155 posts categorized "whatcha readin'?"

February 13, 2010

Check In And Reading Update

Hey all, so I've been neglecting this here blog recently and it's for a reason. That reason is the usual reason: I am bizzy. Just thought it needed to be said.

What I am working on: I'm doing some book publicity for a couple of indy publishers, and I'm teaching two classes. And I just got started working on da nobble again, sort of. And I just got over being sick for seven weeks. Argh.

Anyway.

Continuing my YA binge, I just read:

Tamora Pierce's Melting Stones

Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven

Melting Stones was weird. The book is a standalone from the "Circle of Magic" world and character set, featuring Evvy, Briar's student, and Rosethorn. And it's in first person from Evvy's pov. In the story Evvy and Rosethorn keep referring to a war that the three of them experienced between Street Magic and Will of the Empress (actually, Will of the Empress happens at the same time that Melting Stones does,) and the references are made in the text very much the way a sequel refers to the events in a previous book. But I don't see the book listed anywhere in Pierce's bibliography. Did she write it and decide not to publish it? Was it written in a non-book form? Or was the book maybe outlined but never written? Or maybe Pierce has started getting all sophisticated and is telling stories indirectly now, in this manner?

Otherwise, the book continues Pierce's trajectory into making the mages' magic absolutely unstoppable and disobedient to any laws. Which isn't very interesting. Young mage goes with her teacher to a volcanic island that's about to go volcanic again and diverts the volcano spirits. Yeah.

Dragonhaven is the first McKinley book I've read and it was wonderful. Kid growing up in a national park which is one of the last preserves of dragons in the world discovers a dying dragon who was killed by -- and has killed in turn -- a poacher. The dragon just gave birth and the kid has to raise the baby dragon himself, thereby discovering how to communicate with dragons. The book was awesome and unexpected, with few scenes of typical dragon adventure and derring do. It's more a first-contact type of story, with a bit of hardcore William's Doll thrown in. (Although the boy, who's the first person narrator, calls his parental feelings "maternal" rather than "paternal," which made me tear my hair out.)

One downside, but a pretty big one: the first person narrator is a teenaged boy, although an older teenager, and McKinley has him tell the story in a pretty authentic voice, not knowing where to start a story, and breaking in with interminable parenthetical statements, and doubling back, and taking twice as long to get to the point as he needs to, and not being linear. This is great ... until it isn't. Thing is, a little of this goes a long way, and instead we get a LOT of it, which doesn't go nearly as far. Occasionally, McKinley knows to pack it in and just move forward with the narrative, but then she seems to forget, and starts getting wordy and parenthetical again at high-tension moments and ... by halfway through the book I had figured out which parts to skip and was just plain skipping them. And the experience wasn't any different in the second half than in the first except that it was less frustrating. That can't be good.

Otherwise, a great read, though.

February 06, 2010

Reading Update

Super busy right now, with no opinions on anything to report. Spending late-night unwind hours re-reading YA.

Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, which I first read about ten years ago (wow!):

  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of the Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

And Lois Duncan's A Gift of Magic, which I read (and loved) as a kid. One of the great things about Duncan and other seventies YA masters is the way they snuck some real complexity into the family situations. The (more or less) protagonist of the book isn't always a terribly likeable character. She's both unbearably selfish, and understandably so.

I didn't really notice this back then, but in re-reading a lot of these books now, I'm noticing that the books I loved the best were inevitably the ones with the best writing (in my adult judgment.) Kids are very forgiving of bad writing, but still do appreciate good writing. Something I wish more writers for young readers would keep in mind.

January 29, 2010

Reading Update

Just read a manuscript submitted to a publisher I'm working for. It's YA. That's all I'm gonna say about it. I suspect I'll be listing a number of MS submissions here over the next few months, as well as accepted but unpublished MSS. That's going to be a big part of my reading diet this year. It'll be a drag not being able to comment on them, but whatever.

Reading Update

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

This one was a bit of a slog. Definitely not one of his best. I kept getting the feeling that I was missing the joke (including the one in the title.) Wasn't sure if that was because my brain is mush from being sick for so long or because Pratchett wasn't getting the jokes across with his usual efficiency.

Anyway.

January 26, 2010

Reading Update

Canyon Sam's Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, which I will review in the next issue of Hyphen.

Jane Yolen Wizard's Hall: a middle-grade Harry Potter lite, except that it preceded HP. Fun and cute.

January 10, 2010

Peeved Reading Update with SPOILERS

Things That Drive Me Mad In Fiction, Episode 56,902:

I can't stand it when the stakes are really high, and a character makes a totally obvious rookie mistake, just because the author doesn't want to have to write an extra few pages to get them through it. Like when their enemy serves them food or drink and they hesitate, thinking it might be drugged, and the enemy says, "It's not drugged," and they just take their word for it.

Right now the one that made me put the book down for a while in sheer frustration is in Cinda Williams Chima's The Dragon Heir. The heroine has her younger brother and sister taken hostage by an evil wizard, who wants her to do something for him. He says he's stashed them someplace she'll never find if she kills him. She asks him how she's supposed to know that they're still alive and he says he's keeping them alive for leverage. And she just takes his word for it.

Of course, later they'll turn out to be still alive, because this is that kind of book, but it'll be too late for me because I've already lost my respect for her and for the author. Argh!

I also hate when there's a simple explanation that can prevent all kinds of trouble and misunderstandings and the character doesn't make it. SOOOO unrealistic. Real people spend all their time explaining; they'll shout you down to give you their explanation. We're all excuse-givers. But there's a part in the book where one of the many bad guys is trying to seduce this heroine's family by enticing the brother and sister with horseback riding. The heroine says no, they can't go horseback riding, but for some inexplicable reason, utterly fails to tell her younger siblings that the guy offering them the rides is the same one who has been causing their family serious trouble for over a year now. Instead, she just weakly gives in to their pleading. Why? There's no reason not to just tell them! There's no reason to give in on this one! It makes no sense!

In other bad news, the bad wizard puts a slave collar that only he can take off around the neck of a girl wizard, forcing her to do stuff for him. She goes into a sanctuary area, where he can't use the collar to hurt or kill her, but still does stuff for him! And she, again, utterly fails to tell anybody inside the sanctuary that the reason she's working for the bad wizard is that she has a slave collar on, even though they all know she's working for the bad guys. What the hell? Everyone knows that as long as she stays inside the sanctuary she's safe. So why wouldn't she tell them she has it on? If they help her while she's in the sanctuary, then there's nothing the bad wizard can do. Totally stupid and pointless! Argh!

Also! Everybody in this one family is magical except the mom ... SO THEY DON'T TELL HER ABOUT THE MAGIC! FOR NO REASON! UNTIL THE VERY END!

But the worst thing is that Chima invented a really interesting character in book two, who's interesting because he has strength of character, but not any strength of magic. So in book three he's useless, having no strong magic, and runs around the entire book being annoying because he feels useless. Then! Then! Chima proves to us that he's useless by killing him off! Damn! If your own creator thinks you're useless ...

Okay, wrap up to the trilogy: first book (The Warrior Heir) good, second book (The Wizard Heir) less good but more interesting, third book (The Dragon Heir) too many characters, too little common sense, a hot mess. Overall: a decent fantasy, but a little too cartoony. The bad guys are just bad. They have no real reason for being so. The magical world doesn't intersect at all with the real world in any way, even though they keep saying it does. And pretty much everybody's white. Yak.

January 03, 2010

Reading Update

I started Sherri Smith's Flygirl in 2009 and finished it in 2010, so I put it in 2009. It was the first book I read on MY NEW KINDLESQEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

Love my new Kindle.

And I just finished Cinda Chima's Warrior Heir, which sounds like, and is, a basic YA with white people discovering they are the last of the magical whatevers and decrying their fate, etc. But it's really well done. I picked it up in Michigan when I was sick and needed something lightweight to read, but ended up reading the Tamora Pierces instead, because the kids I was going to give them to didn't show up for Christmas. It's complicated.

Loved Flygirl, which was a fictionalized account of the real WASP, a women's air force that was created during WWII to do testing and ferrying stateside so that the male pilots could all go fight overseas. The fictional protagonist is an African American, but can pass for white and decides to do so so that she can join the (oh irony!) WASP. Really well written with lots of nuance and complexity.

But I was disappointed that the novel ended where it did: with the war ending. It meant that the story ended before any hard decisions needed to be made, and before any of the serious repercussions could set in. The protagonist has fallen in love with a white man, who has invited her to join him in California, but she hasn't responded yet. Will she tell him? Will she ignore him? Will she continue lying to him? The protag is also in the middle of a big fight with her darker skinned best friend. How will she make it up? We also have no idea what she'll do now: will she finally go get that pilot's license and run her daddy's crop duster? Will she go to Chicago and become a pilot? What? And how hard is it for her now that the war is over and the need for her is gone? Felt cheated of all of these answers.

January 01, 2010

What I Read in 2009

  1. Knockout Mouse by James Calder
  2. Happy Hour at Casa Dracula by Marta Acosta
  3. Nisi Shawl Filter House
  4. Ernest J. Eitel What is Feng Shui?: The Classic Nineteenth-Century Interpretation
  5. Midnight Brunch Marta Acosta (2nd Casa Dracula novel)
  6. Bride of Casa Dracula Marta Acosta (3rd Casa Dracula novel)
  7. About Face James Calder (2nd Bill Damen mystery)
  8. In A Family Way James Calder (3rd Bill Damen mystery)
  9. The Plain Janes Cecil Castelucci and Jim Rugg
  10. Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist
  11. The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch
  12. Type O Negative by Joel Tan
  13. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  14. Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series, Bloodhound
  15. The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti
  16. Gifts by Ursula Le Guin
  17. Voices by Ursula Le Guin
  18. Powers by Ursula Le Guin
  19. The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor
  20. Distances: A Novella by Vandana Singh
  21. The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
  22. Dilek Güngör Unter Uns
  23. L. Timmel Duchamp's De Secretis Mulierum: A Novella
  24. L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya
  25. Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth
  26. Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens
  27. Epileptic by David B
  28. Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible
  29. China Miéville's The City and the City
  30. the first Buffy comics omnibus
  31. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  32. We3 by Grant Morrison
  33. Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey
  34. Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede  
  35. the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.
  36. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin
  37. Friend's MS
  38. (re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin
  39. Girl in the Arena Lise Haines
  40. Liar Justine Larbalestier
  41. Exclusively Chloe J.A. Yang
  42. The Child Garden Geoff Ryman
  43. Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602
  44. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother
  45. His Majesty's Dragon Naomi Novik
  46. Throne of Jade Naomi Novik
  47. Black Powder War Naomi Novik
  48. Empire of Ivory Naomi Novik
  49. Victory of Eagles Naomi Novik
  50. Circle of Magic: Sandry's Book Tamora Pierce
  51. Circle of Magic: Tris' Book Tamora Pierce
  52. Circle of Magic: Daja's Book Tamora Pierce
  53. Circle of Magic: Briar's Book Tamora Pierce
  54. Magic Steps Tamora Pierce
  55. Street Magic  Tamora Pierce
  56. Cold Fire  Tamora Pierce
  57. Shatterglass Tamora Pierce
  58. The Will of the Empress Tamora Pierce 
  59. Slumberland Paul Beatty
  60. Flygirl Sherri L. Smith

So this year I've conveniently color-coded these books so I can see myself what I've read:

  • YA books
  • Genre books (any genre)
  • Lit fic or mainstream fic, can have speculative elements, but more likely to be taken seriously by snobs

So. The stats:

  • 60 books total. That's 1.15 books per week or 0.16 books per day.
  • 27 YA (nearly half)
  • 20 authors were women and 20 were men (!)
  • 10 authors of color (out of 40)
  • 45 had speculative elements or were outright speculative fiction
  • 4 were outright mysteries (among other things)
  • 6 graphic novels
  • Only 6 were re-reads (for a change)
  • 24 had been published in the past two years.
  • 1 book in a foreign language

In addition, as usual, there were a number of books I didn't complete. I don't count fiction/narrative that I don't complete, since you haven't really read a narrative until you've read the whole thing. But I do have a strong tendency, since I left college, to never read a book a poetry all the way through unless I'm reviewing it. So I have a couple of poetry books that I've been walzing around and digging through without, probably, having read the whole things. I'll consider whether or not to include those in 2010.

As usual, the books from the beginning of the year feel like I read them decades ago. And even though slightly less than half of my reading was YA, a good three quarters of it was SF, and most of the YA was SF, so I feel a continuum there, and I feel like 3/4 of what I read was YA. Funny that I still feel guilty about that, as if I should be reading "more serious" books. Fuck that. One thing to go on my resolutions list: stop taking YA not seriously.

I went and underlined the books I felt were really good or from which I learned a positive writing lesson (as opposed to books that were so bad that I learned what not to do from them.) Nothing this year really blew me away, but as you can see, I didn't hit pretty much ANY "lit fic" this year AT ALL, not that lit fic would necessarily blow my mind. I don't know. I guess I wasn't going for my mind to be blown. I think I should do that in 2010 as well: look for books that will blow my mind.

December 29, 2009

Reading Update

Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet:

Sandry's Book

Tris' Book

Daja's Book

Briar's Book

This is the one Tamora Pierce series I could never really get into, probably because it's staunchly middle grade instead of YA. The characters start out around 10 years old and don't really get older; the books are in chronological order, but take place over the course of only one year. I read it this time because my cousins kids are finally reaching tweenage, and I thought this might be a good Christmas gift. It's fun, and right in the Pierce vein, if younger than her other, more YA books, in which kids start out at 11 or so and grow up in the course of the books.

Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet

Magic Steps

Street Magic

Cold Fire

Shatterglass

So then I had to go on and read this one. These books again take place all in the same year, and don't connect to each other. In this one, each of the four kids is separated from the others and they have simultaneous adventures abroad. They're all fourteen here, so it's more along the YA continuum. I liked this one much better than the Circle of Magic series, possibly because it's less domestic, but also because it has more moral ambiguity in it -- that is, whatever moral ambiguity a Tamora Pierce series can have.

Tamora Pierce The Will of the Empress

Apparently a stand alone, featuring the four characters from the previous two series at age 18. It's fun, as all Pierce's books are, but not strong. Part of the problem is an analogy for rape that forms one of the major plot points and points of moral ambiguity in the book. This is the practice of kidnapping women and holding them until they sign a marriage contract: forced marriage. It's presented as horrible when we first encounter it in a runaway abused wife. But thereafter, it's presented as an opportunity for the character Sandry -- a young noble with enormous wealth, and therefore a very attractive potential bride -- to kick ass. It's a fun plot point for a romantic-ish novel. The moment you start to enjoy a rape scene, even if it's because the proposed victim is kicking ass, you've lost your moral footing.

Paul Beatty Slumberland

An African American DJ, who has created the perfect beat, goes off to Berlin to find a free jazz genius who disappeared into Eastern Europe during the cold war. DJ Darky ends up staying in Berlin through the fall of the wall and much of the nineties (which is when I was there.) Loaned to me by Sunyoung, who thought that the Slumberland bar depicted in the book was fictional. It's not. In fact, most of the hard stuff in this book is nonfiction: the bars and clubs, the Afrodeutsch Bundestreffen, the institutions in general; they all exist/ed. It's just that the book is a satire, so everything is portrayed with an edge of surreality, as so many satires seem to find necessary.

This surreal edge -- which I've found in everything I've read by T. C. Boyle and is why I loathe his writing -- prevents the narrative from putting emotional emphasis into anything. It prevents the characters from growing or changing ... or even from feeling real. It gives a sense of unreality even to factual things, like the Slumberland bar, which has a beach theme and a floor covered in about a foot of white sand. Yes, really; I've been there. In real life it's a delightful piece of whimsy, but in the book, it's a throwaway bit of melting clock, not to be believed anymore than the love interest's much-detailed farting sounds when she's asleep.  I hate this kind of satire; it's smug and superior and just makes fun of everything with an evenness that denies both passion and depression.

And all of the characterization in this book tends to come through characterizing statements rather than through scene, description, and dialogue, or even outright exposition. By characterizing statements, I mean past habitual action: "She would go to the store every day, playing Ozzie Osbourne on the car stereo. I hated it and would always tell her so, and she'd ignore me." This is not characterization. This kind of description of past habitual action implies that a character simply stayed the same throughout. The only reason to use it is to round up a character's base personality so that you can then show how the character changes throughout the action of the book. Because a character -- and a person -- responds differently to similar situations over time. Using past habitual action in place of a hard study of character and its changes is a cop-out.

However, the book is so well-written that I have to forgive it somewhat. Although the language is unrelenting and that's ultimately boring, Beatty is so good at it, and it's so fresh and funny in itself, that I kept coming back to it and enjoying it all over again. No, I'm not going to try to describe it or define it. It's Paul Beatty language from the first person pov of a character named DJ Darky. Figure it out yourself.

Ultimately, I think no novel, whether satirical or dramatic, is served by an unvarying, unswerving tone or language. It's variation that gives texture, and increase or decrease in depth and velocity that creates tension and meaning -- in both life and literature. I was disappointed in this book, but can't quite say that it isn't worth a read.

December 07, 2009

Reading Update

Just re-read Naomi Novik's Temeraire series -- yes, all of them -- again. This was partly comfort food (It was getting cold and wet outside) partly to break me away from television, which is increasingly boring, and partly because I wanted to particularly examine how she builds the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire.

Laurence came across as stultifyingly virtuous this time ... at least until the fifth book, which is a welcome relief from all his goodness. But the relationship itself wasn't any more sentimental than at the last two readings, I think mainly because she is so economical about presenting the moments of positive emotion. For example, in the first book, Laurence and Temeraire, after spending a little time together, profess their devotion to one another. But it's not, as in most other books, a deliberate exchange of vows or emotion. Temeraire goes first: at the end of a conversation about something else, he says very openly and confidently that he'd rather have Laurence than ... I forget what, something valuable. Laurence is -- briefly, in a sentence -- moved by this. A couple of chapters later, Temeraire, in a moment of generosity, offers to release Laurence to return to his ship and his old life, and Laurence mirrors Temeraires earlier statement by saying he'd rather have Temeraire.

Novik doesn't spend a lot of time on Temeraire's reaction to this; it's focusing ad nauseum on reactions that make sentimental scenes sentimental. Someone's eyes fill with tears, or their hearts beat faster. Whatever. The mirroring of the two sentiments at a temporal distance sets up an emotional resonance that carries through the rest of the book. Temeraire's profession of devotion is a call that creates a bit of tension: will Laurence respond in kind? When Laurence does respond later, it closes the circle, and creates more satisfaction than it would have if he had responded immediately. It also carries more emotional weight.

Interestingly, their relationship doesn't substantially change between this moment of closure and the end of the fourth book. The end of the fourth book, where the two have to make a devastating decision with no good options, marks the end of Temeraire's childhood. They spend much of book five apart, with Temeraire learning leadership and acquiring his own voice. I think the development of these two as characters is very interesting in the fifth book, but their relationship doesn't develop successfully, which is why I think Novik keeps them apart. For the first time, Laurence emotionally stonewalls Temeraire, and that's interesting. But when they come out the other side, things are back to normal with them, and that rings false.

On the other hand, they didn't have a lot of time to develop the new footing after the end of Stonewall. So I can't wait to see what happens in the next book.

November 19, 2009

Reading Update & Resolution

I just read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Yes, I'm far behind. It was published seven years ago. Yes, that's how long it took me to get past my now-entrenched contrarianism. Yes, I'm that bad: if a book is being hyped, then I simply won't read it. It takes something as deeply in-tune with all of my priorities and isshooz as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to get me around the contrarian thing and actually reading the hyped boox.

And no, I didn't have an epiphany reading The Lovely Bones that caused me to realize that by being contrarian I was missing wonderful boox like this one. The Lovely Bones just wasn't that great. In fact, it's a perfect example of one of those boldfaced lie family melodramas in which everyone is a good guy, and everyone, even though they make mistakes, does it for the most noble and loving of reasons. The book proposes a universe in which there is an organized Heaven (which is problematic for me right there), in which Everything Eventually Is Okay, in which families always love each other, even when they fuck each other up (the serial killer's mother loved him, she was just crazy), in which dead people get a chance to fulfill their whatevers before they move on, in which the people dead people leave behind wait around and don't move on until the dead people are ready for them to, blah, blah, blah.

Yeah, and much was made of how this book, that came out soon after 9/11, touched a nerve in American society. You bet it touched a nerve: it told us exactly the kinds of soothing lies we needed to hear about death: that death is always meaningful, that lives are always meaningful, that trauma can be overcome (even after you're dead) and it's your fault if you don't overcome it, that you will live on after death, and that all of your fantasies about being loved and missed after death will come true, and then some.

Also, the whole literary writing style thing? After about the midpoint of the book, it seems the book wasn't edited that well, because there are whole paragraphs where you can't tell who the subject of the sentences is, or what's going on at all. But, of course, it's all Beautifully Written.

What I DID realize was that contrarianism isn't protecting me from this kind of drivel. Sturgeon's Law applies across the board, unless you're reading only canon classics and prize-winners (and even then.) What I AM missing is a big part of the public discourse on literature. I realize that much of the public discourse on literature is about drivel, and taking drivel seriously. But I do need to know what drivel is being taken seriously and why. So my new resolution is to read the biggest hyped books every year. I'll wait to the end of the year to find out which ones were the biggest hyped, but I'll read them. This includes the "literary" stuff (was The Lovely Bones considered literary?) and the Dan Brown/Stephenie Meyer stuff.

Sigh.

November 16, 2009

The New "Life's Too Short" Rule of Consumption

It used to be that saying "Life's too short" about giving up on a book or a movie was a very serious accusation of suckitude. The lesser insult was "I have better things to do."

But now I'm about halfway through my expected life span as an American. I've noticed recently, with books, movies, and even TV, that I'll give up on things much more easily, with the thought that I don't have all the time in the world to read (or watch) crap, and I still haven't read Moby Dick (or seen The Bicycle Thief) or whatever, so I shouldn't waste my time on this. I think it's a function of mid-life crisis.

It's also a real consideration, though. I'm genuinely starting to feel how limited time is and how crappiness is a terrible thing to waste my mind on. But I'm still working on the idea that I should finish every book I start, and still working with the sensation of failure when I don't.

Right now I'm trying to get through William Gibson's Virtual Light, which I picked up because it mentions Thomassons in it. Every time I pick it up, I'm reminded that: a) I still haven't read Neuromancer, b) I'm not all that interested in Gibson or cyberpunk, but really should read at least that one seminal text before I kick the bucket, and c) I'm not really into this book, but feel I should finish it since it's not at all a bad book.

So I think the new rule should be: since I'm going to spend this time reading anyway, but I'm never going to get this reading time back, should I really be reading THIS? Or more precisely, at the end of my life, if I were granted the power to remember every book I had read, would I regret wasting my time on this?

I think the answers are no and yes. So I'm kicking this book to the curb and instituting this as a rule.

November 01, 2009

NaNoFiMo and Reading Update

Sigh, was busy trying to catch up on stuff today so not a lot done on the NaNoFiMo front. My first task was to go through mailbag #5 and punch it up a bit. So I read through the mailbag and then ran out of time to do anything about it. I'm going to have to go back in and read it again tomorrow, because I was distracted by the story in this reading (if I haven't read something in da nobble for a while, it comes fresh to me and I settle in and enjoy it -- or not, as the case may be.) So not a lot of progress, but this is how things are with dis nobble. Hard to move forward quickly.

Also, read Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Marvel 1602, and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

Marvel 1602 was kind of a waste of space. Hey, let's take a bunch of Marvel comics characters and put them in the year 1602! Why? Why, I dunno ... cuz it'd be cool, I guess. ...

Yeah, boring and pointless and not even much fun. Plus, it's hard to tell who's who when they're not wearing brightly colored spandex suits.

Little Brother I enjoyed like the Dickens. Very entertaining, fun, emotionally engaging, very politically aware and engaged, etc. Doctorow even was aware that his protag Marcus is a white male from the creative class, and built that privilege into the character (spoiler: at one point his Latino best friend refuses to help him out any further because he points out, realistically, that he would get reamed much harder than Marcus.) There's a bit of white-geek-boy fetishizing of Asian chix, but it's not too bad. It's just a shame that the characters of color tended to wimp out a bit, but I could find fault with anything if I tried hard enough. Suffice it to say that if you're going to have a white male hero, it's a great idea to point out that his privilege is one of the things that gets him the last yard into heroism.

Also very very impressed with Doctorow's very clear and engaging descriptions of how technology works. I really admire anyone who can do this -- Ted Chiang is one who takes his technical writing skill and turns it into amazing fiction. I learned a lot about possibilities from this book, and had fun doing it. Maybe I'll read more Doctorow. I'll definitely read more YA if he writes any more.

October 26, 2009

Reading Update and Delish Dessert Hack

Girl in the Arena Lise Haines

Liar Justine Larbalestier

Exclusively Chloe J.A. Yang

The Child Garden Geoff Ryman

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is what they were about, and what their lousy characters were like, and how their authors chose to write them and all, and all that book reviewer kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, the authors would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty critical about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially [name redacted]. They're nice and all -- I'm not saying that -- they're just touchy as hell.

(Xtra points if you get the reference.)

And now to the delicious low-cal dessert hack (have I shared this one before?):

Whip together with an electric mixer two parts nonfat plain yogurt with one part Cool Whip or the organic version, Tru Whip. Cut up strawberries into it, or pretty much any fruit (except citrus.) Outstandingly like whipped cream, but a little tangy, and super low-cal/low-carb.

September 20, 2009

Readin' Update

Finished a friend's novel MS (not the final draft), both of which shall remain nameless.

Finished (re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin, the sequel to Cycler, in which a teenaged girl has to come to terms with turning into a boy once a month, instead of having a period. (Which raises the question: will she ever be able to have kids? And if not she, then will he?)

Review verboten since Lauren's a friend, but go read it!

September 09, 2009

Reading Update

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

Read it for a review I wrote for Hyphen. You'll have to buy Issue 19 to read my review. Short version: not a good book.

August 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

August 18, 2009

Long-ass Reading Update

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
We3 by Grant Morrison
Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

It's been a book-devoury kind of 72 hours. I read The Magicians in a day, and Sacred Scars in two. Haven't done that in a while. Maybe I was just hungry for it.

The Magicians is about an older teen -- getting ready for college, who is obsessed with Fillory, a Narnia-like fantasy world explicated in a series of children's books. He discovers that there IS actually magic in the world, and is recruited into a college for magicians. Upon graduating, he finds himself in exactly the same lost state that all college graduates find themselves in (which my college best friend called the Wounded Chicken Phase) and then

HERE BE SPOILERS (FOR THE REST OF THE POST, ACTUALLY.)

discovers that Fillory actually exists.

The book's a good read, a page-turner, but there are two serious problems with it. The first is that Grossman can't seem to decide if the book is a parody, a tribute, or metafiction, and sadly runs with all three. The story doesn't have much to do with the Narnia series: its rather a cross between The Neverending Story and The Secret History with a little Harry Potter thrown in. That's the tribute. In fact, you can see an example of really successful tribute in the sorting into houses segment, where there's no sorting hat, but rather students are divided according to the direction their magical gifts take. The house common rooms aren't the site of butterbeer drinking and flirting so much as serious boozing and sex. The nod to Harry Potter and The Secret History are visible, but the similarities are not one-to-one, and are abandoned entirely in favor of pursuing the good story.

So the Narnia-like elements in the second half of the book are pretty much parody: talking animals that are boring, an evil witch who isn't really all that scary, Aslan replaced by two sheep (rams, but still,) and an Edmund Pevensie-a-like who turns truly evil. And the book is waaaay too knowing about all of this, without ever actually stepping outside of itself to get real with us. So we have to deal with the snarkiness of a metafiction, without ever being invited into the deconstruction along with the author.

There are some shifts between the world of the book and our world which aren't oiled, and are therefore awkward. For example, some of the characters make direct Tolkien/LOTR references. Of course, Tolkien and Narnia author C.S. Lewis were friends and colleagues, and part of the same fantasy geek squad. So having a world with Tolkien in it, but not Lewis (but which DOES have a C.S. Lewis-esque, or perhaps Lewis-Carroll-esque, author in it who is degraded by being depicted as a pedophile) is a shift that needs to be smoothed somehow ... and isn't. Unlike in Galaxy Quest, where the TV show starts out as a parody of Star Trek and then takes on a life of its own, Fillory does the reverse: starts out as a sort of tribute-world with the potential to have its own life, and then turns into an increasingly flat parody.

The second problem is that he gives in to a horrible compulsion to tie up every single little thread. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this ruins the book. The wonderful tension in the first half of the book comes from the play between the mundane world, in which the protag is a geeky loser who doesn't get the girl (who feels sorry for him but is also creeped out by him,) and the world of magic, which is kept free of unpleasant weather, and in which the protag is the good-looking lover and top student he always dreamed he would be. But the mundane always creeps into the fantasy: learning magic is hard work and very boring; possessing magic doesn't save you from purposelessness; you can kill someone with a stupid prank just as easily with as without magic.

The creeping realism is really effective in the first half, but in the second, as the truly excessive number of pistols hung over the mantelpiece get fired -- one by one by one by one ... -- the realism creeps right the fuck back out of the narrative, and we're left with neither a serious fantasy, nor an interesting experiment in juxtaposing realities, but rather a smirking parody. If only a couple of the major threads hadn't tied up quite so neatly, the book would have been great, rather than just good.

To wit: Julia, the girl who won't date him in the mundane world, turns up, desperate and begging to be let into the world of magic. He tells on her and lets her swirl off back into the magicless world, certain that her memory has been wiped. It would have been fantastic if he had just left it like that. Because that's what happens in real life. We don't always find out what happens to the former loves of our lives, who step down off their pedestals and then disappear. (That's what google is for, frankly.) But no, Julia has to turn back up at the very very end, having mastered magic in her own way and now prepared to be part of a new superhero team of magicians. Yak.

Also, the incredibly scary monster from another dimension that turns up in the first half (the analogue to A Wizard of Earthsea's death shadow,) ends up being the Edmund-Pevensie-a-like, stopping back in from Fillory to wreak havoc and seed a revenge-motive. Waaaaaaaay too neat. Yak. It would have been so much better if the scary monster had just remained a random scary monster from another dimension. It would have made the danger and vastness of the practice of magic so much more present. Tying this thread up only flattened what was starting to be a very complex world.

The worst one, however, was the ending, where a new superhero league of magicians seems to be forming. WTF? The ending should not have been neat at all, but should have ended in a ragged tear. He's returning to reality, after all.

Okay enough bitching. I'm giving the impression that it's a terrible book. It's not, it's quite good. But it's not great, and it's not going to rise above the level of the other twenty or so good reads I'll have this year. And it could have done.

We3 is very short and sad. Weaponized doggies and kitties and bunnies. Weepy. I hear they're making a movie. Visuals a little hard to read during the action scenes. Hope the movie is more legible.

Sacred Scars is fantastic, in both senses. It picks up right where Skin Hunger left off, and pulled the same nasty trick that Skin Hunger did, in that it didn't really have an ending, but just sort of stopped. There's a third book in the works, and if it's as good as the first two, I'll be thrilled. I'm not as mad as I was at the end of Skin Hunger, because this time I was expecting the book to just end without resolving anything.

I've never seen a writer with so much patience, building up the game, or war, or whatever it is that's playing out in Sacred Scars. The books, in alternating, short chapters, tell the story of a boy and girl, centuries apart, who both have a role in bringing back and shaping magic in their secondary world. The girl, Sadima, who has a magical gift, runs away from home to be with her magician love Franklin, who is the servant of Somiss, a sociopathic royal family member trying to bring magic back to the world. Sadima soon discovers how evil and crazy Somiss is, and ends up trapped in a cave with him and Franklin, and a group of caged street children Somiss is experimenting on.

The boy, Hahp, is an aristocrat's second son, whom his parents send to -- yes -- a school for wizards run by Somiss and Franklin centuries later (how? We only start getting a clue to this in the second book: a longevity spell.) The school is a rat-maze for sociopaths: the ten boys admitted are told that only graduates survive the schooling, and only one of them will graduate, and are forbidden to speak to or help each other. How they negotiate their schooling is detailed excruciatingly (for them, that is), and is starting to be revealed to be an elaborate game, or wargame, between two factions of their teachers.

SPOILAGE ONCE AGAIN, IN THE FORM OF SPECULATION

Okay, I just want it down for the record what I think is going on: I think the comment Hahp makes that he thinks that Somiss is being punished is part of the truth. Somehow, Sadima gets her memory back and finds her notes and learns to practice magic within the confines of the Eridean group. She discovers, as Erides did, that magic can't be controlled, and founds the school herself to ensure that all graduating (that is, surviving) wizards do so because they have shared magic and resources with others. She punishes the original wizards by forcing them to teach in this school.

Yeah, okay, it could go a bunch of different ways, but that's my current speculation. Wow, a good reading weekend!

August 12, 2009

Reading Update

Read the first Buffy comics omnibus; not the season 8 series but the comic based on the original screenplay.

Then I read Waylaid by Ed Lin. It's a Kaya Press book. It's about a twelve year old Chi-Am boy growing up in a sleazy motel on the Jersey shore, where he and his parents live a really marginal existence. It reminded me of Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, in that there's a fascination with disgust and the disgusting. A lot of descriptions of gross food that makes people sick in gross ways, and details of pores, and hairs, and sweat and body odor.

Makes me wonder if the authors live their lives in disgust, since they've written books so interpenetrated by it. Depressing. A good book in many ways, but depressing.

August 08, 2009

Reading Update

I think I've lost track of my reading.

Um.

I read China Miéville's The City and the City. Cool idea, but it ended up being a bit of an anticlimactic, nearly straight-genre mystery. I think the book's core was his story "Reports of Certain Events in London" stretched out to book length. "Reports" is a terrific short story about a Pickwickian society of people who study feral streets, i.e. streets that don't tamely remain in a particular place but wander around.

Of course, The City has a completely different premise and purpose, but has a similar feel or feel of intention: to mess with the structure of cities using a surprising novum. And to introduce a mystery that can only happen within that particular situation. And I think this ... idea? structure? purpose? ... was better served in the short story than in the novel.

But still a good read.

Also re-read Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible and it really holds up. Well structured and thought out. Insightful. Fun to read. Some minor glitches with the representation of the female protag, but altogether a good job.

And I think I'm missing something. Arg.

July 13, 2009

Updatingss

Finished Epileptic by David B. The first half was wonderful. The second half kinda fell apart. But that was because it was a memoir, and when kids get into their teens, the world gets immensely larger and it's harder to make a clear narrative out of it.

Still haven't started on Phase Two of Draft Two. Too much other stuff to do.

July 05, 2009

Updatingss

Okay, so I've finished Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens, which is an extremely mediocre book. Waaaay overrated. Both Pratchett and Gaiman are much better on their own. Also finished Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is the melancholy, literary, zombie YA nov. It's good, only ... somehow Ryan manages to flub the writing of the key moments and scenes. Like, where a scene turns, somehow the transitions tend to falter, so I don't know the scene has turned and have to go back a couple of paragraphs to figure out what the new situation is again. Argh.

Also, been stuck for a week about a dozen pages from the end of da nobble. Next time I get to it I'll finish it, and then Phase One of Draft Two will be done. I also might have found a novel writing group. Yay! More good news forthcoming in upcoming weeks.

June 27, 2009

Reading Update and Check In

Argh! My writing time yesterday was hijacked by a FIVE HOUR MEETING that wasn't supposed to start for another two hours when I arrived at the cafe. ARgh.

I did finish reading Timmi's Alanya to Alanya two nights ago, and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next installment. Awesome (that is a comment, not a review. No-review rule holds.)

June 06, 2009

Reading Update

Two days ago read Timmi's De Secretis Mulierum: A Novella. Now reading a German book, which I'm too lazy to get out of my purse right now to remind myself of the title. Yeah.

June 02, 2009

Reading Update

Still in Berlin. Still on vacation. Still not ready to grapple with topics undertaken.

Just finished Distances: A Novella by Vandana Singh, which I picked up at Wiscon. Almost finished The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor, but had to give it to my niece. Will have to buy another one to finish it when I get back. ;)

Distances interesting and rather lovely here and there. Feels like rather standard SF, but there's nothing wrong with that. I like the experiment with describing the art of mathematics. Not always successful, but fun to watch.

Now reading other Aqueduct Press offerings. We now return to our regularly scheduled vacation.

May 29, 2009

Reading Update

It's been a while since I've done a reading update, because it's been awhile since I've done any reading. But I'm quickly reading through the YA I bought for my niece, so I can have it done before I give it to her (in a day or two.)

The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti
Gifts by Ursula Le Guin
Voices by Ursula Le Guin
Powers by Ursula Le Guin
The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor

I've heard from a few sources about the Borrible Trilogy but couldn't remember where ... until I read the first one. Then I realized it was probably from a discussion of China Miéville's influences: you can totally tell that it is. I enjoyed it, but there were problems. The sheer violence of the fight with the Rumbles was pretty offputting. The author was careful to make the Rumbles into large rats that tasted like hay ... both of which put them beyond human respect. But they're still sentient beings whom the Borribles mowed down like, well, hay. Also, if they're that easy to kill (ten Borribles killing hundreds of them with only one casualty) then they're clearly no threat to the Borribles.

Also, the gender dynamic here was pretty annoying. Yes, I know it was written in the seventies, and all the YA of the time followed traditional gender roles. But still: is there any reason to read something with such regressive gender roles if it isn't fantastic in other ways? Out of the ten Boribbles on the Great Rumble Hunt, two are girls. They, of course, are only allowed to fight female Rumbles, and once their female targets are dispatched, they pretty much sit back and allow the male Borribles to save them ... even though one of them is identified as the best shot of all of them.

It's a huge missed opportunity: children who, through being abandoned or ill-treated, become pointy-eared Borribles and remain childlike and wild for eternity--or until their ears are clipped--are a great opportunity to take a new look at gender roles. Because, although there are gender differences before adolescence of course, they're not nearly as pronounced. The difference in strength, speed, agility, and endurance between pre-pubescent boys and girls is nowhere near as great as between men and women ... and in many cases it's nonexistent. Since the Borribles are kept in a prepubescent state forever, they're frozen at that last moment where there's some physical parity between male and female. Differences will be much more nurtured than natured. So it's really too bad the author was too blind to play with these dynamics a bit, but we're all a product of our times, I suppose.

I have the whole trilogy, but don't know if I'll be interested enough to continue reading them.

The Western Shore trilogy by Le Guin was a huge disappointment. It's terribly competently written--she's been writing too long not to know how to do it in her sleep--the stories are too well structured not to demand to be read completely, and the world-building is perfect. But the urgency and excitement of her earlier books is long gone. And ... how do I put this? ... her politics have taken a severe dive.

Interestingly, these three books mirror in structure the original Earthsea trilogy: a young man comes of age, a young woman comes of age aided by the man who was the young man in the first book, and then another young man comes of age in the shadow of the older man who was the young man in the first book. But in the first and third books of this series, unlike in the first and third books of Earthsea, women's roles in this world are studied ... only women have no opportunities to exercise any leadership or break out of their constraints.

It's weird how almost every gender stereotype haunts these books. In Gifts, the girl's talent (women's talent) is to call animals, a sort of Earth Mother type of power. The man's power is to destroy things from the inside, a process that is depicted as unnatural. The hero's power is words and "making" and knowledge, power brought to him by his mother, but that she doesn't share, and that the girl can barely understand, much less share. In Voices, an invading culture imposes its gender dynamics on a subjugated culture, resulting in women being enslaved, raped, or killed if seen out on the streets. The invading culture is clearly modeled on nomadic Semitic cultures; their monotheistic religion clearly modeled on the monotheism of our own deserty Middle East. The subjugated women hate being treated like this, but don't actually complain about their straitened roles ... only about the fact that their entire nation is enslaved by another culture.

In Powers, women and girls are abducted, enslaved, used for breeding, prostituted, raped, and murdered ... and the purpose of all of this in the book is the boy's learning curve. No girls or women escape their roles here, or even try to or seem to want to. In the end, the hero even saves a young girl from forced prostitution; she is unable to save herself.

I'm really disappointed to see that the woman who laid a lot of the groundwork for questioning gender roles--such that my generation of writers could and can create worlds in which women have equal roles and female characters who won't settle for less--has herself reverted to roles similar to those in the Borribles.

SPOILAGE FOLLOWS: The Night Wanderer is a Native vampire story from Canada. So far, so good. It takes place on an Ojibwa rez in ... Ontario? ... where an ordinary sixteen year old girl is experiencing the usual growing pains. Her father, to earn some extra money, takes in a boarder. He turns out to be a 350-year-old Ojibwa vampire, returning to his home for the first time since he left with fur traders to see the great world and was saved from measles in France by a curious vampire. The native vamp is bored with life and returning home to end it all.

He's not really the point of the story, though. This is very much a realistic story of life on the rez, with a single novum thrown in. The vamp is there to keep the girl from killing herself during her long, dark night of the soul ... a job that, in this world, any sympathetic adult who isn't her family could have done. The vamp, while fun, is underutilized. No real argument is made in the book for his inclusion; he could just as easily have been a recovering rapist or child molester, if we really needed someone that dangerous ... only that would have made the book a lot more serious. I guess the point of the vamp is that it injects danger into the book while keep it lighthearted. Now that I think about it, that's fucked up.

While well-written, though, the danger--either from the vamp or from the girl's own self-destructive impulses--is never felt. The girl's character, Tiffany, comes alive, but she never really feels depressed or suicidal, and the climax at the end doesn't feel climactic. That was probably helped by the fact that the final confrontation between girl and vamp happens three times. She runs away from him--rather stupidly, in fact, from both a narrative and a realistic standpoint--three times, and three times he catches up with her and talks to her. There's no need for all of that except to break up the dialogue with action.

But I have to say, it was a smooth read, and very enjoyable.

May 05, 2009

Kathleen Duey Twitter Novel

Oh dude.

Oh dude. I know what's going into my aggregator, like, NOW.

Kathleen Duey -- of the awrsome YA novel Skin Hunger -- is writing a Twitter novel live. You can read it on the blog here, or live on Twitter here as it happens.

Already the text has developed a rhythm that comes across similarly to blank verse: you can tell the rhythm's gonna hold up, and it gives the text a stability most prose doesn't have. It'll be interesting to see what kind of content acrobatics she allows that stability to give her.

This whole thing is so exciting I want to pee. Or do one myself.

Via Gwenda.

April 21, 2009

Reading Update

It's been a long time.

The second book of Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series, Bloodhound, arrived at my door unexpectedly so I read that, comfortably. Enjoyed it immensely. So there.

April 05, 2009

Weekly Roundup: March 29 - April 4


My folks were in town for a while but left this week. And I've been having trouble getting to sleep, which is making me tired and bad-memoried.

I had to scramble to finish my Asian American women profiles for Hyphen blog this week, before Women's History Month was over. It was a good project, but a lot of work. I asked the readers for suggestions, and most of the suggestions were for artists and writers, which tells you what kind of readers we have, but wasn't terribly helpful. So I had to curate the profiles for age, ethnicity, and field of endeavor. That also meant I had to do some research to actually find a range of women to profile. But I'm glad of the result. You can see all the posts here.

By the way, I'm going to be asking Asian Americans to send in 200-word family histories for me to post on Hyphen Blog for May, which is API Heritage Month. Spread the word!

Also, currently working for Kaya Press and putting together book tours for Australian novelist Brian Castro and Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara. We've been watching Hara's films lately, and I have to say, although I would never have sat through one otherwise, I'm glad I was forced to: this guy's a genius. For writers out there, you HAVE to see A Dedicated Life (which you can get on Netflix). It's a documentary about a Japanese novelist, famous for one particular book, who used to be a member of the Japanese communist party and was excommunicated for kicking off his novel writing career by writing a book criticizing it. But that's not what the film is about. The film, an amazing 2.5 hours long, is about narrative and how people build their lives. That's all I can tell you, because it's the kind of film that does what only film can do ... so you can describe it. Watch the film and if your jaw isn't on the ground after the first half hour, and STILL on the ground two hours later, I'll buy you dinner.

I didn't really like his Goodbye CP, which I think was his first film, and which is basically about forcing the audience to watch endless footage of people with cerebral palsy moving through public space and being ignored by others. But definitely see The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, which is about a super-crazy protester in the 80's who tries to kill his former WWII commander for reasons best understood by watching the film.

Katherine Mieszkowski, probably my favorite writer at Salon, has an article about a couple in Berkeley who acquire most of their stuff by scavenging. It's really interesting and has some tips for down 'n' out East Bay Areans. The irony here is that this couple has written a book about scavenging, which you have to buy new, because presumably most people who buy it aren't going to toss it out.

My friend Jaime said last weekend, after the funeral of the four Oakland policemen, that he thinks a city can reach a point where its reputation is just broken, and there's no coming back. I've been watching The Wire on netflix these past few weeks, and Oakland feels like that right now: broken beyond repair. The anger that Oscar Grant's killing unleashed was one side of the violence coin -- and the police DO have a lot to answer for, over the years and right now. But these killings are the other side, an indication that when violence gets this out of control, no one is safe. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Mayor Dellums is an asshole. The feeling in Oakland right now is sadness just on the edge of despair; there's no real anger, just shock. And the violence continues.

I saw the William Kentridge show at SFMOMA last weekend and highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend it. Don't wanna talk about it right now, though. Also saw the Nick Cave show at YBCA. Candylicious!

And I've started revisions on Draft 3 of da nobble. And started writing dates with other writers. If this works out, I might have a way of sticking to it. I have to get this sleep issue resolved, though, because I don't have much brain power this week.

Saw Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, on BART last weekend. At first I thought she was someone I knew down the way, so familiar did she seem. I stared a little, but tried not to bother. She was with a group of geek girls, which is cool.

Been watching the first season of 21 Jump Street on Y*O*U*T*U*B*E. Yeah, it's cheesy (the music is truly horrible), but the storytelling is actually pretty decent. I remember LOVING this show back in the day: it started the year I went off to college. I was still seventeen when I first went: still a teenager in a lot of ways. So I watched it off and on until Johnny Depp left. The gender and racial dynamics are so clear in this show, it makes me understand the 80's much better. Holly Robinson's character is the only woman on the force (there are no female extras in uniform). She's depicted as being just as capable as the men ... but she never has to fight anyone. Whenever there's a shooting or an accident that she's involved in, all the men get this look of concern on their faces and touch her shoulder and ask if she's alright. God, I remember that.

As far as the racial dynamic goes, the only black characters on the show so far are bad guys, except for Robinson and the captain. There's even one episode where a rich white kid gets hooked on smack and is forced by his black dealer, also a teenager, to rob stores to pay for his dope. The black dealer gets put away and the white junkie gets off scot free with no explanation. Everyone feels sorry for him. And yet, there's some sophistication in the way the individual characters interact racially. In the pilot, Johnny Depp's character is surprised that Holly Robinson's character owns an MG. She laughs at him and asks him if she should have a pimpmobile instead. No pretty-boy cop-show hero nowadays would ever be allowed to make racist assumptions like that.

Pireeni gave me Proust Was A Neuroscientist for my birthday (very belatedly) and I've started reading it.

Will do a sleep study next week.

That is all.

March 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Schiaparelli!

In honor of Mars mapper Giovanni Schiaparelli, Google has released a new version of google Earth with wicked Mars stuff on it.

You know I'm peeing my  pants, right?

By the way, in case I never get around to reviewing these, I've recently read:

The Year of Living Dangerously by Chritopher Koch
Type O Negative by Joel Tan
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

February 19, 2009

Note To Self

Am close to finishing Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist, but may forget to note it because I've been working on it so long.

February 01, 2009

Readin' Update

I've been waiting until I had time/wanted to review these books, but that may never happen and they're piling up, so here goes:

Midnight Brunch Marta Acosta (2nd Casa Dracula novel)
Bride of Casa Dracula Marta Acosta (3rd Casa Dracula novel)
About Face James Calder (2nd Bill Damen mystery)
In A Family Way James Calder (3rd Bill Damen mystery)
The Plain Janes Cecil Castelucci and Jim Rugg

I'm loving the Marta Acosta Casa Dracula nobbles. Most chick lit can't keep my interest, just as most vampire genre stuff starts to lose me eventually too, and I'm much on the record being extremely bored with how racial issues are dealt with in "serious" literature. But this is shopping and fucking and drinking blood and being mysterious and investigating and being captured/chased and nailing ethnicity issues and class differences and then shopping and fucking and drinking cocktails again. She moves fast and doesn't dwell on any of these but just grabs them and integrates them into the story so you don't have time to get bored. Plus, the whole thing is pretty funny. She's working on a fourth one now. Yay!

I'm liking the Bill Damen San Francisco/Silicon Valley mysteries, which border on science fiction (in fact, the last one -- hands down the best one so far -- has scientists doing stuff that real scientists haven't QUITE done yet, although they probably could. So it IS sci fi). But the technical descriptions lose me, and they're not always necessary to the story or interesting in themselves. And Bill Damen is SUCH a Mary Sue. But I guess all detectives are.

The Plain Janes was cute, but stopped really abruptly, like they ran out of time. The artwork is fine, but uninspired. I like the unusual premise and the main character, who WANTS to be an outcast. I wish that was explored more.

January 23, 2009

Readin' Update

Nisi Shawl FILTER HOUSE

A book of short stories from a fabulous writer who is my friend so the no-review rule holds. Awrsome.

Ernest J. Eitel WHAT IS FENG SHUI?: THE CLASSIC NINETEETH-CENTURY INTERPRETATION

Just what the title says: an 1873 publication from an English-language press in Hong Kong. Eitel was a German Protestant missionary -- apparently with a gift for languages -- who spent his career in China and ended up becoming something of an expert in Feng Shui, Buddhism, and Cantonese, writing texts on the first two and a dictionary of the last. He has his own form of Romanization for Cantonese, apparently.

Anywho, the book is extremely valuable not just for helping me to cut through all the latter day, Westernized, interior decorating crap that fills most feng shui books I can find, but it also teaches 19th Century feng shui and conveys the attitude of an educated and enlightened Western man towards feng shui.

Eitel is alternately contemptuous of and fascinated by feng shui, condemning it as "rank superstition" at the same time that he claims it as legitimate Chinese natural science. He makes the point that I've had to make before, that although the art/science of feng shui is infused with hoo doo and superstition, and doesn't follow the strict rules of western empiricism, there has been a science to the manner of study of feng shui; there is a form of empiricism and experimentation involved -- only it isn't "pure."

Perfect research item for da nobble.

January 06, 2009

BSG 'n' Readin' Update

I'm trying to get myself psyched about the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but it's slow going. There's been such deadeningly bad TV in between, that I can't seem to care very much.

Plus, the clips from Caprica suck.

In other news, I finally read Happy Hour at Casa Dracula by Marta Acosta, a Latina vampire chicklit. Yes, it is. Of course, it's genre-y and there are some plot detail problems, but IT'S ALIVE! IT'S ALIVE!  HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH! Truly, I say to you, I loved it.

I just ordered the next two books on Amazon.

January 05, 2009

What I Read in 2008

Take two, i.e. I wrote this entire post a couple of days ago, and then lost it because Typepad is stooopid. Also, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a couple from the list below because I didn't post about them or didn't tag them "whatcha readin'?" Sigh. Whatever.

I've bolded the books that really did something for me: made me think, changed or created an idea. You'll notice that I didn't include A Passage to India or Huckleberry Finn among these. Those were rereads, so they actually stank up my universe this year. Maybe if I read 'em again in a few years, they'll be good again.

  1. Christopher Barzak's One For Sorrow
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Passing by Nella Larsen
  4. High Wizardry Diane Duane
  5.  A Wizard Abroad Diane Duane
  6. The Wizard's Dilemma Diane Duane
  7. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  8. The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  9. At A Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place by Kate T. Williamson
  10. Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
  11. The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs
  12. Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper #1 Tamora Pierce
  13. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  14. First Test Tamora Pierce
  15. Page Tamora Pierce
  16. Squire Tamora Pierce
  17. Lady Knight Tamora Pierce
  18. Victory of Eagles Naomi Novik
  19. His Majesty's Dragon Naomi Novik
  20. Throne of Jade Naomi Novik
  21. Black Powder War Naomi Novik
  22. Empire of Ivory Naomi Novik
  23. A Wizard Alone Diane Duane
  24. Wizard's Holiday Diane Duane
  25. Flora's Dare Ysabeau Wilce
  26. Sherman Alexie The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  27. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  28. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  29. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
  30. The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud
  31. Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud
  32. In Cold Blood Truman Capote
  33. Nora Pierce The Insufficiency of Maps
  34. Four Letter Words by Truong Tran
  35. Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler
  36. E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  37. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil
  38. Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam
  39. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
  40. Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy.
  41. Barack Obama Dreams from My Father
  42. Green Grass, Running Water Thomas King
  43. Terry Pratchett Monstrous Regiment
  44. Terry Pratchett Making Money
  45. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
  46. Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh
  47. Buffy Season 8 comic book (three omnibus volumes)
  48. The Last Man first omnibus
  49. Nation Terry Pratchett
  50. Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
  51. Octavian Nothing Vol. II MT Anderson
  • 51 books completed in total, just about a book a week, like last year.

  • 5 nonfiction books

  • 1 graphic novel and 2 comic book series

  • 21 YA or middle grade novels, or novels packaged as such

  • 31 books in speculative fiction genres

  • 21 male and 17 female authors (however, I read several books each from certain female authors)

  • 12 authors of color, as far as I know

  • 11 re-reads

  •  9 series that the books I read were part or all of, not including the comics

  •  19 books with strong female protagonists (down from 27 last year! That must be because I read less YA!)

One thing that's noticeable here is that I did a lot of escapist reading. I didn't intend to reread so much, nor read so much YA. Not that YA is automatically escapist, but I read deliberately escapist YA. This had to do with my being depressed for large chunks of the year (Jan - Feb and June - Nov). Escapist reading has always been a primary coping mechanism, but this year I also watched a lot of TV. Not as much as last year, mind you, because TV sucked so bad this year, but a lot.

Another thing was the lower count of strong female protagonists in this year's narrative. That was a little shocking. First of all, a number of my favorite women writers had male protags, such as Naomi Novik, Susanna Clarke, and Vandana Singh. Nothing wrong with that. But there were also a couple of books with female protags who were weak: Kate T. Williamson's memoir and Nora Pierce's novel. Of course, the memoir was about two years when Williamson was stuck living with her parents (and yes, the book was just. that. boring.), and Pierce's protag was the small, dependent child of a mentally ill single mother. But that raises the question of why literary narrative is so interested in women and girls at their weak moments and why we have to turn to genre fiction to get stories of powerful women and girls.

I'm certain that part of it has to do with the fact that the gatekeepers of lit fic are primarily male, and get to decide what is and isn't appropriate or "good." And I'm sure that part of it has to do with the fact that genre is engaged in a lot of escapism and therefore wish-fulfillment--of whatever sort--is on the menu. Wow, that's depressing. Any arguments there?

So, I'm thinking I'll probably be reading less from series in 2009 ;) and branching out a little more into other genres. There will be even more nonfiction since soon I'll be going into final research mode for da nobble, and because I want to do more reading for atlas(t). Other than that, I am, as always, open to suggestions (although I'm so distractable that I'll probably forget your suggestion as soon as I read it.) What did you read last year that blew your mind?

January 04, 2009

Reading Update

Knockout Mouse by James Calder

I met Calder once, at a friend's party in 2004 or thereabouts, and he told me about his books, which were a mystery series set in the Bay Area. I went out and got one -- a decommissioned library book -- from Amazon marketplace, and promptly failed to read it.

Too bad, 'cause I just picked it up last weekend and had a great time with it. It's grade A mystery genre, taking place along a well-drawn axis between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. I say "well-drawn" because the descriptions of places and social scenes are familiar and accurate, and don't trip my "bullshit" or "bad writer" wires.

Weaknesses: the protag is an aging Mission hipster filmmaker (you gotta love that he's the detective!) whose appearance is never described nor hinted at and whose motivations are presumably that he's the protag of a mystery. (The only motivation even suggested is that he was attracted to the murdered woman, but we all know that Mission hipster boys can't even be bothered to walk across a room for an attractive woman, much less solve a mystery.) Characterization overall is minimal, leaving many of the characters to knock helplessly against each other until they collect enough action to distinguish themselves.

But overall enjoyable and I'm definitely picking up the next one.

December 29, 2008

10,000 Hours

I got a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for Christmas and read it in one day. One of the things he talks about in the book  is the idea that, to achieve mastery over any field, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice.

I'd heard theories like this before, but Gladwell unpacked it in a particularly enticing way. So naturally, the first thing I did was to calculate when I would have hit my 10,000 hours. I wasn't the only one.

It's hard to do, because I write, and have always written, everything: fiction, plays, poetry, screenplays, essays, articles, letters, journals, online discussions, and most recently, blogs. And I count all of this together. Although I recognize genre differences, and differences of purpose, as far as mastery of writing -- including the use of the imagination that is so necessary in fiction -- every kind of self-expressive writing that I do contributes equally to my development. I accept that other people may write differently, and may process their different kinds of writing differently. But I don't.

It's also a difficult calculation because I haven't written at a steady rate. There have been years when I would come home and just write for hours every day, and other years when I would write for a few hours maybe once a week ... and to no "productive" purpose. There were years when I wrote nothing "creative" at all, but rather handwrote letter after letter to friends who never received any of them. You know how it goes.

Anyroad, I decided to go conservative and average ten hours of writing per week. Starting at fifteen (the year I bought my first journal -- as opposed to my first "diary" which was bought for me when I was maybe 8 -- realizing that I could write down what I was ACTUALLY thinking rather than some boring YA version of "Dear Diary, this is what happened to me today ...") this would take twenty years; subtract four years (conservatively) for the long stretches when I was writing thirty hours a week, and that would put me at 31 when I hit my 10,000 hours.

I got very excited when I figured this out because 31 was, of course, the age at which I finished the first draft my "breakthrough" story, "Pigs in Space," the one that got me into grad school, got me into Clarion West, and then got published in McSweeney's. (McSweeney's subsequently asked me to record it for an audiobook, which you can download here.) It remains my sole big story publication, (although I'm sure that will change this year ;) ) so take that as you will.

More importantly, though, I remember writing that story, and it took me a while. I wrote the first part and it was a good idea, like a lot of "first parts" I had written before. But this good idea actually brought together a lot of social and political concerns that had been on my plate for a long time, but that I hadn't found a way to put into a story. I couldn't figure out how to end it, though, for a few months. After processing it internally, the solution popped into my head one day and I wrote the rest of the story. I then spent the next two years revising it, putting it through nine drafts, never quite satisfied that it was ready to go.

I turned it in as a writing sample for grad school, got in. Worked on it some more. Workshopped it in class. Wrote 20,000 words of backstory. Used it as a writing sample for Clarion West. Got in. We were supposed to workshop it the first week but I asked to do a new story, since I was sick of "Pigs." Fortunately for me, our first week instructor, Nancy Kress, had read and prepared a critique and gave it to me in our one-on-one session. It was a substantial, but simple, structural rearrangement that she suggested, and she was right about it.

It still took me a few months to see that she was right, but when I went over the story for that last draft, the scales almost literally fell from my eyes and I understood not only what Nancy had said about the structure, but why. It was a small moment that hid a huge transformation. After that, I could actually see story structure in my head: an amorphous, not quite solid, three dimensional shape.

When I look back on it, I think what I was doing was taking the last steps towards understanding story as an integral -- a living -- organism. Not thinking about it as a living thing, which is the same as saying "asking a question," but understanding it a such, which is the same as saying, "having an answer." Just one answer, of course.

That was also the point at which I realized that I had been struggling, without knowing it, toward an end goal which I had reached without ever defining it. And, in reaching it, I realized that it wasn't an "end" goal. The way I explained it to my students at the time was that writing is like running up a steep flight of stairs to a locked door at the top. You bang on and push against the door until it finally gives way ... and then you find yourself on a landing, at the foot of another steep flight of stairs with another locked door at the top.

What changed at that point for me was confidence in what I was doing, and in my ability to do it. This transformation actually took two years, but it started right around the time I would have hit 10,000 hours, and ended in the middle of a four year period where I increased my writing time to over thirty hours a week, adding over 5,000 hours to my total.

Okay, now you: when did you hit your 10,000?

December 15, 2008

Reading Update

Boy, have I been bad about posting lately. If anyone is still reading this blog: my apologies.

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last week. I've never read it myself. My dad read it to me when I was a kid, and it really wasn't the best book to read to a kid. It's not really a kid's book. Tom Sawyer might have been, but Huck Finn isn't.

It's very similar to Uncle Tom's Cabin in a lot of ways, except more racist. Jim is actually less of a well-rounded character than Uncle Tom, which isn't surprising. Uncle Tom's was written from a northern pov, from someone who hadn't actually met very many slaves, so Uncle Tom was a vehicle for her ideas about blacks. Jim is less of a vehicle for ideas as he is a placeholder, a representative for slaves. He's superstitious, loving, and loyal, probably traits that Twain saw -- or thought he saw -- from his encounter with slaves as a child ... and probably the traits he picked out as being the best that blacks are capable of.

But the book's not about how slaves are people too. It's all about Huck's process of realizing that slaves are people too. Ugh. I understand that this was a big deal at the time, but the time was nearly 150 years ago. Can we stop being so impressed now?

I've also read:

Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh: a few glitches but mostly enjoyed very much.

The first three omnibuses of the Buffy Season 8 comic book: fun, but not essential.

The first omnibus of The Last Man comic book: kinda hated it.

November 20, 2008

Reading Update

I've been reading Terry Pratchett. Re-read Monstrous Regiment, and then read Making Money.

It's Terry Pratchett. What's there to say?

November 14, 2008

888 and Readin' Update

I have 888 comments on this blog! That's very lucky!

I finished Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King last week, one of my American Indian Heritage Month reads. It was published in 1993, I have to note, and reads--quite frankly--as original text for Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys novels. Which is to say that Gaiman's tactic of incorporating gods and myths into contemporary settings, and then sending human and mythical characters on a road trip across the American landscape, seems to have originated here.

Only this is much better. King gets a bit meta on it, incorporating the narrator's voice into an ongoing dialogue with one of the mythical characters (Coyote, to be precise). And the novel is structured in a meta manner as well: as a story telling that keeps going wrong. The four main mythical characters--pop culture archetypes--each get a turn telling the story from the beginning, and each time Coyote messes up the telling. Each time the telling starts anew, the tension resets, although the story continues to move forward for the human characters.

It's pretty cool.

On the downside, there are too many characters and no protagonists. None of the characters is very likeable, either, so it's hard to care about them. Why is this problem so prevalent in fiction?

All-in-all, though, a good, fun, interesting read.

November 01, 2008

Reading Update

I'm a little behind in updating, as usual.

I listened to the first half of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood while driving to Mono Lake, and the read the rest when I got home. Got nothing to say about it. Literally. That's no judgment, it's a great book, I just got nothing to say.

Then I read The Insufficiency of Maps, by Nora Pierce, which should be called "The Insufficiency of This Book." Oh, it's fine. It's one of those pebbles that makes no impression on the pond, sinks to the bottom, and is never heard from again. It probably would have been a better book if Pierce had been more concerned with telling the damn story, rather than being all poetic and distanced, and creating a lyrical, melancholy sense of unreality that made it impossible for me to give a shit about anything in the book ... but then maybe it wouldn't have been a better book, either.

I think I read something else in there, too, but it clearly made so little impression on me that I can't even remember, so who cares.

October 15, 2008

Reading Update

Just finished Ysabeau Wilce's Flora's Dare, the sequel to Flora Segunda.

Wasn't as good as the first. She didn't take full advantage of the world, or her imagination, and the book took waay too long to get up and running. It did end up having a good plot in the second half and some good, satisfying reveals. But the opening scenes were boring: the all-too-usual thing in fantasy where situations from our "real world" are simply translated into the fantasy world, rather than transformed. The most egregious example of this was the rock concert, which was basically a tinny fantasy of a rock concert ... yeah, that's what it was. Bo-ring.

The beginning needed to be reimagined after the increasingly wonderful second half was written. I think the problem might have been that Wilce just wasn't given enough time to write the book. She did such a great job with the first one that I can't believe she couldn't have done the same with the second ... given enough time.

Damn the publishing industry! They didn't need to bring the second book out a scant year after the first one! In fact, I was surprised it came out so soon.

October 06, 2008

What I've Read So Far in 2008

Just checking in on it. Still reading a lot of YA, but this time, entirely for pleasure. No silly I'm-writing-a-YA-novel excuses. This is actually 37 books, since the Bartimaeus trilogy is three, Protector of the Small is four, and the Temeraire cycle is five. So I'm almost on track with last year's one-book-per-week rate. On the other hand, a few of these are re-reads (Temeraire and Protector, and Passage to India) so maybe they don't count as much.

Anyway, I'm going to try to make the last 12-13 weeks of the year count. I'm working on re-reading Orwell's Burmese Days for the essay I'm writing and I'm reading the second Flora Segunda book, but then I'll come up with another short reading list. Some of the books from Hispanic Heritage Month or American Indian Heritage Month maybe.

Any suggestions? Things I should not leave the year without reading?

  1. Christopher Barzak's One For Sorrow
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Passing by Nella Larsen
  4. High Wizardry Diane Duane
  5.  A Wizard Abroad Diane Duane
  6. The Wizard's Dilemma Diane Duane
  7. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  8. The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  9. At A Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place by Kate T. Williamson
  10. Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
  11. The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs
  12. Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper #1 Tamora Pierce
  13. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  14. Protector of the Small cycle Tamora Pierce
  15. Victory of Eagles Naomi Novik
  16. Entire Temeraire cycle (so far) Naomi Novik
  17. A Wizard Alone Diane Duane
  18. Wizard's Holiday Diane Duane
  19. Sherman Alexie The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  20. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  21. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  22. Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
  23. Four Letter Words by Truong Tran
  24. Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler
  25. E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  26. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil
  27. Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam
  28. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
  29. Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy.

Reading Update

Finished Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy. I know her, so the no review rule applies. But fun! Go read!

October 01, 2008

Reading Update

Just finished re-reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. I read it the first time in college, when I was going through my Forster phase. I didn't think much of it at the time, but for completely different reasons than those making me not think much of it now. I'm reading it now as an example of decolonization-process novels for something I'm writing. So I'm looking at it critically that way, and don't have much to say about it now ... except: what a load of hooey!

Was Forster always that annoying? This is what bugs me about the stupid stupid lit critic expression "closely observed." No writer worth her salt puts things in her novels that aren't closely observed. Why praise a novelist for doing what their art form requires? It's what they DO with the observations that count. And Forster uses his, here, to bolster a half-baked, half-formed idea of the coldness of the universe and its intentions. Through all the bizarreness of his method, you can see many, many moments of close observation. They ring true, like the right kind of metal, in a way that his explanations of the natives don't. But it's all part of a net of insufficiency.

It made me kind of sad. This is a great novel--a piece of writing by a brilliant writer at the height of his powers--about an impoverished set of ideas that the writer evidently found grandiose. It also made me kind of ugh. I'm going to have to read Howard's End again, the book of his I found the most brilliant. Perhaps trying to understand "India" in the mid-twenties was beyond him, but maybe understanding England wasn't? Who knows? All I know is that if Howard's End fails the re-reading, Forster's getting demoted.

September 23, 2008

Readin' Update

I finished Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam, the first of the Blanche mysteries. Took me two weeks.

I read the second or third one many years ago when it first came out (my mom had it), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and was surprised that this story of a black domestic worker among richer, lighter-skinned members of "the race" would ring familiarity bells with me. It was the first book I ever read that described a (small) part of my own experience. Don't ask me now how that can be, I'll have to read the book again. Something about Blanche being one of them yet being repudiated.

Anyway, I always meant to go back and read the others and I was recently in Marcus Books on Fillmore and found this one on a table. It took me two weeks to read, even though it's only 200 pages, because Neely was so intent on exploring the contemporary master/servant relationship from the point of view of the servant. The murder doesn't actually happen until more than halfway through the book. The relationships in the book are complex, complicated by race and class and personality.

The book is terrific until the end, when the bad buy deteriorates into a caricature. But definitely worth reading.

September 18, 2008

Reading Update and APAture LIVEBLOGGING!

Also, I just finished Maugham's The Painted Veil. Can't write about it right now. I'm reading it as material for an essay I'm trying to write about politics of narrative. Maybe I can work out some ideas here but not for the next couple of weeks because

I'M LIVEBLOGGING APATURE!

APAture is a festival I started with a group of people at Kearny Street Workshop ten years ago. This year is its first big anniversary and I've started a liveblog where I'll be documenting all the events. I've also put a feed to this blog in the upper left hand corner of the page you're reading now. Look over there! It says "APAture Live." That's it!

Please follow along with us, dudes and dudettes.

I gotta run now and start blogging. The gallery opening starts in 45 minutes.

Reading Update

I can't believe I haven't reviewed this yet!

I just read E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I think at Gwenda's recommendation. Despite my absolute moratorium on "The BLANKITY BLANK OF NAME-ITY NAME NAME" titles, I have to say ... Wow. This is a book about a wealthy-ish (not super wealthy) girl at a top board school discovering sexism and acting out. And it's amazing.

When I first started the book, although I enjoyed it, I was disgusted by the Gossip-Girl-esque fascination with the unattainably rich and the assumption that what concerns the rich will somehow be universal to us all. This girl doesn't really have any problems, and her bratty distress at being treated like a child (at all of 15 years of age) by adults and older kids is a really extended boo-fuckin'-hoo moment. Plus, she suddenly grows good looks and becomes arm candy for her crush, the most popular boy in school. So what's the problem?

But then, as I read on, the real sexism that even privileged women are subjected to started leaking in to the scenario. Unlike what this book would be in the hands of a lesser writer, Lockhart doesn't turn Frankie into a sudden, total, feminist heroine. Frankie doesn't quite get what's happening to her when her new boyfriend starts ignoring and excluding her in favor of his guy friends. She doesn't really understand why it upsets her, especially when she looks around her and sees all kinds of examples of relationships where it either isn't happening, or where the girl lets it happen. What's never mentioned here is that this is exactly what happened in her (divorced) parents' marriage and her mother set her the best example of how to handle it: leave.

So Frankie starts acting out in a typically (for women of this class) passive agressive way. That is to say, she takes over, by email, the all-male secret society her boyfriend nominally runs, pretending to be another boy, the other secret-society "king" (who gets so much credit, he doesn't dare out her), and ordering the rest of them to commit culture-jamming pranks the quality of which the society hasn't committed since its inception. In the process, she starts to recognize qualities in herself that she simultaneously likes and dislikes. She is clearly an alpha (like the boy she's impersonating, whose actual nickname is "Alpha"), with all the concomitant desire for attention and control, and also the ability to think for herself and to synthesize others' opinions. She also has creativity, a sense of humor, physical courage, and a profound, motivating, egotistical irritability.

It's entirely to Lockhart's credit that she never comes down on the side of "good? or evil?" with regard to Frankie's alphaness. It's neither and both. It's a force of human life; a social force, and ultimately, that's what Lockhart is examining in this book: power. I know, it sounds crazy that a  boarding school book about a prankster girl could be the best novel in this election cycle about sources of socio-political power and effective dissent. But that's exactly what this is.

Lockhart doesn't fail to make those connections increasingly througout this book. She shows us Frankie thinking through the implications of all these ridiculous high school hijinks. She notices that more than one former member of this secret society has become President. Frankie's father, also a former member, is shown in his circle of high-powered professionals, who are not only at the top of their professions, but also at the top of mainstream society. The silliness of these boys' games is there, but their importance to society as a whole can't be gainsaid. This is truth that exists in the real world: a three-month-long high school rivalry or friendship will have more effect on world politics than decades of community activism. We all know this, but we like to let ourselves forget. And by the end, Frankie can say to herself that, as much as she is excluded, she still needs to be near to the sources of power so that she can express her alpha personality in the ways she wants to later in life.

Reading this book has helped me to understand Hillary Clinton better than a thousand magazine articles and pundits' pootles. Of course, Frankie is idealized and likeable as a teenager, but I can easily see her turning into another Hillary: compromised, hard-edged, cynical, and still a little idealistic. This book is clear-eyed, but essentially optimistic, with the understanding that, beyond high school, our society has many mansions.

The book is, in more than one way, the anti-Chocolate War, looking at a privileged, attractive girl's secret fight against a prankster secret society, as opposed to the dark and pessimistic look at an underprivileged, unattractive boy's public fight against a bullying secret society. The two books should be read together, really. In school. And then A Little Commonwealth, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Second Sex should be read.

September 08, 2008

Reading Update with SPOILERS!

Wow, I really get behind.

So I read the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud and loves it. It's the only successful commentary on the Iraq war that I've seen so far in fiction (not that I've read that many attempts.) It should feel heavy handed, but doesn't, because the secondary world created here is so weighty and balanced and alive. It shares one thing with Harry Potter and that is the depth of the world-building. But it also shares this with the Temeraire series and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

My one real quibble (SPOILER!) is with the very end when John Mandrake sacrifices himself for the others. It sort of needs to happen, but it feels way too much like the proper punishment for the radically flawed character ... his only way to redeem himself. I don't like that and it brought the book down for me. I can't quite see how else it could have ended, but this was just a good ending--just a neat wrap-up ending--not a great ending. The quality of the book was such that a great ending could have raised the book (or, I should say, the series) to greatness. But just a good ending make the book/s just good. Not really a problem, though.

Then I read Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler and loves it. Dewd. I'm not allowed to review friends on this blog but I'm so relieved. What if your friend wrote a book and it sucked? What if your friend wrote a book and it didn't suck but all you had for it was faint praise? Dodged that bullet. Why are you still here? Go read the sucker already. I might even review it on my udder blog but you didn't hear that from me. Oh, and here's Liz Henry's review.

September 02, 2008

Naomi Novik Is The Best Writer Working Today

Hyperbole? Absolutely. And I really mean: one of the best writers. And I know very few of you will agree with me. And I don't care.

I grabbed Victory of Eagles when it first came out and finished it in one day. I am humbled, truly. And  I don't say that easily.

I am not overtaxed with humility, despite the purity of my lack of literary accomplishment ... as anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows. I don't claim--or feel--humility when I read most of the "literary" works most heralded as "genius" by the snob-squawkers. I applaud artistic ambition, the more so when it is at least somewhat achieved. But too many of the most praised novels aren't truly ambitious: achieving their ambitions is little more than a matter of maintaining a less-than-natural style without seams, producing a consistent melancholic mood, completing an emotional arc that produces catharsis without sullying itself with an apparent plotline, and proving the ultimate spiritual beauty and likability of their autobiographic protagonists.

What's lacking among these writers is:

  1. energy: it seems as if lit fic writers are mostly children of older mothers, born from aging ova that lack vitality ... which would also make sense given the fact that they have so much free time on their hands to write worthless stuff: their mothers postponed conception until they had lots of income (yes, I'm joking, bitterly).
  2. the possession of a real pushy story that insists on being told: you'd be shocked--SHOCKED--at the number of idiots in creative writing programs who complain in public among other writers that they "don't know how to finish a story"or "have trouble knowing what happens next" or "can't see very far into the story" when they begin and trust to their ... whatever (muse? talent? god forbid: imagination?) to supply material as they go along. I can think of no more direct way to say "I have no real story to tell." This also explains why their "stories" are all about people exactly like them in situations exactly like theirs: it's not their imaginations supplying them with material, it's their lives.
  3. balance: the ability to make every element of the story serve the story, each in its proper measure, rather than placing undue emphasis on one element (say, "poetic" language) to the detriment of other elements (say, imagination, plot, velocity).

Naomi Novik has all of these in spades. On top of that, she's a great writer because she does the following:

  • Fits her writing tactics and style to the purpose of her writing project
  • Balances the different modes of writing--action, description, exposition, dialogue, internal monologue, image and metaphor--relying on none to the exclusion of any others, and making all vivid, fresh, and fully integrated. This is to say that nothing she does draws attention to itself as writing; it's all there in the service of the story, and you can only see what good writing it is if you pull yourself out of suspension. (Yes, I already mentioned this above, I'm restating it slightly differently here. Get over it.)

  • Employs conciseness, which is neither economy, density, nor understatement, but rather precision (if precision was about providing meat as well as being exact.) Look at this one-paragraph battle scene:

"Signal the attack," Laurence said, and Temeraire roaring plummeted with the rest; the Chevaliers panicked and flung themselves aloft, instinctively. One leapt only to meet Maximus's full weight upon her back, and bellowing dreadfully was driven down, straight down, into the ground again, and with a snapping crack went silent. Maximus staggered off and shook himself, dazed by the impact; she did not move, and her captain crying her name flung himself heedless across the field toward her.

Novik's a bit profligate with the semicolons and stingy with the commas (and somesnob versed in "should-be's" would call her out for excessive adverbiage), but this is a perfect scene otherwise. In one sentence (that should have been punctuated as two) we see the movement of the attackers down, and the defenders up. We see a vivid kill, and you don't need to know that Maximus is a heavyweight to get how the deed is done. You hear the bellowing of the dragon and know that it was her spine that was snapped. You see the whole story of her relationship with her captain in the clause that has him crying her name, and flinging himself after her, heedless (ly?).

I can scarcely think of another writer that wouldn't be betrayed by grandstanding impulse--or sheer, unacknowledged awkwardness--into stopping the action and giving us a brief glimpse inside the head of the bereft enemy captain, or at least having Laurence internally monologuing about what the captain must be feeling. Novik only gives us two more images of him in later pages, one of him being led away from the dragon, weeping, and the other of his hands bound to a stake in the ground. That's all we need for a minor character whose main purpose is to give texture to the corps' exploits in this part of the novel, and create emotional complexity around their very ethically compromised mission.

  • Permits the necessities of plot to drive the action, and the necessities of action to drive the plot. In other words, she doesn't force nifty scenes onto the book, or measure out her structure carefully. What happens is organic, and yet the shape of the whole is harmonious, part flowing into part.
  • Over the course of the series she allows the situation of her characters to become increasingly ethically compromised ... and allows them, increasingly, to see it. This is true to life and false to most fiction: our conscience troubles increase the older we get, though so does our ability to ignore or manage our guilt. Temeraire and Laurence are heroes because they don't merely manage their guilt; they act upon their consciences. In fact, we get a long sequence in Victory of Eagles in which Laurence does simply manage his guilt, and it becomes clear that it is Temeraire's presence in his life that forces him to deal with his conscience and behave heroically. Sure, this is satisfying--heroism is always satisfying--but the way Novik deals with it is above all interesting, and she's willing to risk some of Laurence's stature to make him a more interesting hero.
  • Continues to be a master of characterization. All of the above weave in together, of course, and all contribute strongly to the characterization, which is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this series. The characters are consistent, but consistent in the way that people are consistent: moods take them, the vagaries of life begin to weigh on them. They behave in ways recognizable to their characters, but over time, the accumulated burden of their experience begins to warp their characters into new shapes, and much of their struggle--as is our own--is to find their way back to the best parts of themselves. Victory of Eagles is, more than anything, about this struggle in the adult Laurence. It is also about the struggle in the adolescent Temeraire to achieve adulthood and take on the mantle of leadership. He is both helped and hindered by Laurence's terrible, and often selfish, conflict in this book.

I believe I've written and talked before about the power that speculative fiction can bring to representations of reality. It's the power of diagonality: not a mirror reflection but a distorted reflection; an image created moving diagonally out of mimetic reality into a world that reflects ours by changing important things. The paradox is that this diagonal reality is only effective if its creator commits to it completely, commits to making the illusion of its separate reality complete.

There is no real relationship in our reality like the captain/dragon relationship in the Temeraire series. It is a marriage, a best-friendship, a lover configuration, a parent/child relationship, a dog/master, ship/captain, actor/manager, warrior/quartermaster relationship. It is this relationship, and not the existence of dragons, that is the biggest difference between Temeraire's world and ours. And yet, the existence of this complex and unique relationship illuminates all of our relationships. It's the sort of friendship we all desperately hope for ... and have no chance of acquiring; there are no people as loyal and strong as dragons, no beings whose friendship can make us more loyal and strong than we humans naturally are.

This potential for the perfect relationship is thrown into a world only slightly better, and more honorable, than our own. (The secondary characters tend to have too much consistency, too little complexity, but that's as it must be.) The perfect relationship is thrown into war and left to make its way through the impossible ethical binds that war, and the world in general, creates. And it is only a perfect relationship that can show us so clearly the way these slings and arrows strain and distort love, loyalty, and responsibility.

Okay, enough writing. Loves it. That's all.

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