August 28, 2014

Wait, is this technically YA?

Grossman, Lev. The Magician's Land. New York: Viking, 2014.

So I said I was done with young-adult fiction for a while, but luckily the characters in this final follow-up to The Magicians and The Magician King have grown up to be 30ish. Hey, me too!

Further in the lucky department, I enjoyed this installment a good bit more than the middle one (though not quite as much as the first). In The Magician's Land, main character Quentin has grown up enough to be a teacher at the magic school where he went in the first book. That doesn't quite work out, though, and he ends up going on a quest with a few random people selected by a talking crow (whatever, go with it). At the same time, his friends are back in Narnia-like Fillory and finding out that Fillory will be ending unless something dramatic is done. Plotlines converge, formerly lost characters are brought back, and the ending is satisfying. More detail than that, as I mentioned for the previous books, would just be confusing, not to mention even more improbable.

I highlighted plenty of interesting writing--always a good sign. For example: the description of cars on a wet road "like long strips of paper tearing, one after another," or when "the flaming ruins of a five-alarm sunset smoldered in the window." It was also fun to think about them (after a magical transformation) getting "the taste of bird beak out of their mouths." Plus, I enjoy learning things, such as the knowledge that (darnit!) I've been using "nonplussed" wrong this whole time (while complaining about "enormity"), not to mention what a Jefferies tube and an armillary sphere are.

Mostly, it's hard not to like a book that acknowledges the importance of books. As the lonely main character recognizes, "[i]t didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."

Rating: ***1/2

Last of the YAs for a while

Dashner, James. The Maze Runner. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Dashner, James. The Scorch Trials. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.

Dashner, James. The Death Cure. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.

This trilogy was such a fast read--I bought each right after finishing the previous--that I figured I might as well write about them together. They're intertwined in my mind, and fading fast anyway since I finished them a week or so ago.

I think I'm done with young-adult fiction for now (at least the book version, as I just got started on Gossip Girl), after going through quite a few in the last several months. I'm also about done with dystopian future-or-alternate-universe books, which seem to be quite in vogue these days. Oh, and it continues the theme of books being turned into movies, too.

It doesn't bear too much explaining here, but it's the story of Thomas and friends (of the adolescent, not train, variety) who are first trapped in a weird farm-world surrounded by a murderous-creature-filled maze, then face a variety of other challenges in the desert and plague-infected city. All of it is for a good cause, according to a shadowy organization that claims to be saving the world from said plague that started after solar flares whacked Earth.

Themes of my recent reading aside, the trilogy wasn't a bad read. I didn't highlight much out of either annoyance or joy. My main pet peeve was the secret language used by the characters--maybe because YA novels aren't supposed to use regular "bad" language they had to make up their own (like "klunk"). I just wanted some good old f-words here and there. I was amused by the frequent references to how confusing and challenging the situations were ("nothing has ever made sense and it probably never will"), so the reader doesn't feel too lonely while saying "what the klunk" to himself. And, mostly, I wanted to find out what happened, which is both the sign of a decent book and a serious Kindle-sale motivator.

I'm even mildly curious about the movie version to see how different it is from what I pictured. Like, Netflix-level curious.

Rating: **1/2

August 14, 2014

Sorry, prize committee

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

I finally finished this book last night after losing interest a couple of months ago, then guiltily restarting about a week ago, then grumpily grinding through the last few dozen pages. It won the Pulitzer Prize. How could I not love it? I've said before I can't argue with the Pulitzer, right?

Too bad. This book wore me out. The main character, Theo, loses his mom tragically, then basically muddles through life from twelve to twenty-eight, mostly high or drunk, constantly worried about the big secret he is keeping (it, of course, has to do with the title painting), frequently hurting people either incidental or instrumental to his life. I'm sure I should see that as a "beautifully written coming-of-age novel" as the Pulitzer blurb says.

In fact, parts are beautifully or innovatively written. I highlighted lots of them: descriptions of people as an "elegant but mistreated polar bear" or "a man who moved refrigerators or loaded trucks for a living" or a "luckless, anemic, pet-shop mouse you might feed to your boa constrictor"; depictions of the area around Las Vegas, with air that "magnetized," "hot mineral emptiness," and "alkali waste"; and excellent phrases like something being "bewilderingly soft" or a room being the "Sargasso Sea of the apartment."

I just got tired of it. There's too much. Too many pills. Too much booze. Way too many words. Tartt uses writing style to show how Theo's state of mind changes, and his addled stream-of-consciousness state is never far from the surface. That kind of writing is exhausting to read, and it seems like she knows it--one of the later rants has one character twice saying that he can't see the other's point, and the other saying "stop me if I'm rambling." If only--I started skipping whole paragraphs.

Also, I think being a "coming-of-age novel" requires maturing. I'd argue that Theo just gets older, and things work out decently for him, but it's not particularly because his character evolved. Anyway, where the list in the last post was enough to justify its rating, I think these observations are enough here, prize or no. I'm done with thinking about the book, honestly.

Rating: **1/2

Less than 1000 pages this time

Gabaldon, Diana. Written in My Own Heart's Blood. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

It was just luck that I finished this book right before the sneak preview of the new Outlander series on Starz came out, so I was totally psyched about Jamie and Claire before watching it. (It didn't disappoint--I can't wait for this week's episode.)

The book also didn't disappoint. I went back to see what I said about the last Outlander book, almost five years ago, and I wasn't that excited. This time was different. I think one of the main reasons was the recap at the beginning, in which the housekeeper gets filled in on the details that all of us forgot. That saved me from having to spend the first hundred pages either confused or Googling what on earth went on last time. (I enjoyed highlighting the observation about the housekeeper that she had been trying "to keep the cast of characters in some sort of order to this point, but now gave it up with a shake of her head that made the pink ribbons on her cap wave like antennae"--I've felt that way too!) Then, I could just get into the story.

It's still the Revolutionary War, and Benedict Arnold is still there, just like last time, but this book feels much more character-driven--definitely Gabaldon's strength. We get plenty of Jaime-Claire interplay, but also see what other characters like their daughter Brianna, Jamie's son William, and our old friend Lord John are up to. Also, I had forgotten--or never noticed--just how much you can learn from one of these books, thanks to the author's extensive research and curious mind. And some things are just fun.

For example:
  • I highlighted more than a handful of words (like stertorously and hordeolum) to get new or refreshed definitions. The origins of being "ridden out of the city on a rail" and "Hobson's choice" also given. It's rare for a book to feature so much challenge.
  • Claire observes that you can tell a man from a woman a long way away because "a woman's width of pelvic basin compels a slightly knock-kneed stance." Who knew.
  • Again, maybe others knew that "thee/thou" were originally the familiar form of the singular "you"... not I.
  • All should observe the line that "a redheaded person with an empty stomach was like a walking time bomb."
  • Plus, there's what I think is a reference to the Patrick O'Brian novels, mentioning the "lesser of two weevils, as he'd heard a sailor friend of his father's put it." Certainly, this line was in Master and Commander. I thought this was genius, as long as it was intentional. (I think those novels occur a little later, though, so maybe it's not, or maybe it's artistic timeline license.)
There's more, but that's enough to justify the rating, especially since I was so happy plowing through the 800+ pages. I'm eagerly anticipating both episode two in a few days and book nine (hopefully not in five more years).

Rating: ****

Secrets in the map

Green, John. Paper Towns. New York: Dutton Books, 2008.

Luckily, the author of The Fault in Our Stars has written several other books from which I could choose at random. I'll probably get to all of them eventually, because the one I picked next, Paper Towns, was worth my time.

Also lucky is that it's less sad than The Fault in Our Stars, because I don't need to bawl my eyes out with every novel. This story is written from a boy's perspective, an average nerdy suburban boy with a couple of nerdy friends who just happens to live next door to the school's queen bee who harbors a secret affection for him and a secret hope of getting away from it all. After he spends a crazy night with her, living out her revenge fantasies, she disappears. He spends the rest of the book searching for her.

Instead of highlighting annoying editing choices, I highlighted good passages in this book--always a hint that I'm enjoying it. Weird things like a character whose parents collect black Santas, rants like "every moment in your life is lived for the future--you go to high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job so you can get a nice house so you can afford to send your kids to college so they can get a good job so they can get a nice house so they can afford to send their kids to college," and interesting observations like "you could not say that Margo Roth Spiegelman was fat, or that she was skinny, any more than you can say that the Eiffel Tower is or is not lonely," and the excellent use of the semi-word "suburbanality."

"Forever is composed of nows," reads another passage near the end of the book. That rang true, and one of the enjoyable nows was reading this book. I'm sure I'll read Green's others.

Rating: ***

They are not synonyms, people!

Levithan, David. Every Day. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Every Day has a very interesting premise: that the main character's personality (soul? perspective?) inhabits a different body every day, a body that has aged just as much as that personality (currently about sixteen) and is somewhere within a couple hours' drive of the place from the day before. It's something he (it? let's say he) has learned to deal with over time, until one day he meets a girl and has a magical time that he can't let go. The rest of the story revolves around him trying to get back to that girl and to convince her that they can make it work even though he's swapping daily between overweight outcast boy, football star, and goth girl. The challenge is oddly similar to making an amnesiac remember she loves you (like 50 First Dates)--but totally different.

The trouble is, for all that uniqueness, I didn't like the book so much. The main thing that peeved me was the insistent use (at least seven times) of "enormity," as in "the quiter astonishments that enormity can offer" or "they want to touch the enormity." Another book I just finished (yes, I have four to write about) properly used "vastness." Come on. Who's editing books these days? I realize some people don't care about the distinction, since it's fading in some dictionary definitions, but I do, and I'd think literary editors would.

Alas, I should have written about this book when I finished it a couple of weeks ago, because now I can't remember much more than that. While it was a new idea, I didn't really care about the main character (he was pretty whiny), though I didn't mind the path he chose at the end. At a minimum, I can say the story wasn't enormously annoying.

Rating: **

July 8, 2014

A second summer movie

Forman, Gayle. If I Stay. New York: Dutton Books, 2009.

Another tearjerker of a book that's about to be made into a movie. For some reason this didn't engage me quite as much as The Fault in Our Stars (maybe because the movie doesn't come out for six more weeks), but it was still a page-turner (-tapper? What do I call it when I read the whole thing on my phone?) and I still teared up awkwardly on the treadmill.

The plot is pretty simple, and easy to see how it would be translated into film. Mia is unconscious after a tragic car accident, and she both sees what's going on in the hospital and flashes back through her teenage life while trying to decide--realizing that she has to decide--whether to come back or move on. The best parts are her interactions, both conscious and not, with her stoic but deep-feeling grandfather. He seems to understand just what she needs at all times. There are some funny parts and some angsty teen romance and, of course, a fair amount of pondering the pros and cons of waking up into the situation she's now in.

I won't spoil it (watch the movie if you don't feel like reading) but I felt good about the ending. The reason that doesn't spoil anything is that the story seems to give all directions a fair shake. Any ending that Mia chose would have been the right one for her. What more can we ask for, after all?

Rating: ***

June 6, 2014

Five whole years!

For all of the guilt I felt this year, I only read one fewer book than last year, so the graphs don't look as bad as I feared they would when planning this post. Where in previous years I've had trends one way or the other, this year was all over the place. Eighteen books were read, and more were bad than good--quite a few more--which explains some of my book-apathy. (Vampire Diaries probably explains the rest.)

I'm still pleased to see that I read some high-star books this year, because most had slipped my mind. Luckily, that's the whole point of this blog, to remind me about stuff like that. The four-star books fell in July and October, so it doesn't look like they spurred me to huge book-heights thereafter. On the other hand, the three-and-a-half-star books were the last two on the graph, so maybe there's something to hope for next year.

What drove the high months: July and January? Totally different things. January brought a good amount of fluff (Devil Wears Prada and Bridget Jones sequels, plus the Divergent series) that was easy to read fast. Not exactly an advertisement for the value of reading, but it was fun. July yielded solid books by good authors: David Sedaris, Khaled Hosseini, and Michael Pollan. These I gobbled up because I thought I'd want to based on past experience, even if the star ratings didn't pay off that well.

It seems like the goal for next year if I want to pump up the output is one of the following:
  1. Make more time for reading. This is what I should be doing all along. If you're following my other blog you are aware that the nursing-reading time will be back soon, so that's something.
  2. Read a bunch of trash. Trash is fast. But, really, is that the point?
  3. Get my favorite authors to write me some more books so I can enjoy them. Since I don't have their numbers, I think the best thing might be to go borrow/buy some other books by the authors in the three-to-four-star heap. My friend already started on another John Green novel--maybe I will, too.
Hey, at least I haven't quit entirely. Small wonders.

June 3, 2014

I'm feeling filosoofical

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books, 2012.

Here's the trick: make plans to go to the movie adaptation of a book in a week. Then, bang, you can finish a book in two days! It helps, of course, if the book is funny, cute, sad, and totally easy to picture as a movie.

The Fault in Our Stars is all of these things. My godmother said I'd like it because there would be crying. She knows me too well. (I'd also been tipped off by the movie trailer and Buzzfeed, not to mention the friend with the movie plan.) I kept track of the passages that made me tear up, luckily mostly at home except for one bit of awkwardness before yoga class. There were eleven. That's not too bad for a 300-ish page book, and it indicates that I'll be bawling through the movie.

There were also an even greater number of passages that I highlighted because I just plain liked them. Beguiling is probably the proper word for this sixteen-year-old girl with likely-terminal cancer, a voracious appetite for literature, an independent mind, and a snappy wit. (She calls a hospital a "prematorium" and makes keen observations about broccoli and chocolate.) Certainly her new friend Augustus is beguiled, and how they fall for each other ("slowly, and then all at once," in the oft-quoted phrase) is the focus of the story.

The side plot, in which Hazel and Augustus search for more details about a book they love, reminded me strongly of Sophie's World. The comparison to that meta-novel about philosophers and dreams and other disturbing-if-you-let-it stuff seems odd, but they do stay in the Filosoof hotel in Amsterdam, and there's a story-within-a-story that they identify with, and plenty of educational value in the main tale. Maybe I should hunt down John Green and ask for an explanation like Hazel does with her author. Okay, maybe the similarities aren't that epic and it's just a vibe, but both books are oddly engaging and seem destined to stick with you for a while. And, as I imposed Sophie's World on a class of college freshman as an instructor, so now I impose The Fault in Our Stars on you. Or at least the movie.

Rating: ***1/2 (at least--I'm contemplating 4 and may come back)

April 24, 2014

Baby stuff filters over here

Oster, Emily. Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong--and What You Really Need to Know. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

Sorry, loyal reader (and the singular may well be true by this point), I've been a little preoccupied. Not with anything particularly useful--mostly watching Scandal, but also working on my other new blog, burning cookies (or maybe that was just tonight), and other assorted things that kept me from reading.

Now, however, worlds have collided, and I've finally finished a book. Even better, it's one that I enjoyed cover to (virtual) cover. As I've made quite obvious on the other blog, if not here, I love research, data, graphs, and generally feeling like I know what's going on, even on topics like babies where you generally have no idea. Therefore, I pretty much raced to buy this book after I saw it recommended on a chat last week, and then I plowed through it at a speed belied by my most-recent-post date.

Expecting Better is written in a clear-headed, witty, and accessible fashion by a youngish economist who's been trained all her life to look at the evidence that informs our decisions. When she started thinking about getting pregnant, and even more through all those interminable doctor's visits and baby books, however, she was frustrated by the dearth of data. Don't drink alcohol. Don't eat deli meat. Your risk of something is pretty low. But why not? And how low is your definition of low, Doctor? So, Oster went off to get her own answers, scouring through the medical studies that back up all these claims and bans to determine what's serious and what's unsupported, first for her own benefit, then for her lucky friends, then for all of us in book form.

One of the key points of the book is that once you have the evidence, you can place it alongside your values and make the decision that's right for you. Maybe a 1 in 1000 chance seems high to you and you'd rather stay away from item Y; maybe you think that's a pretty slim risk and not worth worrying about. Therefore, I'm not going to try to present much of what Oster found and what I thought about it. Instead, here are some of the topics that I highlighted for future reference:
  • A great reminder on correlation and causation, with the key point (which I remember Michael Pollan observing about vitamins) being that sometimes just being the kind of person who would do X has the same observable effect as actually bothering to do said X.
  • A passage on weight gain during pregnancy, for all those feeling oppressed at the scales in the doctor's office.
  • Tips for charting if you want to become pregnant.
  • The evidence related to alcohol and caffeine consumption while pregnant (an example of applying personal weights to the evidence--I read it and decided, eh, I don't need either even if they're probably no biggie in small amounts).
  • Which drugs are safer than others, and why.
  • Which of the banned foods you really need to stay away from.
  • The pros and cons of screening tests.
  • And, generally, when to chill out and do what feels right (like sleeping position).
If any of those pique your interest, I encourage you to get the book, devour it as I did, and make your own judgments. I feel smarter and more calm for having done it.

Rating: ***1/2