Thursday, May 30, 2013

Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

(0 stars: DNF)

Have we cultivated plants, or have they cultivated us? Pollan argues that the sweetness of the apple, the beauty of the tulip, the intoxication of marihuana, and the control offered by the potato have shaped humankind - not the other way around.

I was kind of enjoying this book's combination of botany and cultural history (a la Malcolm Gladwell) until I hit the section on marijuana and the tenuous connections Pollan draws between it and religion. I just couldn't. I don't buy it when writers offer thinly supported materialistic explanations of religious phenomena, and I found Pollan's ponderings on the "profound" thoughts experienced by those who are high ridiculous. Also, his metaphors and literary references are sometimes a stretch that require too much credulity for me to follow. (Johnny Appleseed is not Dionysius. Sorry. No.)

I couldn't even make it to the potato, which is a shame because I love potatoes.

The best part of the book for me came near the end of the first section on apples, when Pollan visits a tree library full of seeds that come from Kazakhstan, the cradle of the original apple tree. His description of the tulip bulb speculation craze in Holland barely touches on a very interesting time in history, one I would love to read a book about. If there had been more history and science, and less pseudo-philosophical maundering, I would have enjoyed it more (and probably finished it).

But it's the kind of layman's science and history that has stopped seeming clever to me because these books tend to be sloppy with the details - too caught up in drawing broad, easy conclusions from sketchy knowledge. Journalists rarely make great science writers when short pieces are made book-length.

If you loved this book, sorry. If you want other books that combine cultural history and science, check these out:
Susan Orleans' book The Orchid Thief, which has fascinating details about orchids
Any of Malcolm Gladwell's books, especially The Tipping Point
Tulipomania by Mike Dash tells the full story of the Dutch tulip craze

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical VirusRabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tracing rabies from its primordial beginnings to modern outbreaks, this cultural history is a fascinating introduction to a disease that embodies our deepest fears.

I class this book as horror because rabies is a disease of nightmares, causing aggression and hydrophobia in its hosts before mercilessly killing them 100% of the time. And the perfect host is your trusty dog. Truth can be more terrible than fiction. Though rabies is largely under control in the U.S., 35,000 people still die worldwide every year.

Wasik and Murphy trace the history of rabies and humanity's response to its ravages from Babylon to the European "Middle Rages" to modern times. They discussion other zoonotic plagues (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) like swine flu, Ebola, and AIDS. There is a fascinating chapter on the story of Bali's recent fight against rabies. Controlling zoonotic diseases carries all sorts of cultural implications, embedded as they are within people's attitudes toward dogs and other animals.

Dogs at the Bali clinic.
2010 article in the Sydney Herald: Rabid dogs bite a chunk out of Bali's tourist trade

My favorite part was the fascinating account of Louis Pasteur's creation of the science of immunology with his breakthrough rabies vaccine. Pasteur is my science hero: he tackled terrible diseases and saved people's lives with careful scientific experimentation paired with intellectual ingenuity. Pasteur and his assistants showed incredible courage, too. The only way to get samples is to take them from live, infected animals: back then, a bite was a terrifying death sentence.
A paragraph that grabbed my attention (as background, the only way to test for rabies in animals is to examine their brain tissue.):
"Now, after two years of sawing, we feel we have finally finished the job, and are pleased to ship it off to you, the reader. Come to think of it: in the case of a fox, or a cat, or even a toy-breed dog, the severed head might weigh just about the same as the book in your hands right now. Hold it in your outstretched palms, why don't you, and close you eyes. Not very heavy, is it?" - p. 11-12.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Trailers

Lately for a class project I've been designing a book trailer for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, one of my favorite YA novels. Working on it with my project partner has made me appreciate how gorgeous other book trailers are, and how utterly inept I am at original design.

In my hunt for inspiration I ran across this blog post, which has a ton of gorgeous and funny trailers. They're all polished and excellent, so I highly recommend checking it out. Here are a few of my personal favorites from that list, which was created by the Bullit County Public Library staff:

The London Eye Mystery

Logical, weather-obsessed Ted puts his unusual mind to work figuring out just how his cousin Salim vanished from the top of the London Eye.

Ted has Asperger's syndrome (though never directly identified as such in the text, it's fairly obvious) and like his counterpart from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he puts his unique, high-functioning brain to work on solving a mystery - this one his cousin's frightening disappearance.

Ted usually has his eyes on the clouds: his syndrome keeps him from empathizing with the people around him, though it doesn't keep him from making keen observations about the way things work. There is a certain tone of detachment that is almost unavoidable with autistic narrators, and it can undercut the emotional weight of a story like this. His connection to his sister Kat didn't quite work for me, and the rest of the adult characters spend large chunks of time ignoring him or telling him to be quiet.

Still, it's a well-constructed mystery with all the clues laid out for the reader to see along with Kat and Ted. It's The Curious Incident for younger readers, though it is not always successful in its depiction of Ted's unusual ways of thinking and feeling.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best known for her role as Kelly Kapoor in The Office, comedian and writer Mindy Kaling gives you more than just her life's story in this funny memoir.

Mindy Kaling is only 34. She does not have enough life experience to write a memoir. But since when did that stop anyone? And I, for one, am glad she did. Between stories of her childhood, you'll find lists of "Franchises I Would Like to Reboot", "My Favorite Eleven Moments in Comedy" or my personal favorite, "Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real." She also dispenses plenty of unsolicited advice for married couples, guys, and whoever plans her funeral.

It won't even take you long to read! According to the author: “This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It’s mostly pink. If you’re reading this book every night for months, something is not right.” She's right. It's the perfect book to bring to the beach and polish off in a weekend.

This memoir was written in 2011, before the last season of The Office and the start of her own show, The Mindy Project - which leads me to hope that she'll write a follow-up that is just as warm and witty. And go out for cocktails with me, because that sounds fun.

Definitely pair this with Tina Fey's Bossypants, the audiobook version of Kristin Chenowith's A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages, and/or Yael Kohen's nonfiction book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. (Both Fey and Chenowith narrate their own audiobooks, and it is well worth checking out these two performers, especially if you've never listened to an audiobook before.)

Further words of wisdom from Mindy:
  • “As my mom has said, when one person is unhappy, it usually means two people are unhappy but that one has not come to terms with it yet.”
  • “I really think guys only need two pairs of shoes. A nice pair of black shoes and a pair of Chuck Taylors.”
  • “There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Only sixteen, Hazel is a "professional sick person" with terminal cancer - then she meets the charming Augustus Waters, who makes her reexamine her ideas about what we leave behind when we die.

In spite of rave reviews from everyone I know, I put off reading The Fault for a long time. As expected, I sniffled my way through the last fifty pages of this beautiful, beautiful book. And laughed through the rest. It's funny, deep, and heartbreaking.

Green never writes down to teens: Hazel and Gus are smart and tough. Their romance is swoony and sad without veering into cheesy movie-of-the-week territory (I'm looking at you, Love Story.)

Without being didactic, the book celebrates great poets and writers who say what the rest of us can only feel. Hazel and Gus connect over her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (don't try to buy it - it's fake literature. And all of us are glad that Green didn't try anything frustrating and literary at the end of The Fault the way Peter van Houten did!). The two teens quote T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens to each other and argue against easy platitudes that on deeper reflection say nothing at all.

Should you read this book? Are you a person who will one day have to confront death? Since I've only ruled out vampires, then yes, you need to read this book.

Another YA writer who combines real wit and pathos is Sherman Alexie. If you still have tears left, try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (But not in the same week, because you may dehydrate.)

Anne Frank is one of the writers Gus and Hazel pay tribute to, so definitely read (or reread) The Diary of a Young Girl.

In the acknowledgements, Green recommends a book about the history of cancer called The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee for those who want to know more.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tell Us We're Home

Tell Us We're HomeTell Us We're Home by Marina Budhos
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Three friends whose mothers are all housekeepers in their affluent town drift apart as each girl struggles separately to find a place in America where she can feel at home.

Each girl is an immigrant from a different country: Jaya is from Trinidad, Maria is from Mexico, and Lola is from Slovakia. They were originally drawn together by shared feelings of alienation from the wealthy Americans around them and the fact that their mothers are all maids.

After Jaya Lal's mother's employer suffers a massive heart attack, Mrs. Lal is suspected of stealing some valuable jewelry and fired. Jaya secretly wonders if the accusations might be true.

Maria meets a handsome blanco boy and offers to give him Spanish lessons as a way to get close. She secretly struggles with feelings of envy for the privileged lives of the Americans her mother works for.

Lola (my favorite of the three) is sharp-tongued and outspoken, and frustrated with her depressed father's unwillingness to find work. She resents her own outsider status at school, but everything she does to stand up for herself pushes people further away.

The story is heavily invested in character development and is told in a non-linear way, with plenty of flashbacks and descriptions. (At first, it was difficult to follow the main thread of the story and to know which character's POV I was following.) Each girl comes to a revelation about herself and her relationship to her new country, but other than that there is little resolution to their problems.

It's not the kind of book I typically gravitate toward, and for me it was just okay. Too slow-moving, and I found myself getting irritated with the girls for devaluing their mothers' hard work by being ashamed of them. It was frustrating how the affluent white characters were stereotypes and were characterized as "the enemy" even though the girls made almost no attempts to get to know their white classmates as people.

It's the kind of book grownups want kids to love, but that doesn't offer a compelling story to hold their attention, and is deadly serious without any levity to liven things up. Definitely for older teens with literary tastes. For my YA realistic fiction, I'll stick with John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) or Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) who both have a much-needed sense of humor when tackling difficult issues.

Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Grisha come for Alina when they realize she is one of them: powerfully gifted, and destined to help rid their land of the terrible darkness of the Unsea.

Alina grew up as a peasant in an orphanage with her best friend Mal before they both joined the army. She doesn't believe she has any magic, but the Darkling, leader of the elite magicians known as the Grisha, understands exactly what she is and how to increase her power. They take her far from Mal, who Alina is in love with, and into the unfamiliar opulence of the king's court.

Alina is soon plunged into Grisha training and the deeply entangled politics of the king's court, where the Darkling is the real power. Slowly, Alina begins to hope that she can help the Grisha heal a diseased portion of land called the Unsea, which is inhabited by flesh-eating monsters and divides the kingdom of Ravka in half.

Shadow and Bone is set in a fantasy version of feudal Russia, complete with a weakened royal family and a Rasputin-like adviser called the Apparat. There's plenty of adventure, some great romance, and a terrible threat in the form of the shadowy Unsea. It's an impressive first novel, and I've already bought the sequel, Siege and Storm, which comes out on June 4th. The final book is Ruin and Rising, scheduled for 2014.

Shadow and Bone adds to all the excellent fantasy being published today that stars strong and interesting heroines. (I'm in book heaven!) If you've read it and can't stand to wait for the sequels, check out these series in the meantime:

  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which is set in Prague and features a blue-haired art student named Karou who sketches monsters.
  • I loved Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, which has a strong medieval Europe setting and one of the coolest takes on dragons I've seen in a long time.
  • For those looking for fantasy worlds that are non-European, try Eon (and its sequel Eona, which completes the story) by Alison Goodman. It's set in a fantasy version of China and Japan and has plot elements similar to Shadow and Bone. Plus, more dragons!
  • Or for a book set in modern-day London that has cool magic, two fantastic male leads, and a series that's already complete, try The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

UPDATE: I helped create a trailer for this book! You can view it here.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Frankie Landau-Banks goes from "Bunny Rabbit" to criminal mastermind during her sophomore year at the exclusive Alabaster Prep boarding school.

When Frankie starts dating Matthew Livingston, she feels that she has been given a window into his world of confident privilege and power. And she desperately wants to belong in her own right, not just as a pretty girl the boys underestimate. She discovers the existence of the male-only Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds and secretly begins pulling their strings, orchestrating larger and more elaborate pranks.

This is one of my favorite YA books. Frankie is smart, her pranks are genuinely clever and funny, and she is as conflicted and occasionally insecure as any other ordinary high-school girl. Unlike most high school girls, though, she knows exactly what she wants and often has a good idea of how to get it. (This is also the book that introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse, for which I shall be eternally grateful.)

Written like an anthropological study (or a profile of the criminal mind at work), The Disreputable History chronicles one ambitious, smart girl's year of coming into her own. A book club or an English class could probably spend a quarter analyzing the power dynamics at play, Frankie's ideas about rebellion against the Panopticon, or how each character (male and female) represents a different response to patriarchy.

What to read after you're finished:
The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver by E. Lockhart - for your next fix of clever, feminist chick lit.
The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, edited by Gregory Sholette - "interventionists" create art to bring awareness to issues of injustice (Lockhart cites this in the afterward).
The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse - For a hilarious look into the machinations of the Old Boys' Club by "a prose stylist of such startling talent that Frankie nearly skipped around with glee when she first read some of his phrases." Amen.
Team Human by Justine Larbalesteir - another YA writer who consistently writes strong and believable female heroines.

A few of my favorite quotes from the book:
  • "Secrets are more powerful when people know you've got them," said Mr. Sutton. "You show them the tiniest edge of your secret, but the rest you keep under wraps."
  • "It had been, she felt, a dumb event preceded by excellent invitations."
  • "She wasn't a person who needed to be liked so much as she was a person who liked to be notorious."
  • "Frankie did not accept life as it was presently occurring."
  • “It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can’t see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people.”

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Idealistic Jim Holden discovers a derelict spaceship and unwittingly ignites a deadly war; meanwhile, run-down cop Detective Miller searches for a missing woman who may have the key to it all.

Growing tensions between Earth, Mars, and the scattered stations of the Belt lead to war in a galaxy where human annihilation is as simple as throwing rocks into a planet's atmosphere. The stars remain unreachable because human curiosity has stagnated amidst age-old societal problems. The ethnic racism of the past has turned into racism based on what level of gravity a person grew up in. Enter our heroes.

The starship Scopuli was empty when Jim Holden stumbled upon it, but someone is willing to start a war that could make humans extinct just to hide the truth behind its vanished crew. In the ensuing chaos, the fate of Julie Mao is easy to overlook. But Detective Miller, once a good cop and now burnt out alcoholic, finds himself drawn to the missing woman and determined to track her down.

This book is a perfect cocktail of horror, noir crime fiction, and space opera. It's science fiction that's all about the characters - an idealist and a cynic - and the disappointing parts of human nature. It's fast-moving, tense, and in places utterly terrifying - which is everything good space opera should be. (It reminded me of Firefly, too, which is awesome!) The story is dark, but because of the balance of likable characters it manages to be optimistic about human potential rather than veering into nihilism.

Leviathan Wakes feels like a self-contained story and can stand alone pretty well, but I'm definitely going to pick up the sequel, Caliban's War, as well as the third book of the Expanse series, Abaddon's Gate.

Final observations:
  • The mystery element and world-building made me think of Isaac Asimov's classic The Caves of Steel.
  • The authors (James S.A. Corey is actually the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) mention being influenced by the Dread Empire's Fall series by Walter Jon Williams, which starts with The Praxis.
  • I would say it's the best space opera I've read since A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.
  • Vomit zombies

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wisdom of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Mothers at their wits' end find cures for childhood diseases such as Wont-Pick-Up-Toys, Selfishness, Fighter-Quarreler-itis, and others, from the wise and kind Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's house is upside down and smells of cookies - it's a natural haven for every child in the neighborhood. And her phone is usually ringing because of a frustrated parent seeking her tactful wisdom. With Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cure kits and sound advice, parents learn how to teach their misbehaving children valuable lessons about growing up and getting along.

My favorite story in this collection had to be the last, where a mother and father team up to show their twin daughters how constant quarreling looks from the outside. Many of the ailments and cures are absurdly exaggerated and so humorously portrayed that they don't come across as preachy morality tales: one little girl won't wash, so her parents plant radishes in the dirt on her skin; one boy has so many wonderful toys he won't pick up that he gets trapped in his room and has to be fed through the window; and a chronic answer-backer sees her mirror image in a rude parrot named Penelope.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous WeaponBomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sheinkin tells the riveting story of how people discovered the secrets of the atom bomb - some with careful brainstorming at Los Alamos, some by reading stolen documents delivered by spies. There is heroic sabotage, principled deceit, and a breakneck race to build the world's first superweapon before the enemy does. The development of the atomic bomb was a critical moment for humanity, and Sheinkin gives us all the twists and turns that led to the fateful flight of the Enola Gay and the long arms race of the Cold War.

It is a story everyone should know. "In the end, it is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history's most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it's also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It's a story with no end in sight. "And, like it or not, you're in it." - p. 236

Add this book to your reading list with John Hersey's Hiroshima and Richard Rhodes' books The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. If those sound too intimidating, then check out Peter Seller's absurdist comedy Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. You'll laugh so hard you might cry.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Eona (Eon, #2)Eona by Alison Goodman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Now on the run and trying to uncover the secrets of the spirit dragons to help heal the Empire, Eona must decide who to trust - and who to love.

How Eona feels throughout the book:

How I felt:
Queen of England Looking at her nails Olympics 2012 London Bored Queen Elizabeth During Opening Ceremonies

Maybe I'm just too old for all this angsty sturm und drang. Eona has so many feelings. (A lot happens in this long book, but to me it felt slow because of all the exhausting emotional beats Eona hits.) Still learning to be comfortable in her true identity as a woman after spending years disguised as a boy, Eona also struggles to balance the demands of her incredible power with her loyalty to the Emperor.

She feels the dark draw of the pleasures of power, embodied in Lord Ito (gag me), who is as rapey, unrepentant and manipulative as ever. Still, she is drawn to him and able to be honest in ways she does not dare with Emperor Kyto - even though Kyto has given her a position of supreme authority and trust. Her Mirror Dragon may represent the virtue of Truth, but Eona can't seem to stop lying even to the people she loves most: and her every misstep places those around her in terrible danger.

For those who loved Eon, this book definitively concludes the duology and deals with the complex emotions of power, love, guilt, and desire. For me, it could have been shorter.


FeedFeed by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

Titus and his friends are products of the Feed: a never-ending stream of advertising and information implanted into their brains. During an ordinary trip to the Moon, Titus meets the smart, beautiful Violet. When a protester hacks their minds, the teens lose contact with the Feed and for the first time get an inkling that there may be a better way to live.

As unsettling and soul-scarring as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Feed is one of those novels that will grow in your subconscious long after you've finished it. Titus is as self-absorbed as Holden Caulfield, but far less articulate. Titus's dystopia is much more Brave New World than 1984, where the affluent are lulled into lives of mindless consumption. Hairstyles change within hours, the oozing lesions everyone has developed become a fashion statement, and School is a trademark, not a place.

Stray observations:
  • The pulsing red fields of filet mignon that Titus thinks are part of nature have never quite left my psyche. *Queasiness*
  • TV show from the Feed: Oh? Wow! Thing!
  • Song lyrics for a love song from the Feed: I like you so bad / And you like me so bad. / We are so bad / It would be bad / If we did not get together, baby, / Bad baby, / Bad, bad baby. / Meg bad.
  • "That's one of the great things about the feed - that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit." - 47

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shade's Children

Shade's ChildrenShade's Children by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unless you escape, by age fourteen the Overlords will come to harvest you for parts. If you manage to survive the well-organized hunters, you just may find refuge with Shade and help him destroy the Overlords. And if Shade doesn't send you on a suicide mission, you may make it to adulthood. Maybe.

Fifteen years ago every adult over the age of fourteen vanished in the Change. Soon the world was crawling with creatures who locked up the remaining children to be farmed for parts. On their Sad Birthday, children are taken away and suffer a fate worse than death: they are transformed into creatures who fight in the Overlord's incomprehensible war games and hunt stray children.

In this hostile world, escapees Gold-Eye, Ella, Ninde, and Drum have to rely on each other to survive. They become guerrilla soldiers in fight they don't fully understand, pawns in the hands of the sole remaining adult: Shade, who has a plan for taking down the Overlords. But Shade isn't exactly human anymore.

Garth Nix wrote a completely chilling post-apocalyptic world with unstoppable foes and untrustworthy allies that completely blows The Maze Runner out of the water on every level. I read it with a knot in my stomach, which is a sign of good sci-fi horror. Fans of Nix's Abhorsen trilogy will be satisfied by this pitch-black story of survival in the face of inhuman enemies.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Coraline: The Graphic Novel

Coraline: The Graphic NovelCoraline: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Story:
The Other Mother is a better version of Coraline's real mother, with one key difference: she has buttons for eyes, and she wants to make Coraline just like her.

Coraline is one of my favorite children's books: it's one of the most deliciously sinister horror stories I've ever read, and there is zero gore. Gaiman is the master of dark fantasy, and this book deserves a place with the classics. Coraline becomes a true heroine as her courage and ingenuity are tested by her attempts to outwit the Other Mother and return to her own world.

It's a short and apparently simple book, but it will haunt your dreams.

The Art:
To me, the images were too bright and clean for this dark story. I kept imagining the gorgeous animation of the 3D film and wishing the art here had a little more atmosphere to convey the extremes of delight and dread that Coraline experiences.

In the book the Other Mother is at first beautiful and charming enough to gain Coraline's trust, but in these images the effect of the button eyes makes her the clear villain when she is introduced. (Though the cat was perfect.) Admittedly, I hardly came to the story fresh since I've read the book and seen the movie so many times. It's the old problem of your own imagination supplying scarier images than any movie or drawing ever could.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Eon (Eon, #1)Eon by Alison Goodman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eon wants more than anything to be accepted by a spirit dragon and become a Dragoneye - but to do so he must hide his true identity: Eon is Eona, a girl.

Eon's life is dangerous and difficult enough: she suffers from a maimed hip and is seen as unlucky. It may hide her from the danger of discovery, but it makes her question her ability to complete the trials necessary to prove she is strong enough to commune with the spirit dragons. But getting what she wants plunges her into more danger than she could have imagined, and her inability to tell the truth may destroy everyone around her.

Goodman is doing some interesting things with gender identity in this book: Eon is befriended by Lady Dela, a transgendered woman who is at home in her identity in ways that Eon cannot afford to be. This fantasy world, heavily modeled after ancient Chinese and Japanese Imperial cultures, is also full of eunuchs (Eon pretends to be one to explain her girlish looks) and slaves. Maleness and femininity are key to to story, and are forces that change the balance of power in Eon's deeply sexist world.

It's a longish book, full of angst and political intrigue. (It's great to see an intricate fantasy world modeled on Asian culture, but the names feel like random fantasy names: there is Kyto, Ryko and Dillon. It's a bit jarring. Dillon? Goodman could have thought about that one a little longer.) Eon can be frustratingly thick-headed sometimes, but I definitely want to find out what happens in the conclusion to the duology.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Convenient Marriage

Horatia is not the Beauty of her family, but when wealthy Lord Rule asks for her sister's hand in marriage, Horatia makes him an offer he can't refuse and enters a loveless marriage of convenience to save her family from ruin.

Horatia is no shy beauty, in spite of her stammer and the fact that she is only seventeen. The scene where she basically proposes marriage to the male lead is funny and classic Heyer. Once wed, Horatia makes good use of Lord Rule's fortune, racking up gambling debts and buying outrageous hats and gowns. She's soon the Talk of the Town, and slowly her honesty and charm begin to woo the heart of her faithless husband.

Unfortunately, Horatia doesn't realize that her marriage has created new enemies and stirred the interest of Lord Rule's oldest foe: the suave Lord Lethbridge, who sees a way to get revenge on the husband through his new bride.

This Heyer book rarely disappoints, and provides duels and trickery worthy of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas or The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. There is one duel in particular that is exciting and atmospheric (though given the villain's truly awful crimes I wish it had ended more lethally).

Unfortunately, there is so much plot that we get very few scenes between the unfortunately nicknamed "Horry" and Lord Rule, so I found the chemistry lacking a bit. It would have helped me buy the romance between a naive 17-year-old and a jaded 35-year-old.

Horry's ne'er-do-well brother Pelham and his bumbling attempts to help her recover a lost piece of jewelry reminded me of a drunker version of Bertie Wooster (which may have been what Heyer intended since she named the brother Pelham, which is author P.G. Wodehouse's first name).

In short, there is enough romance, action, and humor to appeal to the most discerning reader!

(And yes, that is the ridiculous cover of my book. Oh 1975, you have a lot to answer for.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Little Brother

In the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, Marcus and his friends are scooped up by the Department of Homeland Security and reemerge into a world where freedom is a thing of the past. Angry and determined to take back his country, Marcus organizes an underground protest movement with one goal: take down the DHS.

Cory Doctorow is the Ayn Rand of the Creative Commons movement, and if you're interested in arguments about the future of copyright law you should check out his writings. This novel is a thinly veiled attempt to portray Doctorow's idea of a worst-case scenario with an out-of-control American government that trades civil rights and privacy for the illusion of security.

Instead of "going Galt," Doctorow's hero Marcus Yallow "goes M1k3y" and orchestrates a protest movement against the DHS's encroachments on civil liberties using his tech know-how and a group of plugged-in allies. It's a great David verses Goliath setup, and the title refers to Marcus's desire to create plenty of Little Brothers who monitor the government.

The story moves along quickly in the first half and runs out of steam halfway thanks to some heavy-handed moralizing against a few cliched black hats.

My favorite parts came near the beginning, when Marcus explains a "web of trust" and other basics of cryptography. The story touches on Alan Turing, anarchist Emma Goldman, Kerouac's On the Road, Yippies, the Declaration of Independence, the Beats, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (where Doctorow worked for four years), the Pirate Party, TOR, and much more. (There's a great afterward/bibliography written by Doctorow that the curious should check out even if you decide not to read the novel.) I do wonder how relevant this book will be in twenty years, since its tech and cultural references are very au courant.

Final observations:

  • "Don't trust anyone over 25" is a stupid motto.
  • The press: everyone's whipping boy!
  • In light of an entire American city going on lockdown in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, it seemed like a good time to read this book and think about security and privacy issues.
  • Fans of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline may enjoy this book!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Amulet of Samarkand

The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus, #1)The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When a young apprentice magician summons the djinn Bartimaeus to steal a magical amulet, both djinn and boy discover that revenge is often more trouble than it's worth.

Nathaniel lives in an alternate, contemporary London where ambitious, and selfish magicians are the ruling elite. Someday he'll be one himself, and he's made a good start: at age twelve, he's made an enemy and feels a burning desire for revenge. His life is harsh, but Nathaniel is clever and he knows just how he wants to get even. He's also a lonely boy starved for attention and affection who takes refuge in amassing power and becoming every bit as touchy and self-important as the magicians around him.

Bartimaeus is a jaded, 5,000-year-old djinn who lives by his wits and sees human masters as temporary annoyances until he can figure out a way to pull the rug out from under them and get a little revenge of his own. He is surprised to see how young his new master is, but that doesn't make the boy any less able to order him around - to the proud djinn's irritation. Bartimaeus' side of the story is told in first person, and he's a hilarious narrator who makes frequent asides that make his scorn for humanity and his pride in his own cleverness apparent.

It's been a while since I read a fantasy book that pulled me in like this one. The characters are deeply flawed but still likable, and I have high hopes for Nathaniel's future character development (where I hope his personality will be leavened under the snarky guidance of the djinn). There are hints of a much-needed revolution happening in London, possibly led by a mysterious girl whose power even Bartimaeus doesn't understand. It's an intriguing world, and I can't wait to see more of it!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Negro League Baseball's Unsung Heroes

We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League BaseballWe are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the untold story of the Negro League, which for thirty years before integration not only drew bigger crowds than the all-white major league baseball teams but also had stars every bit as gifted as Babe Ruth (possibly more gifted, but we'll never know for sure).

Kadir Nelson tells the story with an Everyman narrator and through his vivid paintings. Nelson explains in the Author's Note: "I chose to present the voice of the narrator as a collective voice, the voice of every player, the voice of we. Under the leadership of Rube Foster, who declared the leagues' independence from major league baseball by saying, 'We are the ship; all else the sea,' the owners and players formed and sustained a successful league, demonstrating the power of the collective."

This quote also explains the terrible name of the book, which certainly doesn't scream "Baseball" at potential readers and seems to guarantee that interested kids won't find it unless a parent or teacher hands it to them. As an object the book is also awkwardly large and square to accommodate the illustrations. Sadly, there are no period photographs, just Nelson's paintings. Don't get me wrong - the paintings are lovely, but based on those alone I doubt I would recognize the major Negro League stars in real life photos. The illustrations are simply not nuanced enough, and after looking up some of the stars I don't think Nelson got the resemblances very well.

The Negro League played baseball that was swift, thrilling, and "tricky" according to Cool Papa Bell, a legendary outfielder. The descriptions of the rough-and-tumble League are enough to make you wish for a little of that old spirit and excitement in modern baseball. The narrative style conveys this excitement well, making the story zip along and feel authentic. Even those who know little about baseball will find it a quick and fascinating read, and may be inspired to pick up some of the books listed in the bibliography to learn more about the larger-than-life personalities of the Negro League's best players. (Or to watch the film 42, about Jackie Robinson.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Team Human

Team HumanTeam Human by Justine Larbalestier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When her best friend falls for the hot undead guy in their class, Mel desperately tries to keep lovestruck Cathy from becoming a vampire herself - a decision that could be Cathy's last.

How can you not love a book with the tagline "Friends don't let friends date vampires"? For everyone who feels guilty about reading Twilight and its sequels in two days, do yourself a favor and try the Team Human antidote: a story about female friendship, free will, and how being smitten doesn't necessarily mean you've lost your mind or given up who you are.

There are a few stories at work here: that of Cathy and her new boyfriend who is about a century too old for her; Mel's other best friend Anna, who has asked Mel to help her find out more about her father's decision to run away with a vampire; and Mel's own romance with a funny, charming guy who happens to live with vampires. When she meets Kit, who has been raised in a vampire shade, Mel find her prejudices challenged and her own romance developing.

Mel is a little confused about boys, but who doesn't make bad romantic choices in high school? She also has to overcome her anti-vampire prejudices (except thankfully not the reasonable ones, like being nervous around apex predators) and figure out what she wants in her own life, too. She's fiercely loyal and not afraid to speak her mind or act when she thinks her friends are in trouble. In short, she's the anti-Bella: a funny, feminist ABC (American-born Chinese) who cares about her friends and has definite opinions on why it might suck to become a blood-sucking immortal.

Larbalesteir and Rees Brennan take a spoofy idea and weave it into a surprisingly moving story that has a lot of heart.

Larbalesteir has several other books with awesome female protagonists, including Liar, which was recently part of a controversy that had to do with a whitewashed cover (more at her blog. She's also married to fellow author Scott Westerfield, whose sci-fi dystopia Uglies is a best-seller, along with the steampunk Leviathan trilogy.

Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of The Lyburn Legacy trilogy, which begins with Unspoken.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Color of Earth

The Color of Earth (Color Trilogy, #1)The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ehwa becomes a beautiful young woman under the kindly eye of her widowed mother, whose words of wisdom teach Ehwa about love and the physical changes of growing up.

The tone of the prose is gentle as Ehwa discovers the joys and pains of first love. The art in this book is undeniably lovely, but after a while the many extended poetic metaphors went from pretty to cloying.

I appreciated the loving and frank relationship between Ehwa and her mother, but I can also understand why parents may object to the nudity and sexual content of this book. At the same time, I think that The Color of Earth could help parents talk to their children - particularly daughters - about the physical changes that come with puberty, changes which can feel overwhelming (and be an embarrassing subject to discuss).

The Trouble With Books...

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother used to claim "The Devil led us to the wrong crib." It mostly got worse from there, culminating in the author leaving home at 16 because she was in love with a woman.

Why do I dislike this book? I think it's because it is written in present tense, and that technique always irritates me with its melodramatic breathlessness. Also, I think I am suspicious of memoirs in general, and creative nonfiction ones in particular. They are so personal, so subjective.

It is also difficult to tell your sad story without sounding self-pitying, and difficult to tell of your triumphs without being self-aggrandizing. Winterson misses the necessary tone to avoid these pitfalls, and I feel a bit cheated because I went into this book hoping it would be humorous because of the title and cover art. (Which goes to show the truth of the maxim about judging books by their cover.)

Parts of the author's life are fascinating: growing up in a working-class family in Manchester; a youthful project of reading the books in her library alphabetically because she knew so little about literature she couldn't think of a better way to do it; and of course, the difficult, damaged woman who adopted the author as an infant.

I liked the early flashes of defiance she mentions when Mrs. Winterson (which is how she refers to her mother) was cruel: when her mother locked her outside all night, Jeanette would drink all the milk and leave the empty bottles on the stoop. When Mrs. Winterson burned Jeanette's carefully collected hoard of paperbacks, Jeanette answered "Fuck it, I'll write my own" and did.

When Mrs. Winterson disappears from the narrative halfway through the book, the story loses much of its appeal. Jeanette's madness after breaking up with a girlfriend and her search for her birth mother are much less interesting (and veer into oversharing) than the maxims of her adoptive mother, which include "The trouble with books is you never know what's in them until it's too late."

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

April: Books Read

Books Read, with links to my reviews:

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jean Birdsall
East by Edith Pattou
Embassytown by China Miéville
Wonderstruck by Brian Selzick
Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin
Redshirts by John Scalzi
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa
Team Human by Justine Larbalestier
We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

April: Books Bought

Nook Books:
Watership Down by Richard Adams -  I reread this every year, and I've been itching to get it on my Nook. Now I have it! Not that I'm getting rid of my physical copy or anything crazy like that....
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - Deeply funny, and even though I read it years ago I smile every time I think about Ignatius J. Reilly's unique filing system. Nearly time for a reread.
Something About You by Julie James - Recommendation from my cousin, Beth, who increased my list of romance books by a lot during her too-short visit.
Hit Man by Lawrence Block - A hit man with a heart of gold? Perfect.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton - His books are unlike what I normally gravitate toward, but the way he creates characters is so extraordinary that I am back for more. Awkward courtships? I'm in!
Redshirts by John Scalzi - You cannot call yourself a Star Trek fan if you don't know about the many tragic sacrifices made over the decades by eager young redshirts.
Feed by Mira Grant - It was so cheap! It's been on my list for a while! - and the third book in the trilogy was just short-listed for the Hugo, which was my tipping point. (Not to be confused with M.T. Anderson's Feed.)
The Duchess War by Courtney Milan - According to my friend Caitlin, this book is "scrumtrelescent"! How could I miss that?
The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan - Because who can beat the price of FREE?
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick - I loved the movie, and even Kirkus admitted that the book was charming.
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann - Some friends of mine love this book, and I got it for 99 cents.
Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame
by Zev Chafets - So cheap! Yay, Barnes and Noble!
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson - Again, another steal from a favorite author!
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier - Great title, should be fun!
Liar by Justine Larbalestier - Unreliable narrator? Check! Controversial original cover art? Yup.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell - A Nick Hornby recommendation
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie - Y'all, I love my fantasy revenge novels.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan - What about this title isn't great?
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones - I decided to read this for a class, but found that I had loaned out my copy! Curses. So I bought it again on Nook. Yes, it's that good.

Physical Books:
The City & The City by China Miéville - An author who is known for his complexity and originality. My first foray into his works was Kraken, which I enjoyed well enough to seek out more.
The Scar by China Miéville - see above
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester - My love for Master and Commander has made this one an inevitable read, though I don't think anyone can top Patrick O'Brian's incredible series.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie - I cried actual tears when reading this book, which is unusual for me. And it's set near my hometown, where Alexie grew up.
The Edge of the Crazies by Jamie Harrison
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett