Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blood Promise by Richelle Mead

Blood Promise (Vampire Academy Series #4)  Rose heads to Russia to find Dimitri and put her undead boyfriend/mentor/teacher out of his misery.  Along the way Rose meets Dimitri's family - his mother, his grandmother, and his sisters.  Siberia turns out to be a lovely place and Dimitri's family even lovelier.  Rose almost decides to stay.  But she can't.  She has a mission to accomplish.  Plus, there's still Lissa back home to worry about.  Rose also meets another spirit user who happens to be married to her dhampir guardian.  It seems that spirit users aren't as rare as everyone thought, they keep coming out of the woodwork.  Rose meets some other interesting people as well - an alchemist, her father - all people who are sure to make an appearance later in the series.

There are two more books left in the series, which I hope to finish before the end of the month.  So far this has been a very enjoyable  young adult vampire series.   Sometimes these types of series start with a bang and end with a whimper.  Hopefully this series will end as strongly as it began.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Die a Little: A Novel  It's 1950s Los Angeles with housewives who make jello with fruit in copper molds and housewives who pop pills.  There are Hollywood starlets and Hollywood fixers.  There's a schoolteacher, a cop, and women with secrets.

The women with secrets in Die a Little are Lora and Alice.  Alice comes into Lora's life when she literally crashes into Bill, Lora's brother.  In short order Bill and Alice are married.  Lora is a schoolteacher and Bill is a junior investigator for the district attorney's office.  Alice is like nothing and no one the siblings have either met before.  She's beautiful and glamorous, having worked for a Hollywood studio.  She seamlessly makes the transition from Hollywood to housewife, preparing extravagant meals and throwing dinner parties like the perfect 1950s housewife as seen on tv.  But cleaning and cooking aren't enough to contain Alice's boundless energy, so Alice begins teaching home economics at Lora's school.  Lora and Alice carpool together, go shopping together and soon, just as Bill has gained a new wife, Lora had gained a new sister.  The more time Lora and Alice spend together, the more Lora begins to suspect that something isn't quite right with her sister-in-law.  Alice has a lot of strange friends and even more secrets, and Lora is determined to uncover those secrets and protect her brother.

Why are so few of Megan Abbott's books available at my local bookstore?  Seriously, I don't understand it.  Earlier this year I read Dare Me and was blown away.  Expecting a quick read about cheerleaders and mean girls in high school, instead I got a psychological sports thriller.  One book and I was a fan of Ms. Abbott and began looking into her backlist.  Shockingly, none of her books were available at my local bookstore.  Luckily they are available online.

The first book off the backlist that I picked was Die a Little, a noir thriller.  Granted this is only the second of Ms. Abbott's books that I've read but based on this small sample it appears that Ms. Abbott specializes in noir thriller with strong female characters.  It's like Ms. Abbott is channeling Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett only the female characters are more than femme fatales or sweet virgins who exist simply to tempt men one way or another.  In Ms. Abbott's books women take center stage.

Ms. Abbott has a way of sneaking up on a reader and surprising them.  Early in the story there are details about what one might call feminine life - details about recipes, clothing, and parties.  But it is all facade (much of the way the whole perfect 1950s housewife is).  Recipes give way to heartbroken housewives who turn to medicinal concoctions to cope.  Men who have been raised to save the damsel in distress find themselves making compromises.  People turn out to be complicated and messy.  Die a Little is short book - just under 250 pages - but this small volume packs a punch.  She is definitely an author whose career I will continue to follow.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey 24-Hour Read-a-Thon: Update

Mid-Event Survey:
Here are my answers to the survey:

1. What are you reading right now? Shadow Kiss (book #3 in the Vampire Academy series) by Richelle Mead
2. How many books have you read so far? Still working on this one, trying to finish one whole book during the read-a-thon.
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? Finding how why Rose keeps seeing Mason since he died in the last book.
4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?  Lots, but they were all of my own design.  I needed to take breaks so I went to the grocery store and did laundry.
5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?  How much focus it takes.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reading YA as an Adult, or, Why You're Not Doing Books Wrong

Within the last year or so there has been a backlash against young adult fiction (or YA), or more specifically, against adults reading YA, as exemplified by Ruth Graham’s article Against YA.  Although I suspect there are several who secretly (or not so secretly) agree with Ms. Graham, many have made it clear that as far as they are concerned there is nothing wrong with reading YA.  There have been some truly great responses to Ms. Graham in particular and the backlash more generally.  Some of my favorites include "YA bashing": sexism meets elitism on the blog Alpha Reader, Julie Beck's The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction, and Lyndsay Faye's very funny Slate Nailed It: YA and Detective Fiction Are for Rubes

Like many, I find this YA backlash condescending, snobbish, ignorant, and misguided.  Nevertheless, I must admit that this backlash did make me think my own reading habits and reading past.  It has also got me thinking about the purpose of art.  Although I detest the snobbishness of telling people they should feel bad about reading YA, I can understand the impulse to challenge oneself.

I have always been a voracious reader, desperate to get my hands (and eyes) on all that I could.  I have also been a sometimes insecure reader, worried that my formal education was insufficient, that I wasn’t well read and that I hadn’t read enough. (There are just so many books, how could anyone ever read enough?)  And so at various times in my life I have set about making plans to further my education.  This process usually begins with preparing a list of books and authors to read and read more about.  A 1997 list included the authors Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Gloria Steinem, Albert Camus, and Henry David Thoreau.  Upon graduating college I was appalled by the fact that I had somehow earned two college degrees (a bachelor of science and of arts) without reading Moby Dick and that what I knew about War and Peace came mostly from the Charlie Brown New Year’s cartoon special.  Glancing at shelves of Barnes & Noble classics in the bookstore one day I realized there were so many I had as of that moment, failed to read.  In each case, I made a list of books and authors and set about reading them. 

My self-education did not only focus on classics.  At various times I have been interested in the Black Panthers, the Kennedys, Ernest Hemingway, the Harlem Renaissance, and running (not all at the same time) and read all I could about them.  I decided to read everything Charles Dickens wrote (still working on this) and am slowly working my way through Shakespeare's plays (not sure I can do the poems).   This year I finally got around to reading The Secret History and The Emperor's Children.  Through it all, I have loved the challenge, loved learning, and loved crossing things off my list. 

Here's the part YA bashers and other snobs would hate:  In between classics, literary fictions, and nonfiction I read romances, travelogues, science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, always mysteries.  I get Ms. Graham’s point about reading challenging books.  I like challenging myself.  What I don’t get is the judgment.  I read what I read because I want to and I enjoy it.  Sometimes that means reading The Secret History and Team of Rivals, but it also means reading everything by Agatha Christie and Rex Stout.  It means reading romances even though they may be predictable and stories about vampires, werewolves, and witches which are often fairly predictable as well.  It means rereading childhood favorites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Catcher in the Rye, and James and Giant Peach.  It means reading Gossip Girl series, the Hunger Games trilogy, and other YA books.  It also means reading comic books and graphic novels.  Although I love these books - the challenging and the less challenging, the adult, the YA, and the juvenile - I totally understand that other people, for whatever reason, may not be inclined to read either War and Peace or John Green's Looking for Alaska, and I'm fine with that.

The backlash against young adult fiction has also made me think about the purpose of books, and art more broadly, as everything that Ms. Graham wrote about books could be said about every other type of art.  I could be reading Submergence as Ms. Graham suggest instead of Shadow Kiss (Book 3 in the Vampire Academy series which I'm about to start).  I could be watching a documentary or whatever is considered a difficult film instead of a rom-com or the latest action movie.  I could watch PBS exclusively.  I could spend hours trying to figure out abstract art or just marvel at the pretty sunflowers.  Any of these activities, in my opinion, are acceptable and are things I would do.  (Well, okay, I'm not going to watch PBS exclusively.  I watch it a lot, mostly Masterpiece Mystery but I did watch the entire Roosevelts miniseries.  That has to count for something.)

Art can be challenging and inspiring, and it is great when it is but it doesn’t have to always be that.  Art can also be comforting.  It can be escapist.  It can be fun.  Sometimes art is all these things at once.  I see nothing wrong with enjoying books or other art for whatever reason a person wants.  If they want a challenge, that's great.  If they just want to escape into a world where everyone is paired up at the end and there is always a happy ending, that's cool too.  Articles like Ms. Graham's seem to me a big reason why so many people don’t read books at all.  She makes reading and art sound like a job.  She makes it sound like you can do it wrong, and that to me seems more wrong.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

The Emperor's Children  Sometimes with books, timing is everything, and I think I read The Emperor's Children at the wrong time, or at least not at the best time.  If I had read it a few years ago, maybe when I still lived in New York, or shortly after moving or around the time I finished school, maybe I would have enjoyed it more.  This isn’t to say I didn’t like it, just that I might have liked it more at a different time.  This time it was good but also a little tedious.

At the center of the story are three people who have been friends since college: Danielle, Marina, and Julius.  Now they are 30 or nearing thirty and are finding life harder than they expected to be.  Danielle works in television and wants to make insightful programs but is confronted with the economic realities of her profession.  Julius has turned a talent for wit into a career as a critic, but still has to work temp jobs to make ends meet.  Mostly known for being pretty and for being the daughter of well-known journalist Murray Thwaite, Marina is working on a book about children’s clothes.  I use the term “working” loosely because for a large part of the story Marina hardly writes a word.  At one point she whines to her father about how she wants to do something important and wonders if maybe she should get a job.  Not a boring or meaningless job, of course.  It must be something important.  In the end she decides not to because she really needs to time to finish the book.  Not surprisingly, Marina is wealthy enough (or rather her parents are) to think this way.  Perhaps I would have had more empathy for Marina a few years ago.  Then again, maybe not.  While I understand wanting to do something important, as someone who has worked almost steadily since high school out of necessity, I found Marina's sense of entitlement oppressively annoying.

Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, Murray’s nephew and Marina’s cousin, inadvertently upsets the apple cart, albeit ever so slightly.  Bootie is a college dropout who seeks intellectual integrity.  Fleeing from his overbearing mother, he heads to New York.  Determined to pursue his education on his own terms, Bootie earnestly reads difficult books and tries to write about them.  He hopes that in New York his Uncle Murray will take him under his wing and teach him all that he knows.  Unfortunately Murray disappoints.  Murray turns out to be human, more human than Bootie anticipated.  Then September 11 happens and it changes everything and nothing.

Danielle is devastated not so much because of the carnage of September 11 itself, but because her boyfriend realizes he really needs to be with his wife.  Marina and Julius are more worried about their personal lives, admittedly they have messy personal lives, especially Julius.  What's amazing is that no event, little or large, inspires any of the three friends or Murray to change anything about their circumstances.  No one evolves in any meaningful way.

Bootie is the exception to the blanket of passivity and entitlement that seems to envelop Marina, Danielle, and Julius.  Overweight and socially awkward, Bootie is in many ways the polar opposite of his cousin Marina and her friends.  He's idealistic and judgmental, and is genuinely upset when he finds his uncle recycling some of his work.  Bootie is serious about reading, writing and life, perhaps a little too serious at times.  Maybe because he hasn't much to lose, Bootie is the one most willing to take charge of his life.  Unhappy with his circumstances, he sees a chance to escape and change his life and he takes it, twice. 

The cover of my copy has a quote calling the The Emperor's Children a "masterly comedy of manners."  On the back cover there are more quotes likening the novel to the writing of Edith Wharton and Tom Wolfe.  I wouldn't quite describe it in the same way.  Although there are some great passages, overall it wasn't particularly insightful or funny.  Or maybe too much time has passed.  I can imagine that when the novel was first published it presented an interesting take on September 11th and a certain slice of American life but now, not so much.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bookish Television and a Read-a-Thon

The Librarians on TNT

A few years ago I came across a movie called The Librarian: Quest for the Spear.  Noah Wyle plays a Flynn, a life long student who has twenty-two academic degrees.  He loves learning and school, but alas, the time has come for him to get a job.  For someone who loves the pursuit of knowledge this seem disastrous.  That is until Flynn gets a job as a librarian at a very unusual institution.

I'm not going to lie - I love this movie.  Wyle as Flynn is a sort of nerdy Indiana Jones.  Being a librarian, life long student, and lover of books myself, how I could not?  I mean, he's a librarian who goes on adventures around the world.  Plus there's Jane Curtin (SNL, Kate & Allie, 3rd Rock from the Sun) and Bob Newhart (multiple versions of the Bob Newhart show) as fellow librarians.  What's not to love?

Two more movies followed after this: The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines in 2006 and The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice in 2008.  Now Wyle is going to reprise his role as Flynn for a new tv series called The Librarians on TNT.  The show premiers on December 7.  I can hardly wait!

Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon

Mark your calendars for Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon to take place on October 18.  I first heard about this last year but failed to sign up in time to participate.  This year I'm all signed up and ready to take on the challenge of reading for 24 straight hours.  Okay, maybe not a full 24 hours.  I will inevitably take a nap or two, or three.  Still, I like the idea of a day to dedicated to reading.  I will be reading and posting about it, probably just short updates about my progress rather than long reviews.

More information about the history of the the Read-a-Thon, the people behind it, and information about how to sign up is available on the group's website.  Keep in mind that even though you participate in your own space it is a group effort.  There will be cheerleaders to cheer readers on and door prizes.  I'm so excited!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Challenge Check In: Epics, Erotica, Westerns and Royalty

In January 2014 I took on four reading challenges: Goodreads, Mount TBR, Literary Exploration, and What’s In a Name.  The Goodreads challenge is simply to read a certain number of books during the year.  This has been the easiest of the four challenges, so easy that I have upped my goal twice already.  My goal now is to read to 80 books, leaving 8 to go.  Mount TBR has been the hardest of the challenges.  More than anything Mount TBR has shown how much I acquire new books rather than turning to my ever growing to-be-read pile.  Of the 72 books I’ve read so far this year, only 22 were books I acquired before 2014.  The rest were either bought this year or borrowed from a library.  Really need to focus on tackling the backlog. 

As for the Literary Exploration and Name challenges, by the beginning of September I was down to a book with a title that references royalty and three genres – epic, erotica, and western, four if cyberpunk is added as a bonus.  Part of the fun and confusion of the Literary Exploration is trying to define a genre and figuring out what book to read for it.  I’m still not sure why “contemporary” is a genre (it seems too vast a category, like calling fiction a genre).  Literary fiction is another hard one to define one.  Some genres I have a vague idea about but was otherwise unfamiliar with, like western.  For western and erotica I took the easy route.  For western I found a mystery, The Cold Dish.  For erotica I found a book with the name of the genre in the title, Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2.  Both were fun and interesting reads, and both genres are ones I would be willing to explore more.  Guess the Literary Exploration challenge is working.

That leaves two more books reads to complete the Literary Exploration and Name challenges, epic and royalty, but these shouldn’t be a problem, although they may take a while to get through.  For epic I plan to read A Feast of Crows.  For royalty I’m working on The Emperor’s Children.  With any luck these challenges will be completed by the end of November and I’ll have December to read whatever I want.  As much as I like doing these challenges it will be nice to be done and to be able to pick a book just because without thinking about the challenges I still have to complete.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery I don’t think I have ever read a western before.  At the mention of western my mind immediately goes to (went to) cowboy and Indian stories, stage coach robberies, and car chases except with horses instead of cars - not historically my cup of tea.  But western is is one of the the genres in the Literary Exploration challenge (which I am slowly but surely completing), so it was time to give the genre a try.  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a shoot ‘em up at the O.K. Corral so I did some research with the hope of finding something else, and found Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish.
The plot starts out simple enough.  Four teenage boys rape a mentally challenged Cheyenne girl.  They were caught, convicted, and spent more time on parole than in jail.  Fast forward to present day and one of the rapists, long since out of jail, ends up dead.  Maybe the murder is related to rape, maybe not – that’s the first question Sheriff Walt Longmire must answer.  If it is related to the rape, then Longmire has to protect three boys he can barely stomach looking at.

The Cold Dish felt a little like a cheat because it is a western mystery (I was suppose to read a western remember), which got me thinking, what makes a western a western?  Is it setting and landscape, or is there more to it than that?  The Cold Dish is set in contemporary times amidst a rural backdrop.  There are no cowboys but there are Native Americans, Cheyenne to be exact.  Absaroka County, the fictional county where Longmire is sheriff, is clearly not a city or middle class suburbia.  People are not squeezed into apartments or houses that are mere inches from their neighbors, but are spread out on  ranches and trailers.  People have land, not just a house.  Despite being spread out people tend to know most everybody else and their business. 

I liked The Cold Dish but then it is a mystery so there was always a good chance that would happen.  It had many of the hallmarks of a good mystery and good story generally.  The characters are well drawn and interesting.  There was tension and a genuine mystery.  I was surprised by how the mystery was resolved.  What was new to me was the rural Wyoming setting, which was definitely a refreshing change from the gritty streets of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  Beyond the setting, I'm still not sure what makes a western a western.  I did like this enough to not only try another book in the series, but to also try more westerns.  Next time I think I'll for something classic, like Lonesome Dove.