Friday, May 30, 2014

A Separate Peace

" 'What makes you so special? Why should you get it and all the rest of us be in the dark' 
The momentum of his argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. 'Because I've suffered,' he burst out."


This book should be titled, A Separate Peace: Or, The World's Tiniest Violin


Gene is a student at Devon Prep. It's the middle of World War II, and he's too young to enlist or be drafted. His best friend at school is Phineas, or Finny, who, despite being a lackluster student, can talk his way out of a paper bag and is a superb athlete. The boys are best friends, and pretty much all of the subtext is screaming that there's something more going on here, but Knowles dances a tarantella around the issue. I mean, come on, listen to this:

"He caught my leg and there was a brief wrestling match on the turf which he won ... I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn't ask for anything better."

Between scenes like that and a lot of references to Greek gods and ancient wrestling, all this tortured emotional stuff became almost painfully comedic. It's like Knowles was trying to write a book about two guys, but was too afraid? worried? shy? to just come out and say something. This is, of course, where my English teacher would jump in, stomp her sensible pumps, and ask us, "But what did the author really mean by that? Why did the author use those particular words in that particular order in that particular chapter? Why would he not want to say his characters are gay?" Clearly, since I am not a mind-reader, I don't know

Actually, this was one book that I managed to avoid reading in high school. I am profoundly grateful for this. I barely managed to read it as an adult. Those are hours of my life I can never get back. 

Some reviewers say this book has no action--true enough, but a book needn't have action to be well-written. See, for example, À rebours by Huysmans, which has almost no plot at all and yet is mind-blowingly complex. Others say that it has no point--again, not true. There is a point somewhere in this morass of fancy words and convoluted language and white male privilege. I'm going to go with guilt and identity as two themes here. Ahhh ... so maybe I didn't find the point, either. But it's buried in there, somewhere. I think. 

Look, here's the lowdown: Gene and Finny are roommates. For some reason, Gene gets it into his head that they are rivals (when they're really not: Gene's more academic and Finny's into sports), so he contrives (whether consciously or unconsciously or quasi-consciously--you decide) to cause Finny to have an accident (and I don't mean urine). Then, we have to suffer through pages and pages and pages of Gene's guilt-not-guilt and sorry-not-sorry. Evidently, the minutiae of getting towels for the crew team or walking to class are important enough to have pages of prose written about them. It's not spectacular prose, either. Knowles manages to hover between overwritten and overly simplistic. The plot, what little of it there is, is really ludicrous when you step back and think about it. 

The opening quote occurs after Finny's accident, which renders him unable to play sports. Does Knowles really want us to think that Finny's suffering of a broken leg, of sports dreams quashed, is really the worst suffering there is? Maybe it's all an elaborate joke--maybe we are supposed to look at these people and think, "Gosh, what self-absorbed twits they all are." But I really don't think that was the point when this was written: I think we, as readers, are supposed to take this at face-value. What really irks me about this whole martyrdom is that it's set during WWII. Millions of people were dying in horrible, horrible ways and your broken leg is suffering? Cry me a river. 

The privilege that oozes out of this book is thick and cloying. All the frolicking in the wide fields and rowing for crew and studying for exams and fancy marble staircases aren't anything I can relate to. I can't look at a single character in this book and find a piece of myself in him (because there are no women in this book. Boys' Club Only.). Gene's detachment borders on psychopathy. "Oh, my friend had an accident. Oops, I caused it. Oh, my friend had another accident.  Oops, now he died.  Cheerio!" What? What what?

I honestly don't understand why this is considered a classic, which may be an inflammatory statement to make, but I'm well within my rights to make it. What in this book is relatable to teens? Why would you want to force-feed teens an insipid novel about teen dudes who prance around a fancy prep school? I know it's supposed to be innocence versus the war and all that. I get it. But that doesn't mean the book achieved its purpose in making me feel something. Unless that something was intended to be repugnance.

If you had to read this in school, I'm sorry. If you didn't have to read this but want to know what all the fuss is about, proceed only if you are a literary masochist.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

SYLO

Something strange is afoot in Maine. Authors like to set scary, creepy, oh-my-gosh-did-that-just-happen? stories in Maine. Okay, so mostly I'm talking Stephen King and Joe Hill (and they're related, so I don't know how much of a statistical sample that is). But, are we freaking people out about Maine because it's a really awesome place and residents don't want it to turn into Disneyland 3.0, or is it, in actuality, a freakishly scary place?

I don't know, but I'm tempted to take a vacation there and find out for myself. 

Much of the tension in SYLO revolves around isolation--specifically, the isolation of the residents of Pemberwick Island, a small vacation spot five miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. It's scary to be lost in the woods, but it's even scarier when the woods are on an island and someone is hunting you.


This is actually a pretty solid middle-grade action-adventure book. it's a bit like a summer blockbuster: many big booms, many car chases, hot girls, escapes, captures, more escapes, and maybe even some aliens. So help me, I love movies in which things explode (and I really loathe romantic comedies), so I'm probably the right reader for SYLO. I can definitely see myself recommending this to kids who like superhero books: it's zippy and also addresses that age-old superhero qusetion: how much are you willing to risk to save the world?

The hero of SYLO is fourteen-year-old high school freshman Tucker Pierce (whom I kept calling Tucker Max in my mind, a neural glitch for which I sincerely apologize to young Tucker-of-the-book). He's pretty laid back. Likes the quiet life on Pemberwick Island as opposed to city life--he and his family moved to Pemberwick a few years ago when Tucker's dad lost his job. Tucker's best friend Quinn, however, wants more from life. He wants to get off the island and change the world. 

One of the things I didn't like so much about SYLO was its treatment of female characters. Olivia is the exceedingly stereotypical manipulative, unattainable hot chick. She prances around in either a bikini or a halter top ensemble in most of her scenes. If this is a Michael Bay flick, she's Megan Fox. She wants Tucker to think she likes him, but Olivia's got Kent, star of the football team, panting after her as well. Tori is the tough, enigmatic loner girl (who is also pretty hot, because girls can't be leads in a book without being hot, duh) who fascinates Tucker. She's actually pretty kick-butt (she hogties a soldier in a few seconds flat), but is also prone to rash decision making. Then there's Kent, the rich boy mentioned above who's kind of a meathead, but not really? I guess he has ... hidden depths. Maybe.

I can critique this on one level and talk about the characters, the Bad Guys, the Other Bad Guys, and so forth, but I admit: this one took me on a fantastic ride. It was nonstop action and MacHale keeps throwing monkey wrenches in the works. I actually really liked the ending and I actually ... want to read the sequel.

I know, I know. Shocking. Look, I'm not saying that this is Dostoyevskey or Austen or [insert your favorite author here], but it's fun and engaging and kids will read it. Whoa. That's the thing, right? I'm a Youth Services Librarian. I want kids to read and have fun doing so. I don't care what they read, really (unless it's something really horrible like Mein Kampf or the KKK Manifesto or some dorky Men's Rights book, in which case: no). Okay, so I care. But SYLO isn't offensive or vulgar. It's actually pretty clean.

Oh ... yeah. The plot of the book. Okay, quick rundown: mysterious deaths on Pemberwick may be related to a crystal-like drug called the Ruby. Suddenly, a division of the U.S. Navy called SYLO invades and ruthlessly quarantines the island. By "ruthless" I mean "they shoot people who try to escape." Many residents are captured and placed in a concentration-camp-like structure erected on (of all places) the golf course. Tucker and his friends try to solve the mystery, evade the bad military guys, and escape the island.

But what comes after the end?

Why, Storm, of course.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hey-o, guess what? #WeNeedDiverseBooks (still!)

Too often, a galvanizing social campaign fizzles without achieving its goal--not due to active resistance, but to passive lassitude.  Participants assume that the individual need not do any more to push the campaign because "someone else will do it."  When the whole group stops acting because "someone else will do it," the end result is that nothing is accomplished.  See, for example, the #Occupy movement.  I honestly had to poke around my brain for a moment to remember what that whole shebang was actually called

I'm not saying you have to join a movement to change the world and become a fanatic.  But if you believe in something, stick to it.  Strong beliefs eventually meld with personality and become who you are

Recently, I've seen some tweets and Tumblr posts about how after the initial push, bloggers "aren't doing enough" to keep the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign going.  Blogs and Twitter users can't talk about that all the time, but those of us who are editors, librarians, teachers, publishers, and authors should always keep it in mind when ordering or selecting books.  Readers should evaluate their habits and ask themselves, "How do I picture the main character?  Why do I see him or her that way?"  I know that I am now scrutinizing my ordering lists for YA fiction much more carefully than I did in the past.  I'm seeking out books that present diverse viewpoints and characters. 

So keep talking. 

Chew Omnivore Edition: Vol. 3

This review could be filled--nay, chock-full--of poorly executed food-related puns.

I won't inflict that on you.  You're welcome.  But please, check out all of the clever wordplay and fourth-wall-busting jokes in every issue that comprises Chew: Omnivore Edition, Vol. 3.  There are all these special touches that take this comic from "really, really, really good" to "words-fail-me-good."

My words haven't failed me entirely, since I am reviewing it.  I cannot promise a fully coherent review, though, since I fear that any minute my head is going to either explode or implode from the massive amounts of tree pollen liberated by this afternoon's torrential downpour.  Someone's hammered nails into my jaw, so I'm leaving it slack, tongue lolling a bit.  They've also driven more nails into my temples and behind my eyes, so I'm typing this with eyes half shut, all the shades drawn, and no lights.  I look a bit as though I've suffered an aneurysm (which, by the way, is a difficult word to spell correctly when your skull is pulsating in pain).

So.  The other difficulty here is that if you're not familiar with the Chew series, a lot of this is going to sound really, really, really crazy--to put it mildly.  Here's the rundown:

THE FUTURE (Please read this in a dramatic, deep, movie-trailer-guy style voice):

An avian flu epidemic has practically wiped out the world's supply of chicken.  Counterfeit cluckers and their distributors are the new drug runners.  Consequently, the FDA has become the USA's premier crime-fighting agency.  One of its star agents is Tony Chu, a cibopath.  Tony can eat something and see its provenance (hence his strict diet of beets, since they don't trigger visions of slaughterhouses or pesticides).  Tony's abilities make him highly in demand at crime scenes, since he can taste the blood of a victim and see the events that lead up to his death, or he can taste the oil from the getaway car and see where it had been parked.

Pretty cool, huh?  Well, except for the "I have to sometimes eat bits of stuff that's really, really gross" part.

As with all good detective stories, Tony's in way over his head.  His former partner, also a cibopath, has gone rogue.  His former former partner is now a cybernetic agent who has an unfortunate tendency to be amorously involved with his superiors.  Tony's daughter, Olive, has massive teenage angst, and pretty much every crime syndicate in the world wants to get him.  Oh, and his boss hates him too.

Here we are, volume three.  Tony's daughter Olive has been kidnapped by Mason, the rogue (psychotic) cibopath.  The boss finally got his way and gave both Tony and his partner Colby the boot.  Tony's reassigned to traffic cop work (wearing, rather inexplicably, a kilt), and Colby works for the FDA with a lion named Buttercup.

Seriously, I am not making this up.  It may sound wacky and lots of other things besides that but it's deftly handled and always done with a wink and a smile.

Tony gets kidnapped by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend (I know!) so that the crazy ex can write a book about the after-hours adventures of deceased baseball stars.  There's a vampire on the loose, and Tony's twin sister, Toni (a cibovoyant--she sees the future of whomever she bites) has boyfriend problems.  Toss in Colby's partnership with Poyo, the world's deadliest cybernetic chicken, and you have a volume full of insane, yet intelligent, fun.

I like Tony as a character.  I just want to give the poor guy a hug.  But in this compilation, well, Poyo is the star of the show.  Whenever he's introduced, this sort of lucha libre font pops up in the panel proclaiming "POYO!"  And sound it out--it's the rough phonetic spelling of the Spanish word for "chicken."

The end of the volume is indeed more somber, but the rampaging fun of the previous issues let you sort of glide over the sadness. John Layman's decision made complete sense in the world that he's created, and I don't fault him for it one bit.  Although sometimes I do think that people go into comic book writing because they have homicidal urges.  This way, they can kill off loads of people legally.

If you've not read any issues of Chew yet, stop.  Turn around.  Go get them and read them.  Okay?

If you're a Chew fan, this is another fantastic dish in the banquet of awesome that is this comic.

Sorry.  Food puns.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Kitchen Magpie: A Quirky Mix of OOH SHINY!

As you would guess from the title, this isn't a comprehensive textbook about food and cooking, but it's a mishmash of this and that.  The approach makes this book extremely readable, but it also weakens it a bit.  I would have liked to know more about some of the more esoteric tidbits here, while other bites of information were extremely basic.  I suppose if you've never cooked before in your life, they might be ... helpful, but the book itself claims to be targeted at kitchen enthusiasts.  There's a bit of a disconnect here.

If I could do anything in editing this book, I'd take out the recipes.  Most of them are very basic and they act as filler.  This might be read as food snobbery, but I see it as "my mom taught me how to cook, thank you very much."  I mean, one of the recipes is for banana bread (which is pretty darn hard to mess up.  I actually just made a loaf--it's cooling on my counter top), and the Huge Foodie Revelation is to use ripe bananas.

Duh.

I mean, what kind of person makes banana bread with unripe bananas?  Sometimes I buy bananas that are already ripening into blackness just so that I can make banana baked goods.  I suppose if the banana and its baked babies are completely foreign to you, this might be a useful tidbit, but for most people I would think it's a no-brainer.

Some other issues that I can see affecting its popularity here in the States is the very UK-centric focus.  Mind, that's not a bad thing at all--I love Britain!  Ireland!  Wales!  They have excellent television and even better malted beverages!  They have Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren.  It's rockin' over there in the UK.  However, some of the factoids about food or "food dilemmas" lose their punch when it's an American reader.

For example, when speaking about fruits, Steen recommends making a "trivet" out of apples and plopping the roast on top, thus infusing the dish with tasty deliciousness.  He then proceeds to break down the etymology of the word "trivet," but concludes by saying that it is "the 'bits' that are placed under a joint of meat before it is roasted."  I use "trivet" to mean a heat-resistant pad or tile on which I place hot dishes so they don't melt to table.  I've never used "trivet" in the sense he suggests.  Is that a chef's-only sort of thing?

Okay, more on meat.  The turkey.  For most Americans, even if you don't do a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner, turkey=Thanksgiving.  People get so stressed out about cooking a turkey that the cooking overlords created the Butterball Turkey Hotline so people could call and ask how to cook a frozen, twenty pound turkey in under three hours (answer: throw it into something very hot, like the sun).  Yet Steen is approaching this Britishly (new word.  You're welcome): "Then there is the issue of cooking turkey.  For one month of every year - December - there are intense debates and deep worries over the cooking of this bird.  Most of us do eat it at Christmas."  I don't know how many people can relate to this.  Usually in the US, people eat ham at Christmas and turkey for Thanksgiving.  Plus, Steen's recipe for "perfect turkey" does not involve brining it at all, which is my favorite way to eat that gobbly-delicious bird.

On abstinence from food during Lent: "In Britain there was a curious custom.  A figure made up of straw and cast-off clothes was drawn or carried through the streets amid much noise and merriment, after which it was either burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney.  This image was called a 'Jack-a-Lent,' and apparently resembled Judas Iscariot ... Jack wore a headpiece made of a herring and Brussels' sprouts beside him."  Look, there are some weird American customs ... but that's really weird.

Evidently Steen is not a big Abbot and Costello fan: when discussing Costello's penchant for milkshakes, he calls him the "funny, chubby half" of the duo.  Because, you know, Bud Abbott had nothing to do with any of it.

The pinnacle of odd came, for me, with his discussion of the Chicago dog.  This is Important Stuff.  I live just north of Chicago, but I know The Rules.  Youse don't mess wit da rules.  Steen interviews a hot dog Hot Dog who says that the Chicago dog is great because "there are enough condiments that you can truly customise it to your liking."  Um.  You.  Do.  Not.  Put.  Ketchup. On.  A Chicago dog.  Ever.  There are RULES about this sort of thing.  Sure, go down to Chi-town and ask a dog-slinger to give you a Chicago dawg with no atomic relish and with lots of ketchup and just watch what happens.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Evidently, American astronauts must take the "American's much-loved taco sauce" into space.  I ... had no idea that the nation of America was globally known as having a penchant for taco sauce.  Does this guy think we all run around gleefully sucking down packets of Taco Bell hot sauce?

His discussion of Champagne never mentions the very important point that a true Champagne is grown in Champagne.  The French take their AOC seriously.  If it's fizzy white wine and not made in Champagne, it is fizzy white wine.

Now, this isn't to say I have only criticism for this book.  It contains genuinely interesting facts and keeps on a running commentary in a breezy British sort of way.  However, I wouldn't recommend it with gusto.  For really interesting food stories, check out Amanda Hesser's pre-notes to her recipes in The New York Times Cookbook.

I received a digital ARC of this title from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Monstrous Affections Will Eat Your Sanity

This book got an extra star solely thanks to the contributions of Holly Black and Paolo Baciagalupi. 

Some books make you question your own sanity. They get into your brain and swirl it around and leave you feeling mixed-up and wibbly-wobbly. Examples would be Pines by Blake Crouch, which is a seriously freaky Twilight Zone-esque novel, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, which leaves you questioning your own memory, or even Gone Girl, which seriously made me reconsider what I am looking for in a narrator. We want life to be cozy and for everything to fit neatly into boxes. Since life is the exact opposite of that vision: it's messy and bloody and helter-skelter, we want fiction to be an escape. When books don't let you escape, but instead take you deeper into the twisted recesses of your own mind and into the cesspool of humanity, it's disconcerting, to say the least.

That was the kind of book I was hoping Monstrous Affections would be. I've read some of Kelly Link's stories before, and while I didn't love them, I appreciate her style and approach. I'm not quite sure what was going on here as an editor, though, because most of the stories made me feel like I was on various types of psychotropic drugs, in a fever dream, while on a tilt-a-whirl.

From the classic episode where Homer eats an entire Merciless Pepper of Quetzalacatenango.  "Maybe I do, son.  Maybe I do."

 Or maybe the authors were when they wrote them. I really don't know, because it's mildly terrifying just to look back on some of this.

Let's start with the good ones. Paolo Bacigalupi's "Moriabe's Children" is about kraken (YES!)

and addresses difficult topics without being either too cutesy or too graphic. Bacigalupi's prose is a joy to read, as always. And I mean, duh, of course Holly Black's is going to be awesome. What surprised me was that it wasn't a fae or faerie-inspired story, but rather very strongly in the science fiction camp. Stowaways, smugglers, space stations, and deadly alien races all come together in a most delectable second-person narrative. Black has a great sense of humor and it works really well in her story, "Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler."

Then stuff got weird. In M.T. Anderson's "Quick Hill," the protagonist has to marry a hill in order to stop World War I. Literally. He marries a geographical entity which has magical powers (?!??!) to stop the war or something. Cassandra Clare's story is a pretty phoned-in vampire story that has teens constantly on Facebook, which seems so totally out-of-date that it distracted me from the actual story. In reality, I was rather happy to be distracted from something so banal. "The Diabolist" started out as a kind of mad-scientist story but then a monster got dumped into a lake but it was sentient and then the scientists daughter went mad too and randomly stabbed this guy and then the lake took control of people and made them into slaves or something. It's like there were these ideas in the authors brain and they just poured out and he slapped a title on it and was like "Ta-da!" 




A lot of reviews are mentioning Sarah Rees Brennan's story about harpies and fairies and such. I didn't like her novel Unspoken, but other short stories of hers that I've read have been exceedingly well-done. This one though ... it has an agenda and it beats you over the head with it until you curl up in the fetal position, whimpering. It's also ridiculously long, and I have no shame admitting that I completely skimmed until the end, which was like, "Eh."

Nalo Hopkinson's story has to do with deformed feet and a water monster and a dead baby and it was so cracked out. I kept making weird faces at my Kindle. Why is there something wrong with Jenna's foot? Why does this sound like an odd mashup of British English and Louisiana dialect? Help!

Actually, Dylan Horrocks' story was okay. It wasn't bad. But the narrator's snarky attitude didn't mesh well with the whole save-the-Earth theme that was going on. Plus, the Maori in the story felt like fetishized characters, not real people. Plus, there was this description of the love-interest/monster: "He looked my age: long black curls, smooth dark skin, full lips, bare arms around my waist." Excuse me while I throw up from the schmaltz. Ugh.




The comic that was in there was nigh on unreadable for me because the pictures and text were on separate pages, so I couldn't tell what went in which panel. Oops.

Kelly Link's story about the doll Boyfriends was totally weird and more cliched than I thought it would be. The whole frenemies thing, the girl who has everything except love, and a main character who needs a man's love to be validated as a human being. Pffff. Plus, the characters have insufferable names like "Ainslie" and "Immy" and "Sky." What is this, the CW?

Anytime a story goes on and on about the plain girl protagonist, I want to chuck it off of a cliff. With Joshua Lewis', I did restrain myself as I value my Kindle and it really doesn't deserve such destruction. But, come on. "Emiline ... has brown hair that goes stringy in good weather and flat in bad weather, and a blue streak she keeps in it that looks nice the first day but fades to dishwater gray almost immediately ... She has purple glasses that her mother says hide her "lovely green eyes" (in fact, her eyes are plain hazel) ... She does not have a boyfriend. A life of adventure and mystery. Sufficiently narrow hips."



Really? Sufficiently narrow hips? Oh my goodness, my life would be so much better if my hips were just narrower! Obviously Emilene doesn't have a boyfriend because she has "plain hazel" eyes (I think hazel eyes are lovely!) and wide hips! Of course! Wider hips are scary and make men run away. Therefore, Emilene's only choice is the bizarro dude she meets in the woods who turns out to be a vampire and she goes totally Bella Swan on him and is like, "Turn me too!" Oops, he's a serial killer! This is just a story that chronicles the worst decision making processes ever.

Some of the stories here are very, very dark, and I didn't even read some of then in toto because I knew the themes weren't for me. This is a book that would have a very specific audience--one that willingly accepts stories where people marry hills and your dead sister turns into a water gorgon who only wants her shoes back, dangit.


I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  Voilà.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What I'm Reading This Weekend

Still chipping away at The Count of Monte Cristo.  Seriously, my progress is like that of the Abbé Faria in the book: about 10 years to get 10 feet.  To be sure, it is a very good story, and because I feel mildly ashamed of myself, I'll probably go read some more of it right after finishing this post.  However, I keep getting distracted by other things  like ...

The Kitchen Magpie by James Steen.  really don't think the recipes are necessary, but if you need filler, a recipe certainly isn't the worst way to go.
I'm going to start calling myself a magpie.  It's more concise than easily forgetful, easily distracted, forgetful, and mildly hyperactive.  Did I mention forgetful?  Of course I did.  I also like shiny things, goat cheese, and polka dots.  This is shaping up to be a quick read, but I'm not sure how well it will translate in the U.S. market, since a lot of his references are strictly U.K.  Plus, I* feel that perhaps it's too short.

The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan.  Trucking right on through the Ranger's Apprentice series, we now have an invasion of Scots in addition to treachery and the threat of being raided by Skandians (Vikings).  I think this would be an excellent series for kids who love history but also love action and adventure.  It's very referential to medieval Europe.






Hmm, what else do I plan on reading?  I've got loads of ARCs on my Kindle, plus an entire bookshelf of library books to knock out.

Chew Vol. 3 is a good candidate.  SOMEBODY on the internet totally spoiled the end for me (thanks ever so much!), but the writing and concept are so solid and fascinating that I'd read this even if you gave me a blow-by-blow.

I checked out A Separate Peace, aka That Book Everyone But Me Had To Read In High School, and someone else is waiting for it.  So far I've read three pages. Which is ... three pages more of the book than I've read before.  Progress!  We'll see how the rest goes.

If you'll excuse me, I've got doughnuts to glaze and dishes to wash.  And then ... doughnuts to eat.

*As evidence of my distractibility, here I managed to completely forget what I was writing and just move on to another book. I had that much of the sentence just hanging there, forlornly, at the end of paragraph.

Catching A Blackbird

Tootling around the internet, sometimes you find free copies of books that have been out for a few years.  Often, this happens when there's a new book in the series.  The publisher wants to hook you, so they offer the first book(s) in the series as e-copies as well.

While browsing Edelweiss for review copies, I found a book called Blackbird.  Without, you know, actually looking at any of the info, my brain said, "Hey, that funny dude on Twitter, Chuck Wendig?  He has a book called Blackbirds."

 So I requested it.  Turns out, this is not the first book in the Miriam Black series (which has a plural title anyway); it is a YA thriller by Anna Carey (whose other books I have not read).
 Librarian fail.  I could also say I hadn't had enough coffee for the day.  Yep.  Let's go with that.  Plus, the covers are both black and white with red text.  Since I'm a visual person, my brain made a feeble (very feeble) connection there.

But!  As I have said so many times before, the serendipitous discovery of books is one of my very favorite things.  I'm a creature of habit.  I'm not proud of it, but I harbor certain prejudices against certain types of books.  Because I am a professional, I don't let that influence what I recommend titles to others, but it also means that I don't have to read romances because I don't like them.  I also generally don't like teen paranormal romance, sports books, or thrillers.  The last one is mostly because I'd simply prefer to read an "adult" thriller.

The Blackbird that fluttered into my life and nested in my Kindle is a YA thriller.  Told in the second person.

Whoa.  Gutsy.

And yet ... it worked.  Using the second person POV (I swear, I just typed "yousing" in some sort of neuron fritz) really engages the reader and makes the narrative feel a bit like a choose your own adventure-type of story.  Plus, since Blackbird also explores the theme of identity, we aren't explicitly told about the narrator (third person), nor does the narrator reveal him or herself (first person).  You, as a reader, project some of your own experiences onto the narrator.

Earlier this year, I read an ARC of an adult thriller called Runner by Patrick Lee, and Blackbird reminds me a bit of Runner, only without the psychic bits (oops, spoiler?).  A girl wakes up on the subway tracks.  Literally on top of them.  She has no idea who she is--no name, no sense of place, nothing.  After escaping the train and the curious (and concerned) onlookers, she runs into a grocery store to use the bathroom to clean up and accidentally witnesses a bit of pot selling going on.  By a kid.

Awkward.

Ben--the dealer-kid--needs the girl as a cover to get out of the grocery store without being questioned by the cop who's staking him out.  She needs Ben for a ride.  Turns out Ben is a poor little rich kid whose mom is in therapy and who makes cash selling joints on the side.  He's nice enough--trusting and pretty sweet.  So, the opposite of her/you.

The narrator adopts the name Sunny, which is cute because she's pretty much anything but.  She's intense and a bit scary.  I liked her a lot!  She has abilities she doesn't remember acquiring--and I'm not talking about playing the piano or whistling through your teeth.  Think hand-to-hand combat, cliff diving, and that sixth sense that you're being followed.Sunny starts having flashbacks to being in a jungle with a boy.  They're running and they're scared and HOLY COW THERE'S WILD ANIMALS.    Deep in her core, Sunny knows this boy, but she can't remember anything about him.

Meanwhile, she's being followed by a man in a suit, then she's attacked by a very well-put-together woman, and then a blue-eyed man with a scar down his face (I gotta admit, the scar is a bit much, but it fits).  I like my thriller villains scarred and dangerous, thank you.  A fluffy cat would have been an even better accessory, but I'll take what I can get.

Sunny tries getting help from the police, but the LAPD doesn't exactly think that a sixteen-year-old kid is the center of some sort of conspiracy where someone's taken away her memory and then gone to great lengths to a) try to kill her and b) barring killing her, setting her up for various crimes.  I'll take neither of those, thank you very much.

Up until this point, I don't think I've read a YA contemporary thriller that's been as good as Blackbird. Carey does an excellent job of stringing both you and Sunny along while simultaneously making you care about her characters.  I have to say that I completely did not see the twist at the end coming, so kudos!  It's classic misdirection--I was so focused on this part of the story that I didn't see that as a possibility.

There's no instalove here, either.  Sunny's attraction to Ben seems purely physical, although she does care about his well-being.  She's practical, and she knows that she can never have a committed relationship as long as she's in this crazy, messed-up situation where she doesn't know her own name and, oh yeah, people are trying to kill her.

The only regret I have about reading an ARC of this book is that I now have to wait far too long to read the conclusion to this duology.  Zounds, blast, and phooey!

This is bite-your-nails twisty fun head stuff, and I need more.

An e-ARC of this title was graciously provided by Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Late to the ARC Party: The Boy on the Porch

Sharon Creech's The Boy on the Porch came out last fall.  I just read the ARC that I picked up at last summers ALA Annual Conference.

Oops.

I haven't read any of Creech's more recent work.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to Walk Two Moons, which I read obsessively.  I also adored Absolutely Normal Chaos (I still have a fear of white bathing suits from that book!), Bloomability (Switzerland bucket list!), and Chasing Redbird (treasure maps!).  After being rather confused by The Wanderer, I moved on to other authors.  Creech still holds a special place in my heart, and I booktalk Walk Two Moons at work every chance I get!

Part of my disappointment with The Boy on the Porch stems from my (possibly misguided) wish that it was a return to the earlier style of Walk Two Moons or Chasing Redbird.  A little humor, a lot of heart, and some seriously spunky characters.  I would define The Boy on the Porch as magical realism, but I don't know if it's entirely a children's book.

Boy focuses on the effect that an abandoned child can have on a loving yet childless couple.  John and Marta have a farm and each other, but no children.  It's not implied that their lack of children is an issue, but they willingly take in a young boy who, one day, simply appears on their doorstep.  He has a poorly-spelled note asking whomever finds him to take care of him.  John and Marta, being good people, take care of the boy, whose name is Jacob.

He's very good with animals, though.  Creech strips down life in this timeless, placeless world of John and Marta's: it could be anywhere, anytime.  The only thing to date the book is that they do have automobiles.  Even John and Marta are simple souls who crave simple things.  They take care of their cows and goats.  They slowly begin to care for Jacob as their own.  They ... exist.

I suppose the argument of the book is that giving love freely brings you more joy than you could have ever dreamed for.  And yet ... I felt that this was neither joyous nor hopeful.  As an adult reader, I knew that due to the need for a Plot Conflict, someone would have to come and take Jacob away.  This would make John and Marta very sad.  Then, in reaction to the Plot Conflict, John and Marta would show evidence of Character Growth.  They end up becoming foster parents to lots of different kids, and it brings them joy and special sunshine in their lives.

Let's be clear: I am in no way denigrating or minimizing the impact of people who open up their homes and hearts to kids who really have nowhere else to go.  But, it felt a bit tacked on in this story that had heretofore focused solely on John, Marta, and Jacob. 

Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I'm a little tired of using a person with a disability as a magical savior in a story.  I thought that perhaps Jacob was on the spectrum, especially with his artistic and musical abilities--maybe he's non-verbal, and not mute? 

This might actually be a good book for grownups considering adoption or being foster parents, but I'm not sure if I see a lot of kid appeal here.  It's definitely miles away from Creech's earlier work (which I hope she returns to!).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey: A Graphic Novel

In the author's note at the beginning, Nick Bertozzi acknowledges that this book should by rights be much longer, but if he had done that, his hand would have fallen off.

Ernest Shackleton would have done it.

Just kidding, Mr. Bertozzi. Although I do feel that I would have liked this a lot more had it been longer and more detailed,Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, as it stands, is a good introduction to the Shackleton story of the Endurance (in more ways than one). 

I like that it's just black ink drawings on white paper--a good match for the Antarctic setting. 

The beginning of the graphic novel is much stronger than the ending. Bertozzi provides us with many vignettes of life aboard the Endurance and the ice floes. There's a mock trial, a dog escape, and a bicycle ride across the ice! I'm more impressed with the sheer, ahem, well, bada**ery of the dudes who decided to (willingly!) go to the Antarctic and eat seals! The bicycle ride thing was the clincher, man. I mean, people of the days of yore just went out and rode their bicycles across the Antarctic ice whilst stranded and while the ship is breaking apart and you could be dying. Holy moly. Came back for a spot of tea, I suppose. 

But it's those stories that make these parts of Shackleton so interesting, and not necessarily the art of the telling of the stories. I had difficulty distinguishing Shackleton from the other crew members in the panels, so I'm not quite sure how this is being touted as semi-biographical. Bertozzi uses a lot of terms that sailors would know but that I don't know. *checks self* Nope, am not a sailor. I figured out that a "lead" is like a crack in the ice, but thank goodness for pictures!

The latter third of the novel was much more confusing, with people being on ice, then in boats, then on ice, then they're in the sea, then on an island, and hooray saved end of book finis. I felt like we hit the brakes and I got some literary whiplash there. The endnote tells the reader very little about what happened afterwards, and it's hard to connect the names of the sailors with their images in the book. 

Also, I was sorely disappointed that Mrs. Chippy the cat made nary an appearance in the book. The shooting of Mrs. Chippy (oops, spoiler?) along with the sled dogs would really explain McNish's bad attitude later in the book (McNish owned Mrs. Chippy, who was in fact a tomcat).


Overall, a good introduction, and something that might pique people's interest in the Endurance and Shackleton and his crew. 

I received a review copy from First Second Books in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Angry Birds Are Funnier Than Happy Birds: On Negativity

I think I write better angry reviews than I do happy ones.  Well, maybe I just have more fun writing angry reviews than happy ones.  I cannot objectively judge the quality.

That's rather a human tendency, though, isn't it?  This article from the New York Times discusses how our brain actually stores negative experiences more than positive ones.  If we remember our mistakes, we can (theoretically) learn from them.  Unfortunately, it doesn't usually work out that way.  We end up remembering our most mortifying moments and beating ourselves up over past events over which we have no control.

Wait.  Is that just me?

Anyway.  Any bad experience will stick with you longer than a good one.  I vividly remember giving the wrong answer once in my history class.  Yeah, I was a nerd, and so this was a Big Deal for Me, plus I was a freshman in a class full of upperclassmen.  People counted on me and my nerdiness and for a moment I faltered.  I still remember that. 

Perhaps my affinity for negativity influences my book reviews.  I don't enjoy reading books that are not well-written, or that have inappropriate content (and by "inappropriate" I mean rape apologists, misogeny, or racist content that may not "mean to be racist" but, yeah, it's racist). 

However, since I feel very strongly that teens deserve well-written books (that means no typos, no hard-hearted abuse of apostrophes, no pathetic fallacies (or very few), and no slut-shaming (which is kind of a misleading term because this tactic is used to shame someone by a) labeling them a "slut" and then b) shaming them. It has nothing to do with the person's love life, really.  But that's another post and I'm like three parentheses deep here.).

Teens deserve to read about meaningful relationships, realistic situations in realism, fantastic situations in fantasy, and hey--here's a novel thought!--they deserve to read about people like themselves.  That's why the #weneeddiversebooks campaign completely exploded.  Teens who didn't see themselves in literature found an outlet to express themselves, to tell publishers and authors and editors, "Hey! I am Muslim and I use a wheelchair and there are no protagonists like me."  Or whatever their particular situation is.

And guess what?  That doesn't just apply to teens.  It applies to all books, everywhere.  Don't insult me by trying to fob off a sloppy manuscript as a polished book that I would want to spend my money on or spend the library's money on (so sorry, ending in prepositions, so lazy).  I've addressed this issue before in my post on criticism.  Don't blatantly copy someone else's idea and market it as your own.  A thin veneer of vampirism/zombies/angels can't disguise the fact that you're just writing the same story that's already sold a bajillion (actual number) copies.

When I read a book that I like and that I think other people would enjoy reading, I actually have less to say about it.  I want you to go read it.  Why would I recap every single thing in the book if I want you to go read it?  Generally, my positive reviews are shorter than my negative ones.  You could be spending the time you are spending reading my review reading the book.

When I read (or mostly read) a book that doesn't live up to the hype, or is poorly executed, or is somehow offensive, or is just plain bad, I want to convince you not to read it.  I will happily furnish you with gobs upon gobs of proof why you should not read this book.  I may (read: probably almost always) rely up sarcasm and exaggeration to prove my point.  This is a release of the pent-up frustration I felt at being subjected to the book in question.  My coworkers can attest to the fact that when I am angry or frustrated, my typing becomes very loud and very fast.  Some books give the keyboard bruises (sorry, keyboard!).

There was an old commercial that ran on TV Land over 10 years ago.  I know it was that long ago because I found mention of it on a ... very interesting LiveJournal page from that year.  Yes, the font was Comic Sans and it was neon green.  Yeesh.  Anyway.  I can't seem to find the clip anywhere on the web, but at the end, Adam, in that smooth, suave voice of his, says, "Because life's too short to watch crap."

Life's too short to read bad books.  If I've wasted my time on a book, I don't want anybody else to do so.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Golden Girl

I love serendipitous book discovery.  It's even better when it's at the library and I don't have to pay for the book I so impulsively decided to read.  A little over a year ago, I picked up Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel.  I didn't know what to expect, but it sounded interesting and ... okay, fine, I liked the cover.

My, my.  Dust Girl was so much more than I'd expected.  It's a familiar story: girl finds out she is half (insert something magical/fantastical/imaginary here), girl goes on quest, girl is "chosen one," girl meets boy.  Yet Zettel never lets the story go dull or fall into the well-worn paths of its predecessors.

Callie LeRoux lives with her mother in an old hotel in Slow Run, Kansas.  The hotel business sure isn't what it used to be.  The dust storms of the 1930s have rolled in.  Dust clogs everything and chokes everything--including Callie, who catches "dust pneumonia."  If that's not bad enough, Callie's mama disappears in a dust storm.  Callie discovers that she's half-human and half-fey--her daddy was a fey prince who left the human world to get permission to marry her mama but he never made it back.  

Callie is also half black.  Her skin is light if kept out of the sun, and her eyes are light, and her hair, when straightened and wrestled with and put under a cap, looks simply dark.  She's generally able to "pass" as a white person, but there is always the fear she'll get "caught."  Callie's not ashamed of her mixed-race heritage, which is awesome, but the narrative never lets you forget what could possible happen to her if she's found out by the wrong people.  Her friend Jack, rail-rider, former chain-gang member, and grifter, is also half-Jewish.  Zettel explores identity and parentage and destiny in a very subtle way, but I really appreciated it.

As Callie's journey progresses, she learns more about the world of the fae.  Usually, when there are faery books, the Seelie Court is the "good" fae and the Unseelie Court is the "bad" fae.  Here, they're both pretty bad.  Fae enjoy using humans, toying with them as a cat would with a mouse.  However, Callie's something special.  She can see "doors"--portals between the fae world and the human world"--and open and close them.  She can even create them.  This fulfills a prophecy (I know, I know), so all the fae want Callie under their (collective) thumb.  They treat her as an object, a prize to be won, and not as a person.

While the story and its tropes may be familiar, the dialect, authentic period touches, and cameos by famous jazz musicians (Count Basie!) make this something special.  At the end of the book, Callie and Jack ride the rails west to Hollywood to find her parents, who have both been taken captive by the Seelie Court.

So here we are in Golden Girl.  Callie's struggling to pass as white and as older than she really is.  Jack's got a job at the MGM sets, and he's trying to get her in, too.  They figure that the fae are attracted to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and when they stumble upon two fae attempting to kidnap Ivy Bright (think Shirley Temple), they're not wrong!  Thankfully, a giant of a man steps in and stops the fae from taking Ivy--it's Paul Robeson!  Holy cow, I love how she brings in real people and doesn't turn them into caricatures.

Callie's not-to-be-trusted uncle Shake shows up as well, and between keeping Shake out of the way, minding Ivy Bright, being conflicted about Jack, and hiding from the fae, she's still got to find her parents.  Callie's musings about her feelings for Jack were pretty authentic sounding, and they didn't take up too much of the book, which pleased me.  But Callie's got the go-get-em attitude born of surviving the Dust Bowl (and various other fates!).  She rarely whines about her problems, and even if she makes mistakes, she acknowledges them and learns from them.  I like Callie very much indeed.

However, this book does suffer from SBS (Second Book Syndrome).  There's not a lot of plot movement like there was in the first book, and you can tell that Zettel is building up to the Final Confrontation in the third book.  Jack's role in Golden Girl was extremely diminished, and I missed his snarky attitude.  .  The main villain of Golden Girl was a bit of a letdown, too.  The motivations of the villain and the final-ish battle felt a bit flat.  However, I still was rather sad when it ended.  Thankfully, I have a copy of the third book at home. 

Zettel has a way with the words of this time period, and she even includes a playlist of songs that inspired here while writing the book and that could serve as a sort of soundtrack to the action.

A recommended series!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Stray Far Away


To say that I enjoy fairy tales would be an understatement.  I love them.  And I particularly adore retellings of fairy tales, especially those that hearken back to the dark, bloody roots of these stories.  As much as I love Disney, I also enjoy reading the original tales and connecting them to common beliefs and superstitions of the times.

I requested Stray because it seemed like an interesting twist on the fairy godmother archetype.  I expected something fresh and new and instead got something that had a good seed of an idea, but kept straining to burst free.  The idea was constrained by some ... interesting prose, halfhearted world-building, and lack of a compelling plot.

I do feel bad being so critical of this book, especially after I read an interview with the author and how happy she was to have her work published.  However, I feel that publishers (and readers!) push writers to put out more and more titles in a shorter period of time.  Some ideas need to marinate.  Some authors need to put it aside and come back to it.  This book would have really benefited from a lot more world-building and background information.  Let's get down to it!

Aislynn is a princess at a princess finishing school.  It's the night of the Big Ball (er, that sounds bad) where princesses and other royal people are "Contained" by men.  I started feeling a bit uneasy at this point.  Aislynn's world isn't your typical fairy tale world.  I understand wanting to create something different from the usual fantasy trope, but the political and social structures introduced in Stray really need a lot more explanation than they're given.  We get this weird info dump in the beginning: 
"Aislynn's father was one of the handful of Kings in the North.  Like all kingdoms, the North had one first-class monarch, who ruled over the entirety of his country.  Under him were the second-class kings, who oversaw several provinces, each in turn run by third-class lords.  And below those were the fourth-class royals, like Maris's family, who managed their own lands and servants.  Once her father died, Aislynn's husband would take on the responsibilities of king and manage Nepeta and its surrounding provinces."

Uh, okay.  We also learn that the land is split into four kingdoms: North, East, West, and South.  So there are a bucket load of royals running around with literally nothing better to do than send their many daughters to these weird academies.  Why send them away?

Well, obviously they need to be marriageable as the above quote demonstrates that only men can rule.  Um, yay?  However, women are also the only ones who work magic.  When a girl has a magical outburst it is called an "Occurrence" and she is shamed for it and sent to school to learn how to control these occurrences.  There is holy writ that teaches that using magic is wicked, lustful, and all those fun things, and the girls are shamed at every opportunity.  Aislynn has particularly strong magic, so she's of course a huge outcast.  

As a princess, she's also entitled to a fairy godmother.  However, her fairy godmother mostly does stuff like pick out dresses, draw baths, and stuff Aislynn into her corset.  Throughout the book, it's hinted that she has more power than she lets on, but we never find out because obviously this is going to be a series.  Save me.

Aislynn is also one of those "I'm so ugleeeee" girls when she's really not at all.  It's hinted that she's not whippet thin and likes to eat.  What's so bad about that?  Oh yeah, I forgot, princesses can't be fat.
Riiiiight.

She totally buys into her society's treatment of women, and this attitude doesn't change much throughout the book until the very end, until she does an about-face and suddenly decides to be her own person, which didn't feel particularly authentic.

Anyway, Aislynn disgraces herself at the ball and gets packed off to be a fairy godmother to Linnea, who's a MAJOR PRINCESS related to the EVIL QUEEN who lives in a forest of thorns.  We don't know much about this evil queen, except that she is a) evil, b) a queen, and c) named Josetta.  

Seems legit.

Aislynn is also a very bad fairy godmother, but she makes friends with the maid Brigid and briefly has the hots for the gardener until her "loving heart" is taken away.  The best way I can explain this is like in The Little Mermaid, when Ursula takes Ariel's voice and it's like a golden stream coming out of her body, and then Ursula bottles it up and packs it away.  That's what happens to Aislynn's "loving heart."  As far as I can figure this out, it means that she shouldn't be able to fall in love.

GUESS WHAT HAPPENS?!?!?  Yes.  Because Aislynn is a special snowflake, her loving heart like, grows back, or something.  I don't even know.  I was so confused at this point that I just kept clicking over to see what else was going to happen.

I talked a little bit earlier about the prevalence of shame and wickedness as concepts in the book.  It's a bit unnerving, really.  Aislynn believes that every strong feeling she has is "wicked."  That's actually what the title, Stray, refers to.  Anyone who leaves The Path (of how to control magic and be selfless and humble and blah blah blah) is a Stray.  Various characters accuse Aislynn of being a Stray.  It's like this world's equivalent of slut-shaming.  Aislynn hasn't done anything wrong except be rather dense, but she takes this abuse with equanimity most of the time.  She feels that she deserves punishment for being who she is.

Even at the end, when she goes on a quest to save her friends, she actually doesn't save her ward, the Princess Linnea.  "Looking back at the academy again, Aislynn felt a sharp twinge of regret--almost panic--knowing that she was leaving Linnea behind.  But that didn't mean that Aislynn would forget about her.  That she wouldn't try again to protect her.  To rescue her."

Well, if that isn't the wimpiest excuse I've ever heard.  

When I finished this book, I honestly had no idea why the Bad Guy/Lady did what he/she did.  I didn't know why the Wicked Queen sent an army out after Aislynn when it turns out she's not so wicked after all.  I didn't know why Aislynn's parents were such total losers.  There were just so many things introduced and then abandoned in the story that it seriously confused me.

I did like the little nods to aspects of familiar and not-so-familiar fairy tales.  Aislynn makes the Mean Girl at her first Academy spit toads out of her mouth, and the Wicked Queen enjoys sending bits of Strayed girls' feet to their parents.  The briars and thorns recall, of course, Sleeping Beauty.

Hm.  I think I just gave myself a headache trying to logically describe and review this book.  I think I failed at the logical part.  It's hard to make sense of something that's so all over the place.

However, I do think there was so much potential here.  If the writing had been more polished, if the plot had been clearer, and if the world-building had been given more time, this could have been an interesting story about a girl who realizes that the religious and moral system of her world is corrupt, repressive, and completely fabricated.

I received a copy of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review.



Life in Books: The First Twenty Years

I've gone through an interesting progression of literary cravings.  I don't want to beat the books=mind food metaphor to death and beyond, but I think it's apt.

When I was little, I pretty much only read Laura Ingalls Wilder or the Thoroughbred series (do you know how hard it is to properly spell "thoroughbred"?  There are so many silent letters in that word...).  My wee mind thought that those were "real" books and everything else was "fake."  I started reading classic picture books when I was in library school.  Truth.

Then I found Nancy Drew and read those obsessively, and oh, lots of other things.  Black Beauty, which I truly loathed but hey, it was a horse book, and I had horses on the brain, so I read it anyway, and felt awful afterward.  It was like some sort of weird bibliomasochism.  I had a massive Sharon Creech phase in 6th grade thanks to my awesome English teacher, Mrs. Major, and I'm pretty sure my copy of Shabanu by Susanne Fisher Staples looks like it's been mauled by a wombat.

But classics?  Oh, no, no.  We had to read "kid's classics" like Johnny Tremain and Across Five Aprils and those suckers made me feel a deep and abiding hatred for the children's historical novel.  Literally the only thing I remember about Johnny Tremain was that he spilled molten silver on his hand and fused his thumb to his palm.  This prompted us (my classmates and I) to tape our fingers to our palms and attempt to do things.  It wasn't very fun and we gave up after about five minutes.

In seventh grade, when that same English teacher (I went to a private school and we often had the same teacher for the same subject as we went through school) announced that we would be reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I practically pitched a fit.  Actually, my whole class (okay, so there were three of us.  Remember: private school.  Sheltered kids.) begged her to choose something else instead.  We didn't want to read Jane Austen.  We wanted to keep reading Walter Dean Myers and Phillip Pullman and Monica Furlong's Wise Child series (she did all of those as read alouds, by the way.  Mrs. Major has a marvelous voice).  Jane Austen was for old people and it was boring and I wanted to stomp my foot.

I stomped my feet a lot as a teenager.  That was a large source of my mother's grief.

Reluctantly, I took this little book--a Bantam copy of Pride and Prejudice with a deep green cover and a pretty lady on the front--home with me.  I figured I should read and just get it over with--like ripping off a band-aid.  Suddenly, I was on chapter 10.  And I simply couldn't stop reading.  I read that book in three days.

Okay, so there was a lot about it I didn't understand, and it was difficult to adjust to the way people spoke and addressed each other, but Austen's prose grabbed me and dragged me in and didn't let me go.  She still holds me captive.  This was a society unlike anything I'd read about before.  Like I said, my life was sheltered.  I believed in marrying for love.  I never thought about marrying because I was an "old maid" or because I was "plain" or because I was poor and we would lose our house to entailment (oh, the joys English writers had with the legal system!  Thanks to entailment, we have many great works of literature!).  I believed in true love and inner beauty and being poor and happy.

The Bennets weren't indigent.  They weren't living in a hovel.  But every word, every gesture, every bit of lace trimming affected their standing in the world and, by extension, their futures.  This was something I'd never contemplated before.

In addition to my introduction to Regency society, I found joy in humor, wit, sarcasm, and satire.  Like the teen who felt accepted by his peers at tonight's Doctor Who Live Clue that I hosted at the library, I wanted to shout, "I have found my people!"

Pride and Prejudice also marks the first book with a love story that I actually cared about.  I wanted that story for myself.  I started to think that maybe not all love stories were sappy and stupid.  And then I couldn't stop reading classic novels.

My teacher recommended Jane Eyre to me next, and while it would take me years to figure out the feminism of that book, the general story burrowed into my reading soul and lodged itself there, right next to Pride and Prejudice.  I was off and running in the world of classic literature.  I gorged myself on the Brontës and Austen, but I avoided Dickens because I thought he was "too boring."  Ha!  How wrong I was.  I'm ashamed to admit that I developed literary snobbery.  Modern books were not good enough.  Science fiction and fantasy were "trashy."  I'd rather read Rebecca Du Maurier and Wilkie Collins compulsively than touch Ray Bradbury with a ten-foot-pole.

Then I hit college.  To my eternal joy, my first literary seminar was on romantic comedy.  We read Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, A Room With A View, and The Importance of Being Ernest.  I reveled in this class.  Do you know how hilarious Much Ado is?  But that seminar caused a subtle shift in me as well.  I realized that there was so much out there for me to read, and who was I to pass judgement on an entire subset of literature when I'd never read any of it?

When I was in college, I commuted.  I drove about 40 minutes to a Park and Ride, and then rode a city bus to the university.  I had a lot of time on my hands every day.  I needed a Big Book.  I honestly don't know how I found him, but I found Alastair Reynolds and his Revelation Space series. I started with Chasm City, which, at the time, was chronologically the first book (that's how I roll), and I couldn't stop.  I read the whole Revelation Space series.  Jumping from Austen to space opera is a pretty big leap, but I couldn't imagine my life without sci-fi.  Then I grabbed Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books, which were huge and full of so many Big Ideas and philosophical musings and mathematical proofs (!!!) that my mind started exploding.  In a good way.  I found Dan Simmons' Hyperion books (I didn't really like Endymion, so I haven't read those two) and Charlie Stross' Eschaton series and holy cow SPACE OPERA was my jam.  I still love it, of course, but now I read even more things.

Right now it's late as I write this, and I'm itching to get back to my book, The Count of Monte Cristo. Stephenson's Reamde is glaring at me balefully from my bookshelf, as is Great Expectations.  I'm getting there.  Actually, I've just gotten started.