30 July, 2014

'Ghosts of Tupelo Landing' by Sheila Turnage

Starting the sequel to a book I loved is always a bit of a risk. But it was one that paid off with Sheila Turnage's Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, the sequel to last year's sidesplitting Three Times Lucky. Despite the volume of books I read, there are few that can make me laugh out loud without a care for how many funny looks I'm getting from commuters or coworkers around me. But like its predecessor, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing had me chortling on the regular. Mo's voice is so strong, and the humor comes in many flavors, from the bait-and-switch ("Connoisseur", I whispered. "French for 'know-it-all.'") to rueful self-deprecation (The problem with having a temper is you find out what you're going to say at the same time everyone else does.). I can't help but recognize a bit of the fiery troublemaking kid I was in Mo, but even if I didn't have that soft spot, I'd still be laughing my ass off.

I trusted Turnage not to try to "one-up" the plot of the first book (one of my biggest peeves about mystery series) and she didn't disappoint. This time instead of a murderer on the loose, the real threat is to the livelihood of Mo's nearest and dearest, and in a way she can't fix just by figuring out whodunit. This is only tangentially a ghost story, with the title referring more to the shades of the town's past than to the actual ghost Mo and Dale are chasing. The overall feel of the book is of things coming full circle-- an out of town boy coming back to live with his grandfather, schoolchildren learning about their town's history by interviewing their elders, a historic building given new life through the town's collective effort. It's a deft way to frame the characters' development as they take on bigger challenges, both practical and personal.

Change is a common theme in middle-grade fiction, as most of its readers are already hurtling into adolescence at breakneck speed. Mo is growing and changing-- it's no coincidence that for the first time we see her in school-- and the scope of her world is growing too, as she turns her outward "Upstream Mother" focus inward to the people around her, and her place among them. The mystery was harder to solve, too, as it involved navigating the often confusing world of adult emotions and motivations. But Mo's facility for people (and for bullshitting her way out of sticky situations) helps her hold her own against bitter bootleggers and grouchy grannies alike, keeping the story moving constantly forward.

But the biggest strength of this book is in its unquestioning acceptance of Mo's experiences, and how it refuses to compromise her agency as the storyteller. Whether or not the ghost of Nellie Blake is "real" is never even brought up-- Mo experiences her as real, and therefore so do we, the readers. It's part of what makes Mo such a great narrator and such a strong character-- her world is the world we live in while we're with her, and it's a colorful explosion that doesn't step outside itself for a moment. Turnage has said that when she first sat down to write Three Times Lucky, Mo emerged almost fully formed, her voice clear and distinct, and that solidity certainly translates to my experience as a reader. If only all characters-- especially all female characters-- were as complete in their humanity as Mo LoBeau.

I'm assuming Turnage will be putting out another sequel soon, only because I can't imagine saying goodbye to a character and a place I've come to adore so much after only two books. People often deride adults who read children's books (James Wood's recent invective, quoted here, springs to mind), but whatever your age, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing gets my full-throated recommendation to anyone who likes good writing or is in need of a good laugh.

Overall rating: 4.5/5 stars (rounded up to 5 for how much it made me laugh)
Geek quotient: 2/5 stars
Girl quotient: 5/5 stars
Gay quotient: 2/5 stars (Mo has a gay "uncle" who's a very positive role model in her life- normally I wouldn't give this two stars, but in a book for this age group it gets more weight.)

17 June, 2014

"Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

With no ado at all, I'm back! Shit's been crazy; I'm finally reading again, at last.

So, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. I have really mixed feelings about this book-- I'd been really excited to read it, but when I got into it I just... couldn't get into it.

A synopsis: When he was nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath watched as his brother was murdered and his mother raped and then murdered by villainous Count Renar's men. His father the king is a neglectful vicious jerk who refused to enact vengeance upon Renar in favor of using the murders as leverage to bargain a profitable trade agreement with him. Furious and betrayed, Jorg peaces out of home at age ten, and collects-slash-joins a bunch of thugs who then pillage their way across a bunch of kingdoms under his command, all with the ultimate goal of vengeance upon Renar and overthrowing his father to take the throne of Ancrath for his own. But there's more at play than just bloodlust; the Hundred Kingdoms are at war, and the closer Jorg gets to understanding how to win it, the more he starts to realize he has no idea what he's up against.

16 April, 2014

springtime... maybe?

The calendar says it's spring, yet when I woke up this morning there was a crust of snow on the daffodils in my front yard. I'll say again what I've said several times this year: Go home weather, you're drunk.

I just wanted to pop in and say hello, and apologize for the long silence. I hit a little crisis of faith toward the middle of February, in writing a few reviews and realizing I wasn't sure what I was trying to say, which led to this anxiety spiral of questioning why I was reviewing books, was anyone even reading my reviews, and if not, what the point of it all was.

The lesson here is clearly that Seasonal Affective Disorder is not to be underestimated.

Now it's spring (sort of) and I'm working on finishing the draft of that pesky novel that I started back in November, and trying to get back on the reading horse after a few months spent rereading the Harry Potter series and a boatload of Captain America comics. Also, I'd just realized that due to some weird glitch, my last blog layout was not letting you actually read more when you clicked the "Read More" link in my breaks, so the pretty layout has been swapped out in favor of something more basic and functional. Snazzing it back up will be a project for another time. Apologies if anyone was trying to read my past posts and couldn't make them work!

The point is, I'm reading again, which means you can, I hope, expect to see some reviews popping up here again in the near future. Probably shorter and less rambly than my previous sort, but who knows. I'm still working this out as I go.

Thanks for still being along for the ride, readers. Till next time!
♥ emily

22 January, 2014

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland
Hey everyone, happy 2014! It's good to be back. I hope all of your holidays were merry and bright and full of good books. I've missed blogging-- to be fair, I didn't end up reading a whole lot in December that I could've blogged about anyway, but even still, it's good to be back in the saddle.

I'm really excited about this post, because I've been looking forward to reading (and reviewing) this book literally for months. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, whose back cover describes it as a reimagining of the Canterbury Tales.

Bear with me through a brief history lesson, which I'll start with a confession: my focus in college was Old and Middle English literature. And I am a giant, embarrassing, drooling Chaucer fangirl. I'm not only talking about the one played by Paul Bettany, either. Chaucer was the man. He was one of the first writers to decide that he'd had enough of this "real literature is only written in French and Latin" crap, and wrote in the vernacular that actual regular English people spoke on a daily basis. He's credited with starting the legitimizing of English as a language good for anything besides singing dirty songs in bars or figuring out how many bales of wheat to trade for a sheep.

While he wrote a bunch of other works, he's most famous for the Tales, which live at the crossroads of sociopolitical commentary and self-insertionist fanfic. The narrator of the Tales is a guy named (you guessed it) Chaucer, and though the poet himself isn't on record as ever deciding to go on a pilgrimage, he used his vast experience of people from all walks of life to create a bunch of believable characters-- archetypes if you will, of the sorts of people that most English people would know-- a nun, a priest, a miller, an innkeeper, et cetera. Though they came from all occupations and classes, the pilgrims all thought that going on this holy road trip would absolve them of their sins. In some cases, Chaucer found this ironic and hilarious; in others, noble and commendable. It all depended on the person. Further setting the Tales apart from most literature of the time, there's no one main hero in this story, just regular people, and Chaucer immortalized every one of them, quirks, warts, farts, and all.

So-- back to 2013, and Company of Liars. The narrator of the book is called Camelot, not a name but a title, held by an old scarred man who sells useless trinkets claiming them to be holy relics. Rumors of the pestilence (the early name for the Black Death) have been circulating, and Camelot is trying to make it to a shrine to spend the winter in. Unfortunately for him, he keeps meeting people who he feels compelled to allow to join him, for their safety as well as his own-- a young couple expecting a baby, an albino child who reads the future in runes, a midwife, a musician and his apprentice, a one-armed storyteller, and a sideshow operator with a wagon full of marvels.

As the title of the book would suggest, all of these people are liars. And between the incessant downpour, the lack of food, the growing stories about the plague, and the growing tensions between various members of the group, it becomes clear pretty early on that something's going to go FUBAR in this medieval station wagon-- the only question is when. The fact that there's a lone wolf that seems to be following their caravan-- hunting them, even-- only adds to the fear. Then, one by one, the members of their company start dying in increasingly gruesome ways.

This is the point at which it becomes clear, both to our narrator Camelot and to the reader, that whatever is preying on the travelers (be it wolf or human) isn't doing so at random-- that rather than being absolved of their sins as Chaucer's pilgrims hoped for, they're being punished for them instead.

This is the part where we get spoilery, so if you want to remain in the dark about whodunit, now's the time to stop reading.

Still with me? Okay, good. Because we're going to have a chat, you and me, about creepy children.

Nope, this town is totally normal.
The creepy kid trope (don't click that) is often used as a mini deus ex machina, not to solve the problems of a particular story, but to expose them. The idea of a child that knows too much is unsettling-- a child that can think like an adult, and worse, perpetrate evil or horrifying acts like an adult, is one of the creepiest there is. Even if the creepy kid's job is just to stand by and make ominous pronouncements about what's going to happen, it's still unsettling. Kids are supposed to be innocent, and when faced with one who isn't, it jolts us out of our comfort zone faster than you can say Linda Blair.

So if your book contains an albino 12-year-old with a long white rat's nest of hair and pale eyes who barely talks except to read runes and make cryptic statements about the people around her, I just go into it assuming she's one early bedtime away from going Lizzie Borden on everyone around her. Add to that the fact that the pregnant lady gives her a doll and she scratches its face off with a knife because she doesn't like it looking at her, and that she's crazy good at hunting but takes ages to actually kill her prey because she likes watching the animals struggle? RED ALERT EVERYONE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

So while I may have called it pretty early on that Narigorm (which is a near-anagram for guess which Celtic goddess whose abilities include foretelling the means of a person's death?) was behind the wolf hunting and shredding Camelot's companions, no one in the book seems to figure it out, even as the body count rises.

Which is kind of the point, if you think about it. The best and scariest killers are the ones who do their dirty work right under others' noses and get away without suspicion (hello, Doctor Lecter). And who would suspect a child of murder? As Camelot finds out to his great chagrin, people don't want to even consider the possibility, even when it's standing there telling them in a sepulchral voice that the runes say someone's going to die less than 12 hours before one of their group turns up stabbed to death with his man-bits torn off.

I should also mention this book is not for people who are squeamish about blood.

Anyway-- one of the funniest parts of the Canterbury Tales is how Chaucer exposes the divide (in some cases, the chasm) between how the pilgrims think of themselves, and what their actions actually say about them. also In Company of Liars this theme is just as important, but it's used for horror, not humor. Each of the people in the group either has secrets of their own or is hiding someone else's, or both. They have a facade that they're desperately trying to maintain, and the growing dread that mounts with each chapter mirrors the characters' growing realization that those secrets won't stay buried for long. So reading Company of Liars is like traveling this double spiral of horror-- not only the realization that Narigorm is a practiced murderer who assembled this company on purpose to torment them, but that no one in is safe while they're with her.

It seems strange to say about a book about a road trip, but Narigorm is the only thing that moves the plot along. Without her, the travelers would be content to keep living their lies, and would probably have finished their journey in ignorant peace, but she is always nudging them toward exposure. And while she as a character may be motivated to kill, her function in the story is to bring about that unearthing of the truth. She reveals how fucked up each one of these people is-- proves to them that the truth cannot stay hidden no matter how desperately they wish it-- and then punishes them for their sins.

Strangely, she fulfills the same function for the book's travelers as the Narrator does in the Canterbury Tales. In this perverted, horrific reimagining of the Tales, Narigorm plays the part of Chaucer, pulling back the veil on the secret lives of the people around her and meting out retribution-- not by immortalizing their flaws in fiction, but by reminding them how worthless their lies, and their lives, really are.

This makes the book sound bleak, but for all that it hasn't got a happy ending for almost any of its characters, I found it very satisfying. Maitland has a beautiful writing style and she paints emotion and atmosphere with a vivid brush. I was totally captivated by this story; each chapter was something to savor and linger over, and I was thoroughly sorry to turn the last page.

You can buy Company of Liars on Amazon, and read my reviews crossposted to Goodreads

14 November, 2013

NaNotDeadYet!

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the long silence. Work clicked into overdrive toward the end of October, our big conference was the first weekend in November, and I decided to do NaNoWriMo. So my brain cells, to put it mildly, are few and far between.

I haven't read much new since I finished Scott Lynch's long-awaited The Republic of Thieves. I decided on a whim (because the leadup to Halloween always puts me in a spooky, magical mood) to do a full reread of the Harry Potter books. I'll have some thoughts about them eventually, but for now I've just been reveling in the re-immersion. It's astonishing how repeated watchings of the movies have altered my sense of the books, their quality, how much I enjoy them, especially the first two. I'm just starting Prisoner of Azkaban, which is one of my favorites, so I'll probably blog a bit about the first three when I'm done with it.

Also, in my very little spare time (ie: the times when my eyes are crossing at work and I need to zone out on something) I've been catching up on the Great Wheel of Time Reread over at tor.com, which has been hilarious. I first read the series my first year of college, when I had very few friends and a lot of time on my hands. I got really fed up with them around book 6, I think, but I persevered until book 9 just to see if they'd get better. They didn't. But there is so much that's good and interesting about the series, so the reread blog is like doing a supercondensed reread of my own-- I get to remember all the good parts without killing a hundred hours and handfuls of the aforementioned scant brain cells.

So that's where I'm at. I'm hoping to finish the few reviews I had started before work exploded, but I probably won't get to them until I hit the 40k mark with NaNo (don't want to jinx myself!) and I might end up skipping over them entirely and moving on to whatever book I kick off December with.

But seriously, if you've been thinking about The Republic of Thieves, read it. It was worth every second of the wait. AND I saw Scott Lynch speak at the book's premiere in Boston, and he promised that the 4th installment will be in our hands by Christmas next year. To which I responded, "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" So that's good news for all Locke and Jean fans.

If any of you guys are doing NaNo, what are you doing to stay focused? I discovered @NaNoWordSprints, which has been immensely helpful... especially after I didn't write all last weekend on account of it being my 30th birthday and getting kidnapped by my besties for a weekend of eat-drink-and-be-merry. In case I needed the confirmation that I've definitely outgrown the "get wasted three nights in a row" stage of my life... yep, I got it.

Okay, back to work. Love!
<3 emily

10 October, 2013

On shipping, and being wrong

I came across a Tumblr post the other day with a set of gifs from a recent movie, showing the two nerdy scientist characters (both male) grinning and hugging each other from the moment in the movie right after they help save the world. The OP's tags were quoted below the gifset, saying something like, "I actually thought they were going to kiss", or something similar.

The person on my feed who reblogged the post had amended it with tags of her own. Paraphrased, she said that she didn't understand "why a fandom refuses to just let dudes who are friends be friends", that not every fictional friendship "involves touching penises".

This made me, to understate, a little mad. Not because I happen to enjoy that particular ship (though I do) but because of the self-righteous queer-phobic sentiment behind the tags. It's the nature of the fan world that you'll come across ships that make you go "Huh?" or "Yikes" or downright "Ew." It's just a fact of fanworks, and being part of fannish culture. Some people see a ship where you cannot imagine one existing. Eat your vegetables, kids; some people like things that you don't like.

So I'm not taking issue with the fact that this person doesn't ship these two characters. That's her gods-given right as a person; to ship or not to ship, as she sees fit. But I am taking issue with her castigation of "a fandom" seeing a ship where she doesn't see one-- of her taking the fact that people ship these particular characters and turning it into a general interdict against ships she doesn't enjoy. I don't personally understand why people ship Draco/Hermione or Mal/River or Dean/Sam or any number of the roughly five million ships that scroll down my Tumblr dash every day. But frankly, it's not for me to judge.

Because here's the thing about shipping. Non-fannish people often have a hard time with the concept, because they don't tend to be the types of people who think a lot about fictional canons and characters when they're not watching/reading/playing that canon. But fannishness-- broadly speaking, and shipping in particular-- is about seeing the possibility of the story to go a different way, for it to contain more than just what's shown on the screen or the page.

To date, one of my favorite things the internet has ever churned out to talk about slash fanfiction is this post by dreamwidth user Cimorene, in which she talks about representation (gay characters and relationships in the textual context of the canon) versus slash (queering the canon through your own interpretation). A few years ago I also wrote a post about queer representation in media, especially genre fiction, and my participation in fan culture-- specifically fanfiction, even more specifically slash. If you're new to the concept of shipping or slash, those are good places to start.

When we talk about slash, we're talking about dragging the lens from mass media's obsessively heteronormative view to something that feels more like what we experience in reality. I love this blog post, which discusses the "script of desire", the expectations we're taught to have and the incredibly narrow roles men and women are "supposed" to fill when interacting with each other.
Heteronormativity isn’t just about the presumption that everyone is heterosexual. The expectation that boys woo girls feeds into your mind the expectation that relationships are necessary for fulfilment, and you are less than if you are not having particular kinds of sex with a particular, and a particular kind of, person at particular intervals.
And if you don't have that kind of sex, if you aren't even remotely interested in it, then what? Where do you find those people that you remind you of yourself? When I watch a movie and I look for someone to cast myself in the role of, it's almost never one of the leads. It's usually the socially awkward geek; the brainy bookish kid with the sharp tongue; the withdrawn angry kid with the enormous chip on her shoulder.

And when I see that character form an attachment to another character, especially one of the same sex, I can't help but wonder how it might grow beyond attachment to attraction-- because that's how I've experienced attraction, sex, love, in the past. That's the story my brain tells, because it's the story I've lived.

So what's the basis of this Tumblr user's bashing of this ship-- and not only this ship, but a group of fans who choose to look beyond what is only textually a friendship? Why the resentment that exists from someone who doesn't ship a particular pairing, towards the people that do? Her tags came off as not only self-aggrandizing but also snobbish-- as though just knowing that some people enjoy shipping these two characters was threatening to her, was somehow tainting what she saw as the "right" interpretation of their relationship.

I talk with my friends periodically about what makes a geek a geek. We've basically boiled it down to the fact that being a geek, at least in the current hipster culture of detachment and "ironic" enjoyment of things, has a lot to do with not being afraid to get excited about stuff. I'm a geek because I get excited about wizards, werewolves, made up worlds, giant robots fighting monsters in the ocean, and a host of other things. I get excited by shipping. And I think people who get down on others for their ships are not only betraying the spirit of geekdom, but seriously detracting from the safe space that most of us consider our fannish lives to be. Like I said in the post I linked above; fandom is where I come to find people like me. And it's contrary to that fraternal feeling to tell someone their ship is lame, or wrong. You wouldn't want someone to do that to you.

In the immortal words of Vin Diesel: Don't be a dick, Dick.

Sure, not all friendships between two dudes involve sex. But the point of participating in a fandom is that you have a platform from which to posit that it could-- that any friendship could turn into romance, regardless of the gender of the characters involved. That if you want to, you could read the friendship between these two secondary characters as being the prelude to, or simply the outward expression of, a romantic relationship. That that's a story that's just as valid to tell as any other.

And if you read a piece of fanfiction that speaks to you-- that tells you the story of someone you relate to, having the kind of sex that you want to have, falling in love in a way you can imagine yourself falling in love-- who the hell is anyone else to tell you you're wrong?

Till next time, geeks, stay frosty. And incidentally, if you're on tumblr, you can see my incredibly nerdy collection of reblogs at opentheyear. :)

02 October, 2013

Cool shit I found to cure the common cold (and by cure, I mean distract from)

this is about the level of involvement i have
with my surroundings today.
It's happened to all of us, I'm sure. The seasons change, you wake up one day and your sinuses are tight, and you think, oh great, allergies. Then you get a little chest raspiness and a sore throat, so you cough sometimes, sounding not so much ill as pathetic.

That was yesterday. Breathing hasn't been much fun, which for me at least, kind of gives me a lackluster outlook on life in general. Breathing being, you know, sort of important. So now I not only sounded like Howl's wheezy alter ego, but I basically had the same level of excitement for my surroundings as him too.
Then this morning I woke up to find my nose was doing its level best to win a faucet impersonation contest, my sore throat had gone from zero to full Tim Curry in the night. Am I sick? Yes. But sick enough to miss work? Ehhh.... I figured I'd suck it up and come in. I need the money, and I need to continue making a good impression on my new boss.

yes i am very perky and would love to
HACK WHEEZE assist you today!
Besides, I worked retail for four years, I know how to slap on a smile with the best of 'em.

Now you might be asking yourself, what's my problem? Why don't I just pull up my pants, take a Day-Quil and move on with my life? Ohoho, if only it were that simple.

You see, lieblings, most people see those histamine-blocking medications as the go-to for the sorts of illnesses that can lay you out for a few days at a stretch. I, on the other hand, apparently have the immune system of a Regency heroine (the annoying Caroline Bingley type, natch), because what antihistamines do to me is not make me better. They make me high. High, high, higher than a kite with a jet pack attached to it. Sure, my symptoms are gone, but I'm basically in a coma of drugs that renders me incapable of interacting with my environment beyond eating and drinking what's put in front of me, and occasionally blowing my nose.

All of which means it's really difficult to medicate myself when I'm sick, lest I end up a drooling, gibbering mess. Most of the time, like my British forebears, I medicate with tea, Advil and willpower. Sometimes that works. Most of the time, my illness then progresses on to the stage where I lie on the couch moaning about how terrible I feel in the hopes that someone will take pity on me and bring me chicken soup or something. Usually I just succeed in making the people who live with me find very important things to do outside the house.

Without finding the magical correct combination of medicines to stave off this hell-plague, I predict we will reach this stage by tomorrow night. Which could be cool if I end up not going into work on Friday, because hey, three day weekend. But a) I could use the money, and b) no one wants to waste a sick day actually being sick, amirite?

So my normal mood when October finally arrives in my life, which is basically summed up by this cat :


has now been replaced by a feeling of general malaise and a desire to get back in bed. This is bad for several reasons. One, I joined The Kitchn Cure (because I'm obsessed with The Kitchn and if you're not... why not?? It's like internet Disneyland for foodies!) and am supposed to be merrily cleaning and purging my kitchen this week. Yeah, like that's going to happen when I'm a snot factory. Also, my mom's coming up on Saturday to help me with projects around the apartment, and on Sunday I'm going to a wedding expo with my two best friends who are getting hitched in a year. Yay weddings! Hope I don't hack up something gooey on any expensive dresses!

On the upside, if I do take a day off on Friday, at least I'll have a lot of good books to keep me company. :D

Now here, have some links. They're totally taking my mind off wanting to crawl under my desk and take a nap. I promise.

Okay darlings, it's nearly 5pm, which means it's nearly time for mama to go take some Advil, make a cuppa and crawl into bed with the fat flumpy cat and a book. Till next time!
♥ emily

30 September, 2013

An immortal wizard walks into the World Series of Poker... : "The Incrementalists" by Steven Brust and Skyler White

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke. A guy sits alone in a bar in Vegas, waiting for his next poker game to start. He flirts with the waitress, has a drink, thinks about the fact that his ex-girlfriend recently committed suicide; nothing really to set him apart from the sludge of humanity around him. But underneath his baseball cap sits a mind that's been reincarnated through dozens of bodies over the course of many centuries-- a mind that remembers every era of history and every time he used his magic to change things for the better. And the best part is, our wizard isn't alone. He's got 200 friends just like him-- a secret society who's been magically nudging people toward working for the greater good, operating between the lines since the dawn of time. This is the premise of Steven Brust and Skyler White's The Incrementalists-- the foundation for a story that is simultaneously fantastical and everyday, mixing magic both wondrous and mundane.