in and what is out--particularly online.  I use YouTube mainly for makeup tutorials, and sometimes I'll watch a few music videos, but I don't understand the appeal of vlogging.  There's nothing wrong with it; I just don't feel compelled to watch people tell stories about their lives or talk about how difficult it is to apply self-tanner or something.  I mean, I didn't even know John Green did Vlogbrothers with Hank Green until someone mentioned it at PLA this year.  I'd been reading his books, but the online persona didn't even register.  Green (the John, not the Hank) wrote the intro to My Drunk Kitchen.

This is a mild interruption in this review to point out that I am not a giant John Green fangirl.  I don't send him poetry (this is a long story which I might address in a different post!) or messages or even comment on his tweets.  I just like the books he writes.  However, I've noticed a trend among some bloggers and bookish people to swing the opposite direction and Hate John Green for Everything.  I believe this is because he is a cisgendered white male who is successful in his field.  It's not someone's fault to be born the way they are, nor is it someone's fault to write a really good book about teens with cancer.  Even if you hated The Fault in Our Stars, you have to admit that it really galvanized teens into reading realistic young adult fiction.  That's a huge positive in my book.  But I also don't make my book choices based on what John Green endorses or doesn't endorse.  Okay?  Okay.

So, back to My Drunk Kitchen.  In 2011, Hannah Hart filmed herself cooking while drunk and uploaded it to YouTube.  Because humans are weird, this suddenly became A Thing,

In the interest of research, and being unbiased and mildly informed and such, I went and I watched that episode on YouTube.  I didn't find it funny.  Maybe it gets better as you go?

Anyway, I guess Hannah is really funny on YouTube (?) and makes lots of puns (also missed that--how does one make an excellent pun while drunk?) and she does make some good points about Life In General.

Sometimes I feel like publishers go all Oprah on YouTubers: "You get a book deal and you get a book deal and you get a book deal!"  Just because someone makes videos that other someones want to watch does not inherently mean that they are good writers or that it is necessary to redo their YouTube channel in print format.

As far as I can gather, My Drunk Kitchen isn't really about cooking.  It's about dealing with stuff in your life and being drunk and also maybe eating a lot of weird "food" because of being drunk and/or dealing with stuff in your life.  That's cool.  That's also pretty much what the book is about.  It should definitely be shelved in either self-help or comedy because it's not really a cookbook.  Nor should it have been nominated for the "cookbook" award on Goodreads.

Oh, my gosh.  I figured it out.  I figured out why this book made me simultaneously bored and irritated.  The publishers/YouTube community/rabid Hart fans are trying to make her The Voice of a Generation, kind of like Lena Dunham (whom I also do not find funny, just because I don't).

This is the part where everyone goes, "GASP!  YOU HAVE NO TASTE! YOU HAVE NO SOUL! YOU NEANDERTHAL, YOU!" and I go, "Whatever," because I have so much better stuff to do with my time.  I am tired of the cult of the YouTube celebrity and I am tired of people being called "celebrities" because people want to watch them give out life lessons or something.  I don't get it and I don't care that you might not like that I don't get it.

I am going to crankily stomp off now and read another book.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

I never read "classic" young adult literature when I was technically a young adult.  I thought it was too fluffy or too silly or too angst-ridden to be interesting.  Let's face it: I was a book snob.  Still am kind of a book snob, but at least I realize my error and am trying to correct it.

You know how the human mind makes odd associations sometimes, with nothing to back up the association other than some fluke of a synaptic bridge?  When I was younger, I thought that this was the sequel to Summer of My German Soldier.  I mean, they both had similar covers in that the girl was white, blonde, straight-haired, and conventionally pretty.  They both seemed like mildly tragic books.  So, I assumed that the German Solder left/died, and didn't promise his girlfriend a rose garden, and so she worked through her grief.

I came up with that when I was ten and I feel like I would have rather read that nonexistent book than the actual I Never Promised You A Rose Garden.

This is a book that wants you to know that it is about Mental Illness (capitalized, naturally) and how one brave girl, with the help of her brave and innovative psychiatrist, was able to overcome her "inner demons" of schizophrenia and function in "the real world."

Oh, dear.  That sounded awfully harsh and sarcastic, didn't it?


The story opens with Deborah's parents reluctantly checking her into a treatment center after a suicide attempt.  Deborah's father, in particular, really doesn't think it's necessary.  We get a bit of background on the parents: both of them come from immigrant families, and Esther, Deborah's mother, was considered to have married beneath her when she married Mr. Blau.  Esther's father made his fortune in America but still suffered prejudicial treatment and hatred because of being an Eastern European Jew.  Consequently, he set very high standards for Esther, and then Deborah, to fulfill.  His descendants must be brilliant, pretty, successful--everything to "show them" that she's good enough to be in "in society."  I apologize for the overabundance of sassy quotation marks, but I don't want to give the impression that I agree with the agenda that good ol' Gramps was pushing, although I understand where he was coming from.

Meanwhile, Deborah has created a world within her mind, called Yr.  This world has gods that torment her, as well as its own language and mythology.  Many of the passages referring to Yr, with Deborah speaking in Yri, are extremely difficult to follow, which I suppose is the point.  The world of Yr felt a bit like a ripoff of Lovecraft, although I cannot speak to that particular type of fiction's popularity in this time period.

Her therapist has decided that she will take on Deborah's case, even though she (the doctor) is Very Important and Very Busy, because she wants a challenge and she is determined to cure Deborah.  In addition to the usual menu of treatments served at mental institutions in the past (the "cold pack" where they mummify you in cold, wet sheets to calm you down is particularly popular here!), Deborah receives no medication, just talk therapy.  I think talking about problems is exceedingly helpful, but at this point, depending on what you believe about mental illness, you'll either accept or reject the book.

Doctor Fried, who escaped Nazi Germany but saw many of her patients there lose their lives, talks Deborah through the land of Yr and her formative years.  Deborah believes that she is forever lost--that she is corrupted through-and-through, and gives the example of trying to kill her baby sister.  As they discuss family issues, it comes out that the good doctor believes that Deborah's problems all stem from the undue pressure placed upon her by her grandfather, as well as her parents' behavior.  There is even a hint that Jacob, Deborah's father, has a lustful love for her that shows in his overprotective attitude.  Finally, there is the issue of Deborah's heritage: as a Jewish girl, she was constantly tormented as a girl because of her religion and ethnicity.  All of this, Doctor Blau concludes, has driven Deborah to create her own world of suffering within her own mind.  Basically, this book is of the mindset that your parents and your upbringing make  you mentally ill.

For some mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, I think that disordered behavior on the part of close family members can contribute to poor body image or sense of self-worth, which can morph into a disorder.  Experts do acknowledge that trauma while young or some other sort of environmental factor can contribute to schizophrenia, but there is also a genetic component.  In addition, scans of patients with schizophrenia show that their brains look different.  Physically.  This is all easily Googleable (not a word) and comes from sources like the Mayo or NAMI.  I would think that a disease that physically alters one's brain isn't something that can be overcome by force of will, which is basically the plot of this book.

Joanne Greenberg/Hannah Green based this on her own experiences, and she is currently living a very stable life in Colorado.  Everyone's experience with mental illness is different.  I would have preferred it had Greenberg written this as a straight memoir.  As a novel, it feels Disneyfied somehow (and not in a Frozen-good way).

As someone with depression and a brother who has bipolar disorder, I cannot swallow the line about thinking yourself out of mental illness.  We've finally started to understand that telling a depressed person to "just think positively!" or "look on the bright side!" doesn't help.  At all.  So, why do so many readers blithely accept Deborah's "I willed it away" "cure" for schizophrenia?  I don't even think it matters where you stand on the meds vs. no meds debate--what it boils down to is: Can you think your way out of mental illness.

This turns into a sort of mental mirror maze.  Let's use Deborah as our example.  She is trapped in Yr, the land of her mind.  However, she uses the mind that we (and she) have accepted as misfiring, in a way, to fix itself.  Using your brain to diagnose itself and then cure itself is like a bizarre form of biological and psychological nepotism.

Other than the thematic issues, I felt that the prose--such as it was--was excessively leaden, and it took me far too long to read this because I kept feeling so darn bored.  I would have given up, only I wanted to see this "fantastic journey" to its heartwarming Disney climax.  Well, sort of.

Writing about mental illness is extremely difficult, and I find it almost impossible to coherently review books that talk about mental illness because a) I have a very complicated relationship with it and b) everyone FREAKS OUT about mental illness.  Yes.  Even now.  In 2014.  I think I deleted three drafts of this review.  So it might be kind of boring or kind of scatterbrained, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

Maybe I should have just willed myself to write an awesome review.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What I'm Reading Wednesday

Yes, I'm back to my gotta-read-'em-all ways.  Four books in the rotation this week!

I keep leaving Gabi, A Girl In Pieces in odd places in my apartment, so I've missed reading it since I started last week.  It's coming to work with me tomorrow for break and lunch time reading.

I attempted reading Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake several years ago.  I'd not read much dark fiction like this and I didn't quite understand what was going on.  I'm not sure if this is a good thing, but I think that my life experiences and reading experiences have prepared me to enjoy this very much.

Scrolling through my practically-infinite TBR on Goodreads, I noticed The Iron Thorn and didn't remember what it was about or why I wanted to read it in the first place.  Thankfully, our library e-book service had it available right away (always an inner happy dance when this occurs!), so I could figure out what caught my attention about this title.  So far, I am enjoying it.  Wonderfully dark.

Is this a theme this week?  If so, it's entirely unintentional.

It's also unintentional and uncharacteristic of me to be enjoying the final book as much as I am.  I glanced at Rosamund Hodges' first book, Cruel Beauty, and decided it wouldn't work for me.  Now that she's sucked me in with  Crimson Bound, a mashup retelling of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel set in an alternate 17th-Century France-type-place.  There's romance and a kind-of-sort-of love triangle, so by all rights I should be side-eyeing this at best.  Instead I stayed up far too late last night reading.  Between this and Illusions of Fate, am I losing my jadedness?  What is wrong with me?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Boundless

A good rule of thumb for children's books is that if it's difficult for an adult to make it through, it will probably be exponentially more difficult for a child to finish.  Unless that was me as a child, in which case I generally slogged through anything because I felt it was my solemn duty to finish them.  I can't believe how much time I wasted.  I even reread things that I didn't like.  The only explanation I have for this is: kids are weird.

So maybe, kids will really like Kenneth Oppel's The Boundless.  I enjoyed Airborn, but unfortunately, this felt like a bland retread of that book, only with a train instead of airships.  I actually did a lot of skimming with this in the middle sections, mostly because I just didn't care anymore.  

Wait, let me just take a moment to tell you how tired I am of MG/J fic male protagonists named Will.  If they're not named Will, they're named Jack, and there's only so many of them that I can keep straight in my head.  A quick Google search turned up the occurance of names by decade on the US Census (I know, The Boundless is set in Canada, but let's just assume that the English-speaking bits of Canada were on relatively the same wavelength regarding names as their southern neighbors).  Yes, William and John (Will and Jack, respectively) were the most popular names.  However, why not give your protagonist a moniker that hasn't been beaten to death?  Even a plain ol' Biblical name would have worked: Aaron, Daniel, Elijah ... or the more esoteric: Drummond, Horatio (I got these off of Canadian marriage licenses of the 1800s here).

Anyway, all name-ranting aside, this book is just so dull.  The premise: Will's father is a railroad worker, and is currently working on the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad.  Will and his mother go out to meet dear ol' Dad, and Will meets two interesting people: a tightrope walker named Maren and the president of the railroad, the ultra-rich Cornelius Van Horne (pro tip: you can tell he is a Big Shot because he has a "van" in his name and an extra "e" at the end).  Of course, Will sort of falls for Maren, despite being a bit young for that, and impresses Van Horne by his bravery in the face of avalanche-provoked sasquatch attacks (yes, sasquatch.  More on that in a bit.).

A few years later, Will's father has been promoted and his family has gone from teetering on the brink of poverty to breaking into the world of the nouveau riche.  Gone are cold baths in the boarding house sink.  Gone, too, is Will's sasquatch tooth, as he left it with Maren several years ago.  Now, Cornelius Van Horne's dream of a massive train that will travel the continent has been realized: it is called the Dauntless, and she is the Titanic of locomotives (alas, Van Horne has conveniently just died, so the maiden voyage will also carry his casket).  More so, really, because the Dauntless is several miles long in order to accomodate all the classes and luxuries accorded to them (well, mostly to first-class passengers), as well as the circus.  Unlike the Titanic, whose decks could grow vertically, the Dauntless has double-decker cars, but because of their inherent instabiity, holds all of its passengers by stretching out over miles and miles of track.

This is the maiden voyage of the Dauntless, and Will's father (who has a name, I'm sure, but is so flat of a character that I can only think of him as "Will's father") will be an engineer/conductor-type person, thus leaving Will conveniently alone.  As they chug through the Canadian wilderness, Will must not only protect himself from violent sasquatch attacks and wendigos (wendigoes? wendigi?) but also from evil brakemen.

Look, I have to level with you.  I am getting so bored writing about this book that I just want to go to sleep.

Right.  So Will witnesses a murder, falls in with the circus, reconnects with Maren, is pursued by the murderer, and is stuck in (gasp!) the lower class areas of the train.  However will he warn his father?  However will he stop the murderer?  Whose side is the circus master on, anyway?  How does the captured sasquatch play into this?  However will he protect Cornelius Van Horne's funeral car?  Most importantly, will there be Irish dancing with Leonardo DiCaprio?

This book could be called The Neverending Train Ride of ZZZZ and it would suit perfectly.  I'm so disappointed to read this from Oppel.  Other reviewers have pointed out that it is similar, thematically, to the second book in the Airborn series, which is unfortunate.  Reworking someone else's material is never a good thing, but when you do it to yourself, it smacks of desperation.