Tuesday, May 11, 2010

1984 with hope

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tor, 2010.

Little Brother> finally came out in paperback, and I picked it up at the LA Times Festival of Books a few weeks ago. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit icky and decided to relax and read for a little while, so I started Little Brother, and I didn't stop reading until I was done. It's extremely derivative of George Orwell's 1984, but I think I like Cory Doctorow best when he's riffing on Orwell. It's a lot more hope and action oriented than 1984, so that it feels like the kind of book that could change the world if kids read it at the right time. This is a book I want to give to people and make them read. I haven't decided for sure yet who I'm giving this book to, but I definitely need to pass it on.

This is the story of Marcus, who sometimes goes by w1n5t0n, a 17-year-old boy who is picked up by the Department of Homeland Security for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When San Francisco becomes a DHS police state, Marcus takes action and becomes, somewhat inadvertently, the hacker king leading an army of teenagers to question authority and overthrow the system. Throughout the book, Marcus learns (and Doctorow provides fun little lectures) about revolutions, civil disobedience, technology, and civil rights movements from the American Revolution to the Yippies and the EFF. Even better, there's just enough information about the technology to make it exciting and to encourage readers to want to learn more. It even made me want to take another stab at Cryptonomicon, which I have started about 5 times and never managed to get through the first chapter or two. Hopefully, this book will inspire young people to change the world, which is a scary and dangerous thought but also makes things exciting.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's the female characters. First, there are a lot of them, which is a good start. Marcus's mom, a female reporter, a female teacher, a female friend, a girlfriend, a female badguy, and a female nemesis all play important roles in the book, but they all mostly feel like functionaries defined only in relation to Marcus rather than actual characters with complexity and independent interests. I don't think the book passes the Bechdel test, but I welcome corrections if I'm wrong about that. I would love to see a version of this story about a female geek/hacker and I wish that characters from this story such as Marcus's female friend and his pink-haired hacker nemesis had appeared more and been more throughly developed. Nonetheless, I think that this is a story that girls will like because the story itself is fun and compelling, even though it is definitively a boy book. I just think the world needs the girl version of this. Who is out there writing it?

If you liked Little Brother, I recommend: 1984 (of course), John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale (because it has a (female!) teen protagonist doing her own thing in the midst of a kind of techno-war), and Daniel Suarez's Daemon (for a different kind of techno-revolution, although this one is much more adult and much less hopeful). I also want to check out Doctorow's new YA book, For the Win, as soon as possible (given my aversion to hardcover books) - it's about video games and gold farming and appears from the sample at the end of Little Brother to have at least one female main character.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back to the World of Howl

Diana Wynne Jones. House of Many Ways. Harper Collins: 2009.

House of Many Wayss is the next installment in the world of Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air. Like many of Diana Wynne Jones' books, it takes place in the same world but with a different set of main characters; in this case the book stars a young girl who loves to read and has a talent for magic. She finds herself house-sitting for her great uncle the Wizard of Norland and working in the castle library trying to solve a mystery, where she runs into characters from the previous books, has great magical adventures, and runs into elves, kobolds, and the fearful lubbokin!

This is another fun adventure in Diana Wynne Jones' magical imagination and I highly recommend it for anyone who loves a good fantasy about wizards and fairy tale castles. I was impressed that Diana Wynne Jones created a character who loved to read and didn't know how to do anything practical, but her penchant for reading neither saved the day exactly nor did the story moralize about putting down the book and taking action. Instead, Jones made a balance between reading and practical experience an ongoing struggle and created a character with some very real flaws in her tendency to be intemperate and imperious and yet made her lovable and well-meaning as well. These touches make Jones' books smart as well as fun and magical and I will keep coming back as long as there are more to read. If you haven't read Howl's Moving Castle, you don't need it to understand this one, but it's a great place to start to become addicted to Diana Wynne Jones' books.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In My Mailbox

In My Mailbox is hosted by The Story Siren and inspired by Pop Culture Junkie.

I broke down and ordered a bunch of the books I'd been craving since the book fair, and a couple I'd been waiting for in paperback for a while. In my mailbox this week:

Beige by Cecil Castellucci. Candlewick Press: 2009.

From Indie Bound:
Katy really doesn't want to spend two weeks in L.A. with her father, a recovered addict and drummer for a punk band. But she won't fuss. After all, she is a nice girl--a girl who is, well, beige. Or is she?

Freak Show by James St. James. Puffin Books: 2008.

From the publisher:
Meet Billy Bloom, new student at the ultra-white, ultra-rich, ultra-conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy and drag queen extraordinaire. Actually, “drag queen” does not begin to describe Billy and his fabulousness. Any way you slice it, Billy is not a typical seventeen-year-old, and the Bible Belles, Aberzombies, and Football Heroes at the academy have never seen anyone quite like him before. But thanks to the help and support of one good friend, Billy’s able to take a stand for outcasts and underdogs everywhere in his own outrageous, over-thetop, sad, funny, brilliant, and unique way.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips. Back Bay Books: 2008.

From the author's website:
Being immortal isn't all it's cracked up to be. Life's hard for a Greek god in the 21st century: nobody believes in you any more, even your own family doesn't respect you, and you're stuck in a delapidated hovel in north London with too many siblings and not enough hot water. But for Artemis (goddess of hunting, professional dog walker), Aphrodite (goddess of beauty, telephone sex operator) and Apollo (god of the sun, TV psychic) there's no way out...Until a meek cleaner and her would-be boyfriend come into their lives, and turn the world literally upside down.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder. MIRA books: 2008.

From the author's website:
About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered a reprieve. She'll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace, and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly's Dust, and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and she develops magical powers she can't control. Her life’s at stake again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear!

Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder. MIRA books: 2008.

From the author's website:
Yelena is on her way to be reunited with the family she'd been stolen from long ago. Although she has gained her freedom, she can't help feeling isolated in Sitia. Her Ixian background has changed her in many ways, and her newfound friends and relatives don't think it's for the better. Despite the turmoil, she's eager to start her magical training. But her plans take a radical turn when she becomes involved with a plot to reclaim Ixia's throne for a lost prince, and gets entangled in powerful rivalries with her fellow magicians. If that wasn't bad enough, it appears her brother would love to see her dead. Luckily, Yelena has some old friends to help her with her new enemies.

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray. Delacorte Books for Young Readers: 2007.

From the author's website:In the third installment of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, it has been a year of change since Gemma Doyle arrived at the foreboding Spence Academy. Her mother murdered, her father a laudanum addict, Gemma has relied on an unsuspected strength and has discovered an ability to travel to an enchanted world called the realms, where dark magic runs wild. Despite certain peril, Gemma has bound the magic to herself and forged unlikely new alliances. Now, as Gemma approaches her London debut, the time has come to test these bonds. The Order, the mysterious group her mother was once part of, is grappling for control of the realms, as is the Rakshana. Spence's burned East Wing is being rebuilt, but why now? Gemma and her friends see Pippa, but she is not the same. And their friendship faces its gravest trial as Gemma must decide once and for all what role she is meant for.


Yes, I disappeared last week. I apologize. I'm working on finding a happy medium between posting daily and posting flakily, and job interviews (yay!) and real life intervened last week. But really, the problem was that I didn't finish a single book last week! Really! After working so hard to post every day in April, I decided that for May I could take on some of the longer books that I'd been putting off reading. So I started Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on audiobook and Lonely Werewolf Girl (which I received for my birthday way back in January!) in print. Unfortunately, each of these books is well over 500 pages (or 32 hours in the case of Jonathan Strange), which, when added to my general busyness, means that I'm only about halfway through each of them! So, I'm working on it, but work takes precedence and hopefully I'll finish at least one of these books soon!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Short Story: Coming Attraction

Fritz Leiber. "Coming Attraction" (1950). audible.com: 2007.

I've always meant to read some of Fritz Leiber's science fiction. I downloaded this short story from audible, and it definitely whet's my appetite for more. It's a story about coming nuclear destruction, written in 1950 and focused on the Cold War. It's set in post-WWIII New York after nuclear destruction has left people carrying along with future technology among the irradiated ashes.

The focus of the story is on the transformation of American culture; Leiber creats an America in which the women all wear masks because a face free of radiation scars is the ultimate erotic body part. "Coming Attraction" refers to the post-apocalyptic world in which the story takes place, the sense of anticipation our main character feels at the possibility of seeing his date without her mask, and the world of professional wrestling (more like mixed martial arts or UFC fighting) that has become the most popular sport.

This is a really clever story that works on several levels as a commentary on both international politics and gender issues. It's science fiction in that it takes place in an imagined post-apocalyptic future, but it doesn't feel all that distant. It's more about culture than science and Leiber unfolds his prediction of coming attractions slowly throughout the story. I highly recommend this one.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Short Story: The Sexes

Dorothy Parker. "The Sexes." The Portable Dorothy Parker. Ed. Marion Meade. 2nd Ed. Penguin Books: 2006. 24-28.

This is a short, quick slice of life in the form of a battle-of-the-sexes style argument. At this point, this story's portrayal of gender roles is clichéd, but Parker's economy of style and cynical wit make the story a bitterly fun little read anyway. It depicts an angry conversation between a man and a woman who are dating, but displeased with each other. The piece doesn't feel like a story so much as a snapshot of dialogue through which a relationship is illuminated. What I love about it is Parker's wry misogyny; in four short pages, she vividly illustrates the ways in which men and women manipulate each other through passive-aggressive posturing. This conversation could quite easily be overheard today, and yet it feels incredibly cynical to have it written down and published as a story.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday Non-Fiction: "May 2007"

Nick Hornby. "May 2007"Shakespeare Wrote for Money: Two Years of Reading Begat by More Reading, Presented in Easily Digestible, Utterly Hysterical Monthly Installments. Believer Books: 2008. 47-53.

I picked up this book at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and thus far I am enjoying it immensely. This book is the third and final collection of Hornby's columns about literature and reading from The Believer magazine. So far, I've read about half of the collection, but I wanted to single out "May 2007" as particularly representative. In this essay, Hornby discusses how "reading begets reading" (49) but also belabors that some of the classics may kill you, presumably by boredom. This is a great example of my mixed feelings toward Hornby's writing about reading; on the one hand he's incredibly smart and literate, but on the other hand he's a bit condescending and superior. I certainly wish I could write as well about books as he does, but I don't really love the things he chooses to read.

This essay is an insight into the divide between "literature" and everything else; it also demonstrates who gets to decide which is which. In other essays, Hornby discusses comic books and literature by women, but in this particular essay, he only reads and discusses books by men. He name-drops Stephen Frears as an arbiter of what he reads.

Overall, I love the project in which Hornby discusses what he reads every month, and Hornby is absolutely brilliant at doing it. The essays are smart, snappy, and only slightly superior and I love that he's talking about books. Mostly, I wish there were others, counterpoints to Hornby's voice continuing an intelligent, multivocal discussion about literature of all sorts. I think that's partially what book bloggers are here for, but I'd like to see people like Sarah Vowell (who wrote the intro to Shakespeare Wrote for Money) getting paid to write cleverly and professionally about what they're reading on a monthly basis.

Overall, I do recommend this book for anyone who loves reading good writing about reading. I will absolutely be picking up Hornby's earlier collections of columns, The Polysyllabic Spreee and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt to revel in the literary intelligence of these sets of columns, but I will continue to read them with a sense of skepticism toward the choices of books and remember that this is just one person's taste among many.

Review: I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You

Ally Carter. I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You. Hyperion Books: 2007.

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You is an adorable book about teenage girl spies. Teenage girl spies are fabulous and awesome and kicka**, so I was pretty much predisposed to love this book. It's sweet and fun and fluffy.

In this first book in the Gallagher Girls series, we are introduced to Cammie Morgan, an "exceptional young woman" training to be a "pavement artist," a spy who excels at disappearing in a crowd. When, in the middle of a training exercise, an ordinary boy notices the girl whose major skill is going unnoticed, all of a sudden Cammie and her backup team of friends find themselves using all of their advanced skills in covert operations, assimilation, and infiltration to achieve their most dangerous mission so far: dating.

This is a short, straightforward little book that leaves me wanting more. It's written in the format of a report detailing the events of a previous operation, which creates an amusing sense of situational humor but also gives the novel a sense of sparseness. These are books that fall on the young end of the young adult range and would probably appeal to even middle grade readers. Like the Babysitters' Club with more awesome. As an adult reader, the books feel fun but insubstantial. I read the first two in a day and a half and I think I'll return to the series when there are more than a few books. They're totally addictive.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

BEDA Wrap-Up: The State of the Blog

So I survived Blog Every Day April, and I though it was about time to share what I learned and decided.

First of all, I'm pretty proud of myself for actually managing to blog every day until the last. It's disappointing to have failed at the very last minute, to have April 30th as the only day for which there wasn't a post, but I think the extenuating circumstances (my car was stolen and I was up all night looking for it and talking to the police, and therefore slept all day on the 30th) justify the silence. I read and reviewed 18 books (and two short stories), which I'm also quite satisfied with. I also did a reasonable if not fantastic amount of reading and commenting on other book blogs, which I think is important.

I really enjoyed writing reviews for every book I read to help keep up my evaluation and critical analysis skills. I also really enjoyed challenging myself to read things I wouldn't normally, such as the short stories. I definitely felt that I had some days where I wrote filler posts about my reading habits (and obsessing over the book fair) and now that I'm not trying to blog every day, those will probably fall by the wayside.

I also tended to pick shorter and easier books because I was trying to finish one every day whenever possible, and I think now that I'm not trying to blog every day, I will allow myself some longer and slower books and perhaps not devote as much time every day to reading. It's time to get back to the real world and my work.

So, what do I expect the blogging here to look like as I continue? I plan to keep on reading and posting my reviews of whatever I've read. These will continue to be a mix of YA, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, classics, and literary fiction depending on my whims at any given moment. I also plan to continue to read a Saturday or Sunday Short Story every week. These will probably be stories found online or more frequently from one of a couple collections that I own (Los Angeles Noir, Ray Bradbury's collected stories). I'm also going to implement a new feature, Friday Non-Fiction in which I read and discuss one literary non-fiction essay every week. I have a couple collections I should read and, like short stories, I tend to neglect reading short, general audience non-fiction essays. So expect some discussion of essays by David Foster Wallace, Dorothy Parker, and Nick Hornby because that's what I have lying around at the moment.

I also really enjoy skimming everyone else's In My Mailbox and Mailbox Monday, so I believe I will make those posts if and when I have something to share (although hopefully that won't be too often because I don't have the money to buy books as often as I'd like and I don't have the connections to get them for free). In the meantime, I'll work on reducing my TBR pile to a normal human size.

So those are my thoughts about the future of the blog. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please share them!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Short Story Sunday: Pride and Prometheus

John Kessel. Pride and Prometheus. 2008.

Technically, this isn't a short story; it's a novelette and it just won the 2008 Nebula Award for best novelette. It's a story that asks what if the characters from Pride and Prejudice met the characters from Frankenstein. It focuses on Mary, the middle Bennet daughter, who just happens to meet Victor Frankenstein well after the events of Pride and Prejudice and I believe in the middle of events in Frankenstein.

I should have read Frankenstein before this story, but it I think works pretty well without knowing either of the stories. I enjoyed it and thought it was clever, but it definitely feels like a male authorial voice, which I found strange in contrast to Austen's characters. It does do a good job of exploring some of the themes of both stories and bringing together social commentary with scientific and moral ruminations. I enjoyed its combination of gothic moodiness and wry observation, more reminiscent of Austen's Northanger Abbey than Pride and Prejudice.

I listened to the story as audio recorded by the author, which you can get for free here.