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Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Published October 28, 2013 by Shannon

Libba Bray is fairly popular in the young adult world. She’s an author I get recced all the time. I’ve read a few of her books–the first of the Gemma Doyle trilogy and Going Bovine. Sometimes she works for me, but generally she and I do not have the kind of author chemistry that makes for a good reading experience. That said, I did get to send a teen patron home with The Diviners today, and I think she’ll enjoy it more than I did.
Here’s what the publisher has to say about this book:

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

I probably wouldn’t have read The Diviners if it hadn’t been for the young adult book club I’m in. Or, if I had thought about reading it on my own, I’m not sure I’d have finished. Like most series openers, Bray uses this book to set up her world and introduce us to the cast of characters. There are random asides that don’t really seem to go anywhere, and for the first three hours of this 16-hour audiobook, I found myself wondering exactly why I should care. I simply wasn’t engaged, and it took until the murder began to really make me care about any of the characters.

Evie is the central character, a small-town girl who delights in the opportunity to leave her home and live with her uncle Will, the proprietor of a museum colloquially known as the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. She’s determined to take New york by storm, to dance and drink the night away. This made her hard to relate for me, because, well, even when I was a YA, I wasn’t really the drinking and dancing type. I had far more sympathy for Evie’s friend Mabel, who is shy and bookish and generally overlooked. I probably would have read a whole book about Mabel with more enthusiasm, but then, I do have to acknowledge that it would have been much more boring. When the occult murder happens (and the killer goes by the sobriquet Naughty John, which I have to confess is not a name that invokes terror in the hearts of, well, anyone), and Will is called on to assist the police, Evie becomes a regular Nancy Drew, something the overcautious Mabel certainly wouldn’t have done. Evie and Will are aided in their investigation by Sam, the aforementioned streetwise thief, and Jericho, who, along with Mabel, was my other favorite character. (He’s a strong, silent type, shy and socially awkward. Much more my kind of swoon than the devil-may-care Sam, although I think Sam is a better romantic choice for Evie.

aside from the murder mystery, there’s also the story of Memphis, a kid from Harlem who used to have the ability to heal people, Theta, a Ziegfeld follies dancer with a secret, and the secrets of Sam and Jericho. Heck, even the random waitress at the Chinese restaurant Will and Evie go to has secrets. Some of these story lines work well and are interesting on their own. Memphis is a fabulous character who deserves a better book than this one, even though his star-crossed love affair is of the insta variety. Some of them aren’t fleshed out nearly as much as i’d like. (Henry, I didn’t mention you before, but I wanted you to be way more awesome than you were.) I do have to give Bray props for including a diverse cast of characters (including a blind secondary character who didn’t make me run screaming) in a way that felt organic.

I know nothing about the 1920’s beyond having read The Great Gatsby in high school, so the time period was interesting, but even here there are excesses. It’s almost as if Libba Bray needed a mouthpiece to let us in on all the 1920’s slang she’d learned, so Evie was always saying things like, “You bet-ski” or “I’m copacetic.” Instead of making me think, “Ooh, look at the authenticity” my reaction was disbelief that anyone ever really talked like that. It’s not just the slang, either. Every bit of Bray’s 1920’s research seemed to show up on the page. I recall a particularly jarring passage about the Chinese exclusion Act that served no purpose other than to give a history lesson, since it is never brought up again.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on. I think it was a bit too much to truly have me invested as much as I’d have liked. The book is clearly setting up for larger events, though the initial mystery is solved. Some of what we have to look forward to in the sequels I could do without–the characters aren’t so much in a love triangle as they are a love dodecahedron, and I could so do without having to pick my teams. But some of the events are definitely interesting, and I’m curious in a mild sort of way to see what will happen. I don’t think I’m likely to buy the book, but grabbing it from the library seems like the way to go. For me, this book rates a C.

Last Hour of Gann Readalong: Book I, or, Black dude dies first

Published October 25, 2013 by Shannon

Welcome to the Last Hour of Gann readalong. This post covers all of book I: Amber. If you have not read the book but intend to, move along lest you be spoiled. We’ll begin with a recap of the events, followed by our cogent literary analysis. (And by “cogent literary analysis” I really mean our fits of snark and squee.) This post is long. Feel free to grab an adult beverage and strap yourselves in. The spoilers start here, yo.

The Recap:

Amber Bierce’s mom has just died and she and her sister are being evicted from their home. Amber is the sort of person who gets things done, and so she lays out their options to her sister. They can either whore themselves, which is what their mom did, and which suits neither of them at all, or they can go on the state, which would involve being trapped in workhouses. Or they can join the manifestors, a group of people interested in colonizing other worlds. The Manifestors are considered whack jobs, but they’re rich whack jobs, and hey, they happen to need young women capable of bearing children. Nicci doesn’t want to consider her options, but Amber makes her hear them out and then feels horrible about having bullied her sister. Eventually, Nicci agrees to join the colony ship, and they both undergo a barrage of medical exams. Nicci is fine, but Amber is overweight, and the medics are concerned about her blood pressure. Having no other options, Amber visits the Candyman, one of her mother’s clients and a drug pusher. They haggle, and he gives her what amounts to a three-week regimen of Speed. The next medical exam turns out fine, but Amber hears the medic express some concerns about her to a colleague. The colleague advises the medic to clear her, saying it’s not their problem if the Sleepers on the ship don’t come in plus sizes. Amber and Nicci move into the colonists’ headquarters to await the ship’s taking off.

After an orientation period, they’re finally ready to leave Earth. The trip out to the waiting ship goes without incident, but the Bierces hit a snag when they find out they haven’t been roomed together in the family units. The crewman they’re speaking to, Everly Scott, is belligerent and refuses to do anything until Amber makes him get a supervisor. The supervisor assigns them to far more inferior quarters in the general population section,m then makes Scott escort them down. Amber and Scott continue to snipe at each other, but eventually both girls are put into sleep. The ship takes off, and crashes into some asteroids, killing all the active crew. The next thing the survivors are aware of is that they’ve crashed on an unknown world. Amber awakens from a dream of walking on the beach with her mother and hearing seagulls screaming to find that she is paralyzed. She begins to realize that the Sleeper is preventing her from movement, and that she is hearing the screaming of other passengers. Eventually, she is released from the sleeper. Venturing out of her cabin, she discovers that the ship around her is in ruins. She gets Nicci out of her compartment, but Nicci is still in shock and she strikes out at Amber, who does not defend herself. Eventually, Amber convinces Nicci to jump down to the ground so they can get away from the ship. She is able to rescue the one other survivor of their dorm, Ms. Alverez, who jumps away from the wreckage as well. Amber realizes that of the thousands of people in their dorm, she, Nicci and Ms. Alverez are the only survivors.

Amber and Nicci eventually find the rest of the survivors of the crash. There are about two thousand out of the 50,000 people that originally signed up. Amber sees Crewman Scott talking to a military [called the Fleet in this world] man and walks over to see what’s going on. The Fleet officer, Lieutenant Jonah Lamarc,
explains what happened. There are still large parts of the ship hidden underground. Lamarc and Scott have difficulty figuring out what to do. Lamarc wants to stay near the ship and build a colony where there are supplies and familiar things. Scott thinks they should scout out the territory. Amber agrees with Scott that they can’t stay with the ship and says she’ll go with Scott. Lamarc tells her he wishes she’d stay behind, and further admits that he’d like to sleep with her. Flattered, Amber tells him that she’ll hold him to it when they get back. Scott goes off in a huff to organize his scouting party, and Amber promises Lamarc she’ll be back, and asks him to take care of everyone.

Amber begins to root around for useful supplies. She’s joined by some Fleet officers who help her with the work. After packing what they can, they listen as Scott delivers a rousing speech about how people need to find pioneer spirit. Amber and the Fleet officers are distinctly unimpressed, but they join Scott’s scouting party anyway. After a grueling hike, Amber is exhausted. She takes a look around and counts heads. There are 48 people in this scouting party, including herself and Nicci. Nicci comes to tell her that Scott doesn’t like her and is thinking of sending her back. Amber remains uncowed, and says if Scott has a problem with her, he can suck it. She promises Nicci that she will always take care of her. Nicci screams that she doesn’t believe her and hates Amber for making her leave the planet, and storms off to be comforted by the other colonists while Amber helplessly watches.

That night, the camp is awakened by a loud roar. People speculate that the roar comes from dinosaurs. Amber tries to make amends with Scott by asking what he thinks they should do. They decide to see if they can find footprints. The small band of survivors gather up their supplies and trudge down to the lake, where they find nothing. Suddenly, Amber finds herself blown into the water. When she surfaces, she discovers that the remains of the ship are on fire. She stumbles to shore, finds Nicci, and with the other colonists they watch the ship burn.

Questions:

1. What were your general impressions of the chapters so far? What do you think of Smith as a writer?

Meka says:

I am struggling mightily with some aspects of this book, but not the writing itself. Smith paints a picture of a world that is grim and hopeless. Everyone has a place, for better or worse, and castes are set in stone.

In some respects, I felt as though everything was happening way too fast. I suppose it’s natural to be thrown in, but that didn’t always work for me. I enjoy fast-paced novels, but this one just kind of picked me up and dragged me along for the ride without waiting to see if I could keep up. I would have liked to have expanded a bit on the funeral, for example.

I am not certain that Dystopian novels are my thing, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the world the girls are from is a bad, bad place, so bad that the terrible seems normal and what is beyond that is a fate worse than death. How are they even supposed to rise out of where they have been in the first place?

Also, I wish this book were available in audio. While I understand that Amber’s thoughts are chaotic and can appreciate Smith not using punctuation to illustrate that fact, it is driving me a little crazy.

Shannon says:

I’ll be honest. I kind of expected the writing to be awful, so it really surprised me when Smith grabbed me by the emotions and didn’t let me go. There’s something stark about her writing that I love. It’s unpretentious, but she’s dealing with a lot of big ideas, about which, more later.

]She’s clearly not an author for everyone. I very rarely want to read anything this dark, and even though I may say I don’t want an author to pull their punches, I don’t think I really mean that. Smith pulls no punches. In a way,she reminds me of Stephen King, at least in the way she paints the atmosphere of her world, but even that comparison doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure what authors she does come close to. Certainly, I don’t think anyone is writing romance quite like this. (A side note: I think the punctuation thing Meka is talking about is reminiscent of some of King’s more stream of consciousness narratives. I’m not saying Smith is stealing anything here, but, yeah, those were clearly King influences.)

I disagree with Meka about the funeral. I thought the way it was described was awful enough to give me a clear sense of the world. There are plenty of ways that this book could have been trimmed, but that scene, in my opinion, was not one of them. Maybe I would have liked to see some of Amber’s grief, but I can see why that is not a choice the author could make. Amber simply doesn’t have time for grief. There’s too much stuff to do.

2. What did you think of the Earth that Amber and Nicci come from?

Meka says:

The world that Amber and Nicci come from is a dark place. I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that opportunities for improving one’s life are only given to the few. If you signed on for a job, you seemed to have to keep that job forever and a day or face serious consequences. I don’t understand how anyone could carve a life of independence on that Earth at all.

When Amber remembered how her mother came home after being spayed–SPAYED!–that nearly ended it for me. You know, there is bad like the world that they live in, and then there is BAD like having to be that little girl who took care of your mother who was a total mess after what happened. While the government was so busy trying to put poor people in their place, they kind of forgot about developing more humane ways of sterilizing someone….if you can call that process humane at all. Gel? Sealant? Something?

Shannon says:

Digression alert: Here’s my take on dystopias. Either go big or go home. I’ve missed much of the YA dystopian trend because I do not buy most of their premises. I don’t believe anyone would ever, for instance, think outlawing love would solve anyone’s problems. Or that people would naturally form factions based on their Meyer’s Briggs personality type. I can, however, accept the premise that a winner-take-all reality show would be a good way to control the masses, because of our culture’s current obsession with the media. Our culture is not currently obsessed with, say, determining the smartest people to lead the world through rigorous college entrance exams. I guess what I’m saying is that I want my dystopias to say something about the world we live in now and extrapolate how much worse it could get. And I know, this last paragraph is just begging for someone to explain to me how all those dystopian premises I mentioned are from excellent books that I shouldn’t mock because I haven’t read them. Feel free to judge me hard in the comments. I can take it.

I see some relevant cultural commentary about our own present in these pages. It’s not commentary I agree with, but I’d take something that feels plausible over a dark world that is dark because of some arbitrary thing people have decided to do for no apparent reason. Amber seems to live in a much more socialized state, where you may be able to have health insurance and you can go into a work house if you need to, but that’s not going to be a pleasant place for you. It feels like this is the future as envisioned by someone much more conservative than I am. This is the dystopia of someone who doesn’t support Obamacare. The government controls every aspect of your life, from how much you can make to your reproductive rights, and there don’t seem to be any kind of social safety nets, and, as Meka says, it’s not the place where the American dream is in force. You have to go to the stars for that. I don’t know what Smith’s political leanings are, nor do I want to speculate, but it is how I read the text.

Also, Smith managed to do what no one else has ever accomplished: I now have an actual desire to read A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, if only to see how different her vision of the future is from this one.

3. At one point, Amber’s mom tells the girls, ”
“They’ll spay the hookers, sure they will,” she’d sneer at some point. “But do they ever talk about neutering the fucking johns? Oh no! No, they’re still selling Viagra on the fucking TV, that’s what they’re doing! Let me tell you something, babies, what I do is the most honest work in the world because all women are whores! That’s how men see it, and if that’s how they see it, little girl, that’s how it is!” Do you think the text will end up agreeing with that statement, or do you think, as Amber does, that it’s simply a reflection of her mother’s bitterness?

Meka says:

The fact that they spayed–SPAYED!–Amber’s mother at all tells me that this is the stark reality of their world. There seem to be very few expectations of women in this book except to deal with the lot that they have been given in life and to do it gracefully and without complaint. I didn’t realize that I had the semblance of a strong inner feminist until I got to that part. It very much mirrors the real world. Women who are prostitutes are looked down upon far more than the men who frequent them. We’ll flip out because somebody twerked on TV but don’t bat in eye when there is an announcement that if your erection lasts longer than four hours, you need to call a doctor. You’re the bad girl for dancing, but the guy grinding up on you probably gets props by many. If those attitudes don’t change, if our responses don’t change, then it would not surprise me that future Earth might be bleak and dark in that regard. I shudder to think what is going to happen to the other women in this book because of it.

Shannon says:

I really found that passage evocative. It made me think of all the conversations I’ve read on the Internet with people saying that tips on how to avoid getting raped are useless, because what we really need to say is, “The only way to prevent rape is for men to stop raping.” I think in a lot of ways Mary Bierce is just overly jaded and cynical, but she’s not entirely wrong, either. To be fair, though, we don’t really see any men on Earth. We can extrapolate all we like, but it could be that things suck for a poor man, too. After all, we don’t know, for example, why Scott thought joining the Manifestors was the thing to do.

4. A lot of science fiction depicts colonizing new worlds as a fun and worthy activity. Yet the Bierce girls don’t see any other way to get a better life for themselves and view the process less as a grand adventure than as a foolhardy thing for desperate people to do. What did you think of that? Would you be up for the adventure, or would you want to stick with what is familiar?

Meka says:

I believe that there is a safety in the familiar, even if it isn’t the life that we would truly want for ourselves. But if you don’t know what you never had, then you don’t care what you’ve never missed. So, I almost answered yes to this question. I’d want to live in the knowledge of what was normal to me. yet, if what was normal was so bad, would I even know? And if I am living in a world where I could be spayed–SPAYED!–, or I have to register to do anything, where my class dictates what happens to me and my entire life is regimented, then I have to say hell no. I’d much rather take that adventure and colonize another planet. It may not turn out the way I hope, but at least I can do whatever I want without some stupid measure saying I can’t. Apparently, I am very much like Amber and a little bit like Nicci!

Shannon says:

The colonists as wacky, wide-eyed idealists was the thing that surprised me. Some of my favorite books have been about people colonizing other worlds. It’s a staple of the SF genre, after all. I think this is the first SF book I’ve read where the idea wasn’t universally approved of by everyone. Though that said, I think a group of cultists would not be who I’d want leading such an adventure. As for whether I’d do it myself, I know I’ve moved halfway across the country in search of a better life. It had to be done, even though it was hard. I sympathized with Amber’s need to do it. Granted, leaving my planet would be much more extreme than that, and I don’t think I could go that far, but damn, it wasn’t like they were leaving paradise. Maybe for them a planet without Obamacare would be exactly what they needed.

5. In general, what were your impressions of the characters? What do you think of Amber? Nicci? Scott?

Meka says:

It took a while for Amber to grow on me. I understood that there were dire circumstances, but she was downright mean to Nicci in the beginning. It helped to get internal monologue from her, but I really thought she was a very unlikeable person. She grew on me, though. She is fierce and strong. She is self-reliant and self-sufficient. She kept telling herself that sometimes people have to say the hard stuff and she did so. I do not like conflict, and often, her very straightforward method of talking and doing things made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I just wanted her to hush and let the nice men deal with the issues. I know that is a terrible statement to make, but I do have that mindset occasionally. All in all, she’d be a rockin sister to have in your corner. Also, fat girls unite! I cannot even begin to tell you how thrilled I am that Amber is not feather-light. It’s easy for me to be thrust inside of her head because fat girl Meka could not be trudging up some super steep ridge and remain unscathed.

Nicci and I are going through a love/hate relationship. While she is insufferably whiny, I wonder if she is dealing with mental illness that has run unchecked for a very long time. She seems to only operate in one mode, fearful and scared. Maybe there is so much that is wrong in her world, she has to cling to the familiar in order for it to make sense and to find her balance. While her protestations of why she didn’t want to join the colonists might have been unreasonable, this was her life. Everything that she knew was being taken away from her. Her mother was dead, she was being evicted. The only things that she had left were Amber and the system. And while the system wasn’t doing her any good, I believe it bred a familiarity with her that was so complete that the thought of leaving all that she’d known was like cutting off an arm. She represents to me what the average citizen of her caste who no longer wants to fight might be like if they never see something that is different from their norm.

Smith’s foreshadowing is like a brick in the face. We already know bad things are going to happen and scott is probably going to be the antagonist. We knew he didn’t like Amber because she stood up to him when he was trying to be large and in charge. If my limited reading of post-apocalypse novels has taught me anything, it’s that people like him are going to be the biggest trouble of all.

Can I just give a shout out to the candyman? I didn’t realize that what he gave Amber was pretty much akin to speed. Shannon is so good at catching stuff like that. For some reason, he really stood out to me as a character. While the world is going to hell in a handbasket, he’s managed to make his mark. Also, I cannot get Jean Wilder out of my head. I love you, Willie Wonka!

I’ll be interested to see what happens to the other ladies, like Miss Alverez, who is quickly becoming my favorite because she was going to sue all the bastards!

Also, black man dies first is a trope that is alive and well, I see. Jonah, there could have been so much in store for you. I am afraid of what will happen to the other *gasp* black woman in the story. But if my limited knowledge of TV Tropes has taught me anything, it’s that she’s next on the list. I hope I’m wrong. We need to keep the diversity alive!

Shannon says:

I am an unapologetically heroine-centric reader. Your hero may be so awesome that he farts rainbows and causes every woman in a 500 mile radius to orgasm on command, but if your heroine is boring, I don’t have a connection. I know many readers are the opposite–they want a place holder for their own fantasies, and that’s fine. It’s just not how I read. What I was expecting from Amber and what I got were also pleasantly different. I figured that with all the raping she goes through she’d be either a snivveling waif, or we readers would be supposed to think she’d somehow deserve everything she got. (I once read a terrible sci-fi novel with that premise. The human heroine was so thoroughly unlikeable that it was clear the author wanted readers to cheer for the hero every time he raped her to show her her place. I still have scars over that book. Just… fuck you, Sharon Green.) That is not something I am up for, and I am glad Amber is such a dynamic character, and is demonstrably shown to be right. She’s also got flaws, and, like Meka, I appreciated that she was an awesome fat chick. The scene after she hikes up the ridge and is told she wasn’t pulling her weight really got to me, because as a fat chick who is disabled, I have those fears all the time… that I’m somehow not doing enough and people will notice.

Amber’s also not good with people and I love that even as it means she has to say the hard stuff, it also alienates her from everyone, including her sister. I wish she had friends other than Nicci, because as I’ve said before on this blog, no one is an island and I worry about anyone’s future without a good support system.

Speaking of good support systems, I hadn’t thought of Nicci as being mentally ill until Meka brought it up. It does make sense, though, and is a much more charitable interpretation than mine, which is that Nicci’s been coddled all her life. I wish there was more to her character, and that she would do more than cry and rage. I worry that she’s not going to serve as much of a narrative device other than being the burden Amber has to bear.

There are some things I think Smith does well, but I agree that foreshadowing is not among them. She doesn’t seem to name many characters, but I knew Scott would be important when he got a name. He’s a bit of a cartoon villain, but he’s also a scarily effective cartoon villain. He seems to know Amber’s weak spots and exploits them ruthlessly, and I have to admit that the uncomfortable dynamic between Scott and Amber makes me a little nervous.

Yeah, poor Jonah. He never got a chance. Let’s hope that any other PoC in this book don’t meet with equally cliched deaths.

6. If you crash-landed on a strange new planet, what is the one essential thing you’d take with you?

Meka says:

I’m taking a collapsible tent. Even though movies have proven that you can still be eaten by dinosaurs while in your makeshift shelter, I cannot deal with the elements. I am such a girl. dinosaurs can eat me, but a bug better not even land on me!

Shannon says:

Sturdy blankets would be the practical thing I’d take. Not the flimsy fleece throws, but big thick wool blankets to keep out the cold. Also lots of water.

7. What are your predictions for what’s going to happen to the characters?

Meka says:

I do not trust this author and have trouble putting my reader self in her hands. My prediction is that Amber is going to be rape fodder because she’s a woman and she’s speaking out, Scott is going to be a rapist as well as some of the other men, and Nicci is going to be sexually-assaulted too, because she’s just another woman. I think that the people of color are going to die, and Scott is going to reign supreme. What I hope happens is that Nicci grows a spine and other character-building qualities, and that the other cast of characters aren’t useless while Amber is the only one who takes steps to secure their future. Oh, and I’m going to need for scott to be eaten. Violently.

Shannon says:

?
We know there’s going to be rape. I predict most of it will be done by Scott. I predict that Nicci will die of TSTL, or possibly be eaten. I can only hope. Since the book is so bleak, Scott will survive the world and become a tin-pot dictator of the rest of the humans (save Nicci, who will have been eaten, and Amber, who is supposed to get her HEA.)

Meka’s final thoughts:

All in all, I don’t know that I’m going to like this book and am almost ready to call my safeword. I think that this bleak is a little too much for me. I understand why it has to be dark. Dark, hopeless scary world of which there is almost no escape is a staple in Dystopian novels. I just don’t know that I’m really in to it. It’s probably going to get a whole lot worse, so be prepared to watch me clutch my pearls in dismay. But hey, next week we shall meet our intrepid hero!

Shannon’s final thoughts

:

I’m down for the ride. I am a little anxious about meeting Meoraq. As I said last week, uber alphas do nothing for me, so I’m predisposed not to like him much. But thus far, everything i thought would happen with this book has been wrong, so I’m willing to be proved wrong on this point, too.

So. What do the rest of you think? We discussed a lot of stuff in this post, and we’d love to see your takes on any of it in the comments. Note that the first comment you leave on the blog is moderated, because I do not care about your thoughts if you would like to help my erection last longer or if you are selling genuine replica timepieces. I’ll free the comments as soon as I can, I promise.

Review: War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Published October 22, 2013 by Shannon

Yet another short review originally posted on a mailing list I’m on. What can I say? This is a short book, and short stories are a challenge to review properly. Nonetheless, let us persevere.

I was excited to read War Dances by Sherman Alexie. We’re discussing it at this month’s Seattle low vision book club, and I loved Alexie’s young adult novel, The
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
. Alexie is a local author, and now that I live in Washington state, the plight of the Spokane Indians seems more relevant to my interests. However, this book seriously underwhelmed me.

I always feel that I should read more short stories than I do, because sometimes the short story is so perfect at capturing a small but significant moment. Of course, sometimes the short story perfectly captures the navel-gazing of the writer who writes it, but you take the good with the bad. My experience with short story collections is that usually there are a few great stories, some unmemorable ones, and a few duds. In that way, War Dances runs true to form. Here are a few of my favorites. The title story, which explores the complicated relationship between a father and
son, and touches on death and sickness and dying, was lovely and poignant. “The Senator’s Son” is a beautiful story about forgiveness which I liked even more considering the fact that the main character wasn’t a particularly nice person, which usually means I’d have dismissed it out of hand. “Salt” deals with the way we treat old people, and how we remember the dead. It was especially moving for me since most of the people I talk to on a daily basis are old people, and it was a nice, gentle nudge for me to be a little more compassionate.

Most of the poems were simply OK. I don’t remember any of them enough to write critically about them. Then there were the stories that didn’t work at all for me. “Fearful Symmetry” seems to have been a fairly autobiographical piece, and I didn’t click with it, because I knew it was autobiographical but I didn’t know what parts were. The prize for my least favorite, though, was “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless”, in which I think I’m supposed to feel sympathy for the loneliness of a middle-aged man who has separated from his beautiful wife who he no longer sexually desires and who creepily stalks a woman wearing red pumas through various airports. It felt overly long and self-indulgent, and I am not a middle-aged man, so I didn’t care about the poor misunderstood woobie who just wanted to make some connections and who could apparently not do that without being a creep.

So, overall, meh. The meeting is in two weeks; I’m not sure I’m going to remember any of these stories enough to discuss them coherently. If you like short story collections, this one isn’t long and you’ll probably find something you like. For me, it’s a solid C.

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Published October 21, 2013 by Shannon

I originally posted a draft of this review on a listserv to which I belong. I am reposting it here because it’s either that or post about how the insanely popular YA book I’m reading right now is seriously overrated. Oh, wait. I’ll probably post that anyway, once I’ve finished the book.

We all know the myth: If a person works hard enough, they can rise above their humble circumstances to become someone special, someone famous and driven and talented. The fact that you and I are not doing this means we are simply not trying hard enough.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses this myth and proves that there are other factors involved. He examines the lives of successful people, such as Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and a successful corporate lawyer in New York. He points out that all of those people got to be brilliant in their fields because they put in at least ten thousand hours of
practice. He also shows that a person’s birthdate and the time and place in which they were born correlate with their chances of success.

Gladwell’s writing is easy to read, with chapters divided into short
sections, facilitating starting and stopping whenever I had a few minutes to read. He’s clearly aiming for a popular audience, but I never felt that he dumbed things down. It’s easy to see why Gladwell is a bestselling author of nonfiction.

We read this for the Seattle low vision book club, which my fellow Reader’s Advisor and I alternate attending. I didn’t go to the
meeting where we discussed Outliers, but I understand it was a hit with the participants. It was a hit with me, and I was reminded of how much I generally enjoy Gladwell’s work.

Final Grade: B

Review: A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Published October 20, 2013 by Shannon

A few years ago, I read and loved A Red Heart of Memories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. I loved it. The characters were memorable and I loved the way the magic worked in that book. Also there was something of a Charles de Lint flavor to her writing, and I adore his books. I knew I wanted to read more from her, but it wasn’t until I last went spelunking through my TBR pile that I discovered A Fistful of Sky that I’d read her again.
Here’s the synopsis via Goodreads:

The LaZelle family of southern California has a secret: they can do magic. Real magic. As a teenager, a LaZelle undergoes “the Transition”–a severe illness that will either kill him or leave him with magical powers. If he’s lucky, he gains a talent like shape-changing or wish-granting. If he’s unlucky, he never experiences Transition. If he’s especially unlucky, he undergoes Transition late, which increases his chances of dying. And if he survives, he will bear the burden of a dark, dangerous magic: the ability to cast only curses. And curse he must, for when a LaZelle doesn’t use his magic, it kills him.In Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s A Fistful of Sky, Gypsum LaZelle is unique among her brothers and sisters: she has not undergone Transition. She resigns herself to a mundane, magic-bereft existence as a college student. Then one weekend, when her family leaves her home alone, she becomes gravely ill…

Sometimes I read novels of any genre and wonder where all the people are. It’s not that I necessarily always want an ensemble cast, but I would like some indication that the characters have other people in their lives, preferably people who have their own stuff going on. For the record, I would like those people and their stuff to be introduced organically, and not as a blatant manipulation to get me to buy their books. Thankfully, Ms. Hoffman creates an excellent ensemble of memorable characters. There’s Gypsum herself, our protagonist. So far she’s been the only nonmagical member of her very magical family, and that’s made her life somewhat difficult. Her parents are a charismatic local TV celebrity who has a tendency to be somewhat shallow, and her normal, grounded husband. Gypsum’s siblings are varied, too, from musician Jasper to makeup artist Opal and slacker Flint, and teenaged witch Beryl. They’ve all got their place in the story, and they come across as a realistic family–mostly happy, but with occasional fights and bad moments.

As the plot summary says, Gypsum undergoes her Transition. She’s 20, and is living a quiet life as a college student. But now she has to curse things. If she doesn’t, the power will eat away inside her. Gyp, however, is a good person, and, I think like most of us, she really doesn’t want to curse anything. The way she navigates her newfound ability and her desire not to become an evil person is lovely to read about. her family is awesome and incredibly supportive, which is even better.

The book takes place over the course of a week. In some ways it’s episodic, with Gyp cursing something, and terrible consequences resulting. Nothing terrible happens to anyone, and I loved that the plot dealt with dark power without becoming overly gritty.

Writing this up, I realize I liked the book a lot more than I initially thought I would. For all the wonderful characters and the fascinating premise, I found the plot sometimes dragged a bit. I was able to set the book aside easily, and even though I was swept back in whenever I picked it up, I kept being distracted by shiny objects. The result is that I think I’d have loved it more if I’d read it while in the right mood, which I wasn’t in. Furthermore, I wish that the romance element would have either been developed more or dropped altogether. Gypsum’s love interest is cool with all the weird shit that goes on around her… and that’s pretty much all there is to him. I realize it’s hard to introduce a Muggle into a cast of magic users and have that person be as interesting as the magic users, but poor Ian really suffered from being too boring.

A Fistful of Sky would undoubtedly be marketed as new adult if it were published today. I think it’s an appropriate book for that genre, dealing with the themes of figuring out exactly who you are and moving on from childhood to adulthood. Though there are pacing problems, it was a satisfying read, and I look forward to my next adventure with the LaZelle clan.

Final Grade: A B.

The Last Hour of Gann Readalong: Intro

Published October 18, 2013 by Shannon

Shannon says:

The romance blogosphere is abuzz with The Last Hour of Gann, a self-published erotic horror novel by R. Lee Smith. I’ve read many reactions to it, from effusive praise to reasons why it’s a DNF to “WTF lizard man pr0n? Are you on crack?”
Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

It was her last chance:

Amber Bierce had nothing left except her sister and two tickets on Earth’s first colony-ship. She entered her Sleeper with a five-year contract and the promise of a better life, but awakened in wreckage on an unknown world. For the survivors, there is no rescue, no way home and no hope until they are found by Meoraq—a holy warrior more deadly than any hungering beast on this hostile new world…but whose eyes show a different sort of hunger when he looks at her.

It was his last year of freedom:

Uyane Meoraq is a Sword of Sheul, God’s own instrument of judgment, victor of hundreds of trials, with a conqueror’s rights over all men. Or at least he was until his father’s death. Now, without divine intervention, he will be forced to assume stewardship over House Uyane and lose the life he has always known. At the legendary temple of Xi’Matezh, Meoraq hopes to find the deliverance he seeks, but the humans he encounters on his pilgrimage may prove too great a test even for him…especially the one called Amber, behind whose monstrous appearance burns a woman’s heart unlike any he has ever known.

From R. Lee Smith, author of Heat and Cottonwood, comes an epic new story of desire, darkness and the dawn that comes after The Last Hour of Gann.

WARNING: This book contains graphic violence, strong sexual content and explicit language. It is intended for mature readers only.

I first heard about this book from my BFF, Meka, who tweeted me saying we should read the book together. She may have meant that in the sense of, “Hey, sometime in the nebulous future we should read this book, right after I watch some paint dry but before I start monitoring grass growth.” However, I immediately got excited and suggested a joint
review. Then I realized the book was massive, and I belong to three book clubs for which I have to read long tomes, and fitting an even longer book into the mix wasn’t happening. Rather than shelve the project, I thought it might be fun to do this as a readalong.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am not a fan of alphas in romance. I never have been. However, my taste in other speculative fiction runs to the dark. I once suggested that we read one of my favorite dark fantasy novels at one of my millions of book clubs, of which Meka is a member. She couldn’t finish it. I can’t stomach rape, but rape as backstory is a thing Meka enjoys.

meka says:

What? This is a horror novel? You did *not* tell me that when we were first talking about doing this, missy! You have some ‘splainin to do!

Shannon says:

It is not my fault you didn’t click on the Amazon links. You would have seen that designation, although it sounds like the book is more dark sci-fi than horror.
Meka says:

Anyway, Shannon and I are constantly giving each other book recommendations that we might read, eventually, sometimes years down the line, so the fact that she latched on to this title and all of a sudden came up with this awesome idea has kind of floored me. So here I am, along for the ride and a little worried. While she and I might not be the book twins that we first thought we were, we have a way of talking about books with one another that is pretty hilarious. At least to us. Also, I will have all the alphas. But not the alphaholes!
Shannon says:

Not all the alpha holes, though. This one is a lizard man, remember? Though I have to say that what I’m picturing is an evil version of the lizard creatures from Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. You’re welcome for the fact that I probably ruined a childhood fantasy classic forever.

Anyway, before we get too sidetracked, here’s how this works: There are eight sections in the book, each of which is divided into chapters. We’ll read one section a week for the next eight weeks, and post our thoughts on the blog. Anyone who wants to
discuss the book with us further is welcome to do so in the comments. We ask that you not spoil later parts of the book if you’ve read ahead, though we will spoil the hell out of the sections we’re reading.

Our goal is to be even-handed, praising where praise is due and offering criticism where we think appropriate. I certainly don’t want this to become a
protracted love fest or pile-on.

We’ll try to do this every Friday. There are a couple of weeks I know
it’ll be hard to manage, but we’ll do our best. We’re both excited to
get this project going, and we’re looking forward next week to starting
with Book I: Amber.

Meka says

despite my worries that the hero is a lizardman, which I am totally judging by the way because I need my normal catman alphas, I am really looking forward to reading this book. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi at all, and Shannon is like the sci-fi mistress. I’m just going to say this–I heard that there is a lot of rape in this book. I think I can handle that. But if even one puppy gets shot, I’m out of here!

See you all next week!

Review: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Published October 16, 2013 by Shannon

I am reworking this review from my initial posting of it on a listserv to which I belong. This is something I’ve meant to do more often, but laziness plus a backlog of reviews I’ve written for that list means it hasn’t happened.
I chose this particular novel after my experience reading all those M/M new adult books. I wanted something that wasn’t a romance, and it’s October. Perfect time for a horror book.

It’s funny how things get added to the cultural zeitgeist. (That’s my $600,000 word for the day. Just proving that my college education didn’t go to waste.) There was a moment toward the end of Rosemary’s Baby when one of the characters exclaims, of the titular baby, “He has his
father’s eyes.”
I had to stop listening in order to raise a fist in the air and exclaim, “Oh, that’s where that line comes from!” (No, I haven’t seen the movie. I live under a rock. What is this pop culture of which you speak?)

The plot to this slim horror novel has become a classic. Young couple moves into historic apartment building. Woman gets pregnant and then delivers Satan’s baby. There are cults involved. But that’s pretty much all I knew going in. I also knew that Levin wrote The Stepford Wives, which is another cultural icon, so I figured I’d get some taut writing and some interesting satire. I was curious to see what else the book would offer me.

Quite a lot, it turns out. This is the sort of horror that I enjoy. It’s nigglingly creepy, and all of the monsters are nicely human. Except for Satan, and we only get dreamlike glimpses of him, so he doesn’t really count. That makes everything all the scarier as Rosemary questions what’s going on around her.

I certainly didn’t read this book for the great characters. Rosemary drove me nuts, since she reacts rather than push the plot along on her own. And when she finally is proactive, it doesn’t go well for her. But I still had sympathy for her, because everyone around her was either repugnant or hopelessly clueless. I’m not sure if I’d have warmed to Rosemary if I hadn’t absorbed this book through cultural osmosis. I just didn’t expect everyone else to be so horrible. Rosemary’s husband, the struggling actor Guy, is completely loathsome. As for the cultists, of course they were evil, but they were banal. The image of ordinary plain folk getting off of work at their desk jobs only to stand around naked and chanting “Hail Satan!” is an effectively creepy one.

I mentioned expecting satire earlier, and I got it. It’s clear Levin is mocking his contemporaries, and I don’t really get the impression he liked any of his characters either. A lot of the satire is time-specific(this book was written in the 1960’s), so the cultural commentary flew over my head, but I appreciated it was there, and there were scenes that inspired a few chuckles at the characters’ expense, and I love that this book is both creepy and full of cultural criticism.

I listened to this on audio from NLS. The narration was good, and the guy they picked to read the book didn’t ham it up too much, but rendered the creepy parts creepy and otherwise stayed out of the way of the text.

And, because it would matter to me to know this: the rape of Rosemary isn’t that explicit.It’s a creepy scene, but it’s not lingered on in great detail. Thank God.

Anne Tenino does M/M new adult

Published October 15, 2013 by Shannon

After finishing the superlative Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan (which I did on my lunch break at work. Having eaten out. in a public place where they are very solicitous of me, so bursting into happy tears wouldn’t have been a good thing) I realized I was still in the mood for college set M/M romance. The only book I could think of that I’d heard that might be similar enough to what I’d just read was Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino. I bought it, and fell in love again. I did not expect to, because that title is the kind of title I would point out as an example of why it is that romance sometimes has an image problem. But love it I did.

The story, for those of my three blog readers who don’t keep up with this sort of thing, is that one day Brad is ogling some guy, and then comes to the realization that, yep, despite his efforts to deny it, he’s gay. He’s also got a thing for his history TA, and his attempts to get Sebastian to notice him are adorkable. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it made me actually laugh out loud, which almost never happens when I read romantic comedies. Plus, Brad is the bottom, which, given he’s also a football player, is cliche-defyingly awesome. His frat brothers are hilarious, and I liked that while there were certain boys lined up to be obvious sequels, it wasn’t like, “Oh, hey, we are a frat of inexplicably closeted gay boys. Woot.”

As with all things, FB&T is the first in a series. I didn’t read the second book, mostly because it was the frat and its goofy brothers that had gotten me on this train and I didn’t want to take a digression into the life of a guy who, in the first book was really obnoxious. However, book 3 seemed more to my taste, and while I’ll probably go back and reread Paul and Trevor’s book, I’m glad I skipped it for now.

I did,however, love the glimpse of Collin, one of Brad’s frat brothers, so I bought and then quickly devoured Sweet Young Thang, the third book in the series, which resulted in something so rare and precious–the perfect book chemistry between reader and author. In this one, we’re back at the frat. Someone doesn’t like that the frat has now instituted a policy of inclusivity, and shows their distaste by rigging a hot water heater to explode. Collin, one of the frat boys, finds this policy very personally important, because he’s still closeted, since he’s afraid of the reaction his uncle Monty will have. Anyway, Collin meets Eric, a firefighter/paramedic when the hot water heater explodes. They run into each other again when an undifused bomb is found in the frat basement. Eric is 15 years older than Collin and really just wants to settle down with someone and play househusband. At first there’s some angst about the considerable age difference between the two men, but their chemistry trumps all of that.

Collin is adorable, and I think his angst rings true. Eric is also a huge sweetheart, and reading about two really kind people who fall in love is sometimes all I want. Objectively, I know the book has some flaws. It goes on a tad too long, and the romantic conflict was kind of superficial, and you’ll either love that Eric’s got all kinds of pet names for Collin or you’ll want to take a shot every time he uses the words “Sweet thing”, in which case your liver will be destroyed. I thought it added to the adorableness myself, obviously, but your mileage may vary. I powered through the book, barely pausing for sleep, and then couldn’t read a blessed thing all the next day.

I’ve got a couple of other M/M college set romances on tap, but I’m saving them for when I’m in this particular mood again. And I’m glad both Cullinan and Tenino have backlists.

State of the Shannon 10/8/13

Published October 8, 2013 by Shannon

Once more, let’s see if I can make this whole blogging regularly thing stick. No promises or anything since my track record has sucked so far, but I live in hope.

What I’m reading: I’m about two thirds through Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan. It’s utterly delightful. I had a recent conversation with a friend about how she hates this whole new adult genre with its rapey spoiled rich kids. I just think she hasn’t found a NA book that calls to her. Honestly,not many of them call to me, but I love the idea and the potential of the genre. Not only does Ms. Cullinan deliver on the potential of the college setting, which features a shy, somewhat idealistic young man paired with a campus party boy, but it actually feels contemporary. Like, with real pop culture references and with the boys geeking out on real things that people would geek out on. Also, this is the kind of romance I adore, with two very differently vulnerable people being drawn to each other. The whole alpha man protecting his mate thing rarely strikes me as a relationship that’s not inherently exploitive in some way, and while I get that it makes for a really good fantasy, it rarely works as one of my fantasies. So yes. This book is all kinds of awesome.

Current Obsession: I’ve been on a Welcome to Night Vale kick lately. I think I saw some mention of the show on Twitter, but didn’t pay attention until I was bored at work and googled it. It’s described as “H. P. Lovecraft as told by NPR”, and that’s pretty accurate. It’s a podcast presented like a community news radio show, but the community is a creepy place with supernatural and scary things happening all the time. I’m not sure what it is that hooked me when a couple of other radio drama podcasts have failed to entice. I think it’s the weird combination of horror and comedy, though. And for the romance fan in me, there’s a nice overarching relationship between Cecil, the news anchor and the major voice of the show, and Carlos, (perfect Carlos with his perfect hair), the hot scientist who comes to town to study its anomalies. I love this romance because not only is it between two men, but it’s treated just as casually as if Carlos’s name was actually Carla. Which, honestly, is how more things should be. Also, people are writing awesome fanfiction, much of which features Cecil with tentacles. If you were to ask me if I’d ever find gay tentacle pr0n hot before, say, last week, I would have laughed mockingly at you. But I want more sweet and fluffy tentacle fics plz. (And now I will get some extremely weird hits for this blog, I just know it.)

Currently in RL: I seem to have a lot going on. Various social commitments are coming up in the next couple of weeks. This makes me a little shocked because WTF I’m a hermit, dammit. Nonetheless, I have a dinner date with a friend tomorrow night, a meeting of my local Washington Council of the Blind chapter, and the week after that, I get to go to a Halloween party.

In the Future: I’m going to do Nanowrimo. I don’t know what I will write, but I need to get in the habit of starting to write more often, goodor bad. So. 50 thousand words. 30 days. Some of which are Thanksgiving and a WCB convention. I can totally do this. Maybe. I hope.

Hope all of you are having a great week!