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3-/5. If grad school did nothing else for me, it showed me that just because someone shows a lot of evidence for his side doesn't actually mean that he's right. Even within my fairly small field of the hardest of hard sciences, there were controversies between different professors that it was impossible to know how to resolve unless you had carefully followed all the papers. The rest of us had to rely on knowing the general work of the characters in question; if L., for example, was involved, you could be sure he would be on the correct side because he was always scrupulous and rigorous with his physics, and if both G. and L. said something was so, while Y. said the opposite, you were pretty sure where you stood on the matter even if you had no idea what they were actually talking about.

And if you didn't know enough about the field to know that G. was always right, and that Y. was a bit of a crank? You might have taken Y.'s side, because he was awfully persuasive, and because he had done a lot of math to support his opinion, and the part where he made a poor assumption when he did the math was buried pretty deeply in there and fairly hard to tease out for someone with less than a graduate-school-level understanding. And, why, yes, after having followed the papers closely, and knowing exactly where the (multiple!) errors in Y's logic came in, I might still be just a touch bitter that an outside funding agency decided Y. was right and L. was wrong. Though I would like to stress that they did this not through stupidity or incompetence, but simply by not having a way to properly judge.

All this is to say that I don't generally trust science books. You read your string theory book, and then you go read Peter Woit's blog and he points out that the string theorist in question is engaging in a lot of wishful thinking...

But anyway. So, this book. I so wanted to like this book. I love science/social-science that takes on an established paradigm and breaks it down. Awesome stuff, right? And I was totally intrigued by its claim to take down traditional monogamy paradigms. (Full disclosure: there is no one who has been as thoroughly socialized into monogamy as I have! But I can see that it's not necessarily for everyone, either, and in addition, I can, actually, fairly easily imagine a world in which I'd been sexually-socialized differently, thus making me receptive to the book's message.)

The book purports to take down the "standard narrative" of monogamy, which is to explain monogamy as an uneasy compromise between female maximization of having a guy around to take care of kids, and male maximization of spreading his sperm around. Ryan and Jetha (henceforth RJ) say that this is totally bogus, that monogamy is not the human condition; that investigation of related species (bonobos), primitive foraging societies, and various physical considerations make it clear that humans were prehistorically, and are still wired to be, "fiercely egalitarian" and small-group-sharing both sexually and otherwise; and that it was the relatively recent rise of agriculture that brought monogamy with it. And this is why people have affairs so often.

So. This is a highly readable, interesting, and entertaining book. It also gave me a complete headache every time I picked it up, mostly from banging my head against the wall because the authors are needlessly inflammatory, sometimes they don't make sense, and worst of all, they have in general extremely poor logical thinking skills, to the extent that a great many of their arguments are seen to be completely stupid if you just think about it for a little bit. I am not exaggerating, every two-three pages or so I would howl in frustration because they would say something illogical or inconsistent, it was that bad.

And I still came away from it saying, "Well. Three quarters of what they said I can demolish as a logical argument. And yet they've found so much evidence that even a quarter of what they think they have seems pretty convincing." In particular, I thought that there was enough bonobo and foraging-society evidence that they were onto something.

It's probably already too late to cut for length, but here goes: in which I find a critical review of this book that demolishes pretty much all of RJ's remaining arguments, critique the critical review, tell you about my total distrust and disdain for both RJ and their reviewer, claim to prove that vaccines cause autism using the same techniques Ryan and Jetha do, do my own research using primary sources to myself falsify many of the claims RJ have made to my own satisfaction, claim that I would want my husband to have hot sex with my sister, am bored with penis size, and use a lot of italics. )

Anyway. In summary: I do not dare recommend this book, because of the possibility that you will read it and think that RJ have a very strong case (I myself certainly thought they had a fairly strong case before reading the rebuttal and doing some research on my own, and I'm more cynical than most), when in my opinion they don't at all. At best I would say that there are some interesting ideas in this book that some extremely limited data suggest could be true. (Again, take my opinion for what it's worth as a layperson in this field, though one who does have a fair amount of scientific experience.) However, it does have interesting ideas, and it got me interested in the whole subject, and it did point out to me the lack of rigor in the field as a whole, so it's getting rounded up to a 3-. And there's a chapter on arousal that is a little random but that seems, almost by accident, to say some things that struck me as accurate. Anyway, if you do read it, at least be sure to check out the rebuttal to see some of the problems with it.

...I think I might swear off pop-science books totally. They just make me cranky.
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2/5. So the terrible thing is, I actually liked this book. Rozzlynn has the bones of a good, if shallow, story in here, the outline of a YA-dystopian Revenge-type deliciously catty backstabbing sort of story that I quite enjoyed from time to time. (And teen angst OH WOE IS ME! which I didn't enjoy, but whatever.) Unfortunately, it differs from Revenge in the execution, which in the case of Revenge is polished and pretty, and in the case of this book... really isn't. Rozzlynn self-publishes, and this book is a walking advertisement for WHY EDITORS ARE NEEDED FOR SOME PEOPLE. (Note: I do not mean to imply this is necessary for everyone who self-publishes, e.g., see below.)

I mean... I suppose it could be a lot worse, but the grammar just destroys my story immersion. Every time she says something like "with Avery and I," bam, my head goes against the wall (I don't mind nearly as much in speaking, and have been known to do it myself on occasion, but in writing that should have gone through beta it really bugs me), and she has severe, severe comma problems at least once a page. And quite a lot of telling-not-showing when she gets tired of writing conversations and needs to transition to another plot point; this is especially bad in the interminable first few chapters (the book doesn't really pick up until you get into the fast-tracked society).

It was interesting to read this about the same time as Graceling (YA hitting the same target audience) and Timepiece (not the same target audience, but also YA-ish and self-published), because while Graceling and Timepiece are also first novels and it's easy to tell this is the case, at least for Graceling (Graceling is a bit simplistic, has its own structural issues, and a bit unsure of itself from time to time; Timepiece is much more consistent throughout, but also has fairly simple arcs), and all three books have somewhat compelling storylines with spunky heroines, Graceling and Timepiece are just so much better in terms of craft and skill.
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3+/5. I liked it! I was expecting not to (I suppose mostly because of having read so much praise for it -- I am a contrary beast), but I got drawn in. It's pretty clearly a first book. The opening scene is full of action, but following it is a lot of somewhat-boring exposition where we are told a lot of things about How and Why the Characters Are Who They Are, though a stronger book would have mucked around with the structure a little and shown instead of told. (To be fair, this isn't nearly as bad as in the book I'm going to be reviewing next, and the reason I'm a little hypersensitive to this right now has to do with doing yuletide -- which yes, I ended up doing, and had a really great time, but more on that later -- and realizing that I have precisely this problem of wanting to tell instead of show; it's a common problem, I imagine. But this is also why I critique!) I found it quite slow in the beginning, partially because of the exposition problem and partially because Katsa has a lot of angst in that section, but by the midpoint couldn't put it down.

I like Katsa a lot for being sort of non-introspective, brawn-over-brain, and somewhat dense, but in a way that's sympathetic and believable. It's a nice change from the bookish super-smart heroines you get a lot (not that I'm complaining -- I love the bookish super-smart heroine -- but it's nice to see something different).

Mild spoilers: Katsa enters into a consensual sexual relationship outside of marriage. That was interesting to me because I paused a bit to see how I felt about that, having been thoroughly socialized into marriage myself, and having had a history in the last couple of years of "OMG CAN'T GIVE THAT BOOK TO MY DAUGHTER WITHOUT OUR HAVING A TALK" (I mean, E. is not 2 yet, but since she's been born I've had a couple of these experiences when reading something, and it always kind of bothers me when my head does this, because I read all kinds of things while growing up without any parental control (mostly, probably, because they had no idea), and it was good for me). ([profile] sarahtales also pointed out gently that people tend not to think this about boys, and I am guilty as heck, and of course it's a bit asymmetric because I don't have a son, but I am trying to be a little more even-handed in thinking things are good or bad for boys as well, especially since D does have nephews.)

And... my response was something along the lines of, sure, well, we could talk about this: how awesome it is. No pressure on either side, a power-balanced relationship, a lot of friendship and support, a lot of careful communication about their relationship. Sooooo much better than no-premarital-sex with icky 100-year-old stalker guy, I can't even tell you.
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3-/5. This is the second book in a Hunger Games Lite series. Teen romantic angst like whoa, eeeeevil dystopia, love triangle, but without the trenchant reality-show commentary that made Hunger Games worth reading. Whee. It was better than the first book in the series, Matched, in that we didn't get any horrible villain speeches that made no sense, and even some tentative arguments pointing out the dystopia has some points about it, but really, only recommended if you are into teen romantic angst. (It might just have been that I read this book right after reading Timepiece, which is refreshingly free of teen romantic angst, but Crossed drove me crazy with the constant angsting. Or maybe I'm just getting old and curmudgeonly.)

Predictions for the third book, which I'm required to read when it comes out: Ky (primary love interest) will die heroically; Cassia (heroine) will tearfully get together with Xander (secondary love interest and all-around Nice Guy); we may get a handwaving explanation of the nebulous Enemy and the War that is a topic in this book; we will never have it explained why exactly the dystopia does all the stupid things it does.
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3+/5. I was pleased by this book: a historical YA-ish (I don't think it's marketed as YA, but it can be thought of that way) alternate-history-time-travel-steampunk-SFF that actually seems to take some pains to get the history right. YAY. (Full disclosure: I know very little about the 1800's except through reading Austen and Dickens, so my thoughts on this should not be given the same weight as someone who does -- but my gosh, it is way better than the vast majority of YA historical-ish fic out there, which even I can tell has problems (*cough*Jennifer Donnelly, twice.) In fact, if there's any flaw in the history, it's an eagerness to show off how realistic the history is, so there's a slight bit of as-you-know-Bob that's apparent if you know a lot of about the period, but isn't if you don't. (That is to say, I noticed it in the Austenesque descriptions of titles and clothing, and not at all in the war descriptions, and I suspect it's because I have rather more literary experience with the former than the latter.) (A review on amazon notes that the French is a bit jolting for a fluent speaker, but it's clearly better than Revolution, which even this only-high-school speaker objected to.)

The book satisfied my prime requirement for a fiction book, which is that I got drawn into the story so much that I really wanted to know what happened next, and didn't get thrown out by any glaring flaws or weird prose lapses (which again, puts it way ahead of most, if not all, of the YA historical fic I've read recently). I also really loved the descriptions of Wellington; it also satisfied my prime requirement for historical fiction, which is that I want to go learn more about that period of history when I am done. Also, for a story which involves two young-adult leads, it was refreshingly free of teen romantic angst.

Caveats: The (human) characters are not particularly three-dimensional; the character that is being developed with the most care, as I've said, is the historical background, and the human characters are really in some sense only there to set off the history. Elizabeth is your stereotypical spunky tomboy too-feminist-for-her-time heroine, and she goes from spunky and naive to spunky and idealistic, which is not all that much of a character arc. William gets a little more of a character, though not a whole lot of an arc. There is a Mysterious Arc regarding Maxwell which appears to me to be totally guessable (though I guess I could be wrong). Along the same lines, there isn't much here in the way of Deep Philosophical Thoughtfulness. This may be a benefit, as it's very easy to put in Deep Philosophical Thoughts that turn out to be totally stupid (which is the case for quite a lot of YA out there), and I'd much rather not have them at all than have stupid ones, but it does put an upper limit on what the book is able to achieve.

It ends on a cliffhanger, which with its combination of triumph and despair is really just perfect, but anyway, warning to those of you who don't like cliffhanger endings. Sequel out in 2012. Hopefully the sequel will address where the timepieces came from, which is not talked about at all in this book (although one can certainly guess based on the information available).

Timepiece is still available (as of today) for 99 cents (ebook only as far as I know, but for most formats of interest -- Kindle, epub (from Smashwords), B&N), and is really a bargain, and recommended, for that price. It's not trying to do everything, and doesn't; it's just trying to be an entertaining and historically-grounded adventure, and it succeeds well in that. I shall definitely be buying the sequel.
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4/5. Mystery. (Male) cop and (female) priest, and together, they fight crime! Okay, that's a very simplified summary, but this is what D got out of my slightly hysterical summary of it late at night after finishing it.

I... really liked this book. Part of it was how it pushed all my buttons; the story of an abandoned baby that gets hung up in Department-of-Human-Services land, and the drama involving the would-be adoptive parents (possibly singled out by the birth mom, but was she coerced?) who also become suspects once some murders get added into the mix -- well, I have two friends who recently adopted out of foster care in what was (in both cases) a long-drawn-out custody battle with the clearly-unfit bio-relatives, and not to mention my friend L. who made the decision not to adopt out of foster care (possibly because of our mutual friends' experiences) and who is still hung up in the whole adoption system (though happily she is now pregnant), and so I was going to get drawn into the story anyway.

But the central emotional core of this book is of two people that are thrown together, and get to know each other, and spark off each other's minds and souls, and learn more about themselves from each other. And this is a story that gets me every time. It's the way relationships (romantic, friendship, whatever) work, at their best. It's what I like to read about, whether it be through friendship, family, romance, whatever. (For extra bonus points, friendship-turning-to-romance-to-family!)

And... maybe they're falling for each other. And he's married. And, ow. And I am pondering whether I can last the week before I can get back to the library to get the rest of the series, or whether I am going to have to buy them so I can read them Right Now. (this is all [personal profile] lightreads fault!!)
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3+/5 (reread) Okay, so, you guys, there's a lot of fanfic out there, and some of it is quite good. And some of it is terribly, terribly indulgent. (These two categories are not mutually exclusive, though they tend to be somewhat.) Now, especially when I'm busy, sometimes I get in a rut of reading extremely indulgent fanfic. And I was doing this recently, and in the middle of it started reading The Fountainhead, which I do every five years or so, because I like it (the non-(stultifyingly-boring-and-a-little-silly)-philosophy parts) and because it's an easy fast read (when you skip the philosophy), and because of another reason that I articulate differently every time. Last time I said the reason was "it's a great red-headed trashy romance."

This time, I will say about that same reason... The Fountainhead totally struck me, on this reading, as an incredibly indulgent fanfic of itself. Seriously, it totally reads to me as if there were some ur-text somewhere with a perfectly nice reasonable Peter Keating, Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Gail Wynand, having vaguely realistic characters and interacting like grownups and stuff... but who somehow got twisted in an extraordinarily indulgently fanficcy sort of way into AlphaMaleGaryStu!Roark, BetaMalePuppyDog!Keating (I swear to you, if Ayn Rand lived right now and knew about slash, instead of living decades ago and being homophobic, Keating would be so slashed with Roark), MakesNoSenseButIsTragicallyBeautifulAndLivesForHerMan!Dominique (who actually poses for a goddess sculpture halfway through the book, yes, thank you for that subtle symbolism Ayn!), and TragicallyFlawedAndEvenMoreTotallyRoarkSlashyThanKeating!Wynand.

With, of course, that awesome Roark-Dominique-Wynand love-friendship triangle With Oodles and Oodles of Angst, mostly on Dominique's side (and notice how Dominique is the only one who is called by her first name? Yeah, I did too), and a Manly Man Friendship that is just so girly. (Well. Roark mostly grunts or Is Concisely Wise, as befits an Alpha Male Superman, but Wynand is all about talking about his feeeelings! In a manly way, of course!) Ayn Rand also wrote all the deleted scenes another book might have left out (part of the reason the book is freaking 1500 pages -- the other reason is all the Objectivist junk, which I always skip, it being not useful for the indulgent reading I'm looking for). It turns out pretty much no one has written any actual fanfic for this book (oh, the research I do for these posts!), and my theory is that it's because Rand already wrote it.

Anyway. I find this book hilarious, as you can tell. As super-indulgent fanfic goes, it is well-written and quite entertaining. As original fic, of course, I'd recommend a whole load of other stuff rather than this, but sometimes what you want is the super-indulgent fic, and this hits all those buttons.
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4/5. I thought this was a very good book, and I had an extremely hard time with it. I read the first several chapters, set it down, and it languished around the house for eight weeks. The library, you see, will let one renew books for nine weeks as long as there's no one else who wants it, and on week nine I finally sat down and dug into it.

The thing is, T. H. White is exactly the sort of person you would expect from reading The Once and Future King. He's kind of every character in that book rolled up in one: you can see that he must have been ferociously intelligent, quirky, compassionate, and unhappy, because that's what the characters in TOFK are like. And that really comes through in this biography. And at the same time, I almost didn't want to know the details of how he was that way. I'm glad I read it, now, but there were definitely times going through when I wasn't sure if I would be glad I'd read it, even though I was sure all the way going through that it was a very good book. If that makes any sense.

Anyway, go read [personal profile] skygiants's review, which convinced me to read this, because she says it all a lot better than I do, and she talks about White's grand passionate love affair with his dog. (No, really, the one great love in his life was his dog Brownie. Go read it.)
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(3+/5) Um. So. I thought I was done with epic fantasy. But, you know, there's the Wheel of Time, which I am physically incapable of reading more than a quarter of a book of without dropping it in sheer and utter boredom, but which I have vaguely fond memories of, in that sort of "oh, yeah, I used to read that" sort of way. So I've been keeping up with WOT news, even though I don't think I'll ever even try to read a book again. (I even got bored with the recaps! Although Adam Robert's reviews are wildly funny to me, and you should check them out even if you hate WOT. Actually, you should check them out in particular if you hate WOT.) It's sort of like... that ex who it turns out was really boring and whom you would be happy to never see again, but you don't mind looking him up on Facebook every five years or so to see how he's doing. Like that.

Anyway. So along those lines, I was listening to this Sanderson podcast on how he got to be writing the last WOT books, because I find that interesting even if WOT itself is dead boring, and Sanderson happened to mention the McGuffin of Mistborn, and I thought, hm, that sounds kind of interesting. And around the same time reviewed it approvingly. So I picked it up.

And... I liked it! It's, you know, epic fantasy. It's like Robert Jordan, only more streamlined (by which I mean three fat books instead of twelve or however many it is fat books) and with fewer really really annoying cat-fighting female characters (although the first one at least has only two female characters out of n-where-n-is-a-large-number, and they do cat-fight). But sometimes one is just in the mood for a competent epic fantasy that is a fast read but not horribly annoying. And this one fits.
I do sort of wish I hadn't known the McGuffin before reading it, but then again I wouldn't have read it otherwise, so there you go.

That being said, I'm currently bouncing hard off the second one -- it's not recognizably worse than the first, just that currently I apparently have a tolerance for epic fantasy of no more than one book, and also maybe that I'm out of my epic-fantasy mood from last month.
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-Why did no-one tell me that the voice of Quasimodo in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame is Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in Amadeus? Did everyone else know this but me? It's... a weird mental image in my mind, now.

-The Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie) is, I think, not one of the better Christies, but the one thing that made it hilarious to me was that one of the characters is a mysterious "Mrs. Lestrange." I spent the entire book, whenever she showed up, inventing ways to reconcile the character with Bellatrix Lestrange. (Alas, she did not, in fact, turn out to be a sociopath Death Eater. But that would have been awesome!)

-Tangled is a much more entertaining movie if you watch it thinking of a sort-of alternate Eugenides (from the Megan Whalen Turner books) as the main male character. (I know i'm not the first to think this. Still.)

-I was rereading Tam Lin, which I adore (I blame it for leading me to believe everyone in college spouted random Greek and Shakespeare -- turns out, not so much for physics majors), for various nefarious reasons. I think when I first read it, in high school, I might have found the college sex hijinks vaguely titillating. This time around, I was all "OMG ARE YOU PEOPLE SERIOUSLY NOT USING CONDOMS AND USING HERBAL TEA BIRTH CONTROL WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?" Okay, yes, it's set in the 1970's when people didn't worry about HIV, but still! I was rather amused by my change in reaction over the last twenty years (as well as slightly appalled that it wasn't my reaction as a teenager :) )
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4/5. I must confess that I read this book for the wrong reasons. It's a memoir of a woman, a journalist, who had an affair with another (married) journalist, who eventually divorced his wife and married her. Some years later, he died of cancer. That's the book I thought I was reading.

The book I actually read had that basic plot, but it was about love and building a family (and breaking one, too), and most of all, life. And it had that quality of truth, of both telling the truth and discerning the truth, that makes me fall in love with a book.

Here is one example, something that just hit me as yes. Yes, this is the way things are:
The next day he slept late, and I left the house early, determined to find fresh sorrel leaves. I had recently bought a cookbook, my first, and in it I had come across a beautiful photograph of cream of sorrel soup, green and elegant in a gilt-edged cream-colored bowl. I had never even heard of sorrel. I can't explain it now -- I couldn't explain it then -- but I had this idea that if I could just make the perfect bowl of cream of sorrel soup, then I would be the kind of person who could fit into this new life, I would be competent and know the things it was important for adults to know.

This book is somewhat excruciating to read. I mean, refer to the first paragraph to see why. But it is extremely lovely.
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4/5. [ profile] julianyap got me to read The Magician King, and I'm glad I did. It was... an interesting experience, however. I almost felt like Grossman had read my review of The Magicians and was all "I'll show her! I'll write another book and this one will have all the things she complained about in the last one! It will have a reasonable fascimile of a fantasy world, complete with a Quest for Plot Coupons and some random archetypes thrown in, and a redemption arc, and Characters Realizing that the Real World is Cool Like the Fantasy World, and magician scientists who actually care about the way the world works, no, I'll throw in TWO groups of those!"

...So I shouldn't complain, right? Except I am going to, a little. Had I not first read The Magicians, I might have been convinced by it. As it was, it rang a little... hollow to me; the technical execution is quite good (even if every so often one of the characters thinks she knows more science than she does) but I'm not sure I'm convinced by the emotional core of most of it (the exception is below)... the whole thing with Benedict seems sort of shoehorned in, for example. Whereas the ending of Magicians had this savage emotional core of personal responsibility and lack of same that did convince me. That is to say, I think the ending of Magicians was what Grossman really thinks, and I think the (first) ending of Magician King was Grossman saying, "Look, you didn't think I could do the sort of fantasy where there is an inevitable but sweet confrontation between Our Hero and His Baser Impulses, and usually aided by some sort of Wise Talking Animal, in which Our Hero Grows Up and Does the Right Thing and Reaps The Quest Reward thereby -- but I totally can, watch me."

...But I think that was on purpose, and it made me appreciate the first book a lot more. There are a lot of choices Grossman made in the first book that enraged me, a lot, because I thought they were unconscious and made out of a disdain and misunderstanding of fantasy and fantasy readers. This book made me realize that Grossman really does understand fantasy and fantasy readers, and what he did in the first book are all conscious choices, which retroactively makes me more willing to accept his criticisms of fantasy in the first book.

And I did very much like the (second half of the) ending. The thing I really, really liked, actually, was this passage (which comes before the first half of the ending but informs Quentin's response to the second half of the ending and informs my response to his response):
By now [Quentin] had learned enough to know that when he was getting annoyed at somebody else, it was usually because there was something that he himself should be doing, and he wasn't doing it.

This is the real climax of the book. The whole quest thing, the whole Doing the Right Thing, the whole Talking Animal Wisdom, is, I think, Grossman adding intentionally cliched fantasy fluff to it. Because I think what he wants to say, what his actual belief is, is that the fantasy is just window dressing. The characters like to quote the Narnian maxim (adapted for Fillory) of "Once a king in Fillory, always a king in Fillory," but Quentin points out eventually, "That's bullshit and you know it," and I think what Grossman would say is rather different: maturity is something internal and not dependent on whether you're in Fillory or not, and not dependent on whether you have talking animals to help you out with it. No one helps Quentin with this realization. No one even realizes this is the particular realization he needs to have (as opposed to the Real World Rocks Almost As Much As Fantasy So You Should Enjoy It realization, which he is sort of beaten over the head with). None of his adventures really speak directly to that particular realization. It's simply something that comes to him as an integrated response to life -- the way a lot of these kinds of realizations come to most of us.

My conclusion is that this book is much more subtle than the first in its approach to The Problem of Fantasy: the first book just flat-out said, "Hey, have you noticed, fantasy sux!" and this one says, "Look closely and you may see that the heart of fantasy can be hollow and echoing." And I agree with that. I might, at this juncture, prefer the first book, but I think what he did with the second is more interesting.

(Now for some random responses I had: it is totally weird to me that Harry Potter exists in this book and not (to the best of my remembrance?) in the first book. Although wouldn't it be cool if there were some sort of meta-meta where the same kind of amnesia/alternate-universe Julia is subjected to is actually the fate of all of them, where one universe has Harry and the other doesn't?)

(Another random response for those of you who have read it: when I talked to [ profile] julianyap about this book, he mentioned that he was interested in what a feminist reading would have to say about the spoilery thing that happens to Julia at the climax of her arc that you can totally guess if you have read this far because it is totally the thing that would happen in a grimdark fantasy. My personal reaction was something along the lines of rolling my eyes at the book and saying "okay, Grossman, we get that you are flinging all the cliches in the world at us, thanks.")

I also was very, very pleased to find Eliot stayed redeemed in this book. I don't even remember Eliot from the previous book, just that I remember he had a nice arc and I'm glad Grossman stuck to it.
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3+/5. Ohh... I really, really liked this book... until the end. Until then, it's a pitch-perfect retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" that has as its emotional core the relationship between the princesses and their father, especially after their mother's death. I love books about family, so this obviously struck hard at me. (And in contrast to many books with an absent mother, the mother is actually a presence in their lives, and has a more vibrant character than the father for much of the book.) I also loooved the character of Fairweller. And I've been incompetent at dancing my whole life, starting with quitting ballet in third grade, but somehow Dixon made it sound fun.

One of the interesting things I found about it was that, well, the princesses make some decisions that are clearly the Wrong Thing to Do. And usually my reaction to this is "I don't want to read about stupid people!" But here -- and I think this is a feature of books I love in general -- Dixon has set up the characters so carefully, and delineates them so well, that you understand their reactions as basically a totally reasonable reaction under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, the ending kind of falls down, and retroactively wrecked the rest of the book for me. (Spoilers follow. They are lame spoilers, but spoilers nevertheless.) ) Seriously, in ten minutes I could come up with a better ending than that.
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3+/5 - This is about the only DWJ I have a memory of not liking. (There's The Homeward Bounders, which I find excruciating to read, but mostly because it's really good, in a painful sort of way.) And then, you know, I was reading [ profile] bookelfe's reviews, and of the things we've both read, it seems like we totally agree on 95% of it. To the extent where she would say something and I would think to myself, "I thought that exact thing when I read it!"

Except for this book, which she loves and I remembered disliking. So I thought I'd give it another try.

...Okay, I see the problem. There's a highly problematic age-and-power-differential romance between a pair that, at the beginning of the book, are ages 10 and at-least-19 [hm, although there is a case to be made that he's only 17] respectively. And I have a strong kneejerk response to that. And usually I can keep my romance kneejerk response (of which I have a good deal, this isn't the only one, although it's perhaps the one I most often complain about) apart from my response to the book as a whole, but the problematic-romance is woven into this book and plot and relationships to such an extent that here it's impossible.

And the thing is, it is problematic, and DWJ admits that, and even uses it as a plot point (which I was too blinded by kneejerk flail to see the first time around). And there is a huge amount going on here... the book, especially the ending, is beautifully subtle and weird and strange, and I'm still thinking about it. So I do think it's very good. But man, would I have loved it more if they weren't written in a way that strongly implies they will end up together (although, to do her credit, she did not have them end up together quite, and one is free, even encouraged, to imagine that these issues will drive them apart) or if any of Tom's otherwise awesome friends had called him out for what he was doing (at least Polly's grandmother does). Because, still creepy.

(And yes, okay, D is eight years older than I am. But I didn't meet him when I was ten, nor did I spend the next eight years having a mad crush on him while he taught me stuff and functioned as a basic (though mostly absent) parental figure. Ugh.)
cahn: (Default)
3+/5, 4/5 - I can't find it (I wish I could), but in one of Sheila O'Malley's awesome book excerpts she talks about how when you read some books you identify completely and totally with the protagonist, so that reading the book is a terrifying and cathartic sort of experience. The book she said this about was one I read later and didn't actually like that much (one of the reasons I can't find the quote), so another lesson is that what resonates deeply with one person may not with another.

There is a class of YA books where, I think, one's mileage can vary widely. I don't know how to describe them, exactly. I don't want to say, high-school-issues book, because that doesn't seem to quite describe it; I shall say: they are the YA books that touch on the basic themes of life. For example... Chris Crutcher's books are about sports and abuse, yeah, but they're about... his best stuff is about the painful process of loss, loss of people, of one's illusions about people, of one's certainty of being right, of one's certainty of being able to do the right thing. And, you know? Some people need to hear that. And some people don't. (I think I had to hear the parts about losing one's illusions about people and losing one's certainty of being right.)

So: Saving Francesca and Just Listen. For me, reading Just Listen was basically like getting hit by a ton of bricks. I wrote a whole long thing about why that was so (because on the most superficial level the narrator of Listen and her experiences are nothing like me and mine), and then I decided I was not comfortable hanging all my issues out in public. Saving Francesca, which is actually a very similar book in a lot of ways, didn't flatten me. Because I didn't identify with the protagonist and what was going on in her life in the terrifying and total way I did with the protagonist of Just Listen. But I can totally see how it could be the other way around; how someone could get smacked in the face by the Marchetta and be lukewarm on the Dessen. (I think I'd actually be rather surprised if someone had a strong reaction to both, because while they are similar books they, I think, speak to different conditions.) I've also read other Dessen where I was all, okay, that's nice, whatever. Because those weren't my issues either. But this particular one cut me to the bone.

But I am sure as heck going to make sure my kid reads the books of both these authors when she gets to be that age, because I won't know necessarily which ones will speak to her.
cahn: (Default)
4/5. Romance. I hadn't been expecting to like this -- I'd tried a couple other Heyers with no success. And after the first chapter, which admittedly was pretty funny, I was sure it was going to be a straightforward reform-the-rake story, which I don't especially like, probably the specific subvariant No-Reform-Is-Actually-Necessary-Because-I'm-Just-A-Misunderstood-Nice-Guy, or possibly the extremely overdone and pretentious Once-I-Confront-My-Tortured-Past-I-Shall-Be-Reformed subvariant.

...I wasn't expecting Jane Austen Lite. Oh, it doesn't have the incisiveness of Austen (and there are a couple of major flaws; in particular I was unconvinced by half of the love story) -- it's a fluff piece -- but as a fluff piece it's pretty awesome. I was giggling the entire time. There's even a Mr. Bennett character, only he's more awesome than Mr. Bennett. (D's hero is Mr. Bennett. Who is this Darcy guy you speak of? he says.) I shall not say any more for fear of spoilers (though comments are fair game) -- this was definitely one where I appreciated coming in with no foreknowledge but what I already knew of romance tropes.

Got it free on kindle. It's not free right now, but amazon has a habit of frequently re-running their specials.
cahn: (Default)
A Sudden Wild Magic (Diana Wynne Jones) 3+/5 - Well, DWJ. Therefore, I liked it. I liked this one less than average, though, and wow, the romance was even worse than usual -- and i don't have very high expectations for DWJ romances.

What I Saw and How I Lied (Blundell) - 3/5. Teen after WWII finds all is not as it seems. I have nothing to say about this book, either good or bad.

Hybrid (O'Grady) 3/5. It was like The Passage, only with better medical jargon, and less with the woo-woo vampire mysticism. But the physics was just as bad. Also, maybe it was the Kindle version, but the ending was really abrupt. I mean, not even in the "plotlines didn't get wound up" way, but in the "it feels like this was cut off in the middle of a chapter" way. I'm betting the kindle version is missing a couple of end pages.

The Passage (Cronin) - 3/5. Oh yeah, I read this too, I forgot. Like Hybrid, only with woo-woo vampire mysticism. I really have a very hard time with vampire Ponzi schemes. Has someone explained exponential growth to Cronin? A quick calculation assuming each vampire needs to eat two people/day and the chance is 0.05 that person will become a vampire yields less than 300 days until the entire US is vampires...

Hawk of May (Bradshaw) 3+/5. Arthurian. A book from my childhood, and better than I remember. The first half was quite wonderful, and the second half had some nice surprises but overall lowered the rating. (Okay, in particular, that whole interlude with Lugh was a little... weird.) Also it is nice when your entire plot does not hinge on something that is super obvious if you have ever read any Arthurian stuff ever. However, overall passes my Arthurian test of "Bradshaw knows more about Arthurian mythos and Irish history than I do," though this is admittedly easier to do now than it was ten years ago. I'll definitely be picking up the sequels.

Edited: D points out I CANNOT DO SIMPLE EXPONENTIAL CALCULATIONS, bah. I have changed the numbers accordingly.
cahn: (Default)
3/5. I really wanted to like this book -- it is about the experience of a young Hong Kong immigrant girl, which is a subject that interests me for obvious reasons, and it was touted as an Asian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is one of my favorite comfort reads.

And Girl was an entertaining read, and full of all sorts of interesting details about what it's like to be a really poor Asian immigrant in a predominantly white milieu. The kinds of details made it clear that the author had gone through many of these things (confirmed by an interview with the author). And I got to the end, and I felt quite disappointed.

It took me a while to work out why. The biggest obvious potential reason was the romance, which is quite unrealistic and clearly tacked on for Young Adult Interest Woo. Also, I hate saying this (because I think of it as a meta-spoiler) but there is a Surprise Twist Ending. I bring it up here because a) I don't think enough of the book to mind meta-spoiling it, and b) usually I like Surprise Twist Endings, but here I thought it was a flaw, because it hindered development of what could have become some deep and interesting conversations. What was her life like after the Surprise Twist Ending? How did she feel about it? And so on. Oh, and c) this kind of book (fictionalized memoir) really depends on a sort of honesty between the reader and writer, and it's broken by the sudden revelation that, oh yes, there is a Surprise Twist. Although that honesty has already been broken by the dishonest romance (dishonest in the sense that it isn't thought through, it doesn't belong, it just doesn't fit), so maybe I shouldn't give it extra dings for that.

But those are just symptoms. (And honestly, Tree has a pretty weird romance with the Lee character -- who is apparently based on someone Smith knew later in life -- but that was a correspondingly smaller part of the book as well.) The real problem is that there is no character arc and no deeper understanding of the characters -- these things are related, and they're crucial to this kind of book. Kim is spunky and good at school and A Good Person and brave and stuff, I guess, and she's all those things at the end. The aunt is jealous and petty and small-minded, and she's all those things at the end.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has empathy and understanding of all the characters, from the deadbeat dad to the pretty-turned-harsh mother to the promiscuous and totally awesome aunt. (Seriously... this may be the only book I read during my childhood where the woman with the most lovers was also the most awesome woman in the book.) Francie herself, while she doesn't have the sort of arc that can be said to have a definite beginning or end, grows and changes through the book; her experiences do things to her. She, you know, grows up.

So go read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn if you're looking for a kiddie-lit comfort read (think House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables, only with dirt-poor Irish ghetto dwellers in the early 1900's, and less shy with respect to sex and death -- it's all PG, but Tree is conscious that sex and death exist, it's not swept under the rug as it is in Wilder or Montgomery), and I'll keep waiting for the Asian equivalent.
cahn: (Default)
3+/5. I loved this book, because it manages to be a romance novel involving two Randian-heros (by which I mean, are awesome business CEOs and good at lots of other things too and terrific lovers and etc.), a Mormon bishop and an ex-prostitute, that manages to be true to both characters and not quite Mary Sue-ish. That is, the ex-prostitute businesswoman, Cassie, does not have a heart of gold, she has the heart of a human being and does a fair amount of humanly stupid things along with the smart ones; and the Mormon bishop is neither a secret guilt-ridden Dimmesdale or a tall dark husky interchangeable knight in shiny armor, but again a human with some human failings. (For example... being Mormon, he doesn't believe in extramarital sex -- which screws him up when he gets horny, too, in which has got to be one of the funniest scenes of the book.)

And wicked points for this kind of thing in a romance novel:
"She has her own [career/money] and if all she wanted was a meal ticket, she wouldn't have stopped being a prostitute. That's a lot more honest than a woman who marries for money."

And double, triple points for having that come out of a Mormon Bishop's mouth. Yeah. Awesome!

And wow, bringing out all the favorite Mormon characters from my own life, if my life were a novel. The openly gay Mormon, who has given up relationships to serve what he thinks is a greater good. (And no, that greater good isn't Mormonism, which he is understandably rather angry at, but rather all the people under his jurisdiction who are hurting, including gay kids.) The woman who sees everything clearly in the ward and sometimes has to use her knowledge like a scalpel, to heal. The teenager who doesn't believe but loves his dad enough to go through the motions cheerfully until he leaves town. The dad who knows his son doesn't believe and lets him live his own life. The girl who is stuck in a dysfunctional Mormon family and is trying to get out, not always figuring out the healthiest path for it, but eventually finding her way there. And the community. Oh, the community. (Why yes, have you noticed I'm a sucker for community?) That sometimes has problems and issues, but also friendship, and bonds of love, and working together to solve the problems.

The only thing that really bugged me was that Cassie, who as I've said is a tough CEO ex-prostitute who likes to beat men at their own game, cries about every chapter or so for no very good reason. I cry a lot more than average, but I never cried that much and with the kind of impetuses that make Cassie cry except when I was post-partum. I mean, I know, it's supposed to represent her inner vulnerability blah blah, but it's just too much. (Especially for a CEO type... I can only imagine what sort of reputation I'd have at work if I cried as much as that, and I'm not even management. Or not much, anyway.) Lose the crying.

Note that I do not recommend this book unless at least one of the following applies:

-You like romance novels.
-You are Mormon, or at least interested in reading about Mormons.
-You liked The Fountainhead because it was such a great red-headed trashy romance.

and the following applies as well:

-You don't object to any of the above, even if you don't have any particular predilection for romance or Mormons or Ayn Rand.

(I am Mormon, and do not object to romance novels though I am not particularly fond of them, and I do like the Fountainhead as a trashy romance though find it rather silly as a political tract.)
cahn: (Default)
College books, boarding-school books -- I have a great and abiding love for them. The first one I can remember offhand is The Great Brain at the Academy, and Tom Fitzgerald's hijinks as he struggled to make money and not get kicked out, often at the same time. At the time I was really small, and this idea of going away for school was, well, only something Older And Glamorous people did. Perhaps something of that has stayed with me all this time, because I still love the things. Let's see... there was Tam Lin, which raised my expectations of college to way too high a level (turns out, if you major in physics, you don't get people quoting Greek at you as often), and And Both Were Young, a slight L'Engle and not one of her best works, but lovely all the same, and I'm sure many others I'm forgetting.

One of the things I love most about boarding-school books is that the basic idea is that you get all these unrelated kids together, and they have to gel into some sort of community. (Community and partnership, of course, being one of my button-presses.) The best example I know of this (thanks to [ profile] sarahtales) is Autumn Term (Antonia Forest), where the main characters form individual friendships, but then the class as a whole comes together for a triumph: a very successful class alternative to having a really inferior booth at the school fundraiser. One of the arcs I really like is that of one of the girls who has a not-ideal personality-- she's spoiled rotten and is very passive -- but it turns out she has some talents, and becomes part of the group in the end; the great thing about this is that it's done not by making her oh-just-kidding-she's-actually-fantastic -- she still has all the traits that caused the girls to dislike her, though admittedly has grown out of them a year's worth -- but simply by her decision to be part of the community project, and do it well.

I like fantastical boarding-school books even better, because the tropes seem to work together really well. The boarding-school trope already incorporates the idea of everything being new and fresh and exciting, which turns out to be a great way to showcase exciting magical things (a la Harry Potter, or even Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen -- I think I liked both these books (which were problematic in a lot of ways) much better than I would have in the absence of the boarding-school motif). Fantasy tends to benefit a lot from being able to do fantastic things within a known structure and known character-community-development arcs; for example, Diana Wynne Jones' Year of the Griffin is my all-time favorite DWJ novel because of the friendships and community (and plot!) that naturally grow up within the boarding-school structure.

This is all to say that I really, really, really wanted to like Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You -- boarding spy school for girls! What's not to love? And for the first several chapters, I did love it. Lots of interesting things about the school... a new teacher... female friendships... a new student who doesn't fit in... exciting classes... all the good, familiar tropes.

But what I wanted was a book that was about school-and-character-development first, some sort of external plot second, and maybe a romance third. Or the external plot could have been ditched, seems a shame in a book about spies, but okay. But what I actually got was a YA romance with the school-and-character-development relegated to second place, or maybe third. No external plot. And the romance was the worst kind: being a spy, she treats the relationship as an espionage mission, and lies to the boy. A lot. We know how this story ends; I didn't have to skim to the end to find out. Grr.

Anyway... any boarding-school books (don't have to be fantastical in any way) that you would recommend? There is, of course, Stevemer's College of Magics, which I've just never got around to reading, but which I'm kind of interested to read. I hear Jo Walton's most recent book is a boarding-school book; is it any good? I'll probably pick up the later books in the Ally Carter series as well to see if it gets better -- seems like there are some external plots in the later ones.


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