Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book review: Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey

Goodreads: “For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of
Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.”

I’ve really enjoyed the three books so far in the Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate. Where the first set the pace, tone, and foundation for the series in a way that was already epic in scale, the latter two have somehow continued to build on that promise by introducing more narrative lead characters and new high-stakes conflict without letting the story run away from itself. Despite the expansion of character profiles and deeper exploration of those characters’ motivations, the core group we were introduced to in the first book — James Holden and his crew — remain central to the story, thereby anchoring us to a heart of the tale that we’ve grown familiar with and attached to.

Abaddon’s Gate contains a classic redemption tale, a frame-job, and the possibility of massive war among two superpowers, a lesser alliance, and an unknown alien foe that is likely to crush everyone and annihilate humanity in the blink of an eye. Our hero, James Holden, also talks to ghosts and even goes on a one-man mission as an emissary to the alien would-be demolitionists because that’s what the ghost tells him to do. The book rarely takes a moment to breathe, but the slower chapters reinforce the emotional stakes and passion — sometimes quiet, sometimes imbued with burning rage — that drive the characters.

Also remarkable in the series is the way that each book feels, in a way, like a standalone: there are no cliffhangers and the individual stories therein are resolved; however, the resolution sets up a backdrop for what may become the main source of tension in the next book, or the one after. Leviathan Wakes saw the emergence of a dangerous, little-understood alien protomolecule that, by the end, was seemingly dispatched into the inhospitable environment of Venus, therefore saving Earth from destruction. Caliban’s War showed the protomolecule quietly taking over Venus and exhibiting feats of impossible physics, worrying everyone to death over what its next move would be. Abaddon’s Gate reveals what the next move was, and though, again, the immediate conflict was solved, the possibility for major catastrophe still lurks in another form entirely. And none of that takes into account the political and personal struggles of the humans themselves, which could themselves be a collection of compelling and suspenseful stories.

The Expanse series is space opera at its finest. The prose isn’t the most sophisticated, but it’s tightly written and consistently entertaining. Even sci-fi novices could enjoy these books, I think, since they’re not overly jammed with techie jargon and high-concept gimmicks. If you’re put off because it’s set in space, don’t be. The plots are steeped in classic noir and suspense, with war games thrown in for good measure. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book review: The Sisters Brothers

“Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.”
I enjoyed this book a lot. It moves fairly quickly, and has a wry sense of humor assisted by a touch of charming old-timeyness. It’s also poignant and thoughtful without being maudlin, and, not for nothing, I think the cover art is pretty cool. The story takes place during the Gold Rush, and the titular Sisters Brothers — their last name is Sisters — are infamous contract killers. Narration comes through Eli, the “sensitive” brother, and though I put “sensitive” in scare quotes, he really does seem like a kind of cuddly bear when you get down to it: he could definitely kill you if he felt so inclined, but he’d honestly rather not.
As I read this awhile back then settled comfortably into laziness regarding ever writing a book review again, I’m forced to rely on somewhat stale impressions. One thing I remember really enjoying was the dialogue — both the conversations themselves and Eli’s mental reactions to said conversations. For instance, Eli is about 200% done here with a would-be Scary Guy who is all talk: “Returning his pen to its holder, he told us, ‘I will have him gutted with that scythe. I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not hep but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.” Another great remark comes later, from a man who shares with Charlie Sisters a possible reason for people overpaying, exorbitantly, for everything in Gold Rush-era San Francisco: “…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”
All in all, thumbs up. I had this on my reading list for awhile and was putting it off because though I had heard good things, it’s a member of a genre I don’t regularly gravitate toward. If I’d known how much I would enjoy it, I’d have picked it up a lot sooner.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book review: Endless Knight by Kresley Cole

“Evie has fully come into her powers as the Tarot Empress, and Jack was there to see it all. She now knows that the teens who’ve been reincarnated as the Tarot are in the throes of an epic battle. It’s kill or be killed, and the future of mankind hangs in the balance.
With threats lurking around every corner, Evie is forced to trust her newfound alliance. Together they must fight not only other Arcana, but also Bagmen zombies, post-apocalyptic storms, and cannibals.
When Evie meets Death, things get even more complicated. Though falling for Jack, she’s drawn to the dangerous Endless Knight as well. Somehow the Empress and Death share a history, one that Evie can’t remember—but Death can’t forget.”
Despite kind of hating a lot of Poison Princess, the first book in this series, I decided to read the sequel, since PP ended with a bang and gave me enough confidence to soldier on. I’m glad I did, because this book had a lot more of the parts of the first that I liked: action, expansion of the cool Tarot concept, Evie not being a complete muppet. Oh, also, there are probably spoilers for PP in this review, so tread with caution. Despite it being a slight stretch of the imagination that Evie went from having literally no idea what she was capable of to suddenly displaying a massive show of power, it was kind of fun that we didn’t have to trudge through a literary training montage. In a fluffy book like this, sometimes it’s just more fun to accept that her magic is natural to her and she just needed to unlock it.
I was also curious to meet Death (the guy doing his best Spike impression up there on the cover) since I wasn’t a huge fan of Jackson, the first point of the love triangle. Kresley Cole, having quite a formidable background in PNR (just ask Malin and Mrs. Julien!) draws on traditional archetypes to set these guys up against each other. Jackson is definitely a rogueish Protector, while Death is a romantic Tortured Soul who initially lashes out at Evie because he’s all Damaged like that. It’s an interesting study in contrast, because while both have moments with her where they alternatively treat her like dirt then do something intended to be completely swoon-worthy, their actions come from decidedly different places. I guess it’s just up to readers to pick their favorite type of hero, because neither one is obviously a better choice in my opinion.
This series is meant to be Cole’s foray into YA, by virtue of having younger protagonists and fewer love scenes that are also slightly less explicit. More interestingly, writing for the YA set gave Cole an opportunity to really flex her high-concept plot muscles, which is something I think she’s done well at. She may even be better at this than traditional PNR, since in that area she comes across as having creative ideas that are weighed down with genre tropes like weird gender issues and gratuitous rough sex. And I’m not saying gratuitous rough sex doesn’t have a place in PNR, but I’ve gotten the sense from her that she almost enjoys building new worlds more than writing love scenes (see as evidence: her many sprawling high concept series for which she seems to never run out of ideas, but sex scenes that are mostly the same when you really get down to it. SEE WHAT I DID THERE) Anyway, read if you’re curious, a fan of Cole, the genre, etc.

Book review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

“The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassinit is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.
Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.”
UGH I AM SO BEHIND UGH. Anyway, I had an interesting relationship with this book. It took me longer than usual to get through it, for a book of its length, because I found some portions of it to be dull, others rather engaging, and it really didn’t pick up steam for me as a whole until about the last third of the book. The end, though, was so fantastic that it basically made up for any of the earlier sections of the book that I wasn’t as fond of.
There are three interweaving narratives. Two of them are directly told by Iris Chase Griffen; one is her retelling her and her sister’s coming of age and, essentially, her memoirs leading up to the present, and the second is the present as an elderly woman. The retrospective is told without much editorializing from present-day Iris; it’s in the current sections that she discusses regrets and consequences in perfect hindsight. The third narrative is a seemingly out-of-place story of an unnamed man and woman meeting in secret. It’s a story about them, but it also includes a fantastical sc-fi tale of aliens, human sacrifice, and yes, blind assassins, that the man weaves at each new tryst. It eventually becomes clear that this story is text from “The Blind Assassin,” Laura Chase’s breakout novel.
Part of the reason that it took so long for the novel to come together for me was how seemingly disparate the stories were, at first. Obviously the two “parts” about Iris made sense together, but there was an uncomfortable tension arising from the suspicion that somehow, when the two finally converged, we’d find out a big secret about Iris. This kind of tension can be a great thing, and it was, for a time (and it eventually paid off!) but it can also seem really belabored if the pacing is inconsistent. For me, it unfortunately was a bit inconsistent, and I spent some time thinking, “Get to the point!”

Despite all that, when I think back on the novel now, I think of it as a net positive experience — that despite having a hard time getting through parts of it, my suspense (it’s not a thriller, but suspense is there nonetheless) was rewarded enough to merit the occasional frustration. I definitely recommend this for Atwood fans who haven’t read it yet, but for those who may be new to Atwood, it might be difficult to start here. It’s an interesting mix of sci-fi (in “The Blind Assassin” Incepto-novel,) historical fiction, and contemporary fiction and ultimately succeeds at blending them, but it can seem, at first, a little needlessly ambitious.

Book review: John Dies at the End by David Wong

“STOP. You should not have touched this flyer with your bare hands. NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late. They’re watching you. My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours. You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye. The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.
The important thing is this: The drug is called Soy Sauce and it gives users a window into another dimension. John and I never had the chance to say no. You still do. I’m sorry to have involved you in this, I really am. But as you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind: None of this was my fault.”
I am trying to think of a weirder book than this (from my childhood: Sideways Stories from Wayside School comes to mind; I also remember Weetzie Bat being very strange but I may have just been too young to understand it.) Weirdness isn’t bad. In fact, this was a really entertaining book that was as funny as it was genuinely creepy. I’m still not completely convinced that I understood everything that was going on, and I am fairly certain that if I made this observation to the titular John, he’d simply nod and comment that I can’t be expected to; after all, I haven’t ever taken the sauce.
There is something very unique, not just about the plot — which is obviously so — but about Wong’s writing and his ability to, in the face of such weirdness, pretty thoroughly define his characters without really seeming like he is trying very hard to at all. By the end of the book, I absolutely understood the motivations and actions of each character, and that’s without any backstory worth speaking of for most of them.
Sometimes I worry that my review attempts get a little pedantic, talking too much about nuts and bolts, and since doing so for this book just seems kind of inherently wrong, like a square hamburger patty, I’ll just shut up here and say “READJOHN DIES AT THE END.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

This is the third and final installment of the Divergent trilogy, and since it will be difficult to speak another word, including giving any summary, without tremendous spoilers for the first two in the series, the rest of this review will go behind a cut.
Goodreads summary: "The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love. "
Allegiant picks up right were Insurgent left off, much like the latter did for Divergent. My opinions are very divided on this book, so the best way I can think of to organize my thoughts will be in a pros and cons list.
  • Pro: If you were irritated by Tris in Insurgent, you'll like her better here. She's essentially returned to how she was in Divergent: confident, brave, loyal, and generally someone who seems worthy of leading others.
  • Con: This isn't Tris's fault, per se, but probably Roth's -- Tris becomes essentially untouchable in this book. She's right about everything, and she becomes everyone's salve. She's kind of superhuman and even though you love her because she's your protagonist and you grew with her, she's not exactly relate-able anymore.
  • Pro: This is a maybe-pro, just depending on the individual taste of the reader. The brooding, mysterious Four is given POV sections, an audience request that I've noticed lately seems to be born more out swoony impulses to hear about the other half of the romance than to really get at someone's characterization, but in any case, we get a little of both here.
  • Con: Four's POV sections dismantle how we see him, which is as a strong and determined person, a rock for Tris. Indeed, she even describes him as such: the stone to her knife, to support her and make her sharper. Four's sections allow us to see his vulnerability, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when combined with Tris's sudden elevation to near infallibility, it makes Four seem unworthy of her. Whereas Four's defining characteristic before seemed to be that he understood and respected his fears but didn't let them control him, here he seems to be unilaterally propelled by them without any input from his conscious person. We don't like this! 
  • Con 2: Except for context clues, there isn't really much in the way to distinguish the POV sections. The way Roth has written them, Four and Tris's voices are basically identical. It cheapens the quality of the writing overall, because rather than really working on developing those voices, it ends up just being a cop-out to establish author omniscience while writing in the first person.
  • Pro: If you're a fan of Roth's action-packed writing, you'll get that here in spades.
  • Con: A lot weighs here on eugenics and Bad Scientists™, which is fine as a narrative when the Bad Science™ actually makes sense scientifically (if not morally,) but here it kind of doesn't. 
  • Con: For me, the ending was pretty unsatisfying in a lot of ways. This marks the second time this year I've finished a major YA trilogy this year and been pretty let down by the ending. There is something of a sense of relief and baseline satisfaction at finishing a series you've grown to love, but both in this case and in the other (Requiem, the end of the Delerium trilogy) it seemed that the author was really rushed and had to hang epic endings on unrealistic scenarios and deus ex machinas
Now, onto the Spoilery bits. Seriously, here be spoilers. And mostly complaints.
  • Delving a little more into the eugenics thing: basically, the entire format of their society at this point is that the Bad Government™ decided to "fix" genes that made people dishonest, cowardly, unintelligent, unkind, and selfish. This backfired and made people allegedly worse than before, leading to a Big War™ and resulting in major class divisions between the Genetically Pure (GPs) -- people who didn't undergo the "therapy" -- and the Genetically Damaged (GDs) -- people who did. The Divergent, then are people who, after generations of breeding, have acquired GP status again by getting enough Pure genes from their lineages. I could go into a huge "I'm an actual geneticist" explanation why this is silly, but I'll just leave it at this: if you have scientific technology sophisticated enough to make all of these genetic modifications in the first place, it's absolutely ludicrous that they couldn't modify people back to "Pure" state.
  • The huge war brewing in Chicago between the factionless and the Allegiant (who want to repair and restore the factions) is so troublesome that the government and scientists outside the wall basically wants to shut down and reset the whole city, but it's solved in about three simple steps that are hugely out of character for most of the parties involved. Basically, 1) Son talks to mother who has repeatedly put her own interests above his, 2) Said mother talks to estranged abusive husband-slash-opponent in war, 3) ???, 4) No war!
  • Meanwhile, outside the wall, the plan to shut down the war is to use aerosolized "memory serum" (actually memory-loss serum) to reset everyone. The Good Gang's plan to combat this is, partially, to specifically inoculate their families against the serum in case of the worst while combating dosing outside the wall and in fact launching an attack on the innermost weapons chamber of the facility they're at. It's a flashy idea, but when you consider that a) the facility they're at has the remote ability to dose everyone with memory serum and b) they already have access to the anecdote without breaking into anything, trying to -- for instance -- remotely administer the anecdote instead of the serum requires far fewer heroics than their actual plan and is therefore much more likely to succeed.
  • And finally, let's not dance around the elephant in the room any longer. Tris's death is, in some ways, a fitting end to the series. It's perfectly in character for her, and she really is the flame that burns twice as bright but half as long. I don't want to completely rail against it because I think it is a bold choice that Roth made despite knowing she was going to piss off a lot of people. I'm not one of those people that's hopping mad about it, but I think in the context of the rest of the plan being so sloppy (as discussed above) her death feels like a sacrifice that is done a little more for shock value than out of necessity. The disconsolate chapters that followed from Four had their intended effect -- I was ugly crying -- but I did feel a little manipulated and unsettled in kind of a dirty, cheap way.
If you're a fan of this series, you're going to read this book regardless of this review (and in fact, mine probably isn't the first review like this that you've read,) so you don't need my recommendation or not. I just wish I were less disappointed, personally. Rounding up to three stars, charitably, for overall enjoyment of the series, but this installment is the weakest of the three.

Book review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.
At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”
I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister – two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.
I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.
Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

More songs I like

In keeping with the seasonal playlists I've been putting up, here's the one for summer. These aren't necessarily "summer" songs, but, as with the other lists, they're ones I was particularly tempted to put on repeat for the past few months.

Yes, I cheated, adding "Get Lucky" again, but since it was an official cultural "Song of the Summer" and I didn't love it any less after the spring, I included it again here.

Summer 2013 by Amanda Crow on Grooveshark

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Goodreads: In a ruined and toxic landscape, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside. 
 
His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I got into the game very late with this one, but in the case of this book, better late than never — this was a fantastic novel that I really enjoyed and can’t wait to keep going with the series. I love the story behind the publication of Wool, as well: that a truly talented author saw success based on the merit of his once little-known story.

I won’t really go on at length about it, because endless uncritical gushing can get boring. I do want to, in particular, praise the characterization and that Howey’s gradual introductions of new character POVs didn’t ever feel overwhelming or excessive. Each added POV rounded out the developing story by providing insight into the different factions within the silo. Regarding his stories, Howey has said: “A theme in my books is the celebration of overcoming odds and of not allowing the cruelty of the universe to change who you are in the process.” Indeed, his characters are imbued with different backgrounds and motivations that inform their actions, but even within the context of uprising, class warfare, and “choosing sides,” the main players have an individual light that makes them more compelling and human than simply a rote war drone or even the stock iconoclast rebel.

Looking forward to Shift and eventually Dust.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book review: What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Goodreads summary: “When it comes to sex, common wisdom holds that men roam while women crave closeness and commitment. But in this provocative, headline-making book, Daniel Bergner turns everything we thought we knew about women’s arousal and desire inside out. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with renowned behavioral scientists, sexologists, psychologists, and everyday women, he forces us to reconsider long-held notions about female sexuality.
 
This bold and captivating journey into the world of female desire explores answers to such thought-provoking questions as: Are women perhaps the less monogamous sex? What effect do intimacy and emotional connection really have on lust? What is the role of narcissism—the desire to be desired—in female sexuality? Are political gains for women (“No means no”) detrimental in the bedroom? And is the hunt for a “female Viagra” anything but a search for the cure for monogamy?

Bergner goes behind the scenes of some of the most groundbreaking experiments on sexuality today and confronts us with controversial, sometimes uncomfortable findings. Incendiary, profoundly insightful, and brilliantly illuminating, What Do Women Want? will change the conversation about women and sex, and is sure to spark dynamic discussion for years to come.”

This book blew my mind. When it was first published, it got some buzz in the feminist blogosphere. The reason being: as the synopsis above alludes to, much of the evidence that Bergner collects from researchers in the field completely upends society’s traditional narrative about female sexuality. At the initial time of publication, the articles writing up What Do Women Want? mentioned this, so I wanted to pick up the book and read the interviews with scientists for myself, as well as take notes on their publications so I could go to the primary sources. I haven’t read through the complete collection of literature yet that I had intended to tackle, but so far Bergner’s conclusions, informed through the work of scientists studying sexual behavior in human and animal females, seem pretty sound to me.

I don’t want to necessarily “give away” more than what is hinted at in the synopsis and already covered in the articles online, but one of the things overall that really struck me is how sexual puritanism disadvantages women on two fronts. In the first place, on the sociological and psychological level, general sexist double standards (that we are all pretty aware of) restrict our sexual knowledge and activities both through social pressure and internalized misogyny. Secondly, it’s shocking how much resistance has been thrown at genuine biological exploration of female anatomy and arousal. It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve even learned of the full internal structure of the clitoris, and yet, it’s still not common knowledge; even some of the sex researchers Bergner interviewed weren’t aware of the internal modeling. (Also, Begner doesn’t discuss this at all, but people still think the hymen is a thing that has anything to do with virginity. Protip: it doesn’t.) Anyway, with the stigma against biological/evidence-based research into female sexuality, it has allowed our society to rely on, and indeed, default to, untestable theories about women and sex from the field of evolutionary psychology, which is rather famously patriarchal.

In summation: I, frankly, think this is a book that everyone, but especially women, could benefit from reading. Though Bergner’s narrative suggests, in many places, that the opposite of what we think we know about female sexuality may in fact be true, the book doesn’t come across as pushy. Given that such a narrow range of sexual behavior and preferences have been traditionally ascribed to women, What Do Women Want? is less about trying to change that narrow definition to another narrow definition than it is about broadening the scope of what is considered “normal” sexual behavior for women.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book review: Try the Morgue by Eva Maria Staal

Goodreads: “Ten years ago, “Eva Maria Staal” kept a gun in her purse. It was a present from her boss, Jimmy Liu, the international arms dealer extraordinaire with a taste for high-class male escorts. Together, Jimmy and his devoted assistant traveled the world’s most dangerous hotspots, closing deals with ruthless warlords and corrupt generals, and trading Stinger missiles in Karachi, AK-47s in Chechnya, and hollow-point bullets in Islamabad. But burdened by her conscience, Eva Maria finally got out, married an optometrist, and had a baby. Now, assailed with memories of her secret life, she must reconcile her suburban present with a repressed but ineradicable past, one that blasts a hole so deep she doesn’t know how to love her own daughter. Writing with a knowing intelligence only an insider could provide, this pseudonymous author has created a debut with remarkable intensity that examines the razor-thin line separating those who are drowned from those who are saved.”
 
This was a gripping, intense book that I am not sure how to classify. It’s probably fict-ish, a mostly-memoir with creative license. The shocking, blase nature of the global underground arms trade is laid bare, and it’s horrifying and mesmerizing.

I can’t really critique the story (not that I would, because I enjoyed it) since it seems so based in truth and experience. I do wish, though, that I had a little more insight into the author/narrator’s motives. The novel starts in media res and outside of what seems like a loyalty (or just obligation?) to her boss, I never got a great idea of how Staal found herself in the arms trade or what was really keeping her there. Staal must have expected a curiosity, not only about the trade, but also about the people in it, so the dispassionate way she wrote can be a bit unsatisfying — we want to know what drives someone like her to such amoral, destructive work.

The only other criticism I have is regarding the linearity — I have no preference for a linear timeline at all, but if one is going to jump about, it should be pretty clear where in the narrative we are at any given point. In this book, there were definitely chapter openings where I wasn’t certain when the conversation was taking place or who she was referencing. When this happened it does eventually become clear, but I was caught flipping pages a bit to try to catch on. Overall, this was a very quick and fascinating read on a topic I know very little about. I’d love to know more about the author’s story and in a way wish this book were longer, but it seems she shared about as much as she was willing to so I have to accept what I got.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I dub thee

By my fifth year working in a lab, I was fairly jaded about the amount of excitement one could get up to. The New Thing that happened yesterday wasn't strictly lab-related, but I doubt I would have gotten this opportunity had I not been working in a lab.

We have an exchange student from a medical school in China. We introduced ourselves to each other yesterday, and I asked her how she would prefer to be addressed, since I'd heard about three different names from three different people in reference to her. "Oh," she said. "I don't have an English name yet. We can choose one -- how about Sophie?"

I sputtered.

"Oh, you don't like it?" She asked.

"No, it's not that!" I said. "I just don't know if I should pick your name! You don't even need an English name, if you don't want. Whatever name you want to use is fine!"

"What about Amy?"

"Amy is nice!" I finally said, bemused.

Afterwards, she gave me a really awesome dragon pendant and expressed surprise that my boss/mentor communicates through text, since apparently that is too casual of an interaction to warrant a response in her experience.

This is going to be my first experience working so closely with an exchange student, and I already know I am going to learn a lot.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Goodreads summary: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”
 
Life After Life is a fascinating conceptual novel, the potential of which I am not sure was ever fully realized. In many ways, it comes across as a refurbished and more bombastic “Groundhog Day”: more historically captivating (WWII setting) and with the chance to observe Ursula Todd throughout her life as opposed to on just one day, we feel like there is more at stake, but the same basic conceit of being able to re-do your life until you get it right applies.

Ursula, here, doesn’t exactly know that she is re-living her life. She does have premonitions and sometimes strong feelings that she needs to take some kind of decisive action in order to prevent something that feels instinctively bad, which is a clever choice by the author because it keeps the novel grounded in reality despite the somewhat fantastical premise. By connecting Ursula’s “multiple lives” to her intuition and a sense of deja vu, rather than an exact knowledge that she has lived that life before, Atkinson plays on the reader’s questions about life and existence — what does it mean when we get deja vu or that intangible, yet powerful, feeling that something is amiss?

There are some parts of this novel that are extremely difficult to read. I don’t want to get into specifics as they will probably constitute spoilers, but some versions of Ursula’s life are depressing, and others are deeply uncomfortable in different ways. There is one specific version that I found to be incredibly problematic, but again, I can’t really discuss it without giving away a major event. What I will try to say, as cryptically as possible, is that in a story like this, there is the implication that Urusla, or whatever protagonist, is responsible for the outcome by the choices they make. There are some outcomes here that Ursula had absolutely zero control over, but the way the narrative develops suggests that she did, and I found those particular threads to be kind of presumptuous at best and offensive at worst.

Otherwise, the overall story was very engaging and the prose lyrical and tight. It was sometimes hard to tell when one life was ending and a new one beginning, but there is a pattern to the chapters to help make it more clear. At the end, despite being harrowing at times and problematic at others, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. I have seen some reviews with proclamations that this book may be some kind of manual or have a moral message; I wouldn’t go that far. When you look at the choices that led Ursula to her happiest life, they weren’t necessarily the most enlightened or selfless, but they did make the most sense. Maybe that’s what the message is, then: have some common sense.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book review: A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

I’m really doubting I’m going to add anything new to the decade-long conversation about A Song of Ice and Fire, so I’m just going to offer a casual collection of thoughts for the sake of demonstrating that I did actually read it.


The first thing that pleasantly surprised me as I dug into A Game of Thrones was that GRRM’s writing was more straightforward than I expected. I had heard from detractors that his writing style is rambling and convoluted, but when I brought this up to a friend incredulously asking why I hadn’t read ASOIAF yet, he responded that if I wasn’t put off by Tolkien, I could certainly handle Martin. That turned out to be true. The length is a bit imposing, and it took me some time to get through (particularly since I have an awful habit of reading several books at a time), but I didn’t especially feel that this installment suffered for want of editing (that may change further down the line.)

As a fan of the HBO series, I’ll definitely be wanting to go back and rewatch the first season with the book fresh in my mind. Upon my first watch, I recall feeling overwhelmed by how many characters there were, and particularly by characters that were mentioned in passing by name but who never appeared onscreen (or who did only fleetingly.) There were also several scenes that I had completely forgotten about until I read A Game of Thrones, and I’d like to go back and see how the scene played out on screen. For instance, I had totally forgotten all about the Hand’s Tournament and how Loras Tyrell actually appears sooner than season 3.

Anyway, it’s going to be something of a comfort to have the series to read while I wait for the next season of the show. And maybe I’ll get to have something shocking to be smug about that occurs during episode 9.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Goodreads: “Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”
 
TFIOS is a touching, funny, sad, poignant, and somewhat dreamlike story that is well-loved and has been reviewed to death. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel on this one, so I’ll just quickly share some of my general thoughts. Overall, I found this to be a wonderful novel, but for some reason I can’t put a finger on it didn’t become an instant favorite of mine.

John Green’s teens are, across all of his novels, generally wise beyond their years, and so it is the case here: Hazel and Augustus at times come across more like idealized versions of themselves than actual living people. Even their faults are perfectly expressed in metaphor, their emotions precisely defined. It was that precision, though, and that heightened realism that helped ground the “cancer story” and prevented TFIOS from becoming too maudlin. Where other tragedy-porn authors steer into verbose, florid language and hyperbole to create the verbal equivalent of that token string swell, Green’s incredible ability to put a point on the exact situational qualities that define a moment draws out more honest empathy from the reader. In other words: this may still have been emotional manipulation, but when the tears came, I felt more like they came from actual understanding than from a heavy mallet to the back of the head.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Goodreads summary: “Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (Fran├žois Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.”
 
Looking for Alaska predates Paper Towns, which I read first. I mention this because in my review of Paper Towns, I suggested that John Green had successfully navigated the familiar waters of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by at first buying into it, then subverting it. He tried something very similar here, but I don’t think he was as successful. The two books are very, very similar, but Paper Towns seems to be a slightly more mature version of Looking for Alaska; both feature self-proclaimed ‘average guy’ protagonists whose worlds are upended by an extraordinary girl, but while by the end of her book Alaska Young remains more of an iconoclastic symbol than a real person, Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns explicitly rejects the idealized version of herself the protagonist believes she is.

This was, still, a book I enjoyed, and even though all of the characters sound in one way or another like they have a healthy measure of John Green in them (by which I mean, it’s like in movies where an actor might be doing a really great job, but s/he is so famous that you never quite forget it’s that actor. That’s kind of what a lot of John Green’s characters are like), they were all still people I wouldn’t have minded having as friends in high school. His prose is very lyrical and he has the ability to describe feelings in a very acute, descriptive, and yet poetic way. More than once I stopped and thought to myself, regarding something I would have previously thought indescribable, “Yes, that is exactly what that feels like.” That ability is probably his greatest asset as an author, especially given the specific realm that he chooses to inhabit in his novels, which I would title “teenage romance and self discovery in peculiar circumstances.” Anyway, you probably don’t strictly need to read this if you’ve already read Paper Towns, but this is an enjoyable few hours.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Crimes against myself

I used to make myself some absolutely absurd "snacks" after school. Even worse than eating them myself was trying to convince my friends that what I was making was real, edible food. (A few of them bought into my lies, poor things...)

The first offender in a long line of gourmet detritus was something that I very creatively titled "Bread, Butter, Sugar," because that's what it was and who needs conjunctions? The only way the name of this food item could have gotten more literal was if I called it "Bread, Margarine, Sugar." Anyway, the important thing to note about this snack is that the goal was to put as much not-butter and sugar on top of the bread as possible. Like, if you were to take a cross-section of this thing, the butter and sugar would hopefully stand at least an inch tall on the bread. Because if you're going to eat something like that, you may as well fully commit to your self-loathing.

From there I ramped up the ridiculousness with a currently untitled piece that was also bread-based. This one involved dumping approximately two liters of maple syrup onto a piece of bread and then covering the whole slice with whipped cream. This one I continued to make well into high school, and unlike B.B.S., I actually ate it in front of my parents, as if it weren't totally shameful.

If I had a DSLR, I'd love to take a photo of the whipped cream thing like it was some classy "secret shame" snack and tag it #foodporn and see how many notes it would get on Tumblr or Pinterest.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: Bonk by Mary Roach

Goodreads: “The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.
 
Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of ‘The New Yorker’), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women or, for that matter, pandas? 

In ‘Bonk’, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.”

It’s hard for me to critique nonfiction in all of my usual ways, so I’ll just say firstly that I immediately took to Roach’s writing style here, which is humorous and engaging. I think she does a great job of interpreting the data and results and translating them to a less scientific audience, and I was amused by her anecdotes of how she had to participate in some studies in order to get any kind of access to the equipment that was used.

There are some cringey passages, which aren’t Roach’s fault so much as she’s just dutifully reporting some rather cringey experiments (both official and not.) I’d absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has curiosity on the subject, with the caveat that there will probably be at least one or two things she discusses that will squick you out. Otherwise, I definitely learned a few things and enjoyed Roach’s presentation.

Book review: Paper Towns by John Green

Goodreads says: “Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows.
 
After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer Q gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.”

I really enjoyed this one. It surprised me; it started out as what seemed to be a pretty standard tale of a guy obsessed with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that she is the key to enlivening his existence. But then Paper Towns turned that whole trope on its head and became a complete deconstruction of it. What started as Quentin worshipping a romanticized ideal of Margo Roth Spiegelman became Quentin realizing he doesn’t know her at all and trying to, first by reading into clues she left behind and then by finally understanding that the whole of who a person is can’t be deduced just by pieces left behind.

Philosophical meanderings aside, the novel also had a ton of great smaller moments between friends in their final weeks of high school, a satisfying (if unrealistic) storyline of high school jerks getting their come-uppance, and some hilariously cartoonish parents. Seriously: the three sets of parents we hear the most about are prototypically mean and neglectful (Margo’s), blissfully clueless (Quentin’s), or delightfully wacky to the extent of trying to collect every Black Santa ever produced in tangible form (Radar’s).

This is a charming and thoughtful YA book that was a quick and satisfying read. It was my first John Green book, and I have others coming through the library hold pipeline that I’m excited about.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Goodreads says: “A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.”
 
There was a lot to unfold in this book, with its successive stories each moving forward in time, interrupting each other, addressing each other, and then concluding sequentially. Having read it, I think I can especially understand the more at-odds than usual mixed reviews of the movie, since adapting this for film seems an unusually tasking endeavor.

Mitchell has accomplished an impressive technical feat here, which is to leap between stylistic genres believably. Some (possibly those with a higher literary IQ than I) have also alleged that the “stacked” nature of this book is itself an accomplishment; for me it seemed a little gimmicky. A vague thread of existentialism ran through each of the stories, which were more explicitly tied together with notes like the narrator of one story reading the journal of the prior narrator’s story, or multiple narrators mentioning having the same birthmark (this seemingly random connection was lampshaded later when one narrator, an editor, scoffed at the random inclusion of two other nested characters having the same birthmark.) Each of these stories also borrow heavily from other works of art (literature, film, music/music history), as acknowledged by Mitchell himself, so in a way, as the stories string themselves together, they are also tied to our living reality. It is very clever, all of these tenuous threads, but at the end of the day your enjoyment of the book as a whole probably rests mostly on how you respond to each of the different stories. I read someone else’s review recently (I’m sorry to say I don’t remember whose!) that addressed the idea that sometimes appreciating what the author has done is different from enjoying it, and that’s basically what I experienced here.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy any of Cloud Atlas. I just didn’t enjoy all of it. My personal favorite stories included “An Orison of Sonmi~451″, which was the sci-fi Blade Runner-esque account of a replicant type who became sentient. It’s presented as an interview with her as she waits on what is essentially death row. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek with its inclusion of many of our favorite sci-fi tropes in such a short story, and as a fan of the genre I appreciated the wink and nod. I also liked the story that comprised of letters from 1930′s composer Robert Frobisher to one Rufus Sixsmith, and the delightfully cheesy noir mystery of Luisa Rey. Conversely, I didn’t like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (I think I could the apostrophes correct!) much at all — the forced pidgin was an absolute chore to read and I gave up on it entirely, other than to scan through and find the connection, which was that Sonmi~451′s story had survived and elevated her to God-like status among some.

It’s hard to say if this book will, ultimately, ascend to the status of literary classic, or be defamed as hacky and pompous after some time. In the present though, it’s worth reading.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My original review of Ready Player One was kind of compromised by the fact that it has been reviewed already so many times on the group Cannonball Read blog to which I first post my book reviews. I ixnayed the usual format, and instead offered the following quiz:
  • Do 80′s pop culture references moisten your loins?
  • Were you waiting for the next great cyberpunk novel?
  • Are you a fan of sensitive and varied depictions of different races, genders, and sexual orientations?
  • Do treasure hunts still appeal to you on an instinctual level?
  • Are you charmed by geeks fighting an Evil Empire?
  • Might you be immune to the occasional irritation that could arise from an extended infodump?
  • Don’t you think there is something so appealing about a hero rising from inauspicious origins?
  • Have you ever dreamed of fashioning yourself a new life in an alternate reality?
  • Are old-style arcade games so totally your bag?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of these questions, you really should read Ready Player One if you haven’t already. I’m ashamed it took me so long! But here I am, emerged victorious, to be neither the first nor the last to recommend it to you.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Genevieve Valentine - Dealing With It

I read a blog post today that resonated with me so strongly that I just want to link it here and encourage basically everyone to read it. If you are on my wavelength with the various feminist-leaning posts I write, you'll grok this. If you're not, though, I encourage you to read anyway, since hopefully you'll get a better idea of what "microaggressions" are and why they're important.

Here's a teaser:
Background noise:
An offensive joke told by two men in front of you in line at the post office. “Bitch,” said about someone else. Loud phone calls on the street, as he hopes his fucking ex died or got fat. Women’s representation in any given movie. Hearing a woman’s spent too much money on her appearance. Reading that women who ask for raises are perceived as impossibly pushy, greedy. The man who asks why women wear makeup; he likes women to look natural. A guy saying something cutting to his date. Steubenville. Rihanna jokes. Reports about Charles Saatchi publicly strangling Nigella Lawson, calling it an argument. No one is looking at you, just now. You don’t have to say anything. You can give yourself the luxury of not responding. You can pretend.
Things you deal with:
A man touching your shoulder when you’re ahead of him in line, to nudge you forward. A man moving to stand in your spot in an otherwise-empty elevator. (The man who uses this opportunity to ask you a question he wouldn’t ask in public.) A man seeing you kneel to pick up a paperclip and saying, “A woman on her knees gives a man ideas.” A man shouting at his girlfriend as she looks around for help. A group of teenage boys catcalling on the street. “Bitch,” said about you. The offensive joke a male co-worker tells you. The male co-worker who repeats you and gets the credit. The man who won’t stop asking you if you want a drink. The man who ducks around the line to cut in front of you. “Smile, sweetheart.” The man at the rush-hour bus stop who asks every woman to look at a picture of his perineum. The man who says you’re too angry for him to take seriously; if you want him to listen, be calmer.
These are not the assaults, the beatings, the rapes. These are not the traumas. These are small things, mostly; they happen a hundred times a day, you have to deal with them all. To ignore these is to know they’re collecting little victories of privilege, and to wait for “baby” to turn to “bitch” when you don’t answer. To respond almost always risks escalation, telescoping the amount of time you’ll have to deal with it. Either can be dangerous, if the man has a mind.

And here's the link to the rest.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book review: Shadow’s Claim by Kresley Cole

Goodreads: “Shadow’s Claim features Prince Trehan, a ruthless master assassin who will do anything to possess Bettina, his beautiful sorceress mate, even compete for her hand in a blood-sport tournament— to the death.”
 
This book was fucking silly, guys. I don’t know. It was the May (I think?) selection for the VF Hangout, and I was pretty excited for it, since I tend to enjoy paranormal romance (although I’m starting to wonder how much I really do like it, since most of the ones I’ve reviewed, I’ve panned?) Anyway, so we have Trehan, who is Dacian, which means he’s an Original vampire (stealing from TVD terminology here,) meaning he is of a pure bloodline and wasn’t a “turned” human. The Dacians have all of these strict rules about when and for what purpose they’re allowed to leave Dacia, but one of those times is when they’ve found their permanent mate. And they know they’ve met their mate when they get their first erection. No kidding! Because their hearts don’t beat and they’re not “blooded,” they can’t get a boner until someone makes their heart beat and gets the blood flowing and all that. No mention of how a Lady Dacian would react when blooded, probably because she’s supposed to wait around until a male Dacian points his wood in her direction, but I digress.

So Trehan meets Princess Bettina, and it’s less of a meet-cute than her thinking he’s someone else, which is a trope I would really love to see go away for a multitude of reasons. Anyway, he immediately recognizes her as his mate, and she’s not so convinced because she’s in love with someone else (OR SO SHE THINKS! NOT THAT YOU GET A CHOICE IN THIS, WOMAN!) So he enters a to-the-death contest put on by her guardians, and the prize is the crown, not to mention Bettina’s leash and vagina summoning charm, which is kind of what it sounds like: the winner can summon her at will.

Look: we all know where this is headed. It’s PNR. They’re going to fall in love and have sex, maybe or maybe not in that order, and he’s going to be dark and mysterious and she’s going to be plucky and deceptively smart. Bonus points for her — her hobby is making cool jewelry that doubles up as weaponry, which seems pretty badass and also kind of a handy thing for womenfolk to have. Ultimately this book gets two stars from me for being campy and entertaining, so it was too silly to merit an above-average score from me — even for the genre — but silly enough that it wasn’t dreadful and boring.

Book review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Goodreads summary: “Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.”

This book has been reviewed about a million times during the Cannonball, and it was, in fact, the numerous glowing reviews that encouraged me to pick it up. Several months on the library’s wait-list later, I was finally able to read the book and I was NOT disappointed!

Bernadette is full of characters, each uniquely realized, that leap off the page. For the most part, even the most flawed characters are amusing and likeable. I loved Bee, who is smart and challenging without being obnoxious or bratty; similarly, Bernadette herself is eccentric, naive to a fault, and occasionally petty, but never to the extent that you don’t sympathize with her.

The well-paced plot unfolded unpredictably, yet believably — though at first someone vanishing into thin air seems far-fetched, Semple keeps her finger well enough on the pulse of reality to offer plausible explanations for every twist and missed connection. The book was also, frankly, hilarious. Full of lighthearted satire that doesn’t veer into mean-spirited jibes, the narrative included laugh-out-loud takedowns of Pacific northwest intellectual bourgeoisie types. I don’t want to go on more than is necessary, because I feel like I'll just be babbling about how much I enjoyed this book. So read it!