Friday, November 28, 2008

Breaking up with The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

We need to talk. You know, things started out great. You were so fascinating, with the whole Jane Austen-style language and social context, but with magic as a major aspect of the story. I couldn't put you down! Things were so new, so different than anything I had read before that I couldn't believe how lucky I was to find you. There was so much chemistry between us, with my great love of Jane Austen's books and of the fantasy genre, and you with your beautifully formed language and exciting story. It was such a wonderful time. I was so glad Galen Beckett wrote you so that we crossed paths.

Then things started to get confusing. I thought I knew you, but the characters started to behave in ways that I completely didn't understand. You tried to convince me of one character's love for another, but I couldn't buy it. My trust in you was flailing. It really was the beginning of the end there. After that, I was just going through the motions. Frankly, I just wanted our relationship to end. You weren't the book I fell in love with. It was drudgery to make it through to the end. Then, when I realized that you were just the beginning of a series, I got angry. Where was my closure? You denied me the chance to see it through to the end and wash my hands of your story. Now I will forever remember you as the book that gave me such hope, only to snatch it away and taunt me with it's confusing and frustrating ending that wasn't really an ending.

I want to say that it's not you, it's me, but really, it's you. It's over. I'm just not that into you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Co-review: Iodine

There might have been a few times that I have written on this particular blog about how much I like Haven Kimmel's books. Summary: a lot. When I saw that another of her books was coming out, I wrote to Caren, "Oooh ooh ooh! Let's review it!" She's a good sport, so here it is. The co-review of Iodine by Haven Kimmel.

Here's the lowdown. It's the story of a troubled, homeless college student named Trace Pennington, who is using the fake name of Ianthe to her fellow students and co-workers. I know what you're thinking. You wish you had picked that name as your superhero/literary genius code name. Trace partially narrates this book through her dream journals, which obscures reality with flashbacks and present events that make you wonder how much is dream and how much is her actual life. It's a tale of the psychologically troubled, overflowing with more erudite vocabulary and baffling intellectual factoids than a normal Kimmel book, and that's saying something. Notice all those big words I just used in that last sentence? Yeah, I can write like Kimmel too.

Trace seems to be barely holding herself together and has huge lapses of time that she cannot account for. She lives in a deserted farmhouse with her dog and starts to semi-stalk a professor that she feels a connection to. She has a very disturbing past that you're not entirely sure the truth of, and now latches on to this professor, who falls for her as well. Trace is determined to discover the fate of the professor's first wife and seems a bit obsessed with it. Boy, really, that girl has problems, but that's the point. As always, we spoil endings like crazy, so if you'd like to read this book before you read what we think of it, go no further!

Jenny: I have to admit, that the departure from Kimmel's usual writing style (humor amidst the tragedy) was sad for me. This book was incredibly suspenseful and intense to read, but I miss the humor. And honestly, I didn't think she could write any more confusingly, but she topped herself in this book. Does that mean it'll get harder and harder to read her books the further along she gets?

Another problem I had with this book is that I pitied Trace/Ianthe, but I didn't like her. At least in her other books, I liked, and in some cases loved, some of the characters. I didn't like anybody in this book. Maybe her dog.

Caren: I didn't feel very attached to these characters either. I wanted Trace to be successful, but I really couldn't understand her. And I was really suspicious of her professor/boyfriend/husband because he didn't seem very balanced either. Of course, seeing things through her perspective it was hard to know how much was just typical quirkiness and how much was him trying to control and manipulate her. Oh, and the dog? I am so NOT a dog person, so I couldn't believe it when I was mourning for the darn thing!

The story drew me in, though, and I thought I was following it fine until the very end. The dream journal was a little hard to follow because she'd cut off mid-sentence just when she was starting to reveal something tantalizing and then go off in a different direction. And she'd change tenses from first to third person, but the tone stayed enough the same that it wasn't too jarring. So overall I thought I knew what was going on. That is, until her husband tells the doctor that they've been married four years and she thinks it's only been four months. I thought, "Did I miss something?" But then I realized that I didn't even know they'd gotten married -- so yeah, she was definitely holding back crucial information. Then the final revealing at the end of how her dad and brother died made me realize that I really didn't have a clue!

As disturbing as much of it was (especially the abuse and the sexual obsession with her father), I was intrigued that Kimmel was able to explore mental illness in such a way. It sort of reminded me of the movie A Beautiful Mind where you naturally believe the story you're given, but once things are turned upside down then you have no idea what is real and what isn't. I think that manipulation of the narrative was very effective in order to get a sense of how tenuous reality was for this woman. On the one hand, I wished I could be getting the story from a different perspective so I could know if these other characters were all as screwy as the seemed. But on the other hand, it would have lost a lot of it's potency as an exposition on mental illness that way.

I am curious what I would have gotten with a second reading. Now that I know how it ends, are there clues in the narrative that would help me sort out what was real and what was the product of her mental illness? Are there additional layers of meaning that I missed the first time around? But the emotional toll made it so hard to get through in the first place that I really don't want to do that again! So I'm afraid I'll just have to stay unenlightened on this one!

Jenny: I think that's what made the book so suspenseful for me, knowing that something was going on that we didn't know about and waiting for all this tension to finally get released. The ending flattened me completely. I was so clueless about what she was leading up to, but like you said, could I have figured it out on my own anyway? I don't think I'll be reading it again to catch any clues. It was exhausting enough the first time around.

I love your comparison to A Beautiful Mind. What I wish Kimmel had done was to make me love Trace like I loved John Nash or his wife in A Beautiful Mind, or at least feel some compassion. Even though we were getting some of her narrative through her dream journal, I still didn't feel a connection to her. Mostly I felt pity and dread. The losses of time, the disturbing flashbacks, the disconnect with reality built up a whole lot of nervous tension on my part and I just wanted to get to the end as fast as possible.

The husband was an interesting character too, because I really didn't like him and thought he was a jerk at the beginning, then by the end I felt better about him because of how he was trying to help Trace. Maybe we could have loved him and Trace better if we had gotten more of his perspective on things. Or maybe that would be beside the point of the whole book, which is to examine/experience? mental illness.

I thought about going to Haven Kimmel's blog and reading through her discussion page for Iodine, but her blog is usually such a crowd of admirers that I didn't think I'd read much that didn't say how brilliant the book was. That's not to say the book isn't brilliant, I just don't think I liked it all that much.

Caren: Yeah, I really didn't like it either. It would have made for an interesting discussion in a college class (and maybe if I knew more about psychology I would have gotten more out of it). I just felt like I was missing significant things. Like the coyote and the whole alien abduction theme. She put a heavy emphasis on archetypal images so I know they must have been important, but I felt like it was all over my head.

The description on the jacket talked about how it was ultimately hopeful, but I didn't find the ending all that hopeful or redemptive. I suppose maybe the fact that she finally faced her most traumatic memory (or was it? it seemed like the things that her mom did to her were pretty traumatic) might have signaled that healing was on the way. But it sure didn't leave me feeling very optimistic that things would somehow get better. Unless you have a strong interest and understanding of psychology, I would suggest passing on this one.

Jenny: Amen to that. Pick a different Kimmel book to enjoy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Tribute to Michael Crichton

For all you readers out there, you've probably heard by now that Michael Crichton passed away on November 4th after a battle with cancer. He was most famous for his novel, Jurassic Park, which was made into a movie with the same name, and the tv show he created, ER, which I watched with crack addiction-like fervor all the way up until they killed off Dr. Green. It went downhill after that, if you ask me. He also wrote The Lost World as a sequel to Jurassic Park and also as a demonstration of his ability to rake in money for a really lame book and movie, but let's not speak ill of the dead.

My first encounter with Crichton was in the form of a cute boy in my Spanish 2 class in the eighth grade. He was reading Jurassic Park during his free moments, and since I spent a lot of time staring at him while he was reading (or at any other time), I became curious about this book with the dinosaur on the front. Plus, I thought if I read it, I might have something to talk to him about. I had no idea that the book would be so completely over my head in vocabulary and content and that it would captivate me from beginning to end. I had never read anything like it, especially since I was in this Mary Higgins Clark stage and nothing could be more different from her books than Crichton's. I read all of his books I could get a hold of after that and even though some of them I liked less than others, I always looked forward to his next book.

I considered going through each of his books and writing about what I thought about each one, but I decided not to. The short version is that he wrote about topics that were current and controversial and on uncertain ground and most of the time, I had no opinion on the subject until I read his book. I didn't always agree with his opinion, but he forced me into thinking about it and coming up with my own. I loved how he would take ideas from the actual world and blow them up into awesome science fiction adventures. You knew there was some actual science being applied, but the rest was pure imagination.

When he wrote State of Fear, he was publicly condemned for claiming that there was no scientific basis for global warming. If it had been a hundred years earlier, he would have been tarred and feathered. "How dare he! Kill the beast!" was the common response. He didn't say there was no Holocaust, people. He pointed out how religious evironmentalism has become, with the young being indoctrinated early. This will point out how naive I am, but before I read this book, I had no idea that there was an argument against the validity of global warming. Like I wrote before, I don't always agree with what he writes, but he brought up a point of view I didn't even know existed. I admire how brave he was to write it, knowing what reaction it would cause. Kudos.

It was a sad day when I read that he had passed away. His books were always something I looked forward to and I'm sure if had been given more time, he could have kept me entertained for many years to come. He was a man of great talents and he will be missed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Underneath

When I'm stressed out, but still need to read books to stay sane, I find that I tend to pick books geared towards younger readers. You know, the ones with "junior" or "YA" on the spine. I think it's because reading helps me relax, yet my brain is so far into overdrive that I cannot possibly handle something that would make me think too much. I've had two very excellent novels on my nightstand for the last 6 weeks and haven't cracked either one open. Instead, I have plowed my way through several YA and junior books and they have provided that necessary release of tension. Maybe I'm juvenile at heart. I'm okay with that.

When I kept seeing this book on different blogs that I read and heard the many whispers of "Newberry", I knew I had to check it out for myself. The Underneath by Kathi Appelt was completely different from what I expected and anticipated. This book fit my requirement for no-thinking-required, but still kept me riveted. The cover didn't tell me much more than it would have a dog and some cats in it. It is about an abandoned, pregnant calico cat who wanders into the yard of a cruel, disfigured man named Gar Face who has tied up his wounded hound dog as punishment for getting in the way on a hunt. The cat gets under the house before she's seen by the man and befriends the dog, who is desperately lonely and in need of love. When her kittens are born, he acts as adoptive father and protector to them, though when Gar Face discovers the cats' existence, the dog is powerless against him.

In the midst of all this, the story keeps cutting to a strange creature buried under an ancient loblolly pine tree in the forest. The creature knows it will be released soon and wants revenge from a loss it experienced a thousand years ago. You get flashback scenes from the creatures pre-buried existence and the foreboding builds. Oh my, the foreboding. It's very thick stuff, that foreboding. You know that these animals' paths will intersect with the creature, along with that of Gar Face and you start to dread it. Did I mention there is a 100 foot long alligator too? Gar Face is hunting him as the ultimate prize to win him respect and notoriety amongst the other hunters. The creature is friends with the alligator too. Wow, I'm having a hard time keeping this straight to explain it. In case you're wondering about the alligator, the story takes place in southeast Texas, a place in which alligators tend to reside.

The writing is kind of meandering, kind of poetic, kind of beautiful and kind of suspenseful. Too many kind of's, really. I kind of wish she had made it a bit easier to understand, since this book is geared toward kids in fourth to eighth grades. The cruelty and harshness of Gar Face is too much for a fourth grader to handle, in my opinion, but it also makes the love between the dog and cats that much more wonderful. I wouldn't introduce it to my tender-hearted kids until they were big enough to understand better the need for a character like Gar Face to exist.

Whatever else I could say about this book, the ending was perfect. I could not have been happier with the ending. So many books are great up until the ending, so to have this book be pretty darn good, some meandering, but then, WHAMMO! perfect ending has earned major points for me. David Small did the drawings and, as always, was a perfect accompaniment to the story, so that's more going for it.

Is it Newberry material? I have no idea, since I don't know what they take into account when they give out those awards, but at least if Appelt's book receives even an honor, if not the actual award, I'll know what all the fuss was about.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension

In case you missed it, Jenny and I both really liked Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn book. I'm not a big fantasy geek, but the story and characters were so compelling that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next one in the trilogy. Having finished The Well of Ascension, I want to get some thoughts down about it before I delve into the last one (which was published just a few weeks ago). Because this isn't a co-review, I won't give away any spoilers for The Well of Ascension, but the nature of the story is such that I can't help but give away some spoilers for The Final Empire (the first Misborn book that preceded it), so be forewarned!

Much of what was said in our co-review for The Final Empire is true for The Well of Ascension. The story is very interesting and there's so much intrigue going on that I didn't want to put it down until I knew how things were going to turn out. But it's really the characters that I fell in love with. The Well of Ascension features most of the same characters from the first book, picking up a year after the first one left off. In the aftermath of the downfall of the Lord Ruler, Elend Venture has been made king and is trying desperately to institute his ideals for democracy and parliamentary rule. But he's surrounded by greedy men who don't share his vision and are trying to take advantage of him for their own gain. In the meantime, three armies (including one led by his own father) prepare to attack the city of Luthadel, and the people are quickly losing their nerve.

Vin is facing her own set of troubles as personal bodyguard for Elend as she tries to protect him from enemy assassins. She meets another Mistborn who appears to be her enemy, but over time they develop a certain amount of trust. She begins to face an inner battle over her love for Elend and her doubts that she is good enough for him or that he truly understands her. This gets harder as her connection with this new Mistborn grows and he invites her to run away with him, leaving the mess of lesser mortals behind them. At the same time, the mists are behaving in very strange and threatening ways and Vin has to face the possibility that she may be the Hero of Ages and will have to destroy the Deepness all over again.

This is barely scratching the surface of the plot, of course, but the book mostly revolves around Elend and Vin and how they come to terms with who they really are and what that means for the rest of the world. Of course there's lots of action and excitement at the same time, so there's never a dull moment even with the periods of introspection. I enjoyed it as much as the first book until the ending. The first book had a very satisfying resolution, so I was counting on that for The Well of Ascension and was so disappointed! It was still very intense and full of unexpected twists like the first one, but some really sad and scary things happen and then it ends with a big cliffhanger! Mostly I'm just a wimp and was looking for a "happily ever after," so I don't do well with cliffhangers. But it sure makes me desperate to finish the rest of the story!

I'm more and more impressed with Sanderson's skill. I really enjoyed the development of Elend's character and the fact that there was this great guy who had didn't have to rely on Allomancy to distinguish him. I liked how Sanderson depicted Elend's relationship with Vin and the complexity of being in love with someone who is perfect for you in a thousand ways but at the same time you can't help but wonder if you really belong together. Vin's relationship with her kandra was another fascinating part of the story, along with the introduction of a potential romantic interest for Sazed. And......well, I could go on, but really, you just need to read it yourself! And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got the last Mistborn book to get started on!