Saturday, August 28, 2010

Can You Keep A Secret? (by Sophie Kinsella)*

The first audiobook of the semester! (This reminds me that apparently Steve Martin has another book coming out in October. I love when he tells me stories.)

Anyway, this is a very cute romantic comedy, with a heroine that's far less pathological than that Shopaholic girl. (And there are some pleasantly feminist moments in the plot, which I enjoyed; the heroine of this book, Emma, is far more self-reliant than Becky Bloomwood, up until the very end.)

I don't enjoy Kinsella's writing quite as much as Meg Cabot's, but still, a pleasant enough way to get through my first week of commuting!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Catching Fire and Mockingjay (by Suzanne Collins)

I hope I got her name right this time.

I read these books in one giant gulp, one right after another, the day after I finished Hunger Games. First was Catching Fire, which felt like a total retread until, suddenly, it didn't anymore. (And I loved the wheel-and-spokes design thing. I am trying to be vague so as not to spoil anything.) It also, in hindsight, feels like a lot of setup for the third book. I was disappointed we didn't get the scene of the immediate aftermath of book one, though. Instead it skipped forward quite a bit. But I enjoyed it just as much as Hunger Games, and was just as riveted.

I'm not sure quite how I feel about Mockingjay, though. There are so many elements about it I liked (and now I will do spoiler code; highlight to read). I liked the fact that the people who had been through the Games and the war were, to a large extent, irretrievably broken. I liked that District 13 was kind of a creepy place, far from a utopia.

The things I liked less: To the extent that I cared about the "love triangle" at all, I figured Katniss thought of Peeta as more like a brother, and Gale was her true love. When Gale's weapon killed Prim (which, I HATE YOU, SUZANNE COLLINS, FOR KILLING PRIM but the fact that Katniss would blame Gale for it and never forgive him made sense) I figured Katniss would end up alone. Which would have fit in with the message of the rest of the trilogy. Instead, she marries Pita (sorry, I can't help it) and then has some babies that he had to talk her into for years? Which, what? It was strange. I also thought it was strange that nobody even told her she was on trial, or talked to her at all, she was just... in this room by herself for months? And the trial happened offscreen? Very odd. And what she ends up doing with her life is BASICALLY SCRAPBOOKING. Katniss. SCRAPBOOKING. Does not compute.

So, I don't know. It probably means I liked Mockingjay the least of the three, but I still admire what Collins did with the trilogy. It's bold and tense and wonderfully dark. I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

So, the blog Persnickity Snark recently compiled a list of the Top 100 YA Titles, as voted on by readers, authors, teachers, and more. I count 33 that I've read (oh, now 34), which I guess means I have another book list to dig into!*

The number one book on the list was The Hunger Games, and my Twitter friends assured me that I had to read it immediately. So I stopped by the bookstore near campus and bought it, so I'd have something to read while I had lunch. And holy crap, I could not put it down until I'd finished it.

It's the first book of a trilogy about this dystopian future where kids are selected from different districts to get in an arena and fight to the death. And it's all televised. I won't say any more about the plot except that it's almost unbearably tense, and gets slowly more horrifying as you realize (and I will spoiler code just in case) there isn't going to be some "nevermind! only kidding about all the death and killing!" deus ex machina at the end.

I love the fact that the heroine of this book is a girl, and one of the most kickass girls probably ever in literature. I would actually be tempted to teach this book. It would certainly get students' attention!

Anyway, obviously, I will now be reading the next two books in the series immediately. Because I have to know what happens next.

[*I would love some input about this list; do you think it's a good overview of the best YA books? And why the hell is Pride and Prejudice listed as YA? Elizabeth Bennet is 20, and in those days, that was practically middle aged! I'm just suspicious that it's like, oh, it's a lady book, let's call it YA.]


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Boy Meets Girl (by Meg Cabot)

Oh, I love Meg Cabot. Just a cute, quick read told through a series of emails, IM conversations, scribbled notes, and so on. I wish it were three times as long, that's my only complaint, because I read it in a couple of hours. Apparently it's a semi-sequel to The Boy Next Door, which I'll clearly have to read soon.

The only weird thing is that the novel is from the POV of the female lead, so why isn't the title "Girl Meets Boy"? Hmm. Anyway, predictable of course, but cute, fluffy, fun, witty chicklit. I might have to read everything Meg Cabot has ever written, huh?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sensible Kate (by Doris Gates)

This is technically a re-read, as it's a children's book that I remembered from when I was a kid. I couldn't remember the title, just that the girl on the cover was a redhead with pigtails, and that someone painted her portrait. And then one of those "what is that book??" websites came up with the title! So I ordered it! And then read it!

Re-reading it, it's kind of funny what an Anne of Green Gables ripoff it is. Redheaded, freckled orphan who thinks she's "homely" leaves a home where she's made to do housework and take care of babies, and moves in with a nice older couple. But it's set in a more modern time period, and takes some twists that you wouldn't necessarily expect. Also, California, not Canada, so--totes different. It was fun to revisit this little nostalgic book from my childhood.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Man Who Loved Children (by Christina Stead)

This book, the story of a bitterly unhappy family (unhappy in their own way, as Tolstoy would say) was a bit of a slog for me to get through, since it's over 500 pages long. It's also pretty relentless: the main characters are aggressively realistic and aggressively hateful and aggressively unsympathetic. Henny, the wife, goes on vicious tirade after vicious tirade. Sam, the husband, talks in a super-irritating baby talk to all of his kids, and just basically does all he can to annoy and undermine them. There's very little in the way of any kind of respect or compassion. So it's not a world that you necessarily enjoy being in, for all those pages. And my first thought on finishing it was that it would be better if it were 100 pages shorter.

I liked it more when I was done than while I was reading it, partly because the last 80 or so pages are really the best part of the book. Then I went back and read the introduction by Randal Jarrell, who acknowledges that the book's main flaw is that there's too much in it, but also concedes that novels, by definition, are flawed works---and that the specificity of the Pollit family with all its flaws makes the novel a true masterpiece.

There's a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover, and I can see why---The Corrections is also a big, overstuffed novel about a fairly unsympathetic family. I loved The Corrections, though, and I didn't love The Man Who Loved Children. I can appreciate those who appreciate it, but I wouldn't want to live through it again.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Great Fire (by Shirley Hazzard)

This is our next book club book, and I loved it. L-O-V-E-D loved it. One of the blurbs on the back talks about how Hazzard's psychological subtlety reminds them of the writing of Henry James, and I think that's dead on. Except the prose is easier than James's convoluted sentences. In fact, it's just gorgeous prose. I didn't just read this book, I savored it.

The Great Fire refers to a few different things, mostly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which provides a backdrop for the novel (but is really not emphasized) and of course, human emotion. The characters are, broadly speaking, people stumbling through a post-war Wasteland, trying to find something to live for, and forging connections with each other.

The reviews for the novel are fairly mixed; people have issues with one of the central relationships and some people found it hard to read. I wonder if there will be some debate at book club. But I think it's an amazing, classic book--deserves to be in the canon, absolutely. A definite contender for my favorite book of the year so far.

Oh, and P.S.--one of the best last lines of a novel, ever.

"I'd come from the land of the single hope attained. One thing didn't lead to another, but was the sole consummation. People longed for a house and garden, or they pitched it all on a sight of the cliffs of Dover. The women longed to be married, come what might. The evidence achieved, you could die happy." -Page 120

Another wonderful quote, but kind of a spoiler:

"The man, instead, went to his own room and to his table--to those papers where the ruined continents and cultures and existences that had consumed his mind and body for years had given place to her story and his. He could not consider this a reduction -- the one theme having embroiled the century and the world, and the other recasting his single fleeting miraculous life." -Page 188

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

One Day (by David Nicholls)

Entertainment Weekly went crazy over this book, so when I needed an audiobook for a drive to L.A. and back, I downloaded it. And I was really really loving it, for the most part, until about 2/3 of the way through it.

The premise is that the author dips into the lives of two characters, Emma and Dexter, every July 15th over the course of 20 or so years. The characters are vivid and believable (even the supporting characters) and there is some great detail and very solid writing. It's like really good chicklit (though written by a dude, so we call that "literary fiction" I guess, feh.) But then came the 2/3 mark, which I'll get to in a minute.

One criticism I've read is that when the chapters begin, the author doesn't give us enough background about what has happened in the intervening year, and expects us to fill in the blanks. Well I actually had the opposite issue--I thought the author filled in the blanks a little too much, and should have included important information more subtly, instead of in large chunks of exposition. That would have been, to me, part of the fun of the book's conceit--picking out the little clues that tell us what's happened.

I also thought that it got a little ridiculous how many important events in the lives and relationships of these characters happened to fall on July 15th. It felt like every July 15th had some kind of critical importance, and again, this seemed to lack subtlety. Then I got to one day that seemed like it would just be an average day, and I was like, well, I guess as long as we're done with the Major Events always happening on this day, I can---oh my god, ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME? Because there came another Major Event, and this was one that seemed really calculated to be manipulative. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but it really kind of ruined the book for me on several levels (including the "suspension of disbelief" level). And then came the long, long, long final 1/3, wherein I no longer really cared about the characters at all.

This sucks, you know, because I was really loving the book and would have been endorsing it enthusiastically. But not so much, when all was said and done. Still, a lot of people love love love this book, and it's been enthusiastically reviewed. So your mileage may vary.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Little Brother (by Cory Doctorow)

A YA book that should have worked for me, but didn't. It's a book I've been hearing about for years (mostly via John Scalzi, because I think they shared some award nominations) so I was eager to pick it up. I also used to be way into hacking subculture, believe it or not--I read 2600 constantly when I was a teenager, thanks to a best friend who was way way way into hacking and crypto back in the Internet Dark Ages.

Anyway, I just want to make it clear that it wasn't that it is "too techy" or anything like that. My problem is that it's just too didactic. The narrative frequently stops for lectures or info dumps from the narrator, his teacher, and other characters. And the torture stuff and political stuff is way over the top--the bad guys are just Evil (even his classmate is ridiculously over the top; he's practically Lord Voldemort by the third act), with no nuance; the good guys are just Good. And the message is so loud and clear that it left me seriously wanting some subtlety. About something.

It's super political, and I'm as big an Obama fan as the next person, but the concepts that the reader is being lectured on and the developments we're expected to buy into are just ridiculous (a 17-year-old getting waterboarded? So we really understand that Torture Is Wrong? Even though he's already been tortured earlier in the book?. It feels like satire that doesn't know it's satire, or something.

As a result of all this, the characters never feel real, and I found myself disappointed. It's not a terrible book--I can see why many people love it, especially teens who don't know a ton about civil liberties or hacking or whatnot. And I do agree with its message. And he gets the Bay Area right on; tons of details and descriptions that were fun to read, as a Bay Area person myself. But I wanted real characters I could care about, and situations that didn't feel like complete contrivances. I've read a ton of excellent, excellent YA lately (thank you John Green), and Little Brother was just a letdown.