Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dealing with Entropy

Stories Read:
"The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick
"The Wind from a Dying Star" by David D. Levine
"The Guy with the Eyes" by Spider Robinson

The Best of Michael SwanwickHow do I categorize "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick? Steampunk with talking dogs? The story appears in an anthology called Re-wired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. So it's post-Cyberpunk... It also appears in an anthology called This is My Funniest: Leading Science Fiction Writers Present Their Funniest Stories Ever, edited by Mike Resnick, a book I clearly need to get my hands on. It is definitely funny.

The story takes place in a Victorian-like future, after a war between humans and artificial intelligences. The humans won. Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (or "Surplus" for short) is a genetically engineered talking dog who, with his sidekick Darger, have a con in mind. Entertaining, funny, and very peculiar.

Space Magic by Devid D. Levine"The Wind from a Dying Star" is the first story in David D. Levine's collection called Space Magic. It's an interesting tale about some interstellar explorers that I thought were some kind of energy beings, but I found this note by Levine that tells me that the people in the story are "actually solid matter, a mix of biological and technological materials, though they use 'fields' to manipulate things and 'motivators' to get around." They are the further evolution of humans, actually, and I will read the story again in that context. I'll be reading the rest of this collection next week, hopefully, which hardly seems fair to Jenny! I received the eBook version of Space Magic to review over at LibraryThing as part of the Early Reviewers program, which makes me ridiculously happy.

Callahan's Crosstime SaloonHere's a quote I really like:
"Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is increased. Thus do we refute entropy."
--Spider Robinson

That is a very short description of Spider Robinson's Callahan stories, and why I adore them. In world where we hear much bad news, these stories serve as a reminder of how we humans ought to treat each other. "The Guy with the Eyes" is the first Callahan story, published in Analog Science Fiction by Ben Bova in February, 1973. Callahan's Place is a bar where people bring their problems, and others are there to listen and share their pain. There are also puns. Ben Bova's Foreword in the paperback version of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is called "Spider Robinson: The SF Writer as Empath". Indeed! Terrific stories. "The Guy with the Eyes" is five-star.

This puts me at 12 stories for the year so far. At this rate, I will reach only 168 and almost a half. I am pacing myself like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. Except without the drugs. Unless you count coffee as a drug, in which case I better schedule my interview with Oprah!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Beginnings: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Book: May We Be Forgiven
Author: A. M. Homes
Why I am reading it: This is listed on the 2013 Tournament of Books, and I've been trying to read one of them each week. 

"Do you want my recipe for disaster?
The warning sign: last year, Thanksgiving at their house."
Impressions so far: I had read a book by A. M. Homes a few years back, The Safety of Objects, short stories that I enjoyed.  I'm enjoying this novel more (200 pages in), even though it uses a trope I usually hate - the depressed middle-aged academic ruining his own life.  I think where Homes seems to be succeeding where other authors have failed for me is that the situations and characters are more realistic.  Not everything is always terrible, even if the terrible things that have happened color every situation.  There are small moments of humor, but also moments where I feel very compassionately toward the characters.  That is no small feat, and I find this to be an engrossing read so far.

If you want to hear more about what I'm reading, friend me on GoodReads. Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Country: Turkey (3 of 52 for 2013)
Baked Good: Spinach-feta börek

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why I picked this book: First pick of the year for the World's Literature Group in GoodReads. Plus I have always wanted to visit Turkey, and had this book on my shelf for a year.

Ka, a poet exiled from Turkey, returns to his home country to write about a series of young girls who have been committing suicide in the city of Kars. At least, that is the reason given at the beginning. It gets more complicated once you find out that a woman he has loved also lives there, and is recently divorced.

I was interested in the story of Snow, and of the imagery (how snow masks violence, how snow can be isolating, the uniqueness of snowflakes - these are repeated themes). I was particularly interested in the poems, but the reader never gets to read them. While the narrative gives a good excuse in the end, I was unable to let go of my disappointment over being denied such a central element of the story. There are frequent comments about how poets separate themselves from what is going on, to preserve their hearts and to let the poems come to them through events, such as here:
"Ka had explained to me that when a good poet is confronted with difficult facts that he knows to be true but also inimical to poetry, he has no choice but to flee to the margins; it was, he said, this very retreat that allowed him to hear the hidden music that is the source of all art."
But since we don't see inside of the poems, it suffices to separate the reader from Ka's true emotions and feelings about almost everything.

The other issue that interfered with my enjoyment of the story is the narrator. It is a friend of Ka's who is telling about Ka's journey, recreated through journals, newspaper articles, and interviews. This isn't immediately apparent, but isn't a spoiler to say so, I don't think. Because of this tactic though, it removes the reader even farther from the central emotion of the story. I had also guessed at one event that I suspect was supposed to be a great reveal, although the narrator frequently stumbles over himself to tell the juicy bits of a story, forcing him to go back and try to put it into context. Amusing, yes. Frustrating, also yes.

Another element I struggled with was the reaction to violence. The director of the Institute of Education is killed in front of Ka and Ipek, and while they leave the cafe rapidly, there isn't a sense of danger. Neither is there a sense of fear when people are killed by revolutionaries in public. That didn't seem true to life, and I think I'll blame the unreliable narrator. I get that Ka was putting his emotion into his poetry (which we never see), but what about everyone else living in Kars? Why go to a theater where there was violence at the last performance in that space, only to experience violence again? I will allow that I may not be reading between the lines enough, or that the narrator is glossing over the details most people would give. It made it very hard to connect to.

Other little bits on writing and poetry and happiness:

"Only people who are very intelligent and very unhappy can write good poems. So you heroically undertook to endure the pains of faithlessness, just to be able to write good poems. But you didn't realize then that when you lost that voice inside you, you'd end up all alone in an empty universe."

"But doesn't life make us unhappy?"
"We do that to ourselves."

"Only the purest poets allow love into their hearts in time of revolution."

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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible WorldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Why I read it: I enjoyed her last book, and jumped at the chance to read this before it came out through NetGalley.

I do not give out five stars lightly, but there are several reasons why I think Karen Lord's novel deserves it. This is pure science fiction, which was a surprise after reading her previous novel, Redemption in Indigo, which while enjoyable was a retold myth or fable. Since Karen Lord is one of three Caribbean authors writing in science fiction and fantasy, I have been looking forward to seeing what she would do next.

I have reamed novels set in space when they trade scientific description for unrealistic character portrayals. I would say that creating nuanced and interesting alien races is her strength. It isn't all science, as all the races have a slightly vague, mythological history. Are the Caretakers real? What is the connection between Terrans and the Sadiri?

The two main characters are Dllenahkh, who is in charge of Sadiri refugees, and Delarua, who accompanies him on a mission because of her scientific and language ability. Karen Lord was inspired by the statistics of how many more women than men were killed in the 2004 tsunami, and applies that idea to the disaster that makes the Sardiri into refugees. To further their culture, they have to go look for societies that may have ancient connections to their own, little pockets of taSadiri throughout the universe. Because of this, the author explores genetic mutation between alien races, and what remains of an original culture.

I felt the alien races were well-developed, and I liked the concepts of Sadiri communication, and the examples of people who have abused their natural abilities. There is a good balance of interpersonal conflict alongside broader issues. I feel like anyone who likes Melville's Embassytown because of the anthropological challenges but prefers their novels to be more readable, and anyone who enjoys the space novels of Ursula K. Le Guin, will connect with this novel.

Highly recommended.

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff

State: New York (Upstate) - 3 of 52
Baked good: Raw citrus cheesecake

ArcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why I read it: I've had this on my to-read list for a while, but the fact that it was listed on the Tournament of Books pushed me into moving it up on the list.

As a librarian, one of the worst sins to encounter in writing is using someone else's work without crediting it. Groff has some very poetic language in parts of this book, an element of the novel that many reviewers keep mentioning as one of the good parts. Too bad it isn't always hers. She must have used the "center cannot hold" at least twice, it may have been three times. A nice concept. I think Yeats thought so too, when he wrote it. There are multiple moments like this that took me out of the story in annoyance, not just Yeats.

That said, I'm a sucker for a commune story. I went through a phase of reading novels, memoirs, and studies of communal societies, and have visited several in the United States - New Harmony, IN; Amana, IA; the Shaker Village in Pleasantburg, KY.... it is something that will always be interesting to me. The novel focuses on four stages of Bit, a child born to wandering hippies just as approach property inherited by one of their members in upstate New York. First his young childhood, then his early teen years as the commune predictably falls apart, then his life as a new father in Manhattan, right after the towers fall, and then with his aging parents.

I enjoyed the details of Arcadia - the floury air from baking their own bread, the soy-everything diet, the unwashed bodies, the failed attempts at democracy. It was easy to picture, and I was grateful for the lack of religious undertones for once. I feel like the author took the easy way out in having a central male leader figure, but perhaps some things are stereotypes because they are true. In that case, she is forgiven for the pot as well.

The last section of the four, trying to portray a world facing down pending disaster of spreading disease, was her least believable story. The irony is that it gives a weight to the importance of living off the land, while having shown how difficult it is to make an alternate society work in the long-term.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Planet Hopping, with Love and Without

Stories Read:
"The Bone Flute" by Lisa Tuttle
A World Out of Time by Larry Niven, contains "Rammer"

The Bone Flute by Lisa Tuttle"The Bone Flute" is a short story by Lisa Tuttle that won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1982. One of the reasons I enjoy working through lists is that I'll read stories that I wouldn't normally read, and this one falls into that category. I'm not sure why, but the title "The Bone Flute" evokes "fantasy" to me, so I was surprised when the story opened in a bar on a space station. There the female protagonist watches a man perform an erotic dance, then meets him afterward. She's a trader, and is planning to make a trip to a planet that has had little contact with other worlds. Her attraction to the man is strong, so she offers to bring him along. The planet has a reputation of the most incredible music... and the rest is to be discovered for yourself. I found this story on Amazon for the Kindle for 99 cents.

A World Out of Time by Larry NivenSecond up this week is "Rammer" by Larry Niven, which was part of a novel I read for a discussion on the SFFaudio Podcast. The novel is called A World Out of Time, and "Rammer", originally a stand-alone short story, was the first chapter of the book. Quick description: a man wakes up in the year 2100-something after being frozen in 1970. He's awakened by The State, who wants him to fly a spaceship alone to some potential colony worlds, then return.

For me, the short story was the best part of the novel, but, as Jesse and Tam pointed out to me on the podcast, the book is full of ideas, and that's great.

Since I read "Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, I've been very interested in the concept of ambiguity in fiction. This is an illustration of that concept. At the end of "Rammer", the main character says where he's going to go next: the galactic hub, and maybe the Clouds of Magellan. Then the story ends, leaving the reader a sense of wonder. The novel takes off from there, and though I liked the continuing story, I liked the sense of wonder the original story left me with better. I can certainly see the value in leaving the story just as it was.

A short update this week! I better do one of two things - get on the ball and read a bunch this week, OR employ Tam to send Jenny some thousand page Peter Hamilton novels. Great North Road, Jenny. Great North Road!

11 stories so far for me this year, and I'm loving every minute of it.

Next up: "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick

Persuasion by Jane Austen

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Why I read it: Unputdownables sponsored a readalong of the novel for January 2013. Despite having read it already, I couldn't resist the opportunity to read it again with a group.

This is my absolute favorite of Jane Austen's world. Persuasion is a love story about two people who find each other again despite time, age difference, different station, and societal expectations. I have read it three four times and still feel it is her best work. The last few chapters make me teary every single time. Okay I guess I can sometimes be that girl.

The best sentence ever: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope...I have loved none but you.”

Other bits I marked this last time around (2013):

"There is so little actual friendship on the world! And unfortunately there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late."

"A lady, without a family, was the very best preserver of furniture in the world." (this is my house!)

"She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel to an unnatural beginning."

"It is clear that he admires you exceedingly. His head is full of some books that he is reading upon your recommendation."

"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story... the pen has been in their hands." (Oh Jane, could you put any more of yourself into a story? This is straight author perspective.)

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner

State: Kansas (4* of 52)

The Lichtenberg FiguresThe Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why I read it: Hunting around for authors from Kansas and this volume had received quite a bit of acclaim.

I came across Ben Lerner when I was looking for writers from Kansas. Lerner writes poetry and has published one novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. He is what I would call a very academic poet - very self-aware, intentionally creating structured poems, using words most readers will need to look up. (Goodness, take what I said and magnify it by 100 - check out this video lecture of him speaking on poetic logic and structure.)

This set of poems is described as 52 "sonnets," although they aren't sonnets in the traditional rhyming scheme sense, but rather just in the number of lines each has. The sonnets are unnumbered and unnamed, making them difficult to reference. Over all there are many moments of humor, self-reference, paradox, and conflict. He mentions a few characters, one so often I tried figuring out who he is, and most people have decided he is an imaginary figure (Orlando Duran). A few of them are dedicated "To Benjamin," which some believe to be the poet himself.

He does mention Kansas a few times - Topeka several times. And then there is a biting description of Kansasians (is that what we call them?):
"...There is a suffering somewhere else,
but here in Kansas our acquaintances
rape us tenderly and remain unchanged...."

One of the "for Benjamin" sonnets includes this little segment which is my favorite:
"Sensation dissolves into sense through this idle discussion,
into a sense that sees itself and is afraid. Still, we must finish our coffee
and partition epiphany
into its formative mistakes...."

*I haven't yet posted #3 because of a baked good plan I had.  SOON.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

Fresh Off the Boat: A MemoirFresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't a chef memoir, let me just say that right off the bat. Eddie Huang is so much more than a food person. This is the story of how a child born to Taiwanese immigrants makes a life for himself. It is a coming of age story more than anything else. Eddie is only 30, and has seen one restaurant fail and one be an immediate hit. He has worked as a furniture salesman, a drug dealer, a lawyer, and a stand-up comic.

I enjoyed the story, especially read by the author himself. I didn't always identify with him, and would be completely intimidated by him, but I still think I'd probably enjoy his food. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a man who values stinky tofu?

He does talk about food throughout the book, it just isn't a central theme the way you might expect. One sentence stuck in my head, where he describes good food as having "detail, attention, and restraint." In some ways it is ironic, because he believes in that style for his food, but not for his life; never for his life.

You can get a sense of his writing style in this article about his Dad, and a sense of how he is viewed by others in this Time Magazine article. You can follow his internal dialogue in Twitter, or watch his show on Vice, also called Fresh Off the Boat. I'm recommending all these things because you won't be able to read the book until the end of January. But keep your eye on Eddie. Considering what he has accomplished so far, I'm not sure he'll decide just to stay a restauranteur his whole life.

You should watch this video of Eddie in Taiwan... I linked it at 3:00 where it starts talking about food, but you can watch the whole thing to watch him take uniquely Taiwanese drugs. :)

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Some Sisters and Some Givers

Week 2!

Stories Read:
"Sister Emily's Lightship" by Jane Yolen
"The Giver" (1994) by Lois Lowry
"Slow Sculpture" (1970) by Theodore Sturgeon
"Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism" (2011) by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories by Jane Yolen I dwell in possibility, Emily Dickinson writes in the first line of Jane Yolen's poet-meets-alien story called "Sister Emily's Lightship". In the story notes included in Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories, Yolen says she got the idea for the story after reading a Dickinson poem with a line about a "band of stars". A nice idea for a good story. I loved Emily's answer when asked by the alien about what she does in this world. "I tell the truth," she said. "But I tell it slant." This won the Best Short Story Nebula Award in 1998.

The Giver by Lois LowryThe Giver by Lois Lowry is a short dystopian YA novel that is one of the best stories I've read for a long while. In a review that I'm nearly finished with, I call it a "thought experiment". The story inspires a person to think about what things could be done to make sure that we humans treat each other better, what the consequences of those things might be, and ultimately what kinds of things are people willing to sacrifice to avoid pain. The society in the story is extreme. No pain allowed; but also, no joy. Puberty causes conflict, so the moment a citizen has "stirrings", he or she is put on pills to curb the effects. All kids are treated exactly the same. When they are little, they are given comfort objects, when they are a certain age, they are given a bicycle, etc. There's no room in this society for people that don't fit. Those people are "released", but no one in the society knows for sure what that means.

When Jonas turns twelve, he's given his life's work assignment. He's given a very special job - to receive society's past memories, full of the pain and joy they contain, and he'll see things for what they really are. He'll understand everything that the rest of society has been protected from. Terrific book. Very happy that my 12 year old daughter read and discussed it in school. In fact, she gave me this book for Christmas. How cool is that?

Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1970Theodore Sturgeon also expresses a sort of disdain for the society he finds himself in, or at least the main character in his famous story, "Slow Sculpture", does. It's a good story about an innovator who has devised a cure for cancer. He's visited by a woman that needs his procedure. The most striking aspect of the story is a very large bonsai tree in the courtyard of his home which becomes an object of contemplation for the characters. In that contemplation lies Sturgeon's point, which is something like: "Why don't people listen more to the smart people?" The solution offered is that the smart people ought to shape society the same way a bonsai tree is shaped. Slow sculpture. The story won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1970/71.

Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher GoldenLast up this week is "Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism" by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. Mike Mignola is the creator of Hellboy. I haven't read any Hellboy comics, but have seen and liked some of the art, and have seen and liked very much Guillermo del Toro's two movies. I listened to this one, since it arrived at SFFaudio for review. Nick Podehl narrated. I see that the description of the novella at Amazon says that it's an "illustrated novella", so I'll have to check out the art when I run across a copy. In short, it's a good novella about an Italian orphanage in World War II. Father Gaetano and the nuns at the orphanage, in an effort to connect with the children, makes use of a puppet stage that had been abandoned in the basement. He uses the puppets to teach Bible stories, first painting them to match the characters they are to portray. The problem is, these puppets come to life at night, like we know puppets do, and they take on the persona of the Biblical characters they were painted to resemble. It wasn't the best idea to paint one as the fallen angel Lucifer.

Alright Jenny - Goodreads shows you at 5 books, and I am now at 7 stories! Doing a touchdown dance that I designed my very own self.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Book Beginnings: Arcadia

"The women in the river, singing. This is Bit's first memory...."

Book: Arcadia
Author: Lauren Groff

I know this book has been on my radar for quite some time; I can't remember which list it was on or how I first heard of it.  Then it was listed on the finalists for the 2013 Tournament of Books over on The Morning News, and I knew my library had a copy.  When I got to book-hate with my current books, I decided to take a break and check this one out for the weekend.  The cover is vivid and I know the first half is about a childhood in a commune, so I'm thinking it will be a welcome break from depressing snowy Turkey and depressing marshy Florida, the settings of the other two books I'm currently in the middle of.  

(By the way, I'm sure I'll get over the book-hate... sometimes I just get burned out.)  

I haven't started Arcadia other than opening it to read the first line, but now I wonder.  Who are the women, in the river, singing?  Is it a frequent event, if Bit remembers?  Who is Bit?  I'll report back!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 State: Indiana (2 of 52)
Baked Good: Persimmon Cookies

 The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why I read it: On the list for the 2013 Tournament of Books, and to represent Indiana in my USA challenge.

I need to stop reading YA books. I'm not the target audience.

No, it's not just that. I'm getting old. I'm Scrooge. I'm a curmudgeon. Young love and Cancer Patients who Learn Important Lessons About the Universe just don't meet any of my needs from a book.

Oh, when I was younger, and life seemed very serious, I loved to be brought to tears from a Noble Dying Character or an Unrequited Love Story, but I am just not that girl anymore.

Why am I using all capital letters. It seems like every time I read a book like this, the author is either wanting to impress me with how very important/precocious/special the characters are. John Green, the author, even references "cancer novels" in his novel, and while it is clear he thinks his is not included, I don't think he actually got as far from that genre as he thinks.

Hazel still Suffers More Than a Teenager Should. She still Learns Valuable Lessons, and Although Battling Terminal Illness, Still Falls in Love. And In the Midst of Great Sorrow, she can still recite Great Works of Literature. Oh, please. This is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of teens? It is pretty amazing how well they get on with their parents....

Okay, I'm sorry, all I can feel is sarcastic. I don't see how it is special enough to be nominated for the 2013 Tournament of Books or why people have swooned over it the way they have. I know it was important for the author, who spent some time in his early 20s working as a chaplain at a children's hospital, to finish this book idea he'd had in his head for eleven years. But I find some of his newer ideas (older books) better. I loved An Abundance of Katherines, so don't see this as dismissal of the author completely.

Besides being on the list for the 2013 Tournament of Books, I read this because it was set in Indiana, for my Around the USA challenge. It was fun to hear mentions of places I have been, including a sculpture garden that was planned back behind the Indianapolis Museum of Art that was still unbuilt when I moved away. One sculpture takes on special meaning in the novel. Characters tromp through Broad Ripple and drive up Keystone, and I could see these places in my mind.

The audio version was well done, and though I hear the author also did his own, I think this is best read by a woman since the story is told in first-person and the main character is female.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why I read it: This was the January pick for a bookclub I participate in called the League of Extraordinary Dorks.  We meet in a virtual space that allows for any costume you can imagine.

It is important to keep in mind that I am reviewing this for what it is - a YA paranormal romance. For my own tastes, this would be a solid 3 stars, but there are a handful of things that I think make it better than an average YA paranormal romance (*cough* Twilight *cough*), which combine to take it to a solid 4.  Skimming a bunch of reviews online, some people love this book.  Obsessively.  I hope to offer a slightly more objective opinion.

First of all, the world. The author has chosen Prague as the location for where Karou, the main character, lives. It is mysterious enough, but we soon discover that she uses certain gateways to travel between that city of the 21st century and Elsewhere.

I saw this picture of Prague at night in the fog in Pinterest, and it pretty much matched what I see in my head as I listen to this book.  There could so easily be magic here.

The storytelling kept me interested, although I was rolling my eyes at some of it - I'm just not the intended audience. I'm not going to swoon over a desperately handsome seraphim in a star-crossed lover type scenario, but I can see how that might be appealing to a slightly younger crowd (honestly, I don't remember ever quite being that girl, but maybe I was.) I did appreciate some of the details. The description of Madrigal's dress, little tidbits like Karou being given the gift of knowing a new language on her birthday, those burned handprints that come back in the end, and so on.

Even better, the story takes some interesting twists. The story of Madrigal may be the most interesting part, and it isn't even introduced until the last fourth of the novel.

I listened to the audio version of this book, from a free download I got last summer when the publisher was trying to promote new books alongside YA classics. Khristine Hvam does a nice job with the accents, although Brimstone sometimes sounded Nigerian, which didn't seem quite right. Most of the time, I wasn't thinking about the reader at all, which to me is a good sign. She also is a great reader of emotion, and captures Karou well.

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The Devil, a Secret, and a Giant Robot

Week 1 of Scott's attempt to keep up with Jenny:

Stories Read:
"Young Goodman Brown" (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Secret Place" (1966) by Richard McKenna
"Farewell to the Master" (1940) by Harry Bates

Young Goodman Brown, what are you doing walking down a well-worn path in the woods with Satan? And Nathaniel Hawthorne, why would you send this poor guy out there? This is a terrific story that's full of ambiguity and symbolism. After thinking about it, my best interpretation is that Young Goodman Brown had a dream, and through that dream realized that not everyone's a saint. And he took it hard. The realization affected the rest of his life.

Orbit 1, edited by Damon KnightIn 1966, Richard McKenna (1913-1964) won a posthumous Nebula Award for Best Short Story. The story was "The Secret Place", and it's first appearance was in Damon Knight's Orbit 1. I don't believe I've read a Richard McKenna story before, but I enjoyed this one. It was about a World War II soldier who was given the job of keeping his eye on an area of desert in Utah where a Uranium rock was found. Despite the military's efforts, no further treasures were found there. The soldier's job was to drive the property every day with a geiger counter, and to accomplish this the military gave him an office and a secretary. The secretary, though, had a strange connection with the property. When she went outside, she saw a completely different place.

Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates We're watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) over at Good Story, so I thought I'd read the story that inspired the script. Harry Bates published "Farewell to the Master" in the 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction that also contained "Slan" by A.E. van Vogt. It's a ripping good tale from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. There are plenty of differences between this and the movie, but the giant robot was there (named Gnut, not Gort). The story opens with a guy taking photographs of giant Gnut, who had appeared out of nowhere in a ship with a guy named Klaatu a while back. The robot never moves... or does it? An entertaining story with a surprise or two at the end. I listened to this one from Blackstone Audio, read by Tom Weiner.

I am keeping pace with Jenny so far. I better up my game, though - at this rate, I'll read only 182.5 stories this year and that won't do! I better cancel that walk in the woods I had planned for tomorrow morning, and read a story instead.

Next up: "Sister Emily's Lightship" by Jane Yolen

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of ThemSay You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why I read it: One of the January selections for the Great African Reads Group, and because it included several countries I hadn't yet covered in my Around the World reading - Niger, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Benin

This book brought me to tears, multiple times. I actually had to put a little bit of distance in between finishing it and reviewing it. The author, Uwem Akpan, wrote these stories to draw attention to the children of Africa and the struggles they face. It is tempting to dismiss it as merely fiction, to reassure myself that people surely do not live this way, but I know too much of the reality to be able to do so. The stories themselves are fiction of course, but pull from very real events.

I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. Be prepared; these are heavy.

Story by story, may contain spoilers:

The Ex-Mas Feast - This takes place in a Nairobi shantytown, where a family tries to plan for holidays when they don't have money for food. Chemicals for sniffing are given as gifts instead. My younger sister went to Nairobi to visit with missionary friends of the family a few years back, and I was reminded of her photos.

Fattening for Gabon - A story of two children, who already lost their parents to AIDS (they don't seem to understand this), being prepared to be sold into slavery by their uncle. The way it is told, heavy on dialect and food description, almost serves to mask the horror. But then I would stop to realize what was going on, ugh. I kept thinking maybe they are going to be adopted! But no. This story is very long, more of a novella.

What Language is That? - Highlighting the turmoil created in communities by religious groups encouraging violence. Could you explain to a 6 year old why she can no longer see her best friend?

Luxurious Hearses - Another very long story, more of a novella, about people fleeing a violent city on a bus. The main character is trying to hide that he is Muslim because of tensions. I liked how everyone on the bus had to have an opinion about everything, it gave a good sense of the cultures involved and what was valued. It gets more and more violent as the story progresses, and yet I was still hoping for a better end!

My Parents' Bedroom - This is the story I wish I hadn't read. Horribly violent, horrifying, I just can't even recall it enough to summarize it. Ethnic cleansing is something I will never understand.

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Beginnings: Shadow Country

I was too drained to do any book blogging last night (classes start Monday), but I'm going to take a break from my syllabus tweaking to post my book beginning on a Saturday!  

One of the things I love about GoodReads is the number of groups a reader can join.  It is easy to find community based on what you love to read.  I joined On the Southern Literary Trail last year in an attempt to read more southern lit, since I moved to the south in 2006.  I haven't always been able to join in on the book selections, but the discussion is always very in-depth, and people are always bringing in additional research.  I learn so much more than I would on my own!

Most of the time, there are two books a month - one that falls pre-1980, and one that falls 1980 or after, in an attempt to read both "classics" and contemporary literature from the south.  This month, there was a tie in the contemporary category.  I only have time to read one of these books, but this one was already on my shelf at home to read for my Around the USA in 52 Books challenge.  It was $1 at a used bookstore, and I had never heard of the author, so I decided to take a chance.

The book is Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.  It is a mighty tome, originally published in three volumes.  The author always wanted it to be one cohesive novel, so he rewrote it, removed 1500 pages, and republished it.  Shadow Country ended up winning the National Book Award for fiction in 2008.

Basic description: Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the inspired Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors who mostly admired him, in a killing that obsessed his favorite son.

I've read about 30 pages so far, and that isn't much of a book that is 900 pages.  The chapters are really short, introducing characters, but as you'll see from the first few lines, the atmosphere is dark and violent.  I'm looking forward to learning more about this historical figure, and experiencing a part of Florida that I haven't yet visited.  

Prologue: October 24, 1910
"Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few. The white terns look dirtied in the somber light and they fly stiffly, feeling out an element they no longer trust. Unable to locate the storm-lost minnows, they wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting seamarks that might return them to the order of the world."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: StoriesBirds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a review copy of this audiobook from the publisher. I wasn't sure what to expect; I was new to the author (this is her first book, although she has previously published short stories) and had no expectations. The book came out in print in March 2012, but the audiobook was new in November.

The title is apropos - while the stories aren't about birds exactly, most of them do seem to include animals in some way - many birds, but also ferrets, dogs, sheep, cats, even a chinchilla.

The author is at her strongest when she writes about relationships, particularly when they have failed because of issues the people can't control - death, disease, savior complex, you name it. The most powerful story to me was the first one - Housewifely Arts - that tells the story of a woman and her young son, driving to visit her deceased mother's bird, just to hear her voice one more time. Wow. I will remember it for a long time. It also takes place in a city that I know well on the coast of South Carolina, which also brought it to life.

Yesterday's Whales demonstrates what happens when your life deters from your Values, while Every Vein a Tooth demonstrates what can happen when you stick to them. Both are heartbreaking and memorable. The Right Company, with the weird salve of the obese food writer, is one story with unique, super southern characters.

The Artificial Heart was probably my least favorite story, because the vision it attempts of a post-fish dystopic Florida was not quite as successful as the painful realities of the other stories.

Most of the stories are set in the south, which is where Bergman grew up, with one set in Vermont where she lives now. The stories are read by Cassandra Campbell, who does a great job with subtle changes in accents, vocal tone, and pacing. (I've heard her before, as one of the readers for the Cloud Atlas audiobook.)

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Scott Lays Down the Gauntlet

I was texting (via Skype) with the good folks over at SFFaudio a few weeks ago: Jesse, Tamahome, and Jenny. I noted that Jenny was approaching 200 books read in 2012. 200! Being an envious sort of guy, I jokingly said, "I bet I could read 200 short stories in a year. Ha."

A few minutes later, that became "Hey! I bet I could read 200 short stories next year!"

After fierce negotiations with the brain trust behind Reading Envy, here I am. Terms will not be disclosed, other than my goal: To read as many short stories as Jenny reads books in 2013.

This blog likes a good list (and I do too), so I made a list of short stories that I want to read. It's cobbled together from a list of award-winning stories that I've been meaning to finish, the contents of some collections I want to read (like The Best of Gene Wolfe and Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor), and some outside suggestions. After the list was complete, I randomized it because that's exactly the kind of thing I do. The result? A list of 313 novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

I'm sure I'll edit that list this year, and I won't stick exclusively to it, either. How could I, with things like Analog and Lightspeed Magazine coming out every month? And there are Hugo Award nominees to read this summer.

The contract says that I should post more or less weekly to keep Reading Envy up-to-date on my progress. I plan to comply because the stated penalty involves "No Books For Me" for a frightening length of time. *shudder*

First up? "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm hoping that Jenny hasn't started yet. Someone distract her with something shiny!
A few words about me: I'm Scott D. Danielson - I use the D in the middle because there are a few of us Scott Danielsons haunting the internet. I'm co-founder of SFFaudio, I co-host a podcast called A Good Story is Hard to Find, and I published a short story of my own a while back.

I'm on Twitter, Google+, and Goodreads. I'm also on Letterboxd - a bit like Goodreads but for movies.