Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Uglies [2005]

In the world of Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, people live in an isolated, self-sustaining cities and routinely undergo surgery to become generically "pretty" when they turn sixteen. Kids between the ages of twelve and sixteen are considered "uglies" because of their disgustingly mismatched developing faces, and spend their time playing pranks to pass time before the operation. Tally Youngblood is nearly caught while infiltrating New Pretty Town to see her (recently prettified, and strangely uninterested in her) best friend when she meets the equally daring Shay. Her new friend shares Tally's birthday, and will therefore turn pretty at the same time, but Shay doesn't seem that interested in her upcoming transformation; instead, she'd rather visit the Rusty Ruins (vestiges of our wasteful, oil-based society) and try to connect with the mysterious David. When Shay disappears rather than undergo the surgery, Tally is forced to turn spy for the sinister entity known as Special Circumstances or remain horrifyingly ugly for the rest of her life. But after she finds out the truth about the operation, the Rusties, and the community of uglies so desperately sought by the Specials, she must make decisions that will impact more than just her own life and Shay's.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

It has actually taken me years to finish reading Uglies. I started it shortly after it came out, and gave up in the middle due to its unsympathetic characters. I call this the Wuthering Heights Syndrome, because I dislike every character in that book and would rather have miniature gnomes pound on my eardrums with tiny golden mallets than be forced to read it again. And I am (I swear!) a huge Emily Brontë fan.

So I took the tack I have been getting great results from lately, where long-overdue TBR books are concerned, and checked out the audio version. Something about the middle of the book almost made me throw up my hands again, but I persevered, and I'm glad that I finished. Given that dystopian1 fiction seems to be a growing trend in young adult literature, it's good to finally have Uglies under my belt.2

Uglies is the first book in a series, and my library has, as an indication of its popularity, Bogus to Bubbly: An Insider's Guide to the World of Uglies. It contains background on the origin of the series and details about some of the technology.

Dead Mother: No
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1On dystopian fiction, particularly from a YA slant, a thought-provoking post by Diana Peterfreund.

2Looking at this list from LibraryThing, I realize that I've read several, including Feed, the Hunger Games trilogy, and Little Brother; interesting that The Phantom Tollboth is on there, obviously I need to re-read it, but nothing is going to induce me to go back to Watership Down.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle [1986]

I am slowly but surely making my way through a theoretical list of books I should have read many years ago, and Howl's Moving Castle was definitely on that list. Reader, I very much enjoyed it! But I am getting ahead of myself.

Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and expects (according to well-established fairy tale rules) to live an unadventurous life as a hat shop owner. However, fate intervenes in the form of the nefarious Witch of the Waste, who sees something potentially powerful in Sophie (that she can't quite see herself) and transforms her preemptively into an old woman. Despite being physically ancient, Sophie is incredibly stubborn and resilient, deciding that she will set off to seek her fortune. She ends up working as a housekeeper for the peculiar Wizard Howl, who appears to do nothing but groom his appearance and court women whom he discards as soon as they return his affection. Howl lives with his apprentice, Michael, in a floating castle with doors that lead into several different places (including Wales), powered and maintained by the magic of a cantankerous fire demon, Calcifer. With the Witch of the Waste looming as a formidable opponent (and cast-off lover), Howl does everything he can to avoid responsibility and a potential appointment as Court Wizard, even as he courts one of Sophie's sisters and circumstances threaten to put the little household directly in harm's way.

Grade: A

Howl's Moving Castle is a fascinating mix of traditional fairy tale, romance, fantasy, and comedy. The characters and setting are slowly and deliciously developed, and it's totally the kind of story where the dog that you help in the first act comes back to repay you in the third and everything is sorted out tidily.

Random Thoughts:

I'm not sure how I feel about the connection between Sophie's world and ours through Howl's doorway into Wales. I suppose creating the connection is a way of making the reader relate more sympathetically to Howl; seeing his family did give his character a necessary depth and humanity. However, it brought up a whole bunch of unanswered questions for me, such as how do people in our world learn how to cross over? Can non-magical people do it? What are the rules of magic in Ingary, anyway? Are they different in our world? And so on.

I am a sucker for chapter titles that start with things like "In which"--some of my favorites were "In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime" and "In which there is a great deal of witchcraft."

I have the movie in my possession, I just haven't gotten around to watching it yet. I will update this post if/when I do.

ASK THE READERS: Should I read Castle in the Air and/or House of Many Ways?

Dead Mother: Yes (see above re: fairy tale)
Book Review Index

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson [2010]

My friend Cassandra was off the squee-meter upon the announcement of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written collaboratively by bestselling YA fiction authors John Green and David Levithan. I've read both Boy Meets Boy and An Abundance of Katherines, so I had at least a faint idea of what I was getting myself into. The book is divided into alternating sections, each narrated by a character named Will Grayson, whom I have decided to differentiate using their relationship with the fabulously gay Tiny Cooper. Best Friend Will is straight and written by John Green, while Boyfriend Will (however short-lived that relationship may be) is written by David Levithan. In the audiobook, two different actors perform the narration.

Best Friend Will tries as hard as he can not to care about anything or get involved, but he doesn't always succeed. As the best pal since 5th grade of the giant, gay, football-playing Tiny Cooper, who also happens to be writing, directing, producing, and starring in his own autobiographical musical, Tiny Dancer (later renamed Hold Me Closer), Will winds up doing a lot of things he's not comfortable with, including not only joining the school's GSA, but meeting Jane, who may or may not have a boyfriend. Boyfriend Will is deep in the closet and pretty much hates everyone except his secret online crush, Isaac. His dad left him and his mom on their own when he was younger, and he loathes school and what he feels is the general pointlessness of life. When the two Wills meet accidentally at a porn store in Chicago, their lives become intertwined in interesting and unexpected ways, leading them to reevaluate their similar fears of engagement with the world.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts:

I listened to the book in the car, and the audio format was both a blessing and a curse. The downside was that the Emo Will Grayson's parts are not only all in lower case in the paper version, they are also conducted a good part of the time as online chat conversations or stage dialogue. Listening to someone read chat transcripts out loud is not actually that fun . . . BUT there was also a big upside, and that was hearing all of the songs from Tiny Cooper's musical (that appear in the book--I am waiting impatiently for someone to come up with a CD) actually being sung out loud. The awesomeness of this cannot be understated. So, as usual, I am forced to recommend both reading the book and listening to the performance.

I liked the book's concept, even though I am generally wary about collaboratively written books and can't quite say why. I do love Sorcery and Cecilia, so perhaps my protests are mostly for show. The John Green parts were very . . . John Greeny. I'm not complaining, but the vigorously extended Schrödinger's Cat metaphor was a dead giveaway. They definitely did a great job of switching the narrative between the two characters.

I have a deep fascination with other people named Anna, so I totally get the idea of being startled and interested by someone who happens to have your exact same name. However, the end was a bit too contrived for my taste, what with all the [spoiler alert] Will Grayson variations showing up at Tiny's play at the last minute. I also felt like the book struggled at times to be about the Wills and not about Tiny Cooper, as if, having created such a magnificently flamboyant and compelling character, Green and Levithan were reluctant to cede space to their protagonists.

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Meditation on Hair Loss

To be brutally honest, I adore my own hair. I feel that it is one of my most attractive features. I love it without reservation. Sometimes I have been known to pause while I am driving to work and admire the way it smells nice and sparkles in the sunlight, despite the fact that if I have passengers, this inevitably opens me up to ridicule. I started growing out my hair in eighth grade, largely due to the fact that I was tired of people asking if I was a boy or a girl. It used to be lighter, but under certain circumstances I think it still qualifies as "blonde," (although I may have just removed most of the qualifying parts on Friday). Since then, I have established a hair life cycle that goes like this:

Grow out hair. Time passes.
Complain about heat in summer, threaten to cut hair. Fail to cut hair.
Complain about unruliness of hair, yet admire it at the same time. Keep it restrained, usually in braid form.
Start talking about donating hair. Drive people around crazy by not going through with it for at least a year.
Finally cut hair and send it to worthy organization.

The first time I did this was July, 2006, sending off 12+ inches of hair. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and had lost all of her hair after chemotherapy (you can actually see her bald head in the background of the picture below), but I'd actually been thinking about cutting my hair and sending it to a charity for quite a while. The charity I chose was Wigs for Kids, because they provide "hair replacement systems to children under the age of 18 who have lost their hair as a result of medical treatments, health conditions, or burn accidents."

Me and My Severed Part 

A lot of people don't realize that it takes hair donations from many people (as many as 30, according to Wigs for Kids) to make one wig for someone who has lost their hair. In addition, though they vary from organization to organization, the requirements for donation are fairly stringent: donated hair must meet a minimum length; cannot be permed, color-treated, or highlighted; and should have less than a certain percentage of grey. If you, or someone you know, fits this description, I strongly encourage you to think about donating your hair. As much as I love my hair, I know it's a renewable resource for me, and that there are plenty of people out there, children and adults, for whom this is not the case. Hair, or the lack of it, contributes a lot to how we view ourselves. Our society is not very good about treating people nicely when we think they might be sick or disabled. We certainly aren't that kind to balding men. But enough preaching, let's get to the before and after photos from last week:

I felt, after four years of growing (with occasional trims of 1 inch or so to keep it healthy), that it was finally time to donate again. I had them cut off about 10+ inches, and I am donating it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, which "encourages women and men to grow, cut, and donate their hair to make real hair wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments."

Additional observations:

My hair is amazingly flippy at this length.
I have a phantom braid/ponytail that I keep trying to lift out of my shirt when I get dressed or brush aside when I go to the drinking fountain.
I hardly have enough hair to admire without looking in the mirror. COMMENCE GROWING PROJECT.
I waited until there would be enough hair left (after cutting 10 inches) to keep putting it up, since that is how I prefer to wear my hair. However, I have nicknamed the resulting effect "Stumpy," because that's what I've got to work with.

Helpful sites:

Book Review: Starting from Scratch [2010]

I put Starting from Scratch on my To-Read list as soon as I knew Georgia Beers had another book out, assuming that it would have a dog in it and it would be set in or around Rochester, and also hoping against hope that it wouldn't involve a couple being on the run from the law. I was right on all three counts! Avery King is a graphic designer who uses baking to relieve stress. She is convinced that she hates children, largely due to the fact that her mother abandoned her at a young age to be raised by her grandmother, but she gamely steps up to coach a friend's tee-ball team. When one of the kids' parents turns out to be longtime crush-from-afar Elena Walker (and also someone with whom Avery has been flirting online), she realizes that she will have to rethink everything about her past and her expectations for the future if she wants to have a real shot at love.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

What bothered me about this book was the parts that seemed to be missing. We never had a scene where Avery admitted to Elena that she had had a crush on her for months, and some reciprocal confession on Elena's part. We didn't really have a scene where Avery baked with her grandmother, despite its vital importance to her character. In addition, I kept expecting Avery to chuck her graphic design career and open up a bakery--I think the title is to blame for that. Things like this made me feel that the book was not quite finished and could have used a little more polishing. Then again, I am very picky.

I do like the cover much more than some of the eye-hemorrhage-inducing and raunchy covers of a lot of lesbian fiction. Kudos to the graphic designer who came up with it.

I see from the author's blog that she is working on recording the audio version of Starting from Scratch. Good for her! I am pro-audiobook in all scenarios (yes, even Ann Coulter scenarios), and I have a feeling that the number of lesbian romances available in audio form is sadly minuscule.

I also couldn't help thinking about Averil's Atonement while I was reading, specifically the part where Averil bakes the cake . . .

I enjoy any book that advocates cooking things from scratch! It's not that hard, people, and it doesn't take much more time than opening that devil box from the store!

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: Victory of Eagles [2008]

[SPOILER ALERT--Don't read this if you want to remain innocent about events in the previous books in the series, particularly Empire of Ivory]

Victory of Eagles, the fifth book in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, finds our heroes in dire straits indeed, with Laurence convicted of treason and Temeraire exiled to a boring existence at the breeding grounds in Wales as they wait for Laurence's death sentence to be carried out. And, as a special bonus, Napoleon has finally managed to invade England and occupy London, scattering the British forces and moving far more quickly than anyone anticipates. Despite their treasonous past, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves deeply involved in the organized resistance, struggling to save a nation that does not believe in their right to freedom.

This book is the first in which Novik has given us narrative blocks from Temeraire's perspective, which is something that I missed (retroactively) in the first four books , since his voice is so distinctive and interesting. In addition, it is a relief to have the perspective of the sometimes comical self-organizing dragon militia, campaigning for equal pay, to offset Laurence's depression as he comes to realize that his actions have caused death and destruction; may result in Napoleon's permanent control of the British Isles; and have completely severed him from his comrades, his family, and the country he loves. All that he has left is Temeraire, and the continuing desire to Do The Right Thing, despite sometimes devastating consequences.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

Perhaps it was the bleak subject matter, but I found this installment very sad and draining. It is hard not to miss the camaraderie and unity between dragons and crews of the aerial corps and feel that the uncharted territory (in this case, Australia) of future volumes is a bit daunting.

I did not listen to this on audiobook because the audio version didn't make it through interlibrary loan before I ran out of patience and hunkered down to read it on paper. I miss you, Simon Vance!

Dead Mother: No
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Book Review: Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging [1999]

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison, is the first in a series of ten books about Georgia Nicolson, who is fourteen and obsessed with two things: her looks and boys. When her best friend Jas develops a crush on a local grocery clerk, Georgia finds herself falling for his dreamy older brother, "sex god" Robbie. Obstacles to Georgia uniting with Robbie and living a decent life include her uncomprehending parents, the fact that she shaved off her eyebrows, the way that boys always say "see you later" without indicating what it means, a best friend who can be cruelly unsympathetic, the fact that Robbie thinks she hates him, the fact that one feels one must have kissing lessons in order to learn how to do it properly, and the way that her cat Angus (a Scottish wildcat) is always terrorizing the poodle next door.

I found the book entertaining and eye-rolling at the same time. Many of the vignettes are quite amusing, but I never quite found the sympathy for Georgia as a character that I felt I was supposed to have. While listening to Georgia's trials and tribulations, I realized something frightening: I sympathized much more with her parents than I did with her. I'm not sure whether it's because I never had a boy-crazy, makeup-wearing, obsess about looks phase, or whether I am suddenly mature and unsympathetic. I do hope that it's the former. Reading this book did, however, make me feel pangs of sympathy for teenage girls everywhere.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

The way that Georgia convinced Jas to break up with Tom was oddly Pride and Prejudice-y, which would make her Darcy, which would be . . . very odd. The book also reminded me of a British version of The Princess Diaries, what with the diary format and the breathless pace of narration. I think that Mia is a bit more socially conscious than Georgia, however, whether that is realistic or not.

I really enjoyed Georgia's relationship with her three-year-old sister; it seemed to be the time that she was most human and unguarded.

I listened to the audiobook version, which made it easier to get into Georgia's world (and accompanying British slang) with the help of the narrator's delicious accent. However, the audio format doesn't let itself very well to a diary format with lots of short breaks.

ETA: I haven't seen the movie (renamed Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging), should I?

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review of October's Series Romance Title Themes

Because I am so irritated at Ingram for not having blurbs with their series romance offerings for October (which I usually share on Twitter for the edification of the world), I thought I would do a review of the month's titles and themes. Series romance (Harlequin, Silhouette, etc.) is traditionally one of the worst (and I say that in a loving way) genres in terms of lack of descriptiveness, repetitiveness, and grammatical ineptitude in titling. Which is why I LOVE THEM. This month's catalog features over 100 titles, some of which are dull and run-of-the-mill, but many of which put them in a specific subgenre—with some overlap, of course.

Themes for October:

Christmas (which seems a long way away from mid-September, but if you consider that libraries should be ordering these in time to get them processed and on the shelves by the time holiday fever really strikes, it's not completely insane): 
Christmas Countdown
A Cop in Her Stocking
Covert Christmas: Open Season\Second-Chance Sheriff\Saving Christmas
His Holiday Bride
Mistletoe Prayers: The Bodine Family Christmas\The Gingerbread Season 
Royal Holiday Baby
Silent Night Stakeout
The Spy Who Saved Christmas
Western Winter Wedding Bells: Christmas in Red Willow\The Sheriff's Housekeeper Bride\Wearing the Rancher's Ring

Boardroom Rivals, Bedroom Fireworks!
Cinderella & the CEO
From Boardroom to Wedding Bed?
Innocent Secretary...Accidentally Pregnant [which wins my vote for Most Terrible Title this month]
Juggling Briefcase & Baby
Not Just the Nanny
Taming Her Billionaire Boss

Greeks and Shiekhs:
Boda Con el Magnate Griego = Marriage with the Greek Tycoon
The Good Greek Wife?
El Jeque Seductor = The Seductive Sheik
Powerful Greek, Housekeeper Wife
Saved by the Sheikh!

Betrayal in the Badlands
Boots and Bullets
Cattle Baron Needs a Bride
Cowgirl Makes Three
Elly: Cowgirl Bride
Prairie Courtship
When the Cowboy Said I Do
Wyoming Lawman
Yukon Cowboy

Secret Children:
For the Sake of the Secret Child
A Miracle for His Secret Son

WTF? (my other top picks): 
Chantaje en la Cama = Blackmail Into the Bed
His Virgin Acquisition
Majesty, Mistress...Missing Heir
Public Marriage, Private Secrets
The Reluctant Wrangler
Ultimatum: Marriage

If you’ve made it this far, you might as well participate in the other part of my exercise, which is to have my “revenge” on Ingram for not posting blurbs by creating some of my own. If you’d like to play, select a title from the list above and create a blurb for it in the comments, like so:

His Virgin Acquisition. Randolph Edward Burgess IV was a savvy businessman . . . he thought. But when the fruits of his latest hostile takeover arrive in the form of the nubile and possibly underage daughter of his chief nemesis, the fashion-forward Chloë Vernon, he knows he’s got a lot of accounting to do to make everything reconcile.

The Reluctant Wrangler. All Ted Gunther ever wanted was a chance to open his own decorating firm and make the houses of Spivey, Texas look their most fabulous. Unfortunately, as the son and brother of the region’s foremost horsemen, he is stuck throwing rope tricks . . . until a beautiful city-slicker, Natasjia Donner, who also happens to be an angel investor of some note, breezes into town with her nervous male assistant in tow.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Reviews: Black Powder War [2006] and Empire of Ivory [2007]

I kept up my rapid progress through the Temeraire series, primarily listening to the third and fourth volumes on audio CD, but also picking up the paper version when the suspense was too much to withstand after leaving the car. This method of consuming books means there is some confusion as to where I am in the audiobook when I return to it, but it definitely cuts down on sitting in the driveway. Black Powder War picks up almost immediately where Throne of Jade left off, with Temeraire and Laurence in China after the untimely death of Prince Yongxing, their role in which has earned them the eternal enmity of his white dragon Lien. As they prepare to return to England, they receive an urgent order to proceed directly to Istanbul [which was Constantinople] to receive three dragon eggs that have been purchased by the crown. Guided by the mysterious and ambivalent Tharkay, Laurence and company make the grueling overland journey from China, encountering desert nomads, feral dragons, and other hazardous roadblocks on the way. Once in Istanbul, however, they find their way barred by bureaucracy, and are forced to abduct the eggs and flee toward safety in Prussia, where they become pressed into a disastrous campaign against Napoleon and his new dragon advisor, Lien.

In Empire of Ivory, Temeraire and Laurence finally return home to discover that a deadly plague has decimated the dragon population, including the members of their formation. Temeraire's strange resistance to the infection leads them back to a place in Africa, where they had paused on their voyage to the Far East. Napoleon threatens, and time is definitely not on their side as dragons sicken and die at home while they search for the cure in the midst of colonial politics and a strange and dangerous community of African dragons. Upon their return, Laurence makes a bitter decision that will alter the course of his life forever.

Grade: B [for Black Powder War, which I felt could have used a little less going from point A to point B and more of Temeraire in general] and B+ [for Empire of Ivory, which was entertaining despite the improbability of returning to Africa to find a single variety of mushroom]

Random Thoughts:

After four books, the series has taken us to Europe, Africa, and Asia, introduced us to a host of dragons, and skillfully interwoven fantastic voyages with battle scenes, Victorian propriety, and (of course) man-dragon love. I call that a job well done.

One of the recurring threads in these books, as with the first two in the series, is the status of dragons in European society and their treatment by most (including the British government) as less-than-sentient beings, when in fact they have the same range of intelligence as men. The favorable situation in China, where dragons live among men without fear (on either part), inspires Temeraire to return to England to create change for his compatriots, beginning with negotiations for pay. Laurence naturally has mixed feelings; he has never been prone to examining why things are done the way they are, he simply accepts the status quo and does his duty. However, when faced with the truth of how dragons are treated at home, he is forced to open his eyes and realize that perhaps he has committed his life to a government whose aims and practices he often does not agree with. This building tension, brought on by Temeraire's incessantly questioning mind, brings him quite logically to the fateful decision at the end of Empire of Ivory. Dragon civil rights!

Simon Vance continues to be an excellent narrator of the audio versions, and I have much appreciated his vocal flexibility as he is called on to perform an ever-greater number of roles in what has become a multi-national cast of thousands.

ETA: Reviews of other books in this series here and here.

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Above Temptation [2010]

I am a fan of Karin Kallmaker, to be sure, especially if you go by the number of her books gracing my double-stacked lesbian romance shelf. However, I haven't really loved any of her recent books, and I'm sad to say that Above Temptation is not an exception to this rule.

Kip, short for Kipling, [really, Kipling? My post on lesbian romance character names is way overdue] is an ex-Secret Service agent in training who works for a fraud investigation company. Her ultimate boss, Tamara Sterling, recruits her to secretly investigate fraud within the company itself, which could bring the business down if it becomes public knowledge. Both women, who have sacrificed personal happiness for the sake of their professional integrity, find themselves struggling to deny the passion that springs up between them--even though Kip can't rule out Tamara as a prime suspect in the case.

This is the second lesbian romance I've read recently that involved the women going undercover and being on the run. Is this a new theme across the genre? Is romance itself not exciting enough that authors must to make it improbably suspenseful as well? The major problem I had with Above Temptation was that the fraud case was kind of boring and I didn't feel like expending the mental energy to follow the technical details. The romance was well enough written, however, with several heated moments when Kip and Tamara attempted to stick to their principles and the company's no-fraternization rules despite the desperate attraction that built (improbably or not) over the course of a few days.

Grade: B-

Random Thoughts:

I have another Kallmaker book to read in my queue, maybe I will like it better than this one. This "meh" reaction can't possibly be because my standards are higher than they used to be . . .

Dead Mother: No idea. Not relevant?
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