The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler9781250055637

publication date: 2015
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-1-250-05480-7

The Book of Speculation alternated between two linked story lines. The first, set in modern day, told the story of Simon Watson, a down-on-his-luck research librarian. Simon was desperately trying to hold on to the coastal house his family grew up in. With a diminishing career, a suicidal mother, a negligent father, and a roving sister who visited only once every few years, Simon felt the house was the only earthly thing he had to cling to. That changed when he was mysteriously sent an old ledger manuscript that contained his grandmother’s name and described an even older circus troupe, and when his sister arrived home, taking a break from her own life as a traveling circus performer.

The circus ledger detailed the second story line, set in the 1780s, about a traveling group of circus performers. That story focused on Amos, a mute man who became apprenticed to a fortune-teller and dreamed of finding and keeping love. One day, love fell into his lap in the form of Evangeline, a young woman with a gift for the water who was marketed by the circus as a mermaid.

The Book of Speculation was saturated with themes and motifs. There was water, of course, and drowning. Tarot cards and symbols. There were also themes of home, obsession, family, and the past as shackles. There were no subtle metaphors in Speculation: for example, Simon’s house, a relic of his failed family, literally hurt his leg and hampered his ability to walk away when one of the floorboards broke and swallowed him whole.

All these various plots, and themes, and characters, and fantastical elements – mermaids, circuses, tarot cards – fell flat for me. I didn’t care too much about Simon, which meant I didn’t care too much about the people in his constant dramas. Also, so many things seemed just a little bit off. I kept asking myself, “Does that make sense?” “Would someone do that?” “Do they really use lathes to angle doors?” (As far as I could tell – no.) For example, here was a passage from Simon’s narrative that rang false:

Alice cracks the door. Swollen eyes, a red nose, face bruised from crying.

Frank [had already] told her everything. I’m sorry and wish we’d never come. The worst is she’s a pretty crier and learning that is awful.

Learning she was a pretty crier was really the worst part about that situation? It wasn’t what Alice was crying about or what Frank told her or why you’d confront a grieving woman in the first place? It was that her face still looked pretty with tears on it?

Although the plots and characters often fizzled, Swyler imbued the book with vivid and effective imagery. As an example of writing that left an indelible image in my mind, here was a passage of Simon reading to his newly-returned sister, Enola:

[The story] is from the Bolokhovskis. She wants me to read Eglė. I do. Slowly, the way Mom used to, unraveling the story of the farmer’s daughter who would become Queen of the Serpents, and her children who were turned into trembling trees. All folktales have a price. Enola listens silently, pressing her forehead to my shoulder, letting me remember her.

The book was a steady read, so if any of the themes above intrigue you, you might want to pick this book up. However, I don’t have anything particular to recommend about it, either.

3/6: more good that bad

other reviews:

Bits & Books
npr
The Book Reporter

Drag Teen

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self9780545829939

publication date: 2016
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

This YA book followed JT and his friends Heather and Seth from Florida to New York as they entered JT in a drag queen competition to boost his confidence and win a college scholarship. I’m glad this book exists, because there should be books about people pursuing drag for fun and for life. However, this particular book was not great.

The writing was very uneven. The narrator skipped from one topic to the next and any emotional changes were generally jarring and confusing. Also, the author assumed that just because he described something in a certain way, then that thing made sense. Here’s an example, when JT’s best friend was introduced:

Heather was just as much of a mess as me. Which is why our friendship worked so well. We were the kind of outcasts they don’t make teen movies about. Heather was funny, biting, sarcastic, and had a variety of beautiful features, but none of them really went together, and her weight problems were even worse than mine, which meant she turned to her big personality to distract the judgmental eyes of our peers.

That paragraph was all over the place. And, those two sound like exactly the folks people would make teen movies about. A gay teen and his funny, overweight best friend? I think 60% of teen movies post-She’s All That have that combo in there.

Generally, the humor did not work. However, there were a few parts that I thought were funny. This line was one of my favorites:

We all awkwardly chuckled along with her, the way people do in action movies when the bad guy makes a lame joke and laughs at it while holding a weapon.

I also liked how buoyant and passionate the writing was. The author really loved his topic and his characters. Although a lot of the characters in the book were just props for JT or plot pieces, JT’s boyfriend and best friend, Seth and Heather, were well-developed characters with their own interesting back stories and lives.

This book had a lot going for it, including good main characters and convincing settings and motivations, but unfortunately the plot and writing were flawed.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Twirling Book Princess
Portland Book Review
Edge Media Network

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited ­­by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black9781416989530

publication date: 2010
pages: 415
ISBN: 978-1-4169-8953-0

This book was a compilation of short stories compiled by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. The book pitted zombie stories against unicorn stories, with the zombie stories championed by Larbalestier and the unicorn stories promoted by Black. The stories were by several authors, including Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, and Cassandra Clare. Each story was prefaced with an argument or an exhortation by both Larbalestier and Black.

In my opinion, the zombie side won. Although, actually, as readers, we often all lost. Even the best story, a zombie story by Alaya Dawn Johnson, left much to be desired. I don’t know if the authors weren’t very interested in the theme, or couldn’t explore what they wanted to explore in a short story, but the stories were usually hurried and lacked solid characters. Also, the dialogue was often rushed or unrealistic. Additionally, if the story was action-oriented, the action frequently did not make sense. Here was an example from the story “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik:

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones –” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck. She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

That paragraph was typical of the abrupt, confusing action that occurred in many of the stories. Also ineffective were the editorial passages written by Larbalestier and Black before each story. At times, Larbalestier was downright mean! This was how she introduced the first zombie story:

Hallelujah! After wading through Garth Nix’s ye oldey unicorn muck you now get to read a proper zombie story. Since Holly [Black] bored you all . . . I thought I should fill you in . . . on the different kinds of zombies.

Although none of the stories or writing jumped out at me as anything spectacular, there were a few highlights. Libba Bray’s zombie story “Prom Night” was good, as was Kathleen Duey’s unicorn story “The Third Virgin.” Alayah Dawn Johnson’s story “Love Will Tear Us Apart” piqued my interest enough that I read one of her books. The zombie story “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan, was perhaps the most well-written. Ryan’s writing was haunting and lyrical:

A lizard slides over her toes, and she jumps, her fingernails raking against the tiles as she scrabbles to stay put. She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside. It’s hard to breathe in the thick night air, and she tastes the dampness of impending rain in the back of her throat.

Although Zombies vs. Unicorns contained some compelling tidbits, I would not recommend it unless you are enamored with its subject matter.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of this book:

Fantasy Book Review
Dear Author
Books: A True Story

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton9780316074315

publication date: 2013
pages: 830
ISBN: 978-0-361-07431-5

In this long, sprawling novel, Catton investigated luck, destiny, and love in 1860s New Zealand. Rather than relying on conventional narration and character development, Catton instead presented her plot using personal letters and story-telling techniques and jumping from present to past to future. She also focused on the heavens.  As explained by Catton at the outset:

For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars. . . . But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no long sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past.

Catton used her tangled writing to introduce a mystery: just as a stranger has arrived in town, a man is found dead, a woman found half-dead, and a missing man not found at all. This was all presented against the backdrop of a New Zealand mining town and, for some reason, the celestial and astrological arrangement of the time.

Catton’s writing was heavily stylized. She used a wordy, convoluted style, which brought to mind a learned bore from Jane Austen times. Here was an example from very early on in the book:

For the first time – perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand – [Mr.] Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy . . . and moreover, [Mr.] Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him!

Catton attempted to fit so much into this book. She had about 15 fully-realized characters, along with a love story, a supernatural mystery, painstakingly accurate star charts, and a meticulous writing technique.

For me, almost all of it fell flat. The characters were well-explained but uninteresting. The love story was pointless, and a little insulting. Anything supernatural was never explained; nor was anything to do with astrology. The meticulous writing was impressive, but only made the book seem daunting and overly-indulgent. When I closed the book, I had this thought: just because someone spent a lot of time crafting something does not make it good.

Catton obviously spent a lot of time writing this book, and I sure spent a lot of time reading it. But, that’s not enough of a reason for me to recommend it to you.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Slate
Book Page

Gliese 581

Gliese 581: The Departure by Christine Shuck51r-xcqauvl-_sy346_

publication date: 2016
pages: 183

This SF novel was set in a world 100 years in the future: a world where interstellar space travel was possible and humans colonized the Moon and Mars to deal with crowding on Earth. The book focused on three main plots: a grotesque and devastating plague on Earth, a one-way manned space mission to star system Gliese 581 for the purpose of colonization, and a mysterious, violent incident on board the Gliese 581 spaceship that threatened the entire crew.

One of the best parts of the book was the characters. Shuck introduced varied and multifaceted characters, from a bitter grandmother, to a gay Chinese man with a conservative family, to a medical examiner with a penchant for pedophilia.

The book also created good mystery and suspense. Shuck used flashbacks to weave the three story lines together, which was especially effective when the frantic and tense pace of one story line was interrupted by a more leisurely, but informative, plot point. Shuck also developed a good mystery surrounding the violence on the Gliese 581 spaceship. I found myself searching for clues about the identity and motive of the perpetrator.

Also effective was Shuck’s descriptions of the plague on Earth. She did not shy from graphically depicting what was happening to the human body and mind as the virus made its way through the victim. The passages certainly set me off my lunch.

However, there were a lot of problems with the book. It was unpolished, with a lot of small errors. There were, for example, missing pronouns, rough tense changes, and haphazard comma usage. This all made for garbled or confusing writing, at times. There were also some inconsistencies. Like sometimes people would use paper all the time and other times characters were made fun of for even having paper and not a computer. Or like one character who was described as being a manipulative philanderer, but whenever we witnessed him with a woman he was nothing but kind and unpresumptuous.

Shuck’s writing could also be very preachy. The entire plot seemed crafted to get us to eat less. She also had an obvious opinion about the current agricultural economy:

EcoNu’s test pigs were showing shockingly low reproductive rates. This didn’t sit well with Edith. Nor did the smug speculation that this was a winning strategy. It smacked too much of Monsanto’s death grip on the corn economy early in the century.

Or there was this rant, which came out of nowhere:

Shortly before The Collapse, there had been strong militarization of police in and around major cities. This was done primarily under the guise of the War on Drugs, something that had been abandoned when the country collapsed into civil war, and later not taken up again due to its deeply unpopular legacy. The War on Drugs was now akin to human rights violations in American cultural memory.

These rants and garbled writing hindered an imaginative SF book with complex characters and a serviceable plot:

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Poets of the Dead Society
Amazon
goodreads

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness9780062415639

publication date: 2015
pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0-06-240316-2

After reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series a few years ago, I’ve been casually following him as an author. When I saw his newish book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I was excited to pick it up. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations I had after Chaos Walking.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here followed Mikey, a normal guy who just wanted to graduate high school with his friends and the love of his life. The book explicitly contrasted Mikey and his group with the “indie kids” – you know the ones: they’re always too cool for prom or trendy clothes and they always find trouble. Usually the trouble came in the form of vampires, but sometimes also zombies or spirits or the like. This time the trouble came in the form of “the Immortals.” Every chapter of the book started with a description of what was happening with the indie kids as Mikey was living his unremarkable life. For example:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel – who once dated Finn – asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

I thought this was a fun plot device. As the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters of the world go around fighting evil and their demons, we shouldn’t forget the ordinary people. As the title of the book made clear: the rest of us just live here. However, the book did not follow its own conceit. Instead of following a group of kids who were only tangentially or passively related to the indie kids’ action, Ness created characters that consistently were in the thick of things. It’s almost as though they were “indie kids” themselves.

Everything about this book was OK. The plot was fine, the characters were fine, the writing was fine, and the ending was fine. I laughed a few times but I also rolled my eyes a lot, in frustration or derision. The characters were supposed to be average, but in actuality one was part-god, one had a state senator as a parent, and most were involved in a love quadrangle. All of them were these “indie kids” that Ness had tried to ignore.

I kept comparing it to Rainbow Rowell, and especially Carry On. Carry On and The Rest of Us Just Live Here were published around the same time but, unfortunately, Rowell did a better job. She crafted a better anti-Chosen One story, with better characters and a better message. She even had better parenthetical asides!

If you liked Chaos Walking, you won’t necessarily like this book – it was very different. However, if you like contemporary YA you’ll probably like this just fine.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

The Guardian
Teen Librarian Tool Box
New York Times