Monday, December 30, 2013

The Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses (Earth's Children #2) by Jean Auel (1982)

Ayla is on her own now, leaving behind the only people she's ever known. She sets out to find more people like herself, but in the first few months still hasn't encountered another person. Soon she realizes she must settle down and prepare for the long winter ahead, and she finds a valley with everything she needs. Before she knows it, she has a young foal as a pet, and a cave lion, and the valley becomes her lonely home for a few years.

Meanwhile, a man named Jondalar is traveling with his brother Thonolan. They have been journeying for a couple of years, meeting new people and learning their languages and their ways. Jondalar is becoming restless for home, but Thonolan wants to keep going. Tragedy strikes, bringing Jondalar into Ayla's path, the first person like herself she has ever seen.

I knew before beginning this book that it was supposed to be a romance between Ayla and Jondalar, but Auel took her sweet time bringing them together. I think it was about 300 pages into the book when they finally met. This is probably so we had time to get to know Jondalar first, and I agree this background is important, as is Ayla's adjustment to living and surviving on her own. Still, as much as I liked hearing about her taming of wild animals and Jondalar's adventures, I became quite impatient for the story to move forward. Much like the glacier frequently referenced by the characters, it moved very slowly.

Once the romance part of the story began, I became a little frustrated by some of the things that typically annoy me in romances. Ayla and Jondalar constantly misunderstood each other - even after Ayla learned his language - each continuing to think that the other was not interested. Obviously they came from different cultures, which caused some of their problems, but also Jondalar had a hard time accepting that the Clan who raised Ayla were human. People who were not Neanderthals referred to them as "flatheads" and considered them animals. So, ok, that is a hurdle, and the fact that Ayla had a child with one of them (though even Jondalar refuses to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy.) But I felt the romantic tension went beyond what was necessary, or even entertaining.

Despite my complaints I still liked the book. I like the unfamiliar time period in which the story takes place, and I like the characters and their story. I just felt like the book could probably have been half the length it was, and would have consequently been better for it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Raven Girl

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger (2013)

In Audrey Niffenegger's latest illustrated novel, a postman falls in love with a raven and the product of their union is a girl who is outwardly human but suffers from a sort of body dysmorphia that makes her feel like she should be physically more raven. As Niffenegger explains in the afterward, she wrote this for a collaboration with a ballet company requesting a new fairy tale as the basis for their dance.

Indeed, it has the fantastical and strange elements you would expect from a fairy tale and though they aren't my favorite type of reading material I still enjoyed this book. Obviously one needs to suspend one's disbelief and just go with it, and if you can do that, it's a pretty satisfying story.

Niffenegger illustrates her own graphic novels, which I think makes the artistic vision more cohesive than a collaboration, and I always enjoy the result. I find her style simple but quite striking and enjoyed the illustrations a great deal. Niffenegger's illustrated novels aren't for everyone, but if you've liked the others, I do recommend this one. I didn't love it like The Night Bookmobile, but still thought it was rather lovely.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (2013)

This book of essays is not, as you would expect, primarily about marriage. It's about everything from Patchett's Catholic school experiences to a road trip in a Winnebago to trying to pass the LAPD policy academy entry exam. Most essays are pretty short, and all reveal something Patchett's life and how she views the world.

It's tough to summarize any sort of collection, so I'll just share some of my favorite parts. In "Love Sustained" she recounts the period when she took care of her ailing grandmother. She candidly admits this is not something she had planned for, saying "I had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly. I had every intention of feeling simply awful that I wasn't with my grandmother in her years of decline..." The essay "This Dog's Life" is the story of how she came to have her dog, Rose, and the insistence of people around her that clearly, what she really wanted was a baby. She muses "I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren't other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog."

Other essays I enjoyed include the one alluded to earlier in which Patchett trained for the police academy exam as part of a book she ended up not writing. The title "The Wall" refers to one of the most difficult parts of the physical exam in which participants must scale a 6-ft wall. Mostly I enjoyed her perspective on the preparation for a career that was so completely different from her own. "My Life in Sales" is a behind-the-scenes look book touring, including the observation that people who attend book readings always want to ask about the previous book. I've often wondered how authors feel about that, and now I know. Three different pieces discuss the book Truth & Beauty from slightly different perspectives. It was chosen as a required read for an entering freshmen class at Clemson University, which set off a firestorm of controversy. It would never have occurred to me that Truth & Beauty would be considered objectionable, but I suppose every book if offensive to someone out there, and if not, it's probably not worth reading.

I devoured this collection with a vigor I didn't anticipate, even though I knew how much I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett. Though I've read both Bel Canto and State of Wonder, it is her nonfiction I love the most, counting Truth & Beauty as one of the few memoirs I truly love. The essays in this collection were already published elsewhere and though I had read "The Getaway Car" already, I didn't skip it here. It's just as good the second time. Before starting - and what spurred me to read this immediately and not wait a moment longer - I listened to an interview with Ann Patchett on NPR's show "On Point". Even if you don't plan to read this book, I recommend taking 45 minutes to listen to the show. She is just as eloquent and enjoyable with that medium as she is with the written word.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Star Cursed

Star Cursed (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #2) by Jessica Spotswood (2013)

Young witch Cate Cahill is now a member of the Sisterhood, learning more about magic in an environment where her powers don't need to be kept secret, yet still heartbroken over the choice to break her engagement with Finn. The Brotherhood have increased their persecution of witches and the Sisterhood are becoming desperate to put a stop to it, but they are divided into two camps. A struggle for leadership of the Sisterhood is brewing as well, because the current leader is ill and Cate has still not come into the powers predicted by the Prophecy.

Even though this book came out in June, I was determined to wait for the audio version to appear because I so enjoyed the audio of Born Wicked. I waited SO LONG. Finally, in desperation, I messaged the lovely and friendly Jessica Spotswood on Goodreads only to learn that there will be no audio. So ultimately I read the print version, while imagining Nicole Sudhaus reading it to me.

Audio or no, I am continuing to enjoy this series a great deal. I already wrote in my review of Born Wicked how much I like the alternate history Spotswood has created, but I didn't mention the strength and bravery of the women and girls in the books. Their situation in this society is complicated, and there aren't any simple solutions. Frequently in YA there is a clear right and wrong and, therefore, good and bad characters. Not so here - it is realistically nuanced as it would be in real life. It is easy see why Sister Inez and her followers feel like action needs to be taken soon, and why they are willing to make sacrifices. Although Cate disagrees, she frequently doubts herself because just as in real life, there is no clear right and wrong. But she makes her decision and sticks to it. Although there are men who are on their side, ultimately it is the women who must take responsibility and take action, and they do it with courage.

Somehow I omitted discussing Cate's romance with Finn in my review of the first book, though I enjoyed it a great deal. It came to what seemed a heartbreaking end but I was happy that Star Cursed brought new hope to that relationship. In this alternate world of 1800s New England same-sex relationships were sometimes a surprise, but not shocking or especially disapproved of. I very much like Spotswoods treatment of the romance between girls and women in her books. It is similar to present-day Massachusetts, where it is generally accepted but not the norm.

There is just so much I liked about this book, basically everything except the title (and I don't have a better idea, so there you go.) It was a very strong second in the series, which will be continued with the more appealingly-titled Sisters' Fate in August. August! After the shocking ending - which was even more upsetting than that of Born Wicked - I do not know how I'll wait until then. I also don't know how the author will resolve the horrible situation she created at the end, but I have faith that she will bring it to a satisfying conclusion. She hasn't disappointed me yet.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009), narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean

Everybody remembers the 1985 Prairie Massacre of Kinnakee, Kansas. A teenager named Ben Day killed his mother and two younger sisters as part of a ritual Satanic sacrifice. Only 7-year-old Libby survived. Libby is now 31 and barely functional. She isn't able to work - many days, she can't even get herself out of bed - and she's running out of money. The profits she made from her book Brand New Day have run out, and she needs to find another source of income. Then she meets a guy named Lyle who offers her a hefty fee to come speak at a meeting of a group called the Kill Club and Libby seizes the opportunity, not realizing it will bring up questions and make her finally confront her past.

Libby has never questioned the events of that night, or her own damning testimony which put her brother behind bars. But faced with the members of Lyle's club, many of whom are convinced of Ben's innocence, Libby begins to have doubts of her own. She begins to seek out people from her past to find out what they know about the events of that night, including her deadbeat father, her aunt who took her in after the murders, and her brother's friends. Her present-day story alternates with her brother's and mother's account of the last day leading up to the murders (and yes, there are four narrators, but I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing what that's all about.)

Many of us were first introduced to Gillian Flynn through her 2012 hit Gone Girl, and indeed that is what drew me to this earlier novel. Though Dark Places doesn't present the same kind of game-changing twists, it is still very well-crafted and among the top crime novels I've read. I liked the focus on Libby as the lone survivor of a long-ago crime from which she will never really recover, and that despite the sympathy her situation demands she's not someone you'd really want to be friends with. Since she was so young at the time of the murders, there was a great deal she didn't know about what was happening in her family, and Flynn quite deftly revealed those stories to us in the flashbacks just as Libby was discovering them for herself through her investigation. When the truth was finally revealed it wasn't what I would have guessed and I found it quite satisfying.

The audio was very well done - again, I could listen to anything read by Rebecca Lowman, who completely outshone her fellow narrators. They were all perfectly good, and I was happy to listen to all of them, but Lowman is my favorite and few others can compare to her as far as I'm concerned. I'm always a bit worried about listening to crime rather than reading it - I'm always afraid I'll get distracted and miss something important - but this was a great choice. I'll consider audio again for the next book by Gillian Flynn, an author I'll definitely continue to read.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

I have been waiting more than a decade for Donna Tartt to publish another book, and by the time The Goldfinch was finally released I was rather afraid to read it. The initial description was uninspiring: Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother, lives with various friends as he tries to avoid becoming a ward of the state, something about the art underworld. But this book is almost 800 pages so of course there's more to it, and the vague pre-pub reviews didn't include any of the really good stuff. The "accident" that kills Theo's mother was actually the bombing of a museum, and before he escapes, Theo steals an extremely valuable piece of art. He met a couple of mysterious strangers in the museum just before the attack who led him to seek out an antique furniture dealer named Hobie, who takes Theo under his wing. During his teenage years he ends up living for a while in Las Vegas where he meets Boris, a shiftless Ukrainian kid who becomes Theo's best friend.

I need to stop here, just to say that I could read an entire book about Boris. This kid has lived everywhere and speaks several languages (though primarily Russian), and despite his troubled life is good-natured, laid back, and extremely loyal. He disappears for years at a time, but always shows up eventually. His friendship with Theo (or "Potter" as he calls Theo, who bears a resemblance to J.K. Rowling's wizard) is one of the best fictional friendships I've read. They are both motherless, their fathers alcoholics, and these shared experiences are enough to draw together two people with otherwise very different life experiences.

Theo is pretty great too, well-intentioned and easy to sympathize with, though he makes many poor decisions. Constantly mourning his mother, while also being weighed down by his secret stolen art, these problems adversely and repeatedly affect his life choices and relationships. He and Boris do a lot of drugs during the time they are in Vegas together, and Theo carries his habits back to New York with him where he continues to dig himself deeper into a hole while outwardly appearing to have his act together and successfully helping run Hobie's business. But eventually his past catches up with him and totally blows up in his face, setting off a whole chain of events that make for a tense and action-packed climax.

There is so much more to this book than I can really express. Theo is very close to the Barbour family, through his school friend Andy, and this family could be an entire novel in themselves. One of the people Theo met just before the attack was a girl his age named Pippa, who he was immediately drawn to and could never quite get over, just one more thing haunting him for years. His relationship with Hobie, too, was both heartwarming and complicated and the plot line exploring the world of stolen art was fascinating.

Donna Tartt's writing is just as beautiful as ever, the story just as immersive. By the time I finished reading, I felt less like I had read a novel and more like I had an experience. It's too early to tell how much it will stick with me over time, but even now I can count it among one of the best books I've read this year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I still haven't finished my first Eunice sock, but I've started another pair of socks anyhow.

These are for Eric actually, and I've had the yarn since our trip to Philadelphia in June. I bought it out in Amish country, and the colorway has the appealing name of Amish Broom Corn. (The yarn I picked out for myself is called Buggy Top.) 

Frustratingly, this is a little thick for sock yarn. I began by casting on my usual number of stitches on needles of a usual size, but soon realized the sock could easily stand up by itself. So I ripped out and started again with fewer stitches on a larger needle. I sort of just had to guess, but it seems to fit so far. It's just a simple ribbed pattern.

I'm actually pretty close to the toe, although you can't see that here. The only way to get a decent picture this time of year with the current light levels and weather conditions is to go out on the front step and hold the sock up; I didn't have the luxury of artfully arranging it on a conveniently dry surface. But I'll be sure to get some modeled photos when the pair is done. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)

It is the not-too-distant future, and San Francisco is hit by a terrorist attack. In the confusion, Marcus and his friends are rounded up and sent to a bizarre prison camp where they are tortured before most of them are let go. Newly angered by his experience with the Department of Homeland Security and the new police state in which he is now living, Marcus goes online and undercover as "M1k3y," the leader of a new revolution.

The storyline was pretty good, and I liked the theme of safety versus privacy. Most of us can remember what it was like after 9/11 when the government rushed to pass the PATRIOT Act which effectively chipped away at our civil liberties - most notably our right to privacy - in the name of security. The fear instilled in us by the attack was used liberally to convince us this was for our own good. In Little Brother, this second attack paves the way for the passage of the PATRIOT Act II, which puts people under almost constant surveillance. Many of the conversations we had after 9/11 are echoed here between Marcus and his parents, classmates, and teachers. The best aspect of the book was the issues raised: the balance between security and privacy, whether or not the surveillance is effective, and if this constant surveillance means the terrorists have won.

I didn't find the actual story that fantastic. Many of the characters were fairly two-dimensional and the arguments oversimplified. Everyone either thought the governments actions were justified or not, but nobody struggled internally with this dilemma. The actual attack and the large number of deaths were pretty glossed over too, as though everyone recovered from the loss immediately and went on to concern themselves only with the new normal of surveillance. I realize that Marcus was locked away for several days after the attack, but the news coverage would have still been happening and he would have been bombarded with images of destruction and the victims. He never felt stunned at the sight of the wreckage, the memorial flowers that would have undoubtedly appeared there, nor did he ever once think about who had done it, whether they'd be caught, whether they would strike again. The event instilled no fear whatsoever in him. This simply did not ring true to me, as I thought about the aftermaths of both 9/11 and last year's Boston Marathon bombing.

Because of the highly technical nature of what Marcus is doing, there are a number of info dumps to slog through. If you're interested in that kind of thing - hacking Xboxes, encryption, etc - it's probably interesting. For me, I had a very tenuous and fleeting understanding of these concepts, but it turns out it's not that important to grasp the technical specifics in order to understand the story.

For the right teen, this would be a good introduction to some of these issues, especially as people that young don't remember the time before 9/11 and have grown up used to the idea of the government and corporations (like Facebook and Google) knowing everything about them. I'm glad Doctorow wrote this since there are so few other YA books about these issues. It's pretty dense for YA though, so it wouldn't top my list of enjoyable books for teens.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Black Aperture

Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen (2013)

Rasmussen's debut poetry collection centers on his brother's suicide and its aftermath. Meditations on the act itself, the pain of his brother's voice still on the answering machine, and the way the author now views the world through the lens of the tragedy make up this slim but powerful volume which was a finalist for the National Book Award this year.

I'm not really qualified to remark on poetry, since I've spent little time reading it in the last 15 years or so. Back when I did read poetry, I concentrated pretty heavily on Sylvia Plath with a little Anne Sexton and a couple others thrown in. But I wanted to try again. A year or so ago I tried reading Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer for Poetry in 2012, and though I could appreciate it on some level, it was mostly impenetrable and I abandoned it. I felt like she started with some ideas and thoughts she wanted to convey, then slathered them with a whole lot of words, requiring the reader to peel each poem like an onion to get at its core. Is that what poetry is supposed to be? Why not just say what you want to say in a way that is poetic, without completely obscuring it?

That, fortunately, is what Matt Rasmussen does as far as I can tell. I'm sure there's a lot I'm missing that could be grasped by someone more proficient than I am at reading poetry, but the point is that I don't feel like I'm missing anything. Reading these poems, I felt like I could understand enough to make it worthwhile and even pleasurable, though I hesitate to use such a word about poems on such a traumatic subject.

All were written as a series of non-rhyming couplets - I don't know if this is significant, or if it is usual to write a collection all in one style. But because of this style, with its frequent spacing, the poems felt less dense while still heavy with meaning. Rasmussen's language was clear, vivid, and darkly beautiful.

Here are some passages I especially liked.

From "O":

"At the base
of each bare tree

someone has spilled
a bucket of shadow."

From "Phone":

"But together we decide
which way the dream goes

like spilled water on a table
we carry across the room."

"The Orange Leaves" begins

"rocked back and forth
through the air
as if someone was

scraping the rust
off the sunset."

But of course you need to read the poems in their entirety to really appreciate them, especially the short ones like "Monet as a Verb," which is also a really fantastic title. Other poems had really great titles too, like "In Whoever's Hotel Room this Is" and "We're Not the Stars, We're What's Between Them."

Two poems were about his brothers hands, which I found quite intriguing though I'm unsure of the significance. They were both in the second section of the book, "Elegy in X Parts." The narrator talks about the hands being delivered with the mail, and putting them away somewhere only to have them appears in various places unexpectedly. It was a little creepy, in the best possible way.

This was a lucky pick I think, because it just happens to be the kind of poetry I like. Dark, vivid, and just accessible enough for someone like me to read. They definitely benefit from rereading and the more I do, the more I like them. Good poems beg to read over and over again, to wring any last bits of insight from them and consequently, I'm reluctant to return this book to the library.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Let it Snow

Let it Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle (2008)

Amidst a Christmas snowstorm, one small town hosts three interconnected romances, each written by a different author. First, a girl named Jubilee sets out on a train to her grandmother's house on Christmas Eve, but the train is stopped by the snow. Jubilee hops out and wanders to the nearby Waffle House, meeting up with a boy named Stuart who is trying to get over his breakup. When a group of cheerleaders from the same train end up taking over the Waffle House, Jubilee and Stuart make their exit. In the second story, a boy named Tobin is hanging out with a couple of friends when he gets a call from a friend who works at the Waffle House, begging them to come over because of the cheerleaders. And bring Twister! Tobin, JP and a female friend known as the Duke start making their way over, but the snowstorm proves to be a larger obstacle than they thought. In the third and final story, Addie arrives at an early shift at Starbucks and an eventful day follows which ties up all three stories.

Maureen Johnson's "The Jubilee Express" began the collection quite promisingly. Jubilee was named after Floby Santa Village building #4, Jubilee Hall, which should tell you something about her parents. So it will come as no surprise that on Christmas Eve they were arrested in a riot related to purchasing the newest piece for their Floby Santa Village. Thus, Jubilee is put on a train to go to her grandmother's house for Christmas. She had been looking forward to spending the evening with her boyfriend Noah, and once those plans were dashed every new obstacle put her in a worse mood. But it also gave her time to reflect a bit and, of course, develop a new friendship with Stuart. Jubilee was an appealing character, and her story was funny and charming.

In the second story, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" by John Green, a group of friends goes on an across-town adventure on the promise of spending time with a group of cheerleaders at the Waffle House. One of the three friends, however, is a girl called the Duke who is less excited to meet up with the very sorts of girls she dislikes the most, but goes along with it in the interest of her friends, Tobin and JP. One of those friends appreciates her in a whole new way as the night progresses. Though not John Green's finest work, his style is still recognizable here in the wit and believability of his teenagers, and this was a solid second part of the collection.

The third story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs," fell a bit flat for me. Hearkening back to the first story for just a moment, Jubilee crosses paths with a guy on her train named Jeb who is trying to get to his girlfriend. He has been desperately trying to get through to her but can't get a signal on his phone. They are apparently going through a tough time in their relationship. Lauren Myracle's story is told from the point of view of Jeb's girlfriend Addie, who cheated on Jeb at a party not long before and is filled with regret and desperately wants him back. I am convinced he is too good for her. She's a fairly thin character who is self-absorbed (we know this because we are told over and over) and is trying to get through a hectic work day, but needs to sneak away on a break to pick up a teacup pig named Gabriel for her friend. I didn't really care about Addie, her friends, or the pig. (And I like pigs.) It somehow all felt a bit preachy, and when the hippie artsy lady showed up and they started talking about angels watching over us, I pretty much forgot any appeal the story held. It wasn't horrible, it really wasn't, there just wasn't a lot to it.

This is sort of a tough assignment. Three authors writing three stories, all of which shared a setting and contained characters from the other stories. Plus they are all romances, and it's Christmas-themed. I got a little tired of it all by the third story anyhow, but I still think it was the weakest. Even so, it was an amusing story and I felt a certain sense of satisfaction when all three stories tied up neatly at the end. The whole collection was pretty fluffy, but charming and fun and not a bad bet if you're looking for a holiday themed young adult selection.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Things a Brother Knows

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt (2010)

When Levi's older brother Bo returns after serving in the Marines, he is not the same person he was before. Bo spends all day in his room, only coming out briefly for meals, and doesn't talk about his experiences in the war. Levi knows that Bo is planning something and is determined to find out what, even if that means following him when it is clear he wants to be left alone.

I'm always happy to see more young adult books focused on guys, and this one has the added bonus of tackling a topic you don't see a lot in fiction at all, but especially YA fiction. Clearly, Levi's brother is suffering from PTSD and his family doesn't know how to help. Do they give Bo space? Do they try to talk with him though he clearly doesn't want to? Do they just leave him to figure things out for himself? Levi already felt abandoned and betrayed when his brother joined up, and now he feels like the brother he once admired might be gone forever.

Other characters in the cast include Levi's best friends, Pearl and Zim, who not only support their good friend, but provide a little comic relief. Levi and Bo's family wasn't quite as fleshed out, but there was enough detail to keep them interesting. They are Jewish, and their father also served in the military, so there's a little extra detail and complexity. By the way, nothing about this novel is pro- or anti-war, it's more about how the experiences of war affect an entire family. As an added bonus, there is a road trip.

I heard of this book a while ago and only finally picked it up because it was a contender for my library's upcoming Community Read (it didn't win - we're doing The Book Thief.) It was a very quick read and I really liked it while I was reading it, but I don't think it will stick with me. I'm already forgetting a lot of details. Still, I think it was a pretty well-crafted book and I will likely recommend it to teens in the library looking for realistic fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I promised an update on my Geodesic Cardigan ages ago, and then set it aside and haven't touched it since. But I realized you haven't seen it since it was far too many balls of tangled yarn. It looks much nicer now.

I got to a point where I had to knit until it was a certain length, so the last time I touched it I took it off the needles to measure it. I have no idea what I determined, so the next time I pick it up I have to take it back off the needles and measure it again before I can move on. Thus, I have ignored it completely.

So far my biggest concern is the way the bottom turns up. Did I cast on too tight? Will it block out? Will it matter anyhow, if I run out of yarn before I'm done, as I fear I might? So many questions.

I've recently been distracted by other projects, such as another pair of socks, and an odd little cross stitch I started working on after coming across the kit stashed in my sewing table. I'll show you one of those next time I do a Sunday post.