Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shopgirl is a Quiet Pleasure

Shopgirl: A NovellaShopgirl by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's confirmed. I have a bit of a crush on Steve Martin.

Sensory descriptions like this make me weak in the knees:
...the various scents that have been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customers have collected into strata in the department store air.  So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5, while someone at five-two is always treated to the heavier Chanel number 19.
I love that I can almost visualize the strata, and I immediately imagine walking through that store with girlfriends of different heights and each of us thinking that the store smells like something different.

Mirabelle (played by Claire Danes in the movie, which is coming up on my Netflix queue as soon as I catch up on Downton Abbey!) is a salesgirl in the nearly deserted gloves department of an upscale department store in southern California. Shopgirl is primarily the story of Mirabelle and two men: one a slacker type (played by Jason Schwartzman) with whom Mirabelle becomes passively involved, the other an older and wealthier businessman (played by Martin himself) with whom Mirabelle finds herself in an unexpectedly deep relationship. The former is described thusly:
He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile.
The pupa
This moth is really an immobilized desire.  
 That kind of pithy insight into his characters' emotions is one of Martin's great strengths as a writer.

You know how sometimes you look up from a book, or work, or a good conversation, and realize it's gotten dark outside without you realizing it? In other words, a dramatic change has occurred, but so gradually that you can't pinpoint when it happened.  The unfolding of the characters was like that for me; by the end of the book I felt that I fiercely understood Mirablle, but I still can't point to a specific moment when I began to understand her motivations.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the characters' journey, though at times it seemed largely a passive one.

I withheld a star because of the ending. Whereas the rest of this novella was marked by the slow, quiet progress of three characters' lives, the last several pages were composed of clipped summaries that spanned months and years in just a few short paragraphs. It felt rushed and abridged after the patient pace of the rest of the book, and left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. Still, I liked the rest of it so much that I recommend Shopgirl rather highly if you're in need of a short book that is mostly sweet but has a thread of melancholy. But if you have time for something longer, pick up Martin's An Object of Beauty instead.

An Object of Beauty

Monday, December 3, 2012

November Giveaway Winner: Ashley!

Congratulations to the winner of the November Giveaway!  Ashley's winning entry was a tweet about Brave New Bookshelves.  She'll receive the BNB copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  Thanks to everyone who submitted their entries!

Suri's Burn Book Doesn't Quite Burn -- It's Just Uncomfortably Warm

Suri's Burn Book: Well-Dressed Commentary from Hollywood's Little SweetheartSuri's Burn Book: Well-Dressed Commentary from Hollywood's Little Sweetheart by Allie Hagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you aren't familiar with the tumblr that inspired this book, stop reading this review and go there immediately. If you laugh out loud, or at least giggle quietly to yourself, within the first thirty seconds, then this book is for you.

Suri's Burn Book

The book is something between an overview and a recap of the tumblr. Rather than comment on specific photos for the most part, the book goes through the prominent families of Hollywood and gives "Suri" the chance to give her take on the fashion choices and social value of celebrity offspring. Being under two is not -- I repeat, not -- an excuse for being seen barefoot in public.

But the level of snark is a little underwhelming without the photos to inspire outfit-specific commentary. There are still photos in the book, but roughly one or two per target. Unfortunately, on the Kindle, the photos are black-and-white and lose a lot of their punch.  Still, it made enough of an impression that I fashioned the following quiz as my Facebook status the next day:

If you read Suri Cruise's Burn Book before bed, you will:

  • (a) dream that you are listening to Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck fight in the hallway, then wake up and realize there is a real argument occurring in the stairwell that adjoins your apartment;
  • (b) go back to bed and dream that you are Tom Cruise;
  • (c) wake up with serious tension knots in your shoulders because being a celebrity is stressful; or
  • (d) all of the above.

On the whole, this is great if you need some quick, easy, portable entertainment, but if you're sitting at home... save some money and just go hang out on tumblr for awhile.

Or, leave your best burn-book-style caption for this humbling photo of yours truly.  Can you imagine Suri's horror?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Year with Chesterton is a Great Idea, But the Execution is Mediocre

A Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and WonderA Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder by Kevin Belmonte
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a fantastic idea in theory; in fact, I'd like to see a series done, with a book for each of my favorite authors. It's a little like a page-a-day calendar in book form. The entries for each day average a page or less, so five minutes before bed is sufficient to read that day's passages.

The passages each start with a brief Bible verse, usually three lines or less, that relates loosely to the topic of the Chesterton excerpt that follows.

My biggest beef, and it's a big one,
Like, THIS big. 
is that there is ZERO information about these excerpts.  Frustratingly, the reader isn't told where the excerpts are from (a diary? a letter? a book -- which book?) or in what year Chesterton wrote them.  Chesterton was a gifted writer with big thoughts, and these excerpts (usually a short paragraph) offer only a tiny snippet of the ideas he was writing about.  Anyone interested enough in Chesterton to buy this book is also likely to want to look up some of these snippets in their larger context.  I reread the preface and acknowledgements three times because I could not believe this information was wholly nonexistent.

Bizarrely, following the daily unattributed paragraph excerpt, some days contain bonus passages from Chesterton that are attributed.

For example, on August 4, the entry reads like this:
He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much. --Luke 16:10 NKJV

To love anything is to see it at once under lowering skies of danger. Loyalty implies loyalty in misfortune.

A Passage from Orthodoxy (1908): Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express -- this need for a first loyalty to things, and for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine. Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
That's it.  I might wonder where "loyalty implies loyalty in misfortune" (a nice phrase, by the way) came from, but the text gives me no clue.  I might assume that it is also from Orthodoxy, but the entry for August 5 contains no attributed supplement at all, so that doesn't seem like the right answer.  I just can't imagine why the editor wouldn't have insisted on the quotations being attributed -- it's not only sloppy, but it undermines any claim the book has to being a tool for increasing interest in Chesterton's work.

However, I did enjoy that the book noted on which days something interesting happened in Chesterton's life, such as the date one of his works was published.  On February 8, the book notes that in 1930, Chesterton wrote a letter to the president of the University of Notre Dame [insert mandatory celebration of #1-ranked football team here] containing a dedicatory poem for the university mentioning a golden dome. I loved learning that little factoid.
What though the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all
On the whole, I am glad I received this book and I hope it leads people to explore Chesterton a little bit.  But withholding the tools that would make it easier for people to go further in their reading is, in my opinion, utterly inexcusable.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


For serious bibliophiles, a free book is a special pleasure -- especially when it's one you already know you want to read.

To celebrate (a) the fact that this morning I achieved my goal of reading 100 books in 2012, and (b) the 1000th pageview of Brave New Bookshelves, I'm giving away my copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  In hardcover.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
This copy has been read exactly once, by me.  It's in very good, although not perfect, shape.  I don't underline or highlight or dog-ear pages.  If you ask nicely, I'll even sign it for you.  
HOW TO ENTER: It's simple, read my review of the book and then leave a comment telling me why you're excited to read this book, or what you liked/didn't like about the review. Comments must be at least five words to count. Yes, that's an actual rule. Also, US residents only, please.
ADDITIONAL ENTRIES: Help me test this nifty giveaway gadget, and gain additional entries. a Rafflecopter giveaway
Good luck everyone!

Monday, November 12, 2012

For Book Nerds, the Comfort Food of Books

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, for me, was like someone read all the same books as I have in the past few years, then sat down and wrote a novel combining elements from all my favorites.  There's a pinch of library adventure in the style of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.  Then there's a touch of The Da Vinci Code (don't hate; it was fun to read), but without gruesome murders or the casting of disturbing aspersions on a major religion.  Face it, secret societies generally make for good times, and secret societies organized around methodical study of old books make for even better times.  There are joyful bits of Ready Player One gamer nostalgia and of The Magicians childhood fantasy novel nostalgia.  There's even a dash of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts-style font geekcitement.  Yes, I made up that word, and yes, I know none of you read Just My Type -- but that just underscores my point, that Robin and I are clearly kindred spirits.  And yes, since you [didn't] ask, I've decided I'm on a first-name basis with the author.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2) Ready Player One
 The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

What tipped this from four to five stars for me was the deft handling of the inevitable confrontation between centuries-old books and the modern-day repository of all knowledge (also known as The Google).  I won't spoil it for you, but I got quite a kick out of it.

Pick this up when you need a fun and easy read that doesn't make you feel like you've picked up a disposable or trashy "beach read."  It's serious in setting but not in style; like mac and cheese made with pureéd cauliflower, it goes down easy but you don't have to feel guilty about it.

Delicious yet not entirely devoid of nutrients:  in other words, practically magic.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween/Hurricane!

The SnowmanThe Snowman by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine if Stieg Larsson undertook a modern version of an Agatha Christie novel, and threw in a dash of Stephen King. You might end up with something like The Snowman.

Apparently The Snowman is #7 in Jo Nesbø's detective series, but this one -- I can't speak for the others -- stands pretty well on its own. There are some references to earlier cases the detective has made, but they're well-explained enough that I was up to speed pretty quickly.

I do hate that the star detective is named Harry Hole.   I'm sure it's my fault that my mind drifts into the gutter, but throughout the whole book I kept thinking it was a name better suited for a second-rate porn star. I even tried imagining that his name was Høle (disclaimer: I have no idea whether that changes the pronunciation or not) so that I could blame it on an unfortunate Norwegian-English cognate.

I thought twice that I had guessed the killer's identity, and I turned out to be wrong both times, so the plot twists were well done.  Unfortunately, the detectives also think they've caught the killer a couple of times, so I got a little tired of the CLIMAX-WE-CAUGHT-THE-KILLER-no-wait-just-kidding-anticlimax roller-coaster.   I used to be a fairly hardcore Agatha Christie fan back in the day, and I don't remember ever thinking the mystery was solved halfway through and wondering what on earth the rest of the book was about.

Still, a snowman murder mystery with a dash of horror made the perfect Halloween/hurricane read.   I recommend it for a chilly night when you can read it through in one sitting -- perhaps when the children next door have built a creepy snowman that seems to be watching you...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dewey Decimal Dystopia

The Dewey Decimal SystemThe Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Our setting: post-apocalyptic New York. "2/14" has overshadowed "9/11," although we don't know exactly what happened or why, just that most of the bridges are destroyed and the City is now a sparsely populated ruin of its former self.

Our protagonist: Dewey Decimal. So named because he plans to spend the rest of his days re-organizing the books in the New York Public Library. He gets his supplies from the DA, a recoil-inducing opportunist who sends Decimal out to get rid of inconvenient characters.  Librarian/hitman hybrids aren't common characters in dystopian fiction, but Decimal is more than just that. He's paranoid like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, he's a germophobe constantly thinking about using Purell, and he speaks Serbian, Ukrainian, and who knows how many other obscure languages. He also ascribes a mysterious importance to "the System," (thus completing the title's play on words).  The System -- which mandates, for instance, that he make only left-hand turns before noon -- makes Decimal's life pretty difficult, but he believes it keeps him safe.

This book is written like a pulp detective novel, but set in the dystopian future.
That pulp cliché, the oldest of the old, the most tired of all tired phrases comes to me. But I dig the truth at its core. When in doubt, look for the girl. Cherchez la femme.
That dystopian-pulp combination, like the OCD-librarian-hitman, took some getting used to, but it kept me entertained and was unlike anything I've read before. Neither of those is my favorite genre, but if one is yours, I recommend you check this out.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Everything Was Illuminated: Looking Back Twenty Years

The IlluminatiThe Illuminati by Larry Burkett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, weirdly, was one of the formative books of my elementary-school years.  No, it's not a young adult book.  I was just a weird kid.

The year was 1992. I was nine years old, and two months into fifth grade.  My parents had just moved us to a new house, which meant a new school, and the kids in my class were about to spend three days taking a standardized test-- the same standardized test I had taken a couple of weeks before at my old school. The new school thought it would be dandy if I would consent to take the test again, but I refused.  So for three days, I sat in the principal's office and read while my classmates clutched No. 2 pencils and stared at row after row of scantron bubbles.
Do kids today even know what this is?
Don't ask why I was not allowed to stay home instead of sitting in the principal's office, because I have no idea.  In those days, I didn't really care where I was sitting, as long as I was allowed to read.  Yes, I say "allowed" to read, because I read so much that my mother would occasionally tear the book out of my hands in exasperation, hoping to jolt me into participating in conversation at the dinner table.  The woman who cut my hair when I was growing up told me later that she was always terrified that my hair would come out noticeably crooked, because I insisted on having my head bent down toward my book during my haircuts.

Back to my story.  I'm sure I looked ridiculous, hanging out in the school administrative offices at age 9 with a book approximately the size of my head.  But this book blew me away. I was riveted. Fascinated. It was, now that I think about it, probably my very first step into a dystopian future.  I remember astonishing levels of detail, twenty years later, down to the year, make, and model of the car that figures into one of the escape scenes.  (A 1993 Chevy Caprice, if you care, which you don't, because it is the epitome of trivial detail.  Still, as a kid I loved the idea of a capricious car, which is probably why I remember it.)
Why did Chevy name this car the Caprice?  In my head it was much cooler.  You know, more capricious.
This is the book that first taught me the word "tsunami," a word that no one else around me learned until 2004.  This is the book that first made me think about how credit and debit cards could be used to track someone's movements.  This is the book that first sent me fumbling in my pocket for a dollar bill, to examine for myself the weird eyeball on top of a pyramid that was pictured there.  Finally, this is the book that probably lies at the root of my tendency to develop mild crushes on computer nerds.

So twenty years later, I tip my hat to Larry Burkett.   Thanks for writing a book that captivated me completely.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


NetherlandNetherland by Joseph O'Neill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very few of you might remember my review of Swamplandia!, in which I lamented that I had to write a fairly negative review despite the sheer and impressive beauty of Karen Russell's prose.

 This review is the stunted offspring of that one.  Joseph O'Neill's prose is undeniably lovely, but where Russell lost me with a slightly too odd-and-fantastical plot, O'Neill simply left me trudging through endless paragraphs wondering where they were going (if anywhere).  If I wanted to place the fault with myself, perhaps I'd blame my lack of experience with -- or interest in -- cricket. A man holding his old cricket bat just does not evoke an emotional response the way, say, a young man with a gold helmet does.
Admit it, you get a little misty-eyed, too.
O'Neill, by contrast, can (and does) wax endlessly eloquent on the subject of cricket:
It's as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport...inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.
Beautiful, right?  But I think I'm just too American for cricket, because when a description of a game doesn't contain anything about plays or scores or even winners, I get bored.  We watch and play sports because we want our team to win, not because we want to admire the inherent beauty of the way colored uniforms stand out against the green field.  That beauty may well exist, and I am not saying O'Neill is wrong to draw attention to it, but I do think it's wrong to ignore the point of the sport.  In other words, the problem is not that this is a book largely about a sport.  The problem is that Netherland is not really about a sport at all.

These are some of the sports-based books I've read.  There's a pretty healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, and it includes books about football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and running.  (Admittedly, I have yet to read a book about hockey.  But I did watch Mystery, Alaska -- does that count?)
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game Jewball Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams The Art of Fielding Rookie Once a Runner    . . .  
What do all these books have in common?  Not much, other than the fact that they acknowledge that the essence of sport is competition.  Even in running, in which there are neither teams nor a point-based scoring system, you're competing against other runners (and your previous selves) for best time.  After reading Netherland, I could honestly believe that the point of cricket is to appreciate all the ways in which terrain can affect the path of the ball.

To be fair, I rather enjoyed the first 25% of the book, and the last 25% of the book wasn't bad.  Unfortunately, it's the middle 50% that really left an impression.  Our Dutch-born hero ruminates sadly but not very productively on the disintegration of his marriage, wanders the streets thinking about cricket, drives around with a guy who wants to start a cricket club, talks about cricket, and [drumroll] decides to get his driver's license.  That last part, of course, leads to all sorts of bureaucratic hijinks -- which, as we all know, are the least exciting hijinks in existence.  The big plot twist here is [dun-dun-DUN] a typo on one of his IDs!  Which he must get fixed -- get this -- before he can get his license!  

Are you on the edge of your seat?  Yeah, I wasn't either.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rise and Shine Definitely Shines

Rise and ShineRise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, let me get my bias out of the way. I am predisposed to adore any author who writes a book titled How Reading Changed My Life.  Even better, I think Quindlen also shares one of my grammar pet peeves.  When a news anchor says "She will probably have less supporters inside and out," Quindlen's characters shout at the screen. "'Fewer!' yelled Irving and I simultaneously."  I sincerely wish that fewer people would ignore this grammar rule, because then there would be less agita in my life.  [And while we're talking about it, go meet my heroine Grammar Girl.]

Quindlen also really nails her descriptions of New York; you can tell she lives here when she makes the argument that black town cars are "the official icon of New York." "New Yorkers with pretensions but middle-class means take one for airport trips or special occasions," while for young professionals, "the company picks up the tab when they take one home late at night, when a prospectus or a brief has slopped over into the early morning hours." Her language is simple but vivid, like sketches done in black ink that evoke complex objects with just a few lines, and a hint of a flourish at the edges.
It was the summer Meghan was an intern at the network affiliate there, the summer that would become the fat paragraph in every profile, and already she had started to shine like a copper ornament in the garden of everyday.
Quindlen's straightforward style and commonplace verbiage works perfectly for her first person narrator, and even her little lapses into poetry never overreach.  The waitstaff may "drop tiny tasting dishes all over Kate's table like falling leaves," but the rest of the paragraph is perfectly conversational, leaving that jewel of a simile to shine like a stone in a minimalist setting.
size 8 diamond ring minimalist  gold filled slim stacking ring with genuine natural yellow diamond engagment ring israel
Yes, like this.
As you can see, she even inspires me to write similes of my own, which may or may not be made of cubic zirconia.  You know, like the ring in that old "got milk?" commercial.

I went way back for that one; sorry about the poor video quality.  In any case, pick this up if you want an accessible but lovely novel that delicately reflects on the mystery of sisterly love, and the peculiarly intertwined pressures of fame and tragedy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Diamonds... Er, I Mean, BONES Are Forever

Bones Are Forever (Temperance Brennan, #15)
Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For the first time since my review of The Graduate, I'm going to try to write a review in the style of the book I'm reviewing.

Everyone is familiar with Bones. The TV show character, that is.  TV Temperance is smart but socially awkward.  More than smart, really.  Genius.  And then there's Booth.  Sensitive but cocky.  Irresistible.  The chemistry between those two is undeniable.

But these are the books.  No one calls Book Temperance "Bones." Book Temperance narrates the action.  Mostly it's a running internal monologue.  Over time, her sentences have gotten shorter.  Choppier.  Fewer subjects and even fewer verbs.  Lots of adjectives.

Then there'll be an over-explanation of a scientific concept.  Like a hospital worker waxing poetic about a CT scan of body parts.
While entering instructions, she'd explained how the data produced by the scanner would be manipulated through a process known as windowing to demonstrate various bodily structures based on their ability to block the X-ray beam. She said that although images generated were historically in the axial or transverse plane, orthogonal to the long axis of the body, modern scanners now allowed data to be reformatted in various planes or even as volumetric -- three-dimensional -- representations.
I followed that.  I just didn't particularly enjoy it.  Would a CT operator really lecture the forensic anthropologist about how the scanner works?  Somehow I doubt it.  Plus it's hard not to stumble over the jargon when you've been reading five-word sentences.

This is book fifteen in the series.  After fifteen books, it's hard to avoid some repetition of plots.  So we start with a murder.  Or two.  Or several.  Tempe notices something unusual about the bones.  That gives the cops a clue to work from.  Then purposely or accidentally, she ends up in the field meeting suspects.  Sooner or later she gets a tickle in her brain.  Something she knows but can't put her finger on.  Shaking her head, she goes about her business.  And then something triggers the elusive memory.  Her jaw drops in disbelief.

The chapter ends.

In the next chapter, before Tempe can tell anyone where she is, or what big part of the case she's just figured out, someone hits her on the head.  (For variety's sake, sometimes they shoot her instead, but never fatally.)  Cue the pages of even shorter sentences. In the first person. Like this:

I wake up.
It's dark.
My head hurts.
Where am I?
What happened?
Did I drink too much and pass out?
My left arm is asleep.
Or maybe it's been cut off?
I shift position.
Nope, there it is.
Both arms are intact.
Pins and needles in the left.
Nothing compared to the pain in my head.
I open my eyes.
I close my eyes.
Wait for my stomach to settle.
Then I remember.
Someone hit me over the head!
I have to get out of here.
Wherever here is.
I slowly turn over.
Nothing above me but rock.
It's cold. Still dark. And quiet.
I open my mouth to scream and realize it's taped shut.
Then I hear a noise.
I freeze.
Is it a mouse? Or is someone there? Help!

Surprise, surprise, Tempe gets rescued. The bad guys get caught. Justice is served. But nothing can bring back the murder victims. Because diamonds bones are forever.

Postscript.  At the end of this book, Kathy Reichs takes an opportunity to give us an extended metaphor about her writing process, titled "Hypotheses, Plots, and Vegetable Soup."  Her brain is the pot in which the "narrative broth" simmers.  I'm not joking.

So for my own epilogue, I'd like to point out some of the more entertaining ingredients in this particular bowl of soup.
1.  ... I'd been dragged from a fire and deposited bum-up.  My leopard-skin panties had saluted the world.
leopard roar
My skin is NOT for panties!
I really, really hope that Reichs meant leopard-print panties.  Not only are leopards on the endangered species list, but fur underwear sounds really difficult to keep clean.
2.  "Nickleback is playing tonight.... I guess I'm not communicating very well, Detective.  Nickleback is an Alberta group."
That's funny, because there's a group called Nickelback that also hails from Alberta.  That's either a big coincidence, or Reichs doesn't know how to spell "nickel" and no one copy-edits her stuff anymore.  In fact, all the copy editors probably quit after they got carpal tunnel from writing "Sentence fragment!" in the margins.
According to my memory of a Rolling Stone article I once read in a doctor's office, one of the band members worked at Starbucks.  When he gave customers change, he'd say, "Here's your nickel back."
Presto, instant band name. 
 3.  This should be stuck in your head already, but if not, you are welcome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Maze Runner is Kind of Klunky

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)The Maze Runner by James Dashner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not Ender's Game. This is not The Hunger Games. But if you're a fan of young-adult science fiction/fantasy and need something to tide you over for awhile, this might do the trick.

Someday I'll design a book-rating system that can account for books that are not well-written, but still make you eager to keep reading.  I would give The Maze Runner's writing and the characterization one star, without any qualms of conscience. [Perhaps "James Dashner" is the YA alias of E.L. James? That would explain some things.]  However, I ended up giving it a three-star rating because -- and this is true -- I will probably read at least one more book in the series. How can I not say "liked it" (Goodreads's definition for three stars) when I did, in fact, like it enough to want to read more?

Unfortunately, this book's strength (its intriguing and somewhat inventive plot) is also the cause of its biggest weakness (the lack of character development). For the uninitiated, The Maze Runner is the story of a group of teenage boys who are dropped into a giant maze, which they spend years trying to solve.  Even more mysteriously, other than their names, they can't remember anything about their lives before the maze.

Do you see the problem? How interesting can a character possibly be when he has no childhood memories, no relationship history, no experiences to shape his values and emotional responses? And worse yet, everyone else around him is the same?

I also found the determined injection of special maze slang into the boys' conversations pretty annoying.
"We live here, this is it.  Better than living in a pile of klunk."  He squinted, maybe anticipating Thomas's question.  "Klunk's another word for poo.  Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots."
Nevermind that "Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots" sounds like something a five-year-old would say.  (Also, ew.)  I'm more disturbed by the fact that Mr. Dashner felt that the explanation was necessary.  Imagine if Battlestar Galactica had used that tactic:  "You see, frak's another word for the f-word, except for some reason we can say one on television but not the other."
Starbuck is not fraking amused.
You just don't explain slang, especially pseudo-swearing.  You use it, and people figure it out from context.

Nevertheless, I kept reading, wanting to see how the maze would be solved.  Maybe it's the same trait that makes it possible for me to play Bejeweled or Snood for hours on end.  Then the ending opened up the possibility of a whole new puzzle, so... I'll let you know how the next book is.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Even Famous, Rich, Skinny Women Have Self-Image Issues

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a WomanI Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great companion book to Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, which I reviewed here. The similarities are obvious; both books are compendia of humorous essays about what it means to be a woman. The differences, though, are so complementary as to seem practically intentional: Nora Ephron has the perspective of an older generation, Caitlin Moran the younger. Nora is New York City; Caitlin is London. Nora is (sometimes abashedly) dealing with the problems of a quite successful and wealthy woman; Caitlin spends much of her time recounting the poverty of her adolescence.

So between the two, you have reflections on how to be an older/younger, American/British, richer/poorer woman... and yet there is more overlap in their reflections than you might think.

In other words, it is not possible to discuss being a woman without mentioning bikini waxing.

2 B R 0 2 B, That is the Question

2BR02B2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very short story, set in a future world that I'll call "dystopian utopia." Vonnegut sets the stage succinctly:
Everything was perfectly swell. There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars. All diseases were conquered. So was old age. Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.
Sounds utopian, right? But there is, of course, a catch. Do yourself a favor and spend twenty minutes reading this story, and think about what makes some lives more valuable than others, and how we make the same kinds of decisions today, just in more subtle ways, on more macroscopic levels.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


The Scent of RainThe Scent of Rain by Kristin Billerbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes reading a book is like eating a thick, juicy steak. The language is meaty and rich, the ideas are complex and require some time to be properly digested, and the only other thing you need for a perfect evening is a comfy chair and a glass of good wine.

In between those books, I sometimes find I need a palate cleanser: light, easy reading that takes very little effort or time to enjoy. This book filled that role admirably.

Daphne Sweeten (the sweetly punny last name was a little unnecessary, in my opinion) is a professional scent developer who gave up her dream job in Paris so that she could move with her new husband to Ohio. He left her at the altar, though, so suddenly she's in a new town, with a new job, and no friends. To make matters worse, the stress and humiliation have caused her to lose her sense of smell.

This is classic chick lit with a refreshing perfume-industry angle and a sliver of Christian goodness built in. My last brushes with the perfume industry were the much-darker Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the delightful non-fiction tome The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession, both of which I highly recommend.

I'm going to take this opportunity to brag about my blog post title, and to express my disappointment that the word petrichor did not appear anywhere in this book.  If you're not familiar with it, click here.  I'll wait.  Then you can say, "Oh, ha, I see what she did there."

The Scent of Rain does not deal with scents or science in any great detail, but its treatment seemed informed without being overdone, so my mild interest in the subject matter was satisfied.  For 85% of the book, I felt the same way about the religion.  Without the Christianity angle, I might be skeptical that a group of strangers would pitch in to refurbish a dangerously decrepit house for the new girl in town. But it's a church group, being encouraged by the pastor's wife, so it fits the story just fine.  I appreciated that, because overt religion in fiction frequently feels heavy-handed and wholly unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the book went on to prove my point.  The last few pages are forced and do the rest of the book an injustice.  First, there's a hospital scene where the book's Mean Girl gets all weepy and repent-y because good girl Daphne visits her.  I don't disallow that being in a car accident can cause you to rethink your life, but I found her 180-degree turnaround and teary confession to a bitter enemy a little difficult to swallow.  Second, although the love story had a long, slow, fairly believable buildup, the climactic scene where Daphne and the reticent widower realize they have feelings for each other ends with [mild spoiler alert!] the widower proposing marriage and offering to move to Paris with her.  I think a more appropriate question would have been, "Hey, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?"  Not that everyone has to follow conventional dating structure, but proposing to someone you've never dated seemed a little crazy to me.  Especially when, you know, she just got left at the altar by another guy a few months before.  Maybe give her a little time to make sure she's worked through all of that?

Speaking of the ex-fiancé, whom we never meet, I was left with some minor confusion about him. When Daphne moves to Dayton, she tells the widower that her ex is "a brilliant chemist."
She turned in her seat to face Jesse, who looked skeptical. "He really is. But he grew up poor, and he had this deep need to follow the money."
A couple of chapters later, we are reminded of his brilliance by Daphne's best friend.
He may have been a brilliant chemist, but there are laws for a reason. He always thought himself above the rules.
So, I may not know much about the ex-fiancé, but I do know he's a brilliant but unscrupulous chemist. Got it. But then!
Mark was a terrible chemist... He wasn't careful about ratios, not until he understood that ratios and chemistry could make him wealthy.
At first I was confused about whether he was a brilliant chemist or a terrible one.  Then I realized he was a terrible chemist until his greed made him brilliant.
Was his last name Burns?  That would be another suitably punny last name...

Just like I was a terrible writer until I got greedy and wanted people to read my writing. Now that I have a blog, I am brilliant.

Please feel free to agree with me by commenting below.

Disclosure: I received this book free through booksneeze.com.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Jewish Boys Who Draw Comic Books

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am far from the first person to have loved this book, and I certainly won't be the last.  If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this review and go check it out from your public library.  It's been around for awhile, so it should be relatively easy to find.

 The concept itself is pretty simple: an American boy and his Czech cousin, an escapee from Nazi annexation, develop a comic-book superhero in the 1940s. But this story has some of the most wide-ranging and well-developed side plots I've ever seen in a novel.  We get to witness Josef's extensive training in magic, à la Houdini, and his eventual escape inside a coffin holding a giant corpse rumored to have been a golem.  We attend a cocktail party featuring Salvador Dali in a scuba-diving suit.  We experience a period of wartime service -- in Antarctica of all places -- complete with frozen corpses and trusty sled dogs, that could probably have stood alone as a separate book.
The Call of the Wild
Wait, am I reading about comic-book heroes or sled dogs?
Mostly, though, I'm impressed by Chabon's style of writing; his words make impressive necklaces as he strings them together. For example, "they arranged him with the care of florists in front of a glass of bourbon and ice..."  Maybe it's the flower-arranging I've been doing on the side lately, but for me, this created an incredibly distinctive picture, especially for such a short phrase devoid of adjectives.  I can see them carefully arranging him on a barstool, adjusting his posture when he leans a little to one side, and the image evokes an impression of tenderness and love between the characters without it being put into words. The next time I have a bad day, I think all I want is for someone to arrange me with the care of florists in front of an alcoholic beverage.
If it's all the same to you, though, I'd prefer an Aviation to a glass of bourbon and ice, thanks.
Chabon's phrasing is impeccable, even when his powers of prediction are not:
Poor Judy Dark! Poor little librarians of the world, those girls, secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a pair of big black eyeglasses.
Clearly, Michael Chabon did not anticipate hipsters.
My favorite hipster.  Also, meme + font joke = win.
Photo from fuckyeahhipsterariel.tumblr.com
Here is one more example of beautiful writing, though you should not need any further encouragement to pick up this book. This is Chabon's description of a child's drawing:
Although the man's parachute was far beyond his reach, the man was smiling, and pouring a cup of tea from an elaborate plummeting tea service, as if oblivious of his predicament, or as if he thought he had all the time in the world before he would hit the ground.
I want to name something Elaborate Plummeting Tea Service.   I really do.  It's probably too unwieldy for my entirely fictitious punk rock band, though.