Monday, July 21, 2014

The Art of Reading: Moving

 
All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: moving. Sure, some readers attach their devotion more to the elusive story than the physical book, but many of us bibliophiles can also be called book hoarders. If that describes you, what do you do when it comes time to move? Bring every last book? Pare down your collection?

This is a timely post for me. Right now I’m making a big move from Washington to California...with a big book collection. Whenever I move, I trim down my plethora of books. This time I gave a handful to friends, sold dozens to a used bookstore, and donated multiple bags and boxes worth to charities. Despite all that, I still have plenty!

Each time, moving strikes me as chance to see which books are truly exemplary. Whenever I finish a book I decide whether or not I consider it worth saving. My judgment tends to be more generous soon after finishing a story, but years later I might not care about that book as much. I can tell which ones really made an impression on me by which ones never find themselves weeded out.

Feel free to weigh in on the topic of moving with books! Ever had to do it? Too much hassle or worth the effort?

Friday, July 18, 2014

LOLCAT COLLECTION


Review of the LOLCAT COLLECTION by PROFESSOR HAPPYCAT

This humor collection currently features four books: I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER?, HOW TO TAKE OVER TEH WURLD, HOW 2 BE AWSUM, and THE ITTEH BITTEH BOOK OF KITTEHS. Anyone at all familiar with LOLcats will recognize “I can has cheezburger?” but perhaps you didn’t realize the phenomenon goes farther than that.

Courtesy of icanhaz.cheezburger.com, these books collect funny pictures of cats with even funnier captions. Like UNDERWATER DOGS, these ones are tricky to review without presenting the images themselves. While I highly recommend this website and these books for a good laugh, the best review is to suggest you click on over to the website yourself and peruse a few captioned kitties. 





Monday, July 14, 2014

THE HOUNDS OF GOD


Review of THE HOUNDS OF GOD by JUDITH TARR
(third in THE HOUND AND THE FALCON trilogy)

As with earlier books in this series, I immediately invested in the characters. There’s another jump ahead in time with the start of a new book; each novel has its own distinct plot with the major unifying factor being the characters.

In this third and final installment, Thea is now pregnant (though still refusing to marry her beloved Alf). She and Alf live in the fey court now with other familiar characters from earlier books. Life seems peaceful...until a crazed religious fanatic kidnaps Thea and their newborn twins. Religion versus magic has been a prominent, if not the most prominent, theme in this series with THE HOUNDS OF GOD being no exception.

Our newest antagonist views magic as sin and, therefore, the fey as demons, and he intends to see every last one of them purged from the world. Right now he’s fixated on Alf. Not only does Alf’s exceptional magical talent make him a prime target, but our villain considers a fey man like Alf having a religious background absolute blasphemy. He makes no secret that he will kill Thea and their children once they’ve served their purpose, but for now their purpose is to lure Alf directly into the beast’s mouth.

My praise and criticism of this book stays consistent with what I’ve said about the earlier two. In terms of praise, I admire the theme of being rejected by the group with which you identify. As for criticism, I still found the writing dense and sometimes unclear, especially with actions scenes where not only can’t I picture what’s happening but I’m not even sure I know what’s happening.  

This was a satisfying series that encourages me to read everything else by this author. I believe most of her works are rather obscure at this point - if not out-of-print - but I expect her books will be worth the effort of tracking down copies.

Friday, July 11, 2014

THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING


Review of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by ERIKA JOHANSEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

In short, THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is a decent book that severely suffers from overhype. Though I enjoyed the story, this novel couldn’t live up to all the raving marketing. The primary selling point for this book seems to be that Emma Watson agreed to play the heroine in a movie adaptation even before the book’s publication. (Side note: once you read the book it’s apparent that’s a horrible casting choice. Nothing against Emma Watson. In fact, it’s because she’s too pretty. The book makes a big deal out of the fact that the heroine is not attractive.) A lot of the buzz also describes THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING as a cross between A GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES. After reading the book, that comparison strikes me as a hollow publicity gimmick of throwing out familiar, bestselling book titles. The only similarity I see between THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING and A GAME OF THRONES is the medieval-ish setting. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the fact that there’s a female lead.

I did invest in an engaging plot early on, but never became full absorbed because every time I started to do so my reviewer brain would find itself snagged on some little detail and thrown out of the story back into the real world. My criticisms are petty but numerous. I found this to be a good book, but not great. Entertaining, but not gush-worthy. I would recommend it to people like me who read at least a book a week, but it wouldn’t make the cut if I were talking to someone who reads 10 books or less a year.

The premise sounds like a familiar epic fantasy formula. Princess Kelsea has been raised in hiding and the book begins as she sets out to reclaim her throne and heal a dying land. From there, this story distinguishes itself from other similar ones. Despite a wealth of “book knowledge,” Kelsea’s guardians kept her ignorant of her land’s politics. (A decision that never made sense to me. Why is it a good thing for a leader of a land not to know what’s going on in said land?) THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is the first in a planned trilogy and the biggest hurdle in this book revolves around Kelsea standing up to a bully of a neighboring country. For years, Mortmesne has demanded a monthly shipment of citizens from weaker lands to be sold into slavery, threatening to obliterate any country that refuses to provide this tribute.

Though she had her moments, Kelsea isn’t quite the heroine I wanted her to be. Too much telling rather than showing. In other words, I felt like author used other characters’ awe and admiration to nudge the reader into feeling the same, but for the most part I remained unimpressed. Kelsea strikes me as rash and lucky. She has a magical family heirloom gem that seems to do most of her work. Some of her actions would be impressive, except she didn’t do anything. Instead the magical stone comes to life without any intent or skill on Kelsea’s part and solves her problems for her.

I’ll summarize my other complaints. I found the storyline rather predictable. I guessed the traitor as well as two late revelations about Kelsea’s foster parents. The setting also confused me. It’s the 24th century, but medieval-ish. Technically future but feels like past. It seems some great humanity crash set everyone back to older ways, but we’re never provided further explanation. Honestly, I only know that much from reading writing about the book rather than the book itself. Last, the writing had some silly, petty slips that I found distracting. As one example, something along the lines of: “She heard an audible snap.” If a snap is a sound, why specify audible? For that matter, why specify audible if she heard it? Far from appalling writing but I do start thinking these thoughts instead of focusing on the story.

Moving on to some of what I admired about the book, the story does raise numerous questions about vanity, one of the primary themes. Kelsea’s lack of beauty comes up early and often. She’s not quite ugly, but she’s entirely unremarkable and plain. She’s overweight, and when she cuts her hair short she realizes that some women can still look gorgeous and feminine with cropped hair...but she looks indistinguishably like a boy. There’s also the fact that her crush calls her “far too plain for [his] taste.” If he does fall for her personality later, will her vanity overcome the fact that he’s made it clear he’s not physically attracted to her in the least? Then there’s Kelsea’s clear contempt for vanity. Her guards even mistreat a woman and I picked up a subtext that it was okay because that woman is vain and, hence, deserved it - which contradicts Kelsea’s intent to be a better ruler than her mother or uncle.

However, I’m not sure Kelsea being a notably flawed protagonist, heroine, and ruler is such a bad thing in a story. I hope it means growth in future books. It certainly means ardent conversations about her strengths and drawbacks, what decisions a reader supports and what ones they don’t.

In general, that’s what I loved about this book: that it’s discussion worthy. I might have criticized this novel a lot in this review, but I certainly had plenty to say. Sometimes I enjoy a book and still find myself staring at a blank page when reviewing, struggling for anything to say about the story. THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING feels somewhat like a gem that could have been polished a lot more, but you can tell it’s a gem nevertheless and not any old interchangeable rock. I also have high hopes that the later books will deliver on the story’s (and the marketing’s) promise of an epic series I won’t soon forget.

Monday, July 7, 2014

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY


Review of THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by GABRIELLE ZEVIN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This book won me over almost immediately and more than lived up to its considerable hype. I had heard enthusiastic endorsements from well over a dozen people before starting this novel but the story nevertheless exceeded my expectations. Both droll and shrewd in tone, THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY is above all beautiful, heartwarming, and original.

Our star, the cynical A.J. Fikry, owns a small independent bookstore, but his passion for his work died with his wife. Now his job is, well, just a job. He gets through the day and often drinks through the night. Then someone abandons a baby in his store with a note suggesting he raise the child. Naturally A.J. balks at this proposition at first, but by the time Maya’s mother washes ashore after her suicide he can’t bear to send little Maya away. From there, the book has a wide time arch, covering A.J. and Maya’s unusual, moving, sometimes rocky, always book-dosed life together.

The characters feel so believable that they practically emerge from the pages. Sometimes Zevin utilizes hyperbole for humor (like the cop book group that has such impassioned debates about the mystery novels they read that someone pulls their gun), but that aside every moment feels so probable, and so human. The characters are complex and flawed and many embody a typical reader: more than a little cynical because they think they’ve seen every plot twist and that predictability drains a story of emotion.

This novel also features a strong voice (which goes along with dynamic characters) and excellent writing. I rarely pay as much attention to specific lines as I do to the overall story, but I stuffed THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY with so many post-its marking memorable quotes that my book looked more like my scrap paper storage unit. Sometimes I marked pages because a line made me laugh aloud and other times because a concise insight felt so truthful.

Speaking of laughing aloud, the humorous tone came as a wonderful surprise. Dozens of people told me to read this book: because it’s a book about books and book lovers, because it’s well written, because it’s moving, because the end made them cry. Yet not one person mentioned that it’s also hilarious. I smiled, chuckled, or cracked up more times than I can count and often quoted to anyone nearby (who then wanted to read the book as well).

Of course, I didn’t only mark funny quotes. As well as writing dry wit, Zevin can zero in on small realities about life (and reading specifically) that hit me hard with their truthfulness. As a single example, at one point A.J. muses on a conundrum with which many avid readers can relate. He read and loved a book that by all measures he should consider trash. He’s trying to write a review and doesn’t know how to justify his endearment for a book that’s poorly written and plotted, lacks depth, and features flat characters. Then he acknowledges that despite the book’s easy-to-name flaws he connected. And connecting is rather the point of reading (and life, he acknowledges with only a little recoil at his own sentimentality.)

Though I think many people will enjoy this book, I, too, must acknowledge that it’s perfect for bibliophiles, especially anyone who works in the book industry - be you bookseller, writer, editor, agent, publisher, etc.) The writing’s packed with spot on remarks about reading and literature, not to mention inside jokes about particular works and the bookselling/publishing/writing industries. (The comment about Maeve Binchy’s work made me snort out my drink.)

In short: a spellbinding tale of human connection that reads like a love letter to books.

Friday, July 4, 2014

ELIZABETH WEIN


Interview with ELIZABETH WEIN

Elizabeth Wein writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of CODE NAME VERITY, as well as the THE LION HUNTERS cycle, set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her most recent novel, ROSE UNDER FIRE, is the winner of the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award. Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth has lived in Scotland for over fourteen years. She is married and has two teenage children.

What are you reading right now?

I’m halfway through THE NEW MOON AND THE OLD by Dodie Smith. Dodie Smith, where have you been all my life? I love this book. It crept up on me how much I love this book. It is terribly, terribly English, exploring all these weird generational and class crossovers, and every quirky, likeable character is so much more nuanced than you realize at first. Plus she just writes so beautifully.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

Well, I liked reading, of course! I have wanted to write since I learned to read – since I first read a chapter book all by myself from beginning to end in one go. I was seven – the book was ELLEN TEBBITS by Beverly Cleary. When I finished, I closed the book, put it down, and thought, “I want to write stories like this.”

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I hate when writing becomes a slog—when I get stuck and have to push through a scene that I’m not enjoying, when it feels wooden and forced. But the best thing about it is when you get a flash of inspiration and you realize your story is going to work. I love re-reading a good scene for the first time, when it’s still fresh, enjoying it as though someone else had written a story just for you.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

At the moment I am pretty scattered.

Normally I write out my first draft of a novel longhand, in lined notebooks. I tend to type it up chapter by chapter. Sometimes I use an outline, but not usually. Occasionally I have to make an outline for myself when I’ve already written half the novel and it starts to get out of control. For CODE NAME VERITY I put together a complicated timeline halfway through the writing process.
What are your passions?

I get more passionate over things I hate than things I love! I do a lot of ranting about high-heeled shoes, gun control, the appalling state of the teaching of English literature in Scotland, reinforced gender stereotyping, etc. The list of things that make me rant is quite long. Things that I love include: punting, certain random aspects of watching wildlife, aerobatics (seldom achieved!), the ocean, awesome conversations with my husband, my kids and my grandmother (she is 98!).

What inspires you?

Stories of people doing unusual things; people who successfully break the mold and change their own lives and others’ for the better.

Why young adult?

Because someone made up a shelving category called “young adult” and my books happen to be shelved there? That’s just how I write. I do think that my books qualify as young adult because my characters essentially are figuring out who they want to be when they grow up. That seems to me the essence of what makes a book YA.

How was CODE NAME VERITY born?

I’m going to cheat and direct you to another blog interview for this one – I’ve written about it pretty extensively already and this is an interesting post on the inspiration behind CNV! Click here to read the interview.

Did CODE NAME VERITY require a lot of research?

Of course it did, but I didn’t have to do as much as you might think—I knew quite a bit about the time period already. So what I ended up doing for CODE NAME VERITY was expanding my knowledge. I knew what I needed to check up on (say, the Air Transport Auxiliary, the Battle of Britain, a certain type of aircraft, Resistance activity in France), and then I’d go do some reading on whatever the subject was. I also read a lot of novels and watched a lot of movies that were made during the 1930s and during World War II, which is a great way to pick up little-known details of time and place.

I still haven’t figured out what a “Starboard Light Frappe” is, spotted on the menu for a Glasgow ice cream shop in the 1930s.

Was it difficult writing such an emotional novel?

 I know that people say this novel kills them, but believe me, I feel sure I have suffered more over it than any reader ever has! I was an emotional wreck for three weeks after I finished writing it—I couldn’t look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower without bursting into tears! It was a wonderful experience but exhausting. When I finished, my husband said, “Please can you wait six months before you write another book?”

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

1) Write about something you’re passionate about.
2) Make a plan; pick away at it. Concentrate on completion.
3) If you want to write children’s books or YA, join the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators – it is a wonderful way to meet people (editors, agents & industry professionals as well as other writers). All my breaks came through this society.
4) Join a writers’ group if you can. It’s very helpful to have a support group.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I have discovered lately that I really like to travel. You’d think I would know this about myself by now, but actually I’ve only just put my finger on it! I enjoy exploring, both home and away.

That’s also useful advice for aspiring authors—go find out more about your world. There is always something interesting to write about, sometimes just around the corner!

Monday, June 30, 2014

THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH


Review of THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH by SPENCER QUINN
(fourth in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

Narrated by the lovable dog Chet, these delightful mystery novels each follow Chet and his private investigator owner Bernie as they solve one of Bernie’s cases. A dog narrator creates a new angle for a familiar formula, since Chet frequently finds himself distracted and sidetracked. Lots of twists and turns and tangents in these books!

In this fourth book, THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a woman hires Bernie to pretend to be her boyfriend when she visits her son at camp. She’s worried her pushy ex-husband wants a reunion and hopes a tough guy like Bernie will scare the ex away with his presence alone. Except the son goes missing and it looks like the ex might be to blame.

I invested quite quickly, both reuniting with familiar characters and perking up at this new storyline. I should specify that these books definitely can be read out of order, though I do like the longer arches of personal plot threads. Each book follows one case, but Bernie’s life naturally becomes a part of each story. That includes his problems with his ex-wife Leda, his love for but struggle to see more of their son Charlie, and his blossoming relationship with the journalist Suzie.

Chet’s an unreliable but adorable narrator. He idolizes Bernie and his descriptions of his owner’s actions come with a heavy dose of reverence. As far as Chet’s concerned, Bernie is the smartest, most handsome, funniest, nicest, all-around-best human in the world...so it’s always important to take Chet’s recounting of events with a grain of salt. As for the adorable part, in this installment Chet finds himself a little torn between affection for Suzie and jealousy. (For one thing, she keeps taking the front seat.)

I rarely find myself describing a murder mystery as cute, but the Chet and Bernie series is one of the few crime novels that can give me warm fuzzies even amidst crime and corruption.