Sunday, July 16, 2017

Easy Ways to Reduce Trash and Energy Use

  1. Trade paper napkins for cloth

Get your cloth napkins that only get used on Thanksgiving and Christmas out!  Or if you really want to preserve your fancy ones for special occasions, there are tons of inexpensive ones on Amazon.  Or maybe you have some unused tablecloths that you could cut up. (I do, tell me if I should send you one.)  Or you could find some at Goodwill, or a garage sale.  Yeah, you have to wash them, but aren’t you doing the laundry anyway?Here’s a picture of mine.  I’m particularly fond of the chili pepper ones.  (I admit I did a bad job of hemming some of these.  My mom is looking at this picture and saying “Doggone it, I taught her better than that!”)

2) Reduce use of paper towels
I had a whole drawer full of dish rags that hardly ever got used.  It’s not hard to reach for one of them to wipe the counters or clean up a spill.  I also cut up some raggedy old towels to make some rags just for cleaning.  Or again, lots of cheap cloth towels on Amazon.  
3) Make sure you’re recycling everything that you can.
It’s easy to overlook things that can be recycled - some of the ones that I tend to forget are toilet paper rolls and toothpaste tubes.  Look for information about what materials are accepted by your city recycling service (if you live in a city that picks up recycling along with trash).  Olathe’s list is here: Johnson County Recycles is also a great local resource.
Plastic shopping bags, bread sacks, and produce bags can all be recycled in the bins for shopping bags grocery stores.  Just start a ‘bag of bags” in a corner of your kitchen and haul them to the store with you once a month or so.  Here’s a picture of my little recycling center in a corner of my pantry.  The blue bin is for glass (to take to RippleGlass), then my bag of bags, then a basket for dirty cloth napkins, dish rags, and dish towels.  The big garbage can for cardboard, metal and plastic is right behind me.)

4) Stop using plastic baggies as much as you can.
Using reusable shopping bags has become pretty common (and you can recycle plastic shopping bags when you do get them), but what about other kinds of plastic bags?  I’ve been using mesh produce bags when I go grocery shopping, instead of the plastic produce bags available at the grocery store.  I admit I was a little apprehensive the first time I approached a cashier with my mesh bags,  but I’ve done it several times now and no one’s batted an eye.  And you can trade out Ziploc bags and sandwich baggies for reusable containers.  (The one that you do use can be washed out and reused many times, and recycled with your other plastic bags too, if you just rip the zip-top off.)
5) Don’t take straws or lids for drinks in restaurants.
If you’re not taking a to-go cup with you, why do you need a lid?  If you are taking a refill with you, pour it in your water bottle.
6) Use reusable cups for coffee, and water bottles instead of buying bottled drinks.
I know Starbucks will gladly make your coffee in a travel mug - they actually have a corporate goal to serve more drinks in reusable cups.  I have to think the other coffee chains will too. 
7) Line-dry your clothes.
String a clothesline, or use a drying rack (this is the one we use).  You save money on your electric bill and your clothes don’t shrink.  
8) Replace your incandescent lightbulbs for LED bulbs.
I know LED bulbs cost more than other types, but they use a fraction of the electricity of incandescents.  We bought two LED bulbs a month until we had replaced all the bulbs that get used regularly in our house.
9) Install a programmable thermostat
If your house is empty during the day, turn the A/C or heat (depending on the season) down when you leave every morning.  And turn the heat down at night during the winter, when you’re all snuggled up in bed anyway.
10) Compost your food scraps and yard waste.
Ok, I know I promised this would be a list of easy things, and this one does take a little bit of work, and maybe a little money to get started.  But it’s really worth it!  There are many websites and books that go over all the ways to get started composting, what to put in your bin and what not to put in your bin, how to harvest your finished compost, etc.  So I’m not going to recreate all their good work here.  Or I’ll gladly talk to you about how I do it, if you want.  I’ve been composting in a tumbler bin I bought online since January (I am that pigheaded woman who decided to start composting in the middle of winter) and I’m looking forward to having black gold to add to my garden next spring.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Best Stuff I Read in 2014

I know I've committed the cardinal sin of blogging by not having any new posts for the last nine months.  I apologize most abjectly.  I was too busy reading numerous excellent books, some of which I shall share with you below.  (Same disclaimer as last year: these are the best books I read in 2014, but they weren't necessarily published in 2014.) 

(1) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

This dystopian time-travel yarn weaves three storylines together.  In one, after Earth has been ravaged by a series of ecological disasters, a handful of children and adults are saved by a race of kindly aliens, who build the Shell for them to live in while the Earth recovers.  The Shell is a sealed, sterile environment that the aliens endowed with the bare necessities for human survival, and a device that lets one person at a time travel into the past to collect supplies.  Since there are only a dozen or so people in the Shell—not nearly enough for a breeding population—one of the supplies that the time travelers try to collect is, to put it baldly, children.   

The second storyline is set in the present day, and describes the efforts of an FBI consultant who is developing an algorithm to predict the next in a series of unexplained kidnappings.  When her algorithm starts to work, she starts on a collision course with the time travelers (who, you may have figured out, are the perpetrators of said kidnappings).

The third storyline is that of the Earth itself and the changes the planet undergoes.  I can't write too much about this one without major spoilers. 

This story stuck with me for a long time after reading it.  The emotions are convincing and the characters are realistic.  The point-of-view the first storyline is told from is hard to read - he's a teenage boy who's lived his entire life circumscribed by the Shell, the few people living in it, and their needs for survival. Unsurprisingly, he has some anger issues and a limited understanding of normal relationships.  Being a mom of a young child myself, the kidnappings are fraught with anxiety and ambiguity for me.  Reading them was a weird mix of "Go go go!  Humanity has to survive!" and "GET YOUR HANDS OFF THAT CHILD YOU MONSTER!"  But isn’t that a mark of good storytelling, when you’re uncomfortable reading a book but still unwilling to put it down?  Overall, it's a quick but interesting and satisfying read.

I should mention that After The Fall won Nancy Kress a Nebula award.  

(2) Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton

This is an easy book to summarize:  take a Jane Austen novel and replace all the characters with dragons.  And I mean real dragons, who fly and breathe fire and rip their prey apart with bloody abandon— these dragons haven't been given the “sparkly vampire” treatment.  But at the same time, they’re civilized dragons with a complex social and political structure.  In the same way that many type of human success are measured in wealth, in this dragon society success is measured in length—that is, how many feet long a dragon has grown from nose to tail tip.  And the only way for dragons to grow is to eat other dragons usually after dying of natural causes.  (Note the “usually” there and recall I said these are real dragons.) 

This story starts with the death of the dragon Bon Agornin, and how his body is divided up among his children for consumption.  There's one son in the clergy, one who works in the city, a married daughter, and in the tradition of all Victorian novels, two younger daughters who need to make successful matches of their own.  Agornin's son-in-law, who is really quite unpleasant, takes more than his share of the body on some pretext, which of course then lessens the other children's shares and subsequent social and career prospects.

If you like the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, I think you'll enjoy this book.  If (like me) you've loved the idea of dragons since reading Bilbo match wits with Smaug at a tender age, I know you'll like this book.  

 (3) The Crane Wife, Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife is a retelling of the Japanese folktale about an injured crane who, when helped by a human, repays that help by becoming human and weaving her own feathers into beautiful cloth to sell. In Patrick Ness's version, George Duncan discovers a great white crane in the backyard of his house in London.  He takes the arrow out of the crane's wing and watches her fly away.  The next day, George's rather humdrum life is turned upside down by the entrance of the mysterious Kumiko into his print shop. The story of George and Kumiko's developing relationship is cut with bits of a fable about the Destroyer and the Forgiver, that try to illustrate bigger truths about the nature of relationships.  Or maybe about the dual sides of everyone's own psyche - to be 100 percent honest, I'm not sure I quite grasped the allegory of this book.  But I enjoyed trying to figure it out. 

 (Disclaimer: Googling to find a cover image for this book, I've discovered some rather mediocre reviews of it. Hmmm, guess not everybody liked it.  You'll have to decide for yourselves.)

(4) A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty

This is the first book in a series called the Colors of Madeline.   It tells a story of two worlds; the real Cambridge, England, and the imaginary kingdom of Cello.  In Cambridge, the main character is Madeline Tully; in Cello, it’s Elliot Baranski.  Both Madeline and Elliot have missing fathers, Madeline because her mother left her husband, and Elliot because his father is believed to have run off with another woman.  (Whether or not he really did is a bit of a mystery.)  Madeline and Elliot start history’s longest-distance penpal relationship, trading letters through a crack in reality.   They’re both likable characters (Elliot a little more so than Madeline); basically good kids, trying to negotiate the perils of adolescence and their feelings about their broken families.

What made this book stand out to me was Cello; it’s a charming little fantasy land, full of details that give it life and character.  Cello’s political issues are sketched out in a series of newspaper dispatches written by the kingdom’s two rather silly princesses, who are on a tour of the region.  The color storms are an original idea; storms of certain colors can cause everyone in the area to feel a specific emotion intensely.  Red causes people to be angry, for instance, which as you can imagine, is a bit dangerous.  Elliot believes that his father was abducted by a rogue Purple, rather than running off as everyone else believes (it’s never quite explained what a rogue Purple actually looks like).  The people of Cello are fairly realistic characters, with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults (not often found in fantasy, which I admit can tend toward black and white thinking).  It’s a fun, easy read and I’m looking forward to the publication of the next book in the series.

(5) The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

The start of a new series by the excellent Brandon Sanderson, The Rithmatist is the story of Joel and his thwarted desire to be a Rithmatist, a magician who can draw chalk pictures and make them come to life.  Joel is the son of the now-deceased chalk-maker at Armedius Academy; he and his mom are allowed to continue living at the school on a kind of sufferance, and Joel is allowed to attend classes with the Rithmantic students.  More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist and defend the American Isles from the wild Chalkings on the frontier in Nebrask.  He knows everything there is to know about Rithmancy, and would be one of the best….if he only had the inborn talent that would let him do the magic.  Alas, there’s not a hint of it in him.

One day, students at Armedius start disappearing, and through series of coincidences that persist despite all the adults’ efforts to keep him out of it, Joel is drawn into the investigations.  He forms a friendship with Melody, another Rithmantic student who has the talent Joel lacks, but zero desire to do anything with it.  As you might guess, they form an unlikely team and mysterious events ensue.

I know what you’d say to me at this point:  “Hedgie, this is clearly derivative of every other YA quest story ever published!  Can you say ‘riff on Harry Potter?’” And my answer would be: “Yup!  Who cares?  It’s still a good story; it has some original, clever details and an engaging mystery; and you’ll have fun reading it.” 

Also, let me digress a bit on the subject of Brandon Sanderson.  His big talent, the thing that I think makes him stand out in the field of current fantasy writers, is that he comes up with these fantastic systems of magic.  I’ve read probably a dozen or so of his novels, and in only of those did I find the magic to be a bit weak (Warbreaker; it’s still a good read even with this fault).  If you like your irrational, impossible magic to operate by clearly defined rules (like me), hop over to Brandon and poke around his bibliography.  And then come back here and finish reading!

(6) Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

There are two authors I’ll admit to being a fangirl of:  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (naturally) and Jasper Fforde.  Fforde’s most popular series, about Thursday Next, has so many things to love: time travel, characters from Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, absurdly complex plots, villians so evil not even their own mothers could love them.  They’re books for people who love books; go find The Eyre Affair to start the series.   I’ll be waiting here when you come back to thank me.

But here I’m supposed to be talking about Mr. Fforde’s new series, which starts with Shades of Grey.  (Please do not confuse this with that horrible slice of misogyny Fifty Shades of Grey; they’re not the same thing at all.)  In Chromatacia, social order is defined by how high you can see on the color spectrum.  Red is outclassed by yellow, followed by green, blue, and purple.  Those unfortunate souls who can see only shades of grey are at the bottom, as sort of an untouchables class.  Everyone in Chromatacia knows that there was some terrible event in the recent past that caused people to have limited color vision and that resulted in the current extremely regimented social order and authoritarian government.  But nobody seems to know what actually happened.  In Shades of Grey, Eddie Russet is hoping to start his career in the Color Control Agency.  Eddie’s first mission is a courier job to the remote village of High Saffron.  Little does Eddie know, he’s embarking not only on a journey, but on an investigation into the aforementioned mysterious event, and possible government conspiracy and cover-up.  Oh, and he meets an Interesting But Unsuitable Girl along the way. 

I’m waiting impatiently for the next book in the series, Painting by Numbers, to be published.  (June 2016?!?  I’ll never make it.)

(7) The Curiosity, by Stephen Kiernan

Fans of the TV show Sleepy Hollow would enjoy this book; it starts from a similar, albeit less mystical, premise.  Judge Jeremiah Rice has been frozen in the Artic shelf ice since 1906, until Dr. Kate Philo and her team carve him out of a glacier.  It happens that Dr. Philo is in the Artic looking for samples of flash-frozen small sea life; she’s part of a research team developing cryogenics techniques.  Dr. Philo takes Jeremiah back to their lab and revives him (of course).  I know the science here is probably a little dubious; just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story, ok?  Inevitable questions about the ethics of using humans as research subjects and claims of scientific hoaxing rise as Jeremiah’s fame grows.

There are a lot of things to like about this book.  I like that one of the two main characters is a successful female scientist, and that she takes her career seriously – she doesn’t immediately sacrifice her reputation or scientific ethics for the chance at fame or love.  I like the ethical questions that come up – when someone’s life is saved by experimental science, what is that person’s obligation back to the science that saved them?  At what point does research become exploitation?  But the thing I like best about this book is Jeremiah.  He’s a realistically drawn gentleman of the early 20th century (at least he is to me; I admit I don’t have first-hand knowledge).  There are just enough humorous, fish-out-of-water moments as he encounters the wonders of the 21rst century to be pleasant.  And that element isn’t overdone; he’s able to grasp that computers and cell phones are applications of the same science that people were working out in his own time, not magic.   (I always find it insulting to the people who came before us when time travel stories make them out to be cretinous rubes.)  The primary story, about Jeremiah’s revival and what happens to him, is interesting and well-paced.  The secondary story, about the gentle romance between Jeremiah and Kate, is also really well done.  The author doesn’t dismiss the fact that while Jeremiah’s wife has been gone for decades, from Jeremiah’s perspective he just left her on the docks a few weeks ago.  The Curiosity is part The Time Traveler’s Wife and part Jurassic Park (or maybe Encino Man is a closer parallel), and wholly enjoyable.  

(8) N0S4A2, by Joe Hill

I don’t usually read horror novels; I’m as surprised as anybody that N0S4A2 is in this list. At the beginning of the story, Victoria (Vic) McQueen is a young girl – maybe 10 or 12—who’s just discovered she has an unusual ability.  She can find missing things by riding her bicycle to a rickety covered bridge, and when she crosses that bridge she ends up where the missing thing is.  Of course, for the rest of the world the bridge was torn down years ago.  Obviously, riding a bicycle across a nonexistent bridge to magically find missing things is not a thing that normal, sane people can do.  And dealing with her unusual talent takes a toll on Vic and her family, finally tearing her parents apart and landing Vic in a mental health facility as a teenager.

The villain of the piece is Charles Talent Manx, a kind of vampiric creature who can transport children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith to Christmasland, where he absorbs their youth or life or whatever you want to call it to keep himself eternally alive.  Manx is definitely a Thing That Should Not Be; allow me to give you this mental image:  fishhook teeth.  Shudder.  Anyway, Manx and Vic clash on one of her trips across the bridge.  Being the butt-kicking kind of lady she is, Vic manages to take Manx out, putting him in a kind of coma for a decade or so.  She goes on to live an unhappy sort of life, partnering up with a good man called Lou and having a son with him, whose name I’m sorry to tell you I cannot remember.  But the kid is right in Manx’s age range when the story picks up again, and of course he manages to come back from the dead and target Vic’s son.

I think the thing I love about this book is Vic – she’s so broken but at the same time, so brave and determined to do what’s right.  Despite her faults and weaknesses, Vic is nobody’s victim; she’s determined to be a good mom and as good a partner to Lou as she can.  At times this was a hard book for me to read – I sometimes have to put books down if the plots feature children in danger.  (I read big chunks of this one with “It’s only a story, it’s only a story” on an endless loop in my head.)  But it’s a fast-paced read (hard to achieve with over 700 pages) and obviously I found it compelling enough to finish.  If you’re in the mood for a scary story, screw up your courage and give N0S4A2 a try.

(9) The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has lived all of her 18 years in a cottage in the forest, with just her two foster parents for company.  Until the day some royal guards arrive, saying it’s time for her to go be Queen of the Tearling.  Kelsea knew this day would come eventually; she wears an enormous sapphire pendant that marks her as the heir, and has received a royal education from her foster mother. Kelsea did not know that she would also be stepping into a mystery surrounding her mother’s life and death, an unsuitable love interest, threats from the conquering kingdom next door, and assassination attempts.

This is an excellent, classic coming of age/quest story.  The best thing about it, I think, is Kelsea herself.  Despite her uncertainties and inexperience, she has a natural gift for leadership.  It’s interesting to read her internal thoughts and worries about what the hell she’s gotten herself into, and then watch that talent lead her through various events.  Another thing I love about Kelsea is that she’s plain.  And I don’t mean “I think I’m plain because I have no self-confidence but really I’m GOOOORGEOUS” (I’m looking at you, Bella Swan).  She’s too tall and too broad to fit the usual parameters of femininity; her eyes and hair are of average brown, neither sultry or sleek; she has no cheekbones to speak of.  And naturally, she’s kind of insecure about her plainness; Kelsea wishes she were beautiful and worries about who is going to be interested in a girl who looks she does.  It was a refreshing change of pace from the parade of beautiful, sloe-eyed, slender waifs that populate a lot of fantasy worlds.  Kelsea is an ordinary girl, doing extraordinary things by dint of wits and courage.  And I like that.

10) The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

The absolute BEST thing I read in 2014 was the fabulous Catherynne Valente’s first Orphan Tales book.  For those of us who remember the vocabulary from high school lit class, it’s a frame tale, a story within which the characters tell their own stories.  Think The Canterbury Tales, or Hyperion by Dan Simmons for a 20th century example.  (Hyperion is one of the best books I’ve read that I totally didn’t get, at all.  You guys go read it too and come back and explain to me, ok?)  Anyway, in this garden outside the Sultan’s palace there’s an orphan girl.  She has to live to live out in the garden, because the people who live in the palace think she’s a demon.  They think she’s a demon because she has thousands of tiny words tattooed on her eyelids; nobody knows how they got there.  One night the Sultan’s heir dares to come out the garden and start talking with the orphan girl.  They strike up an unlikely friendship and she starts telling him the stories tattooed on her eyes, which are, of course, the stories that make up the bulk of the book.

The sheer number and originality of the stories in this book are stunning.  (I’m currently reading the sequel and it rises to the same level.)  There are some completely original elements – dog monks, the Leucrotta (I’m still not sure what it is), the Papess, living Stars as incarnated demigods.  And there are some familiar elements – witches, princesses, sea monsters and their ilk- but done in original ways.  As you read farther in the book, you start to realize that the stories are interwoven – character A from this story is character B from the next, but recognized from another perspective.  I wanted to draw an organizational chart to illustrate the relationships among the stories, but restrained myself.  (I Must!  Keep!  Nerdiness!  To-A-Minimum!)  Valente has created a complex, complete mythology, with a definite style and atmosphere of it’s own.  It’s as distinct and recognizable as say, the Wheel of Time universe, or Middle Earth.  There appear to be only two books in this series, which is a pity; I could keep reading them forever.  

Go forth and read, my friends.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I put this book on my holds list at the library with great reluctance.  It was immensely popular, and I usually hate immensely popular books.  They make me sad for America – this is what we think is great literature these days, guys? Sparkly control-freak vampires and neurotic pseudo-intellectuals?  Candy-fluff romance?  Eeeeew.  And at first blush, this sounded like chick-lit to me...unhappy  wife, rough spot in the marriage.  Blah blah blah.  But Gone Girl actually deserves its hype.

On the morning of their anniversary, Nick Dunne comes home from work to find his wife, Amy, has disappeared.  There are signs of a struggle in their home, but no ransom note, no clues to a kidnapper, are forthcoming.  As the days pass, the police’s suspcions come to rest more and more squarely on Nick.  The book slowly unravels from a whodunit, to a whatisit, ending in a whoa-wait-what?  Told from Amy and Nick’s alternating perspectives, the reader slowly becomes aware that both of them have unexpected secrets and motives for the events set in train that anniversary morning.  It’s engaging, original, and has a couple of deliciously horrifying twists. 

Stop reading here if you don’t want to know any further details of the plot.  Come back and read the rest of this post after you finish the book if you want to know more about what I thought.  Seriously, spoilers ahead.  STOP NOW!


Still with me?    Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The thing I liked best about this book was how you didn’t know who was telling the truth for half the book.  You start off with Nick’s perspective on discovering the disappearance and the disorder in the house, but you feel like he’s not quite telling you everything he knows.  He definitely doesn’t confess to being guilty of whatever happened to his wife; but he does paint himself as a basically decent guy, and Amy as shrewish, controlling woman.   Then you start getting Amy’s perspective through her past diary entries.  And she tells the opposite story; she’s the one who’s trying to make their marriage work in a difficult situation, but Nick becomes increasingly distant and hateful, to the point that she’s afraid for her safety with him.   So for the first half of the book, you’re reading along and thinking “Which one of them do I believe?”  Then you get to the second half of the book and all becomes clear.   The intricacy of the plot revealed in this second half of the book is pretty amazing; I couldn’t have come up with it in fifty years of trying.

Another thing I really liked about this book was the sheer evilness of the villain, when s/he was revealed.  (I’m about to give away something big; stop reading here if you don’t want to know.) I read a post on Gillian Flynn’s website about one of her earlier novels, in which she explained how keenly she felt the lack of really intrinsically evil females in literature, who aren't bad because they were jilted and out for revenge, or because daddy didn't love them enough, or what have you.  She wanted to write about women who were bad just because they were bad, like Hannibal Lector or Nurse Ratchet or...or...Emperor Palpatine, for Pete's sake. I haven't read Gillian's other novels (although they are on my list), but I have to say that in the case of Gone Girl, she succeeded.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness


Patrick Ness is a fairly recently discovered author for me, and he's fast becoming one of my favorite YA writers.  His Chaos Walking series, including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, and Monsters of Men, is one of the best YA science fiction trilogies I've read in quite a while.  And I say that only have read the first two (I'm impatiently awaiting the arrival of the third title in my holds list at the local library).

All three books are set on New World (which is relatively Earth-like, but definitely not Earth).  The story begins in the small village of Prentisstown, where inexplicably, there are no women, and all the surviving men have been cursed with telepathy.  They can all hear each other's thoughts, all the time, involuntarily.  You can't hide your own thoughts, and you can't keep from hearing other men's thoughts.  They call the resulting omnipresent buzz of thought "Noise."

The main character is a young man called Todd Hewitt, who is about to turn fourteen and thus become an adult in the eyes of his society.  In fact, Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown, because of the aforementioned lack of women.  A traumatic turn of events forces Todd to flee the town with only his dog.  As he journeys away from everything he knows, he encounters two beings:  an alien, and a girl.

When Todd meets the alien, we learn that the cause of the Noise among men was a virus released by the native dominant species of New World (called the Spackle by the human settlers because of their characteristic vocalization).  We hear the old, old story - humans arrive in a new place, discover that place is already claimed by others, and set about taking over the place by violence.  The humans won the war, but the Noise virus was the Spackles' last great attempt at fighting back.  Telepathy is the Spackles' normal method of communication, by the way; their ability to vocalize sounds is limited.

When Todd meets the girl (Viola), he realizes that she is the first of the second wave of settlers heading to New World.  Viola and her family were in a scout ship coming ahead of the main body of settlers, but their ship crashed, killig everyone aboard except Viola.  Viola and Todd set off toghether to find Haven, a semi-mythological paradise town, Todd in hopes of finding a new home, and Viola in hopes of warning the oncoming colonization ships of the situation on New World.  They are pursued by the Mayor of Prentisstown, who quickly develops into a complex and well-realized villain.  The Mayor wants Todd to see him as a father figure, but Todd hates him for his misdeeds during the Spackle War.  Viola eventually finds her own nemesis, Mistress Coyle, who opposed the Mayor during the Spackle War and does again during the present conflict.

And conflict there is, in spades.  The Mayor is no longer satisfied with Prentisstown; he wants to be President of New World, and he's starting the takeover with the town of Haven.  The people of Haven, of course, are having none of that; they're familiar with the Mayor's action during the Spackle war and quickly set up resistance to his occupying army.

There's a lot more to the story here that's I"m trying not to give away.  Instead, let me talk about some of the things I think make these books so great.  First, they deal with really hard questions.  When is it justified to kill in defense of yourself or your own?  When does defense become aggression?  How far would you be willing to go to depose an evil leader?  These are questions that adults wrestle with, and I really like the way Ness presents them to his audience.  The situation - in the far future, on a different planet - is just removed enough pre-teens and teens might be able to consider it dispassionately; but on the other hand, the characters are easy to relate to, allowing readers to put themselves in Todd and Viola's shoes.

The second thing I really like about these books is the relationship that develops between Todd and Viola.  They have the beginning of a shy, gawky, devoted love for each other.  And it's actual love - concern for the other's well being, putting your partner's needs above your own - not the instant attraction "oooh, he's handsome let's fall in bed" reaction that so many love stories default to these days.  And, call me a prude, I like that I'm 2/3s done with the series and there are no signs of their relationship turning physical.  Todd and Viola actually take time to get to know each other and be sure of their feelings and their future.  Trust me on this - I'm a veteran of 15 years of love and 11 years of marriage built on just such a start. 

The only caveat I'll offer here is that these are YA books.  Personally, that doesn't turn me off; a good story is a good story, regardless of the exact audience the publisher aimed it at.  But I can see how some adult readers would be turned off by the YA label.  Also, I know that reading a dialect turns some people off - think Huck Finn.  I thought the dialect Ness invented was well done - it fit the people who were supposed to speak it, if you ask me - but there it is.

I've just picked up third book in the trilogy as I finished composing this post and am devouring it at great speed.  I'll post an update if the ending is a stinker, but I don't think it will me. 

P.S.  While I'm on the subject of Patrick Ness, let me also drop a recommendation for his When A Monster Calls.   It's Ness's vision of an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died from cancer before she could write it.  Dark, funny, painful, and devastatingly accurate; anyone who has lost a loved one to a lingering illness would recognize themselves in this book.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The 10 Best Things I Read in 2013

I thought I'd close out the year with a list of the ten best books I read in 2013.  Note that these are books I read in 2013, not books that were published in 2013.  Also, look, I learned to post images!

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son, Jack, who have been trapped in one small room his entire life.  It's told from Jack's point of view, and it's the best job of an author authentically impersonating a child's voice I've ever encountered.  Room is a harrowing read at times - Jack is in moderate danger at one point - but well worth it.  It's an authentic, original, and engaging story.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Ah, science fiction! My first love.  If you're interested in reading Wool, look for an omnibus edition - it's split into several parts that would be tedious to have to track down separately.  It's a post-apocalyptic tale of a siloed society - literally.  Everyone in the world lives in an underground silo, because the environment outside the silo has become too toxic for human life.  They grow their own food, pump and refine their own oil at the base of the silo (their power source), and manufacture everything they need.  And this society has existed for at least a few hundred years.  As you can imagine, the silo is starting to break down.  Wool is about what happens when people start to question whether they really can't go outside.  I'm reminding myself in the course of writing this to put the two sequels, Shift and Dust, on my to-be-read list. 

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski 

House of Leaves is one the strangest books I've ever read; I couldn't put it down.  I actually first encountered it about 12 years ago - my now-brother-in-law was enthusiastically recommending it.  I flipped through it, noted the weird page layouts, page-long footnotes, and variously colored text, and put it aside.  If only I had read it then!  In part it's the story of a man who discovered a physically impossible room in his house - a door appeared one day in an external wall, leading into a cavernous space that didn't exist from the outside of the house.  And in part it's the story of a possibly crazy old man who documented the story of the man with the crazy house.  And in part, it's the story of the young man who is going through the effects of the old man (who dies near the beginning of the book) discovering the story of how the old man discovered the story of the impossible room.  The young man is definitely crazy by the end of the book - perhaps driven to that state by his examination of the documents.  Parts of it are nigh-unreadable - the old man's story is dense with academic and philosophical discussions.  I'll tell you a secret - I skipped those parts.  You don't need them for this to still be a compelling story.  It was also interesting to me because, like an medieval illuminated manuscript, the text itself and the layout of the pages helps to tell the story.  The last thing I'll say about House of Leaves is that it's the best kind of horror story - you never see the monster, and nothing is ever really explained.

Mirror Kingdoms, by Peter S. Beagle

Mirror Kingdoms is a collection of the best short fiction of Peter S. Beagle.  I'm sad to say that I never read anything of Beagle's prior to this, although his best-known work, The Last Unicorn, has been on my to-be-read list forever.  (I know, I know, how dare I call myself an SF&F fan having never read Beagle?  Send an angry mob with feathers and tar.)  The stories cover a range of subjects, genres, characters, and perspectives; the only thing they all have in common is that I loved them.  (Particularly "Lila and the Werewolf.")  Don't make the same mistake I did (and am frantically rectifying) by missing out on this fantastic author.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

So, in general, I don't like post-modernist novels.  They're typically overwrought and not as clever as the authors think they are.  Cloud Atlas actually lives up to it's hype.  It consists of six different loosely connected narratives, ranging from a tale of adventure on the 19th century Pacific, to a far-future technocracy in which cloned slaves are the moral issue of the day, to a post-apocalytic Hawaii where the natives have reverted to their folkways after the demise of advanced, technological society.  You get the first half of five stories first (sometimes stopping in the middle of a sentence to switch narratives), then the whole of the sixth story, and then the second half of the first five stories.  I won't say anything about the ways in which the stories are linked, because I think recognizing the connections and parallels is part of what made this book so enjoyable.  Two warnings:  the dialect of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiians is atrocious.  Just do your best to get through it.  Second, the abrupt switch in narrative is jarring the first couple of times; contain your confusion and just keep reading.  All will be made clear and delightful.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans

I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I approached it with some indifference; what could it have to tell me, a life-long churchgoer with 20 years of Sunday School and bible studies under my belt, about what the bible says makes a good woman?  And, as I thought, there wasn't anything surprising about the parts of the Bible that Rachel used to conduct her experiment.  Rather, it was her reaction to and thoughts about how those rules could and should be applied in modern life that were interesting.  I liked how she corresponded with faithful women of other traditions, and how she described certain (often overlooked) Biblical heroines.  Rachel had a thoughtful, balanced approach to interpreting the "rules" that the more extreme Christian sects insist on applying literally.  On top of that foundation, she adds her humor, including some  funny glimpses of her relationship with her husband, who was not all comfortable with his role as "lord and master" in Rachel's experiment.  It's an interesting and worthwhile read, even for those of us who thought we had already heard everything there is to say about being a Christian woman.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloane 

This book is what would happen if Dan Brown decided to write one of his thrillers set, not in Europe, but in Silicon Valley, and to incorporate lots of 21rst century technology.  (Oh, and miraculously develop talent, cause Brown's kind of a hack if you ask me.)  Mr. Penumbra tells the story of a down-on-his-luck web designer, who happens into a job clerking at a small, independent San Francisco bookstore (the eponymous Mr. Penumbra's).   But all is not what it seems to be; the store only has a few regular clients and they never buy anything.  Rather, they borrow thick texts of unintelligible gibberish.  "Why?" you may ask.  You'll have to read this delightful combination of 100-year old mystery (complete with a secret society!), timeless romance (just a little of that),  and usage of spanking new (literarily speaking) technology to find out.  Bonus: you get a fascinating look at the inner workings of Google (the company, not the search engine) as well as a mini-lecture on Renaissance printing technology.  It's a fun, easy, fast-paced read.  My one complaint is that I'm not sure that the method by which the mystery is ultimately solved really works out...but you'll have to decide that for yourselves.

 Unveiled: The Secret Lives of Nuns, by Cheryl L. Reed 

This is the one book on this list that I picked simply because it contained so much interesting information I did not previously know.  For instance, did you know that not all nuns wear habits anymore?  Did you know that not all nuns take life-long vows?  That the proper term for a community of nuns, or the building where they live, is a monastery, not a convent?  That some orders of nuns still practice flagellation (beating themselves) in expiation of the sins of others?  That still other orders of nuns practice perpetual adoration of the Eucharist (that is, 24-7-365, someone is praying before a Communion wafer)?  Those last two really boggled this Protestant girl's mind.  This book is chock-full of factual information such as I've described above, plus thoughtful discussions of what nuns are and should be, and interviews with sisters about what they do, why they do it, their relationships with each other and with Catholic church authority, why they became nuns...on and on and on.  It was fascinating.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

The Speed of Dark is told from the perspective of an autistic man, Lou, in a near-future society where autistic people have become a large enough fraction of the population that social structures have been put in place to support them.  (I mean, much better and more effective social structures than we have in place to assist disabled people now.)  New techniques for correcting the cause of autism in utero have been developed, which means that there are no more autistic people being born.  Lou is of the last generation born before those techniques became widely available.  Lou lives independently in his own apartment; drives a car; has a small circle of autistic and non-autistic friends; and supports himself by working at a job that his autism makes him uniquely talented for.  Told from Lou's perspective, the story explores how autistic people see themselves, how society sees them, and the resentment that some "normal" people have toward any accommodations made for those different from themselves, and which group of people are really handicapped by their ways of thinking.  An experimental procedure has been developed that might - might - cure autism in adults; and Lou's boss is considering forcing his autistic employees to take it or be fired.  Following Lou's thoughts about the cure is fascinating - he goes from "Can I really be forced to take this cure?"  (he can't, not legally), to "Why should I take this cure?  Autism is part of who I am." to "Maybe I should do it after all?"  This brilliantly written book gave me a lot of insight into autism and autistic people.  And I believe Elizabeth Moon has an autistic child, so I'm inclined to view her as an authoritative source.  An excellent, thought-provoking read.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The final book on my list is the third in the Gentlemen Bastards series.  If you are a fan of swashbuckling high fantasy, I'm telling you - go get them all, right now.  They're set in a elegantly realized, complex world that reminds me of medieval Italy - little persnickety city-states that are constantly sniping at and trying to one-up each other - with just enough fantastical details thrown in to satisfy the reader.  Magic works, but it's not overused; and additionally there's real magic and then there's alchemy (which is kind of like chemistry, but less logical).  There's also a long ago race - the Eldren - who left behind amazing structures of unbreakable Elderglass; but where they went and why they left is a total mystery.  (I think the author is finally winding the story around to telling us more about the Eldren in the fourth book, which I really cannot wait to read one minute more.)  Beside the setting, these stories are peopled by wonderful rogues with hearts of gold and clever tongues.  Please read these complex, original, inventive, entertaining books, so that Scott Lynch keeps writing more of them!

That's it!  I hope something in my list caught your eye.  Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Black Jewels Trilogy, by Anne Bishop

The Black Jewels Trilogy – Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, and Queen of the Darkness – is actually the work that gave me the idea to write this blog, many moons ago.  (It took me about five years to actually do something about creating this blog – yup, I’m slow.)  And the thing I want to talk about regarding the Black Jewels books is what I’m going to call unrealized potential.

First, a little background.  The books are dark fantasy (definitely not for kids and also not for a lot of adults).  They're set in the universe of the Blood – a subset of people who are able to use magic.  Each of the Blood’s strength in using magic is determined by the color of the Jewel they wear, from White, the weakest, to Black, the strongest.  The Jewels serve as a reservoir of power that their owners can draw on.  The Blood are also able do magic independently of their Jewels – stuff like communicating mind-to-mind and “vanishing” objects into some kind of personal pocket universe for handy storage.  The Blood are a female-dominant society – women are heads of their families, and their government is series of territorial courts that are each ruled by a Queen.  There are three castes into which each gender falls – Warlords, Princes, and Warlord-Princes for men, and Queens, Black Widows, and Priestesses for women.  When a Queen wears Black Jewels, she may become the ruler of all the Blood.  All the Blood, regardless of gender, are incredibly temperamental; they always seem to be riding a razor edge between fairly normal and insane killing rage (more on that in a minute). There's a lot more interesting details to the world of the Blood - the kindred, the three Realms, the dragons - that I won't get into here because to do them justice would require several paragraphs.

So anyway, the trilogy (and the books that follow it) tells the story of Janelle, who is the only person in the history of the Blood to wear Black Jewels as a child; and Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar SaDiablo, all Warlord Princes who wear, respectively, Black, Black, and Ebon-gray Jewels.  Saetan and Daemon are the only men ever to wear Black Jewels; the three of them are the most powerful living men in their society.  In Jaenelle’s time, the Blood have been infected by a creeping social taint that is turning their normal gender relations, and the checks and balances that keep this powerful and temperamental race from destroying themselves, upside down.  Men are willing to subvert and dominate the normally more-powerful women by any means necessary, and women are willing to use any available method to protect themselves from these predatory men.  Trust between the sexes is gone, and the social and moral contract that they live by is rapidly decaying into anarchy.  Janelle has the power to create change for the better in Blood society; but the problem is that she doesn’t really want it.  She doesn’t want to be Queen or rule a court, but she can’t set her inherent power aside.  Isolated from, feared, and misunderstood by most of her people, Jaenelle’s power is both trap and freedom for her. 

So if I’ve done a good job of describing the premise of this book, and you have a taste for this kind of sweeping fantasy, you’re probably pretty interested in getting your hands on these books.  And you should; they’re worth reading.  (Fair warning – one of them describes sexual abuse of several children. I don’t want to be accused of sending anyone out unprepared.)  But they could be so much better.  Here’s where we come to my complaint about unrealized potential.

In the universe she created for the Blood, Anne Bishop achieved an interesting, layered world with it’s own culture, history, and problems.  She came up with a compelling story idea – an unusual child growing into a woman, desperately wanting love and friendship but set apart by the very qualities the make her special.  And there’s an epic problem to solve – how to save the Blood from themselves.  But the way she went about telling this story is, well...crummy.  She overshot passion by a mile and landed smack in melodrama.

For one thing, everything, EVERYTHING in Janelle’s world is influenced by (1) sex and (2) violence.  Apparently a man can’t say hello to a woman in this world without it being taken as a prelude to rape.  When the Blood’s mind-to-mind communication is described, it’s always in terms of “spear threads” and “distaff threads.”  Guess what the “spear” symbolizes.  You can only read “Saetan sent to Daemon, spear-to-spear, ‘Where is Janelle?  Protect the Lady!’”  so many times.  And Daemon is so incredibly sexy that women will risk their lives for the possibility that he might be willing to hop in bed with them, despite his literally murderous temper.  I don’t care how hot you are, guys, a little nooky isn’t worth getting my head ripped off because you’re feeling cranky.  Sex, sex, sex – that’s what the Blood spend 90% of their time thinking about.  It gets boring, frankly.

For another thing, I’m not impressed by temper tantrums, which seem to be the Bloods’ main method of communication.  There’s a scene in one of books where a group of men who are all connected to Janelle in one way or another are meeting for the first time.  They’re all trying stake their claim on Jaenelle and show that they belong in her inner circle of friends.  One makes some kind of lame, getting-to-know-you joke to another; the second guy’s response is “I’ll accept any challenge a male wants to make!”   (The conversation doesn’t even really make sense.)  The actions and traits that the author seems to want to us to accept as being confident and masculine are the very ones that I would describe as insecure and childish. 

So there’s my summation of the Black Jewels books – great world building, good concept, good characters (in theory), full of potential, but poorly executed.  Jaenelle is one of the few really powerful female characters I know of in the fantasy genre, whose power is inherently her own, not conferred on her by who her father or husband is.  Think of the Rowan, from Anne McCaffrey’s series of the same name, for a sci-fi parallel.  Jaenelle and her story deserved to be written better.  I’d love to see another author – say, Juliet Marillier or Jacqueline Carey – rewrite the Black Jewels trilogy, or write independent stories set in the universe of the Blood.  If only that wasn’t completely impossible because of various copyright laws.  A girl can only dream. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Quick Reviews of Other Books I've Been Reading

The Real Downtown Abbey, by Fiona Carnarvon
      Being a fan of the show Downton Abby, I thought I'd give this book a try.  It's written by the current Countess of Carnarvon; she and her husband own and live in Highclere Castle (the estate that is used to film Downton).  The first third of the book was very interesting, telling the story of the fourth Countess, whose history parallels some of the characters and events in the TV show.  The second third of the book bogged down a bit - the bits about the Countess' involvement in nursing World War I solders were interesting, but much of this section retold the general sweep of the war and was only distantly connected to Highclere.  The last third of the book picked back up, recounting how the fourth Earl worked with Howard Carter to open Tutankhamun's tomb.  Worth reading if you're a Downton watcher, but keep your expectations moderate.

A Tale of Sand, by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.
      I hated this book, not to put too fine a point on it.  It's a graphic novel based on a screenplay that Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrote many years before Jim's death, but it was never picked up for production.  It's an absurdist tale of a man dropped into desert landscape and forced to run for his life for no particular reason.  And the twist at the end is dreadfully predictable.  (It could be that I'm judging this harshly because I've never been able to like surreal, absurdist literature; maybe if that's your cup of tea, you'd like A Tale of Sand.  But it wasn't for me.)

Among Others, by Jo Walton
Among Others tells the story of Welsh teenager Morwenna Phelps, whose twin sister was recently killed under mysterious circumstances and who has been packed off to boarding school.  Morwenna is: (1) left with a permanent limp from the same accident that killed her sister, (2) an avid reader of science fiction, and (3) able to see and talk with fairies.  I enjoyed it a lot, not only for Morwenna's story but also for the myriad references to classic works of SF.  Having been a nerdy girl who loved to read and had easy access to a vast collection of fantasy and SF (my dad's), I could easily identify with Mori.  It's an engaging story and Mori's voice rang very true to teenage life (at least, as far I remember).  The only thing I didn't like about this book was Mori's stereotypical relationships with her parents; her mom was a vague fount of evil and her dad was a distant, absent, only partially involved figure.  "My parents don't love/don't understand me" has only been done a few thousand times.  But overall it's a very enjoyable book, especially for those of us who grew up on Asimov, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Zelazny, and Heinlein.  In fact, there's the test I'll suggest for whether you should read this book; if you're familiar with at least four of those names, read it.