Friday, December 26, 2014

Beautiful Lines in Literature

Every so often while reading, I come across a line that halts me in my literary tracks. Even if the writing style in a book as a whole isn't enough to really captivate me, sometimes a single line or phrase contains something special, something that makes me stop and savor it for a moment. Check out this list of some fantastic, poignant, pause-worthy lines from literature, and happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: "Firefight" by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners Book Two)

I've been waiting a long time to get my hands on this book. Author Brandon Sanderson is a fairly well-known SpecFic author, having written the Mistborn books and finished Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, among others. Right now his Stormlight Archive is experiencing immense popularity, with readers eagerly awaiting the third installment. But while we're waiting for that to appear, I entertained myself with the second book in his dystopian superhero series, Firefight.

When I read Steelheart last year, the first book in the Reckoners Series, I was drawn in by Sanderson's creative depiction of a world where humanity had been divided: most of the population remained the same but some were transformed into "Epics," people who were mysteriously gifted with superpowers by the sudden appearance of a brilliant red star called Calamity. But instead of becoming society's heroes, Epics became tyrants who ruled major cities and terrorized everyone living there. But with the rest of the country a wasteland, the risk posed by living under the thumb of an Epic was preferable to a life of scrounging. David Charleston, growing up in Newcago, watched Steelheart take over the city. For years he dreamed of taking down the Epic who killed his only family and destroyed his home. But he never had the chance to do anything about it until he found the Reckoners, a group of normal humans with the technology, determination, and sheer audacity to take on Epics and fight back for the rest of the population.

In Firefight, the second book in the series, some of the Reckoners' secrets have been revealed: Prof is an Epic, and Steelheart's minion Firefight has been lurking among them the whole time. But David isn't convinced that she's as evil as they thought. After all, if Prof can use his powers for good, why not other Epics? To find answers David and the Reckoners travel to Babylar, the mostly submerged city that used to be Manhattan. It's ruled by Regalia, an old associate of Prof's, and she may hold the answers to how Epics are created and influenced. But despite the many dangers of being in a new city, with a new Epic in charge and everyone looking for the Reckoners, David's main goal is to find Firefight and test his theory about Epic weaknesses. When his goals diverge from those of the rest of the team though, his friends become some of his most challenging adversaries.

The classic dystopian story of good versus evil gets spruced up by creative settings and unique characters in this continuation of the adventure started in Steelheart. Sanderson reimagines Manhattan as a tropical Venice, with dense jungles growing inside of half-drowned buildings and glowing fruit to feed the people who live there in tents and shacks on rooftops. There's a vibrant, carnival-type feel to it that throws David convincingly off his game when compared with the forbidding Newcago that he left behind. The place both intrigues and worries David as he sees people accepting their place under the power of an Epic and enjoying what life they can, knowing that they may be blown sky-high the next moment if Regalia's mood should change. This attitude contrasts nicely with the Reckoners' outlook, creating a shift in perspective for David that helps him to see the problem of Epics in a new light.

David continues to pursue Firefight, but the book isn't solely focused on that: bringing Regalia down and stopping her from destroying her own city occupy the Reckoners, and a new epic called Dawnslight brings up interesting questions for the team and the people of Babylar. Through the new twists, David retains his memorable problem with metaphors. It felt more forced this time than it did in the previous book though, with his comparisons coming more and more outlandish and the ridiculousness making them more annoying than amusing. Firefight's character remained wonderfully written though, Dawnslight is creative indeed, and the ways in which Prof changes set up the third book in the series to be potentially explosive.

I'm still confused by the naming system (or lack thereof) that Sanderson uses for Epics. Prof was a science teacher before Calamity, and Dawnslight represents hope as well as somehow producing glowing fruit; but Regaila's water-based powers have nothing to do with her name, and Firefight's powers have nothing to do with fire (although there are correlations). I think that some of the Epic names would sound a little less cheesy to me if they were more representative of the Epics themselves, instead of sounding like nicknames that they made up for themselves.

While the secret to Epics' weaknesses is less than imaginative, overall this follow-up to Steelheart delivered an excellent continuation of the story, blending new surroundings with the same story lines and characters that intrigued me in the first book. It's creative, and Sanderson has left us set up for a very intense third installment. Firefight by Brandon Sanderson will be released on January 6th, 2015, and is available for pre-order now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: "The Doubt Factory" by Paolo Bacigalupi

If the name Paolo Bacigalupi sounds familiar to you, it's probably because he's also written award winners The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker. His latest book, The Doubt Factory, continues his foray into the world of Young Adult writing with, in my opinion, mixed results.

Alix Banks leads a charmed life: she has a rich family, attends a prestigious prep school, achieves the perfect balance between school and partying, and the biggest worry she has is studying for the upcoming SATs. Girls in Alix's position, with corporate fathers and out-of-touch, stay-at-home mothers, don't worry about where they'll end up in life; their family connections keep them in the world of the wealthy where they marry other rich members of the 1% and start the cycle all over again with children of their own. Complacent, Alix questions none of this until one day when someone new arrives at her exclusive academy.

Moses is the leader of a group called 2.0. They might be terrorists, hackers, animal rights activists or just vengeful teens, depending on who you ask. But both the FBI and the corporations that Alix's father helps to defend and shield are determined to bring him down, and the only way he can see to expose Mr. Banks and his business dealings is through Alix. But can he turn her? Can he make her see that her life of luxury is because of faked medical trials, harmful products on grocery store shelves, and class action lawsuits that fail because of Mr. Banks and his damage control for corporations?

I had mixed feelings about this book from the start. The first red flag went up for me when the author seemed to romanticize stalking behavior. It's integral to the plot that Moses and 2.0 be able to infiltrate Alix's life and convince her to listen to their stories, and naturally, that means getting close to her to earn her trust. But when Alix sees her headmaster violently attacked, is warned by multiple authorities that she could be in danger, and still finds herself having fantasies about the tall, dark and handsome stranger who wants to kidnap her, I was admittedly upset. Stalking is potentially a very dangerous situation for everyone, not just teenage girls. Alix did eventually realize just how dangerous of a situation she put herself in, but an awfully roundabout route was taken to get her to that conclusion.

The story does point out valuable lessons about thinking critically about what goes on around you, looking closely at things not out of paranoia, but out of a desire to understand them. The social commentary against corporations and the control that they have over us as consumers was not subtle, but it was a great real-life opportunity to tell a story of suspense, espionage, and modern subterfuge. It brings to light the reality of corporate manipulation of consumers and the marketplace, and shows how being conscious of how these concerns are spun by different parties can open a person's eyes.

It's not the most artistically spun of tails, but The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi makes an important point about the world around us and how being more aware of it can improve some things. It'd be a great read for critically thinking teens, or those interested in activism and social justice. You can find a copy of it now at your favorite local, independently owned bookstore.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Historically Banned Books: An Overview

If you've read some other posts on this blog, you know how strongly I feel about banned books. I make no apologies or excuses for the fact that I believe a person should be able to read what they want to read, regardless of what others think of it. After all, somebody will be offended by just about anything that's out there, and along those same lines, there is a perfect book out there for everyone. has put together a partial list of historically banned books, in the form of some interesting charts and graphics. Take a look, and remember that not everyone has a choice in what they can or cannot read. In my opinion, we are very, very lucky to be able to make those choices for ourselves.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: "In The Shadows" by Kiersten White (author) and Jim Di Bartolo (artist)

In the Shadows

Hybrid formats of writing and art in books have always caught my interest. After all, words on a page can be used in some innovative ways: Jonathan Safran Foer, in one of my favorite examples, uses overlapping text, different spacing and outline formats,and even some black-and-white photos to enhance the story in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and to help deepen the story and express thoughts, feelings, and different representations of his characters and their surroundings. Graphic novels take this hybrid approach all the way, completely integrating text story with art so that the story is incomplete without one or the other.

In The Shadows by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo combines sections of graphic art and others of text to tell the story of a small family in the Maine countryside, around 1900. Minnie and Cora help their mother to run a boardinghouse, their business since their father died years ago. They keep company with Arthur, a young man whose past is somehow connected with their family, and whose mysterious origins keep him alone despite Minnie's growing feelings for him. One summer everything changes for them, when brothers Thomas and Charles come to stay with them. Charles is dying of an illness that Thomas hates himself for being unable to stop, but they may have a chance for one last summer of fun together in the company of Minnie and Cora.

But the troubles plaguing Thomas, Charles, and their father turn out to be the same ones that killed Arthur's parents, the same ones that keep him separated from those around him and make him afraid of himself. If he lets himself delve into the secrets of his parents, will he succumb to obsession and paranoia as well? He doesn't have a choice in the end if he's going to save Minnie and Cora, using what knowledge he kept after his parents' death to uncover a sinister ring of powerful people in the shadows of the world stage. The Ladon Vitae, as the organization is called, use their immortal lives to control international politics, industry, history, culture and to play with the lives of those around them. To uncover their secret and stop them, to rid them of their unnatural abilities and undo the source of them, Arthur may have to sacrifice more than he hoped.

This novel is formatted in alternating chapters of stunning art (with no words at all) and text. It took me a very long time to realize this, but the art chapters begin where the text story ends, so that throughout the book you jump back and forth between time periods. This is an **awesome** idea, if the reader knows to look for it. The dates of the different images in the art chapters were the only clue into what was happening with the time periods, and those were not displayed very prominently. If you were really immersed in the story, like I was, it was very easy to miss the dates entirely. The result was that once I finally realized what was happening in the interplay between text and art, I had to go back through all the art portions again to really understand what was happening and appreciate the idea as a whole.

The interpersonal relationships between Minnie, Cora, Arthur, Thomas and Charles were well-developed and definitely drove the story, but I do wish that more time and energy had been spent expanding on the idea of the Ladon Vitae and their origins, motivations, etc. The conspiracy portion of the story line was anemic at best, even though it was the whole reason for this life-changing undertaking for the characters. The reader was never really presented with much about them, other than that they were evil and in control. It was a missed opportunity from my point of view, one that could have made Arthur's actions much more significant.

If you like character-driven stories that involve some suspense and conspiracy, a dash of magic, danger and some pretty innovative formatting with art and text, pick up a copy of In The Shadows by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo. The story background isn't terribly deep, but it is creative,with a happily ever after in the end. You can find your copy at a local, independent bookstore near you.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Writing Advice from Stephen King

stephen king

Few contemporary fiction writers can claim the kind of success that Stephen King has seen over the course of his career. So when he offers writing advice, it strikes me as worth listening to. In this interview with Business Insider, King offers his opinions and expertise on everything from writing approach to content and self-perception. It's an enlightening read for anyone from the dabbling writer to the established author who's looking to give their stories an extra edge.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez

October was Mental Health Awareness month. While I very much hope that everyone reading this heard about it at some point during the month, I mention it again now because depression, anxiety, and a whole slew of other disorders impact so many people every day, myself included. Whether or not you're aware of it, you know someone who struggles with mental illness either in themselves or someone close to them.

It seems as though the transitional period that is teenhood is when many of these mental health challenges can make themselves known. Small things can pile up to crate a seemingly insurmountable of adversity, or one big catastrophe can explode your life into so many fragments that you feel like you'll never be able to pick them all up. And when you're in the middle of trying to define who you really are for the first time in your life, as is the case for a lot of teens, it's sometimes very easy to get to the point of being overwhelmed.

Frenchie Garcia is at her breaking point. Or, rather, her melting point. She's 17 and still living with her parents in Orlando, her application to art school in Chicago was rejected, and her best friend has all but disappeared thanks to his girlfriend. It's enough to make anyone a little bit depressed. All her plans for her next steps in life have fallen through, and the only things Frenchie has the energy to do are walk to the neighborhood graveyard for chats with the headstone of someone named Emily Dickinson (not the famous poet, just someone who happened to share her name) and lie in bed thinking about the night that Andy Cooper died. Depressed, frustrated and full of guilt, it's not long before Frenchie is alienating the only friends she has left and showing the worst side of herself to the only person who might be interested in helping her work through her problems.

Desperate to come to terms with what happened the night Andy Cooper died, and hopefully through that start getting her life back together, Frenchie launches a half-baked plan to recreate his last night alive and try to find some meaning in it, some reason for the way it took place. If she can find a good explanation for why he died, maybe she can show herself that it really wasn't her fault, and escape the depression that's eating her life from the inside out.

"Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez is the story of a teenager's desperate attempt to find closure before she completely self-destructs and ruins her own chances of rebuilding her life. The way that Frenchie starts losing control and perspective, lashing out at the people around her and creating more problems for herself in the process, felt very realistic to me. Partially this was because Frenchie herself expressed a kind of incredulity that so many things could go wrong in such quick succession. As the reader I could clearly see that Frenchie's own irrational actions, caused by her depression and inner turmoil, were what was causing her problems with the people around her. But since the book was written from her perspective, I was able to understand Frenchie's frustration and the sense of powerlessness that went with her situation.

While her parents and her friends Joel and Robyn play important roles in Frenchie's life and struggle, namely by being wronged by and then forgiving Frenchie, they remain very static characters without much background or development. This ensures that the reader focuses on Frenchie and her progress, but ti also results in a certain lack of the depth that similar stories like John Green's "Looking for Alaska" or Ava Dellaira's "Love Letters to the Dead" possess. I think I would have appreciated the significance of Frenchie's relationships and how she first damages and then repairs them if there had been more time spent actually letting me get to know the people who are important to the protagonist.

Essentially this entire book centers on Frenchie, her thoughts and emotions, almost to the exclusion of every other character. While I felt that this was a sort of missed opportunity to deepen the story as a whole, I also understand that it makes sense from a certain perspective. I'll be the first to admit that when I was a teenager, my entire life revolved around me and my emotions. Looking outside of them was a difficult task, and it's also the big challenge that Frenchie has to overcome in order to set her life straight and move forward. For other teens who are struggling to see their way through the same issue, Frenchie's "selfish" perspective might be the most sympathetic.

One detail that really bothered me, despite the fact that it's very small: at one point, Frenchie is allowed to get a tattoo, at a parlor, without having her ID. She does it on a whim, without her parents' permission, and it's all thanks to the fact that one of the artists there recognizes her from the night that Andy Cooper died and vouches for her. In reality, a tattoo artist could lose their livelihood over that. I understand that for the sake of the story, he was supposed to represent a supporting character on Frenchie's journey to acceptance. But there were other ways that this could have been done without the blatant misrepresentation of the tattooing community and the impression that's given of tattooing and body modification in general being "not a big deal" even if you're a minor.

If you're looking for a sweet, sad story with a hopeful ending about picking yourself up and moving on, and the crazy things you sometimes have to do in order to achieve that, pick up a copy of "Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez. It came out last fall and is available right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

2014: Best Books So Far

It's hard for me to believe that in just under two months the year will be over. 2014 has been full of some truly amazing new book releases, from new authors as well as old favorites. As people begin to think about the holidays and seasonal gift-giving, The AV Club has put together a list of some of the year's best books so far. They include everything from graphic novels to edge-of-your-seat suspense novels, to new superheroes, and include categories like "Best biographical depiction of a genius asshole" and "Best reimagning of a fairy tale that is still full of surprises." You're sure to find some great recommendations from this year, for yourself and for your holiday shopping, but giving this list a browse.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: "The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman

I hadn't read anything by Sandra Newman, who has written a number of books thus far in her career. But I picked up her latest, The Country of Ice Cream Star, at the suggestion of a coworker who enjoys the same kind of gritty SpecFic tales of harsh future worlds that I do. My first thought, before I even opened the cover? "Wow. This things is a monster." Which is why I hope you'll excuse the fact that it's taken so long to read the whole thing and prepare this review. But I promise you, despite the length of the book itself, there wasn't a single page that was a chore to read.

Readers know the purpose of the story, the journey that it contains, before the novel itself unfolds. We're told from the very beginning by narrator and protagonist Ice Cream Star that this is the story of how she brought a cure to her people, and all the other people of the world around her. But the true pleasure of this book is in finding out exactly what the significance of that declaration is. In what used to be Massachusetts before an unknown plague either wiped out or drove the general population to a legendary place called Europe, Ice Cream Star and her band of Sengles scrape out a meager existence by raiding old houses and scrounging what they can from the woods. They deal with their allies, avoid their enemies, and once they reach the age of eighteen they die of an unknown sickness called only "posies." It's a harsh, fierce, and beautiful world for Ice Cream, her brother, and the others that make up their clan, and she is just as brilliant and intense as the world around her.

What she thought would be a fairly predestined existence is turned on its head when one day while scrounging around some collapsing houses, she and her clan find a "roo." He's a white man, fully grown, and is brought back to the Sengle camp in a mixture of both curiosity and concern. But soon he integrates himself into daily life in Sengle camp, even learns the rudiments of their language, and the significance of his presence becomes known. Desperate to save her brother Driver from dying of posies, Ice Cream demands to know how it is that the roo, Pasha, lived beyond eighteen. Because of what she discovers as their friendship and trust develop, and through the sudden changes that start to take place in their woods, Ice Cream and her clan are catapulted into a fantastic adventure that I can really only compare with the Lord of the Rings in its scale.

Ice Cream is no hobbit, and there is no Sauron lurking on the eastern seaboard. But there are Russians with powerful guns and a need for child soldiers, a city of Catholics ruled by a santa reina, a race of warriors that guard a walled city called Quantico, and the promise of a cure for posies if only Ice Cream and Pasha can somehow retrieve it from the ships that hold it safely offshore. It sounds like a pretty straight-forward adventure: overcome the adversaries, get to the goal, and live happily ever after. But oh dear reader, this book is so much more than that.

There are an incredible number of things that Ice Cream has to worry about on a daily basis, looking after her Sengle clan and caring for her ailing brother as well as managing allies and deciding what risks are worth taking not just for herself, but for those who depend on her in a world that is reliable only in its difficult circumstances. Sandra Newman takes all these into consideration as Ice Cream tells her story, weaving them into the larger plot in a way that doesn't ignore the larger challenge but also conveys all the things that can distract Ice Cream from her goal. These seemingly small everyday developments, and the relationships that they inform and change, have huge ramifications as the story goes on and Ice Cream must regroup again and again in the face of changing situations.

This story is brilliant. But what's even more brilliant is the way in which it's written. The entire thing, in the voice of Ice Cream Star, is written in a fantastic vernacular that Newman invented for this purpose. It sounds like a cross between AAVE and Haitian creole, and as I mentioned, this enormous book is comprised entirely of this incredible linguistic feat. The language flows so smoothly, it doesn't give the impression that Newman wrote out the text and then translated it into Ice Cream's vernacular; instead it sounds like she's actually thinking in that voice as she writes. Which does mean that it took me a couple of chapters to accustom myself to the pattern of writing, of speech and the expressions that it contained. But oh, what a rewarding experience once my brain really started to engage. The language is like the world around the characters, like Ice Cream herself: stark, honest, with pockets of obscure truths and observations that made me have to stop reading for a few seconds to just appreciate the beauty of what had been said. I think my favorite example from the Advance Reader Copy that I read was something to the effect of "I love you like broken legs." The truth of the description there, the pain and the torture with that feeling of adoration for someone, is just such a simple way of describing an emotion that sometimes even prolific writers fail to communicate well.

I find it interesting that I read this book now, since at Sirens Conference last week I participated in a great discussion of race in SpecFic (and fiction in general). It was observed there that unless a character is specified of belonging to a minority race or ethnicity, they are presumed to be white. Similarly, characters are assumed heterosexual until proven otherwise. In this book, it's pale skin that is an anomaly, pale skin that indicates a minority status and a sense of apart-ness, of otherhood. It's what makes Pasha immediately interesting to and separate from the Sengles, and I as a reader didn't even think to consider the racial implications in this novel until that point was driven home by Ice Cream's descriptions of Pasha's coloring. It's a subtle but profound way of refuting the general trend in a lot of literature, to assume a certain color or race until told otherwise, and the way that Newman accomplished it with her directness and the perspective of the characters is just beautiful.

This is not a book to be missed. It's brutal and wonderful and so very human in the way the characters react to situations they never even imagined. They carry a spark of determination combined with a sense of hopelessness, and through it all is this pervasive feeling that Ice Cream will always keep moving forward simply because she never stopped to think that there was another option to her. With Pasha by her side, and her clan in her heart, Ice Cream is a formidable character with a story to tell that you won't forget. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman will be released on February 10th, and I highly recommend that you mark you calendar and make your pre-orders now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sirens Redux

I just had the privilege of spending the weekend with some of the most amazing women I've ever met. It was Sirens Con 2014, a feminist SpecFic gathering of people from across the literary community, and even for someone like me who spends a lot of time exploring the book industry in general, there were a lot of eye-opening moments that changed not only how I see the feminist presence in SpecFic but also how I see myself fitting into it.

Every year Sirens features a specific theme to explore, and this year it was spirits and hauntings. Attention was focused on how feminism, and the female experience, was represented in writing that features women and ghosts or the ghosts of women, and how they are represented in the literary world. Three keynote speakers gave us three very different perspectives on the issue: Kendare Blake, Rosemary Clement, and Andrea Hairston. Kendare writes primarily in the horror genre, Rosemary is the author of YA Gothic stories of witches and ghosts, and Andrea is a playwright as well as a novelist who turns her focus toward the presence of ancestral spirits and how they connect the past and future. I strongly encourage everyone who reads this blog to check out their work, for their diverse perspectives as well as for their dynamic, spine-tingling writing skills.

In addition to three amazing authors who I haven't read before (but you can of course expect some reviews of their work to appear here shortly) I was able to connect with a wide variety of committed, amazing people from all over the literary community. Some attendees were writers and authors, but others were literary agents, publishing reps, bloggers, marketing experts, and other professionals who somehow intersect with the book world. The writers were in all stages of publication, from having their first book deals to searching for agents to just starting on their work, which was encouraging to me personally as someone who sometimes feels like I'm falling behind on what I really want to do full-time someday: write. Having a support network like that, and knowing that there are others out there around the country and the world working toward the same goals as you and helping to encourage you to make some headway, even just a page a day, is a powerful motivation and a true gift.

While it is true that there are some diverse female writers and characters in the genre, the other idea that I really brought home with me (aside from a truckload of inspiration) is that SpecFic as a whole is still woefully behind in representing people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds, both regarding minority authors and characters who come from more diverse backgrounds. Most of the authors who are making inroads regarding this discrepancy between the people around us and the people in books are women, but this important challenge remains: how to bring readers into contact with the works that will help to broaden their perspectives and the horizon of both SpecFic and writing in general.

After meeting so many amazing individuals and learning so much about the feminist movement in literature, SpecFic specifically, I'm both overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge facing women and minority writers and inspired by the fact that there is a discussion going on about this, that there is a movement to help subvert writing that really doesn't represent the rainbow of humanity around us. I know that there are a lot of people who will disagree with the idea that women and minorities are still underrepresented in SpecFic (and literature as a whole). And that's great; dissenting opinions are what help to open the discussion. But I will point you toward the recent death threats made to female and minority gamers as a well-publicized example that within geekdom, literary as well as technological, we as humanity still have many ways in which we need to consider where we stand regarding equal representation.

I'm open to hearing other opinions about women in fantasy literature: Do you think we're accurately represented? What about minority characters or people with nontraditional genders and sexual orientations? How can we broaden our horizons in literature by encouraging diversity in readers, writers, and the rest of the literary community as a whole?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sirens Conference 2014

This weekend I'm connecting with authors, writers, publishing reps and other book lovers at Sirens Conference, so check back in a week for my next book review. (Hint: if you like collapsed societies and creative voice, it'll be worth the wait.)

This is my first year at Sirens, which was recommended to me by author/blogger Rachel Ann Hanley, and so far it's a fabulous combination of writing approaches, the industry, and fandom. It's a perfect combination of events that has me rubbing elbows with some of my favorite contemporary authors, and I know that I'll be planning to return next year!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hotel-Based Novels

Janet Leigh in Psycho

The big winter holidays are fast approaching, and if you're more organized than I, you may already be considering your holiday travel plans. Sometimes it's nice to stay with family and friends, but on occasion we all find ourselves booking a hotel room. Most of the time, you know what you're getting into when  you make your reservations. Sometimes, though, you may be in for a surprise. In that spirit, here's a selection of novels that take place in, revolve around, or otherwise concern hotels and the people who stay there. Pick one up to read while you're away, and safe travels!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: "Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen" by Garth Nix

Middle school was around the time when I distinctly remember beginning to develop my own strong reading preferences. Almost immediately I favored darker stories of adventure and epic quests, preferences that have stuck with me to the present day. During this time of literary exploration and discovering what it was that I truly enjoyed reading, I discovered the Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix and fell instantly, irrevocably in love with the characters that he created and the dark, beautiful, complex world that they inhabited. Protagonists Sabriel and Lirael were the first book characters to teach me that knowledge could in fact be power, that book-smarts can be just as useful to heroes as a weapon can, So you can imagine my delight when I heard a few months ago that author Garth Nix was returning to the Old Kingdom with another tale of the Charter and the Abhorsens.

Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen takes place 600 years before Sabriel's time, in an age when Charter magic has been deemed unfashionable and is forgotten by most, even the Abhorsen. All young Clariel wants to do is join the Borderers, who patrol the Great Forest and care for its creatures, to be alone under the trees. But instead her mother, an estranged relative of the Abhorsen and a renowned goldsmith, moves the whole family to the capitol city of Belisaere. Forced into the deceptive world of politics, where everyone has an ulterior motive and merchant guilds have taken over governance of the city, Clariel is miserable. She's made to attend a finishing school designed to polish her for an advantageous marriage, but it's there that she meets Bel, another member of the Abhorsen's extended family. Together they uncover plots against the Crown and face dangerous Free Magic creatures in pursuit of answers, all while Clariel keeps trying to get home to the Great Forest and live a quiet life there alone.

This installation of the Abhorsen Chronicles focuses lesson the Abhorsens themselves, less on Death (in fact nobody enters into death in the entire novel), and more on the history of the Old Kingdom and Free Magic workings. It's an exciting look into a part of the Old Kingdom when the Charter was mostly forgotten, when the importance of major bloodlines like royalty and the Clayr was held in low regard and the responsibilities of the king and the Abhorsen were left by the wayside. By putting Clariel, Bel and their allies in a version of the world without everyday magic, Nix was able to emphasize and explore the hereditary qualities of the Abhorsen's family, like the succession of the title of Abhorsen and the inheritance of the berserk rage that runs in the royal family.

Clariel's desire to live alone, and her lack of interest in being with other people either romantically or platonically is treated as an unusual but perfectly acceptable approach to life, preserving Nix's great track record of demonstrating partnerships instead of romantic obsessions in his stories. Following one's calling is held in high esteem, but in this novel in particular the author emphasizes the danger of blindly following what you want without regard for the people who are around you and who sometimes depend on you. This is especially apparent not only with Clariel's struggles to control her rage, but also with her attraction to Free Magic and the raw force that it represents. Bel, with his overwhelming sense of duty in the face of his uncle's shirking his duties as Abhorsen, is great as both a supporting and a contrasting character to Clariel as she attempts to find where she belongs and the world and where her allegiances actually lie.

Of course Mogget, everyone's favorite Free Magic cat creature, plays a part in this story. I'll admit, I was hoping to learn more about his origins and how he came to be bound by the Abhorsen. But alas, I'll have to keep waiting with baited breath to hear that tale in its entirety. Readers are, however, treated to a return to Abhorsen House, paperwing flights, Charter sendings and, as I mentioned, a trip to Belisaere.

If you've been pining for the Old Kingdom, it's time to celebrate! Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix will be released on the 14th of this month. Refresh your good memories of Nix's wonderful writing by reading Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen (yes, yes, Across the Wall too) before diving into the new adventure.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Randall Munroe and "xkcd" logo

I love reading Speculative Fiction. If I didn't, it's very unlikely that I would be able to sustain a blog dedicated to reading it, after all. But in addition to the things that are fantastical, I enjoy learning about new breakthroughs in science. Randall Munroe likes science too, and is far more qualified to talk about it than I am. He's the author of my favorite webcomic, the immensely popular "xkcd," which is described as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language."

Munroe and "xkcd" make me smile because they're a great example of how a person can love science and still enjoy a ridiculous side of things. This idea is epitomized in Munroe's new book, now a #1 New York Times bestseller, What If? Monroe uses his knowledge of science along with a snarky sense of humor to answer questions like how long it would take a sarlacc (to all the folks who aren't huge Star Wars fans, check here to see what it is) to eat a T-rex. It's the perfect combination of the application of science and an appreciation for the absurdity of the world around us. You can find a preview of another question from What If? right here.

Randall Munroe also has a sense of humor about books. Here's one of my very favorite comics from "xkcd," since I think every avid reader has been guilty of this at some point in our lives!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: "Shovel Ready" by Adam Sternbergh

Novels based on alternate histories or that take place on different versions of earth can have advantages for both readers and authors. For example, writers can choose to use certain aspects of the world as we know it for a base, saving them from having to create an entirely new world. Readers then, already familiar with the story's surroundings, can focus on the details are unique to the author's particular version of society and the story that arises from it. 

Adam Sternbergh's vision of New York in Shovel Ready is a far cry from the bustling center of commerce and culture with which many of us are familiar. It's all thanks to a dirty bomb in Times Square a few years ago, a bomb that eventually drove away the swarms of tourists and regular folks and sent the rich upper crust into secluded half-lives in their condos. The everyman moved to California, to Florida, to wherever they could find where life didn't involve wearing a radiation detector around your neck like a fashion device. People rich enough to escape into high-class seclusion plugged themselves into the virtual reality of the limnosphere, leaving their bodies attached to feeding tubes and brain scanners in their empty, high-class homes. Thankfully Mr. Spademan, our protagonist, has taken on a profession that's always in demand; murder for hire. 

Aside from not killing children and not wanting to know your reasons, Spademan has very few rules. As far as he's concerned, there are plenty of ways to kill someone if you really want to. He's just another one of them, a tool. But he's forced to reconsider his passive self-image when he's engaged to kill a runaway 18-year-old with connections to a powerful megachurch. Thankfully Spademan has the requisite tools and connections to navigate New York's seedy underbelly, but with powerful enemies after him and his new charge, there's no guarantee that any of them will get out alive. 

Reading Sternbergh's writing is like watching classic film noir, or reading a dark, suspenseful graphic novel. It's a quick-moving story that sweeps the reader right along with it, even as the characters themselves struggle to stay on top of the changing circumstances. The language is direct, visceral, but still artistic in its descriptions of pretty much everything, from the empty condos of the wealthy to Spademan's descriptions of what happened to New York after the dirty bomb. But perhaps it shines best in Spademan's running mental commentary and observations while dealing with his enemies. It's difficult to explain, but the harsh descriptions of things like slitting a man's throat or the slump of a dead body is communicated in simple, elegant speech that is direct but not gratuitous. It's a delicate balance between shock and frankness that Sternbergh maintains throughout the novel. 

Almost the entire book is from Spademan's perspective, with some scenes for which he isn't present played out in the third person. There are no quotations marks used, but don't be alarmed; it's surprisingly easy to follow the conversations. Formatting techniques and short, to-the-point exchanges dotted with observations and actions help to avoid confusion, and to my mind helped to reflect Spademan's personality as a whole. 

This is a brutal, wonderfully written read driven by one man in a world that he's learned to navigate and assimilate into when others have fled. If you like stories like The Punisher or Sin City (the movies or the graphic novels, in all honesty), you'll want to pick up a copy of Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready sooner rather than later. It was originally released in January and is available now at your neighborhood bookstore. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Store Signage

Re: Reading in Toronto, Canada

One of the joys of working at an independent bookstore is that we're encouraged to be kooky and unique. As it turns out, that's one of the best parts of shopping at small neighborhood bookstores as well! A wide variety of people with a wide variety of tastes in books means that odds are, one of us will know just the right book for you. It also means that as a general rule we're pretty personable, since we're allowed to be ourselves at work. Those personalities really shine through sometimes in book displays, staff pick shelves, and sidewalk signage.

BuzzFeed has put together this list of hilarious book store signs that will make you giggle and, hopefully, walk down to your neighborhood bookstore to see what's written on their sidewalk sign today. Rain or shine, fall is a great time to start planning literary holiday gifts as well as your own winter reads!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine

Ghosts and demons from all cultures are particularly fascinating to me. So when "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine landed in my hands, I was excited to see that the legend of a ghost who could be either benevolent or vengeful was involved. Ghosts and phantoms who have that sort of awareness, who can respond to the living and the living world, possess a dynamic potential that I seldom find in ghosts that are static in their hauntings, so I was interested to see what the author had come up with.

The story itself is something of a cross between "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Jungle": Wen and her father live at the clinic in a slaughterhouse complex, where they work together to provide medical care for minor worker ailments as well as save victims of factory accidents. And with the sadistic, lecherous factory boss cutting corners wherever he can, those accidents could become more frequent. But who will care when most slaughterhouse labor is provided by the Noor, nearly dumb animals themselves, brought in on trains from the west to provide cheap labor? After one of them humiliates her in the cafeteria not even Wen cares what happens to them. Never one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural, Wen nonetheless visits the slaughterhouse ghost's altar and challenges him to prove his existence. To Wen's dismay, it's the Noor who humiliated her who bears the mark of that proof.

From there Wen throws herself into her medical duties, spending her time and money on the Noor and trying to make up for what she's done. But her closeness with them, and with one in particular, starts to raise eyebrows among her fellow middle-class workers. With her friends ready to turn their backs on her, the factory boss panting down her neck, and her father trapped by his debt to the factory, Wen seems on her own to defend herself in a society where a woman's fragility, innocence and modesty are prized. To protect herself, Wen will have to thwart all of those expectations.

But she hasn't totally been abandoned; the ghost who first avenged her still watches over her, although that can sometimes prove frightening as well as reassuring. As she discovers his secret, Wen finds herself even more torn between being protected and fighting for the people she loves. Either way, she knows that things cannot return to the way they were before, and her decision about her own future will come at a time when labor disputes and accidents have turned the whole factory into a powder keg ready to explode.

This is definitely a love story: romantic love, love of self, family love, and love of ideals are all present and all influence the story. There were for sure some stereotypical parts, like the scenario of a woman being torn between two male suitors, and a powerful character making unwanted advances from which the woman has to be saved. At least the romance was the instigator for the other major events to take place during the story, like her support for the Noor and their subsequent rebellion, or the accidents that the ghost causes while trying to protect Wen.

Still, I personally would have rather learned more about the world outside of the compound. I had a very difficult time gleaning anything about that from the text, even to the point of deciding whether or not this was historical fiction, alternate history, or pure fantasy. There was definitely an Eastern influence involved, from names and culture to social status, but after a bit of research I could still find no trace of the events or peoples referenced in the book in actual historical accounts. I found this frustrating, and that frustration was compounded by the technological inconsistencies that popped up in the book: medical tools and equipment were primitive, but the slaughterhouse mostly functioned through the use of machinery, and one character has a functioning clockwork prosthetic arm. And then you have the clockwork spiders, vicious security measures that can shred a person (or a cow) to ribbons and then vibrate themselves into self-destruction. It's all very confusing.

Along with the inconsistent technology I was extremely frustrated at the missed opportunity to allow Wen to become a more independent person. It seems like that was part of what the story was working towards, with all the decisions she had to make for the benefit of her father and the Noor, with the judgement she faced and the adversity that she encountered. But in the end she didn't take the leap, and instead stayed in that safe bubble to try and rebuild what had been destroyed, instead of following her own wishes (and a certain someone). She was still the same little girl who needed to be saved, instead of the bravery that she occasionally showed transforming her into someone who took charge of her own life. It was kind of a waste in my mind, and I was admittedly disappointed in the outcome of the whole things.

If you're looking for a well-developed but purely romantic read with few detailed or substantiated aspects beyond that, this is a good book for you. It's classified as a Young Adult read, and while romance is the central plot, there are no gratuitous sexual encounters so it's entirely safe for your teenage reader. "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine came out in August of this year and is now available at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Shot And A Book

As autumn weather starts to set in, it's the perfect time to curl up with a pair of slippers, a cup of tea, and - you guessed it - a good book. But reading isn't restricted to quiet nooks and crannies in the comfort of your own home; many people enjoy reading outdoors and on the go, in a coffee shop, tucked away in a library, on a bench in the park, or sprawled out on a blanket while the sun's still shining.

One public place for reading that is often overlooked, though, is the bar. It may seem counterintuitive to think it would be nice to sit in a smoky bar with your favorite paperback, but for some there's no better place. Juan Vidal, a book critic, certainly thinks as much and wrote this commentary on the art of reading in bars for NPR. Give it a look, and maybe consider bringing your current read the next time you head out for a drink at the bar.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Wonder of All Things" by Jason Mott

It's difficult sometimes to draw a line between books in the Speculative Fiction genre and novels that fall under the umbrella of General Fiction. When there are dragons, magic and sorcery, stories are a little bit easier to put into a certain camp than when there's just a hint of magic in otherwise mundane settings and struggles. But when that little bit of something beyond the everyday is added to a lyrical, evocative writing style, the novel itself becomes a thing of wonder worth reading for SpecFic fans as well as those who normally read less fantastical tales.

The Wonder of All Things by Jason Mott is one such novel. It's set in a small Midwestern town without much concern for the rest of the world outside of the valley, where people live out their entire lives from birth to death and, if they do make it out into the rest of the world and make a name for themselves, become legends to their friends and neighbors. It's the sort of small town where things like fiery airplane crashes and miracle healings don't happen, ever. That is, until the day when a stunt plane lands in a fiery ball on a grain silo and Ava Campbell, daughter of Sheriff Macon Campbell, magically heals her best friend Wash of injuries sustained in the accident.

Suddenly the small town of Stone Temple is awash in reporters, churches, doctors, and people seeking "The Miracle Child" to help their own loved ones. There are people trying to define her, debunk her, convert her, and she's only thirteen years old. Meanwhile Macon struggles to fulfill his obligations as sheriff, protect his family from the sudden avalanche of attention, and struggles with the idea that maybe, just maybe, this could be an opportunity. If he could use the press just enough to give his family a better life, would it be so bad? Would it really be exploiting his daughter if her future, her best interests are at stake? And what about Ava? How does she feel about everything, and how much can she tell the world about how she performs the miracle that her healing appears to be?

This novel is a family saga as much as it is the story of a girl with a mystical gift. Ava is lost, uncertain, and Macon is equally at a loss as to how to handle the sudden change that has come over their town and their loved ones, even their neighbors and friends as Ava's powers bring out both the best and the worst in people. As it becomes apparent that every healing costs Ava her own health, the moral dilemma becomes clearer: does she have an obligation to help others to the detriment of her own well-being, simply because she has the ability to do so? Do others have the right to ask her to sacrifice herself for them just because she can?

Author Jason Mott's writing style immersed me completely from the first couple of pages. His depiction of the small town and its surroundings, his descriptions of the people in terms of their pasts and desires instead of just their physical traits, had me hooked right away, and these small shreds that hinted at the complexity of the character as a whole made the moral dilemma of Ava's powers even more understandable. The choices Ava makes in who to help and how, as well as her willingness to be a test subject, speak to her guilt about her mother's death; Wash's uncertainty and caring nature are much more steadfast than Macon's, his youth attributing to his unwavering devotion to Ava because he has fewer obligations to pull him in different directions. Macon has possibly the most complicated series of decisions to make about the well-being of the people around him, from his wife and their unborn baby to Ava to the people of Stone Temple and the people with whom he makes deals in order to try and keep the situation under control. All of the characters and their battles are unique, all of them are beautifully written, and all of them had me agonizing over what decision I would make in their situation. I won't lie, I didn't have much more luck at decisiveness than the characters themselves displayed.

Most stories I read seem to detail the time leading up to a critical event, the event itself, and then the results and ripples that are created by it. The Wonder of All Things, however, doesn't do that. Rather, it brings the reader into the story just as Ava heals the badly hurt Wash and goes from there into the resulting insanity, then stops when Ava reaches a certain point in the aftermath. (I'm not going to spoil what point that is!) We don't find out what happens to the others, or where their individual stories go from there. It may sound counterintuitive, but I don't feel that this made the story cut off too sharply; it left off at a stopping point, even if it might not be the one that readers were expecting. But it ties up the ends that are important to Ava, and that was what mattered in the end.

If you enjoy Ivan Doig's depiction of small-town life, or liked The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, pick up a copy of Jason Mott's new novel The Wonder of All Things. It will be released on September 30th and is available to pre-order now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Celebrate Banned Books!

September is a month to celebrate banned books, the controversies that they force us to address and the material that they bring to light.

I have a sticker that says "I Sell Banned Books" attached to my name tag at work, and there are always customers who are surprised to see it. "Are there really still banned books?" they often ask. "In America? In this day and age?" The answer is yes. In public schools, libraries, and other places in communities across the country, not to mention the world, books from the Harry Potter series to stories by Neil Gaiman are banned. Some of them have been flagged because they promote allegiance to one's culture and ethnicity; some are banned because of the presentation of homosexuality, race differences, or other content that is offensive in some way to local authorities and community leaders. Many of these books are banned thanks to a single individual or a small group of people who take a book away from a larger group because they alone find something objectionable in it. And the loss of that book is a loss to the entire community.

These are not all books like "The Story of O" or "Crash," books that contain adult material throughout. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie is an example of a fantastic book that has been banned before, because it makes one allusion to a teenage boy masturbating. Never mind that the rest of the book addresses important issues like being stuck between two ethnic groups, or developing mature, healthy relationships with the opposite sex, or finding and embracing your strengths as a human being regardless of whether or not they're what you wish they were.

Many bookstores, libraries, and other community reading resources will be spreading the word about banned books and literary censorship in general during the ALA's Banned Books Week from the 21st to the 27th of this month. Take the opportunity to educate yourself about what books are still banned, where they are banned, and what you can do to help ensure that your reading options are not limited by the wishes of those around you. There is something out there for everyone in the world of literature. That means that while there is always something that is certain to please you, there is always something that will not be to your taste. But that which you choose not to read, for whatever reason, could be the most amazing thing that someone else has ever picked up. The freedom to read what we wish, regardless of what others wish us to read, is truly a treasure and is something that should be protected by readers everywhere.