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July books

I’ve been having trouble keeping up with this blog since getting hooked on GoodReads. If you particularly care to subscribe, you can read my GoodReads RSS feed; for now, here’s what I read in July!

Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 1:17:36 PMGo to full article
Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)
author: Garth Nix
name: Emily
average rating: 4.28
book published: 2003
rating: 4
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
shelves:
review:
A delicate, magical book; a book that manages to truly evoke a sense of the numinous while being grounded in the earthy details of life, with beautiful writing.

Ink and Steel: A Novel of the Promethean Age

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 11:47:46 AMGo to full article
A Novel of the Promethean Age
author: Elizabeth Bear
name: Emily
average rating: 4.17
book published: 2008
rating: 4
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
shelves:
review:
Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age books have this much in common: heartbreaking, intense, complicated personal relationships, and politics that go way over my head. My solution is to read for the personal relationships and shrug off the politics, though that won’t work for everybody.

This book focuses on Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and on the Elizabethan reign, which is being subtly supported both by the magic in plays and verse and by the faerie realm. Marlowe is killed early in the book – or thought killed, anyway, and taken to faerie, where he is drawn into a tangle of politics and relationships; Shakespeare, meanwhile, is called upon to support Elizabeth’s reign with his plays and in other ways.

The book’s great strength is in how Marlowe and Shakespeare feel completely like real people, complex and multi-dimensional and sympathetic but flawed. I have the urge to give Marlowe a hug and some hot chocolate, not that it would help! Bear also knows how to write sex scenes that are intimate and revealing but not mechanical, perhaps better in this book than in any other of hers – which always comes as a pleasant surprise when I read so much YA…

Rogelia’s House of Magic

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 11:36:13 AMGo to full article
Rogelia's House of Magic
author: Jamie Martinez Wood
name: Emily
average rating: 3.67
book published: 2008
rating: 2
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
shelves:
review:
I loved the premise of three Latina girls from wildly different backgrounds coming together, becoming friends, studying magic and conquering their own personal challenges. There’s hippie girl Fern, who has her first serious crush on a boy but is nervous about pursuing him; rich Marina, who has a complicated relationship with her mother and her heritage; and Xochitl, a recent immigrant from Mexico still reeling from the death of her twin sister.

The book ended up not working for me, though, because the prose is just too clunky. Emotions are a little too bluntly stated, lumps of background information stick out, and a lot of the plot and characterization sticks closely to predictable templates.

Also, it may just be my own personal issue with things that are new-agey, but it’s a book that may induce eye-rolling in people who are skeptical regarding new-agey things.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Tuesday, July 22, 2008, 3:42:48 PMGo to full article
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
author: Ken Kesey
name: Emily
average rating: 4.24
book published: 1960
rating: 0
read at:
date added: 07/22/08
shelves:
review:
It’s hard to dislike a book that has a lot of lovely writing, a clear sense of structure and story, and quite a few good bits in it.

It’s hard to like a book that expects me to seriously believe that the world is ruled by an evil matriarchy.

At that point it’s hard for me to have any response other than “Aaaaaaaargh.”

The Skin I’m in

Thursday, July 03, 2008, 3:57:54 PMGo to full article
The Skin I'm in
author: Sharon G. Flake
name: Emily
average rating: 3.99
book published: 2000
rating: 3
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/03/08
shelves:
review:
Maleeka is dealing with poverty, peer pressure, teasing, and the hideous clothes her mother sews – which also provide the only relief her mother finds after the death of Maleeka’s father.

Sharon Flake is super popular among the preteen/young teen girls I see at the library, and I can see why. It’s all too easy to be sensationalistic or condescending or didactic when writing about inner-city children, and this book is none of those; it feels honest and real in a rather low-key kind of way.

While I didn’t feel like it was quite polished enough or crafted enough that I really loved it, it’s definitely a good solid book.

Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

DustA generation ship, disabled, limps in orbit around an unstable binary star that could self-immolate at any moment. For five hundred years, Engine and Rule have established quasi-medieval fiefdoms with the Exalt – whose bodies are augmented by a nanotech symbiont – ruling over the Mean. And the artificial intelligence that once controlled the ship’s systems has splintered into ‘angels’ – chief among them Samael, the angel of death (or life support, at any rate) and Jacob Dust, the angel of memory.

Knight-errant Perceval loses a duel – and her wings. She’s taken prisoner by Ariane of Rule. But the Mean servant girl assigned to take care of her is Rien – her long-lost sister. (This book had me at ‘maimed wingless girl knight-errant,’ and never let go). Before long they’ve escaped from Rule on a quest to find their father and prevent the coming war between Engine and Rule.

This is a book stuffed with Cool Bits, especially if you’re me, but even if you’re not. I think it’s terribly neat that there’s medieval window-dressing and a fantasy quest plot, all packaged – with perfect rationality – in a rigorous science fictional universe. There’s a basilisk! There’s a hermaphroditic necromancer! There are peaches that contain the memories of the dead! And at the same time, all of these Cool Bits are pointed at heavy, intense themes and heartbreaking storytelling. Bear is interrogating power and privilege and love and submission and domination and – as always – what it takes to face terrible choices with honor, dignity, and integrity.

This is also the first Elizabeth Bear novel I understood all the way through without having to read anything twice over. I like the opaqueness in some of her work, but I also like the clarity in this one.

Absolute Brightness, by James Lecesne

Absolute BrightnessLeonard Pelkey is almost fourteen years old, an orphan, and flamboyantly effete in a way that suggests he will grow up to be gay, if he isn’t there yet. He comes to live with his cousins, Deirdre and Phoebe, and to work in their mother’s beauty parlor. He loves the work, the customers love him; his cousins and classmates feel differently.

And then he disappears.

This book reads like a first novel – it’s so uneven. It’s the martyry adolescent fantasy of “People dislike me because I’m different, but I’m just special and unique, and they’ll all miss me when I’m gone!” — and Leonard is also a complicated and interesting character. It’s too long, and too diffuse, but also beautifully written and a pleasure to read. It has moments of moralizing and Social Messages, and also moments of great subtlety and complexity.

I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s far too good a book to dismiss.

Another Kind of Cowboy, by Susan Juby

Another Kind of CowboyTwo teenagers – a closeted gay boy and a poor little rich girl – form a prickly friendship after they meet at dressage lessons.

The premise was promising, and I was interested in the Nanaimo, British Columbia setting, but this book doesn’t even rise to the level of competence. Juby definitely knows her stuff when it comes to horses, and does all right except when she has to tackle human emotions; some of the passages have all the subtlety of an anvil.

As Alex tacked up Detroit… he was confused and dismayed by his growing feelings for his friend. What could have been simple admiration for Chris’s talent was amplified because Chris seemed interested.

Sometimes fourteen-year-old Maggie and May, with their shiny eyes and glossy brown hair, reminded Alex of otters. Their relentless playfulness had the effect of raising his spirits, no matter what else he was fretting about.

There are cardboard villains, cardboard plots, cardboard themes. (Guess what? Drugs are bad!) It’s a book that never seems to try to go beyond the obvious, the surface, the stereotypical.

How They Met, by David Levithan

How They MetIn Levithan’s junior year of high school, he got bored in physics class and wrote a Valentine’s story for his friends using the words in his physics textbook. He wrote another Valentine’s story the next year, and kept writing them, and many of these are included in this book of stories about love.

It’s a book of stories that manages to be both very, very David Levithan – tender, funny, sparkling prose, wise about love and teenage stupidity-about-love – and not at all monotonous. There’s good love, bad love, love everywhere in between, straight love, gay love, teenagers, old people.

┬áMy favorites: “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat” is full of ouch and wincing. “The Alumni Interview” and ‘The Good Witch” are honest about the angst of being gay in high school but they’re also really, really funny. In the former, Ian is having an alumni interview with his boyfriend’s father, who doesn’t know that his son is gay.

“What is the GSA?”
I tried to imagine him coming to one of our Gay-Straight Alliance meetings. I tried to imagine that he would understand if I told him what it was.

“GSA stands for God Smiles Always, sir,” I said with my most sincere expression.
“I didn’t know the high school had one of those.”
“It’s pretty new, sir.”
“How did it start?”
“Because of the school musical,” I earnestly explained. “A lot of the kids in the musical wanted to start it.”
“Really?”
“It was Jesus Christ Superstar, sir. I think we were all moved by how much of a superstar Jesus was. It made us want to work to make God smile.”

“The Number of People Who Meet on Airplanes” is just… awwwww. “Princes” is one of my favorites: a tangle of unrequited crushes at an elite dance studio, a dancer who wants to bring his non-existent boyfriend to his little brother’s bar mitzvah, the little brother who stands up for him.

“Without Saying” is perhaps the strangest story and perhaps my favorite. It is about love, and the writing of stories, and the intersections between those. What we have the power to invent.

Not all of the stories are great – I appreciate the inclusion of the stories Levithan wrote in high school, but I do find them rather slight – but it’s surprising how many of them are. And Levithan is the kind of writer who can still make me believe in love.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Peter Cameron

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To YouEveryone compares this one to Catcher in the Rye, which is interesting to me because I haven’t read Catcher, and I think I would hate it, and yet I completely see why the two books are compared, and I loved Someday This Pain

James has too many advantages to have the problems that he has. His family has money, an apartment in Manhattan, a part time job at his mother’s gallery, and he’s been accepted to Brown for next year (though not Harvard, Yale, or Columbia). His parents are divorced (though whose aren’t, these days?); unfortunately, his mother has just seen the end of her third marriage after a disastrous Las Vegas honeymoon. And James himself is not doing too well. The narrative voice has a kind of iciness to it, so it takes a while to understand just how sad and frightened and lonely James is; but you see him searching for old houses in the midwest. He does not want to go to college. He wants to sit in his old midwest house and read novels. And, more than anything, he wants to correct people on what they say. It’s what he spends the entire novel doing. They misuse words; they’re not precise enough. His father asks him whether he’s gay. His mother asks him whether he’s gay. He debates the nature of the question with them until, defeated, they accept a change of subject.

James is gay. He deigns to tell us this on page 192, of 228. His fear of intimacy is so great that it extends even to us, the readers.

However, this isn’t a novel about being gay. That may have something to do with how sad and frightened James is, but as James himself admits, he is so far from approaching another human being that his sexuality is two hundred percent theoretical. If anything, it seems symptomatic; James cannot face anything about himself.

This seems to me like the kind of novel I should be ready to criticize for being whiny and emo. Yet somehow it isn’t. I want to use those words they say book critics should never use, like delicate and luminous. James’s voice is stiff and awkward enough that it never reaches that emo-whiny level; you can see the clever swagger on the surface, and you can also see the sadness lurking underneath. And at the same time, there are these moments of description that go way beyond a mere insightful detail; they bore right through to James’s state of mind.

The cover tells you everything you need to know about this book: stark, pained, compelling.