Friday, November 21, 2014

Karma Girl—Jennifer Estep

No woman would come home to find her boyfriend slipping into a neon pink codpiece. (14)
I read this book as part of my participation in the online book club, Vaginal Fantasy. Most of the participation occurs on the Goodreads forum, but there is also a monthly Hangout hosted by the founders of the book club: Felicia Day, Bonnie Burton, Kiala Kazebee, and Veronica Belmont. Although we do read a lot of what could be considered "romance" books, the real idea is to read books with female protagonists, often in the fantasy/supernatural or scifi genres. We read two themed books each month. Anyway, I low-key love the club. It allows me to be introduced to books that I might not otherwise know about (see: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin)—many of which are quick "fluff" books—and to have thoughtful conversations with other readers about those books and their themes.

This one definitely fell more on the fluffy, campy side of the spectrum. Carmen Cole, a reporter, discovers her fiance shtupping her best friend a half an hour before her wedding. And worse (?), she finds out at the same time that they're actually the town's superhero and ubervillain. In a fit of vengeance, Carmen takes pictures of the fiance and best friend in flagrante, and writes an expose on their real identities. Then she embarks on a mission of revealing the real identities of all of the superheroes and ubervillains. Unfortunately, as most revenge missions do, it ends in tragedy: one of the heroes whose identity she reveals kills himself. Distraught, Carmen gives up on her previous mission, until a trio of ubervillains in Bigtime give her no option, demanding she figure out the identity of the leader of their rival superhero gang or be subject to crazy experiments. Antics ensue.

I have mixed feelings about this book, and vacillated between giving it two or three stars on Goodreads. There were a couple of things that I appreciated. I appreciated that it didn't take itself too seriously. It was very clearly trying to be campy and making fun of superhero/comic tropes, like that all of the characters have alliterative names and the towns have names like Beginnings and Bigtime. The characters were sometimes one-dimensional, but in a typically superhero/villain kind of way, so that made sense.

On the other hand, I guessed all of the major plot points in the first 50 pages, with the exception of how precisely Carmen's power would manifest itself when she finally got one. Sometimes because of the campiness it was difficult to tell when things were intentionally awful and when they were just poorly written. Along those lines, there were some poor writing moments, like when Carmen was asked how she was feeling after a fight, and she responded, "tired and sleepy." Those two words mean the same thing...

I'm also not entirely sure that Estep knows the definition of the word "karma;" she alternately used it to mean something like an aura, a conscience, fate. And Carmen hits us over the head with the karma thing, and then after hitting us over the head, throws us to the ground and stomps on our head with her karma heels. We get it! You believe in karma! You don't seem to really understand what it means, but you're obsessed. Message received.

Another irritating thing was that Estep seemed to think that the readers wouldn't be able to keep track of the real life names in relation to superhero names. Once Carmen discovers the identities of the superheroes, whenever she'd mention them again, she'd say "Sam aka Striker Sloan" or "Fiera aka Fiona Fine." This didn't just happen the first time after we found out their identities; it happened almost every time after that. We know who they are. You made their names alliterative; it's kind of hard to forget. I'm generally not a fan of feeling as though I'm being talked down to by an author.

Beyond those relatively minor frustrations, there were some bigger topics that I know have been discussed before with previous books in the Vaginal Fantasy group. They also tend to be larger issues within books with female protagonists in general, and with romance books in particular. The biggest one is the constant threat of rape. Most often I've found this is used to illustrate the strength of the female protagonist—she was the victim of a rape or a rape attempt and she came out the other side just fine; isn't she resilient? Isn't she strong? I'm admittedly a bit sensitive, even oversensitive, when it comes to this particular issue. But especially when used in that manner, as purely a character-building device rather than a purposeful plot point, I find it unnecessary. It seems as though there could be other methods to demonstrate that. It's a rare occasion that you find men in books threatened with rape as a character-building element, or at all. I also understand that women live daily with the fear of sexual assault. That's a very real thing and I wouldn't want it to be completely absent from the books that I read. But it becomes a bit tiring when I read four books in a row, in different genres no less, that all include the female lead being threatened with rape.

This book even went a step further with some victim blaming towards the end. Carmen has received her powers, and rescues a woman in an alley from the same thugs who attacked Carmen earlier. Carmen then says to the woman, "Call the police and report the men. I bet you're not the first woman they've attacked. And don't walk down the street by yourself at night. This neighborhood is dangerous. You're just asking for trouble when you do that." (345, emphasis mine) Lovely.

I did end up giving it two stars rather than three on Goodreads, but I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it, and I might consider reading another title in this series to see if it irritates me less.

Scarlet—Marissa Meyer

The captivity of Carswell Throne had gotten off to a rocky start, what with the catastrophic soap rebellion and all. (30)

Marissa Meyer was on the same GeekGirlCon panel as Jessica Brody, for women authors writing young adult fiction with female protagonists. Meyer is also a local author—she lives in Tacoma! I've read the first book in the Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder, which I loved. Was it slightly predictable? Sure. Was it a fractured fairy tale with a fresh take, namely with a science fiction bent? Definitely. And I know my fractured fairy tales, because I'm a total sucker for them. (I think for me this probably began with my introduction to the musical Wicked, followed by the voracious reading of its novel and everything else Gregory Maguire.)

This second book picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first one, but introduces a new fairy tale character and her story: Red Riding Hood. Or Scarlet, as she's known in this version. We are introduced to her, and then switch back and forth between Scarlet's point of view, and Cinder's point of view following her imprisonment at the end of the first book, with just a soupcon of chapters from Emperor Kai's viewpoint. It turns out that Scarlet's grandmother, Michelle Benoit, is the Earthen person who hid Cinder (a.k.a. Princess Selene) when she was first brought to Earth after being horrifically injured on Luna. Now Cinder is on her way to France to talk with Michelle about that time of her life that she doesn't remember. In the meantime, Scarlet is looking for her grandmother, who has gone missing and who Scarlet finds out has been kidnapped in an attempt to extract information from her regarding Princess Selene. In Scarlet's search for her grandmother, she encounters Wolf, who she comes to find out is a Lunar operative. He is one of a number of warriors who have essentially had their DNA spliced with wolf DNA in order to make them more brutal. Cinder is traveling with Carswell Thorne, who she accidentally helped escape from prison and whose (already stolen) ship they stole in order to leave Eastern Union space. Newly-minted Emperor Kai is attempting to deal with the Lunars in a way that doesn't leave the entire Earthen population decimated. (Spoiler alert: there is no way.)

I was surprised by the take of a kind of werewolf bent as members of an attack squad from Luna. Really, I was surprised I didn't see it coming, because it absolutely makes sense: in lore, werewolves are controlled by the moon, so for these werewolfian creatures to be agents of the moon was totally in line with that. And to bring in the Wolf from the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story in that way tied it all together nicely.

I love the comedic relief that Thorne provides. Cinder takes herself so seriously, and understandably so, but it's nice to have that bit of humor to take the edge off. Plus, I've already seen that he takes a bigger role in Cress.

Overall, this series is well developed and a point of view on a fairy tale that I haven't seen before. Plus, the books are a quick read, with lots of chapters (a.k.a. stopping points).

I had been waiting to read this one for a while, actually. Like the first in this series, I picked this copy up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. (Side note: I've said it before, and I will say it again: the Scholastic Warehouse Sale is a great opportunity to pick up books, most for half price, and it makes my season every time I get to go to one. Most warehouses usually have sales around the holidays. You can check out warehouse sales near you here
.) In the time that I waited to pick this second book up on sale from Scholastic, a third book has been released, Cress, which I am currently reading. (Thanks again, King County Library System!)

Meyer has a fourth book in the series, Fairest, coming out in late January. Fairest is actually a prequel to the events that occur in the first book. The last book in the series, Winter, is being released in November 2015. If you're local to the area, Meyer also mentioned during her panel that she has book launch parties for each of her books which are open to the public. Not all of the details are available yet, but if you are interested in attending, you can find more information here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Broken Kingdoms—N.K. Jemisin

I was almost certain he was a godling. The "almost" lay in the fact that he had the strangest magic I'd ever heard of. Rising from the dead? Glowing at sunrise? What did that make him, the god of cheerful mornings and macabre surprises? (20)
I read the first in this series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, with the online book club Vaginal Fantasy several months ago and really enjoyed it. In trying to be more cognizant and purposeful about reading diverse books by diverse authors (the author of this book is an African-American woman, which in the fantasy genre is not easy to find) I decided to pick up the other two in this trilogy. Luckily, my local library system has an awesome eBook lending system, and it even sends them straight to my Kindle. (Shout out to the King County Library System!)

In this trilogy, none are direct sequels of the others; rather, they include some of the same gods and godlings but follow a different mortal. Broken Kingdoms is set ten years after the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The protagonist of the story, Oree, is a blind woman who works in a market in what is now called Shadow, the space beneath the Life Tree that Yeine made grow at the end of the first book. She encounters "Shiny," who we come to find out is actually the mortal version of Itempas, one of the original Three gods. Itempas was sentenced to mortality as punishment for his role in the enslavement of the other gods in the first book. Shiny, it seems, although mortal, cannot permanently die—that would defeat the purpose of his punishment. And he can regain his godly powers at certain times, but only in defense of mortals. Oree stumbled upon him in what was essentially a trash heap and brought him home with her, where they've been living platonically together. Suddenly, godlings are being murdered all over the place, which is strange not least because nobody knew that godlings could be killed by anyone other than the Big Three (Itempas, Nahadoth, or Yeine). Turns out, demon blood kills godlings and Oree is a demon; demons are born from a godling and a mortal coupling, and the nature of the blood is the reason that the Big Three went about hunting down and killing demons in the first place. Seems as though they missed a few. Once Oree's demon blood is discovered, she is kidnapped by a secret faction that wants to use her blood to kill all of the godlings. After having her blood used to kill her godling lover Madding in front of her, Oree is feeling hopeless, but then she and Shiny develop a plan of escape: if she can manage to put herself in mortal danger, he can temporarily regain his god powers and save them both. After successfully escaping, they leave Shadow, trying to stay safe from all those who would take advantage of Oree's origins. Shiny goes with her and their relationship develops into a sexual one; unfortunately, the relationship cannot last, as Shiny's banishment was meant to be a punishment. After he leaves, we become privy to one final piece of information from our narrator Oree: Shiny may have left her, but she is pregnant. Dun dun dun.

I really appreciate the diversity in this series, not only with regard to race, but also with regard to sexuality. The three big gods, as with many mythologies, mated with each other to give birth to another generation of godlings. While there are two "male" gods and one "female" god, their genders are actually fluid. In fact, the first two of the gods were male-identified Nahadoth and Itempas, who became lovers. They were alone for many years before Enefa, their sister, was introduced to their life from the Maelstrom. This diversity of sexuality is also true of mortals; near the beginning, our protagonist Oree is working in the market and mentions some other sellers working near her. She tells us, "They and Ru, another of the Row's sellers, were a triple and Vuroy was possessive." Polyamorous relationships are considered something rather commonplace in her world.

It was lovely to get to see more of Itempas in this book, as the experience of him from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is primarily as the villain. Now that he's been made mortal, we get to see more of his humanity, especially in relation to his pain at the loss of his children the godlings. But we also get to see how his nature as a god is not something that he can change. Both Itempas and his god siblings were created by the Maelstrom (essentially the universe) to serve a particular purpose, balancing each other out fairly well. But those natures don't allow for a great deal of flexibility. As we learn more about him, it's easier to understand how the events in the first book came to take place, and easier to empathize with his actions.

Also, the world building in these books is phenomenal. I would definitely consider it a high fantasy series, worthy of its own world map as the best fantasy series are. I'm looking forward to reading more from N.K. Jemisin, and feel lucky that she has quite a few already published books for me to enjoy. No waiting!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Need Diverse Books Indiegogo Campaign

I am taking a short break from my normal fare to write a short post recommending that everyone consider donating to the We Need Diverse Books Indiegogo campaign. There are a million reasons why we need diverse books, most of which are outlined on the campaign page by youth and authors. In fact, I can't think of any argument that someone could have against needing more diversity in books.

In the past five years or so, I have been making a more concerted, conscious effort to examine my own privilege, and to explore points of view that are different from my own. I think it's something that white folks especially can struggle with, because our representation in books and media is the majority. We see ourselves in movies and books all of the time, so it's easy to say, "Oh, great, there's that reflection of me. And there's another one. And another. I'm covered. Moving on." An African-American friend of mine even had white friends in college ask her why there was a need for a network like BET. Her response was that it's questions like that which are exactly the reason.

All that to say, I personally want to see more diverse books because that is the world that I live in. I don't exist in an homogenized land where I hang out with all my white, hetero, cisgender friends and family. I am only able to live my experience in reality, but in books, I can delve into others' experiences. I want to expand my horizons, learn new things, encounter people different from myself. (My thoughts go deeper than that, delving into opinions on the Seattle metro area where I live, its unofficial semi-segregation and lack of diversity, and the disservice that I think that is doing to our community.) I believe that diversity is truly the best thing for society; so many of the conflicts that occur are out of fear or misunderstanding of something different from ourselves.

Also, unlike most crowdfunded projects, donations to We Need Diverse Books are tax-deductible! 

For more information—including the author video about why we need diverse books—visit the Indiegogo campaign page here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Hero at the End of the World—Erin Claiborne

"You can leave me well alone. I don't want to change my magic source. I don't want to join any secret societies. I don't want any excitement. All I want in life is to work a minimum wage job, live in my parents' spare room, put on fifteen stone, and have a heart attack before my fortieth birthday." 
For the first time, Archie seemed taken aback. He stared at Ewan with a mixture of pity and disbelief. "That's rather grim." 
"Yeah, well, that's life," retorted Ewan. (19)
I—and by I, I mean my friend Gina—received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book during a panel at GeekGirlCon, which I promptly borrowed. It was described as along the lines of Harry Potter, but more adult and with more diversity. I love Harry Potter, I love diversity, so I was on board.

The story is a take on the "chosen one" narrative, which seems to be all the rage these days. (And I'll admit, is starting to drive me a little bit crazy.) Thinking in Harry Potter terms, what if Ron Weasley had killed Voldemort, rather than Harry Potter killing him? This is the scenario presented in this book, with Ewan Mao and Oliver Abrams. It was foretold that Ewan Mao would destroy Duff Slan, the big evil in their magical world. But by the time Ewan gets up the gumption to enter the final room in the grand battle to slay Slan, he finds his bestie Oliver over Slan's body. Flash forward to five years later when former-slayer-of-Duff-Slan Ewan is working in a coffee shop, feeling not a little resentment and as though his former best friend has stolen his life. Oliver is a successful member of the magic police, moving quickly up the ranks, remembered always as the slayer of Slan. When Ewan is approached by a member of a fringe magic faction called Zubernegativum and told that he can exact some revenge on Oliver, Ewan jumps at the chance, consequences be damned. And oh boy, are there consequences.

I've never experienced my best friend stealing my destiny, but I still totally related to Ewan's misanthropy and general disgust with the world, as represented by the quote above. I appreciated the human, flawed ways that the characters dealt with events. I love (almost) everything Harry Potter, but I do think that sometimes the emotions and reactions of the characters were watered down, especially when it came to interpersonal conflict between characters other than good versus evil. Ewan's feelings of resentment and envy towards the friend who he feels stole his life are emotions that even the most evolved human beings struggle with regularly, I think. Ewan is struggling with the reality that, despite what was foretold, he's actually an average person and has been coasting through life on the expectation that he is going to be a hero. It would be difficult to go from exalted hero one day to less than nothing the next.

While I agree that this book has more diversity when it comes to race and sexual orientation—which I greatly appreciated—one of the things that I always really admired about the Harry Potter series was the unapologetic way that J.K. Rowling killed off characters.  I find this even more admirable in a world that is full of magic, and yet still has to deal with the reality of death. It would have been very easy in a young adult series to "save" folks from that, and Rowling almost never took the easy way out. And in this book, nobody died. Okay, that's not precisely true; none of the protagonists died. (A couple of the villains did die, admittedly.) There seemed to be no real consequences for these characters at the end of the day.

Beyond that, I enjoyed the premise that each magical person has a certain limited amount of magic and when they spend it, that's it. This went along well with the theme of a more grown-up facing magic world, mirroring the choices that we have to make every day about our finite resources. I also loved seeing the alternate realities that appeared while they were utilizing the Baahl, and discovering what life-threatening entity might exist in each one.

I find this recent slew of books with "chosen one" narratives a bit exhausting at times. I think that these themes do tap into something inherently human in all of us: wanting to feel as though we're special and unique and important. Who doesn't want to feel that way? However, personally, I would rather feel that I'm special and unique and important because of the things I do and the choices that I make. If I was a "chosen one," I would spend time worrying about what was more integral to my success: some gift or destiny over which I had no control, or the fundamental traits and values that form my person. But I'm a classic overthinker, so maybe that's just me.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Unremembered—Jessica Brody

I saw Jessica Brody on a panel at GeekGirlCon, a panel that featured several other female young adult authors as well—including Marissa Meyer, whose books I love (although admittedly I'm a sucker for any fractured fairy tale). Brody seemed interesting, and I was intrigued by the premise of her book. She shared that she came up with the idea when she was encountered a newspaper article about a girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash, and had awoken from the crash with amnesia. (Brody also mentioned that Unremembered is being made into a movie.)

I really wanted to like this book. As I said already, the premise drew me in, I liked Brody during her panel. And while I found the actual plot line as interesting as advertised, I had some big problems with the content.

A short summary: A girl wakes up in the ocean, surrounded by bodies after a plane crash. The rescue crews find her and the next thing she knows, she wakes up in the hospital. She can't remember anything about her life, but the doctors determine that she's 16. The hospital and Social Services search for her family, but to no avail. One night in the hospital, a mysterious boy somehow appears, seems to know who she is, and vows to get her out. Then he disappears. Meanwhile, this unnamed girl is taken in by a lovely foster family in a remote area so that she won't be hounded by the media. She encounters the mysterious boy again while out grocery shopping with her foster mother, and is given some more information about her life before the crash, including her name: Sera. As the story continues, you find out more about how she came to be in the middle of the ocean, why she doesn't have any memories, and about a menacing corporation that is chasing her.

The first thing that irked me happened not even twenty pages into the book. Sera's nurse, Kiyana, is talking to her about all of these people that have come out of the woodwork, claiming to be Sera's family. Kiyana tells Sera that the authorities know they're not her family, though, because none of them know about the locket. Now, it's true that the locket comes into play in a big way later down the line, so it's not there only to weed out the fake families. But being such a huge musical theatre nerd, I know that this particular plot point is straight out of Annie. (In Annie, Daddy Warbucks searches for Annie's real parents, and he spots the fakes because Annie was left by her parents at the orphanage with half of a locket.) I know that plot points and devices are fairly regularly stolen and transferred and adapted by authors, but there was no change here.

However, the biggest issue for me was the treatment of Sera as a young woman. Not ten pages in, people are already commenting on her looks. Kiyana cites Sera's supermodel looks as a sure sign that her family will come looking for her. Because she's beautiful and special, and beautiful and special people always have people looking for them. It's a crass way of saying it, but unfortunately it is a truth of our society. So I gave it a by. Then, 60 pages in her foster mom tells her she's lucky to be "so pretty so young." And all I could think was, "What the hell?! In constantly pointing out her physical beauty, you're teaching this girl with no memory that looks are one of the most important things in life. You had what amounted to a blank slate, and you decided to perpetuate the same beauty-driven bullshit? WHY?!" Comments about Sera's superhuman beauty continue throughout the length of the book.

I know that my reaction wasn't Brody's intention; GeekGirlCon is a convention for the empowerment of lady geeks, so I don't think that she would have attended if she wasn't all for that mission. I think what she was trying to do was emphasize that Sera stood out from the "norm," which is in itself a stepping stone to get to the big reveal about Sera's origins. But I found it incredibly uncomfortable, especially in a book that is aimed at young adults.

Again, along the same line, she is later told by the big bads at the malevolent corporation that, "We purposefully programmed you to be docile and obedient." (284) And I couldn't help thinking to myself, would this line have been present if Sera had been a male synthetic human being? I can forgive this one a bit more as it's only one line (not pervasive, like the comments on Sera's appearance, which are constant) and it seems as though it's meant to be more reflective of the corporation's antiquated views than anything else.

Sera also becomes obsessed with the mysterious boy who showed up in her hospital room, who is called Zen (short for Lyzender). She says at one point, after Zen has been kidnapped by the corp, that "Everything feels empty without Zen." (225). She can barely remember the boy, but has a feeling that he is important and essential to her. Later, she says of Zen, "Zen can never be forgotten. He lives in my blood. In my soul." (299) I find scenarios like this not only unrealistic, but damaging to perpetuate. It's one of the (many, many) problems that I had with the Twilight series. In the Twilight series, after Edward leaves her, Bella descends into a dangerous emotional spiral, because she's convinced herself that she cannot live without him. She's placed her entire reason for existence on another person. I want to empower women to feel as though they can love someone while not disappearing into them, so if that relationship ends, they can still be whole. I don't want young girls, or any young people, to think that there is only one person for them forever, and that one person should be your everything. I understand that the feelings Sera is having for Zen are partially because he is like a rock for her, a person she can be sure of even when her memories are being manipulated. But that's not what these sentences are expressing. It's made very clear that the reason that Sera remembers him is because they're "soul mates." She can't forget him, even if they wipe all of her other memories, because they're "soul mates."

To some extent, I understand that one of the purposes of YA novels is to attempt to keep the jadedness of life from influencing young folks so early, to help keep them optimistic. The world is hard, and the longer that we can keep people believing in goodness and love, the better. But I think there's a way to do it without talking down to them or presenting them with completely unhealthy scenarios. I think it's possible to do it without making them think that they're going to meet a "soul mate" who will become their reason for existence.

It was worth reading, and an exciting idea, but I had a hard time making it through. I know that there are a couple of other books in this series, and might come back to them later to see where the story ends up going, but it's not the first set of book on my to-read list.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World—Steven Johnson

On the twenty-eighth of August, all the changed. At around six a..m., while the rest of the city struggled for a few final minutes of sleep at the end of an oppressively hot summer night, the Lewis infant began vomiting and emitting watery, grene stools that carried a pungent smell. Sarah Lewis sent for a local doctor, William Rogers, who maintained a practice a few blocks away, on Berners Street. As she waited for the doctor's arrival, Sarah soaked the soiled cloth diapers in a bucket of tepid water. In the rare moments when her little girl caught a few minutes of sleep, Sarah Lewis crept down to the cellar at 40 Broad and tossed the fouled water in the cesspool that lay at the front of the house.
That is how it began. (22)
The timing of my reading of this book seems especially poignant with the pretend threat of a catastrophic Ebola outbreak (when in reality, scientists and doctors have said it's serious but unlikely to become an epidemic); however, I started reading it before the Ebola craze had reached its zenith and the realities in this book just make the current rhetoric even more outrageous.

The book explores the 1854 outbreak of cholera in a small working class neighborhood of London. Johnson artfully weaves together the story of the disease, the advancement of medical understanding as a result of this particular outbreak, and the personalities who made such monumental discoveries about the nature of the disease that they essentially eradicated future outbreaks in London.

Cholera was a huge issue for folks up to this point, and especially in large metropolitan areas. London had experienced so much population growth in the twenty years prior to this particular outbreak that there were more people living per square mile than the amount of people living per square mile in New York City today. Unfortunately, nobody had really considered the infrastructure to support such an influx of human beings, and all the things that they bring with them, including but not limited to human waste. (Sidenote: definitely don't read this book if you're squeamish about bodily fluids, because there is A LOT about poop. A lot. So fair warning.) Now we know that cholera is caused by a virus that lives in human waste, and it was a big problem back then because waste water and drinking water was all ending up in the same place. Nobody had any realistic idea of the true nature of the disease.

The "hero" of the story is a physician named John Snow (presumably no relation to his Game of Thrones counterpart). During this Victorian era, he was exceedingly well-known as an anesthetist, positing that different amounts of anesthesia created different levels of drowsiness. As crazy as it may sound at this point, around mid-1800's, the understanding of the nature of medicine was astronomically different; before some of Snow's investigations and experiments with anesthesia, physicians would often just guess at how much they should give to someone in order to perform a given procedure. To be fair to them, this was in itself a huge step from the days of absolutely no anesthesia when folks would just get good and drunk before going in for an amputation. Snow became such a well-known anesthetist that he was even personally requested by Queen Victoria to assist with the birth of one of her children.

After experimenting and developing the field of anesthesiology, Snow turned his attention to the overwhelming number of folks dying the awful, accelerated deaths from cholera. While Snow was amazing and groundbreaking in many ways while spearheading his investigation of cholera, it was also a bit of an alignment of the stars. Had a local coroner not recently started tracking cause of deaths (pretty much unheard of before he began) then Snow wouldn't have made some of the deductions about cholera that he did. If the Reverend Henry Whitehead—who lived in that particular London neighbourhood and knew the consituents remarkably well—hadn't been there to provide his insight, Snow might not have been able to reach the conclusions that he did.

When Snow first set forth his theory to the scientific community that he thought cholera was transmitted through water rather than airborne, people ridiculed him much the same way that Galileo was ridiculed for thinking that the earth went around the sun. Yet still he pursued his theory with gusto, because he was certain that he was right, and he was certain that he could help prevent cholera outbreaks in the future.

One of the remarkable things about this book that I think is not true of many history books is that Johnson didn't just recreate the neighbourhood and investigations of John Snow and Henry Whitehead—he also took the time to ponder and long-lasting effects of their discoveries, as well as posit how life might have been different had they not figured out the nature of cholera.

I obviously think it's a really interesting book, or I wouldn't have summarized quite so much. Also, it's easier to summarize a nonfiction book because there are no spoilers. Or maybe there are. Spoiler alert: Cholera is easily avoidable now, partly due to the care and attention shown to the problem almost two centuries ago by men like Snow and Whitehead. Spoiler alert: There are still hundreds of thousands of cases every year in countries where they don't have access to clean drinking water. If you're interested in helping to support a community acquire clean drinking water, there are some really great charities and NGOs that do so. charity: water is one of them. It's super easy to give a little to help a lot.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hollow City—Ransom Riggs

We rowed out through the harbor, past bobbing boats weeping rust from their seams, past juries of silent seabirds, roosting atop the barnacled remains of sunken docks, past fishermen who lowered their nets to stare frozenly as we slipped by, uncertain whether we were real or imagined...(17)
I loved the first book in this series, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (review). The concept was novel and interesting, and even a bit distracting from the plot. I may have given it more leeway, content-wise, because I was enthralled with the photos.
That being said, I also greatly enjoyed this sequel. And while I did enjoy it, I definitely had more lingering questions, and paid more attention to the development of the world and characters than I did in the first book.

Which led me to the biggest question, and ultimately a huge distraction while reading, which was the trunk of Bronwyn, the "strong girl" of the Peculiar group. Maybe I was paying too much attention to it and getting bogged down in the details, but I couldn't get over it. I will come back to this particular bee in my bonnet after a brief synopsis.

In this second book, the children are trying to not only escape the big bads but also trying to get their headmistress (Miss Peregrine, also known as their ymbryne) to a fellow ymbryne who they believe is in London. Miss Peregrine is mysteriously stuck in her bird form, and it is revealed to them as they begin this journey that she may end up being irreversibly stuck that way if they don't fix her in the next five days. And the only person who might have a chance at healing her is the fellow ymbryne. As mentioned above, they are also attempting to evade the evil faction and traveling during World War II in England, which doesn't allow a lot of flexibility, travel-mode wise. Especially as children with no money.

Okay, back to Bronwyn's trunk. At the beginning of the book, the children are arriving on mainland England after having escaped from the big bads in Wales. They've lost everything they brought with them after two of their three escape boats capsized, with very few exceptions, one of them being Bronwyn's trunk. Bronwyn's peculiarity is that she is super strong. Her trunk, on page 30, is described as a "tank sized steamer trunk." Now, even given the fact that she is a "strongwoman," even if the trunk is easily liftable by her weight-wise, it cannot be easily maneuverable logistically. Because it's huge. Yet soon after this, when they discover a rock shaped like a giant's head in the middle of a lake, they discover it's a time loop and they climb the rock and enter the cave and the loop. How does Bronwyn get this giant trunk up and into the giant's "mouth"? Then they encounter an evil creature that's trying to kill them, and just barely escape up a cliff in what is essentially a rope elevator. Where does Bronwyn's trunk go then? Does she hold onto it with one hand while she's stuck in this rope net with a gaggle of other children? We know that she brings it with her, because they are on their way back down the cliff and out of the loop, and they are gifted with some eggs, and on page 112 it says she wraps the eggs in her sweater and puts them in her trunk. Then they head back down the cliff in the rope elevator, back through the giant's head cave. No mention of how they do all that with the trunk. Later in the story, they are waiting in the bushes to see what the commotion on the road is— since they are trying to hide from the bad guys, the hiding is important— and it turns out to be a gypsy caravan. They covertly jump onto the back of the last caravan in the group. It's mentioned earlier in the book that the trunk is so unwieldy that only Bronwyn can manage it. So what happened to it when they secretly jump on the back of a caravan? Does Bronwyn drag it behind them? None of the gypsies noticed that? Down the line, the gypsies discover them hitching a ride (obviously) and after some tension, end up befriending them and riding them into town on horses so the Peculiars can catch a train to London. Where does the trunk go then? How does Brownyn take her trunk on a horse? I think these holes in the tracking of her trunk are especially clear because it is definitely mentioned in certain other parts of the book, and then basically nonexistent (until it is needed) in others. To the point where it wasn't mentioned for the whole journey through the giant's head loop, until Bronwyn puts the eggs in there, and I had to go back and reconfigure that in my head, because I assumed they had left it behind when going through the loop.

I've clearly done a lot of thinking about the logistics of Bronwyn's trunk. It's been several weeks since I finished these books, and I still can't get over it. If anybody has any thoughts as to the magical nature of Bronwyn's trunk, I would love to hear them.

I surfaced many more questions in regard to the time travel aspect of the Peculiars' world as well. For instance, Millard, the invisible brainiac of the group, points out as they are emerging from one of the time loops (which only Peculiars can enter): "So sorry[...]but this just occured to me—one of us will have to pass through the loop exit before the echolocators or the girl do, or they will cross into the present and we into 1940, and we'll be separated. For them to travel to 1940 with us, one of us has to go first and open the way." (264-5) Um....what? Nothing like this re: time travel for them has ever been mentioned before. I mean, I sort of get it, I guess. But if the theory is that whoever passes through the loop first sets the stage for where you will end up in time, and one of the new kids from the "present" went through first, wouldn't the 1940 Peculiars also end up in the "present"? And how can they know that Jacob's present is THE present? The most present present, given their time travelly nature?

Even more with this book than with the first one, I felt sometimes like the images were shoehorned into the story in unnecessary ways. Sometimes it seemed like the story went down a completely weird bend in the road just to suit a particular image. The integration felt much more natural and intrinsic to the story in the first book.

Regardless of my critiques, I adored this sequel and look forward to the third book. I'm hoping it will answer some of my questions, and give me more time with now beloved characters.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children—Ransom Riggs

But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late. 
Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise. Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children's home that had taken in my grandfather must've seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn't really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course. The peculiarity for which they'd been hunted was simply their Jewishness. They were orphans of war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood. What made them amazing wasn't that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miracle enough. (17)

I've been hearing great things about this book basically since it came out, not least from John Green who went to the same university as the author, Ransom Riggs. I'd also seen it's intriguing cover several times while working/browsing the Scholastic Warehouse Sale shelves. At the most recent sale, they also had it's sequel Hollow City (review) so I thought it was about time to read them.

The story centers around Jacob Portman, a Floridian teenager wasting away the summer working in a family-owned business that he hates. He's interrupted one day by a strange call from his grandfather, so he leaves to go and check on him, and discovers his grandfather being attacked by some kind of hideous beast in the woods behind his house. Unfortunately, Jacob's grandfather passes away as a result. While helping his dad and aunt clean up his grandfather's house, Jacob discovers some very strange photographs of children from the orphanage in Wales where his grandfather spent the early years of his life after fleeing encroaching Nazi forces. He also finds a letter addressed to his grandfather from a woman. Feeling traumatized by his experience witnessing his grandfather's attack and death, and encouraged by his new therapist, Jacob embarks with his father on a journey to the small island in Wales that houses his grandfather's orphanage. When he gets there, craziness ensues! Spoiler alert: it's supernatural craziness.

First off, let me say that I've never seen a book like this before: a fictional tale intertwined with real, oftentimes haunting "found" photographs from the past. It makes me wonder if Riggs started with the photos and crafted a story around them, or had a story in mind and then searched out photos to intersect with it. Or perhaps it was a bit of both. I'm sure that he's talked about it in interviews and whatnot, especially with a film adaptation on the way. I know that he has collected the found photographs for a while, so I would imagine it was a mixture of the two. The photos added so much to the story, not only contributing visual breaks from pages of text, but also giving readers a picture (literally) of the characters that are being introduced. Some of the photos are quite creepy, which I unintentionally discovered when I decided to continue reading at 3:00 a.m,, alone, in my possibly haunted house, and immediately encountered the page with the picture of Emma Bloom. I'm an insomniac already, but that photo clinched my lack of sleep that night. When you read the book, you'll probably understand, but just for reference, the photo is of a young girl, in what seems to be a pitch black room, holding a glowing, floating orb of light. The creepiest thing is the way the light reflects on her eyes. Yeah, it's terrifying.

I loved this story. It was so engaging, and while some things were slightly predictable, it was always interesting. Especially with the novelty of the interwoven photographs, as I've already mentioned. The characters are so well fleshed out, which is not always the case when reading supernatural mystery type books, and most especially when a story has a couple of main characters and then a large secondary cast of ensemble characters. It began with their physical description, both in words and with the old school photograph that represented them. To derive supernatural powers from those old school photographs, which look weird often because of tricks of the light, oddities in the film, etc. is just such an awesome idea. Then to go further and to build a world around that? One that lives parallel to our own?

I do have some questions that weren't answered re: the time travel issue. But I suspended my disbelief, especially for this first book, because I was so enchanted with the platform and the characters and the story. My questions got a bit more pointed as I made my way through the sequel.

Unrelated to plot or character development, all of these kids seem to have no fear of swimming in the ocean in the dark night, the idea of which horrifies me to no end. So kudos to them for that bit of bravery.

At the end, when Jacob leaves his dad behind...even considering all of the circumstances, and understanding what the situation is with him and the other Peculiars, it's an amazingly powerful, big decision for a 16-year-old. Especially when you think about the fact that Jacob is pretty certain he's never going to see his father again.

I also realized during this book that, while I appreciate a lot of things about Goodreads—in fact, most things—I've determined not to judge books based on the main reviews on their pages, because I often don't agree with those people, and it has discouraged me in the past from reading those books. For example, when I went to the reviews for this book, I saw about four that had it at two stars and said it was overrated. Well, maybe that's their opinion, and maybe it even is overrated, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to like it or find it worthwhile or be touched by it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Roosevelt's Beast—Louis Bayard

I didn't realize when I requested this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program that it had some supernatural elements to it. This is admittedly my own fault for oftentimes not reading all the way through the descriptions. I found that supernatural factor off-putting while reading the book, particularly because I have something of a love affair with the Roosevelts.

However, I didn't know much, or anything really, about Kermit Roosevelt before I read this book. Now, the book is fictionalized, so I don't necessarily know a whole lot more than I did before. But still it was interesting to see the dynamic between Kermit and his grandiose father. And also to think about how difficult it would have been to be the son of a former president, as well as the cousin of a future president AND future first lady. I can only imagine that anything you chose to do would be seen as something of a failure, even if you were a successful person by any person's definition. So it was interesting to see his struggle with that, which is a feeling that is eminently easy to relate to even these days. I also knew nothing about the Amazon excursion, which is one of the truths that the story is based upon, and was intrigued enough to find out more about that, history-nerd that I am. (If you are interested, you can find out more basic information on the Wikipedia page. Or, you know, read an actual book with verified information about it.)

Mostly this book just really rubbed me the wrong way, and I couldn't nail down precisely why that was. I like historical fiction books, I like supernatural books, I even like historical fiction supernatural books. But I couldn't settle into this one. For some reason, I just couldn't reconcile the two genres in my mind for this book.

Wonderstruck—Brian Selznick

One of my absolute favourite things about Brian Selznick is the aesthetics of his books. I had previously read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and fell in love with his style. (Also, side note, as a person who appreciates good quality paper, the paper that is used in his books is so smooth and thick...and I can't think of a way to say that which doesn't sound incredibly suggestive to me...Regardless, I love the paper.)

I really enjoy the combination of hand-drawn pages and sections of text that Selznick uses to tell a story. Some of his drawings are so simple, but so impactful. As you can see from the picture above, the cover of the book is beautiful; however, if you remove the cover from the hardback version, the laid out cover underneath is stunning.

This book is set in split times, 1927 and 1977, showing us the experiences of Rose and Ben respectively. As we follow them, we quickly find out that Rose is completely deaf; Ben used to be deaf in only one ear, and then was struck by lightning, leaving him entirely deaf. Rose struggles with isolation from her family as a deaf child of hearing parents, and especially with the unacceptability of sign language at that time. Ben struggles with his new deafness, which is made even more difficult considering the recent death of his mother and his not knowing his father. Feeling a burden to his mother's sister and brother, and unsatisfied with his life with them in general, Ben decides to leave. With very few clues, Ben goes on a hunt to find his father's family. Alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, Selznick artfully draws the two stories together.

I truly appreciated the note from Selznick at the end about his initial interest in telling a story with deaf protagonists. It was thorough and thoughtful, and he included a full list of resources for people who might be interested in learning more. Be still my history nerd heart!

I strongly recommend this to anyone who is looking for something that is a quick read with gorgeous drawings and a beautifully-woven story.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rough Passage to London: A Sea Captain's Tale—Robin Lloyd

This book, based on a true story, relates the tale of Elisha Ely Morgan, who began his life as a young farm boy and eventually became a very successful sea captain during the 1800s. As a young boy he wanted to leave the farm and venture out onto the sea, but it was finally the mysterious disappearance of one of his beloved older brothers (in conjunction with an increasingly difficult relationship with his father) that encouraged him out onto the open ocean. Once there, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a captain of his own ship in his early twenties, and expanding his stock and leadership role in the ship's firm soon after.

What initially began as a story of his life on the seas attempting to find his brother transformed into an intricately woven tale about Ely's many adventures, from his time on the lowest rung of a ship, to his advent as captain, to the meeting of his wife and his many well-known friends, to the birth of his children.

This book was amazingly interesting to read. I've read novelizations of people's lives before, but this was particularly enthralling because I had never heard of the protagonist before; every twist and turn was brand new information to me.

That being said, I wish that I had known a bit more about the mechanics of a boat, specifically the large sailboats that were used for these purposes in the 1800s. Sometimes I felt a little lost by the technical jargon. Other than that, I really enjoyed the book, especially the ending. Likewise, the author's note was incredibly thorough and thoughtful, which I appreciated as a history nerd. The author is actually a descendant of the protagonist in the book, so he related in the Author's Note how he went about searching and the importance of the research to himself.

It was sometimes difficult for me to keep track of what was happening in the book. There's quite a bit of jumping around, as well as significant time jumps for seemingly no reason. This led to the book sometimes feeling disjointed. There were some sections/chapters that were riveting, and then there were others where things were so slow-moving that I found myself asking, "Why did we stop here? Why did we jump to this part of his life?"

While I was riveted by the story, I was often taken out of it by some pretty intense dangling modifier problems. A few are evidenced below (any emphasis added was mine):
"Soon he spotted a narrow spit of land called Sandy Hook that marked the entrance to New York harbor, and the first mate gave the order to back the yards. From his perch in the topsail area, he could see the pilot boat and the speedy news schooners sailing quickly toward them, black-backed gulls riding the air currents around the hulls." (64) -- In this case, the first "he" refers to Ely, the captain. Then the first mate gives the order. However, in the sentence following that, the author says "From his perch..." Lloyd is again trying to refer to Ely, the captain, but the modifier implies that he is still speaking about the first mate. This could have been easily fixed by changing the second sentence to say, "From his perch in the topsail area, Ely could see the pilot..." 

"Morgan spotted the man with the pigtail who had told him where he might find Blackwood. He whispered softly as he went by, 'Say 'ello to Bill for me when ye find 'im.'" (89) -- In the second sentence, both of the pronouns refer to different "he"'s, which is incredibly confusing. I had to read this sentence at least twice to figure out who had done the whispering. 

"He turned back to the steerage section of the ship, his gaze pausing at an older man seated by the base of the foremast smoking a pipe. He reminded him of his father." (181) -- This is similar to the sentence above. The use of fewer pronouns and more names would have helped this sentence along a great deal. 

"It was the sale of the farm, she explained. At first, he had been depressed, but then he gradually came to enjoy his free time. He still mostly read the Bible, but he was also reading some poetry by Cowper and some of the frontier novels of Cooper. They had moved in with Josiah and because of his shortness of breath, he was forced to stay in the house." (257) -- In this section, Ely's mother is relating to him the struggles that Ely's father had been having recently (as an older man). In that last sentence, they moved in with Josiah, but Josiah is not the one who had the shortness of breath - the author is intending to still be referring to Ely's father.

Other than those few issues with sentences that took me out of the story, this was a great sweeping tale of family, adventure, danger, and romance. It is definitely worth a read for any history-minded folks if you have a bit of extra time, but it wouldn't have been a must for me if I hadn't received it through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.