Sunday, November 30, 2008

Larry and the Meaning of Life

Janet Tashjian's Larry and the Meaning of Life (2008) is her third book about Josh Swenson, a.k.a. "Larry". In the first book, The Gospel According to Larry (2001), super-bright teen Josh is startled when his vehement anti-consumerism blog gains a large cult following and more momentum than he ever could have imagined. In Vote for Larry (2004), Josh realizes that he can perhaps channel his followers' energy and enthusiasm into turning out young voters for the 2004 presidential election. Naturally, the original plan gets away from him, and before he knows it, he's a serious contender for the office of President of the United States, running as an independent against the unnamed Democratic and Republican candidates. (The author deals with the minimum age requirement in a way that isn't really believable, but I can't quibble because I certainly can't think of a better way to handle it.)

Both of these books were refreshing in their message and in Josh's unique voice, and Vote for Larry was particularly gorgeous in its timeliness and in Larry's (and presumably Tashjian's) sharp criticism of both political parties' inertia and shenanigans. I mean, I wanted this eighteen-year-old kid to be President! I was therefore very much looking forward to this new book, simply to see what new antics our friend may have gotten up to. Before I go on, though, let me note this: because there is simply no way to discuss Larry and the Meaning of Life in any significant way without revealing important elements, please be aware that the rest of this post (behind the cut) contains major spoilers.

First of all, and perhaps not surprisingly, there's an inherent problem which I should have anticipated: how do you top your teenage narrator actually running for President and making a huge impact doing so? In my mind, the author got it right in one sense: you don't try to top it. You don't try to have the kid take over the U.N. or lead a utopian colony to the moon, you simply go in a different direction. Unfortunately, the direction Tashjian chose simply didn't work for me.

The book starts off as Josh concludes a fruitless eight-month search for Janine, the girlfriend who left him when he wrongly accused her of sabotaging his political campaign. Janine is not to be found, however, so Josh returns to mope around his stepfather Peter's house, waiting until it's time to leave for Princeton University in January.

During one of his usual forays seeking the solitude of Walden Pond, Josh encounters a mysterious self-proclaimed guru who offers to let Josh join, for a hefty fee, his self-enlightenment group, which, by the way, happens to include Janine. Josh is suspicious but desperate, both to win Janine back and to find some new direction in his life.

And then things just get weird. Is Gus a scam artist or isn't he? Is he just looking to make money from naive hippie wannabees, or is there a more sinister purpose afoot? Betagold, Josh's arch nemesis from the first two books, shows up looking for a kidney donation, and Josh gives her a kidney in order to protect Janine because Gus has been putting some slimy moves on her (as though that makes sense). A horrific string of events leads to Janine's beloved dog being euthanized by an overzealous park ranger after he arrests Josh, whose Princeton scholarship is then rescinded. But that's nothing: Josh uncovers a possible terrorist/landmine plot, but the FBI thinks he's crying wolf, and Peter has decided he's had enough and wants Josh out of his life.

Enough, already! I could not for the life of me figure out what was going on in this book. That can sometimes be OK, but it turned out that everything, including the dead dog and the kidney donation, was part of a big hoax perpetrated by Beth (love interest from book one), Peter, and Janine, all to snap Josh out of his funk. To make the plan work, they use a cast of a few dozen, including several drama students from Beth's nearby Brown University. They give Josh Valium (um, highly unethical and illegal!) to make him think he's donated a kidney. And even though that might work, I don't believe they could fake his arrest and a night in jail!

In any case, whether or not they could pull it off: it's not OK. It's the Michael Douglas/Sean Penn movie The Game, and I felt unfairly manipulated and let down. In my mind, no amount of "Josh funk" (which consisted primarily of aimlessly watching TV) could possibly justify the hell that Josh's closest friends and family put him through (not to mention the actual crime of giving Josh a controlled drug, Valium, in order to make him think he'd donated a kidney). An attempt at justification is made in the form of a letter from Josh's mother to Peter shortly before her death; the letter states that Josh is extra bright and easily bored, will struggle after her death, and they'll need to (in so many words) snap him out of it. The story ends with Josh bowled over but not mad because, wow, he's been mentally stimulated and now has new and interesting things to think about. (Actually, I suppose that the fact that Josh faked his own death at the end of the first book, because he was completely overwhelmed by his own notoriety, means that Beth and Peter do actually have the right to some payback, but jeez!)

To make matters worse, Josh still does not know if he has a future with either Beth or Janine, which is just fine at his age, except that I no longer care about this outcome nearly as much as I did at the end of the second book. I was also troubled because almost no attention was given to the fact that Josh would still be a global household name less than a year after he almost became the President of the United States. He would not be able to go anywhere without being constantly recognized, and it seems likely journalists would still be keeping tabs on him, but it's as though the election never happened.

All of this said, within the context of my disappointment, I did continue to enjoy Tashjian's writing style, and as always I agree with much of what Josh has to say. I also note that authors of successful books are under tremendous pressure to make sequels different but not too different, and it can be a real catch-22. For myself, I really would have preferred if Josh had joined the Peace Corps or something, or had gone back to his anti-consumerism message in some slightly new way.

Ah well, you can't win 'em all. And lest I sound more harsh than I want to, I would definitely read another book in this series. Especially considering our current economy, our fictional Josh would certainly have something meaningful to say about the roller coaster that the next few years are sure to bring.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recently Read...

I've been doing a lot of reviewing in other venues lately; between that and the stress of good old Hurricane Ike (yes, we were in a mandatory evacuation zone), most of my leisure reading has been comfort re-reading of childhood favorites. I did manage to sneak in a few new books here and there, though.

Hell Week by Rosemary Clement-Moore. I really enjoyed this fun, well-written book, especially because it helped pull me out of my post-hurricane funk. In this second volume of Maggie Quinn: Girl Vs. Evil, Maggie goes through sorority rush, but only because she intends to write an anonymous exposé column for the college newspaper. Naturally, she finds much more than she bargains for. One of this series' strongest features is Maggie's voice, and if you've met the author, you just can't help but picture her as Maggie because they have the same spunk and humor. I also particularly enjoyed this story because I was once in a sorority myself, although it was a local instead of a national. Being in the sorority was good and perhaps even necessary during the rather anti-social period that comprised my first two years of college life, but I ultimately "deactivated" from the sorority at the beginning of my senior year, in part because I just couldn't face the ridiculousness of Rush, which if I recall correctly was dragged out over several weeks. I felt I had outgrown the rituals and structure of sorority life, although certainly not the friendships, by that point. But I digress. In any case, Hell Week also treats Maggie's relationships in a touching but not overly sentimental way. And I adore the cover -- Stepford Sorority Girls! I'm looking forward to next year's Highway to Hell, when we'll see what Maggie gets up to on her Spring Break.

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman. This is another little companion to Pullman's His Dark Materials, much like Lyra's Oxford. It's essentially a single but significant episode in the life of Lee Scoresby and his daemon Hester. For its length, I thought the politics were a little dense, but Lee and Hester are such fun characters, and I enjoyed "hearing" Kathy Bates' voice as Hester as I read. This book is also a lovely little object to hold, with its quality cloth cover, pull-out board game tucked in a pocket inside the back cover, and fun little facsimile snippets sprinkled throughout the text.

A few months ago, in preparation for an encyclopedia article I was writing on author S.E. Hinton, I read Hawkes Harbor, her 2004 adult vampire novel. In addition to re-reading all of her YA novels that I remembered from my younger days, I also read for the first time her picture book (Big David, Little David), her children's chapter book (The Puppy Sister), and the one YA title I didn't happen to read back when it was published (Taming the Star Runner).

I hate to say it, but I'm afraid Hinton just does not seem comfortable writing in genres other than YA, at least not so far. Both of the children's books were slightly odd and creepy, in a way that felt unintentional. Hawkes Harbor, while populated with interesting and nuanced characters, was ultimately a bit of an unfocused mess, with an ending that to me felt cheap. Still, I would read anything new she puts out, regardless of the genre. Writers worth their salt are constantly evolving and rediscovering themselves.

As for those books I reviewed elsewhere? They included Venomous by Christopher Krovatin (reviewed for VOYA) and Vicious Circle by Mike Carey (second in his Felix Castor series; reviewed for Magill Book Reviews), both of which I recommend highly. Also for Magill, I reviewed The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff and Reconstruction by Mick Herron.
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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Books I'm Looking Forward To (pt. 1)

I don't have anything to review at the moment, as I'm currently wading through several books I'm obligated to read for reviews or essays elsewhere. But I go through withdrawal if I go too long without talking about books, so here's a partial list of Books I'm Really Looking Forward To, in no particular order.

City Without End, the third book in Kay Kenyon's The Entire and the Rose quartet, due out in February 2009 from Pyr. I loved the first two books, both of which I reviewed for Magill Books Online. And the covers are stunning. (I'm a sucker for a gorgeous book cover.) Click here for a larger view.

Also from Pyr (January 2009), End of the Century by Chris Roberson. To quote from Pyr's site, the narrative of this book is "interlaced between three ages, in which a disparate group of heroes, criminals, runaways, and lunatics are drawn into the greatest quest of all time" -- the search for the Holy Grail. It also says that the "three narratives -- Dark Ages fantasy, gaslit mystery, and modern-day jewel heist -- alternate until the barriers between the different times begin to break down...." Sounds intriguing, and again, I love the cover.

From Underwood Books, I'm looking forward to Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner. I began picking these books up somewhere around volume 7, and they are wonderful. Artists send in works in response to an open-call jury, and several hundred images of the best submitted artwork are showcased in big, full-color glory. I look forward to Spectrum every year, and I've never been disappointed.

This next title comes from Wildside Press and is due out in July 2008: Japanese Dreams, edited by Sean Wallace. It's described on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites as "the first volume in a series of anthologies offering short stories drawn from the storehouse of world mythology," and includes such authors as Catherynne Valente, Eugie Foster, Ekaterina Sedia, Erzebet YellowBoy, Yoon Ha Lee, Jenn Reese, Sarah Prineas, Jim C. Hines, and Steve Berman. I took a Japanese literature course in college, and took my first trip to Japan last year for Worldcon, so I think I might especially enjoy this anthology.

I could go on and on, but I'll end here with one last book... Firebirds Soaring: An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction, edited by Sharyn November (Penguin/Firebird, October 2008). I reviewed the second book in this YA anthology series, Firebirds Rising, for VOYA a couple of years ago, and I was pretty impressed. As a side note, I think it's interesting that the subtitle has changed from the first two volumes; this is an anthology of "original speculative fiction" while the first two books were anthologies of "original science fiction and fantasy." Whatever works! I have to admit that I've found myself referring to the field as "spec fic" a lot lately. Same with "spec art."

Looks like there's no danger of running out of books to read anytime soon.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hold On To Your Horses

It wasn't my intention to review another picture book so soon, but I keep coming across them, and this one is special for a couple of reasons. The title is Hold On to Your Horses, and it was written by Sandra Tayler and illustrated by Angela Call. (I chose my favorite interior illustration to show here.) The story is both charming and useful, and the illustrations are nothing less than exquisite. But you don't have to take my word for it; the author and artist have made the entire book available as a free PDF download. They don't even require an e-mail registration!

The story is about a little girl named Amy who is filled with such creative imagination and energy that she has trouble thinking before she acts. According to the book's website, the author wrote the book to help her own daughter learn to "visualize and control her impulsive ideas." Amy becomes frustrated because she's always getting in trouble when she doesn't mean to, so her mother gently tells her that her ideas are like horses, sometimes running wild, and Amy needs to take care of them and keep them safe. It's a lovely and useful metaphor, and the illustrations carry it through wonderfully.

Since that PDF is available free, the book can speak for itself. A hardcover edition is also available for pre-order and will ship in July; I've ordered one for my niece and one for myself. And bravo to the author and artist for this bold and generous marketing strategy.
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Monday, June 9, 2008

Houston Ballet - La Slyphide / A Doll's House

This past Saturday, we attended the last ballet of the season for the Houston Ballet: La Sylphide and A Doll's House.

Even though we have season tickets to the ballet this year, it's still pretty new to me, and I've never had any formal training as a dancer or a dance critic. So please excuse in advance my lack of appropriate terminology, and of a historical knowledge of classical ballets. (End disclaimer.)

I didn't know anything going in about La Sylphide, but I had heard all about Stanton Welch's world premiere of a short ballet titled A Doll's House. The music, by István Márta, was performed by a percussion ensemble, and the premise was that something had gone terribly wrong in a toy store, such that the toys and dolls were engaged in a full-out battle. Fun enough premise, but the part that got me excited was the costumes. The Houston Ballet had been promoting this for months, with articles and blog posts about the two in-house junior designers, Monica Guerra and Travis Halsey, who had been tapped for this show. For me, here was the magic phrase: anime-inspired.

Oh my.

The image at the top of this post shows sketches for the costumes "Panda", "Mohawk Man", and "Aquaman", and those are only three of the nineteen costumes. This entry from Houston Ballet's En Pointe blog, written by Travis Halsey, states that the costumes incorporate "full body suits that have been hand-painted, ... embroidery, soft sculpture, hand-made jewelry, glow-in-the-dark paint, neon-lighting, fur, fringe, crystal, leather, French lace, pom-poms, bells, buckles, beading, quilting, smocking, yards of pleating, yarn spinning, etc." This online article from Playbill gives more information and another costume sketch.

Even with all this build-up, the costumes did not disappoint. They were whimsical, playful, and edgy all at the same time. Similarly, I loved the music, which seemed a bit techno, and the choreography.

My only bit of disappointment lay in the set design, or lack thereof. Now, I'm guessing two things played a major role in the decision to go with a minimalist set, consisting of the very rough outline of a house on the back wall of the stage, as if outlined in thick, colored masking tape. The first thing is that this show was paired with La Sylphide, which itself requires two major sets. Preceding La Sylphide with another elaborate set would have been quite the challenge, logistically speaking. The second (suspected) factor was cost. The Houston Ballet is a world class company, the fourth largest company in the U.S., in the fourth largest city in the U.S. Yet for the first Saturday performance of a world premiere by Stanton Welch, that auditorium was nowhere near full, which borders on tragic, in my opinion. However, even if the theater was sold out for every performance of every ballet, that doesn't cover the cost of several productions over a season.

In other words, I understand why they might not have done an elaborate set for this ballet. (And it is possible they made that decision for artistic reasons, so as not to compete with the costumes.) But I really feel that the costumes were short-changed, that they cried out for a wonderful, bizarre, grotesque toy shop background, with oversize props they could have danced and hidden behind occasionally, or even leapt on top of, during their battle. I wouldn't have wanted the set to overwhelm, but oh, it could have added so much.

During the first intermission, I read up in the playbill about La Sylphide, one of the oldest ballets in existence, created by Danish choreographer August Bournonville in 1836. A young Scottish farmer is about to be married, but is visited in his sleep by the Sylphide, a fairy or butterfly-like enchanted creature. He is eventually lured away, but not before he commits the cardinal sin of being rude to the old soothsaying woman who is telling fortunes at his betrothal celebration. Well, it's an old ballet, so perhaps you can guess: the old woman curses a filmy scarf that James places around his new beloved's shoulders, and it poisons her. She dies, he dies, and the witch cackles in triumph.

This image shows principals Connor Walsh and Sara Webb in the roles of James and the Sylphide. Sara Webb danced at the performance we saw, while James was performed by Ian Casady.

I fully expected not to like this, and I was unhappy that the season was going to end on a downer story. But I was so wrong! The ballet was divided into two acts, and there was a Scottish dancing scene with a large corps, including some children, that was really spectacular. There was a bit more exaggerated pantomime that I would have liked, but I guess that's quite common in classic ballet. Anyway, the music, by Herman Lovenskjold, was stirring. And the tragic scenes in the second act were gorgeous. I think this is probably the first time as an adult that I've seen such a classic ballet scene, with a full female corps doing en pointe steps in the most graceful, fluttering manner. The little tiny steps (here's where my lack of ballet terminology really shows) even made their tiny wings flutter. It was truly lovely. Oh, and the opening of the second act, with the witch and her cronies gathered around a cauldron in a very MacBeth-like manner, was wonderful.

All in all, a great evening. Here is a link to the review in the Houston Chronicle, which I haven't read as of the writing of this post. (That's where I'm headed next!)

They're doing Swan Lake next season. I think I'm finally ready for it!
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Saturday, June 7, 2008


I first came across Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books during my young adult lit class in library school. They weren't required reading for that class, but another student spoke very highly of them and I eventually sought them out. I found them to be lovely and charming, and I followed them to FLB's Violet & Claire, which was much darker in tone and subject matter, but still contained the magic quality I had come to associate with FLB's writing.

Unfortunately, Quakeland has not followed suit. The dustjacket describes it as an "intertwining series of emotionally charged stories," but I found it to be a depressing and utterly confusing mess. The main character, Katrina, experiences disaster on every level. She has prophetic dreams that foretell September 11 and the Asian Tsunami of 2004, and her name was certainly not chosen by accident. She takes Zoloft to control the dreams, but stops taking it when her new boyfriend, Jasper, tells her to. She has a sex addiction that qualifies as unhealthy. A close friend experiences a recurrence of skin cancer. And the worst is that instead of being supportive, Jasper is cruel to the point of abuse. Because he's so "in touch with his feelings," he believes he must tell Katrina every hurtful thought he has about her, including the fact that he's glad she's not as attractive as other women because she's therefore not as much of a distraction.

Depression and pscyhological abuse are valid subjects for both fiction and nonfiction, although they are not subjects I tend to read about because, quite frankly, I already know a lot of people who are either clinically depressed or have other anxiety problems, and I don't feel I gain much by witnessing even more of it via fiction. But even without this personal bias of mine, I don't feel that Quakeland presents these subjects in an effective way.

First, there's just too much going on. (Warning: spoilers follow.) Katrina's friend Grace does indeed die of skin cancer, leaving behind three-year-old twins who have always sparked Katrina's jealousy, since she herself wants a baby and has already had a miscarriage. Jasper is impotent. Another friend named Kali reads Katrina's past lives, naturally "discovering" that Katrina has been through this victim cycle before, possibly with Jasper in one of his previous lives. Kali too was once ruled by her belief that she was nobody without a man. Katrina obsesses about earthquakes. People keep taking off their clothes and dancing for no apparent reason. Katrina has a hideous dating history. And on and on and on....

And while many novels (or collections of linked stories) both justify and effecitvely manage this level of complexity, Quakeland makes it worse by containing sections in which the reader cannot tell if Katrina is awake or dreaming; whether Katrina is writing a letter or writing in a diary or simply relating something to the reader; or whether another character entirely is "speaking" (made even more confusing in that some sections are headed by other characters' names). The book also seems, to me, to have a higher-than-average number of typos, the kind that exist specifically for copyeditors to find, such as "she couldn't bare to have her children see this."

In the end, I'm afraid that I couldn't quite finish this book. I'm willing to work for it, but at two-thirds of the way through, Quakeland has too little payoff for too much effort.
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Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Misadventures of Gaspard and Lisa

Picture books in the The Misadventures of Gaspard and Lisa series, written by Anne Gutman and illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, are originally published in French but some are also available in other languages, including English, Spanish, and German. And although I own one in English and one in German, I thought it would be more fun to display the covers of the Japanese editions, for two reasons. First, I own three of them in Japanese, but only one in German and none in English. Second, Japan was where I discovered these books, and where I fell in love with the funny stories, appealing illustrations, and charming characters.

Lisa (for some reason renamed Lola in the Spanish and Nina in the German editions) and Gaspard (Lukas in the German editions) are dogs that -- with no explanation -- live like people, even though there are actual people in their world. Actually, in some of the illustrations they look a bit like rabbits because of their ears, but I think they're dogs based on their tails. Anyhow, Lisa and Gaspard are best friends who constantly get into adventures, or misadventures. Occasionally the books deal with slightly serious issues -- Lisa is jealous of her new baby sister, Gaspard has to spend the night in the hospital, etc. -- but it's always with a light and humorous touch.

Now, many of you may know that Japan is the World Capital of All Things Cute. They are more than happy to import and adopt whimsical characters from other countries and merchandise the heck out of them, producing stickers, little wallets, plush animals, pencils, notebooks, you name it. In any case, when my husband and I went to Japan last year for the World Science Fiction Convention, I wasn't buying pottery or dolls as souvenirs -- I was buying children's picture books. We'd been taking Japanese lessons one day a week for a year in preparation for our trip, and I thought picture books would be a fun way to supplement our learning. (OK, that's a bit of an excuse -- I just love picture books!) I'd already purchased several picture books original to Japan, which have just stunning illustrations.

And then I happened upon Lisa and Gaspard in a department store. Oh my.

I decided I would get just one. I mean, after all, they weren't native to Japan, and I'd already bought a lot of books that we would have to stow in our luggage. So I picked up Le petit chat de Lisa, or basically "Lisa's Little Cat" or "Lisa's Kitten" (this one hasn't been published in English, apparently). We have cats, and I was missing them while we were on our trip, and it seemed perfect. Plus, how funny is it that the little dog gets herself a kitten as a pet? I have actually transcribed the hirigana and katakana into romaji, which is the sort of phonetic translation of the characters into the Roman alphabet. I can pick out a word here and there, but I can't really read it, because Japanese is a challenging language and I had to stop the classes when I started my new job. But oh, it's adorable!

Then, the next day, we were in another bookstore, and their Lisa and Gaspard display had the most wonderful book, Gaspard et Lisa as musée, or Gaspard and Lisa at the Museum. Now, I'm into science fiction and space and dinosaurs... and this book showed the two little dogs among the dinosaur fossils in a museum. How could I not get this book? And although they're obviously for children, they have some sly humor that adults can enjoy. Lisa and Gaspard go on a school field trip to a museum, and are a little miffed when their human classmates jokingly say that they look like some of the extinct animals on display. So the little dogs decide to play a joke: they pose within the exhibit behind signs they make up saying "very rare animal (white)" and "very rare animal (black)". But then they accidentally get locked in the museum for the night!

So there I was, completely pleased with my two Japanese Gaspard and Lisa books, and guess what happened! The next store we went into had a book titled Gaspard et Lisa au Japon, or "Gaspard and Lisa in Japan" (unfortunately not published in English). Gaspard and Lisa, on the cover with cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) in the background!

I'm sure you see where this is going. But I couldn't help it! This book is priceless. It starts with Lisa and Gaspard on an airplane (with Lisa's family, I think). They arrive in Japan and stare out the taxi window at the hustle and bustle and lights of Tokyo. They stay in a traditional Japanese hotel, and are very entertained by the electric toilet. They struggle with chopsticks, and they accidentally knock a man into the rock/sand garden at a temple they visit. When the man ends up with a cast on his leg, they helpfully draw pictures of themselves, Japanese temples, and the Eiffel Tower on it so he will remember his new friends.

So, if you have children, or nieces and nephews, or any small child in your life for whom you buy gifts, you can't go wrong with Lisa and Gaspard. Several books in the series are available in English via Amazon, or at the library. There's one where Gaspard gets a puppy -- too funny! -- but I think it was only published in French. There's also one in which they both visit Venice, and another in which Lisa goes to visit her uncle in New York. These books really are delightful, and I hope some other adults out there enjoy them as much as I do.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Customizing a blog

I've customized this blog to get three columns, plus the "read more" expansion for posts.

Whew! I know how to code in html, and I still found this whole process to be pretty complex. Fortunately, through blogger's help boards, I eventually found my way to a helpful article that gave me code to copy and paste, and told me where to put it. I then found someone else's instructions on how to achieve the "read more" cut. But honestly, I don't see how someone not familiar with html code could accomplish this. It's not clear to me why blogger isn't offering the 3-column version of its templates since it's clear from the help boards that so many people want them. I also think the "read more" capability should be an option in the settings. But I probably shouldn't complain -- after all, it's a free service.

And sigh... it appears that once you've inserted the code into your template to allow "read more" -- you have to have "read more", even with a very short post. The words "read more" appear regardless, and it would be annoying to readers to click it and find nothing, so that kind of encourages the blogger to keep rattling on....
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Author meme

I recently added this review blog to a "Books and Blogs" webring of reviewers associated with Library Thing, and was tagged by Literary License with this meme. So here goes:

Author Meme Rules: Link to the person that tagged you, post the rules somewhere in your meme, answer the questions, tag six people in your post, let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog, let the tagger know your entry is posted.

1. Who’s your all-time favorite author, and why? Well, dang. I can't answer this question. I can easily answer every other question in this meme, about first favorite author, newly added favorite author, who comes to mind favorite author.... All-time favorite author? That would mean emphasizing one of these categories of favorites over another, and I just can't seem to do it.

2. Who was your first favorite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favorites? I'd have to say that Arthur C. Clarke was my first truly meaningful favorite author, who started me on the road to science fiction. In 1984/85, I spent my high school junior year as an exchange student in (then West) Germany. At the begining of the year, I couldn't read German well enough to read young adult or adult fiction, so one of my teachers lent me a box of old SF paperbacks someone had left in his attic, including some Clarke and Asimov. After I'd run through those, I found an English-language bookshop in downtown Hamburg that had a great sci-fi section, and I've never looked back. That was also the year the movie 2010 came out, and I was blown away by both the book and the movie. My favorite Clarke titles are probably Imperial Earth and Songs of Distant Earth, which aren't considered among his "important" works, but they're darn important to me. I do still consider him among my favorites, but I see his writing differently now. I see the flaws, and the little things I don't like about his writing, and mostly I feel a fond affection for those flaws, if that makes sense, as if only one who knows his writing this intimately could see and so easily forgive those flaws.

3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favorite authors, and why? Glenda Larke, an Australian fantasy writer, blew me away with her Isles of Glory trilogy: The Aware, Gilfeather, and The Tainted. The world-building was astounding, the stakes were high, and the characters were fully drawn. I'm now reading her next trilogy, and I hope we see more and more books from her in the future. Oh, and Kay Kenyon -- based on her The Entire and the Rose quartet, of which two have so far been published: Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near.

4. If someone asked you who your favorite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection? Mary Doria Russell, Joe Haldeman, Glenda Larke, Nicola Griffith, Ian Falconer, Lauren Child, Marjory Hall.... (I'm pretty sure most people won't have heard of that last one....)

5. Tagged:
Medieval Bookworm
She is too fond of books...
A Reading Life
Calliope's Coffee House
Silverheron's Nest
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Monday, May 12, 2008

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence: And Other Stories

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence: And Other Stories is a collection of stories by John Kessel. The publisher, Small Beer Press, made the book available both through LibraryThing as an Early Reviewer title, and through the Small Beer website as a free PDF download (still available here as of May 12, 2008). As well as, you know, a book you can buy.

This book is worth purchasing solely for the story "Pride and Prometheus", in which Mary Bennett, the serious and studious Bennett sister from Pride and Prejudice, encounters Victor Frankenstein and for the first time in her life is moved by romantic feelings. Frankenstein is likewise drawn to Mary, but makes no secret that his motivations lie elsewhere. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will say only that this story is beautiful, serious, and heartfelt, never descending into parody or gimmickry.

The other story I was most interested in reading was the title story, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence". In this story, the narrator picks up his relationship with Dot right where he left it off when he went to prison because of something the two of them did together. Because he can't refuse Dot anything, they break into a house Dot has heard contains a great deal of wealth, and are surprised when a passage from a bedroom closet leads to a train station that in turn leads to something like the Emerald City we know from Oz.

I found this story, and indeed most of the stories, very well written, but many of them, including "The Baum Plan", have an arbitrariness and/or lack of resolution that left me wanting something more. Kessel's prose contains lovely details, but there is sometimes a clean quietness to the stories that feels almost antiseptic, even when the characters are filled with strong emotion. One story, "The Snake Girl", appears to have no speculative element, which is certainly not a crime, but it reads a bit like the type of earnest literary magazine story that an intense college student writes just after suffering the end of his/her first profound relationship, rather than a story that offers any of its readers anything particular to think about.

Another story, "It's All True", is about a man who goes back into time (well, one timeline, anyway) to try and persuade Orson Welles to join him in a future that will appreciate his brilliance. (I understand that this universe is the same in which Kessel's novel Corrupting Dr. Nice takes place, although I did not recognize the connection myself.) This was a neat concept, and the resolution of the Welles element is generally satisfying, but I still came away with a slight feeling of "why does the story end here as opposed to anywhere else?" Also, in a few of the short-shorts, I felt as though the author clearly knew what was going on, but somehow I was missing critical information and/or the joke and/or the point. I also consider it a strength that Kessel does not browbeat the reader with clumsy exposition, but at the same time I felt like I often didn't get enough information to work with.

All that said, it's worth your time to take a look at this book. Different stories will appeal to different readers. And again, "Pride and Prometheus" is worth more than the price of admission (which is $0 if you do the download -- but it's still worth the actual price of the book!) all on its own, with an ending that is not only not arbitrary, but feels necessary and just right.
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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum

Although I have neither children nor plans to have them -- in fact, I'm not terribly comfortable around children -- I adore children's books. Picture books, chapter books, young adult novels, you name it. There's a certain freedom and beauty, and sometimes dignity, to children's books that can't always be found elsewhere.

On a recent trip to Denver, a friend introduced me to the Tattered Cover, a lovely independent bookstore in an old-ish building complete with creaking, sloping floors and comfortable furniture everywhere. And in the children's section I came across this lovely book and had to buy it: The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, written by Kate Bernheimer and illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli. A tiny girl lives in a castle inside a glass globe inside a museum that seems to house strange toys and other oddities, and children come to try to catch a glimpse of the girl inside the castle. It's a sweet, slightly recursive story (there's a reference to "this book you hold in your hands") that I very much enjoyed.

But it was the illustrations that I fell in love with. The style seems familiar and strange, and although I haven't googled Nicoletta Ceccoli yet, I feel certain that I've seen her work before. This art is luminous, surreal, and fantastic. There are dice with wings fluttering around the castle, and stuffed animals and rocking horses with button eyes. The children in the museum have big eyes that are solemn and intelligent. You have to look at the book several times to take it all in.

Even if you don't have children, maybe you have nieces and nephews. Some child in your life will love this book. Or you can just buy it for yourself.

And if this book doesn't make at least the short list for the Caldecott Award next year, I'll be a monkey's uncle. Well, aunt.
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Monday, March 31, 2008

The Somnambulist

[minor spoilers]

The Somnambulist, which came to me through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, is an ambitious, interesting, and atmospheric novel that tries too hard and risks becoming inaccessible to many readers. Author Jonathan Barnes infuses the book with tantalizing tidbits from literature, philosophy, and history, but some readers may spend more time worrying that they’ve missed something critical than they will enjoying the story. There are too many curiosities, such as a Frankenstein-esque resurrection, a linear-time-challenged man, and an unspecified method of brainwashing converts to a cult, that aren’t explored to any satisfying level. Ultimately, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about who did what and why, and who ended up where – for instance, I have two conflicting understandings of the final fate of the title character.

In addition, there are far more minor characters than there need to be, with redundant plot-functions and/or similar characteristics, making it difficult to care too much about anybody’s fate. The book’s opening was certainly intriguing, but after reaching the end, I don’t think my time reading this novel was particularly justified.
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Friday, February 8, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

I first encountered Mary Doria Russell's fiction in her debut novel The Sparrow, which was followed by a direct sequel, Children of God, both of which are perhaps best characterized as literary science fiction. I don't normally read historical fiction, but on the strength of Russell's superb characterization and scene-setting, I will read any fiction she writes no matter what the genre.

Dreamers of the Day is told from the point of view of Agnes Shanklin, a never-married Ohio schoolteacher who has lost all of her family in the great influenza epidemic that followed World War I. Her beloved younger sister and her brother-in-law had spent several years near Beirut as missionaries, and Agnes, inspired by her sister's life, decides to use her inheritance to visit Egypt and Palestine. Once in Cairo, she immediately becomes an intimate witness to the doings of the Cairo Peace Conference, where T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and other luminaries are gathered to determine the fate of the troubled Middle East.

As always, Russell's characterization is brilliant. I love Agnes's personality, and her honesty with herself and the audience to whom she's narrating. Her relationships -- with Lawrence, with a German Jew and intelligence officer named Karl Weilbacher, and even with her dog, Rosie -- are utterly charming. I also enjoyed the larger-than-life personalities of Churchill and Lawrence himself.

As expected, the setting is well drawn. There are so many details of sights, sounds, and smells than it's easy to imagine the Cairo that Agnes experienced. I admit that the historical elements were a bit dry for me, and that the subtle political machinations were sometimes over my head, but that's a failing in my knowledge of history rather than a failing on the part of the author.


My only real quibble is with the conceit of having Agnes narrate these past events from her afterlife-in-limbo along a ghostly Nile River. It's an awkward device, and the supernatural element is at odds with the realism that Russell's detailed settings always evoke. Further, it appears that Russell did this mainly because she wanted to comment upon, without naming it outright, September 11 and its aftermath, and how that tragedy can perhaps be traced back to the Peace Conference in the 1920s. I would have much preferred an elderly but still living Agnes to look back on her life and the historical events she witnessed, but obviously a character that age could not have lived to see September 11, so we are stuck with this awkward pseudo-afterlife that does not reveal anything of Russell's idea (if she has one) about the reality of God or Heaven.

Going one step further, it even seems to me that Russell wrote the entire book to be able to write one particular line almost at the end, about men selling fear, an obvious comment on this country's current administration. I agree with her sentiments, and I understand that she would have been leaving out something important to her by not commenting on current events, but the awkward device just doesn't work for me.

Nonetheless, I would still give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Russell's writing is just that good, plain and simple -- and, to be fair, other readers may not find this narrative device as problematic as I did. There were many wonderful lines that I marked as I read so I could peruse them again later. I'll continue to follow Russell's fiction anywhere she chooses to take it.
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About this blog

Updated November 2020

My name is Amy Sisson, and I'm a writer, book reviewer, editor, and librarian. This blog is primarily intended for my reviews of books, short fiction, ballet, opera, movies, television, and film festivals. I also occasionally post information about my own fiction, my convention programming schedules, and reports on conventions I've attended.

Primarily I read science fiction, fantasy, young adult (SF, fantasy, and mainstream), and vintage young adult (girls' career novels and college fiction). Oh, and picture books! So you'll definitely see a mix here. I hope you'll enjoy it. For performance art, I'm especially partial to the Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, and Main Street Theater in Rice Village.

Feel free to contact me at amy.a.sisson at gmail. Read more!