coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (bookworm)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.
coraa: (changeling)
Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, by Maggie Stiefvater

Sixteen-year-old Deirdre is a gifted harpist who regularly plays in competitions and for events such as weddings. Although she is surrounded by music (her aunt is a diva, her best friend James is one of the best bagpipers in the area), her life is fairly normal until she meets Luke—a gorgeous, mysterious, gifted flautist—at a local arts festival. After they play together, she finds herself drawn to Luke... and frightened by his companions, whose appearances are heralded by carpets of clover and the scent of thyme. And she has reason to be frightened, she discovers, as the strange fair folk threaten Deirdre, James, and her entire family.

My reaction to this book is decidedly mixed. In a lot of ways, for what it is, it's a good book: there's a real sense of mystery around the fair folk, there's a twist on the faerie queen theme that I hadn't run into before, and Deirdre's dilemma in choosing between sweet, reliable, mortal James and dangerous, exciting, not-quite-human Luke is well-portrayed. The problem is that I'm not quite in the target audience, which means that my reactions to the book are sort of irrelevant to what is the target audience. Although they're not irrelevant to my general LJ readership, so I'll post them here anyway, with the caveat that I know perfectly well that I'm not the audience for this book, and the audience might love it to pieces.

First: what Stiefvater does right. The book is well-written, vivid, and lucid, and Stiefvater did a good job portraying the oddness of the fair folk. There was a take on the faerie queen that I hadn't ever seen before, and since I've read a lot of faerie fiction, that's impressive by itself. (More on that under the spoiler cut.) And while I am not in the target audience for the 'longing for a dangerous bad boy' thing, I found it believable, and while I wanted to shake Deirdre and ask her wtf she was thinking sometimes, it never edged over into thinking she was stupid. Just infatuated.

My biggest problem with the book (and a problem that has nothing to do with whether I'm the target audience or not) is the fact that Deirdre does so little to move the plot. For most of the book, things happen to her, and she does as other people say. Even when she turns out to have not insignificant magical powers, she rarely actually uses those powers to do anything. They're mostly there to mark her as special, rather than to serve as tools for her to use. I found that frustrating.

And now, onto the things that are not the fault of the book, but rather the preferences of the reader. I'm getting awfully bored with "he's arrogant and keeps secrets from me and he may be evil, I'm not sure, but he's soooo hot." That isn't to say that I don't understand the appeal (I have had bad-boy fictional crushes in my time, and not just when I was twelve, either), or that I think it's morally wrong to have an ambiguous bad-boy romance. I've just seen enough of it that I'm... well, it takes a lot to make it stand out. (Much the same way that the Farm Boy With Secret Past Goes On Quest Against Evil Overlord narrative has to do something pretty exciting to interest me these days.)

The same is true of the fair folk in general: a book has to either do something really unique, or else do the more standard faerie tropes thing remarkably well, to catch my interest. It's not that faerie books are bad. It's that the more of anything you read, the harder you are to impress. I think this is just plain true in general. (Side note: I also think that's why sometimes when a book with science fiction or fantasy themes hits the mainstream, that's why sff readers are often unimpressed with it. Something that's fresh, new, exciting, mindblowing if you don't know the genre might be old hat if you do. And it goes both ways: writing on interpersonal themes that impresses the hell out of sff readers is often yawnworthy to romance readers, who get a steady diet of interpersonal fiction.)

Spoilers ahoy! )

I'm not quite sure what to say in conclusion. I wouldn't say this was a bad book, and if faeries or love triangles including mysterious men of dubious intent push your buttons, it might even be a great book. I just am picky on those points, so it wasn't quite for me.
coraa: (ed reads)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson

When Jenna Fox awakens from a year-long coma, her parents reassure her that everything will be fine, and her memories will return. But even from the start, Jenna knows that something is wrong. Why can she remember recent history with textbook precision, but know nothing of her best friends? Why did her family move abruptly from Boston to California—leaving behind not only careers and friends but also most of their possessions? Why can her grandmother not stand even to be around her?

If you're irritated because you've figured out the twist from my summary, have no fear: I figured out the twist within the first ten pages, and I'm terrible at figuring out plot twists, so you're not spoiled in any meaningful way. This isn't a book where figuring out the mystery is the key: the mystery is revealed before the halfway point. It's a book where it's not the secret but the crashing aftermath of the secret's revelation is the point.

This is a book for you if you've ever read Gift of the Magi and thought, "Okay, so she doesn't have her hair and he doesn't have his watch—what does that mean for their lives, their relationships, their self-definitions?"

Making Jenna sympathetic is quite a task, because she starts out blank: an amnesiac with no idea who she is. And I'm not a big fan of blank female characters. (Confession: Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion bugs the snot out of me, because there's no there there. And she's a fan favorite, but I can't... give me shouty Asuka any day; at least she's got something going on inside her head.) But, although Jenna starts out pretty blank and remains pretty helpless, I liked her a lot because she was smart and determined to figure out what was going on, and acted within her very limited circumstances to change her future. Which I appreciate a great deal.

The rest I have to say is spoilery, so, cut.

Spoilers behind the cut )

Recommended. And if you get impatient with the fact that you figure things out before Jenna, remember: that's not the point.
coraa: (matilda reads)
Prom, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ashley's got more important things to worry about than the prom: graduating despite all her detentions, her troublesome boyfriend, her job as a costumed rat at EZ-CHEEZ-E, figuring out what on earth she's going to do with herself once she does graduate. But when the math teacher absconds with the prom funds, her best friend Nat (head of the prom committee) is heartbroken, and while Ashley doesn't care much about the prom, she does care a great deal about Nat. So she signs up to help Nat figure out how to hold the prom after all... a process that quickly snowballs into a comedy of errors.

Despite dealing with what might look like heavy issues (living without a lot of money, the difficulty of doing well in school when you also have to work and watch your siblings, a, um, problematic boyfriend, feeling like you don't have a lot of options for your future), Prom is a funny book—and more importantly, it's funny not because we're laughing at Ashley's problems but because we're laughing, wryly, with her as she observes the sheer ridiculousness of it all. (And also, the serious issues are thoroughly interwoven with sillier ones: Nat's crazy grandmother, Ashley's eccentric father and her believably goofy younger brothers, the mania of the prom committee, her mother's obsession with the prom, and so on.) Ashley is in over her head, but she attacks everything with cleverness and a sense of humor, and even when she was flailing around I was on her side and cheering for her.

It helps that I liked Ashely a lot. And I identified with her. In some ways, she isn't much like me in high school at all (I was a nerdy overachiever, and I knew I was going to go to college), but in other ways, she really is (I identified so well with the working-hard-all-the-time-and-still-having-no-money thing). But I think the biggest thing is that I identified with her because she sounds like a believable teenager to me. Now, I'm probably not the best judge of this, since it's been almost a decade since I was a teenager, but I can definitely tell an inauthentic teenage voice. (This is why, even though I usually love McKinley, Dragonhaven didn't work at all for me.) Ashley felt very real. I also believed her female friendships, particularly with Nat: she clearly loves Nat very much while still seeing Nat's flaws, and she has a great mix of admiration, annoyance and amused tolerance that reminds me of my relationships with my friends in high school.

Anyway, I really liked this. It's a fast read and a funny one without being mindless, and I loved Ashley's voice and point of view. Frankly, if you can check a sample, do, because if you like Ashley's voice I expect you'll like the book, and if you don't, I expect you won't. But, generally, recommended.
coraa: (girl with book)
The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim Hines

Thanks to her own strong and kind nature, and the supernatural help of her dead mother, Danielle de Glas (aka Cinderella) is now free of her malicious stepmother and stepsisters. But even as the princess of the realm, Danielle can't put her troubles behind her, as she soon finds out. Her stepsister returns with new and inexplicable magic powers, attempts to kill Danielle, and then kidnaps Prince Armand. Danielle must rescue him...but fortunately she doesn't have to do it alone. She gains the help of the Queen's most trusted aides and "secret service:" Snow (White), a master magician and expert at mirror-magic, and an incorrigible flirt; and Talia (aka Sleeping Beauty), who used her fairy gifts of grace and poise to become an unparalleled martial artist. And Danielle soon learns that her mother's grace has not quite left her yet. But since the rescue will take them into Fairy, it's possible that even these skills won't be enough.

In other words: Disney Princesses crossed with Charlie's Angels.

I've read a lot of fairy tale retellings. I mean, a lot. All of the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthologies, all of the Fairy Tale series of books that included Yolen's Briar Rose and Brust's The Sun, The Moon and The Stars, Robin MckKinleys' oeuvre, Tanith Lee's fairy tale books, Donna Jo Napoli, and on and on. You'd think this would make me tired of them, but it actually hasn't.* I still love a good fairy tale retelling. And this scratched the itch in a way I enjoyed very much.

* Well, that's not true. I have grown tired of a certain kind of fairy tale retelling that feels, to me, self-consciously ugly, adding nasty things just to make it more Gritty And Real. Thank you, no. But that's not a problem specific to fairy-tale fiction at all.

First off: the characters. The three princesses are different and distinct, without their differences being used to mark one as 'better' than the other. (This is surprisingly uncommon.) Danielle is genuinely kind and good-hearted in a way that's backed with steel: to be honest, the character she reminds me of the most is Tohru from Fruits Basket. She has the same, well, genuine kindness that Tohru has, and the narrative makes it clear that that isn't meant to be a default virtue for a woman. Instead, it's something that Danielle has to work at, and it doesn't make her a pushover (although Talia might not agree); in fact, Danielle may have the most strength of character of any in the group.

Snow is the magic-user of the group, specializing in (what else?) mirror magic. In that sense she's her mother's daughter, since her mother was a powerful enchantress. Snow is the most conventionally beautiful of the three (Danielle and Snow are both also beautiful, but in different ways), and she enjoys being beautiful. She's also a flirt, and she likes men; this is, as in real life, sometimes to her benefit and sometimes to her detriment. Crucially, her prettiness and her flirtyness don't make her stupid: she may in fact be the smartest of the trio, although she's probably the least world-wise.

Talia is the badass, of course. As Sleeping Beauty, in addition to exemplary beauty and a beautiful voice and so on and so forth, she got supernatural grace and poise from her fairy godmothers. And she uses it... to be an elite martial artist beyond compare, pairing her (super)natural ability with lots and lots of training and practice. She's the physical powerhouse of the group, and also the most suspicious and ruthless, a trait that is probably necessary to counterbalance Daniellle's kind heart and Snow's naivete. Talia, in short, could kick your ass.

The book is set in a secondary-fantasy world that borrows more from fairy tale than from mythology or history. The country they live in, where Danielle is princess, is sort of an alternate France (or maybe France/England); the mountainous country Snow hails from is more like Germany/Austria, with dark woods and high mountains; and Talia is from a Middle Eastern analogue. But most of the action of the book takes place in Fairytown, a place that's an amalgam of northwestern European folk and fairy tales. (Not so much mythology. In other words, you'll see variants on hobs and pixies, but not Tuatha de Danaan. This is actually sort of refreshing, as fairy tale retellings that track things back to Celtic mythology are pretty darn common.)

So, let's see. The book is in two of my personal mental book categories: it's a romp (meaning that it's a pretty fast-paced book with good characters and exciting action, more fun than seeeeeeerious), and it's a bathtub book (meaning that it's the kind of thing I'd read at the end of a hard day, and also the kind of thing that I could happily read in one or two sittings). It's not Great Literature but it's not supposed to be: it's a ton of fun, a fantasy adventure that features not one but three strong female characters, all of whom are different.

Why do I keep mentioning that? Because, outside of certain kinds of YA fantasy, it's surprisingly rare. These days you generally do at least get The Girl (not always, but more than you used to), but usually in terms of major characters The Girl is all you get. Books with more than one female protagonist aren't all that common. Books about more than one woman working together and/or being friends (rather than being romantic rivals) are even rarer. The fact that this book features three such characters is just plain awesome, and that overshadows any nitpicks I might have with the book.

A bit more, spoilery: )

Anyway. Recommended, especially as an airplane or bathtub or bad-day book, and doubly so if you like strong female characters. I bought it on the Kindle, read it on a plane ride, and actually liked it well enough to buy in paper copy so I could lend it to people.
coraa: (bookworm)
Immortal, by Gillain Shields

When Evie's grandmother becomes ill, Evie has to go to live and study in Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Ladies, a boarding school for upper-class young ladies. Except Evie isn't from a wealthy family: she's a charity scholarship student. Her only allies are her friend Sarah, fellow scholarship student (and possibly-crazy girl) Helen... and Sebastian, the mysterious boy she meets by night. But something dreadful is going on at Wyldcliffe, something that ties together the mysterious death of the school's founder with the more recent drowning of a student.

At first I was kind of baffled by this book, because I was reading it as a YA supernatural romance. Which it is. It wasn't until I realized that it was also a gothic that it started to come together for me. There's a big creepy building with an Ominious History! A mysterious death of a young woman—a drowning in the lake—right before Evie arrives! Strange, half-seen figures and whispered mysteries! Doomful portents by a crazy woman! Attempts on Our Heroine's life by people jealous of her! There's even a gypsy prophecy, seriously. And, of course, Sebastian, who we meet when he almost runs Evie over with his giant black horse, no joke. In that sense it's highly entertaining, and it was fun to play spot-the-gothic-trope.

The problem was that it either needed to be a bit less melodramatic, or quite a lot more. Shields seemed to be trying to walk the line between a semi-realistic modern fantasy and an over the top brooding gothic romance, but the balance didn't... quite work for me. And the tone felt a little off. There's a bit at the beginning where Evie arrives at the school and sees the sign over the door: WYLDCLIFFE ABBEY SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES, but the paint has peeled off, revealing an ominous message. Unfortunately, the ominous message is: WYLDCLIFFE BE COOL OR YOU DIE, which... just felt off for a gothic romance, I dunno.

The characters are a mix. I liked Evie early on, when she was sensible and irritated at the turn her life had taken, and was performing small rebellions to get away from the other students, who tormented her. But she bought into the Romance and Mystery a bit too quickly for me; I was hoping for her to stay more levelheaded. On that note, I really did like her friend Sarah, who avoided the mean girls by planting a garden and riding her horses and being pretty reliably clearheaded... except for the part where her great-great-great grandmother was Romany and left her a bit of second sight. (This should also stand as a warning for those for whom that would be a deal-breaker. It's brief and it's touched on only lightly, but it is there.) But that was so briefly touched on that I just internalized her as "Sarah with the garden and the horses" and liked her quite a bit. The parts where Sarah and Evie were trying to figure out the mysteries of Wyldcliffe Hall were my favorite bits, and I enjoyed them enough to make the read overall very pleasant.

That said... Sebastian. He's a gothic hero, which means he swans around by moonlight, rides a giant black horse (although it's a mare, which is refreshing!), wears archaic clothing, is pale and tormented-looking, and makes vague, mysterious statements a lot. Unfortunately, also sort of a genre staple, he's arrogant and controlling, and he never really gets called on it. Sigh. Again, I think if the book was just a liiiiiiitle bit more melodramatic, I would have found that awesome; as it was, it was just realistic enough that I found him irritating and wanted Evie to hook up with Sarah.

The reason Sebastian makes me frustrated enough to pull my hair out, under the spoiler cut.

Spoilers meet by the lake of drowning at the midnight hour )

Overall, an enjoyable enough book (apart from the hair-pulling frustrating of Sebastian), but nothing I'd recommend people run out and find.
coraa: (girl with book)
Meridian, by Amber Kizer

All her life, Meridian has seemed to attract dead and dying small animals and insects. A bit morbid, but you get used to it. But on her sixteenth birthday, Meridian witnesses a fatal car crash... and everything changes. Her parents hustle her on a bus to see her great-aunt (without even giving her a chance to say goodbye to her younger brother), who breaks the news to her: Meridian is a Fenestra, a person born to help the souls of the dying pass into Heaven, or Paradise, or whatever you might call the benevolent afterlife. But the Fenestra are not alone: the Alternocti have the same mission, but they strive to draw the dying into Hell. And they see the Fenestra as their sworn enemies.

This was a very... odd book. Not bad, and certainly not badly-written, but odd. The cosmology was particularly really strange, although internally consistent. What happens to you after you die seems to be determined by who is nearest you when you die: if you die near a Fenestre or a Sangre (ie, good) angel, you go to Heaven; if you die near an Alternocti or a Nocti (ie, bad) angel, you go to Hell; if you die with none of the above nearby, you reincarnate. It doesn't appear to matter what kind of person you were, or what you did in life, or what you believed in life, or any of that. This is played perfectly straight, and with a surprising unflinchingness: when a small child dies near a mature Alternocti, it's later said that her soul is in Hell. As I said, it's a very... weird cosmology, to me, but it's played totally straight, so I can't fault her consistency of worldbuilding. If there are sequels, I kind of hope they deal with that, and address the question of whether an innocent soul sent to hell by a malicious Alternocti can ever be saved and sent to heaven, or at least put back in the reincarnation cycle. If not, though, this is a really quite fatalistic book, and very depressing if you think about it very long! (Especially since it's implied that Sangre and Fenestra are pretty badly outnumbered, which means more people are sucked to Hell at random than to Heaven, although it sounds like most people reincarnate.)

(Side note: I've seen the book described as if Meridian was herself an angel, or part-angel. That made me cringe a little, but from what I can tell, Fenestra aren't angels at all: they're humans who are sort of like... like an angel's administrative assistant.)

I actually liked Meridian, who was confused, frustrated, and frightened, but in a very realistic way. While she didn't get a chance to do much, it was obvious to me that that was because she was swept up in circumstances beyond her control, not because she was an inherently passive person. At first I was piqued at the climax, in which it (being vague to avoid spoilers) appeared that Meridian was going to be saved by someone else—but then I realized it followed a fairy-tale pattern, where she was saved by people who she had helped earlier in the book. And that's not an ending I mind nearly as much.

I guess, in conclusion, I'm not sure what I think of this book. I liked Meridian, and while the romance didn't grab me, it also didn't strike me as ridiculously improbable or over the top. But the cosmology is very, very, very strange, and I wanted more exploration of the repercussions. Maybe we'll get that in a sequel. (Also the villain struck me as seriously one-dimensional, which bugged me.) Anyway, while I wouldn't strongly recommend it, as it didn't reach out and grab me, it was an enjoyable enough read—certainly I'd rec it as airplane reading.

A couple more spoilery things, under the cut.

Spoilers.... )

Anyway. Recommended with reservations; it's an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours.
coraa: (key faerie)
Fairy Tale, by Cyn Balog

Morgan, a young woman with psychic abilities, has been close to her boyfriend Cam her whole life. But as Cam's sixteenth birthday approaches, odd things start to happen. Cam starts to shrink and sprout wings, and an emissary from Faerie arrives to explain that he's a changeling, and must return to his homeland on the night of his sixteenth birthday. But Morgan desperately doesn't want to lose him... even as she begins to fall for Pip, Cam's human counterpart, who has also returned from Faerie.

First off, what I liked: the idea of the book was a lot of fun, and it was especially nice to see a reversal of the usual trope. Instead of a female character becoming smaller, more ethereal and delicate, with wings and pointy ears, it was a male character (and a football player to boot). The writing style was brisk and lively, and in places very funny; it was an easy and fast read. And I liked the take on the changeling concept, with Pip having to learn how to navigate the human world after a lifetime in Faerie.

The thing that I didn't like, though, was unfortunately pretty big. The main character (who was also the first-person narrator) was, to me, pretty well unlikeable. And in a book like this, that's a real problem.

Now, part of it may just be that this isn't the book for me. I have never been a fan of the Gossip Girl-style book, where the protagonists are deliberately mean and catty to one another... but it's obvious that some people do like that kind of thing very much. It's entirely possible that I'm just not in the book's target audience, because that doesn't appeal to me.

But it really, really doesn't appeal to me. I knew I was in trouble when, in the opening, Morgan's description of her best friend Eden was snide, condescending, and downright cruel. Her best friend. Indeed, basically the only person Morgan isn't nasty about is her boyfriend Cam, because she loves Cam. We're told that a lot, because keeping Cam from leaving her and going to Faerie is her main motivation. But we're not really shown it. I felt a bit bludgeoned with Cam Is Wonderful and Everyone Else Is A Loser, neither of which are sentiments that endear a character to me.

And Morgan is pretty selfish, too. I'll go into more detail under the spoiler cut, but she has to make a major decision that impacts the lives of... let's see, four people, in a huge way. And she realizes from fairly early on that one side of the choice would be horrifying for everyone else but good for her, whereas the other side would be much better for everyone else but inconveniencing for her. To me, the decision, for a character who's sympathetic, is pretty clear: it may be painful and difficult, but it's not hard to see what the right thing to do is. But Morgan waffles on and on and on about it.

Spoilers beneath the cut )

If you enjoy reading about characters a la Gossip Girl who are less than nice to their friends—and don't get me wrong, some people do enjoy that, and the books seem to sell well—you might enjoy this. I don't, so I didn't.
coraa: (changeling)
Ash, by Malinda Lo

Aisling, also called Ash, is devastated when her mother dies. Things only get worse when her father dies as well, leaving her in the hands of her stepmother Isobel. Isobel forces Ash to pay off her father's debts through servitude, and eventually Ash is serving as gardener, housekeeper and lady's maid to Isobel and her social-climbing daughter Ana. Ash's only solace is the Woods... where she meets both a fairy man who knew her mother, and the King's Huntress, Kaisa, who shares her love of the Wood and of fairy stories and who sees past her withdrawn demeanor.

This book was introduced to me as a lesbian Cinderella retelling, which is a totally accurate description, and that description alone was enough to make me read the book. I have long had a fondness for fairy tale retellings, and one that subverted the heteronormative assumptions of most of them sounded delightful. So I was really eager to like this book.

And there are some things I do like about it. I still love the idea. The depiction of the woods, and the fairies, worked for me very much; it's mysterious and dangerous without being over the top. But my favorite thing is Kaisa, who I found very compelling: her position as the King's Huntress intrigued me from the start, and I loved her kindness and courage. I found her completely believable as a love interest, and I liked the slow progression of her romance with Ash. She was a liminal character: not quite part of society, not quite part of the Wood, and I liked her very much.

Unfortunately, Kaisa wasn't the protagonist. Ash was. And Ash, unlike Kaisa, was curiously passive. Part of that, I think, was the shape of the Cinderella narrative: Ash couldn't run away or otherwise materially change her situation, because she had to walk through the paces of the story framework. She bore her trials with stoicism, which is not in itself problematic, but she didn't actually do anything about them. And the way she related to her 'fairy godfather' didn't work for me in ways that I'll describe under the cut, because they're spoilery. Had this been the story of Kaisa, King's Huntress, navigating her liminal position, falling in love, standing in the space between human Ash and the inhuman fairies, I think I would have loved it. As it was, I found myself frustrated that the major character rarely if ever tried to influence her own future.

The other problem that I had was with the prose. I like both "transparent" prose and stylized or ornate. Unfortunately, this book fell somewhere in the middle: I couldn't quite see through the prose to the world of the story (as I would with transparent prose), nor was it quite stylized enough for me to admire the words for themselves. As it was, I felt as though there was a thin but solid layer of glass between me and the characters.

More discussion, with spoilers )

All this isn't to say it was a bad book. I did enjoy it. It's just that I wish Ash had been even a little bit more, well, proactive.
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: (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: (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)
(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: (bookses)
Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, by Mitchell Zuckoff

Yes, I got this book after reading about the Madoff scandal/brouhaha/scam.

More to the point, I got this book because Michelle Singletary (a personal finance columnist whose podcasts on NPR I enjoy) recommended it to help readers understand what a Ponzi scheme – named after Charles Ponzi, the subject of this biography – is. I'd known that a Ponzi scheme was a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul deal, similar to a pyramid scheme, where the profits paid to early investors came not from actual interest or profits per se, but straight out of the money brought in by later investors. (Despite having been recommended by a personal finance person, this is far more a biography and a history than it is a finance book; it just happens to be a history of a huge financial scam. This to me is a good thing, but then, I'm a history freak.)

(Mild spoilers below the cut. I mean, nothing you probably don't already know or couldn't already figure out, but better safe than sorry.)

To simplify hugely, Ponzi created a massive pyramid scheme -- and then, for reasons that have more to do with personality than money, didn't run with the cash.  )
coraa: (bookses)
The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald (Nonfiction)

I bought this book because I'd loved the This American Life episode "The Fix Is In," which was based on the book, and I wanted to learn more. I wasn't disappointed, although having heard the episode it meant that I already knew a lot of the plot twists. But not all of them.

Because this is a book full of twists, so many that at times it's unbelievable -- until you get to the end, where Eichenwald extensively and meticulously documents the sources for every twist, turn, plot, and even line of dialogue. The first eighty percent of the book is written in a compelling, thriller-esque style that makes the banal workings of white-collar crime seem extremely exciting even without, you know, explosions and car chases -- and the last twenty percent backs up the facts. It's a great technique, and one that I think works well.

The "setting" is Archer Daniels Midland Company (aka ADM)... )


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