Saturday, June 30, 2012

My thoughts on the Hugo novella category

This is my first year as a supporting member for the World's Science Fiction Convention, occurring at ChiCon 7. That means I get to vote on the Hugo Awards! I have until July 31 to submit my votes online, and only have a few categories left.

Today I focused on the novella category.  In my opinion, I think Catherynne Valente should take home the award for Silently and Very Fast.  After this brief review, I'll rank the remaining nominated novellas.

#1 -  Silently and Very FastSilently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Inside, Neva is infinite. She peoples her Interior."

This is a line from the last few pages of Silently and Very Fast, and to me describes Catherynne Valente's inner creative world, the world that she is somehow able to communicate to the rest of us through lush language and quirky-beautiful settings and characters. I deliberately read this Hugo-nominated novella last because I always expect to enjoy the worlds she creates, and I guess I'm just a delayed gratification girl.

I loved the incorporation of technology and programming language and to still have that Valente identity. I just can't help responding out loud when I read her words - gasps of delight, laughter, sighs... it is actually a tiny bit embarrassing.

If you are more of an audiophile, Kate Baker recorded this in three podcast segments for Clarkesworld Magazine. I enjoy Valente in audio more than other authors, and Kate's voice does a great justice to the language in the story. Even reading the print, I find myself slowing down to get all the imagery set in my head.

#2 - Countdown by Mira Grant - a prequel to the Newsflesh trilogy, and told in an interesting way.

#3 - The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu - interesting historically but I'm not sure it completely succeeded in its storytelling.

#4 - Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal - Police with AI partners.

#5 - The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson - I had a hard time finishing this one, and she's usually a favorite.

The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck

The News from ParaguayThe News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Around the World: 36 of 52 (Paraguay)

I don't know a lot about Paraguayan history, and while The News from Paraguay is historical fiction, there is a lot to learn in this brief novel. I felt like the setting was captured well, and Lily Tuck incorporated actual journal articles from two historical figures. The time period covered is the 19th century, specifically the rise and fall of Francisco Solano López. Unfortunately his rise and fall is also Paraguay's rise and fall, since by the time he was done with his leadership of the country, only about 25% of the country survived, and most of the males were gone.

Paraguay has been in the news recently as the former president was removed from office. I learned in the reading I've been doing that the majority of Paraguay's presidents have been forcibly removed from office. This book may give some insight into the relationships Paraguay has with its bordering nations, how it is viewed by Europe and North America, as well as how its own population (native and immigrant) reacts to the constant change. So on a historical level, the book is didactic and interesting, despite the fact that the author has never been to the country.  It was also interesting to figure out where this fit into world history, as there were some mentions of the Civil War in the USA, issues of slavery, and so on.

From a writing standpoint, I can't say I enjoyed it as much. While the story is linear, it jumps around between situations and people, and although the story focuses on Ella, the Irish mistress of Franco and mother to many of his children, most of the stories are brief and not necessarily connected. I found the portrayal of some of the characters pretty unrealistic, and the mentions of sex awkward. I don't mind sex in a novel, but it usually serves to shed light on a relationship, and it was as if Lily Tuck wanted to keep the reader's interest by mentioning something about someone's 'member,' and yes, using that very term. I'd rather be interested by the story. I think it suffers from the focus on the outsider view, and would have been richer coming from the inside rather than the outside.

Up next: Some of the members of the Around the World group are doing a group read of The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende.  I've already two books about Chile this year, but this will be the first novel set there.  It will just be nice to have a group read!

One more thing: If you have been reading these posts and wishing you had done a challenge like this, some of us will be doing something similar just with the USA in 2013.  Come join us!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 34 of 52 books (North Korea)

This book was a slow burn, and dense to read, but in the end, completely worth it. The first half is the story of Jun Do, from orphan in North Korea to kidnapper to spy; the second half interweaves his continued bizarre story with an interrogator and the loudspeakers that spin every event to the Dear Leader's favor (Kim Jong Il).  Time ceases to be linear at that point, and it takes a while to unravel the events from the characters.

It was interesting to have an element of the characters living in self-delusion, where the reader knows better, and even they know better, but for survival they go through crazy lies on a daily basis. This is particularly true of Jun Do, as he minimizes the description of what is actually going on, but the reader has to read between the lines. It smacks of other dystopian novels, reminding me of Orwell, and Lem, and Zamyatin. Except this is an attempt at a portrayal of a society that could be like this. I'm not going to say this book taught me about North Korea as other reviewers have done. This is a work of fiction. But so many of the stories we hear are bizarre, and this book attempts to explain some of them (in a sometimes humorous way). In fact, humor is an important element throughout The Orphan Master's Son, but more in the sense that you have to laugh or you'll cry. Oppression is ridiculous insanity.

One of the best moments is when Jun Do gets sent to Texas for a state visit, very funny because of the misunderstandings and assumptions on both sides.

"Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

"...The sensation was allowed to rise up, up into his brain, and it was okay to perceive again, to recognize forgotten parts of his body as they hailed him. His lungs were more than air bellows. His heart, he believed now, could do more than move blood."

"The Americans have the saying 'Time heals all wounds.' But this is not true. Experiments have shown that healing is hastened only by self-criticism sessions, the inspirational tracts of Kim Jon Il, and replacement persons. So when the Dear Leader gives you a new husband, give yourself to him!" (loudspeaker)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Planning for Orange July

Orange January/July is a biannual event where bloggers from the Orange Prize Project encourage readers to choose at least one title from the Orange Prize longlist, shortlist, or winners list.  

For Orange January, I managed to make it through four Orange Prize books, two that I also counted for my Around the World Challenge.

When I was in the Caribbean in May, I also managed to read another Orange book - The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, which is one of the best books I've read all year.
For Orange July, I have several titles from the various Orange lists that are currently on my shelf.  I know I'll read at least one, but I'm not sure where to start.  Do you see anything pictured below that you would recommend first?  I'm pretty set on saving American Wife for 2013 (when I'll be doing an Around the USA reading challenge), but other than that I'm open. 

  • Half of a Yellow Sun (winner, 2007)
  • Home (winner, 2009)
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (shortlist, 2005)
  • Brick Lane (longlist, 2004)
  • American Wife (longlist, 2009)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Around the World Readathon Wrapup

Well, that was fun.  No really, it was!  I set up the readathon for the Around the World group on a whim and a bunch of people participated.  Some of us tweeted our participation with a pre-agreed hashtag, and some just posted to the discussion thread, but we had a lot of people reading and talking about reading. That's the whole point! I just love reading in community. We didn't even have to be reading the same books for it to be interesting. I hope we can do one more event like this before 2012 is over.

I was able to make my way through five books - two in Australia, one in Japan, one in Mexico, and one in the country now known as the Czech Republic.  I started at midnight with The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, an eBook of an ARC I received from NetGalley.  (My review)  I had actually made it halfway through this book prior to starting the challenge, but I stayed up from midnight to somewhere after 3 in the morning reading it (and drinking coffee, and checking my e-mail, and tweeting, anything to keep me awake).

A little before 8 am, I was awake again, and decided to go ahead and get up (I can sleep when I'm dead, or when the readathon is over!) and dive into another Australian book that I've been excited about for a while - Cocaine Blues. It was so much fun and got me excited about the readathon for the day. Not only that, I got to read about Melbourne, a city I've been really wanting to visit. (My review)

I may not have mentioned this before, but I am in a lot of online book groups.  Most of them came out of GoodReads.  It started with my involvement with the Sword & Laser group, which I joined to get the chance to read more science fiction and fantasy.  Now I am in around ten groups, all of which pick books to read every month.  I don't always make it to reading all of them, but when I do, greatly enjoy the discussions.  One of those groups is The World's Literature, which I found through some of the participants in the Around the World in 52 Books group. We have been working our way through several prominent modern Japanese novelists this summer, and I was feeling behind, so the next book I chose was A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a perfect book for a group discussion, because it is incredibly thought provoking!  (My review)

I didn't have a plan beyond that, so I snagged two books that I thought I could get through and decided to taste-test them. I read a few chapters of both Like Water for Chocolate and The Unbearable Lightness of Being   I decided the Esquivel would be the quickest to get through, and ended up still having the time for the Kundera.   Surprisingly, I didn't enjoy Like Water for Chocolate as much as I expected, having seen the movie years ago. (My review) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, on the other hand, is one of the few books to receive a five star rating from me in this entire challenge. (My review) I was so tired by 11:30 pm when I finished that I had to talk myself into walking upstairs to get into bed.  What a day of reading, and talking about reading! Let's do it again soon!

Friday, June 15, 2012


I'm hosting my very first readathon from midnight tonight through midnight tomorrow night, or however long people want to read for.  It is for the Around the World in 52 Books group in GoodReads.  We have almost made it halfway through the year, and many of us have been bemoaning falling behind.  Oh a whim, I created a readathon so that people could find solidarity in a catchup day.  There will be snacks.  There will be libations.  There will be pajamas.  And we will all read something from our list from the comfort of our own homes, and chatter about it.

Some of us will be chattering in Twitter using #52athon to identify us as a group.  I like Twitter for such things because it is easier to post a quick update than commenting on a forum or writing a blog post.  As always, you can follow me in Twitter, @ReadingEnvy.  

Hey, don't feel like you have to belong to our group to hang out and read with us.  Surely you can find a book set somewhere in the world.

Personally, I'm not sure how much of the day I'll spend reading, but I know what book I'll start with.  I'm on a little bit of an Australian kick, having already made it halfway through an ARC of The Light Between Oceans.  I also downloaded the Kindle Daily Deal the other day, Cocaine Blues, which features a lady detective in Melbourne.  Who doesn't love Australians?

I don't have a plan beyond that, so I expect to just follow my whims.  I may not use tomorrow to finish my North Korean selection, as I feel like a readathon is all about accomplishment and it is a slower read. I guess we'll see!  This is one of my favorite things about reading in community.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

UnbowedUnbowed by Wangari Maathai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 28 of 52 (Kenya)

Wangari Maathai has an interesting story of growing from a Kikuyu child to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I grew up surrounded by stories of the Swahili and Turkana peoples of Kenya because of friends we had living there, but I didn't know much about the Kikuyu or the forests. I learned a lot about the socio-political history of Kenya, how to work toward change (be "patient and committed," she would say), and how much one person can accomplish. I also feel like I saw education from a different perspective.

The rest, I'd rather Wangari Maathai said in her own words, so here are the places I marked:

"These experiences of childhood are what mold us and make us who we are. How you translate the life you see, feel, smell, and touch as you grow up - the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the food you eat - are what you become. When what you remember disappears, you miss it and search for it, and so it was with me. When I was a child, my surroundings were alive, dynamic, and inspiring. Even though I was entering a world where there were books to read and facts to learn - the cultivation of the mind - I was still able to enjoy a world where there were no books to read, where children were told living stories about the world around them, and where you cultivated the soil and the imagination in equal measure."

"A general orientation toward trusting people and a positive attitude toward life and fellow human beings is healthy - not only for one's peace of mind but also to bring about change."

"Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost."

"When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationship with friends and family. They may not like the direction we have taken or may feel threatened or judged by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they thought they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation of life."

"Humanity needs to rethink peace and security and work toward cultures of peace by governing itself more democratically, respecting the rule of law and human rights, deliberately and consciously promoting justice and equity, and managing resources more responsibly and accountably - not only for the present but also for the future generations.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney

Truth in Advertising: A NovelTruth in Advertising: A Novel by John Kenney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a sample of this in the 2012 BEA sampler, and then requested it via NetGalley. It isn't set to come out until 2013, but I think this is one first novel worth a read.

Fin works as a copy writer for an advertising agency in NYC. During the time of the story, his biggest project is diapers, and he has to find ways to be creative while life is in a bit of turmoil - he has called off his wedding and his father is dying.

I feel like a lot of authors write about unhappy people, but this isn't as one-note as some of the more well known authors who are acclaimed for this feat (*cough* McEwan *cough* Franzen). I appreciated the constant internal dialogue between him and his imagination, whether that was fake interviews with talk show hosts or his internal voice which insists on calling him Gary. Ultimately I don't think he's determined to be unhappy, which helps. He is sympathetic while still being funny.

"The lucky ones have a passion. The other 98 percent of us end up doing something we kind-of, sort-of like-ish. The place where you show up for work every day for five, ten, twenty years is who you are. Isn't it? And yet from time to time, there is that small voice that screams, 'Leave. Go. This isn't what you want.' Except that other voice, the one that calls you Gary, whispers, 'But where would you go? And what would you do?'"

"There are people who believe that life can be lived rationally, that we are in control of our deepest, most powerful emotions, that we can perhaps even escape the deep markers from the early days, the crucial days, where we learn it all. Those people are called crazy."

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether RevivalsThe Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is really about 4.33 stars, with just a few little things keeping it from 5 stars in my view.

The story is intense. The book starts with three bodies, and then jumps you into the story a year or so earlier to explain how they got to that point. By the time I got back to that point, I'd forgotten the bodies in the beginning, and it was horrifying all over again.

The Bellwethers are a family living in Cambridge, where their children are college-aged. Eden, the oldest, is the organist at King's College, but possesses some strange beliefs about himself and the power of music. His beliefs are largely based on the writings of an obscure Baroque composer, Johann Mattheson, who the reader is introduced to very early on, as Eden is completely obsessed with him.

Iris Bellwether is studying medicine because her father wants her to. One night she catches Oscar, the protagonist, listening to the organ at King's College, and pulls him into her life. Oscar is a much lower class than the Bellwethers, and works at a nursing home.

There were a few moments where I was caught off guard. The novel is not obviously modern, until you consider the history of psychoanalysis and the time they would have to be in to know what they know. I hadn't really thought about it until someone mentions getting an e-mail address, and I was completely taken out of the story for a while, having to re-frame everything. Maybe it is because I've listened to The Talented Mr. Ripley too recently, but I had the Bellwethers in that same era. Regardless, they are old-money, private-school, coddled characters, which I suppose can happen in any era. Eden is eccentric; Iris is aloof, and Oscar is left trying to find his way through the situations.

The added layer of the nursing home was interesting, and grounding. The importance of music drew me in the most, and I felt I learned a lot that I didn't know about historical musical aesthetics. The author has a nice list of books for further reference in the back, which makes me believe this is a well-researched novel. I also learned the word petrichor; look it up and you will be as impressed by the English language as Iris was.

"Mattheson took Descartes's ideas and applied them to music. In Capellmeister, he basically lays down a set of instructions for composers, to show them how to induce certain emotions through their work - to achieve that empire over the passions Descartes was talking about."

"I look at my son and I think, have I raised someone exceptional or someone abnormal?"

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On Whale Island by Daniel Hays

On Whale Island: Notes from a Place I Never Meant to LeaveOn Whale Island: Notes from a Place I Never Meant to Leave by Daniel Hays
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Around the World: 25 of 52

I had high hopes for this, because of my cold weather island obsession. I'm discovering that people moving to an uninhabited island is not so interesting. I believe Daniel Hays believes himself to be a modern-day Thoreau, particularly since he quotes him at the beginning of almost every chapter, but while he includes supposed journal entries, they are more chronological than thoughtful. We did this, and then the dogs did this. And then there was the time this happened.

Sigh, boring. Halfway through I was already uninterested, but still finished in case something dramatic happened. Maybe if the author didn't seem to simply want to escape his life and had some other compelling motivation, this would have been more engaging. I know a lot about the minutia of their lives, rather like following someone you vaguely know in Facebook.

"Day 243 -
It has been gray and stormy all week and it's only faith that lets me know there is a sun, a moon, and a mainland nearby.  The radio tells me there is a Canada - well, a Nova Scotia anyway - but overall, with the fog outside and inside our windows, the world is quite small and entertainment is scarce."

"Day 355-
...I could never listen this completely before. I have stood in our harbor and heard water being dragged through seaweed, a jellyfish turned over, a ripple being reflected off a rock. Just for these new sounds in my life I want to stay here forever."