UnWholly, Neal Shusterman

I managed to read one book on my two-week vacation to Australia – one. It might be a record low, but I was so busy petting koalas, trying to figure out if the water in toilets ran in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, and learning how to drive on the left side of the road without intermittently screaming that I just couldn’t settle into anything I brought along on the Kindle. I found it much easier to write while I was there, actually, and I spent most mornings regretting that the only computer I brought with me was an iPad; although I normally don’t hate the touch screen keyboard, it’s difficult to write thousands of words in the only position I find convenient to type in on that thing (for the record, balancing it on my knees while sitting in bed or on a couch).

When I finally forced myself to choose something – anything – to read, I ended up with the sequel to UnWind, a fantastic science fiction young adult novel I read last year. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of the sequel (the second book of what I think will be a trilogy), but when it finally came out at the end of August, I didn’t have time to sit down and enjoy it the way I planned. I put it off and put it off until I decided I simply wasn’t going to have opportunity to read a book straight through until December…maybe even January, the way my schedule is looking right now, and I would simply have to live with the fact that this was going to be what I call an “interrupted reading experience.”

Before I quit my teaching job to write fulltime, almost all books were read that way, but I’ve become spoiled in the last two years. I don’t always expect a book to compel me to read it cover to cover in one sitting, but when I have expectations, as I did with UnWholly, I found myself annoyed that it would have to be any other way. As I said, spoiled. The funny thing is, once I started reading, I found that I didn’t want or need to read this one straight through (as I had with the first book). I often have this problem with the second book in a series, regardless of how many books are slated to follow. I find that I’ve worked myself into a lather over a book that is either a pale ripoff of the first or a bridge to the third. This one fell into the latter category.

I was about halfway through it and struggling to connect to characters I had loved in the original novel when I got into a discussion with my best friend (currently living in Sydney – hence the visit) about books we’ve recommended to each other and hated (example rec from me: The Fionavar Trilogy, example rec from her: The Vorkosigan Saga). It was a much more heated conversation than I had been expecting, mainly because 1) we rarely fight, 2) it turns out we have a surprisingly narrow overlapping Venn diagram of taste when it comes to books, and 3) we tend to keep our fanning and our friendship somewhat separate because of reasons 1 and 2. Regardless of reasons 2 and 3, I enjoy talking to her about books and about what makes them special since we have always shared a love of reading, even if we don’t always like the same stories. As a bonus, her intense involvement in fanning communities for the last fifteen years, coupled with a Master’s degree essentially on that subject means she has a fascinating perspective.

This discussion led me to share with her my disappointment in this book I had so anticipated reading. She immediately uncovered the root problem. She asked me, “Did the author create a world you love, or does the book instead revolve around a single, interesting topic? Because if it’s the first, chances are you’ll love the whole series – if it’s the second, you may be in trouble.”  She had nailed it. Shusterman absolutely came up with a brilliant, terrifying idea in the first book, and he told his story about that idea with wonderful characters and a compelling plot. My problem with the second was that the story didn’t provide me with much more than the first had. Also, I felt that the stakes had been lowered in the second book, and since the first was a complete adrenaline rush, it was a let down.

That being said, I’m looking forward to the third one. I can’t stop thinking about this whole “world vs idea” concept, and I find myself hoping that in the final novel, he’ll find a way to bring his big idea into a more fully developed time and place. I also think that although UnWholly is not the book UnWind  managed to be, he has set himself up for a powerful conclusion. Having been so thoroughly impressed by the first novel, and knowing that I’m often more critical of the second, I’ve decided to keep the faith. During a time like this, when women’s health has become a major topic of debate, he is telling an especially important story for a young generation of readers, and I look forward to seeing what he decides to do with this terrifying future he has unleashed.

 

To learn more about Neal Schusterman, head over here.

All Hallow’s Read

I feel like jet lag has sucker punched me in the face, so no review today. In honor of Halloween next week, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you about a tradition begun by Neil Gaiman (I believe it was last year, but I may be misremembering). He suggested that people find a scary book to give to a friend, a child, a co-worker, a trick-or-treater – anyone, really – just to bring a little book lovin’ to the holiday.

 

Here’s the link where Neil himself will tell you all about it. I only gave away one book last year, but I’m hoping to find a couple of good children-appropriate scary stories to hand out this year to the kids who come to our door. Don’t worry though – I’ll also have candy. I wouldn’t dream of depriving a child of the right to free chocolate on this special night…

The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

I have to admit that I have never in my life convinced anyone to read these books. I was in maybe the seventh or eighth grade when I read them for the first time, and I had very few friends at the time who were interested in fantasy. Even the ones who were wouldn’t consent to try them though. To this day, I have no idea why, but I’m still holding a grudge…in fact, I’m pretty sure this could be my super villain origin story. It would unfold with a scene where I’m sitting in front of my bookcase lovingly stroking the tattered covers of some of my favorite books, and all of a sudden, I try to rip them to shreds, fueled by the rage of the perpetually ignored. (I say “try,” because, really, have you ever tried to rip a book apart? It’s ridiculously difficult.) I’m not sure what kind of revenge I could possibly seek for an offense such as this; most likely, the evil version of me would just feel instant regret for destroying books and the rest of the story would be about me trying to repair them, wracked with guilt. Which is one reason why I would make a terrible nemesis.

Nevertheless, I’m still sad that I seem to be the only person on the planet to have read this trilogy (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). The story was so…forlorn. These were some of the first books I read that defined “angst” for me, and although now I don’t go in for such things (much), I still vividly remember the hold that story had over my innocent young heart. There are certain sections that are just worn away from me paging through them again and again. The characters were so quirky and flawed and lovable, and it all took place in one of my favorite fantasy realms.

Many years after I first found these books, I learned that Kay was recruited  by JRR Tolkien’s son to help edit The Silmarillion. Kay has attributed his success in large part to that experience – to the opportunity to glean so much from one of the best fantasy writers of all times. If I’d known that years ago, maybe I would have had more luck selling his books to my friends. I don’t know. I’m not personally a big fan of Tolkien’s work (the only novel of his I truly enjoyed was The Hobbit), so it might have prejudiced me against Kay myself had I known (I can be a little quirky when it comes to that sort of thing). I do, however, agree that having such an incredible opportunity as a young man shaped him as a writer.

Even though I don’t love Tolkien’s work, he is indisputably one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time, and I can see his influence on Kay’s style. The story he tells in these three books is fascinating and heartbreaking – a precursor, for my heart at least, to the books I love by Lev Grossman, The Magicians and The Magician King. Although Grossman’s style is much more modern than Kay’s, like Tolkien, they channel the emotional resonance that exists as the foundation of the very best books this genre has to offer.

To learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay, go here.

The Abyss, Orson Scott Card

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

Is it weird that one of my favorite books is actually an adaptation written to flesh out a movie that had already been made? I’d seen the film many times before I even knew the book existed. I loved it – the special effects, the wonderful characters, the awe and terror of being trapped so deep in the ocean, the aliens – it’s still one of the all-time greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

And yet, the book is better. Card was hired by James Cameron to improve upon the movie script, to give the characters more depth and logical reasoning for taking the actions they do, and in just three chapters, he nails it. That is one of his gifts as a writer; he will make a person care about both the worst human beings and the best in the span of a few lines.

It was especially powerful to see what he could with a story that wasn’t his own. In a world created by another talented artist, he took what was already canon and created completely believable, rich backstories. When I read the book the first time, I actually thought that it must be the basis for the film rather than the reverse – he was that good at taking what had already been created and merging what could be into one amazing story.

This is probably the one instance when I’ll ever suggest watching the movie before reading the book. It’s the only time that the relationship between these two very different formats does not ruin either, but rather, makes each more beautiful.

Interested in Orson Scott Card? Go here. For more on James Cameron, I recommend his twitter feed.

Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

I don’t remember what English class I had to read this for in high school, but I was probably sixteen or seventeen at the time, and I remember vividly that the rest of the class hated it. It wasn’t unusual for me to be at odds with my friends at school when it came to books. I hated Catcher in the Rye, and everyone else thought it expressed the deepest recesses of their souls (I have since made a promise to reread it in hopes of discovering something redeemable in what I considered the most puntable book I’ve ever been forced to read – or at least something more than the single paragraph I loved, which incidentally refers to the title of the book – but so far, I haven’t been able to make myself sit down with an open mind). I even remember, way back in the third grade, we had to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class; I chose Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Everyone else picked something from Seuss or Silverstein. It didn’t occur to me then that other eight year olds might choose children’s poems, and it was a painful realization when my turn finally came.

Likewise, it was difficult to try to argue Dillard’s case to a class full of people who had probably skimmed the book about an hour before. It’s a tiny volume, packed with her own particular poetry of language, and it shouldn’t be rushed. It can’t be. The book is about pain and solitude and exquisite natural beauty. It’s about loss and acceptance, and for me, every time I read it, another layer of her experience is revealed. I thought it was lovely back then, but now, I appreciate how she chose every line – every word – with absolute precision. She doesn’t waste a line.

The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on the farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire. I call it simplicity, the way matter is smooth and alone. (p 12)

To read more about Annie Dillard, go here.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

I asked for this book for Christmas in 2010 after finishing Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. It took me months to get through Chronicles, not because Murakami isn’t a mind-blowing writer (he is), but because it is one messed up story. I could only handle it in small doses. I would read a chapter, or even less, then sit for an hour staring out the window thinking about how some actions are so clearly the ones we take right before diving head-first into disaster; momentum seems to keep us from avoiding those first small bad decisions until we’re suddenly in it to our necks.

It reminded me of my own struggle with depression in college and in the year after – how clearly I could see, in hindsight, what awful choices I was making – but at the time, they seemed like the right thing to do. I was fascinated by the person behind this novel. I felt he must have experienced life in a way very familiar to me before using his remarkable skills as a writer to turn those memories into some very trippy literature.

This introduction to Murakami happened to coincide with my foray into the Couch to 5k running program. All through the fall of 2010, as I slowly worked up to running for five minutes, then fifteen, and finally, to a very slow forty-four minute 3.1 miles, my interest in reading about other runners was piqued. And here was a runner who was also a writer. I had to read his book.

And it was wonderful. Of course, he’s a long distance runner who has been at it for many more years than I have  – the same could be said for his writing, of course, so that didn’t matter much. What did matter was that his book brought together his career, the tempo of his writing, and heartbeat of his running in a way that was magical to me. Each of those elements sustained him and his work, and made him better at all of the things he loved. It was the first book about running that I ever fell in love with, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.

To learn more about Haruki Murakami, head over here. (FYI: This site has music, so if you’re heading over there during work, when you’re supposed to be finishing those TPS reports, mute your speakers first.)

The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group, Catherine Jinks

I hate sequels. They’re never as good as the first book. 
– Connie Willis

Can I just start by saying that I absolutely do not agree with this idea (even though I love Connie Willis and think she’s a brilliant writer)? I’m more on the side of “but I love these characters and I want the author to write as many good pages about them as is humanly possible…and when he or she is worn out, the fans can take over.” I can think of very few exceptions this rule, and it’s unusual for me to read a book and refuse to finish the series. The Maze Runner, which I reviewed earlier this year, is on that short list, but not because James Dashner lacked talent or huge potential for more story. No, it was because that book scared the bejeesus out of me, and when I read the first chapter of the second book, I couldn’t sleep for a week. (If you, however, know of a teenager who hates to read but doesn’t mind violence, that is the trilogy I recommend.)

Part of the reason I love sequels so much is because as a writer, my favorite part of any story is the characters. A good plot is certainly important, but the characters are my obsession. This was true even when I was a kid and storming our tiny library weekly. Mostly what I could find that was relatively age appropriate for an elementary school book-worm were things like Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club. While they weren’t exactly gripping stories, they did open me up to the vast potential of multi-book character development, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I remember when I friend introduced me to the Xanth and Pern books in the fifth grade, and I could feel myself moving slowly up the ladder toward authors who would love their characters as much as I did.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy stand-alone novels, because I do. They are carefully crafted, beautiful, self-contained experiences, and I wouldn’t want to lose that ache I feel at the end of a good book that’s just…over. It’s that sometimes, a good sequel, or trilogy, or series hits the spot. And I’m a little sad that many of the ones I have loved best have been published since I was in my teens (mainly because I would have loved to have more options as a child). There has been, in recent years, a wonderful resurgence of authors interested in telling multi-volume stories, and I’m thrilled about that. It requires a different tactic than the one-off, and the more authors interested in refining the necessary skills to do this well, the better the books become for us.

That being said, an area of sequels exists that’s a little murky – the continuation with a different set of protagonists. This is where The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group falls, and it suffered because of it. In fact, I was about halfway through the book before I began to engage at all with the new characters, and incidentally, that’s when Jinks began introducing the newbies to the vampires from the first book. Once she brought these people together, everything began to fall into place. The pace of the plot picked up, the protagonist became more likable, and the stakes were raised; we got back into the territory where Jinks really shines. The first half of the book spent too much time on the build-up, when what we wanted to know – what even the author cared most about – was when will the fighting start?! I suspect, at least, that it’s what she cares about because when she gets there, she writes a damn good story. Just like she did with Vampires. She probably should have left the beginning to somebody like me, who’s less interested in moving the story forward than in making the reader want to bleed for the characters, heroes and villains alike.

(Seriously though. Where’s my author counterpart? The one with the grand plan, the subplots and disaster? I need to  find that person and hang on for dear life, so that I can get away with just writing emotionally wrenching/adorable fluff…)

I have to admit I’m curious now to read one of her other popular titles, Evil Genius, just to compare her storytelling technique. I suspect she does her best work on books that could be stand-alone novels (although she often has written sequels for them), but I’ll have to explore further before I know for sure. I hope it’s true because when she’s on the ball, she is really on it, and I’m looking forward to more of what she does best.

Check out Catherine Jinks’ huge collection of books over here.

As a side note: I’m heading out on a two-week trip to the other side of the world, so my posts will probably be a little irregular while I’m away. I still plan to post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I don’t know yet whether I’ll be writing about vacation reading, short stories, or lazily posting quotes or links I think fellow readers may be interested in. At the very least, I can almost guarantee they’ll be shorter than normal. Consider it a test run for November when I’ll be juggling reviews with completing book contract due December 1st and my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo.