coraa: (bookses)
(Yes, I'm going through these at a rapid pace. I've got a backlog to post.)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

In Mary's village, all life is focused on two things: preserving a vestige of humanity within the fence, and keeping the Unconsecrated -- the vicious, shambling dead -- out. To that end, life is extremely restricted, and each villager knows his or her role well, and follows the instruction of the religious Sisters who rule the village.

Mary, though, dreams of something else -- something beyond the village. So she chafes at the restricted possibilities for her life, dreams of the ocean... and is fascinated when someone arrives from outside the village.

This book had a lot of promise, which is, I think, why the flaws made me pull my hair out. I could see how great the book could be, and so I winced all the more when parts of it fell flat. It really was a page-turning read, with a lot of intriguing ideas, and so the holes in it frustrated me.

First, the good things: the book was written beautifully. Ryan has a lush, lilting voice, and that meshes well with the wild dangers outside the fence and with Mary's dreamy, searching-for-the-horizon personality. It read so easily and so enjoyably that, even with its faults, I'd be happy to read the next book.

I also liked some of the things that were done with the worldbuilding. It was enjoyable to read a zombie book that was so quiet and personal, and one that was set so long after the unspecified disaster that caused the zombies to appear. (I think it's actually several generations after.) I liked the details of how the villagers worked to slowly increase their protected village, and I was intrigued by the Sisters and by the stranger who arrived at the village. The book definitely kept the pages turning.

The biggest problem was the characters, which is a big problem for me because characters are the number one most important thing in a book for me -- and a big problem because this is a very character-centric book. Mary (the first-person narrator and definitely the main character) was well-characterized enough, but not terribly unique: she was a young woman who felt stifled by the options available at the village and who wanted to see the world. Not bad, and a character motivation that I, in general, like and am sympathetic to, but a fairly recognizable type. That would have been okay if the other characters had been more fully-rounded, but they weren't. The book focused on a core of, let's see, seven characters (eight if you count the dog), and unfortunately each one of them is defined only by their relationship to Mary. One is Mary's best friend and envies her; two are boys who are varying degrees of in love with her; one is her brother, who resents her; one is her brother's wife and has really no traits at all besides being her brother's wife; and one is a kid. The only desires and motivations they express are either a) related to Mary, or b) "not getting eaten by zombies." I really wanted one of them to have a goal or a desire or a response to something or anything that didn't have anything to do with immediate short-term survival or Mary.

The second big problem is that the book gets me intrigued by a lot of mysteries and secrets and then... never really explains them, or explains them in ways that don't make much sense. But I can't get specific about that without spoiling, so, cut for discussion and some flailing.

Spoilers venture beyond the fence )

Despite all my flailing, I'll still be reading the sequel, partly in hopes that some of the unexplained things will finally be explained, and that Mary will get a bigger goal. I'd still recommend this, especially if you like zombie stories and/or smooth, pretty prose, but it's not as highly recommended as some of the other things I've recced.
coraa: (book wyrm)
In the seven kingdoms of Graceling, some children develop eyes of two different colors—and those children will grow up to have extraordinary talents. Some are unparalleled cooks, some are inhumanly skilled acrobats, some can do complicated math in their heads, instantly. These people, called Gracelings, are given to the service of their country's royal family, where they use their skills to the benefit of the king.

Katsa has one blue eye and one green eye, and her Grace is killing. She is the weapon of her uncle, King Randa—and she hates it: hates being a killer, hates that he uses her to hurt and scare his people, hates that everyone looks at her with fear. So she decides, secretly, to use her power to help people instead of hurt them, which in turn embroils her in her country's politics.

My favorite thing about this book was Katsa: she is incredibly competent at some things (one of those being 'hurting and killing people,' to her dismay), but she's also incredibly not-competent at some other things, like understanding people and getting along with them. She's sharp and prickly, expects people to be afraid of her (and to some extent is afraid of them, not that they'll hurt her physically but that they'll act in ways she doesn't understand and can't control), tends towards isolation, and is kinder than she can give herself credit for. She's a good person, but not a particularly friendly one, and I liked that. I also liked that, while she has plenty of flaws and places where she's not the best ever, she gets to be super skilled at what she is super skilled at without being taken down a notch. (It also helps that, although she's supremely skilled, the challenges that the plot throws at her are appropriate for her skills. She still can't breeze through them.) And she gets more and more agency through the book, including through her romance subplot, which I liked.

I also liked her love interest, but I'll have to talk more about that behind the spoiler wall.

The Graces were a very interesting thing, too—similar to many other takes on 'magical powers granted at birth,' but with a few interesting twists. For one thing, just because you're Graced with something doesn't mean you like it. Someone Graced with cooking might very well hate cooking, just as Katsa, Graced with killing, isn't herself a sociopathic murderer. For another thing, the plot really does face the bad side of having some people born with incredible powers; when someone monstrous winds up with a strong Grace, the results are horrifying. (This is also something I liked in How To Ditch Your Fairy, which I'll write about later.) It was a nice change from books in which mages clearly could take over the world, but for some reason just... don't.

The book was not without flaws. While the prose style was very clean and readable, it fell flat in places, and sometimes seemed unpolished. (I am pleased to say that Fire is better in this regard; I think Cashore is learning as she goes, which makes sense for a first and second book.) The worldbuilding also felt generic medievalesque (heck, the countries are named Wester, Estill, Nander, Sunder, and Middluns, if that gives you an idea), with the exception of the Graces. Actually, one country -- Lienid -- gets more detail than the others, and I liked it better but I'm afraid the more detail there threw the flatter worldbuilding in the rest of the world into sharper relief. I think I am getting pickier about generic medievaloid—I don't mind medieval, as long as it has some actual flavor, rather than just horses-and-castles-okay-we're-done. But the flaws were minor enough that they didn't take away from what I loved, which was the characters.

This is a book that I think really merits from being unspoiled, so unless you've already read it or you're pretty sure you won't read the book, I'd avoid reading on.

Spoilers have one blue eye and one green eye )

Recommended, especially if you like light-ish YA fantasy. This is one of the books that I read in one evening, and I grabbed the next book (which is actually a prequel) as soon as it came out.
coraa: (girl with book)
This was a good book, and I think I would have liked it better if I hadn't loved The Hunger Games so much.

It's also basically impossible to talk about this without spoiling The Hunger Games to some degree, so if you're really strictly spoiler-phobic, you should probably scroll on by. I don't think any of the spoilers outside the cut are book-killers, though; all the major spoilers for either book will be behind the cut. Anyway, past this paragraph there are spoilers -- mild ones, but still spoilers -- for the end of The Hunger Games, but all serious spoilers for either book are behind the cut.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, and Katniss is in an awkward situation. Because of the way she survived the Hunger Games, the oppressive, totalitarian government of Panem and the Capitol have it in for her. In order to prove that she was not a deliberate revolutionary -- and, therefore, save not only her life but the lives of her whole extended family -- she has to convince them that she was young, foolish, and desperately in love, rather than sharp-minded, clever, and a little bit ruthless, as she actually was.

To make matters worse, the other Districts -- inspired, largely, by her -- are fomenting rebellions, and the Capitol is, shall we say, not happy.

I really liked the beginning of this, and I liked elements of the whole thing. The writing and characterization remain strong, as in the first book. We got to see things that were only hinted at in the first book: the other Districts, more of Capitol politics, the growing unrest. And I liked watching Katniss deal with the aftermath of the Games while putting on a happy face for the benefit of the Capitol's propaganda machine. (She has to, on pain of her family's lives.) I liked seeing more of Gale. I liked the exploration of Katniss's romantic dilemmas. I also liked that we got to see one of Katniss's weak spots: she was extremely competent at keeping herself alive in the first book, but she's naive about politics, because she has grown up with no political voice whatsoever (even in terms of the smaller politics of her own hometown), and so there are moments where she was in over her head. I liked that: having established her as thoroughly competent, we can now see some of the places where she's not as competent, which makes her more well-rounded.

Indeed, I think my biggest problem with the book was that it felt like Collins wasn't confident enough with exploring new territory. We got tantalizing tastes of it... and then ducked back into a very similar plot as the first book. But I'll talk more about that behind the cut.

Spoilers for both books )

But I still really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who liked The Hunger Games -- and I'll be waiting impatiently for the third book.
coraa: (bookworm)
First, a note: yes, I've ready many books between now and the last time I posted. Most of them were non-fiction, because I was on a fit of not reading a lot of fiction. (I do that, sometimes, when I'm brewing a story idea.) I recently got back into reading fiction, with a vengeance -- mostly YA fantasy -- and I realized that if I went back and tried to blog all the nonfiction I've read between June and now, I'll just never do it. So we'll start with this, which I read a week ago and loved, and I may backtrack to blog some particular favorites.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I heard a lot about this book and how good it was, and, short version: everyone was right. This book is very, very good.

Long version.

Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District Twelve of Panem, a nation that arose out of the ashes of post-apocalyptic North America. Seventy-five-ish years before the story, the Districts tried to rise up against the despotic Capitol -- and failed. To keep the Districts in their place, to reinforce how utterly the Capitol owned them, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games, in which two teenagers would be drawn by lottery each year to compete. The twenty-four adolescents are set to kill one another, with only one survivor, the "winner."

This year, for District Twelve, the lot for the girl fell... to Katniss's younger sister Prim.

Katniss volunteered to take her place.

My favorite thing about the book was Katniss, hands down. She's strong, clever, resourceful, courageous, and calculating -- all without losing her essential humanity, despite the horrors of the Game. She's hard and tough and yet has her moments of sweetness and even vulnerability. And she's smart, and skilled -- because she lives on the edge of wilderness, she has unusual skills at hunting, foraging, and making shelter, and those skills are both effective and realistically portrayed. She's just, oh. Wonderful. And wonderful without being perfect -- flawed without her flaws being stupid or contrived. The book is worth reading just for Katniss.

The plot is straightforward but breakneck in pacing -- I read this book in two great gulps: one night I stayed up until I actually fell asleep on the book, and then the next morning I finished it before I started work. It really was a very compelling read.

And now I need to spoiler cut to continue discussing. )

In summary: I really, really loved this, and I have already pre-ordered Catching Fire, the sequel. Highly, highly recommended.
coraa: (bookses)
I am thoroughly behind on my bookblogging, so I'm going to do a quick roundup and then hopefully I'll get myself caught up with full-fledged entries later.

Books for April 2009 )
coraa: (bookworm)
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

This was a fantastic read -- very entertaining and above all very fresh.

Ti-Jeanne lives with her newborn son and her grandmother, Mami, in "the Burn" -- the interior city of Toronto, after both business and government abandoned it and fled to the suburbs. Her life of inner-city subsistence, aiding her grandmother's work as a nurse, herbalist and healer, is interrupted when her baby's father turns up. The father, Tony, has failed to complete an organ-harvesting mission for the powerful and dangerous leader of the Burn's pre-eminent gang, the 'posse,' and the leader, Rudy, is now after him. To escape, he must turn to Mami's potent spiritual practices -- but Rudy is not without power of his own....

I said at first that the book was 'fresh,' and what I mean by that is that it's not quite like any other urban fantasy I've ever read. And I've read quite a bit, from the early-90s elves-in-rock-bands to the badass-women-plus-vampires-and-shapeshifters of the 2000s. But the Caribbean mythic and religious themes in Brown Girl in the Ring were something completely new to me, and wonderful (in both senses of the world). It was very powerful and very real and also engaging because it wasn't the same thing again.

I also liked the way the story of the quasi-post-apocalyptic Burn didn't just focus on the gangs and violence. They were definitely there, and a very real threat that Ti-Jeanne was aware of, but much of the book was about the details of daily life in that world: Mami's herb garden and home remedies, the roti shop, the way food was grown, acquired and prepared, the fact that everyone got around on bicycles. Which isn't to say that the story was quiet -- it was a page-turner, with a lot of exciting action -- but I am a big fan of that kind of detail of everyday life.

I also liked that, while Tony and Ti-Jeanne's relationship was important and complex, it wasn't Ti-Jeanne's only important relationship. Indeed, her relationship with Mami was probably the most vital in the book, both in the sense of being the most important and in the sense of being the most vivid and alive. The book wasn't about romance -- it was about family. It was very much about family.

I also loved that the supernatural characters were just as well-characterized as the human ones.

Anyway. Highly recommended, a page-turning read that wasn't just more of the same urban fantasy.


Running Tally:

Total Books: 22
Fiction: 8
Non-Fiction: 14
POC Author: 7
coraa: (food love)
Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

Plenty is written along the same lines as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- they only eat things that were produced within a certain radius of them, in this case 100 miles -- with two differences: the authors are in British Columbia (not too far from me, actually), and they don't 'cheat' at all. Where Kingsolver's family had some exceptions from the rule, Smith and Mackinnon don't 'cheat' at all -- if it's not grown or raised within a hundred miles, they don't eat it.

This was a really uneven read. Parts of it were amazing, and I loved the inspiration for eating locally myself. (Since they're from BC, the things they eat at various parts of the year are very similar to the things I eat at the same parts of the year.) I was entertained by their frustration -- very much like mine! -- with late winter/early spring, where they ate potato pancakes, more potato pancakes, still more potato pancakes. And some of the things they ate sounded both delicious and possible for me to cook -- and I was delighted by the acknowledgment that shucking, steaming, and de-kerneling ten pounds of corncobs is kind of a pain-in-the-ass job.

On the other hand, there was some serious unevenness. Right after the chapter about potatoes potatoes oh god please no more potatoes, there was a rather smug bit where the husband was like, 'hard? it's not that hard! it's easy!', which was... sort of contradictory (and a little overly pleased-with-self). (Indeed, while I did like the eating-locally stuff, the smugness made me roll my eyes -- yes, it's very nice that you can spend a full month living in the back end of nowhere in a house with no power gathering berries, but it's easy to sound painfully superior about it.) And there was a lot of 'marriage in trouble!' stuff that I found frankly uninteresting and skimmed in search of more writing about food. (I'm probably going to convince you all that I hate memoirs, and that's not true at all. I like memoirs! I just have very short patience with middle-class ennui.)

I definitely think this one's worth reading, especially if you're a person in the Pacific Northwest interested in eating locally. There are just some parts that I thought lent themselves more to skimming.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 21
Fiction: 7
Non-Fiction: 14
POC Author: 6
coraa: (girl with book)
Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

This wasn't a book for me. That doesn't mean it was a bad book -- it just wasn't for me.

Shortly after her mentor Elizabeth dies by drowning, Lydia is asked by her mentor's son -- the man with whom she, not coincidentally, carried on an affair some years before -- to complete Elizabeth's magnum opus, a book about Newton's involvement with alchemy and with secretive alchemical circles. However, it rapidly becomes clear that Elizabeth's death was not an accident, but a murder, and furthermore a murder that ties into a three-hundred-year-old conspiracy.

The problem I had was twofold. One: I apparently lack the gene or acculturation or whatever that makes men who are smarmy, arrogant, lying jerks seem attractive. Lydia's lover -- Elizabeth's son -- is kind of... a jackass, and it's clear that I'm supposed to feel sympathetic to Lydia (and other female characters) for being so magnetically drawn to him, but I'm... not particularly. I mean, I feel bad for them that he lied to them and treated them badly, but then they kept going back and then acting surprised when he, you know, continued to lie to them and manipulate them for his own purposes, and I rapidly lost patience. C'mon! He's always been lying to everyone, including you! Why does this continue to be a surprise? I realize that a lot of people do find that attractive, but it didn't work for me, and in addition to meaning that I disliked the man himself (a fairly major character), it also gradually eroded my fondness for the female characters who kept coming back to be condescended to and jerked around.

Two: Some time ago, when reviewing a YA book about a roller derby girl (I think), [livejournal.com profile] buymeaclue coined the phrase "Too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby." In this book, it was "Too much midlife crisis, not enough alchemy." I find history, the politics of historians, and the history of science and alchemy in early modern Europe really interesting! I kept feeling like I was wading through a lot of upper-middle-class moaning about Life to get to it. Again, not something that I would consider a universal bad, just... not for me.

The alchemy stuff was interesting (it's something I studied myself, once upon a time), and I don't have too many complaints about that. I mean, I think the author overdramatized some stuff (yes, early scientists spent a lot of time on alchemy, because they considered it a valid science, but that doesn't mean that they were all nuts, just that they were misinformed about some chemistry; yes, early scientists/alchemists were very secretive, but -- well, so are a lot of modern research scientists), but overdramatizing stuff for the sake of the story is fine. It felt a bit as though she was trying to rejigger an already-interesting idea to be a bit more da Vinci Code, though, which didn't help my perceptions all that much. But... yeah, if the story had been centered the history, I would have been fine. It just wasn't.

Anyway. Not a bad book, just not a book for me, because the characters were all wrong to get my sympathy and without sympathizing with the characters I don't get very far. (I probably would have put it back down fairly early on, in fact, if it weren't that it was my book club book for March.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 20
Fiction: 7
Non-Fiction: 13
POC Author: 6
coraa: (food love)
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

I haven't been bookblogging because I've been putting off blogging these books, and the reason for that is twofold. One: I'm not totally sure what to say about them. Two: They're books that tend to, mm, inspire strong feelings, and I'm not sure I'm up to a rousing debate on the ecology, ethics, and politics of factory farming vs. local farming. Not that it's not a worthy discussion, just that I think of refereeing that discussion right now and I put my head in my hands.

So, with that caveat, I want to blog these anyway so I can move on through my list.

The title of The Omnivore's Dilemma can be unpacked in two different directions. The dilemma of which he speaks is the fact that, the more things you can eat, the more choices you have as to what to eat. If you are a koala, the decision is very simple: if it looks like a eucalyptus leaf and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it's dinner. If it doesn't, it isn't dinner. But if you're a bear, rat, raven, human or other omnivore, and you're living in something other than subsistence-starvation, suddenly life gets a lot more complicated. Given a finite stomach capacity, and finite hunting/gathering/growing/buying resources, do you eat the wheat, the berries, the potato, the apple, the dead bird? If the answer is 'some of all of the above,' then in what proportion? And hey, look, there's a plant you've never seen before, growing in abundance in this place! ...Can you eat it? Should you eat it? Maybe it's a great source of food, and you'd be stupid to pass it by. Or maybe it'll make you sick, and you'd better stick to your wheat and your apples. How can you know? Pollan's point is that the brain of an omnivore has to support a lot more complicated prioritization and decision-making than the brain of a koala, which just does an 'is eucalyptus y/n?' pattern match and goes on from there. And modern humans aren't exempt from that: a trip to the local megamart is an extreme example of an omnivore's dilemma.

The other part of the title -- A Natural History of Four Meals -- describes the content of the book. Pollan obtains and eats four meals, each an extreme example of one modern food choice paradigm, and then examines its roots (so to speak). There's the first meal, the industrial meal, predicated on corn: corn-laden (in the form of corn protein, corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil, etc) mass-produced bread products, soda, and sweets, plus corn-fed factory farmed meats. There are the second and third meals, two variants on 'pastoral': the 'big organic' organic meal and the small-local-farm meal. And there's the fourth meal, most of the components of which he hunted or gathered himself. The book is largely about environmental impacts, and -- to hugely oversimplify -- those impacts trend better the farther along you get in the book. Industrial farming has some serious issues; 'big organic' avoids some of those -- at least you aren't dousing X-thousand square miles of farmland with pesticides that are literally poisonous -- but is still problematic in other ways; small farming has a smaller footprint; gathering for yourself is fairly defensible, with caveats, as long as what you're gathering isn't, you know, endangered species. That's a massive oversimplification, but there we go.

In Defense of Food is specifically about defending 'actual' food -- that is, food made of definable ingredients, where you know that the quiche has, e.g., wheat and lard and salt in the crust, eggs and salt and cheese and spinach and herbs in the filling, rather than having an ingredient list as long as your arm where you can't pronounce or recognize half of them. Where The Omnivore's Dilemma was mostly about the effects our food choices have ecologically, In Defense of Food is about their effects to health. Essentially, it's got two parts: an attack on 'nutritionism,' where food-as-food is considered vastly less important than food-as-a-collection-of-nutrients, and where nutrients go into and out of fashion (fat is bad! no, carbs are bad! no, it's refined carbs that are bad! and certain kinds of fats! but not others! did I mention antioxidants? coffee is good this week, better drink a lot before we decide next week that it isn't!). The other part of the book ties into this: nutritionism tends to lead to the belief that it doesn't matter what you eat, as long as you're eating the ratio of nutrients that's in fashion at the moment. So, because it's cheap and tastes good, we eat a lot of refined food, particularly refined grains, and a lot of meat -- as long as we can find a company to buy it from who will tinker with it so that it's low in this and high in that and has lots of added that other thing to make us feel as if it's still healthy.

It's hard to know exactly what I want to say about this. There were a lot of parts of the book that I had to agree with, while wincing -- it's difficult to read anything about the way factory meat farming is done and not feel kind of oogy about it, even if (as I am) you're a pretty content carnivore. It's hard to feel too great about a method of plant farming that's eerily reminiscent of strip mining. (And I say this as someone who doesn't have a knee-jerk 'chemicals BAD' reaction, necessarily.) And I'm not exactly a hard sell on buying local-and-in-season -- I mean, I do it myself, and (apart from the times like, uh, now, when I might scream if I see another bunch of kale) I enjoy the process. And I think that my health has improved hugely since I started making most of my food from scratch, even though I cook with an embarrassing lot of butter, because at least I know what the hell it is I'm eating. If I eat mashed potatoes laden with cream, at least I know what I'm doing -- if I eat mashed potatoes laden with hydrolyzed protein and added starch and, oh, by the way, a quarter cup of corn syrup, I don't even know what I'm doing to my body.

So there's that, and that much of it I tend to be pretty agreeable about. But. But there's another angle of it that I have a lot of problems with, and that's this: he seems to be advocating a revolution that's only available to people with a lot of money and a lot of time. Now, I am a person with the luxury of a lot of both, for which I am grateful. I can afford to spend quite a bit on food. More importantly, I have the time to cook from scratch basically every day -- and even more important than that, I like cooking. (You can bet that if the trendy thing was a 'locawear' movement, where you made all your own clothes from scratch, I'd be waaaaaay less favorably inclined to it, just because I don't like sewing that much -- and I recognize that it's a huge advantage that I do enjoy it for cooking.) But I have major problems with promoting something as the ethical solution to a major problem that's only available to people with the privilege of money to spare and time to spare, and both in pretty good quantities. More to the point, I have major problems with the occasional dismissal of the issue by saying that people should just buy fewer pairs of fancy shoes in order to buy the food, because -- because there are plenty of people in America right now who are already not buying fancy shoes, not ordering HBO, not wasting money, and still having trouble making ends meet. Inasmuch as the American food system is a problem to solve, it's only going to be solvable if your solution can reach those people, and not just people like me. (And trying to spread it to those people by lecturing them and making them feel guilty is both pretty darn high-and-mighty and still not very effective -- if the money and time aren't there, they just aren't there.) This isn't just a matter of ethics, it's a matter of pure pragmatism. Your revolution will never spread very far until it can be practiced by the mother working a job and a half while raising three kids, who has maybe twenty minutes a day to put together a meal for them, and who's already squeezing her food bill until it squeaks. I don't care how theoretically rewarding it is, it just won't, because practicality does mean something.

Still, it's an interesting read, and, as I say, already a number of things I put into practice and have found very rewarding. I just would like to see more practical suggestions for making this something other than a luxury movement.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 19
Fiction: 6
Non-Fiction: 13
POC Author: 6

Right now fiction is lagging so much because I got onto a rereading stint of Discworld novels, and I'm not counting rereads.
coraa: (science and alchemy)
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

Wild Seed is the first book in internal chronologically for the quartet, and the last book to be written. It's also the best book of the series, far and away -- not because the others were not good, but because this one blew me out of the water.

It begins in seventeenth-century Africa, and it begins with Doro, who is, by that time, already nearly two thousand years old. Doro is immortal not because he has an immortal body, but because he is a body-thief: when his body nears death (but, also, simply when he wishes it) his consciousness jumps to another human host. His mind displaces the other mind; the other person dies; he lives. And over the course of his thousands of years of life he has found a purpose: collecting people of unusual talent, breeding and protecting them -- and using them.

It also begins with Anyanwu, who is also an immortal, but in a very different way. Anyanwu's control of her body is perfect. She can make herself old or young, repair any wound or illness, change her shape -- to appear as a different woman, or as a man, or as a jaguar, a serpent, an eagle. She is also a healer of others, using what she has learned by her perfect control of her own body to aid her sprawling family and friends.

Doro meets Anyanwu and is quite taken with her, as a woman but also as what he calls a 'wild seed,' a person with incredible potential but who was born outside his personal breeding program, his 'seed villages.' With a combination of threats and promises -- and her own curiosity -- he convinces Anyanwu to come with him. What she does not know is how much of a liar and manipulator he truly is, and how powerful he truly is; what he does not know is how wise and stubborn she is -- and how powerful she is, in a way that he cannot approach.

The book is about a lot of things, but the fascinating heart of it is how they interact with one another over time, as she learns how he runs his little world, as he learns her strengths. The sfnal ideas here are fascinating; I'm very much taken with the way she takes certain sfnal ideas (mental/psychic powers, and the idea that they might pass genetically and turn up in certain bloodlines; human immortality of various kinds; humans treated as gods) and then explores them, examines them, takes the ideas and runs with them -- without flinching away from the terrible parts. And because she's writing about people of various ethnicities (but, in several notable cases, African people and people of African descent) in seventeenth through nineteenth century America, there's a lot of terrible parts even aside from the way Doro treats his people and the way they treat each other.

But while those were really interesting, I didn't love the book because it was great idea fiction (although it was). I loved it because the characters were amazing -- Doro and Anyanwu and vivid and compelling, even when Doro is being quite unsympathetic. They orbit each other, and the way they interact, and the way their interactions affect everyone around them, just dragged me in. I wanted badly to know how things would turn out for Anyanwu and her family; I wanted to know whether Doro would be willing or able to change; I wanted to know whether, and if so how, they would be able to find equilibrium with one another.

Spoilers below the cut. )

Anyway. Very powerful book, highly recommended. If you're going to read the entire quartet (which I very much recommend), I suggest you read this one last, as I did. I think if I'd 'met' Doro and Anyanwu first, I would have been disappointed by everyone else, because they're just so vivid. But if you're only going to read one, pick this one. It's just that good.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 17
Fiction: 6
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 6
coraa: (bookses)
Clay's Ark, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

This was a hard book to read. It was rewarding, but oh my goodness, it was hard.

As Blake Maslin and his daughters Keira and Rane travel across the desert of California, they're stopped by armed men. This, while horrible, isn't that unusual a possibility in their dystopian future USA (the setting is some time after Mind of My Mind, but before Patternmaster): in between walled safe zones, extreme gang violence runs rampant, and traveling through those areas -- even armed, in a car -- is extremely dangerous. But the people who stopped them aren't a car family, and their goal isn't robbery, kidnapping, or murder. Instead, the kidnappers take the three back to their farmstead, where they discover what this group really is.

The farm is home to a group of people, small but growing, who were infected by an alien organism. The organism changes them -- enhances them in specifically physical ways. They're stronger and faster than normal people; they have better reflexes; they are physically tough to the point of being extraordinarily difficult to hurt; they have enhanced senses, particularly hearing and smell. But the infection also drives them to spread itself, both by infecting others and by breeding. And yet -- despite the infection that has changed their bodies and that fills them with unbearable, undeniable urges -- they're still people. They still have their consciences, and their memories, and the interests and desires they had before. Their personalities are just overlaid by a set of literally alien and very animal urges.

The bulk of the book is about their conflict, between the undeniable impulse to spread 'their' kind and their desire to remain human, and to avoid spreading the infection to the rest of the world. And that's the most terrifying thing about it: the bearers of the disease, the agents of this change (and indeed of the kidnappings that keep it going) are so sympathetic, they're trying so hard to stay themselves. What hurts the most is watching them fight and fight for their humanity, even as it slowly erodes.

Before going into the spoiler cut, I will say: this book is very depressing, and it's also brutal in places. Horrible, violent things happen; the violence is never glorified, but it also isn't glossed over; it was very difficult going. I warn not because I think people shouldn't read this, but because I was glad of having been warned myself. I think I would have found it impossible in places if I hadn't been prepared for it.

Spoilers below the cut. )

I'd recommend this one, too. But I lined up a comfort reread for after I finished, and I think that might not be a bad idea for others.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 16
Fiction: 5
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 5
coraa: (book woman)
Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

Mary is a young woman who is part of an... unusual community. Her father is Doro -- sort of; her father is capable of switching bodies at will (and possessing a body kills its original 'inhabitant'), and he was wearing her biological father's body when she was conceived. (He's wearing a different body now, having switched through many in the interim.) Her mother, Rina, is a latent telepath who retreats into drugs and prostitution to deal with the overspill of human emotion she can't block out. Her grandmother slash nanny slash keeper is Emma, who is nearly as powerful in her own way as Doro -- and who doesn't approve of Mary. And Mary is having ever-increasing problems blocking out the emotions of people around her, but clings to Doro's faith in her, that she will be able to come through a true telepath, unlike the hundreds of failed latents that make up most of Doro's scattered 'family.'

Mind of My Mind is about a breeding program to develop people with psi powers, a breeding program run by the enigmatic Doro. And because it's a genuine breeding program, and one that has gone on for countless years, it's not just an experiment but also a family: a sprawling, wildly dysfunctional family. Butler depicts a 'telepathic family' that's about as dysfunctional as you can get: most of the telepaths Doro has been able to create are able to feel the thoughts and emotions of others, but are unable to shield them, making it a torment to live among other humans -- and yet they have also been bred with a desire to find and bond and mate with others like them, which means that they are subject to the hedgehog's dilemma times a thousand. (The Hedgehog's Dilemma: you need to be with others like you to survive and thrive, and yet getting too close to others like you means that you get a painful faceful of sharp spines.) Doro has built a community of people who are extremely powerful and yet deeply unstable and full of pain.

And he's unrepentant: to circumvent the problem that his people can't abide one another for long enough to successfully breed, he simply takes over one half of a pairing for long enough to ensure that the other half becomes pregnant.

And the culmination of his breeding program thus far is Mary, who is extremely special because... because what? Doro isn't saying; Mary doesn't know; and if Emma has an inkling, she also isn't saying.

The books is pretty clearly Mary's story, even though it's told from many points of view, because Butler uses a fascinating POV technique: there are many points of view, but only Mary's is in the first person. Thus Mary's point of view is considerably more intimate, and -- for me -- easier to empathize with. Mary's is the viewpoint that I find myself sympathetic to, if not completely agreeing with, and her own very closely-described confusion and lack of agency regarding her own fate, which is intimately and somewhat terrifyingly described early on, is very compelling.

Spoiler cut for discussion of what Mary is, and does )

Mind of My Mind is a fascinating science fictional look at the development of a telepathic society -- emphasis on 'society.' It's not a book about independent individualist telepaths: it's about how you have more than one telepath, without them competing each other out of existence. It's about the struggle to have a society of semi-equals... and the way that varying power dynamics complicates that significantly. Recommended. (But again, I do recommend that the Seed to Harvest quartet be read in order.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 15
Fiction: 4
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 4
coraa: (bookworm)
Patternmaster, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to the "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

This was the first book of the Seed to Harvest quartet by publication date -- and the last one by internal chronology. I read it first for two reasons. One, unless I get a strong indication otherwise, I tend to read things by publishing order -- partly because I like to see the author develop, but also partly because there's more a guarantee that they make sense in that order, because they were presumably written to make sense to people who were reading them as they came out. (Unless they were very bad books indeed, but I don't expect that from Butler.) Two, because my general inclination was reinforced by other people, who said that they read better in publication order. And having read all four books, I think they were right, and I too would recommend that you read them in publication order rather than internal chronology.

I'm going to try to refer to each one without spoilers for the others, and then I'll post about all four of the books considered as a whole, because they stand along perfectly well but gain a lot of richness and depth when you consider them in context.

So: Patternmaster.

Patternmaster is set in... I can't actually tell how far in the future, because the changes to our world are so dramatic that it could be a hundred years or five hundred. (Indeed, I initially thought that it was set on another planet, the world was so different than the one I know.) Patternmaster is set in a future in which the human species has split into two... I was going to say "factions," but really, they're actually two new, separate species: the clayarks, people mutated by an alien microorganism, who are strong and tough and fast and make and use weapons and other technologies; and the patternists, who are psionicists of varying stripes, who use mental powers (including telepathy, telekinesis, healing/biomanipulation, and the ability to store memories in objects) instead of engineering as we know it. "Normal" humans -- people like you or me -- also exist; they're called "mutes" and are servants of the patternists. (There are no normal humans among the clayarks, because the clayark disease is extremely infectious.)

As you could probably guess from the title, Patternmaster is from the point of view of a patternist, Teray, who falls afoul of the strict rules of his traditional society and the political maneuvering therein, and becomes an "outsider" (essentially, a slave) to Coransee, an extremely powerful (politically and psionically) master of a House. The book is about his struggle to reassert his independence, and it's about the way he allies with an Independent -- a patternist who isn't subject to any House master, Amber. Amber is powerful, intelligent, and tough -- she's a healer, but she subverts the 'woman healer' stereotype by also being an extremely effective killer -- and, indeed, I think she's the strongest character in the book. The developing relationship between Teray and Amber serves as both the heart and the backbone of Patternmaster

Besides Amber, the most interesting thing about this book for me was the worldbuilding and the society, which is dystopian and yet fascinating, even for me (I'm picky about dystopian/post-apocalyptic futures). I find the nature of the 'disaster' really interesting: not one but two radical changes to humanity. (Indeed, I find it particularly cool that Butler put both the clayarks and the patternists in this world -- either idea could have spawned a series, but both together creates a richness and sense of conflict that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. The patternists and the clayarks both are extremely potent, but neither is quite strong enough to get the upper hand over the other -- and yet their very natures makes it impossible for them to stop fighting.) We see only glimpses of clayark society, because the protagonists see (indeed, for their own self-preservation, kind of have to see) the clayarks as inherently inimical, kill-or-be-killed. But patternist society is extremely interesting in its own right. Patternists live in Houses, run by powerful Masters, for their own protection against the clayarks. Within the house, there's a heriarchy: the Master on top, his apprentices beneath him, outsiders (slaves, but with psionic powers) beneath them, and mutes beneath them. (The position of women is more unclear to me: it appears that patternist women, in Houses with male Masters, are wives of varying degree of status -- it's not clear whether there are any female apprentices or outsiders who are not wives. It's also not totally clear what the status of men and women are in Houses run by women, which definitely exist.)

And then there's the Pattern, a really fascinating look at the way a telepathic society would exit. All patternists are linked together by the Pattern, although for the most part, only fellow House members are closely aware of one another. People who are sympatico, who are compatible in personality and metal attitude, are said to be close together in the Pattern, something that they can feel immediately and instinctively. It's a world in which you can tell immediately whether you're likely to get along with someone -- and that immediate awareness is acknowledged, and used.

Spoilery stuff behind the cut. )

As far as recommendations go: Patternmaster is exceptional science fiction. It's not as good as the books in the series that would follow it, which in my opinion get better and better, but it's a good entry point to the series. (And I do recommend that you use it as the entry point: working in internal-chronology order rather than publication order would, in my opinion, be a mistake.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 14
Fiction: 3
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 3
coraa: (bookses)
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich

It's a popular belief that infertile couples who adopt will not infrequently be able to conceive after their adoption. Many people accept this as true, and some can provide anecdotal evidence. The problem, Thomas Gilovich explains, is that it's not actually true: there's no statistical correlation to indicate that couples having fertility problems who choose to adopt are more likely to conceive than couples having fertility problems who do not. Certainly, some couples who adopt because they cannot have children of their own do become pregnant -- but some couples who are having similar infertility problems who don't adopt also eventually become pregnant.

It's a popular belief that a run of successes predicts further successes -- that a player who has sunk three baskets in a row has 'hot hand,' and is more likely to sink a fourth than his teammate who missed two baskets, even if the two have similar season-long averages; that if the cards or the dice are going your way, they will continue to go your way. Again, Gilovich points out, this just isn't true. Runs of good luck are just that -- good luck: the likelihood that a player will sink the next basket has something to do with his skill and long-term average but nothing to do with his prior streak, or lack thereof; the likelihood that the next dice roll will come up in your favor is pure chance, assuming nobody's rigging the dice.

So why do these beliefs persist? That's what the book is about -- not why the beliefs are wrong (although Gilovich explains the statistical background used to determine the falsity of these beliefs), but why people believe them anyway. Why people know things, firmly and without question, that are simply not true.

The book has three sections: "Cognitive Determinants of Questionable Belief" (that is, what's going on in your brain when you assume something that isn't true), "Motivational and Social Determinants of Questionable Belief" (that is, what about human psychology and social networks rewards you for assuming something that isn't true), and "Examples of Questionable Beliefs" (brief rundowns of several common types of questionable beliefs -- belief in certain kinds of alternative health practices, belief in certain interpersonal strategies of dubious usefulness, and belief in ESP and psi powers -- along with examinations of the research into their utility, and why they likely remain popular beliefs despite the lack of evidence).

(One thing to note; the book came out in 1993, which means it's... geez, 16 years old now? It doesn't seem dated, but I don't know how much research in the past decade-and-a-half has happened about these topics, so.)

I don't want to spoil the book too much, but I will give some examples of the kinds of reasons that people believe these things, which fall into a couple of broad categories. One is, ironically, not so much that we're rational as that we're sort of hyperrational: we look for patterns and explanations for data that has no pattern or explanation, data that is random. We believe that three things in a row -- successful baskets, coins that come up 'heads,' whatever -- must mean something. Another is that we try too much to extrapolate from small amounts of data, and we privilege anecdotes. This is why one example of a couple who adopted and was subsequently able to conceive trumps all the statistic in the world, for many people. But mostly, we see what we expect to see, what we want to see, and what we think others will see -- or what we think others will want us to see.

The book was written in a brisk, entertaining style without being too colloquial (some people can pull off colloquial, but some can't, and I'd much rather someone not try than try and fail). It was very readable, and in fact was a fast, compelling read. I don't have the expertise to asses their research, and, as I said, it's likely this is some degree of out-of-date, but it was really interesting either way, and made me think a lot about... well, the way I think.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 13
Fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 2
coraa: (bookses)
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. (Man Booker Prize winner.)

The White Tiger is written as a letter from Balram, the protagonist, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China -- a letter whose purpose, Balram says, is to explain "the truth about Bangalore" by describing his own life story and the way that he became what he calls a "self-made entrepreneur." Most of the book -- apart from asides where the adult Balram addresses Wen Jiabao directly -- are a depiction of Balram's childhood of extreme deprivation in rural India, and his efforts to pull himself out of it before it kills him, as it did both his parents.

The name of the book comes from a scene early in the book while Balram was still in school, when his (drunk -- at the time and in general) teacher got a surprise inspection from the government. The official questioned the students; Balram, bright and ambitious, was the only one who impressed him. He compared Balram to the white tiger, 'the rarest animal in the forest -- and by the comparison indicates that he has no expectation of finding intelligent and determined students in rural villages with any more frequency than he would find a white tiger. He arranged for Balram to receive a scholarship. And in a more hopeful book, that would be the first step in the direction of Balram's progress out of poverty: that Balram should get a scholarship, better education, movement out of the crushing inequity of his childhood.

This is not that kind of hopeful book. Before Balram got even a sniff of the scholarship, his grandmother pulled him out of school and sent him to work in the teahouse to pay for the wedding of one of his female cousins. (Weddings are treated much like natural disasters in the book, unavoidable crises -- at least the weddings of female relatives: each of the men in Balram's family got pulled out of school to work to pay for the wedding of a female relative.) There's no question after that that he'll get more education. He was sucked into the pattern of work and death that doomed his father and mother both.

(I should pause here and say that I know embarrassingly little about poverty and class in India. For the purposes of this review, I'm taking the book at face value -- although it's a sign to me that I could definitely stand to educate myself more on this subject.)

Balram does find a way out -- but it's got nothing to do with the naive 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' fantasies that I'm familiar with from most rags-to-riches stories.

And I can't talk about it more without spoilers, so, cut. )

This book reminded me a great deal of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; I tried to avoid too many comparisons in the rest of the review in order to allow this one to stand alone, but I can't help it, I have to indulge the comparison here. They're both about ambitious, intelligent young men born to crushing poverty, living in towns/villages with very little possibility for improvement, and fighting for a better chance -- and more to the point, both are exceptionally depressing but written in a way that's very funny. I think I'd like The White Tiger better if it didn't remind me of Absolutely True Diary, because... because I just didn't like Balram as much as I liked Junior. I don't think this is a failing of the book: it's pretty clearly partly about the way people act in extremity, and the way people act in extremity is not always pretty. It's a bleak, bleak book, and the fact that it's funny doesn't obscure the way that it's deeply depressing.

And yet -- and yet Balram gets a happy ending, of sorts. It's just -- it's not a cheerful happy ending. It's a making-the-most-of-horrible-things happy ending. It's a happy ending in which the protaginst admits that he still has to ignore certain things that have happened, certain things he has done.

It was a very good read, sucked me in and didn't let me go, and gave me so much to think about. It was also about as far from a comfortable read as I can imagine, so do be aware of that if you're planning to read it.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 12
Fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 10
POC Author: 2
coraa: (bookses)
The Pluto Files, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I got this book because I saw Tyson on The Daily Show, talking about it, and the whole interview made me grin ear to ear, like a loon. (You can watch it here, if you like.) It's relatively rare that I watch an interview on a show like that and actually want to go get the book, but I did -- immediately. And I'm really glad I did.

The Pluto Files is about 'the rise and fall of America's favorite planet' -- it charts the history of Pluto's discovery, and its special status to Americans. (Pluto was the only planet discovered by an American, and, of course, there's the cartoon dog, named shortly after the planet's discovery.) And then, of course, the complicating factor of the discovery of other Pluto-like icy bodies, which threw into question: was Pluto really a planet at all?

At the heart of the book is a question: what makes a planet a planet? Apparently this question didn't have an actual answer for a surprisingly long time -- effectively, a planet was the set of things we called planets. This was more or less fine when the state of astronomy and astrophysics was such that we weren't aware of the other things out there... but that changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century, what with the Hubble Space Telescope and the various unmanned probes.

Much of the book is about this debate: what makes a planet a planet? When the other icy bodies orbiting beyond Neptune were discovered (the Kuiper belt objects), the question became: if we find another icy body as big as Pluto -- or bigger -- do we call it a planet, too? What if we find a bunch of them? Will we cheerfully up the number of planets to ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty? (Indeed, at least one Kuiper belt object was found that was bigger than Pluto; if Pluto was a planet, then Eris definitely was a planet, too.) Or does the presence of a wide variety of Kuiper belt objects, much more similar to one another than to the rest of the planets, mean that Pluto isn't really a planet at all? Indeed, the famous 2006 vote to de-planetize Pluto wasn't actually about Pluto at all, something I hadn't been aware of: the vote was to ratify the first formal definition of a planet, and that definition didn't include Pluto.

But the other key topic of the book was the intersection between culture and science. Several people, scientists among them, argued for a cultural definition of 'planet' that could keep Pluto under sort of a historical grandfather clause. In other words, the argument was that Pluto is a planet because 'planet' has more to do with public opinion and historical tradition than scientific definition. And this part of the book included all kinds of fascinating things: songs about Pluto, letters from elementary school students (in the interview, Stewart says, "You got some hate mail about this decision, didn't you?" and Tyson laughs and clarifies: "Hate mail from third graders."), explorations of the effect that nearly eighty years of the Disney dog had on perceptions of Pluto's status, descriptions of the various 'funerals' for Pluto.

One of the things that I really liked about it, too, is that Tyson doesn't pretend neutrality. He's clear from the beginning that his opinion was that Pluto wasn't a planet, and the book is partly an argument for that opinion. I liked that it was straightforward in its biases, and that's part of what made it so entertaining and so... not-textbook-like.

This book was, as far as I'm concerned, a rare find: a pop science book, accessible to practically anyone, but still written by an expert in the field; a book that is informative and funny and opinionated and absolutely delightful. Highly recommended -- and I'm going to track down more of Tyson's books soon.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 11
Fiction: 1
Non-Fiction: 10
POC Author: 1
coraa: (vetinari politics)
Posting before I head off to lunch -- expect more tonight; I have a backlog to catch up.

The Final Days, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

All the President's Men left off at the press conference where Nixon announced that he was "not a crook" and would not resign; The Final Days picks up from almost exactly that point, and continues through Nixon leaving the White House. Despite the continuity of time, though, it's not at all the same book as All the President's Men -- instead of an investigative thriller viewed from outside the halls of power looking in, it's entirely from the inside perspective of the Nixon White House in its last year of sliding into ruin. Ironically, where All The President's Men was all about uncovering, The Final Days was all about concealing.

The book begins with an explanation of the process they used to research the book, which sums up to: about a squillion interviews. Plus memos, transcripts, supporting documents, etc. -- specifically, they say that any information that could not be confirmed by two separate accounts was left out. And then we dive right into the Nixon White House in its death throes -- even before they realize that the flailing will turn out to be death throes.

There is a lot of flailing.

The thing that's interesting is that I-the-reader, of course, know that Nixon won't wriggle out of the charges in the end. I know he'll have to resign. But, in the book, there's no such awareness, of course -- at the beginning pretty much everyone except two of Nixon's lawyers seem to think that they can make the problem go away somehow, or at least downplay it enough that it will be a survivable blow. And over the course of the book, one by one, they lose their faith that it's possible to avert the looming disaster, until there's nobody but Nixon left.

In that sense, it reads a great deal like a tragedy. Which was interesting as a reader, because I really wanted to see Nixon get taken down for hisbehavior, which was both illegal and unethical. And yet, at times, it was hard not to feel -- well, not pity, exactly, but more like embarrassment-squick; as he resorted more and more to alcohol, and as his behavior became more and more irrational, I didn't exactly feel sorry for him, but I did flinch every time he did something self-destructive. I wanted him gone, but the flailing was painful. (I have to admit, I kept thinking in Internet memes: OH RICHARD NIXON NO, and I C WHAT U DID THAR, and so on. I can't help it.)

As a political thriller, though, it's absolutely fascinating: informative, interesting, and surprisingly suspenseful given that I do know how it's going to turn out. The feint-and-parry of the Nixon White House versus the court, where the court demanded tapes and the White House requested time, requested the right to censor for 'national security reasons', and stalled, and then the court overturned their requests, and on and on -- it's just fascinating. Worth a read, if you have any interest in 20th-century US political history, or in nonfiction thrillers.

(I need a new Vetinari-related politics icon that isn't quite so dated.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 10
Fiction: 1
Non-Fiction: 9
POC Author: 0
coraa: (bookses)
(Side note: these are numbered according to when I get around to blogging them, not according to when I finish them.)

I don't have anything extensive to say about these -- which is why I didn't get around to blogging them until now, even though I read them in late January, and why I'm rounding them up and reviewing them in brief paragraphs. I periodically go through a kick of reading personal finance books, not because I expect them to teach me anything new, but sort of for... moral support, I guess, when I'm making financial resolutions. (Because, yeah, they all say 'spend less than you make, try not to go too deeply into debt, sock some money away in case the car explodes or you lose your job, it would be nice to retire someday,' all of which I do actually know.) Uh, yeah. That embarrassing revelation aside....

Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny, by Suze Orman

Didn't really teach me anything new. Spent a lot of time on setting up a living trust and will and so on. Lots of stuff about how many women don't know anything about their own finances (ie, they let their husband handle everything), which is a bad idea, which I agree with but didn't need to be told. Some stuff about saying a firm but kind 'no' that I probably do need but not in the realm of money (as I do not -- knock wood -- have relatives asking me for money). Pretty par-for-the-course: regular personal finance advice, plus 'don't just let your husband handle everything and leave you in the dark.' (Got it free from when the Oprah site was giving it away, actually.)

Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes And How To Correct Them: Lessons From The New Science Of Behavioral Economics, by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich

This was the most interesting of the lot, because it actually wasn't just 'don't spend more money than you make you idiot.' It was about -- well, a lot of ways that people think about money that seem sensible from the inside but that don't actually make all that much sense. Loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy, "mental accounting" that actually hurts you (like keeping an inheritance in a safe, low-interest savings account, while racking up interest on high-interest debt), why peoples' sense of scale goes wonky when the numbers get big, and so on. It really was interesting, and I'd give it a bigger write-up, except that it's really just a specific example case of a lot of the ideas in Gilovich's other book How We Know What Isn't So, and I'll save my full write-up for that.

Spend Well, Live Rich: How to Get What You Want with the Money You Have, by Michelle Singletary

Really standard personal finance -- just straight-up cheerleading of stuff that I already knew. Fast read, entertaining enough (I like Michelle Singletary's style; I listen to her NPR podcast), nothing new. Some thrift tips. Successful for the cheerleading purposes, though.

So, yeah. Useful cheerleading. Not sure I'd recommend them otherwise.

(Note to self: books I finished and still need to write up:

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
The Final Days, by Woodward and Bernstein
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich)

I have a bunch of fiction coming to me, which is good! I'm ready for some more fantasy/science fiction.
coraa: (bookworm)
His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik

And finally, some fiction!

I admit: it took me so long to read this book in part because I'd had it recommended from all sides, and I was afraid it wouldn't live up to the hype. So I let the hype die down a little before I cracked it open -- and I'm glad I did finally read it, because this is a fun, fun book. Very enjoyable indeed.

His Majesty's Dragon begins when Napoleonic-era naval captain William Laurence captures a French ship carrying a dragon egg -- a dragon egg close to hatching. As dragons are valuable in the Aerial Corps (a kind of air force made up of dragons and their handlers) and the country is currently at war, it would be a gross waste to allow the dragon to go feral. (If a dragon doesn't accept the harness from a human hand shortly after he or she is hatched, that dragon will never voluntarily ally with humans thereafter.) The men of his ship must therefore attempt to harness the dragon, and, unfortunately for him, Laurence is the one the dragon wants. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire -- and then is snatched away from his position, the Navy, and his family, to join the mysterious Aerial Corps and fly, rather than sail, to war on behalf of England.

Because the book was billed to me as 'Napoleonic War with dragons,' I expected that the setting would make or break it for me, but that wasn't the case -- though the setting is interesting enough, it's the characters that made the book for me. Hands-down my favorite thing was the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. It's clear from the book that, while the dragon is inclined to imprint on a particular person at hatching (much like, say, a baby duck), the imprinting isn't any kind of magical soulbond, as with other bonded-companion-animal stories. It's a friendship: a friendship predisposed to being very strong, but still, a friendship. (It has parental overtones when the dragon is new-hatched, but that fades away with time.) It takes work on the parts of both parties and yet, because of that, it is far more rewarding to me than if it had been instalove complete with rainbows and sparkles and Never Being Alone Again. (Indeed, the dragons and humans don't have any kind of telepathy or empathic bond at all, that I can see -- the dragons speak out loud, in human language, and they and their human companions bond by spending time together. And if the humans and dragons don't spend time together, their relationship gets strained and dysfunctional.) It's a really genuine, solid connection, and I love to read about strong friendships, so this just made me grin foolishly all through.

Mostly, though, I loved the book because I loved Temeraire himself. He's got a personality of his own -- smart, curious, thoughtful, sweet-tempered, a little bit elegant. He gives the impression of being very smart and dignified but also being young. He likes to read (or, well, be read to, because of the scale problem) and is fascinated by history, science, mathematics. He's just -- I love Temeraire. Really, I love that the dragon characters are characters in their own rights. The dragons Celeritas, Lily and Maximus all had distinct personalities, and while they didn't get all that much 'screen time' (all of the other characters are very much secondary to Laurence and Temeraire, who are the heart of the book), they're pretty much as well-developed as comparable human characters.

I could certainly nitpick things. It seems a bit, uh, implausible to me that the world is full of dragons, the Americas host a thriving Incan empire, and so on -- and yet those major changes haven't altered the track of history in England/France at all, such that not only is there still a Napoleonic war but all the major players seem to be the same -- and in a lot of ways Laurence is sort of too good, although he's genuinely likable enough, to me, to escape being irritating about it. But here's the thing: the book hit me in a very reading-for-fun-and-pleasure place, and though I can see the flaws, I don't want to nitpick them. I want to just spend a few hours with Laurence and Temeraire and grin at the image of Regency London with dragons flying overhead.

Spoilers below the cut )

But yeah, this was a really good time, not deep but a quick and entertaining read. If you like fantasy, are entertained by the idea of 'Napoleonic War with dragons,' or like stories with likable characters and strong friendships, I'd recommend it. And now I have to go read the sequels!
coraa: (critic)
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

I told you I'd eventually do a book I didn't care for!

I've been reading a lot of food writing, in the same way that (I assume) poker players read poker theory, or knitters read about knitting -- because right now cooking is one of my primary hobbies. And there's a lot of great food writing out there. In doing my food reading, the name "Ruth Reichl" came up many times, so I finally picked up her three memoir-esque food books (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and this one -- I didn't blog the first two separately because I read them last year, but I'll go ahead and discuss them all together, though with focus on the last.) And sure enough, they do have a ton of interesting and often good writing about food, about becoming a cook, and about reviewing good restaurants. (Garlic and Sapphires is about her tenure as the New York Times food critic, during which time she went to restaurants in disguise -- to prevent them from treating her differently because she was the critic. Reprints of the reviews themselves are scattered through the book.)

The problem was that, as I read, I increasingly found that I just didn't like Ruth Reichl very much. In fact, by the end, I pendulum-swung between feeling apathetic toward her, and actually disliking her. I feel weird saying that, because I feel like I ought to critique the book and not the author... but when the book is a memoir, that's a really fuzzy line, isn't it? So I'll give you the caveat that I'm willing to believe that Ruth Reichl-the-character-in-her-own-memoir is not quite the same person as Ruth Reichl-the-author, and that my criticisms below are about the former, without claim about the latter. And if you through some chance happen to be a close personal friend of Reichl, it might be better for us both if you just skip over this one. Okay? Okay.

Spoilers ahoy, for all three books.

My problems would be less, well, problematic if the books weren't so very much All About Ruth. )

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April 2013

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