10.29.2013

Closing the circle

I view writing fiction almost in flowchart form. The writer has an idea. They translate the story in their heads into words on a page (digital or otherwise). Then the reader turns the words back into imagination when they read it. Just like translating from one language to another, what the first person meant and what the second person understands are not quite the same thing. That's not a bad thing. It's a good thing, in fact. It means that stories have meaning for any reader and critics have job security.

Readers can talk about what a book meant to them through reviews and word of mouth, but I doubt it gets back to the author for the most part. One of the frequently cited pieces of advice for writers is to not read your reviews. It's good advice, because reading a negative review can destroy a nascent writer. But it means that authors are left wondering about their translation skills as they change imagination into words.

Mark, of Mark Reads Stuff (Image from Mark's site)
At least, that's what I thought, until John Scalzi found reader Mark working his way through The Android's Dream. Mark's (I don't know what his surname is) reviews are so much more in-depth than anything I've ever heard of. Even calling them reviews is a misnomer, because Mark doesn't wait until he finishes the book to talk about it. It's really more of a one man book club. Mark writes a post for each chapter of the book he reads, often with all caps when he gets to an exciting part. One of my favorite authors, N.K. Jemisin found Mark reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and wrote a great post about watching a reader actually read her book.

Unlike most readers, Mark actually gets to close the circle of writer, story, and reader. I've tweeted a few authors and talked to authors in blog post comments, even asked questions at readings. But it's not the same as what Mark does because my interactions never rise above thank you and you're welcome. I love what Mark does because he gets so into the books that I've seen him read. I don't know if I have it in me to respond the way Mark does.

At any rate, Mark, if you ever end up reading this, I salute you. Shine on, you crazy diamond. 

10.28.2013

Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, by Daniel Kalla

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

Rising Sun, Falling Shadow
Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, by Daniel Kalla, is the sequel to The Far Side of the Sky. I haven't read the first book in the series, but I didn't feel lost. There are frequent short summaries of events from the first book that caught me up. Rising Sun, Falling Shadow drops us into the middle of the bloody, brutal theater of China's World War II. Japan has invaded and is enforcing their rule mercilessly. Kalla takes us to Shanghai, where a small group of Europeans lives in exile. Some of them are British and French diplomats that are now cut off from their governments. Others are White Russian refugees that have been in the city since the Revolution. And a few are Jews that fled central Europe, looking for safety.

Our protagonists are Franz and Sunny Adler. Franz fled Austria five years prior to this book's beginning, after the Anschluß. Sunny is a Eurasian who has lived in Shanghai all her life. Together, they work at a small, badly supplied hospital that cares for the Jewish community that has grown in the city. When the Japanese require the Jews to move to a small section of the city, a ghetto (though they refuse to call it that), life only gets harder from the Adlers and their friends and neighbors.

The book moves incredibly quickly. Babies are born. People are arrested and escape. Plots are formulated and either executed or foiled. There's little time for character in all the hubbub, but Kalla does give you a strong sense of both Franz and Sunny. (The same can't really be said for any other character, unfortunately.) Summarizing it all would take almost as many pages as Kalla did to tell the story.

Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, above all else, gave me a strong sense of the chaos of World War II China and the desperation that its citizens and inhabitants must have felt. There was no time to recover from one crisis before another descended. It's a wonder that anyone could hold on to their sanity under such pressure. 

10.24.2013

Plague, by Lisa Hinsley

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 9 December 2013.

Plague
Lisa Hinsley's Plague is a powerfully affecting novella. Aside from the very end, every scene takes place within the boarded up confines of a suburban English home. Inside, Liz cares for first her son, then her husband, as they succumb to an extremely virulent form of the resurrected bubonic plague. Hinsley writes in her afterword that she was inspired to write this book when her husband wondered what ever happened to the plague. The bubonic plague was responsible for millions of deaths in several pandemics yet, in the last hundred plus years, it's a rarely contracted disease. What if it came back? What if it came back with the same force that killed two-thirds of the population again? What if it came back with even more killing power?

I didn't have those questions on my mind when I started to read Plague, but I certainly had them on my mind by the time I finished it. The book begins with Liz debating with her husband Johnny whether to call the National Health when their son, Nathan, comes down with symptoms similar to bubonic plague. They had been told that the disease was confined "to the south," but it becomes clear that outbreaks are happening everywhere. Within 24 hours of calling the NHS, Liz and Johnny's house is boarded up with perspex and metal sheeting. Meager supplies are tossed to upper windows. On the inside of the house, Nathan gets sicker and sicker. Hinsley tracks the progress of the infection in agonizing detail. On top of the fear of the disease, you also get a sense of profound isolation as first the Internet, then the phone, then the water are eventually cut off.

As I read Liz's account, I started to wonder about how victims of the plague used to be quarantined. Many were essentially left to die. Without antibiotics, nothing could be done except to wait it out and stay far, far away from anyone carrying the pestilence. The version of the plague in this novella is entirely fatal once you catch it. Nothing can stop it. Because modern medicine can't fight it off, the victims of this plague are in the same boat as their ancestors. And what a terrifying thought that is.

I read Plague all in one sitting. When I finished, shortly before midnight, I was too freaked out to go to sleep right away. It took a long time for Liz's story to fade from my mind. I am so glad I didn't dream about this book last night.

10.23.2013

Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett

Patron Saint of Liars
When we think of lies, we usually think about the fantastic story that they spun or the tics that gave them away. But as I read Ann Patchett's Patron Saint of Liars, I started to think about the lies we tell when we don't speak. Of the three narrators in this novel, two have made such big mistakes that the only way to deal with them was to move away and never talk about them again.

There used to be homes for girls across the country, usually run by one church or another, where unwed girls and women could go to have their babies before giving them up for adoption. Patron Saint of Liars is set at one such home, St. Elizabeth's in extremely rural Kentucky. Our first narrator is Rose Clinton. Rose married because she thought she was supposed to marry Thomas Clinton. All her life she'd been heading for marriage, but none of the boys made her feel anything until she married Thomas. Before long, Rose realizes that she doesn't really love him. She takes to driving aimlessly around San Diego. When she finds out she's pregnant, she learns about St. Elizabeth's from her priest and sets out across the country. Rose tells the nuns that her husband died and settles into the house filled with women.

Though the first third of the book is narrated by Rose and the rest of the book revolves around her, Rose is hard to understand. She's vaguely unsatisfied. She doesn't fit into the mold. But when she sets her mind to something, Rose won't let anyone move her. One night, one of the other inmates gives birth to twins in silence, just so that she can hold her children during the ambulance ride to the hospital before they can be given away. At the time the book opens, in the late 1960s, the practice was to take the babies away as soon as they were born. The mothers never saw them again. Something in Rose gives and she decides that she will keep her child somehow. That somehow turns out to be marriage to Wilson Abbot, known as Son, the caretaker of St. Elizabeth's.

For those keeping score, this marriage is Rose's second. She doesn't regret running away from her first husband, but committing bigamy is the thing that Rose will never speak of again. In the second third of the novel, Son takes over duties as narrator. He talks about life with Rose. He meditates on the difference between loving a woman and loving one's child. Loving one's child, he thinks, is like loving breathing. It's instinctive. When you love a woman, Son thinks, you're always aware that she's lending herself to you for a while. Son eventually reveals to the reader, if no one else, the secret that he ran away from: the accident that took the life of the woman whose name is tattooed on his arm.

The last, short third of the book is narrated by Rose's daughter, Cecelia. Cecelia grew up with many mothers. While Rose worked in St. Elizabeth's kitchen feeding everyone, the girls took turns being mother to the little girl because they wouldn't be a mother to the child they were carrying. It's a heartbreaking thought and, fortunately, Cecelia is unaware of this for years. But she's dissatisfied with Rose's aloofness. Rose doesn't seem to know how to love like other people. She loves Cecelia, but never says it and never spends much time with her child. This third really made me wish that Patchett had given the narrative reins back to Rose, so that I could learn more about why that woman was the way she was.

The secrets never go away, even though they're never spoken of. It's not healing; it's coping. For that reason, Patron Saint of Liars is a rich but unusual read. It doesn't wrap itself up in a neat moral. I finished reading it yesterday, and I'm still puzzling through what it all meant. I like that about the book. I know that I if (when) I open it up again, I will be rewarded with even more insights about how people move on in spite of regret, shame, and disapproval.

True censorship

A few weeks ago, American librarians "celebrated" Banned Books Week. We made displays. We raised awareness of challenges around the country in school districts and public libraries. We patiently explained the difference between a book challenge and a book banning to anyone who asked. And then the week was over and we put the books back on the shelf. The strange thing about Banned Books Week, for me, is that in spite of anyone's attempts to get a book away from readers is that a determined reader can always go to another library or buy the book. Books don't truly get banned in the United States anymore and, apart from periodic outrage when a book is challenged, it's easy to not think about censorship.

Students reading in North China University's
library, 1946. Via Vintage Libraries.
Yesterday, I read this timely article in The New York Times about the Hobson's choice writers have to make when getting published in China: "Authors Accept Censors' Rules to Sell in China." According to the article, censors work at every major publisher in China. Publishers can no longer slip books past a central censorship office. Censors will remove offending passages or prevent an entire book from being published. Andrew Jacobs, the authors of this report, points to the wide array of possible offensive topics: references to Tienanmen Square, sex and sexuality,even a depiction of a politician being embarrassed at a state event by dropping food from his chopsticks. The choice for authors who want to sell their books in China is to accept the censors' changes or refuse to let their books be published there. The choice is between getting some of one's book through or maintaining one's artistic integrity. As with the horses at Hobson's stable, it's really no choice at all.

Compared to the literary world in China, the book world in the West is a hedonistic and artistic paradise. It seems a little silly to keep pointing out the fact that books get removed from a school or library here and there when there are places in the world where books truly are banned. (Not that I'm going to stop participating in Banned Books Week. BBW will only stop being necessary when people stop trying to get between readers and books.) Soviet Russia had and the Middle East still has their samizdat. No only can you not openly purchase these books, but in some places simply having a copy is a crime.

I have no idea what I would do, were I an author that had just sold the publication rights to a Chinese publisher. Would I stand my ground? Or would I try to sneak some of my words through to readers? If I stuck to my ideals, readers in China would probably never hear about it, unless a pirated copy got through. If I bowed to the censors', how much of my message would really get through?

10.19.2013

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife
Some readers aren't going to like Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife. I will warn now that there is a lot more telling than showing in this book; there is no subtext because every thought and feeling is laid out for you in the narration. This bothered me at the beginning. Once I got carried away by the story and characters, I didn't mind so much.

A Reliable Wife opens with Ralph Truitt waiting, impatiently and uncomfortably, at the station for a late train. On the train, is the woman who answered his advertisement for a woman willing to travel to Wisconsin's Great North Woods to become his wife. Truitt has been alone for twenty years after he discovered his Italian wife having an affair with the piano teacher. Though Truitt is a passionate (read: lustful) man, he's been living a monkish life ever since. He decided to advertise for a wife because he couldn't bear the loneliness anymore. The woman who declared to a "simple, honest woman" in her letters to Truitt is anything but. Catherine Land answered his ad, she admits to herself to become more than a kept woman and prostitute. She wants love and money. She plans to get the money from Truitt. Before long, you'll learn about Catherine's secret, more sinister goal.

Catherine acts like the missionary's daughter she claims to be. Truitt tries to keep a lid on his desire, though he tells her about his past debaucheries to get the revelations out of the way. After they marry, Truitt sends Catherine to St. Louis to ask his illegitimate son to return to the family home. It's the one thing he asks of her, and Catherine can't think of a convincing way to put him off.

Antonio turns out to be as much of a wastrel as the private detectives Truitt hired to track him down say. I had a brief thought that Antonio might be the lover Catherine hinted at during her first chapter, but I dismissed it, thinking it would be too much of a coincidence. After a disastrous first meeting, Catherine returns to Antonio's rooms alone and it turned out that I was right. Goolrick also reveals just how long the plot against Truitt has gone on. The problem now is that Catherine has grown to care for Truitt in a way and doesn't want to poison him anymore. After Catherine tracks down her missing, dying sister, she really doesn't want to harm him. Antonio blackmails her to return and kill Triutt.

The stage is set for an inevitable tragedy. I don't say inevitable in a bad way. Though you know that nothing good will come of the triangle between Catherine and Truitt and Antonio, there's a little glimmer of hope that the characters might reconcile and that the three might find some kind of redemption. A Reliable Wife begins as a kind of dark romance before turning into a revenge tale, but the last third is about atonement--at least, as much atonement as is possible for such damaged people.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 29 October 2013.

Hyperbole and a Half
Allie Brosh reminds me of a few people I've met in my life, the people who things just happen to. They're magnets for chaos and weirdness. And they always have the best stories. I've been a fan of Allie Brosh since I ran across her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, a few years ago. I couldn't read her posts in public, because the blend of expressive drawings and unabashed confession would have me chortling and laughing so hard that taking a drink would be hazardous to my health. When Brosh stopped posting regularly to her blog, I--like many other fans--worried about her. She returned to her blog with the most moving description of depression I have ever come across. There was much rejoicing on the Interwebs when Brosh came back.

When I learned that her biographical book, Hyperbole and a Half, was still a go, I waited impatiently for its release date. When I saw the book on offer at NetGalley, I clicked the request button and kept my fingers crossed. (Publishers, never fear, I will buy this book as soon as it comes out.)

Hyperbole and a Half (the book) is about half new and half already published stories about Brosh's life, arranged unchronologically. You'll see the hilarious story of the time Brosh ate an entire cake, move to a new state with simple dog and helper dog, got lost in the woods with her mother and sister, and try to chase a goose out of her house with the somewhat inept help of her boyfriend. And, of course, you'll see Brosh learning to cope with her anxieties and depression. Having seen others go through this personally, I have to say again that Brosh nails it. Serious depression requires more than having well-meaning friends and family tell you to cheer up and more than trying to will yourself out of it. Brosh shares her whole experience, without any hint of shame. Those chapters are incredibly brave, and I wanted to reach through the pages to hug Brosh's cartoon avatar.

I adored Hyperbole and a Half. I hope more people discover and read her work.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief
Who better to narrate a story set during World War II in a small town outside of Munich than Death? Death is everywhere between 1939 and 1943, when Liesel Meminger is fostered by the Hubermans of Himmel Street. Death meets her when he comes for her brother in 1939 and something about Liesel captures his interest. In Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Death tells her story, punctuated with hints about the future, observations about humanity, and background information. This is a deeply affecting book, written in spare but powerful language.

Liesel Meminger is dogged by tragedy. Her mother cannot afford to keep them and she and Liesel's father have been labeled as communists, enemies of the new Reich. Liesel is taken in by Hans and Rosa Huberman, who are almost but not quite as poor as the Memingers. Liesel never sees or hears from her mother again. Liesel is then tormented at school until Hans helps her improve her reading. She makes friends, but eventually looses both of them (one permanently). The ultimate tragedy, one that I would have thought would irreparably break her, comes late in the book. It seems as though fate is taking everything from her, a piece at a time: her family, her dignity, her friends, food from her table, heat from the house. What makes it bearable are Hans' affection and care and words.

Liesel steals her first book at her brother's funeral. She steals another almost a year later. With Hans' help, she learns to read them fluently. She eventually takes to stealing books from the mayor's wife's library. I'm hard pressed to say whether its the stories or the words that help Liesel cope. The stories provide an escape during dark times in the air raid shelters and cold basements. Liesel's friend, Max, the Jew the Hubermans are hiding, constructs fables to make sense of the dangerous world they both live in. The words help her express her feelings, giving her catharsis. Max's fables also help them give shape to the feelings of anger and futility and yearning hope they feel.

Words are incredible powerful in this book. It helps that they have the force of history behind them to fill in the gaps. Though there is little description in The Book Thief, I could still picture places like the Hubermans' basement and the air raid shelter, Rosa's kitchen, and parts of Himmel Street that mattered to Liesel. If there weren't so much emotion packed into this book, I would have described it as underwritten. It's actually quite a clever book. Late in the story, Liesel is given a blank book to write in and she starts writing her story, calling it The Book Thief. There are so many layers of narration here. There's Death telling Liesel's story, Liesel telling her story, Death telling us about what he reads in her book. There's Max's copy of Mein Kampf, which ironically saved his life. Max paints it white, then writes his own stories over it. In the book, you can see the original text peeking out through thin parts in the paint. Through the understated writing, I saw this as an unstated metaphor of life as a palimpsest. It's astonishing to see through to the bones of the book's structure the way that Zusak allows.

The Book Thief deserves to be read and felt. It will break your heart, but it will shine a light into a small, dark place in history.

10.17.2013

Meeting an author

I met Sarah Vowell years ago, when she visited the university where I got my undergraduate degree. This will always be a special memory because she took the time to mock my brother at the book signing after the reading. I've met Brandon Sanderson a couple of times, once at a speaking event and once at my local Barnes and Noble at a surprise signing. Yesterday, I got to meet Paul Harding, who spoke at the university where I am a librarian. Each time, I had to strive to not disgrace myself by gushing at the people who create my drug of choice: books.

I won a copy of Tinkers
Even though I'm not a great reader of literary fiction, I think I enjoyed meeting Harding the best of the three. He kept the reading short (though he has a very good reading voice) and gave over the rest of the time to answering questions. He would answer at length, sharing his philosophy of writing, his process, and his suggestions for the fledgling writers in the audience. Several of his answers resonated with my despite my status as a confirmed reader, rather than a writer:
  1. Writing is different from publishing. If you write solely to be published, your books will have a short shelf life. (Sorry about the pun.)
  2. You should be able to describe your books in terms of its characters, rather than being about abstract concepts. Always start with a character.
  3. Genre fiction and literary fiction are not diametrically opposed. Writers should find a place somewhere on the spectrum, not at the poles.
  4. Writing is a conversation with what's gone before. Writers have families of influence and by reading the classics, writers can set down deep roots.
It was a wonderful conversation between all of us. It's clear that Harding has devoted a lot of time to thinking about what he wants his writing to be and what makes writing art. I hated to see the conversation end—partly because I wanted to argue (gently) with him about genre writing. There was so much more to be said and its rare to meet someone who thinks so deeply about literature and loves to talk about it as much as I do.

10.14.2013

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 28 January 2014.


The Ghost of the
Mary Celeste
Sometimes the story isn't an event. Sometimes the story is the event's aftermath. At least, that's the case in Valerie Martin's The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. The ship was found--without its crew--off the coast of Spain early in December 1872. There are several theories about what happened to her: fumes from the distilled alcohol in the cargo, mutiny, pirates, ghosts. The case is still officially unsolved. Martin takes the story of the Mary Celeste's captain's ill-fated family to spin a tale about how the mystery captured the imagination of novelists and spiritualists.

The Briggs family of Marion, Massachusetts has always made its livelihood from the sea. But the sea has made the family pay fort the privilege. By the time Benjamin Briggs woos Sarah Cobb, it has already claimed two brothers, a sister, and numerous other relatives. They accept it stoically, but Benjamin is already planning to retire his captaincy before he takes command of the Mary Celeste. Martin doesn't change history in her book and Benjamin, his wife, his daughter, and the rest of the crew disappear into history.

Sarah Cobb Briggs,
the captain's wife
Martin jumps through years and narrators as she examines the post-Celeste world. We meet Arthur Conan Doyle, who writes a fictitious "statement" by a crewman who supposedly survived the incident. The story sparks his literary career. The tale travels across the Atlantic, where a medium threatens to sue the author (who was unknown at the time of publication) for his lies about the family and the ship. The medium's tantrum is witnessed by a journalist, another narrator. It doesn't take long to figure out who the medium really is, though Violet Petra lives under an assumed name. We learn more about her sad, deluded life through the journalist.

Benjamin Briggs
The book then jumps a few more years, from the early 1880s to the 1890s. Conan Doyle is famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories. He's almost forgotten his first story when a woman claiming to be Matilda Briggs visits him with a mysterious message and a code. She promises something special that might reveal the mystery of the Mary Celeste. The book ends with the fictional "Log of the Mary Celeste," written by Sarah Cobbs Briggs. It details the last weeks of the famous 1872 voyage. The log is a heartbreaking conclusion to the tale.

I was tempted to classify The Ghost of the Mary Celeste as nonfiction because its narrative syncs up so perfectly with the actual history. It's fiction just because Martin turned the history into a story, creating the log so that there would be a conclusion. The ship's own history wouldn't do. The Mary Celeste had a reputation as a bad luck ship, changing owners rapidly after 1872 and meeting an ignoble end in a failed insurance scam off the coast of Gonâve Island, Haiti.

From the title, you might expect this book to be about an actual haunting. Instead, the characters are haunted by the disappearance in different--but less supernatural--ways. The story follows Conan Doyle. The story dogs Violet Petra, providing a means to expose her lies. The story still haunts people today because we'll probably never know what really happened. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a very clever, very unusual book.

10.13.2013

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard

I've been waiting for this book for ages.

Johannes Cabal:
The Fear Institute
What originally drew me to the first book in Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal series was the cover. It was unusual and artistic. Then the writing in the first paragraphs tickled my funny bone. I plowed through the first book, waited impatiently for the second book before steaming through it, too. Since then, I've been recommending it left and right to any reader with a slightly warped sense of humor I could find. I had to wait even longer for The Fear Institute due to, I think, publication problems. When I saw that it was finally released on this side of the Atlantic, I immediately headed for the bookstore to get my own copy. (I buy print copies of authors I particularly like.)

The Fear Institute was worth the wait, I'm pleased (and relieved) to report. We rejoin Cabal in his home as he is about to be visited by three men representing the Fear Institute, a group that have determined that the best chance humanity has of progressing is to eliminate fear. Though the gentlemen believe in "rational caution," they want to get rid of irrational fear and terror. Because this is a Johannes Cabal adventure, the plan to kill of fear has gone off the rails of actual science and into the improbable and possibly into the impossible. The Fear Institute believes that the spirit of fear, the Phobic Animus, lives in the Dreamlands. Cabal has been collecting information on the Dreamlands for years for his own research, but he doesn't agree to the expedition until the men agree to give up the Silver Key that allows anyone to travel to the Dreamlands.

As if things weren't weird enough, they get even weirder when Cabal leads the men to the Dreamlands via Arkham, Massachusetts. If you're familiar with H.P. Lovecraft, however, the weirdness will be familiar. (I haven't read any of his work, so I'm sure I missed a lot of references and jokes.) In the Dreamlands, Cabal and his three companions try to track down the Phobic Animus. Cabal is told by some of the denizens of the Dreamlands that he is also on a collision course with his destiny, in spite of the fact that Cabal doesn't believe in destiny. The group has many bizarre adventures in the Dreamlands, but not everyone makes it to the end. The hints start to bear fruit and before long you'll know that the fear expedition was just a cover for something else entirely. But to tell you what it is will spoil everything, so I'll stop summarizing here.

Cabal is a terrific character. He's an antihero of the first stripe. He doesn't care about what others think of him. He's snarky and sarcastic. But he does good deeds in spite of himself, keeping Cabal from being a total bastard. I also love Howard's hilariously academic writing style. I had to restrain myself from peppering my twitter and facebook feeds with quotations that make me giggle, snort, and chuckle as I read The Fear Institute. No one can quite pull of this style except for the British. I don't know how they do it, or even how to adequately describe it--but I love it.

There are hints at the end of the book that Cabal's adventures are not over, for which I am deeply glad. I just hope that there aren't any more publication issues that will delay the arrival of the next book in the series.

10.11.2013

Librarians behaving badly

From Librarian Shaming.
Even before I read the Annoyed Librarian's remarks about the Librarian Shaming tumblr, I was starting to have second thoughts about the wisdom of the premise. Really. When it first appeared on my radar and my tumblr dashboard, I laughed at the snarky comments and foibles of the librarians. After all, professionals of all stripes need a place to vent or confess.

Then the tone of the posts changed, seemingly overnight. I started to see more posts from librarians who claim not to read much (only one to three books a year), librarians who weren't doing their jobs, librarians who didn't know how to do their jobs, etc. It wasn't fun reading them any more. They made me squirm.

I'm sure there are other places where professionals shame themselves (or are shamed by others). I suspect that part of my reaction is because librarians fight so hard to be perceived as professionals. We get mightily annoyed by people who question the need for a Master's degree to do the job. (Seriously, bring this up around any professional librarian if you feel the need to have your head torn off. With a complete bibliography of sources.) On top of that, most of us are also fighting to let people know how useful, vital libraries are to a healthy community. It lead to me developing a feeling that I'm an ambassador and advocate for libraries even when I'm not at work. Things like the posts I've seen on Librarian Shaming don't help that.

But then, don't even professionals need a place to gripe and share? I remember when I was getting my MLS I stumbled on a LiveJournal community called The Society for Librarians Who Say Motherfucker. I'm delighted to see that it still exists, though I haven't felt the need to read it in years. Where Librarian Shaming is for librarians and paraprofessionals who feel the need to get an embarrassing secret off their chests, Society for Librarians Who Say Motherfucker is for librarians who need to talking about all the irritating, frustrating, and insane things that happen during the workday (while preserving the privacy of the crazy patrons they have to deal with).

Between the two sites, I'm still left with a dilemma. Is it more important to feel free to air dirty laundry online for the sake of one's sanity than it is to preserve a beneficial, non-stereotyped image of a librarian?

10.10.2013

Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 12 November 2013.

Stella Bain
Anita Shreve's Stella Bain is a curious book, to me at least. It centers on a few years in the life of Etna Bliss, also known as Stella Bain, with flashbacks as far as 1896 and an epilogue set in 1930. There's so much pathos and tragedy in the poor woman's life, but Shreve's telling of the tale skims the surface. I wanted to connect with Etna. Unfortunately, that didn't happen here.

We meet Etna in a field hospital in the Marne, in 1916. She has shrapnel wounds in her feet and no memory of who she is. The name Stella Bain seems right, so she adopts it. Because she has nursing skills and is able to drive an ambulance, Etna is pressed into service. Though months pass, Etna recalls very little of her previous life. When she overhears soldiers talking about the Admiralty in London, there's a flicker of memory, something important Etna has to do. Etna wrangles leave and sneaks back to England. She arrives at the Admiralty, but since she has no idea who she's looking for or what she's trying to do, she can't get admittance. Eventually, Etna collapses near the home of Lily and Dr. August Bridge. Dr. Bridge works with Etna to get her memory return. They're rewarded with a few things, though the big breakthrough doesn't happen until Etna runs into an old acquaintance on one of the trips Dr. Bridge arranges for her at the Admiralty. When she meets Samuel Asher, everything comes back.

At this point, we're about a third of the way through this brief book. Over the next few pages, Shreve gives us Etna's story in snatches. We learn of her unhappy marriage to a tyrant. We learn of the disgrace that sent her to France. We learn of the friendship that blossoms between Etna and Samuel's younger brother, Philip. We also learn about the two children Etna left behind. As soon as she remembers, Shreve tells us of Etna's return to America through a series of letters. From here on, most of the book is told through letters and episodes in court as Etna tries to get custody of her children.

All this story is told in less than 300 pages. Most of the books I read have enough description and exposition for me to escape into the setting and the narrative. I don't have to work to see what's happening or visualize the characters. I'm sad to report that that never happened to me with Stella Bain. The story was just words on the page for the most part. Even though Etna's story inspired a lot of sympathy in me, the way it was told struck me as curiously bloodless.

The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Sleep Room
In the fourth century BCE, a Chinese philosopher wrote down an idea that became a motif that's recurred through philosophy and literature ever since. Zhuang Zhou wrote that he once dreamt he was a butterfly. When he woke, he couldn't be sure if he'd been a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that it was a man. It's a lot more poetic than René Descartes' cogito ergo sum. The reason I bring this up is because with psychological thrillers, the senses can't be trusted. Sometimes, even logic can't be trusted. As a reader, you have to go back to first principles and question everything else that happens. I also bring up these philosophical nuggets because a minor character in F.R. Tallis' The Sleep Room does so. When you get to the final twist in this book (after several more twists), you have to build your impression of this book all over again.

Dr. James Richardson, at the beginning of The Sleep Room, has just successfully interviewed for a position at Dr. Hugh Maitland's mental hospital. Wyldehope has a strange reputation. Richardson's predecessor resigned, giving the reason that he couldn't take the isolation. When Richardson arrives, odd things start to happen. Wedding rings go missing. Patients complain that their beds are moved around at night. Richardson himself feels ominous presences. But the strangest thing of all is Dr. Maitland's deep sleep study. Six women are kept under sedation and given electroconvulsive therapy. They are roused periodically to eat and use the restroom, but otherwise they sleep. By the time Richardson meets them, they've been asleep for more than a month. By the way, this book is set in the mid-1950s, when you could do things like that without having an ethics committee shutting you down or civil rights groups advocating for the patients. All of the women have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or something similar. Maitland's idea is that through prolonged sleep and ECT, their personalities and/or brain chemistry will "reset."

Then, the women appear to start dreaming in sync with each other.

Meanwhile, Richardson starts a heated relationship with one of the nurses, Jane Turner. He does his best to settle into his new role and new life. He mostly agrees with his superior's theories about using medication instead of talk therapy. He does experiment a bit with talk therapy in the case of Michael Graham, a former Cambridge man who suffered a breakdown. Graham is the one who ponders, to the point of insanity, about Zhuang Zhou's philosophy. Being a fan of the history of psychology, I enjoyed the perspective on mid-century psychology, when many thought that mental illness could be medicated into submission or surgically excised. It's horrifying, too, given how much we've learned since that time about how the mind and brain function.

When Richardson notices that something strange is going on with the sleep study, he points it out to Maitland. He has deep misgivings when the women stop waking up. Tallis ratchets up the paranoid tension before dropping not one, but two, major twists. I can't even hint at them without ruining this fascinating tale. In fact, I pondered how I would classify this book's genre. Tagging it as horror would put future readers into one mindset. Calling it a thriller, as I ended up doing, would suggest other expectations. Being a librarian, I had to go for accuracy over potential spoilers (mostly because I know catalogers who would find me and kill me if I didn't).

10.09.2013

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 12 November 2013.


Hild
Nicola Griffith's Hild is set in the deepest part of the Dark Ages in a post-Roman but pre-Alfred Britain. There are almost as many kings and princes and kingdoms and territories as Germany in the nineteenth century. The book centers on Hild, an actual historic figure of the time. But because written records are scarce and archaeological evidence scarcer, Griffith has plenty of room for creativity.

Hild's Britain is full of conflict. Christianity is trying to muscle out the Norse and Celtic religions. Hild's uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, is trying to unite the various Anglisc (Anglo-Saxon) kingdoms under his rule. Her place in all this is fraught from the moment of her birth. Breguswith, Hild's mother, claimed to have a dream about her child being the "light of the world." Once Hild was born, Breguswith begins to train her daughter to be observant and quick witted. Above all, Hild is trained to be a "seer." As Hild plays the role, being a seer means building an intelligence network and interpreting natural phenomena as signs to manipulate King Edwin. Hild is never as ruthless as her mother, though she's far from gentle.

Hild is thrust into the adult world of politics and war at an incredibly young age. She rides into war as one of the king's councilors twice before the age of 13. Griffith's tale shows Hild growing to womanhood between the pressures of the king's demands and her mother's plots. It's hard for her to stand on her own for most of her teenage years, because she doesn't have her own agenda to stand for. When Edwin takes over the territory of Elmet, Hild begins to gather her own people. Having her own gesith (warriors) and wealh (peasants) to care for gives Hild something to protect. By the end of the book, Hild is prepared to ride into battle against bandits and arrange marriages to keep war from breaking out between the kingdoms again because Elmet would be caught in the middle and destroyed.

Though no one in the 600s could be said to have an easy life, Hild's youth is more fraught than most. Even as she becomes a deft and wise councilor, Hild is viewed with suspicion by nearly everyone around her. They find her uncanny because she doesn't talk much, because she spends too much time along, because she's an outsider to the usual order of things. The new Christian priests, especially Paulinus Crow, treat her almost as an enemy because of her gender and her unwillingness to submit to their orders.

Written history leaves so much out. Some of the tale was left out to concentrate on larger, more important events. I have to wonder how much was left out deliberately. The old saw is that history is written by the victors. But in this instance, history was written by the few people who knew how to write: the Christian monks and priests. Most of what we know from this time comes from sources like the Venerable Bede, who wrote decades or hundreds of years after the fact. I'm certainly not going to call Bede a liar, but how much of his history was spun to put a better face on things for the newly arrived Christians? After all, in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English, we know Hild as Saint Hilda of Whitby—not as the butcher-bird, witch, hægtes, councilor, and seer she is in this novel.

10.06.2013

Niceville, by Carsten Stroud

Was there ever a town as misnamed as Niceville?

Niceville
After a prologue in which a boy vanishes into thin air on a town street, Carsten Stroud's Niceville opens on a very busy summer day. A bank robbery leaves three police officers, a journalist, and a helicopter pilot dead. A high-tech and experimental GPS goes missing. A man experiments with revenge. An old woman and her gardener disappear. As Niceville goes on, the plots don't so much converge as tangle together. It's a smallish city, after all, and it seems like everyone is connected to someone with a gun or a grudge.

Stroud tells his story by bouncing between narrators, but the book mostly revolves around CID detective Nick Kavanagh and would-be bank robber Merle Zane. But there are many more narrators. The first big event is the bank robbery. We know who the robbers are right off the bat; in fact, Stroud lets them tell their own story. They're a trio of double-crossers who are waiting for their moment. Kavanagh doesn't get the case, since the bank was a federal one. Instead, he's assigned to investigate the very strange disappearances. It doesn't take long to work out that there's something supernatural going on in Niceville. Merle, the getaway driver, lands right in the middle of it after one of his so-called partners shoots him in the back. He finds himself helping a women living on a curiously antiquated farm get revenge on the man who ruined her sister. Meanwhile, the would-be revenger is complicating the already complicated situation by leaking secrets in an effort to learn how to ruin lives.

As I read it, wondering how Stroud would pull all the various strands of plot together, I started to realized that I was reading something more like a twisted version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Niceville isn't a collection of short stories; it reads more like the collision of horror, mystery, and thriller novellas (Hence, the multiple tags). Pulling them apart even for a review is tricky. Because Niceville is relatively small and because the characters are fairly connected, a little bit of investigation and logic send the robbers after the idiot revenger while the FBI and others are after them. So many people are chasing each other that a horse race reporter calling out their positions wouldn't be out of place. And underneath it all, there is some malevolent force at work with hardly anyone noticing, something that's been there for a very long time.

I'm sure my description of the book is fairly muddled. I don't meant it to be and I hope I'm not putting off potential readers. I was highly entertained by Niceville. The heroes and anti-heroes are fun to watch. The villains get pounded on in a satisfying way. The dialog is sharp and witty. The structure of the book is original and strange. A sequel, The Homecoming, was released just this year. I want to read it because I want to know more about what's really going on, behind all the mayhem, in Niceville.

Site Update

I added a few more of the book sites I enjoy to the blogroll over in the left column. These sites are full of book reviews and articles that help me think more deeply about reading and the book world. I hope you enjoy a few of them, too.

Homeland, by Cory Doctorow

Homeland
I waited to read this book until the weekend because the way things were going at the Library this past week, I needed all the sleep I could get my hands (or whatever) on. I was not wrong to wait. Most of yesterday disappeared into reading Cory Doctorow's Homeland, the sequel to Little Brother

Homeland picks up two years after the end of Little Brother. Marcus Yallow has mostly succeeded in avoiding trouble since his war against the Department of Homeland Security. He's finished high school, but had to drop out of college when the economy turned and his parents lost their jobs. The Yallows weren't the only ones. Even though Little Brother began with a terrorist attack on San Francisco, the United States of Homeland seems a darker place. The novel opens at Burning Man. Marcus has been planning to go for years and is enjoying the hell out of it with his girlfriend, Ange. During the festival, however, a former frenemy, Masha, pulls Marcus and Ange right back into their civil liberties fight when she hands over an USB filled with hundreds of thousands of explosive secrets. Masha is then kidnapped from Burning Man by the woman that waterboarded Marcus in Little Brother.

When Marcus and Ange return to San Francisco, they call in a few friends to help them figure out how to deal with the documents. There are photos and spreadsheets and memos and emails detailing projects that allow law enforcement, via private contractors and legal loopholes, to spy on and lie to the American people. Someone starts to leak the documents and the company featured in most of the documents, Zyz, doesn't let any moss grow in tacking Marcus down.

Meanwhile, Marcus has just landed a job as a webmaster/sys admin for an independent politician running for Senate (via an entertaining run in with Wil Wheaton and the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at Burning Man*). At night, he horrifies himself going through what come to be known as the darknet docs. By day, he helps his candidate work out ways to use new social technology to garner votes.

With all the forces arrayed against Marcus and his friends and allies, there can't be a big victory. The book illustrates the tangled relationship between the government and its contractors. Those contractors aren't bound by the same laws and oversight and, as long as they don't get caught, it seems like they can get away with anything. I fear that Doctorow didn't have to use all that much imagination in this book; things like d0xxing, kettling, and UAVs (drones) actually exist.

I said (wrote) earlier that Homeland is darker than Little BrotherLittle Brother was full of youthful anger and revolutionary spirit. Homeland is, I think, about the last painful lesson of adolescence: how far are you willing to compromise that anger and those ideals to get along in the big, bad world?

__________

* The cameos were one of my favorite parts of this novel, partly because they all end up playing old school Dungeons and Dragons.

10.05.2013

Shine a light

Artist unknown.
After I finished reading Christopher Rice's The Heaven's Rise, I was left puzzled by the author's choice of narrator. There were three main narrators, with some sections narrated by secondary characters; but the character I would have liked to hear from didn't get to tell his side of the story. Of all the other choices an author has to make--setting, characters, starting point for the story, etc., etc.--choosing a narrator is one that I can't recall an author botching before.

In fairness, there are a lot of choices an author has to make even in creating a narrator. You have to decide if there's just one, or more than one. Then you have to decide if you're going to narrate in the first or third person. (Or, if you're an experimental writer, you can choose to write in the second person and freak out your readers.) After all that, you need to decide if your narrator has a limited or omniscient perspective.

I suppose it comes down to finding out where your story is. After all, I have seen authors start their story years (or centuries, in the case of James Michener) before the actual story begins. I've seen other authors drop readers in medias res and leave them clueless for chapters before the backstory starts to fill in. But it's a frustrating experience to be stuck with one narrator's perspective when all the action seems to be happening to someone else.

10.02.2013

The Heavens Rise, by Christopher Rice

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 15 October 2013.

The Heavens Rise
It's always a curious experience to read the work of a writer who had a parent who was a famous writer. You can't help but compare them to their parent, especially if they're writing in the same genre. I've read Anne Rice, but not for a very long time, because I always wanted to take a red-inked chainsaw to her overgrown prose. Her son, Christopher Rice, thankfully, doesn't have that problem. The Heavens Rise is a chilling book that speeds along to its spectacular conclusion.

The novel is narrated as a round between Ben Broyard, Marshall Ferriot, and Niquette Delongpre's journal. Ben Broyard has been friends with Nikki and her boyfriend Anthem Landry for years. When Nikki disappears in high school, it breaks Anthem but drives Ben to turn his insatiable curiosity and outspokenness into a career as a journalist for New Orleans' number two newspaper. Ben knows that Marshall, a sadistic, spoiled rich kid, had something to do with Nikki's disappearance. But he can't act because shortly after Nikki and her family disappeared, Marshall attempted suicide by diving out of a several stories high window, broken his neck, and ended up in a coma.

This would be enough to set up an interesting mystery, especially when Marshall recovers from his coma and tracks down Anthem and Ben. But The Heavens Rise is a horror novel. Early on, Rice introduces a supernatural* element to this story. Before Nikki's disappearance, Marshall had engineered a break up between Nikki and Anthem in order to try his luck with her. He can't control himself for long and pushes Nikki too far. They tussle in her family's pool at their isolated cabin, thoroughly dousing themselves in something that's in the water. That something gives Nikki and Marshall the ability to bend other people to their will and, if they bend their target too long, turn them into monsters.

Much of this information doesn't arrive until the last quarter of the book. For much of the preceding story, you have a seemingly unstoppable psychopath (Marshall) killing people left and right. Ben is investigating whatever his boss sets him after. You only get Nikki's side of the story from her journals, which only appear at the beginning and end of the book. Ben is a well drawn character, but Nikki frequently steals the limelight from him. I was much more interested in her story than in anyone else's. Marshall's story was not that interesting, to tell the truth. He's just evil, with no explanation given than that he's a rich boy whose parents indulge him. There's nothing to make him stand out from the scads of other sociopaths lurking around in serial killer fiction except for his mostly unexplained ability to control people's minds.

I think this book would have worked a lot better with just one narrator, one point of view. It would have been a better and scarier horror story if we, through our limited perspective, didn't know what Marshall was up to all the time. Rice does a good job of looping subplots back into the narrative, but for a while it threw off the pacing to watch Ben and his boss fight with the rich folks that bought their paper, for example. I think this book could have been fantastic if it had been told from Anthem's perspective, especially since he's the centerpiece of the finale.

__________

* A character explains the science behind this phenomena later in the book, but it still seems more supernatural to me than rational, if far-fetched, science.

10.01.2013

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother
I picked this book up because of my sister. She told me that the book freaked her out so much that she couldn't finish it. This is a pretty good indicator that I've got a lead on a good techno-thriller. I'm really glad I didn't pick up Cory Doctorow's Little Brother until Sunday evening after all my errands and chores were done, because I didn't do anything else for the rest of the day except read the book as fast as I could. I just had to know what was going to happen next. Then today, after work, I checked out the sequel from the library.

So, to the review!

Little Brother was published in 2008 and its politics might seem a little dated. Well, they would have seemed dated if it weren't for the recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting the personal communications of thousands (if not more) of American citizens without any kind of legal oversight. This book taps into one of the central dilemmas of our time: the balance between privacy and security. On the one hand, law enforcement need to be able to gather data in order to catch criminals and terrorists before they can act. On the other hand, American citizens have the right to privacy. Law enforcement need to have probable cause before tapping your communications and searching your possessions. In the wake of September 11, the PATRIOT Act weighted the balance of the dilemma towards law enforcement.

In Little Brother's world, there was a second terrorist attack on San Francisco's Bay Bridge and cross bay tunnel, killing thousands. Marcus Yallow and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security on the day the bomb went off while they were in the process of gaming. They're minors, but they still spend days in prison before being released. Marcus has been taught his rights, and tries to insist on having a lawyer, but he eventually breaks in the face of threats from his DHS interrogator. After he is released, in spite of his fear of the DHS, Marcus goes on a technological quest to regain his privacy and the privacy of all the other people who live in San Francisco.

Much of the middle of the book is a tense cat and mouse game between Marcus and the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS is granted wide powers of surveillance, to the point where they're gathering so much data that their security net catches hundreds of people who weren't doing anything more than breaking their usual pattern of the day. Marcus has a knack for finding the holes and flaws in that security net. As time goes on, events escalate into a low level war between young adults and teenagers on one side, and older adults, the media, and law enforcement on the other. Paranoia runs rampant. The situation eventually hits a breaking point. Doctorow sets things up so that the victor in this little war could be either side--hence the reading for five or so hours straight. I couldn't see how Marcus could possibly win. I'm not going to give away the ending, of course.

I had a great time with this book. It's got so many of the things I love in thrillers: thorny ethics, impossible schemes, cutting edge Internet tech, teenage Makers, and incredibly well drawn characters. It's a pity I didn't pick this book up sooner. I should point out that it is, at times, fairly didactic in making points about privacy and civil liberties. Several characters make speeches that sound more like formal arguments rather than natural speech. But there are more good points to Little Brother than bad (or irritating) ones. If nothing else, the crisis at the heart of this book deserves a wide audience because America still hasn't struck a satisfactory, fair balance between privacy and security.

A tale of two covers

I judge books by their covers. I admit it. That's what a cover is for. It's an advertisement for the book. Other than that, however, I don't give much thought to book covers. At least, I didn't until I got a look at the two covers for Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

This is the first cover I saw:


It's menacing and interesting. The human in the bed in the tiger's mouth looks terribly vulnerable. This is the second cover I saw, the Australian edition:


It strikes a completely different tone. The style, the brighter colors, and the fact that you can only see the tiger's paw makes it less threatening somehow. Sure, you wouldn't want a tiger creeping into your house. But this version doesn't scream "Doom!" the way the American edition does.

When I saw both covers together, it got me to thinking how the covers shaped my expectations of The Night Guest. I'll never know what my impression would have been if I'd only seen the Australian cover. You might argue and remind me that there's only one text. I would counter, as a good English major would, that a single text can support multiple interpretations. I know that I found Frida Young to be a menacing character right off the bat. I didn't associate her with the tiger, per se, but I did recognize her as a threat to our protagonist, Ruth. Would a less overtly frightening cover allow me to be gulled by Frida as Ruth was? It's an interesting, but unanswerable question.