Friday, January 31, 2014

SIGNSPOTTING

 
Review of SIGNSPOTTING by DOUG LANSKY

These hilarious books were my introduction to the humor section in bookstores and libraries. When I flipped through the first one and started laughing and snorting in the middle of the store, I realized I had to buy it…and the three “sequels”.
 
The “author,” Doug Lansky, started collecting photos of funny signs he saw on his travels. That turned into a website, which turned into this hysterical collection of humanity’s worst signs. The book is primarily photos of these amusing signs, but don’t overlook the sarcastic comments inserted below each selection. Sometimes those made me laugh harder than the sign itself.

It’s hard to pick favorites from such an impressive (Is that word?) collection, but I’m going to mention some of the signs that made me laugh out loud. In the first book, I love the road sign that says “Keep your eyes open” and the mocking note below commenting, “Perhaps it’s part of a helpful driving-tip series: ‘sit up’ and ‘keep breathing’ signs are up ahead.” This is definitely a visual book, though…as evidenced by the sign that says “Dangerous intersection ahead.” Not funny in itself, but alarmingly hilarious when you note that the sign contains dozens of bullet holes.
 
The latter books are more of the same; why change a successful formula? In SIGNSPOTTING 2, I cracked up at the sign that says “Warning. Please look under your vehicle for penguins.” as well as the one that reads “If door does not open do not enter.”

SIGNSPOTTING III continues the fun with signs like “Lake Surprise” positioned only a few feet away from a sign that says “Crocodile Crossing.” You’ve also got to love the hopefully incorrectly translated Chinese restaurant sign with English writing below that reads “welcome go home.”

SIGNSPOTTING 4 is the most recent addition to this series, as far as I’m aware, but believe me if a fifth ever comes out I’m buying it! Some of my favorites from this one include “Hysterical District” and the unfortunate misprint “illegally parked cars will be fine.”

Mentioning some specific entries that made me laugh feels a little silly, because in full honesty almost every single one of these hundreds of signs had me giggling and chuckling. Not to mention since the discovery of these books, I peruse and purchase from the humor section more often…which equals many more smiles and laughs.

Monday, January 27, 2014

New Adult


“New Adult” is a fairly recent term in literature that’s old news to some bibliophiles and still breaking headlines for many other readers. Some think it’s a great concept and others unnecessary. I fall in the former category, but first a definition: have you ever read a book that you thought could be categorized as either young adult or adult? That’s New Adult. People already use the term “crossover appeal” and this is an extension of that phrase. In terms of age, the protagonist is often college or early twenties and thematically we’re talking conflicts that ride a line between teenage and adult problems. Usually these are books that can and do sell to both markets.

While I say I’m entirely on board with “New Adult,” I should specify: for terminology but not shelving. I think it’s great to have a specific term for those books that almost slip between the cracks of target age range, as well as a label that expressly markets something as having crossover appeal. However, I definitely do not think New Adult needs a special shelf of its own in bookstores, libraries, etc. That would be a third potential category to put something and, thus, confuse readers about where they should be looking. And for that matter, if New Adult is the grey area between Young Adult and regular Fiction, well, where do we draw the line at subcategories? There are even more grey areas in between Young Adult and New Adult. Are we going to come up for a new label for those books about which we can’t decide whether it has enough crossover appeal to merit a New Adult label? So my opinion on New Adult: useful term for reviews and discussion but I sure hope we don’t start pulling novels from existing categories for an entirely new shelf!

Some examples of New Adult books:

CODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN: Most likely shelved in Young Adult simply due to the teenage heroine, but said heroine is an Allied spy capture by the Gestapo. Needless to say…intense themes about war. Plenty of adults have been reading this book, too, as well as selecting it for discussion in their book groups.

NINETEEN MINUTES by JODI PICOULT: The author alternates perspectives in this novel about a school shooting. Some main characters are teenagers and others adult, but the core conflict revolves around this extreme act of violence at a high school. I’ve seen this in both Young Adult and Fiction sections.  

PREP by CURTIS SITTENFELD: This controversial novel stars a teenage girl at a prep school, but usually finds itself shelved in adult fiction for the mature sexual themes.

Those are merely a few titles that exemplify how this New Adult label does indeed fill a demand in describing a book. What are your thoughts on New Adult? Any books you think fall into this subcategory?

Friday, January 24, 2014

THEREBY HANGS A TAIL


Review of THEREBY HANGS A TAIL by SPENCER QUINN
(second in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

Chet, the narrator of this delightfully entertaining mystery series, won me over in the first book and left me eager to read the rest of his adventures. In this second installment, Bernie (Chet’s owner and a private investigator) is hired as a bodyguard for an award-winning show dog who has recently been threatened. As with the first book, the story does not proceed in a linear, orderly fashion but twists and turns down entirely unexpected corners.

The style of narration won’t appeal to everyone. Quinn writes these novels from the perspective of Chet the dog, companion to the private investigator Bernie. Anthropomorphized animals are always tricky, because where’s the line between how they think like a human and how their thought process differs? At times Chet’s worldview can seem somewhat arbitrary in terms of what human phrases he understands and what simple words confuse him, but all in all Chet has the air of a simple-minded but endearingly trusting and friendly character. As for narration taste, his attention span will amuse some readers and irritate others. When I say the story twists and turns, I mean that doubly: on the one hand because the plot develops in directions the reader won’t likely suspect and on the other because Chet is, let’s say, easily distractible. He’ll pick on a major clue only to be sidetracked by a good smell, favorite toy, interesting person, etc. This builds a sense of dramatic irony to the books that feels unlike anything else I’ve read.

Of course, this hyper tangent-tendency becomes a huge part of why Chet feels so real. In writing myself, I’ve learned about the importance of getting into a character’s head. Rather than a simple scene where they walk from point A to point B, throw in details that build the individual: a leaf blowing by reminds them that they need to rake their backyard, a smell of cinnamon buns brings forth memories of their deceased mother who baked those every Sunday, they almost trip and flash back to an embarrassing fall in high school. Real people think in tangents….which means Chet must be a real “person” multiplied by a factor of at least 10. In every chapter, sometimes multiple times within a page, some detail sends Chet off on digressions that lead from an observation to a memory and perhaps to a memory after that and after that. While this narration style obviously amuses, after awhile another strength emerges: Chet increasingly becomes the most well-developed character in the series! He has countless backstories, some big and some small, and we’re entirely in his doggy mind.

Telling people how to handle their pets often overlaps with the dangers of telling a parent how to raise their children. As someone with plenty of dog training experience myself, I can’t help but notice when people (fictional and real alike) do things with their pets that 1. I wouldn’t do or 2. I consider flat-out irresponsible. Note here that any of my criticisms are purely about Bernie as a pet owner and not meant as a negative against the book. Bernie clearly loves Chet, but he’s one of those pet owners who treats his dog like a person rather than a dog. (In some ways that’s fitting for this series, since Chet’s perspective imagines him as more human-like than a real dog.) Besides taking Chet into dangerous situations, my more minor quibble is how much human food Bernie feeds his dog! He’s always giving Chet scraps and junk food and oh so many donuts. A scene in which Bernie throws the rest of his apple to Chet particularly stood out to me regarding this topic, since most dog experts know apple seeds are poisonous. Highly unlikely to kill a dog based on one apple (we're talking small quantities of poison), but toxins nonetheless that a responsible pet owner shouldn’t be feeding their beloved companion! This is a tangent of my own, but I can’t help hoping Bernie might change his ways regarding this habit, at least a little, as the series progresses.

These are especially fast reads and when I looked closer the reason became immediately apparent: there’s a lot of dialogue, often quite brief exchanges. In terms of a page view this means lots of chunks of very short paragraphs that make one page go by particularly fast. In fact, I would be curious to know the word count of this novel. It’s around 310 pages, but read more like 150 to me.

I would recommend these reads to pretty much anyone except those who can’t stand a narrator prone to frequent irrelevant tangents. They’re light, easy, fun, laughter-inducing, and emotionally affecting. Great for dog lovers, mystery fans, anyone who likes a good laugh, or readers looking for something lighter to “cleanse their literary palate” between darker or deeper books. It probably won’t be long before a review of the third book in this series goes up on my blog!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hey! Romance Ate the Rest of My Book!


Discussion Topic: How Much Romance Do You Want in a Book?

I, like many people, love a good romance, but I never like it when romance eclipses the rest of the story. Sometimes I’m reading a book that I almost want to rave about, except every time I start to get really into it romance comes along and steals focus from the bit I found more interesting.

When a story is a romance, well, that might be the only exception. The marketing’s pretty clear about the focus. Even then, I don’t read very many romance novels because, for me, that can’t be the whole story. It’s very telling that many of my favorite books include fantasy romances, but no straight up romances. Fantasy romances inherently have at least one other conflict, a magical conflict, but if we’re talking about the romance genre specifically the books that will appeal to me the most are ones with characters who have other problems and goals besides the romantic relationship. Before I can care about this great love story, I need to care about these characters and to care about the characters I need to know their problems, goals, opinions, passions, fears, etc. I lose interest pretty fast when a character’s entire worldview revolves around their romantic interest.

This is kind of a tricky discussion topic, because how do you measure the amount of romance in the book? It doesn’t make much sense to say, “I like exactly 18% romance in a story.” And the truth is I don’t mind more romance than usual if it’s hooking me. In other words, I’m not down on romance in general but I’m a very critical romance reader so a big part of why I often don’t want as much in a book is because the author isn’t writing a romance I find satisfying. Like any other plot thread, if I find it boring, overly dramatic, cheesy, cliché, frustrating, etc., then I’ll wish for less of that unsatisfying plot thread and more of the ones I do like.

I also dislike the assumption that all stories need romance. I see this opinion both as a reader and a writer. Sometimes why romances fall flat may be because that book didn’t need it; the author squished it into a story that was really about something else.

How about you? Do you share my frustration with romance crowding out the rest of a good book? Or do you find yourself generally happy with the balance of romantic and other plot threads in the stories you read?

Friday, January 17, 2014

BURIAL RITES


Review of BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT
(based on a review copy)

Iceland. 1829. A woman convicted of a brutal murder. Or two. A family charged with housing her on their isolated farm until her execution. All based on real history, mind you. This isn’t my usual reading taste and yet I suspected I would like it. I suspected right.

Ages has been accused and found guilty of the vicious murder of two men. The family responsible for housing her is understandably upset about the arrangement. They make the most of the situation and put her to work as a servant. Agnes proves a helpful addition to the farm, but her quiet, subdued manner unsettles everyone as they search for hints of the evil murderer from all the gossip.

When a reviewer uses the term “easy read” it can mean different things. I usually use that phrase to refer to the writing style. Some texts challenge you or ask for focused attention while others are…easy reads. In this case, though, when I say BURIAL RITES is an easy read, I mean that I invested easily. I never fell out of the story or struggled reconnecting after breaks between reading sessions. Kent ensures the path from reality to her imaginary world is so clear that you don’t even notice the entrance as you step over the threshold.

My only minor quibble with the book is that sometimes I wanted less suspense. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my frustration with withholding information to keep the reader reading. In my opinion, when a story’s really good you don’t need some juicy “don’t-you-want-to-know” bait hanging in front of you; you want to know what happens next because you love the characters. I know a book’s brilliant when I’m gripped by the most mundane scenes. With BURIAL RITES, I definitely loved the characters enough to keep reading, but I often felt the author pulling me along with the unnecessary promise of lurid details about the murders. Did Agnes actually do it? Was she provoked? Justified? Did the men wrong her? Was it a wrong worthy of murder? Or is she just crazy and violent like everyone says? Keep reading and you’ll find out. Personally, I would have enjoyed the story more if we knew what happened regarding the murders up front and the book focused exclusively on Agnes’ relationship with this family. In fact, this novel exemplifies why I don’t like that suspense “keep reading and I’ll tell you” technique. Once we learn exactly what happened regarding the murders, it can’t live up to all the scandalous speculating I had been doing for hundreds of pages.

That criticism aside, this book also exemplifies masterful pacing. What really makes the novel worthwhile is the relationships Agnes forms with this family, individually and as a unit. From the premise alone I don’t count it as a spoiler to say the family’s opinions about Agnes change over the course of the story. In fact, that’s the point of the story. At the core, this is a familiar fable about how people aren’t always what they seem. The judgments we make of strangers will naturally shift when we actually spend time with the individual.

Another good indicator of a book’s strength is the reader’s emotional connection. Five out of five stars there. The novel repeatedly riled me up on behalf of fictional characters.

Kent delivered an impressive debut and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Favorite Books Read in 2013


Favorite Books Read in 2013:

For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2013. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2013, not necessarily books published in 2013. Also, some have forthcoming reviews scheduled to go up in 2014.


Any woman may propose a jin-shei bond to another: a powerful bond of sisterhood that some cherish as sacred while other manipulate for their own gains. With a crowded cast of characters, evocative writing, and a little pinch of magic Alexander spins a bewitching tale about women and their relationships with each other.

2.     SPEAK by LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

Melinda is a social outcast. She called the cops on a party and now no one, including her old friends, wants anything to do with her. She’s also burdened by a secret, a terrible secret no doubt but one made all the worse by locking it away, by locking herself away so intensely that she practically stops speaking.

3.     A QUESTION OF MAGIC by E.D. BAKER

Serafina finds herself trapped as the next Baba Yaga, forced to magically answer the first question any stranger asks her. My favorite aspect of this slim novel was how Serafina uses wit and logic to assert her own will despite a magic system that seemingly denies her all control.

4.     SIEGE AND STORM by LEIGH BARDUGO

In another gripping page-turner, Bardugo continues the series she began with SHADOW AND BONE. Alina feels increasingly trapped by a magical gift she never wanted, obligated by her power to play at politics and war when she wants nothing more than a quiet, private life.

5.     THE SHADOW QUEEN and SHALADOR’S LADY by ANNE BISHOP

The seventh and eighth installments in Bishop’s popular BLACK JEWELS series focus on new characters. Our heroine Cassidy recently found herself betrayed by her court: tossed aside for a prettier, wealthier, more powerful young queen. Nevertheless, when Jaenelle asks her to start a new court in a land struggling to recover from past wounds Cassidy sets her personal fears of inadequacy aside and demonstrates what really counts in a leader.

6.     RED GLOVE and BLACK HEART by HOLLY BLACK

In this addictive series, magic requires touch and, thus, everyone wears gloves with a kind of “guilty until proven innocent” mentality. Cassel comes from a criminal family of “curse workers” (those who can use magic). These books are easy, satisfying reads, but they're also chock-full of worthy discussions.

7.     THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by HOLLY BLACK

Wow, did I ever love this book. This is not only the first vampire book I ever liked, but I actually adored it and have been successfully recommending it to people ever since I finished. Tana is one of the most memorable heroines I’ve read in a long time and if I had to pick one favorite book of the year, this might be it.

8.     BEAUTY QUEENS by LIBBA BRAY

In a hilarious satire, a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashes on a (seemingly) deserted island. Each hiding their own secret, these girls start out as mockumentary-style caricatures designed for our entertainment, but before long transform into complicated individuals with their own motivations, fears, backstories, etc.

9.     THE DIVINERS by LIBBA BRAY

I didn’t think this would be my type of story at all, but Bray won me over with vivid, relatable characters. The story alternates through many different perspectives, mostly of people with secret, magical gifts - like Evie who can touch an object and see its “memories.” Now a serial killer is on the loose and these “diviners” might be the only people who can stop him.


The second book in Brennan’s duology upturns everything we thought we knew from book one. Our heroine challenges how everyone thinks magic works by her very existence and some want her dead before she can cause even more division within the ranks of witches.


The FIRE AND THORNS trilogy lived up to all the hype I had heard and read. Carson starts the story where many end (with a marriage to a “prince charming”), interweaves faith and magic, creates a fresh and impressive heroine, defies predictable plotting, and presents a unique and fascinating magic system. Born with a “godstone” in her belly button, Eliza must live up to this symbol of foretold greatness.


In a wintery treat of a novel, an obscure Russian princess invites Sophie and her friends to spend their vacation in her gorgeous palace. Hypnotized by the magical wonder of the setting and luxury, Sophie avoids the obvious (but important) questions.


In the first book of this trilogy, John stumbles into another world with his friends Laurie and Bill. At first he thinks only of finding a way home, but before long he’s caught up in the conflicts of this new world. Hale carefully thinks through the implications of travelling between worlds and these books simply wouldn’t work in the hands of a less skilled writer.

14.  A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS by EVA IBBOTSON

In this sweet and humorous young adult historical romance, the countess Anna takes a job as a servant when her family needs the money. Before long, she’s beloved by all…possibly including her betrothed employer.


Everyone should have one of these: a quick shopping reference for those striving for ethical, conscientious shopping. Considering five factors (human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement, and social justice), the book provides letter grades (A through F) for companies and products.

16.  WEDDING NIGHT by SOPHIE KINSELLA

The master of chick lit delivers another riotous and satisfying fluff read. When Fliss’s reckless younger sister rushes into a marriage, Fliss will go to extreme (but wildly entertaining) measures to do what she thinks best for her little sis.

17.  TWO BOYS KISSING by DAVID LEVITHAN

By interweaving the stories of a handful of gay teenagers, Levithan has created a beautiful, affecting mosaic. Harry and Craig become the centerpiece as they try to beat the record for longest kiss, but the book follow numerous gay boys with very different experiences - and every single one of these characters became real for me.

18.  LISTOMANIA

As the title implies, this is a book full of lists. Actually it’s a really cool book full of lists: more like a collection of random trivia illustrated by very skilled graphic designers. Don’t tell me you’re not curious to see the list of “things that fell from the sky.”


The sequel to ADAPTATION only improved my already high opinion of this duology. Lo addresses all my unanswered questions from the end of the first book and her heroine Reese explores her own sexuality with a maturity and openness I crave in so many other books.


In her young adult Tudor novels, Longshore presents popular fictionalized figures in new lights. In GILT we see a young and reckless Catherine Howard through the eyes of her loyal friend Kitty while TARNISH paints Anne Boleyn not as the usual manipulative seductress but a strong willed girl desperate for some control over her own future.

21.  A GAME OF THRONES and A CLASH OF KINGS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

Never before have I read a series with such a densely populated cast, meticulously imagined world and history, or so many detailed backstories. Martin’s books come alive with minutiae, and the short chapters alternating between numerous perspectives make these huge novels surprisingly fast reads.

22.  LABYRINTH by KATE MOSSE

In 2005, archaeologist Alice makes an unexpected discovery while back in the 13th century Alais inherits a monumental responsibility. This story builds to a brilliant end that makes reading its considerable bulk all worthwhile.

23.  THRONE OF JADE and BLACK POWDER WAR by NAOMI NOVIK

This historical fantasy series takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and imagines another branch of the military for dragons and their riders. Temeraire might be the sweetest, most well-mannered dragon in literature. Novik has clearly done her research on this period and she packs the books with interesting conflicts of all kinds, but it’s the devoted relationship between the human Lawrence and Temeraire that holds my investment more than anything else.

24.  CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER by PEGGY ORENSTEIN

Considering everything from toys to clothes to social media, Orenstein examines girly culture and how we raise daughters. I found every essay in here considerately crafted, provocative, and important in both parenting and feminist discussions.


A blend of young adult, mystery, romance, suspense, and even speculative fiction, this series defies easy genre labels and simply gives the reader exactly what we want: an engaging story. Cass wants more freedom than a woman of her time can expect and goes about claiming independence in all the wrong ways, such as investigating her friend’s possible murder by sneaking off at night with a stranger.

26.  THE SUBTLE KNIFE and THE AMBER SPYGLASS by PHILIP PULLMAN

These two books continue the superb, now classic trilogy Pullman started in THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Book two jolts the reader a little by opening not only with a new character but in an entirely different world. Pullman masterfully brings all these disparate elements together into an impressive epic I expect to see on bookstore shelves for decades to come.

27.  DOG ON IT by SPENCER QUINN

This delightful mystery series is narrated by a dog, private investigator Bernie’s dog Chet to be exact. Chet provides a unique perspective, since he doesn’t notice the same details that a human might. He’s also quite charming and hilarious.


Highly recommended reading for any woman or anyone into running and fitness regardless of gender. Samuels discusses everything from the benefits of exercise (specifically as a woman and generally as a human) to common reasons people (women in particular) feel intimidated trying new fitness activities.

29.  WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by MARIA SEMPLE

Told in an unusual scrapbook-style format of emails and other records, Semple crafts a hilarious story of a woman who rides the line between eccentricity and madness. What begins as an innocent, if petty, disagreement between suburban housewives snowballs into an eruption greater than anyone could have foreseen.


The third book in Simner’s series concludes this post-apocalyptic fairy story. As always, Simner’s knack for sensory detail builds up her imaginary world around the reader and she crafts some of the most original and knotted climax scenes that I’ve ever read.

31.  THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL by CAROLYN TURGEON

Turgeon deftly interweaves “Rapunzel” with “Snow White” in this remarkable fairy tale retelling, both giving the evil stepmother more humanity and the perfect princess more failings. I felt this novel: smiled at victories, resented betrayals, and wept at losses.

32.  CODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN

Not an easy read, but a story that stands apart from all others. The novel’s difficult to follow at first but then it becomes clear our narrator wants to mislead her audience. She’s an Allied spy recently captured by the Gestapo and telling her story by writing on whatever scraps of paper they bring her.

33.  THE CHAOS OF STARS by KIERSTEN WHITE

Daughter to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, Isadora feels like a child conceived for all the wrong reasons. Distraught over one particular revelation of the “last straw” variety, Isadora leaves her parents to live with one of her many mortal siblings. Ultimately a story about family, this book proved both far more hilarious and moving than I anticipated.

Friday, January 10, 2014

MANOR OF SECRETS


Review of MANOR OF SECRETS by KATHERINE LONGSHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This novel switches between the upstairs/downstairs viewpoints of Lady Charlotte Edmonds and a kitchen maid named Janie Seward. Charlotte is wealthy and privileged but feels smothered and wants more control of her own life while Janie is tougher thanks to her different circumstances but also longs for a little more choice and opportunity. As expected, these disparate characters bond over their unexpected similarities. At first Charlotte and Janie feel cookie cutter, but Longshore gives them increasing depth with every turn of the page. Along the same lines, sometimes the story seemed to be heading towards trite but always swerved away at the last minute with an unexpected twist or sincerely rendered emotion. I particularly liked the ending. I worried the wrap up might feel too frothy, but found myself cheering on the characters’ choices.

MANOR OF SECRETS remains story focused. Though historical fiction, Longshore doesn’t bog the plot down in unnecessary detail. The strong writing also fades into the background, keeping the attention fixed on the characters.

I did find the tone a wee bit too melodramatic for my taste, but I can’t say the marketing isn’t clear on that score. In everything from the title MANOR OF SECRETS to the slogan “At the manor, nothing is at it seems,” drama’s a deliberate selling point. Because that kind of approach turns me away more than draws me in, I probably wouldn’t have read this if I hadn’t already read and enjoyed Longshore’s Tudor novels. If I had anything to do with the promotion, I personally would have focused more on the characters Charlotte and Janie and their relationship than hook words like “drama” and “secrets,” but stripped of all those packaging choices it’s the same story inside and it’s a good one.

Monday, January 6, 2014

RAGS & BONES


Review of RAGS & BONES: NEW TWISTS ON TIMELESS TALES edited by MELISSA MARR and TIM PRATT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I’m sure many people think the last thing we need is another anthology of fairy tale twists; luckily, I believe exactly the opposite. (See my entire post on retold tales.) RAGS & BONES pulls from more obscure influences - for the most part - and presents many retellings with hardly recognizable originals. I do hesitate over such anthologies for fear that some or many of the stories won’t be “retold” enough, but this one made the cut due to an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend combined with the fact that some of my favorite authors number among the contributors. As can be expected, my opinions vary from story to story, but overall definitely a quality selection. I liked most of the stories and loved quite a few.

In the first story, Carrie Ryan’s “That the Machine May Progress Eternally,” a man finds himself softened and pampered, to a fault, by the convenience of technology. The “beware” message isn’t new, but nevertheless continues a discussion on how much we should want technology to do for us versus how much we should want to do for ourselves. I found two other stories particularly provocative: “The Cold Corner” by Tim Pratt and “When First We Were Gods” by Rick Yancy. Pratt’s story also presents a familiar premise that plays with old but consistently intriguing questions, of the alternate realities type. Yancy’s story feels a little fresher, though it took me a few pages to get into “When First We Were Gods.” The tale opens with a woman planning her wedding and it was only when I realized the dilemma of an extra ten pounds for sizing a dress isn’t exactly as simple as it sounds that I found myself suddenly very interested. Lots of fascinating, inventive worldbuilding in this one. I also found Yancy’s story the most emotionally engaging of the three. It’s very philosophical, imagining immortality and posing the question, “Can there be love without death?” I never fully bought that the characters are in love with each other, but I bought them as people, believed they think they’re in love with each other, and felt invested in their self-inflicted tragedy.

One of my favorite authors, Garth Nix, makes good use of the unreliable narrator in “Losing Her Divinity.” Neil Gaiman’s story also delivers, as expected. As I find common with Gaiman, his stories stay so close to familiar that I start to underestimate him, but before I can think “predictable” the story surprises me. Gaiman uses one of the more common tales for his influence, “Sleeping Beauty,” but remolds the plot in unexpected ways.

I found three stories tantalizingly tragic. Kelly Armstrong’s “New Chicago” deals with the elusiveness of easy wish fulfillment: Cole can make wishes, but he better phrase them carefully lest they be twisted into something far from what he meant. I loved the story, but felt hugely frustrated that it doesn’t really end. We never find out what Cole’s last wish is or how it turns out for him. Holly Black’s “Millcara” might possibly be my favorite of the bunch, if there weren’t so many other good candidates. It’s a wonderfully haunting, delightfully shiver-inducing story of a little girl who wants a friend…but her yearning itself dooms anyone she comes to love. Melissa Marr’s “Awakened” plays with selkie lore. In terms of plot, it might be unoriginal - Character A does this to Character B and so forth - but because Marr carefully crafts her characters into the individuals Eden and Leo the story it comes alive despite slight predictability.

This anthology represents another piece of evidence that retellings deserve their place in literature alongside their original counterparts!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Judging Books by Their Covers


Discussion Topic: Judging Books by Their Covers 

The phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" has become so common it's used as a metaphor even outside of book-related topics, but is judging covers really such a terrible crime? Over the years, I have heard countless people claim they never fall into this pitfall, but I am of the opinion that everyone judges books by their covers.

Of course, that's a broad statement. In reality, I imagine this habit on a kind of sliding scale where some people consciously set down books whose covers they dislike and others are moved by tendencies so subtle that they don't notice them. The fact remains that something made you pick up that book from all the others.

If you were looking for that specific book, this debate doesn't really apply, but what if you weren't? If you were browsing? Then why that book rather than all the others? Maybe it was an interesting title, but perhaps the title is big enough to catch your attention, or in a font you particularly like. Perhaps you like the color: bold, soft, simple white, your favorite, or even an unusually complicated design. Maybe you recognize the cover or title - whether because you've seen images in advertising or the designers deliberately went for a familiar theme. This is exactly why "faced out" books have such an advantage in a bookstore. (For those who don't know, that refers to books with their covers facing out on shelves while most of the others show only their spines.) People notice covers more than spines!

If you think you never judge books by their covers, I suggest you take a careful look at your bookshelf. I'm surprised by how worked up some people get about this topic (no doubt because judging books by covers has a negative connotation especially as a metaphor for judging something else at first glance, like people). Of the people I know who insist the strongest that they never do this, most prefer literary fiction. So I showed them some of their favorite covers compared to genre fiction. There are themes within the design. Literary is usually more simplistic and sometimes more abstract.  When selecting a new read, a reader is likely to gravitate towards covers they find similar to their favorite books. (And, yes, this carries over as a metaphor. People gravitate towards people that seem similar...which is how prejudice pops up in environments where no one seems overtly prejudiced. Sometimes it's not malicious; it's subconscious and about staying within a comfort zone.)

To be clear, I'm not encouraging judging books by their covers. I fully agree that a book with a cover I love could turn out to be a terrible read and vice versa. You have to read the book to judge the book. What I take issue with is pretending we don't notice covers. (Yes, again, this lines up with my beliefs outside the book world. Pretending prejudice isn't there only worsens the problem.) 

I also think it's a little insulting to graphic designers: pretending people don't notice book covers. Why, then, can individuals make a career out of designing covers? I do want to mention that in most cases the author has little to no say in this matter, but ideally the cover should capture the essence of the book. Speaking generally, genre books often have similar design elements as their "peers" to help pull in those particular readers. More specifically, the cover can showcase some of the major characters, settings, themes in a book in an effort to attract readers interested in those things.

We are taught that "judging a book by its cover" is a terrible sin, especially for avid booklovers (who should know better!). Yet urging people not to judge the cover of a book is urging them not to be human. (The only people who probably don't judge books by covers are the blind.) Basic human psychology tells us that we react differently to different visual stimuli. Any competent artist or graphic designer knows this. If people didn't judge books by their covers, those designers would be out of a job!

So next time you're browsing for a good read and pick up a book at random, take a moment and ask yourself what drew you to that book. The cover? The title? Perhaps you always go third shelf down, eighth book to the right? Maybe ask yourself what other judgments you might be making based on the cover. Of course, before finalizing any conclusions…read the book!