June 27, 2014

Three Awesome Reads

These three books have nothing in common except that I read them all recently and I think they're all great. Maybe there's something in here that appeals to you?

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie has been earning many awards, and that's no surprise. The world of the novel is built on an epic scale, with a story that spans planets, an empire that rules much of the universe, and huge armies and spaceships for conquering and occupying planets that aren't yet part of the dominant civilization. Like all the best science fiction, the book adds new elements to these familiar tropes, most notably the form taken by our narrator, an artificial intelligence embodied simultaneously as a spaceship and as the soldiers of a conquering army. It's a strange and clever concept, and Leckie executes it with skill. What really makes the whole book work is that despite the epicness, this is one character's very personal story of loss and vengeance.

As you might guess from that description, there's a huge amount of complexity to the world and the story. I appreciated how carefully information was doled out. The plot never became bogged down with exposition, and sometimes by design I didn't yet have quite enough information and had to keep reading to piece together the puzzle, which is something I enjoy. This is the start of a series, but the first book does come to a satisfying conclusion, so it's possible to read it as a standalone. I'll definitely be continuing on, though.

Leckie has written a couple of thoughtful essays in which she discusses the multiple identity of her protagonist and the choice of gendered pronouns in the novel. Both of these contain some information that you might prefer to encounter first in the course of the story unfolding, but you could also safely read them in advance.

EVERYBODY'S BABY by Lydia Netzer is a novella about a couple trying to conceive who raise the money for their expensive fertility treatment by using Kickstarter. To attract publicity, they offer donor perks like cutting the cord and naming the baby, but they never imagine strangers will donate at the levels required for these absurd gifts. Naturally, though, the campaign is successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the results bring chaos to their lives.

This story is the perfect mix of lighthearted and emotional. While the events are hilarious and often over-the-top, I was frequently struck by just how plausible it all seemed. Netzer has done a great job of imagining the consequences that might arise if someone went through with this scheme. The main couple is lovable, and their relationship is sweet but not always easy. The book left me sobbing happy tears, which is always a plus for me.

Netzer's debut novel, SHINE SHINE SHINE, came out two years ago, and I loved it. I'm eager to read her next novel, HOW TO TELL TOLEDO FROM THE NIGHT SKY, which will be released on July 1. This novella served as an excellent appetizer.

VALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book of Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories, and it's another excellent read. I'm always happy to be back in the Regency-era-with-magic setting, spending time with these great characters.

This time, the plot involves swindles and heists, which are movie genres I love but that seem difficult to pull off in novel form. Kowal does an impressive job, constructing a twisty plot that kept surprising me. And while that's going on, another equally engrossing story is unfolding, about the toll that difficult circumstances take on even a very loving marriage. Kowal wrote an interesting essay about combining these plots.

You can read this book without having read the earlier ones. Or if you're interested in the series but Austenesque plots doesn't appeal to you, read the second one and then this fourth one for the maximum amount of adventure and magic and the minimum time spent in drawing rooms.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Airship, George Dobbs explores The Origins of Literary Cliches: "The phrase 'little did she/he/they know' has plenty of history. The question is, when did it start being used for cheap suspense? The inversion of subject and verb sounds stilted and melodramatic, so the obvious culprit would be 19th century fiction. But perhaps not everything is as it seems." (Thanks, The Millions!)

June 19, 2014

Summer Reading Bingo

Most summers, I don't think to undertake any specific seasonal reading project, though I encounter plenty of talk about summer reading in the various book media I follow. I usually have a bit of time to read on airplanes during the summer, but other than that, my reading habits aren't much different from the rest of the year.

However, when the great podcast Books on the Nightstand announced their summer reading bingo challenge, it struck me as such a fun idea that I immediately decided to participate. The podcast hosts, Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, have come up with a set of book categories and plugged them into a bingo card site that lets you generate a card with a random selection of categories. Each card is likely to have one or two genres, such as "science fiction" or "cozy mystery", descriptions of story elements ("set in another country"), ideas about where to get recommendations ("that you saw someone else reading"), and some esoteric items like "with a red cover".

For more details, visit the BOTNS blog. Ann and Michael have defined "summer" as running from Memorial Day to Labor Day. By the time I listened to the episode and printed my card, it was a couple of weeks into that period, and I was pleased to discover that I could already fill in several squares. So far, I'm finding that my card has enough categories with enough breadth that I've been able to match every book I read to a square, with the exception of one that didn't fit any category.

June 12, 2014

Rainbow Rowell Backlist

In early July, Rainbow Rowell's fourth novel, LANDLINE, will be released, and I can't wait. Rowell has been receiving much attention since last year, when she published two YA books that were wildly popular with both teens and grown-up readers. Her earlier novel, and the forthcoming one, are aimed at adults, with older characters and concerns. Since January, I've devoured all Rowell's published work, and she has become one of my favorite authors.

→ I started with FANGIRL, and I loved it right from the start. My full review is here. The brief version is that I found unexpected depth, intriguing characters, and clever plotting in the story of an anxious college freshman who would much rather be writing fanfiction than venturing outside her dorm room.

ATTACHMENTS took a little longer to charm me, but once it did, I fell in love with Rowell's writing all over again.

In this adult novel, Beth and Jennifer work at a city newspaper, where they spend much of the day exchanging email about problems with their relationships and families. Lincoln works in the IT department at the paper, and it's his job to read the email that gets flagged for inappropriate language or suspicious frequency. (Also, it's 1999.) Beth and Jennifer's exchanges keep ending up in Lincoln's monitoring queue. He ought to send them a warning about using the office email system for personal communication, but he's grown to like them through their messages, so he doesn't want them to get in trouble. And he doesn't want the messages to stop.

It's a cute, funny premise that sounds like it will lead to a cute, funny story, and it does, in part. But the actual novel that eventually develops is rich, unexpected, and sometimes quite dark. Rowell excels at crafting substantial, unconventional stories out of elements that could be fluffy and predictable in other hands.

At times the storytelling in ATTACHMENTS is a little constrained by the structure, and the style of the email messages sometimes stretches credibility. Overall, though, this is a wonderful book, packed with great characters, brilliant lines, and touching moments.

ELEANOR AND PARK is an excellent teen love story, but it didn't connect with me as deeply as Rowell's other work. Because FANGIRL and ATTACHMENTS both surprised me in how their stories unfolded, I was expecting the same thing here. Instead, the romantic plot is fairly standard, though well-rendered and with atypical protagonists.

The book is really all about the atypicalness of the characters. Eleanor dresses weird, has too much red hair, and is fat, so as a new student, she's an immediate target for the mean popular kids. Park doesn't fit in either -- he likes comics and the wrong music, and he's half-Korean -- but he grew up in the neighborhood and is tolerated as long as he doesn't attract too much attention. When Park lets Eleanor sit down next to him on the bus, it put unwanted attention on them both, and they try ignoring each other to avoid making the situation worse. But over time, they notice each other more and more. The result is an emotional romance that brings them both joy and pain.

Real teen emotions tend to be extreme, and an accurate portrayal in fiction sometimes irritates me as an adult reader, but in this case I found myself able to identify with Eleanor and Park's feelings, even at the most angsty. I can see why this book has been so successful with readers of all ages.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, Akhil Sharma relates his difficulties writing a novel based on a tragedy in his own family: "There was a third technical challenge to writing the book, and this last one was what I found hardest to solve. The story I was planning to tell had very little plot. A truly traumatic thing occurs to the family and then the family begins to unravel. The misery of this family's daily life takes a slow toll. Real life is plotless, but the experience of reading books that replicate this can be irritating."

June 6, 2014

An Untamed State

In Roxane Gay's debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE, the narrator observes "the startling contrasts" of her parents' native country, Haiti -- "so much beauty, so much brutality." This is a perfect description for the book as well. The novel is deftly written by a writer of great talent. It's also deeply upsetting, and that's the point. This is a story about terrible things happening to one woman, and it provides an uncomfortable reminder that terrible things happen to women all over, every day.

Mireille is the daughter of a wealthy Haitian family. She grew up privileged in America, is happily married to an American, and has a successful career as a partner at a law firm. Before the events of the story, Mireille has moved through life fairly easily. I have that in common with her, and so I was as unprepared as she is for what happens after she is kidnapped outside the gates of her parents' estate, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. She soon comments on how little she previously knew of suffering: "I had never felt anything so off-putting but then, I was only beginning to catalogue my discomfort. I had an inadequate frame of reference."

Mireille's father refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers because his experience of Haiti is that paying the ransom will only result in more family members being taken. So Mireille remains captive, and she is subjected to unrelenting sexual violence. Gay doesn't let the reader shy away from the horrors that Mireille endures. Fair warning: This novel will take anyone outside of their comfort zone. Readers will have to decide if they're able to face that challenge.

The brutality of the kidnapping story is broken up by flashbacks to Mireille's life before. The memories of her childhood and marriage contain both happy and difficult incidents, and we get a picture of the complex woman that Mireille has always been. Nothing in this story is simple or generic, and that's what makes the book succeed. Mireille is an individual in the way she copes with every event in the story. She has a unique strength and some very specific flaws, and all of this comes through in her amazing narrative voice.

Mireille's captivity ends after thirteen days (she tells us this on the first page). Though Mireille is free at that point, she's not free of what's happened, and the second half of the book charts the aftermath with just as much beautiful, painful detail. Her recovery doesn't come easily, but there is ultimately hope in this story.

The novel grew out of Gay's short story, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales", which relates the same tale in capsule form. You could read the story first to get an idea of Gay's writing style and the content of the novel, though the short piece is far less explicit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brendan Constantine tries to answer a question from The Rumpus about where he writes: "I don't know where I write. Couldn't begin to tell you. I'm not being coy, I'm serious. I look at my books, the piles of uncollected work, and they just seem to have appeared. I can't create any images to go with my sense of ownership." (Thanks, The Millions!)