Friday, December 26, 2014

SETH CASTEEL


Interview with SETH CASTEEL

Seth Casteel is an award-winning photographer and the author of the New York Times best selling books UNDERWATER DOGS and UNDERWATER PUPPIES. Seth lives in Venice, CA. He loves 80's music and is a fan of the DeLorean automobile. He plans to one day go back in time, and change nothing. His rescue dog, Baby Nala, has accepted the fact that she will be photographed every single day. People often say that Seth and Nala have similar hairstyles. 

What first sparked your interest in photography?

CATS!

What do you love the most about photography?

To tell a story and to create awareness through a single picture.

What are your passions?

ANIMALS!

What inspires you?

DOGS!

How was UNDERWATER DOGS born?


Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Take chances and pursue a subject that you are passionate about! 

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I have a secret obsession with dragonflies! 

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS


Review of THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS by MARINA KEEGAN

Someone gave me this book and, at a glance, I didn’t expect it would align with my literary tastes. Now I feel more like that person knows me better than I know myself! This whole collection resonated with me more than I ever could have anticipated. 

It’s a sad backstory. Marina Keegan, a gifted and determined aspiring writer, died five days after graduating from Yale. She had a job lined up at the New Yorker and this collection serves as ample evidence of her writing aptitude. Youth is coveted because it represents potential, which is why unexpected deaths often seem all the more tragic the younger the victim. Keegan had an abundance of potential, but rather than focus on what won’t be let’s instead focus on what she did accomplish, a list that includes the contents of this collection of her notably astute writing.

The collection features both fiction and nonfiction, but opens with the fiction. The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” demonstrates Keegan’s capability for capturing the complexity of real human experiences, relationships, and emotions. Keegan explores the intersection of awkward and tragic. Claire, a college student, doesn’t know what to feel when her regular hookup dies. Their relationship wasn’t defined: they spent a lot of time together, had sex regularly, and doubtless both cared for each other, but still shied away from terms like boyfriend and girlfriend. Now people expect Claire to say something at his funeral and his long-term ex-girlfriend wants a strange favor. As I read this story, I couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly the type of tense situation that overdramatic televisions shows like to utilize for huge blowup confrontation scenes. In contrast, everything in “Cold Pastoral” is coolly understated, drawing attention to the line between behaving civilly and repressing emotion. My only criticism is that I found minor mentions of gay characters reinforced some insensitive stigmas.

In the next story, “Winter Break,” another college student brings her boyfriend home and their sweetness makes her mother doubt her own relationship. Like “Cold Pastoral,” emotions and revelations are all subtle and understated. There’s little closure regarding any final decision; the story focuses more on the catalyst.

You know it’s a good collection when you struggle picking a favorite story, but “The Ingenue” definitely falls near the top of my list. This one features a young woman who suspects her long distance actor boyfriend is cheating on her with the girl he kisses every night in his play. The story builds to a positively perfect literary moment during a game of Yahtzee. However, I think the story should have ended at that powerful moment; I didn’t like the end much and think it weakens a strong story.

“Hail, Full of Grace” continues Keegan’s exploration of real, complicated life. Audrey’s home for the holidays and just knows she can’t avoid running into her ex, her ex who she dated throughout high school and into college, who clearly thought they were meant for each until Audrey got pregnant and gave up the baby for adoption. Fast forward through her life: romance hasn’t worked out for her. Everyone told her she couldn’t stay with her high school sweetheart, but she never fell in love again. Now she’s ready for kids, so she adopted a baby on her own, but it’s impossible not to reflect on what might have been. I loved this story, but still wanted Keegan to take it a little farther. It’s one of those stories that feels like it halts too soon after it starts rolling.

Moving into Keegan’s nonfiction, I had three favorites there as well. The first, “Why We Care about Whales,” uses a memory of beached whales to pose a concern: “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans.” Keegan notes how people rush to help these whales and draws attention to instances where humans spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort on helping animals that might already be doomed and yet label neighbor or co-worker crises as “not my problem.” I found this essay really wonderful, not the least bit shy of asking hard questions.

I also particularly enjoyed “Against the Grain” about Keegan’s experiences as a celiac. As she’s the first to acknowledge, this is a timely subject with the popularity of gluten-free products and diets. However, she falls in the category of avoids due to necessity rather than preference. She spent much of her early years in and out of hospitals until doctors eventually pinpointed gluten as the troublesome factor. Keegan reminds her readers that gluten-free might be trendy now, but it was little known and even less understood during her childhood. This story is as much about Keegan’s relationship with her mother as it is about gluten. Once aware of the problem, Keegan’s mother championed her daughter’s health. She researched extensively, calling product companies directly for specific, accurate information. She always thought ahead, going around the neighborhood at Halloween and suggesting some gluten-free candy options to the neighbors. When Keegan went to college, her mother fought hard for new protocol in the dining hall that required a clear listing of ingredients for every food. Keegan herself struggled between gratitude for all her mother does and irritation that she frequently calls attention to how Keegan is different. Keegan shares an unsettling story about when she and her mother watched a video of Keegan’s first birthday. In the video her mother brings out the birthday cake and they all start singing “Happy Birthday.” In real life her mother starts hyperventilating and crying and repeats, “I’m killing you. I’m killing you.” Keegan’s real death adds another emotional layer to all her musings here, because she spent so much time working to ensure minor amounts of gluten don’t ultimately shorten her lifespan - and then she died at age 22 in car crash.

The last of my favorite nonfiction pieces is “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” in which Keegan puts her own struggle with the meaning and purpose of life and mankind on paper. We’re all going to die eventually, she points out - not in the individual sense but mankind will die eventually. Despite all this understandable concern over pushing back on environmental issues before they catch up with us, the earth has a lifespan. When the sun dies, so will life on Earth. Now we’re talking billions of years, but what made this essay so fascinating for me is that Keegan poses the theory that mankind is being tested...from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one. This test has a time limit, though. The only task: develop our technology enough to find a sustainable way to either live in space or relocate to another planet before the timer (the sun) runs out. It’s a short essay that mostly initiates a discussion rather than runs with it and you can easily argue that it’s all a moot point if we kill ourselves off long before the sun dies, but nevertheless it’s an interesting and engaging debate.

I found Keegan’s work a little stronger on the fiction side, but that could easily be my personal preference for fiction talking. Across both formats, she keeps her work smart but simple with understated messages. Both her fiction and nonfiction are clearly very well-researched with her fiction featuring characters from all kinds of different backgrounds. Her fiction simply feels real, with dynamic characters and a natural voice.

By the end of this collection, I found myself crying purely about Keegan’s death rather than anything in her work. She puts so much of herself into her stories and essays that over the course of these 200 pages I started to feel like I knew her and then to feel her loss, both as a writer and a person, more sharply. I’m grateful to everyone who championed Keegan’s work to see this collection through to publication; it was worth every ounce of effort.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bechdel Test


Gender equality has always been an important issue to me. You see bias (of all types and directions) everywhere, but I feel infuriated when sexism sneaks up on me in what I hoped would be a relaxing read.

The Bechdel test is used for quickly assessing gender bias in a work of fiction, whether a novel, movie, play, television show, etc. It’s named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who had one of her characters in a comic strip first express this idea. The test is very simple. If the story doesn’t meet three criteria, it should take a good look at how it represents women. The criteria are:

1.     There are at least two female characters... (Some interpretations of this test specify that the characters should be prominent enough to at least be named.)
2.     ...who speak to each other at some point during the story...
3.     ...about something other than a man.

My first reaction to this was: That’s all? Yet statistics on how many books, and especially how many movies, fail this test are shocking...which means we’re still reinforcing unvoiced messages that women don’t have or deserve a voice. Any woman, and I should hope most men, know women talk about plenty of other things besides men: non-romantic relationships (friends, family, co-workers), intellectual discussions, aspirations. The list is limitless. So why does the scope of women’s conversation in some stories feel so limited? 

A story can pass the Bechdel test and still contain sexist content or messages, but it's a fast, easy way to take stock of how frequently women are dismissed in fiction. So next time you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie keep in mind the Bechdel test. Even stories I've loved sometimes fail this. I rarely enjoy something without any female characters, but you would be surprised to count up how many feature only one prominent woman among a cast of men.

Friday, December 5, 2014

HAATCHI AND LITTLE B


Review of HAATCHI AND LITTLE B: THE INSPIRING TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS DOG by WENDY HOLDEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

The opening of this story had me nearly in tears as it fills in what this dog went through before finding his boy. Someone abandoned Haatchi, a huge Anatalion Shepherd, on railroad tracks where a train came along and hit him. Despite all odds, Haatchi survived, but he lost one’s of his back legs. After being bounced from temporary homes and different vets, the dog so many didn’t think would survive instead found a wonderful life with Owen. Due to a rare genetic disorder, young Owen hadn’t had an easy life either. He lives in almost constant pain with muscles that permanently tense, and the way people constantly stared and didn’t know what to say caused him to retreat into himself. Neither had a particularly good outlook ahead of them...until they found each other.  

My short review of this book would state that it features an amazing story that isn’t particularly well-written. Both Haatchi and Owen have had some excruciating experiences, but the way they uplift each other, not to mention their family’s unrelenting generosity and support, exemplify the phrase “heart-warming.” Apart from the horrifying incident that begins this story, time and again the people (and animals) featured in this book demonstrate determined optimism and dependable goodwill.

Sometimes with nonfiction, though, authors can be skilled at gathering information but not at conveying that information in an engaging way. The writing belabors points and meanders off on unnecessary tangents. In general, I preferred when the book focuses on Haatchi and Little B, those featured in the title, but there’s a whole chapter going into detail about Owen’s dad and stepmom’s wedding as well as frequent mentions throughout about what they post on social media. The focus swayed between Owen and Haatchi’s relationship specifically and an overall family biography. 

There are a lot of wonderful books out there about dogs changing people’s lives. As much as I indentify as a dog lover, I often avoid these books - since they usually feature either (or both) beginnings where the dog goes through ghastly trauma or endings that, well, remind you people live longer than dogs. HAATCHI AND LITTLE B, though, emphasizes that sad moments don't make a sad life.

Friday, November 28, 2014

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME


Review of THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by JENNIFER E. SMITH

GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is a sweet, smart young adult romance about when the right person is in the wrong place. Teenagers Lucy and Owen meet on a stopped elevator during a citywide blackout. Once free, they spend an unlikely, unexpected, and unforgettable night together. Before they even have a chance to explore the possibility of a relationship, life pulls them in different directions with Lucy moving to Europe and Owen embarking on a road trip with his father. Time ticks by as Lucy and Owen carry on with their separate lives, date other people, and barely keep in touch. Neither forgets about the other, though. Neither stops wondering and imagining.  

I love a good romance...but I’m a very critical romance reader. For starters, I can’t care about a relationship until I care about both characters as individuals. Lucy and Owen are both likable leads, hailing from very different backgrounds and yet finding that common ground. Owen’s mother recently died. Now Owen and his father are barely scraping by, both financially and emotionally. Lucy, on the other hand, has everything she could ever want financially, but her rich life is rather lonely. Her parents travel constantly, never taking her with them. I related to Lucy especially, since she’s a bookworm. I appreciated Smith’s portrayal of an introverted bibliophile. Lucy isn’t a social outcast; she chooses books and quiet over parties and popularity.

Though I found a few metaphors distractingly cheesy, for the most part I loved the writing. Smith crafts distinct, realistic voices for each character. Both dialogue and inner monologue feel natural whether we’re following Lucy or Owen. Also, while they’re mature teenagers, Lucy and Owen definitely feel young: uncertain what they want or what life has in store for them, brimming with emotions, and quick to act or speak on those emotions.

The ending fell a little short of what I wanted, but I think Smith set quite the challenge for herself with this type of story. Young adult romances are particularly difficult, because authors struggle finding balance between that nice happily-ever-after feeling and “settling” their characters too young. Though not quite perfection, I think Smith found a fulfilling spot between frustratingly lacking closure and tying everything up too neatly.

Friday, November 21, 2014

WE WERE LIARS


Review of WE WERE LIARS by E. LOCKHART
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Recently I did a post about rating books and why I’m not particularly fond of simple 1-5 star systems, etc. WE WERE LIARS puts me in mind of yet another reason that I don’t thinks stars adequately summarize your reaction to a book: sometimes your rating fluctuates over the course of reading. How do you average that? After finishing WE WERE LIARS I would give it 5 out of 5 stars, but up until page 150 (out of 225) I would have given it only 2 or maybe 3.

WE WERE LIARS rewards you well if you stick with it, but - for me at least - wasn’t initially engaging. Numerous people raved, fanatically raved, about WE WERE LIARS to me (which might have set me up with overhyped expectations), but I found the book quite unexceptional until around page 150. (That’s two thirds of the way through the 225 page book.)

I went into WE WERE LIARS knowing next to nothing about the premise. Well, the marketing (including the blurb on back) doesn’t tell you much. In truth, this novel is probably a little more suspense orientated than my tastes run. I like to know what happened, because I care more about how the characters react. For the first two thirds, WE WERE LIARS focuses mostly on the mystery of not knowing what happened and it’s no coincidence that I only started investing after the big reveal.

So here’s how I would describe the premise: This story follows the teenager Cady (short for Cadence), and her rich, beautiful fa├žade of a family. Every summer the Sinclairs gather on their private island where Cady soaks up the company of her beloved cousins Mirren and Johnny, and steadily falls in love with their childhood family friend Gat. Except that was the past. Something happened one summer. Something that changed everything. All Cady knows is that something bad happened, she hit her head, and now she remembers very little from that summer at all, especially not whatever she’s sure she needs to remember. The first 150 pages of the book focus on introducing these characters and Cady’s search for answers. Honestly, I felt like most of that could have been cut.

Then Cady remembers, layer by layer, and suddenly I understood why people rave about this book. All that material I thought could have been cut immediately takes on new meaning with each additional memory. (I’m not one for re-reading books, but this is probably a good one to go back and re-read right away after finishing.) Themes that seemed perhaps underdeveloped snap into sharp focus. I connected both emotionally and intellectually and I kept turning over the story in mind after finishing the book.

WE WERE LIARS is incredibly worthy of discussion, so I wish I could say more, but - as the story is so slow to reveal anything - it would be giving away too much to even start talking themes or dropping hints by my choice of adjectives. Instead I’ll repeat that WE WERE LIARS well rewards those who stick with it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

WHAT'S THE NUMBER FOR 911?

Review of WHAT’S THE NUMBER FOR 911?: AMERICA’S WACKIEST 911 CALLS by LELAND GREGORY

Along the same lines as the Darwin awards, this book is perfect for comedy fans who enjoy laughing at the stupidity of others. Like, for example, the fleeing criminal who repeatedly called 911 during his high-speed chase so he could demand the operator have the police stop chasing him.

There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to categorizing these anecdotes. Some quick labels immediately pop to mind: crazy, high, unreasonable, and stupid. Now I don’t find stories about someone who obviously isn’t in their right mind doing something ridiculous particularly funny - too sad if you really think about it. And instances where someone is high are boring in my opinion, because, well, that’s what happens when you’re high - so no surprise. Then there are the unreasonable and or plain stupid 911 calls and, yeah, I find both of those types pretty amusing. Unreasonable like the woman who calls to say a snake bit her and asks the operator if the snake is poisonous; she doesn’t provide any actual description about the snake but grows increasingly frustrated that the operator can’t just tell her if it’s poisonous or not already. And stupid like the woman who calls in a biohazard team when she sets her mail down on her kitchen table and a letter promptly turns from yellow to brown. Turns out that’s what happens when you put a letter in coffee.

There’s also a fair number of people who need to hear the definition of “emergency”. Such as the person who called 911 when someone took a bite out of her sandwich. Or another man whose false teeth don’t quite fit, so he calls 911 for some assistance. Some people clearly think 911 is equivalent to 411, just another information service. Like the woman who calls 911 to ask when the fourth of July parade will start or the man who calls for some advice on navigating around dead stop traffic. More amusing, though, are those who think 911 is some kind of general public service for anyone and anything. One man called when he saw a snow plow in town to ask 911 to send the snow plow over to his house. Another couple called 911 to request fresh towels for their hotel room.

While reading is usually a solitary hobby, these kinds of books are fun to flip through with someone else. In all seriousness, though, I now have the utmost respect for 911 operators.


Friday, November 7, 2014

The Magic Dress Complex

 
Today I want to discuss a personal pet peeve in stories (both literary and on screen): what I’m going to call The Magic Dress Complex. This complex advances the idea that personal growth for a woman comes from the outside. The Magic Dress Complex is when a heroine’s proactive steps for self-improvement consist primarily of finding the perfect dress (or outfit) for a special occasion or perhaps embarking on some grand full body makeover.

If you’ve seen movies, if you read, if you watch television, then I’m certain you’ve encountered The Magic Dress Complex. Think of all the plots that feature a grand makeover montage or pages upon pages of detail about a heroine’s new look. She gets the latest, cutting edge hairstyle. She finally puts on makeup. She has a manicure and a pedicure. If it’s a longer timeframe, maybe she hits the gym or devotedly diets until she slims down and firms up. She buys trendy, flattering new clothes. Oh, and shoes. What is a magic dress without magic shoes?

Now our heroine looks different, which means she is different. Now she can do what she couldn’t before. Now she will get everything she ever wanted.  The Magic Dress Complex implies that if a woman can sculpt herself into physical perfection then the rest of her life will fall into place. The Magic Dress Complex also implies that this change in appearance is the woman’s greatest accomplishment. (Emphasized by how these makeover sequences usually fall extremely close to, if not within, the story’s climax.)

I won’t dismiss the concept that an outward change can promote an internal one. Maybe a woman cuts her hair, because she’s feeling brave enough to take a risk. Her new hairstyle reminds her of her own bravery and bolsters her confidence. If she earns accolades she never did before, let’s say it’s her newfound confidence rather than the hair.

However, then look at the sheer number of these magical makeovers. And, yes, we do see them for men, too, but only a fraction as frequently. My issue isn’t with a physical difference (even one as simple as new clothes) empowering a woman; it’s how prevalent this magical makeover is as a woman’s gateway to discovering herself.  

The simple fact is that I want to see as many stories as possible about women who make a big change in their life...but it’s not their hair.

Monday, October 27, 2014

STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS


Review of STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS by EILEEN GUNN

I went into this collection of short stories with no preconceptions, based on a recommendation alone. Honestly, I prefer that, when my reading experience is tainted with as few expectations as possible.

I have two favorites from the collection (and it didn’t escape my notice that the ones I enjoyed most are the ones staring a child and teenager respectively). In both “Computer Friendly” and “Nirvana High”, Gunn conceives futures that don’t feel so far fetched. “Computer Friendly” gave me chills when a classmate tells young Elizabeth that her parents are sending her to sleep because she’s defective and that way they can try again. The reader will likely be ahead of little Elizabeth in reaching conclusions, but it’s realistically painful watching someone so young look into and figure out her new friend’s unsettling words. “Nirvana High” stars teenage Barbara who has predictive powers but no control over the future she sees. The story opens with her vision that her favorite teacher will die trying to perform an advanced feat and then follows everyone’s reactions to the teacher’s death including the speculation about accident vs. suicide. The story features intriguing worldbuilding that suggests we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

“Contact” feels both familiar and yet still original. As the title implies, it’s a first contact story where two cultures and, hence, perspectives collide, but each gains a subtle widening of their outlook from their interaction. I also really enjoyed “Spring Conditions”, a super creepy story where unexplainable things start happening on a couple’s ski trip. However, Gunn opens “Spring Conditions” with layered characters and then doesn’t do much to explore those layers, which naturally frustrated me as a character-fixated reader. I couldn’t help reading this story as a metaphor, though from the author’s note I’m not convinced that’s what she intended. Also the ending lacked power, kind of trickling off without feeling like an actual conclusion.

“Friends” is a weird and funny story that trivializes the dramatic and makes the absurdly fantastical mundane. I found “Coming to Terms”, about a dead father who wrote inscrutable notes in the margins of his books, underwhelmingly tantalizing. In other words, thought provoking, but Gunn doesn’t push those thoughts very far. There are also a few short, silly stories including “The Sock Story” and the satiric “Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp”.  Perhaps merely due to its placement as the first story (not to mention featuring in the title), I had the impression that “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is Gunn’s most popular work here. However, my reaction to that one was rather “meh”. It has potential, but I felt that potential wasn’t pushed hard enough to garner my interest.

As I’ve grazed against saying outright, I thought Gunn’s endings overall lacked power. I enjoyed most of these stories and especially liked a couple, but for almost all of them I felt some level of dissatisfaction with the end.

I also want to specify that science fiction readers are probably more likely to enjoy this collection than fantasy as Gunn’s stories lean in that direction.

As a side note, I liked William Gibson’s quote in the foreword on writing: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Rating Books

 
Many reviews include a simplified rating for the book. 3 stars, for example. A summary of how the reviewer perceives the book’s worth. Of course, it doesn’t have to be stars. I follow a book blog that uses teacups instead of stars, a quirk I find endearing.

When I started reviewing books, though, I knew unequivocally that I didn’t want to include ratings. I have two main reasons. First, while I understand how simplifying your assessment can be helpful, I value books and stories too much to do so. All the details are important to me. I don’t want to say, “I liked it.” or “I didn’t like it.” For one thing, I’m an analytical reader and - while I often have an overall opinion of a book - there are usually both aspects I like and aspects I don’t like about a book. Even with books I adore, I might have a small criticism here or there. A huge part of why I’m so addicted to reading is because I love how stories provoke deeper thinking, discussions both between different people and within yourself. I might have far more positive than negative feelings towards a book, but a simple “I enjoyed it.” cuts off potential conversations about what exactly I enjoyed, not to mention what I didn’t. I know a rating can be in addition to a review, but it’s the review - the specifics - that I care about.

Second - and more importantly, in my opinion - everyone rates differently. When I give a book 4 stars, it doesn’t mean the same perception of quality as when someone else does. Some people are generous with stars and others stingy. On a 0-5 stars (teacups, etc.) rating system, here is what my ratings mean:

0 - hated it
1 - didn’t like it
2- it was okay
3- liked it
4- loved it
5 - ADORED IT! AMAZING!

I remember meeting a writer at a conference who told me that whenever she sees a 4-star rating of one of her books she wonders why the reader didn’t like it. But 4 stars is a good rating! I thought. In fact, I think 3 stars is a good rating. Unfortunately, interpretation of rating systems is highly subjective. Further conversation with the author made me realize that she thinks of 5 as the starting point for a book, with stars being subtracted for everything the reader doesn’t like. I think of 3 as the starting point. 3 stars means it’s a good book. My rating lowers the more I find that I don’t like, but I only rate higher if the book particularly impresses me. I can read a book that I enjoy, but it doesn’t in any way push the envelope. Those 4th and 5th stars have to be earned.

I’m not planning on introducing ratings to my reviews, but I think this is an interesting discussion. Are you an easy rater or a hard rater? Do you find ratings helpful?

Monday, October 20, 2014

STARTERS


Review of STARTERS by LISSA PRICE

STARTERS possesses a unique and intriguing premise that pulled me in before I so much as opened the book. The novel delivered!

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic futuristic world full of fancy technology...but also consequences for such technology. Bio-warfare led to the mass extinction of every human between 20 and 60 years of age, leaving only two groups: the young and the old - or starters and enders. Starters with an ender grandparent still alive to claim them live safe, secure lives, but those teenagers and children who lost their parents and have no living ender relatives are left to fend for themselves. Teenager Callie takes care of her little brother Tyler with her best friend Michael, but they can’t go on much longer squatting in abandoned buildings, running from ender officials, and barely scraping by for food. Tyler’s sick and Callie knows he needs a better life. Which is the only reason she even considers signing a contract to rent her body.

Technology has progressed to the point that scientists can implant a computer chip into two people’s brains, essentially put one to sleep, and let the other experience life from the first person’s perspective. Of course, these kinds of developments are always driven by money so the business model that emerges is one where young teenage starters desperate for money rent out their bodies to rich, bored enders desperate to experience youth again. Callie knows how creepy, suspicious, and dangerous this sounds...but she’s out of options and they’re offering a big payout. Unfortunately, things turn out to be more complicated than going to sleep, waking up a few days or weeks later, and collecting her money. Much more complicated.

I found the characters believable and likable, especially our heroine Callie. She has a good head on her shoulders and I particularly like that in teenage girl characters, who are often portrayed as single mindedly fixated on romance. Of course, Callie has emotions and mood swings and romantic drives, but she always draws herself back to the most important issue at the moment and will mentally kick herself if she realizes she’s sulking, wallowing, etc.

The book is wonderfully written as well. I break down strong writing into two groups: writing that’s good because you keep noticing it and writing that’s good because you don’t notice it at all. This is the latter kind of good writing, the kind that turns invisible and fades away so you completely forget you’re even reading words and only think about the characters and the story.

Occassionally, I wished for certain information sooner than the author provided it. We’re in Callie’s perspective and sometimes I wanted to know more than she did rather than participate in her uncertain search for answers. In general the plot seems to be arching across multiple books more than this one. There was a slow build up to the “real” problem. (Callie has plenty of problems, but any perceptive reader still knows things are about to get even more complicated than she expected.) Then the book really picks up about halfway and doesn't slow very much for the end, which lends to the feeling that the plot is still arching high across the series as a whole.

I would call STARTERS a plot driven novel. That’s not detrimental to the character development in this case, but a fast pace and unexpected twists definitely provide the primary momentum for this story.

I really enjoyed the themes that emerge from this world’s dynamics, mostly class and power. Nothing new, I know, but always worth discussing. Callie learns some perilously important information, but as long as she holds so little power in this world there’s not much she can do. She’s young, she’s poor, and she’s not connected. She might have the answers to save the world, but it won’t do much good if no one will listen to her.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES


Review of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL: A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES by SOMAN CHAINANI
(review based on an advance reading copy)

In the first book in this series Chainani took a close look at good vs. evil. Now we’re back, but this time we’re looking at boys vs. girls.

At the end of the last book, Agatha gave up everything for Sophie...but now she might regret that choice. Her combination of cynicism and loyalty wouldn’t let Agatha neglect her best friend for a prince and some vague concept of happily-ever-after. Except now her mind wanders to what ifs. They’re safely back in their hometown, but home - though familiar - is no happily-ever-after.

When Agatha recklessly wishes she had chosen her prince instead, the girls find themselves swept back to the schools...well, not the schools for good and evil anymore. After Agatha ignored the standard rules for fairy tales and focused on helping her best friend instead of getting the guy, she unintentionally revolutionized the fairy tale world. Aside from all the potential discussions about boys vs. girls issues, I adore what this twist says about the open interpretation of art, especially stories. Agatha assumed she sent a good message with her chosen ending: I won’t sacrifice my friend for a boyfriend. Yet everyone still misinterprets her message in a sexist way. The problem isn’t Evil - or Good, the girls - princesses and witches alike - start thinking. The problem is boys. Boys sweep in and tear princesses away from friends, from family, from their own goals. Boys take all the credit and claim the girls as prizes. Incensed by these thoughts, the princesses kick the princes out of the school for good while the witches kick out all the male villains from their school for evil. Girls from good and evil alike band together and banish all males (including the male teachers) to the dangerous woods while every fairy tale is rewritten for a “You go, girl!” type feel that grants girls the spotlight only by shoving boys in the shadows. 

As with the first book, there’s a plethora of engaging themes worthy of extensive discussion. The good vs. evil debate continues into this second book while the dynamic change invites new conversations. I particularly like the ongoing concept that everyone thinks the story is their story. Innate evilness varies from villain to villain, but most only zero in on a nemesis because that supposed “good guy” is keeping the supposed “bad guy” from their own happiness.

I frequently found myself surprised by how far along I was through the book; it felt like I had read so much less. Being a fast read serves as both a strength and weakness, though. Sometimes the story moved too fast, in my opinion, and I didn’t have enough time to buy into new plot developments or shifts within relationships. Along these lines, there’s a lot of filler in the first half. I often skimmed the pages for the actual content: dialogue, actions, developments that move the story forward rather than add ink to a page. Some of the action near the beginning felt pointless to me, like a forced effort to keep the book fast paced, too hurried and confusing to hold my attention. There’s also a bunch of overdone seesawing. By seesawing I mean when a character keeps going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in their perspective on something or someone. (I love him. I hate him. I love him. I hate him. She’s good. She’s evil. She’s good. She’s evil.) Back and forth bores me. Perhaps because character development is my number one draw towards stories, I like to see some actual momentum in how someone’s outlook changes. Seesawing isn’t genuine change. 

Though I loved how the entire world dynamic shifts for this second book, one change I didn’t like had to do with Agatha. In the first book, she really grounded the fantastical, questioning accepted norms and consistently calling it like she sees it. In A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES, she’s much more sucked into fairytale-land and this elusive happily-ever-after concept. Now she’s pining for a prince (and I never quite felt their chemistry) and rearranging her priorities. Without Agatha fulfilling the down-to-earth character role, the book felt much more far-fetched and at times frustrating for the lack of a grounding force.

A major factor in my disconnect regarding Agatha’s romance might be that I never pinned down their age. I imagined Sophie and Agatha as 12 or 13 years old, maybe 11 in the last book, but I never caught where that’s confirmed or corrected. What’s going on (both in terms of romance and violence, among other things) feels far too mature for preteens, or at the least very LORD OF THE FLIES-esque.

I don’t remember this issue from the first book, but I caught a frequent grammar issue: dialogue tags that aren’t really dialogue tags. For anyone who doesn’t know, a dialogue tag is the “Jane said” or “he shouted” added onto to dialogue to clarify who’s speaking and in what manner. Sometimes writers mistakenly add another action on at the end of dialogue that has nothing to do with speaking. Let me provide examples.

“Let’s get Chinese tonight,” Jake suggested. - This is a correct dialogue tag. “Suggested” is a verb that elaborates how Jake is speaking.

“I’m so exited,” she jumped up and down. - This is incorrect. Jumping up and down isn’t a type of speaking and, thus, shouldn’t be treated as a dialogue tag. These should be two sentences: “I’m so excited.” She jumped up and down. - or - “I’m so excited,” she said, jumping up and down.

Remember that I read an ARC, so hopefully most or all of these instances were caught before the final printing. At least in my copy, though, it happened so much that it suggested a lack of understanding about dialogue tags rather than a simple, singular slip.

I felt a little disappointed in the ending. I won’t be explicit, but still feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t want even vague spoilers. Last time Agatha and Sophie flouted the system, but this time they give in to it. The first book’s ending also found that glorious sweet spot where it could be the end of a standalone novel or the first in a series; it both concluded and left doors open. However, this ending felt obviously unresolved. I’m curious now how many more books are to come.

I enjoyed A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES right from the beginning, but not nearly as much as its predecessor. I worry this might be one of those series that stretches a good thing too thin. Nevertheless, I’m extremely intrigued to see what the next book will tackle and if indeed it will be as thematically focused as the first two: good vs. evil, boys vs. girls. How will this world divide itself next?

Monday, October 13, 2014

J.M. SIDOROVA


Interview with J.M. SIDOROVA

J.M. Sidorova is the author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a novel THE AGE OF ICE (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2013), which blends history and magic realism. The novel was featured in Locus Magazine's recommended reading list and among Tor’s best books of 2013. J.M.’s short stories appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Abyss and Apex, and other venues. She is a 2009 Clarion West workshop graduate. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and does biomedical research at the University of Washington, Seattle.

What are you reading right now?

First of all, thank you for reaching out to me; I appreciate it. So, to begin: MAGIC PRAGUE by Angelo Maria Ripellino. As it often happens, it’s part of my research for the novel that I’m writing. The book is in a genre of its own — a city’s biography written by a hyperverbal, hyperbolic, gushing, excitable Italian literati who lived there in the nineteen sixties. Part history, part literary criticism, part a flight of fancy. Very useful.
 
What first sparked your interest in writing? 
 
I am one of those people who have been writing (or telling, anyway) stories for as long as they remember, so it is hard to pinpoint exactly how it happened or why. The usual “triggers” were in place, of course, like growing up with a lot of books.   
What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There are public and private, personal and professional aspects to writing that have good and bad facets. Let’s say we talk about writing as a private preoccupation. Love the most: isn’t it total fun? An introvert’s guilty pleasure. To go roaming in your head and make stuff up and put it into nicely arranged sentences. Love the least: I am terribly slow. I second-guess and self-doubt. I get in my own way. I can’t get out of my own head!   

Tell us a little about your writing process.

A pain in the gluteus maximus. I start out with an irrational need to write about a particular thing. I outline it in general strokes. As I actually write it, it changes, of course. My understanding of it grows. Characters grow. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs that I build one word at a time. In some ways it becomes a piece of installation art made of found objects. Those found objects are historical facts, or trivia, or memories, or images, or coincidences. It can become too cluttered of course, and then I need to clean it up.   

What are your passions?

A side note: I typically have difficulty answering the simplest questions (like this one pretends to be) — because I have a compulsion to complicate things. Let’s see…I guess I still, after twenty years of doing it, have a passion for science. I wish I could do more to promote it (Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an inspiration!). In general, learning stuff about the world and telling it in stories. I suppose I feel pretty passionate about that.

What inspires you?

Ah, another one of those deceptively simple questions. I am just going to rattle off one long example. A kid running in the field with his/her arms outstretched, imagining s/he is an airplane — that’s inspiring. That same kid, now a pilot, bombing the heck out of something — that’s not so inspiring, but it is complicated, so I won’t judge. The story of Charlie Brown, an American, and Franz Stigler, a German, two WW2 pilots, is inspiring: one is in a seriously wounded and barely limping bomber and in swoops another in a fighter, with orders to shoot, but instead of dispatching Brown Stigler escorts him out of harm’s way; and then decades later they connect and become friends, and then some more years later a man writes a book about them, and another man lovingly paints a painting for the book’s cover, and then a whole bunch of people read this book and keep writing heartfelt comments online — that whole thread is inspiring, I think.

Why speculative fiction? (If you consider THE AGE OF ICE as such. If not, why not?)

I do consider it speculative fiction. Though not fantasy. Magic realism. As to why — my latest explanation is that infusion of reality with magic is an almost inevitable byproduct of our minds. Our minds just kind of… sweat magic all the time. What we do with it —now that depends on us. It can help us parse reality, process and accept it, but it can also mislead us. In THE AGE OF ICE I was processing reality with the help of magic. The rest is realism.

How was THE AGE OF ICE born?

Five years of labor… then a C-section… just joking. I can tell you exactly how it was conceived: I read an article in The New Yorker called Ice Renaissance by Elif Batuman (who is inspiring, by the way). That’s how I learned about the Ice Palace built in the 18th century Russia and the wedding night that took place in it. And that was it: I wanted to write about the children conceived that night.

Did the story require a lot of research?

Oh, yes. Fortunately, I did not realize at the beginning how much research it would take. And when the realization hit me, it was too late.

What drew you to write about Russia in particular?

If the Ice Palace had been built in— I don’t know— New Zealand, I would have had to write about New Zealand. But it was like: hooray, I actually know a thing or two about the subject. I am of Russian extraction.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The other day I stumbled across something William Vollmann wrote in 1990 for the Conjunction magazine. In his article titled happily, American Writing today: a diagnosis of the disease, he says among other things, “We should never write without feeling.” I totally agree. It is, of course, a pledge rather than advice. But it does seem to me that an aspiring author’s first novel has a better chance (all other things being equal) of winning a publisher’s heart if it is written from the author’s heart.  

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Hmm. I can’t think of much. I grow grossly oversized vegetables in my backyard. I am a pessimistic humanist. A month ago I flew over the bar of my bicycle and hit the pavement because I was distracted by a need to fish something out of my pocket. Tells a story, doesn’t it?

Friday, October 10, 2014

SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL


Review of SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by HERMAN KOCH
(translated by SAM GARRETT, review based on an advance reading copy)

I have been meaning to read Koch’s bestselling novel THE DINNER since, well, before it was published. I have heard nothing but good things from readers with vastly different tastes who vaguely describe the story as a seemingly simply dinner between two middle class families that gradually unfolds into something far more unsettling. Though I honestly do very much want to read it, I kept pushing THE DINNER farther back on my to-read list to accommodate something else. So when the publisher sent me an ARC of SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL I (forgive me) dived right in.

Already I can see parallels in how I heard THE DINNER described and how I would describe SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL. For starters, it’s frankly plain difficult to describe any of the plot without giving much away. When you strip your description of spoilers, the story sounds bland, but trust me, SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is quite the opposite of bland. Here goes my simplistic summary: our protagonist Dr. Marc Schlosser owns his own practice where he primarily treats celebrities. The book opens after one his patients, the famous actor Ralph Meier, has died and before long Ralph’s wife comes storming into Marc’s waiting room and accuses him of murder. (Maybe that didn’t sound so bland after all!) From there, the book backtracks to tell the story leading up to this outrageous accusation.

A great part of what makes this such a fascinating read is that I had no idea if Marc had indeed deliberately murdered Ralph. Right from start, before any dramatic accusations, Marc creeped me out. From pretty much the first sentence, I fervently admired the writing. Koch demonstrates how immensely word choice affects interpretation. For the first few chapters Marc talks more about his practice in general than the conflict with Ralph’s widow Judith. Yet the way Marc talks about his patients unnerved me. He’s so clinical and detached. Brutally, indifferently direct. Even the way he talks about his family (a wife and two preteen daughters) feels overly clinical. From the start the book has a nefarious feel. Did Marc murder Ralph? Has he murdered anyone else? Or is he in fact innocent, nothing more than a doctor growing weary and disillusioned with his job? After all, a callous attitude isn’t proof of guilt, but it does make one suspicious. 

Brilliant writing. Superb. I know I’ve already mentioned as much, but it bears repeating. Koch really wowed me throughout this entire book with his control of language. And Sam Garrett, I should mention, who translated this from the original Dutch. The writing, and by extension the tone, is what pulled me into this story so quickly and what kept me utterly absorbed until the end. I read multiple books at a time, so it’s especially telling when one emerges from the pile and demands my singular attention. SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL was one of those books. Less than halfway through, I found myself ignoring the rest of my stack while I finished this one, reading it everywhere I could: at the dinner table, at the gym, while walking down the stairs, etc.

Marc is an intriguing protagonist. He makes what I would consider ethically wrong decisions, except he doesn't even think about the ethics of his actions. Instead he focuses on how he can take these actions without any negative consequences. In other words, he focuses on getting away with it rather than grappling with guilt. I don’t find this unbelievable, but it definitely added to the creepiness factor. And it’s one of many themes that make this novel extremely discussion and, hence, book group worthy.

The ending strikes a surprisingly different tone than the rest of the book, one that still gave me chills but in a very different way. Of course, I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll only say that it’s bittersweet and a little unexpectedly heartwarming for such an overall unsettling novel. Add the ending to the list of specifics worth further discussion.

SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is consistently addictive and compelling. The book commanded my full attention even during simplistic sounding scenes because the writing and psychological implications are so mesmerizing. I expect I’ll still be thinking about this one for a while yet.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Grammar Nerds: Dangling Present Participles

 
If you don't care much about grammar specifics, this series of posts won't be for you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift. 

Today's focus: dangling present participles.
First things first: what's a participle? Well, a participle is a verb that's used to modify a noun. (In other words, it's a verb acting more like an adjective or adverb.) Example: That sneezing girl left her umbrella in the cafe. Though a verb, "sneezing" is being used more like an adjective, as a way to describe the noun "girl." Present participles in particular always end in -"ing," making them relatively easy to identify.
Now let's move on to dangling present participles. A participle should have a clear subject, such as in the case of: Walking backwards, I counted to ten. “I” is the subject that is “walking backwards.” However, with a dangling participle the participle isn’t describing the word that the writer intended. Consider the following sentence: Filled with fluffy white clouds, Christine looked up at the sky. I think it’s a fair guess with such a sentence that the author means the fluffy white clouds are in the sky, but currently the present participle phrase is attached to the subject “Christine” and so instead says that Christine is “filled with fluffy white clouds.”

I have another frustration with present participle phrases in writing that is more a stylistic preference. It’s technically grammatically acceptable for a present participle to describe one action that takes place before another action. Yet the present tense verb always makes me feel like the two actions should be taking place simultaneously. By my logic, Clapping my hands, I rose from my seat. is a suitable sentence because you can clap your hands as you stand up from your seat. What annoys me are sentences more like Throwing back the sheets, she ran down the stairs. or Picking up the knife, Kate chopped the vegetables for dinner. You throw off your sheets and then run downstairs. You pick up the knife and then you chop the vegetables. Grammatically, these sentences are adequate, but they nevertheless always strike me as sloppy writing and I notice immediately when a writer uses present participles like this with notable frequency.

Take away: consider your sentence structure. What do you mean to say and is that what your sentence actually conveys? Most important take away, though: never dangle your participles!