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Review Policy

March 15, 2012

I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)

If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

– Elizabeth

Book Review: Shadowshaper

August 28, 2015

Jacket image, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose OlderShadowshaper
By Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Publishers
(library book)

This book. Just wow. This book. From the very first chapter, it pulled me right into Sierra’s world: her Brooklyn home and family and friends, the weird supernatural things that were happening around her, her questions, her banter with her friends. I was hooked, and hooked hard. I spent every spare moment turning pages, enjoying the take on fantasy steeped in Caribbean and Latin American mythology, in questions about anthropology and heritage. I stayed up late to finish it.

And when I finished it, I decided I was going to read it again. Immediately.

Now, I’m no stranger to re-reading books I love. It’s the main reason I buy books: to make sure I have access to them the instant I’m wanting to read them again. But… usually I wait longer than a day before I dive in for a re-read. Yes, it was just that good. I’m going to try to write about the things I liked, without gushing. I might not be able to pull it off.  I enjoyed it on a level of wanting to go back through my lists of Five Star favorite books on Goodreads, and maybe demote a few to set it apart.

I give up. I’ll surrender to the need to gush.

I liked the way Sierra and her friends and family developed as characters. They were people with loyalties and ordinary days and intertwined histories, before they were Characters Serving the Direction of the Plot. That meant getting to see Sierra as part of a group of friends, with a best friend helping her get ready for a party, a crowd of friends flirting, razzing each other, enjoying a summer night, gossiping. And also seeing Sierra at home in her neighborhood, the avuncular pride of the domino playing old crowd reminiscing about the old country. Characters’ voices, both in dialogue, and in the narrative that stays with Sierra’s thoughts and reactions to people and events, felt real: the importance of family, of heritage, the way the past can shape the future. Their take on the neighborhood felt real and contemporary, too (a few digs at gentrification and race and fancy coffee rang very true, both situationally and to what those characters would notice and comment on.) Also, I really, really liked Sierra’s scenes with her friends and with her grandfather’s friends from the neighborhood. There’s warmth and humor as well as realness.

Making sure the characters were so well established and anchored in their Brooklyn neighborhood as well as keeping cultural traditions part of their lives was what let the more fantastical and supernatural elements work as well as they did. I was really happy to see Sierra stay true to herself, even as magical powers and threats entered the picture and adrenaline started to happen. She’s a teenage girl who’s brave in some ways, certain of her focus on art and devotion to her family and friends, and those things stayed true when the adrenaline and magic and threat got going.

All of which sets Shadowshaper well apart as a great example of solid, interesting fantasy, along with well-crafted YA. And that’s why I went back to enjoy rereading it almost immediately, and am going to be recommending it to just about anyone I know who reads fantasy, or stories with fantastic elements.

As if I didn’t have enough gushing to do about this book, there’s a library in it, and an archivist, and some chewy anthropology questions that let me enjoy thinking about the meta side of things, and larger roles of mythology and immigrant cultures and anthropological study. Yeah.

I don’t think I’m going to read this three times in a row… but I definitely need to buy a copy to keep on my shelf. So should you.

Book Review: The Scorpion Rules

August 24, 2015

Jacket image, The Scorpion Rules by Erin BowThe Scorpion Rules
by Erin Bow
Simon Teen
September 2015
Advance Review Copy from the Book Expo

I loved this book. It was excellently smart science fiction, with interesting worldbuilding and complex characters. Loved it! Even if it was dystopian.

The Scorpion Rules takes place in a far future, centuries from now, after the Earth’s landscape and politics have been dramatically altered by climate change. An AI called Talis has emerged to restore order by imposing strict hostage negotiation guidelines on nations competing for scarce resources. Each ruler of a nation must send a child to be raised until the age of 18. If nations go to war, their children will be put to death. An arguably simple game, as black and white as only a computer model could construct: give any declaration of war a personal consequence for any world leader.

Groups of world leaders’ children from different nations are raised in self-sufficient agrarian communities that function along the lines of monasteries. The religious feel of the community is enhanced by quoting of the sayings of the AI, Talis, giving the received wisdom the context of scripture. The children work the land, raise goats, weave fabric. As possible future world leaders, they learn history and politics, and keep ties to their home cultures with visits home. Greta is the central, point of view character, the daughter of the ruler of Halifax and the Pan Polar Confederacy. She watches news of North America and water rights, knowing that a declaration of war could make her life forfeit. Enter Elián Palnik, grandson of the ruler of the newly seceded Southern regional states. Where the rest of Greta’s companions seem content to follow the monastic rules of the Precepture that makes up their daily life, Elián is not having any of that: questioning, balking, risking punishments and the wrath of the watchful AIs. Yes, Greta is drawn to him.

Yes, what I’ve said so far is the set up for a dystopian YA romance. But the novel itself, both through worldbuilding and through carefully created, complex characters, sidesteps many of the cliches that are available to YA dystopias. Greta is smart, yes, and stands out among her cohort at the Precepture. But she’s flawed, too: scared, conflicted, not certain in her loves or allegiances. Yes, Elián is attractive to Greta, but not in an all-consuming Hero Boy sort of way. Politics, and the weight of history, even the weight of created, speculative far-future history work well to give this novel better heft. And the way characters’ relationships played out was terrifically satisfying, especially given the usual tropes of dystopian YA. Also: I’m reasonably sure this ended as a standalone, not the start of a trilogy. So, hooray!

Those who know me will be surprised by how much I loved reading this. I’m usually terrified of dystopian future visions, especially those that draw such clear lines between the current world being destroyed beyond repair, and a future vision of scarce resources. I’m really timid about dystopia: to the point where I still have nightmares about The Planet of The Apes, even though I acknowledge the movie is mostly camp. The only explanation I can offer for how deeply I enjoyed this is that there was enough difference in the worldbuilding, enough uniqueness, even as it adapted existing cultures, that I could read it in the vein of science fiction, and decide it was other enough not to scare me.

Another element that tamped down the horror of dystopia for me was the voice and characterization of Talis the AI. Pronouncements of a godlike, all-seeing AI who could wipe out an entire city just to teach nations a lesson were characterized as an ever-present, potentially lethal menace. And yet, the actual turns of phrase Talis used in the Holy Utterances of Talis. These are intended to serve as scripture, and quoted as such by the rulers’ children living monastic lives in their hostage communities. But… the actual statements of Talis’s word were so arch sometimes that they sounded more like campy villainy than terror-inspiring. I wound up giggling at the villainy, rather than feeling awed. I’m okay with that, basically because I don’t actually enjoy being existentially terrified by the coming environmental apocalypse. And because I’m pretty sure, given Talis and given the similar failures of menace in dialogue spouted by Ultron in Age of Ultron (don’t get me started on the flaws there. It’s a whole other rant), it serves a narrative purpose to have supposed all-powerful AIs come off as camp. That’s what our human minds can fathom properly in imagining an all-seeing AI.

Intriguing: Booking Through Thursday 8/12

August 20, 2015

Booking Through Thursday logoHaven’t done a Booking Through Thursday in ages. I’m catching up to this one a week late (oops!) but I really liked the question.

What’s the most intriguing book you ever read? Something that made you think, explore new ideas, or just be really impressed and awed and amazed at the sheer wonder of the creativity of the thing?

Running my finger along my bookshelf and mulling this one over. I know I have read fiction that has engulfed my worldview with its own, swept me away, or left me thinking for days after the fact. I’m not calling to mind specific titles, here, though, more the overall experience of being immersed in reading.

When it comes to specific books that have made me think, or influenced the way I think and the questions I ask, what comes to mind is nonfiction and poetry. It becomes extremely hard to pick just one, as the question stipulates. So I went for a few, in no particular order.

jacket image Bobos in ParadiseBobos in Paradise: the New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks. This is basically pop social anthropology, written in the early 2000’s, about the phenomenon of turning rustic camping, or exotic goods from other “more primitive” cultures into upper class status symbols. Or buying things with hefty price tags to convey a spirit of adventure, or artsy, creative slumming it. I read it fresh from majoring in anthropology in college, where I absolutely couldn’t get enough of being curious about applying field work and anthropology ideas and questions to looking at my own society and what it took for granted. Hyper-local anthropology and seeing how world cultures and foreignness were perceived. Not the most intellectually rigorous analysis, sure. But it stuck with me, and I still think about it: world music’s borrowed beats, expensive trekking gear worn on walks in public parks. Coffee culture, and the social cachet and price tag put on conveying worldly but bohemian images.

Cover image, Questions About Angels by Billy CollinsQuestions About Angels by Billy Collins. I think it was my friend Alex who put this into my hands in college. I hadn’t read Billy Collins before. And his poems, with their encapsulating details, their scenes that blend ordinariness with haunting strangeness… Poems about last cigarettes, odd barking dogs, superheroes, taking off Emily Dickinson’s clothes, Paris. structures I can’t dissect even though I try over and over…Collins has been one of my idols ever since. 

The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Joyce Saricks. This one is supremely librarian-nerdy for me to include. It was a textbook in the YA class I took one summer. And wow, I wished I had read it years ago! When I started reviewing books or book blogging. Saricks organizes the conversation about books around “appeal factors,” characteristics like mood, characters, setting, and plot, that transcend series or genre. The way she explains how the appeal factors work revolutionized how I listen to what people are telling me about what they like or don’t like about a book or movie, and, I like to think it helped me be better at recommending media that will actually hit its mark well and be a good fit. Advisory is a skill I’m still learning. But appeal factors make it make such wonderful sense.

Callahan’s Secret by Spider Robinson. Okay, I said I wasn’t going to include any fiction in this list, it was going to be poetry and nonfiction. I changed my mind. Like Questions About Angels, this pick is more about the influence of the author overall, than about singling out one book over any of the others. The Callahan books played a key role in constructing the moral compass I aspire to live by: doing my best to rearrange the furniture in my own mind, listening to stories and sharing stories enough to be able to commune with other minds. And yes, it’s also series about a bar on Long Island, full of puns, aliens, the occasional apocalypse and a talking dog. Because, of course it is.

Jacket image, the design of everyday things by Donald NormanThe Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. I read the 2009 edition of this last year for my Usability class. Which was, in itself a game changer and a great rearranger of my outlook. But this book, just, wow. It offers wonderfully clear, sensible explanations of how design can be used to lead people to understand how to work with an object, through visual cues, tactile cues, ways of playing on what people already know or expect. A perfectly designed program or gadget would allow someone to pick it up and operate it smoothly without instructions. With good design, there’s absolutely no reason to be frustrated, to feel stupid or clumsy or like it’s your fault you don’t know how the thing works. When I read it for class, I left a flurry of dog-ears and post-it flags, even underlined wise and saliently explained ideas on what felt like every page. Years and years of feeling awkward and clumsy and confused by gadgets started to smooth over. I’ve been wanting to hand this book to just about any one I talk to who gets angry at a gadget, or blames themselves for being “bad with technology.” I should buy this book in bulk and get a commission. I should also read the updated version.

The Kindle has died, long live the Kindle!

August 11, 2015
image of 3rd Generation Kindle with broken screen

The Kindle has died, long live the Kindle!

Saturday night, I tucked myself into bed, intending to read a library e-book on my trusty Kindle, as is often my custom.

And I switched it on– to find half the screen transformed into some kind of modern art. A bit of poking and prodding, and calling customer service the following morning, confirmed it… my Kindle had shuffled off this mortal (inanimate, electronic) coil. Alas, sweet Kindle, I knew you well…

(It is possibly worth noting that Sunday marked the celebration of National Book Lover’s Day. I haven’t decided if that makes for ironic timing.)

I was by no means an early adopter of the Kindle and the e-reader phenomenon. Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I’ve had this Kindle since the summer of 2011. And that I selected it after a lot of researching, thinking out loud and dithering.

Having read hundreds of books on my Kindle, across many train rides, lunch breaks, genres, and even two continents, I can say that the 3rd Generation model really earned its keep with me. I put it through quite a workout of library books, e-galleys and a few classics, as well as assorted other titles. Never did finish the complete Sherlock Holmes…Not sure how many books I read on it in total, though when it died, I think it had 100 or so titles stashed away, all of which I, mercifully have backed up elsewhere.

Fortunately, the purchase of a second/replacement Kindle was much more streamlined than my initial months of research and dithering. In part by my desire to have a device as similar as possible to the one I mourn… I do like tablets and think they’re tremendously useful resources for reading and learning (I wrote a book to that effect— shameless plug!) but, for my own reading preference,  I’d rather read on a matte e-ink screen than a glossy, potentially glare-y tablet touchscreen. So a dedicated reader was the way to go for me, rather than using a Kindle/reader app on something like an iPad or another tablet device.

I wish they still made the same model so I could have a true/exact replacement of my late, lamented gadget. But that’s not the way tech works, I realize.

I had my eye on both the Basic/Starter Kindle model, since all I wanted it to do was be an e-reader, and the fancier Kindle Paperwhite, which seemed like close kin to what I was familiar with. I wasn’t sure about the navigation or the backlight, though. Knowing how important it is to get the hands-on experience of tech before I adopt it, I decided to head to a store where I could try various models out.

And as I was coming home from work on the subway, I happened to jostle elbows with a gent reading on his Kindle Paperwhite. Fortuitous! He seemed to not be grumpy about his day, so I chanced to ask him my lingering questions about the device experience. He was kind enough to show me how it works. Thank you, Subway Guy!

(This just goes to show how important it is to get hands-on experience before a tech purchase. Even a brief demonstration can make all the difference.)

Having learned a little about how controlling the gizmo works without the buttons I’m familiar with, and that yes, you can dim the backlight so that it’s basically the same as my late lamented device… I placed my order.

I wish upgrades didn’t always mean substantial interface changes… and I wish tech devices were built to last even longer. But I got some very good years, and good books, out of my trusty Kindle. So I really can’t complain.

And soon, I will have my new device in hand, my library backed up… and I can go back to promising myself that I’ll read Dickens in digital form, and finish the Complete Sherlock Holmes stories… eventually.

Meanwhile… I really should read some of my stacks of paper books.

Bedtime Stories & Past-My-Bedtime Stories

August 4, 2015

Sleep has been very much on my mind, over the past few weeks.

I’m working the opening shift at the library, as I have been for the past few months. With one change: for the summer, we’re opening at 8 AM instead of 9 AM. Now, it’s only an hour’s difference, so it shouldn’t be throwing me off. And yet. (Among other things, it means heading out to start my day before my lovely, friendly neighborhood coffee shop opens. Thank goodness for bottled cold brew!) So yes, whine, whine, mornings! Whine!

Early to rise means putting myself to bed earlier than is my custom, which has gotten at least somewhat easier as the early rising hours have caught up to me and begun to turn my brain to pudding by 9 PM. But only somewhat. I’ve at least been going through the motions of putting myself to bed early: pajamas on and pillows plumped, ready to curl up at a decent hour to read a chapter or two of a nice book.

And there’s where we run into trouble.

Just a few pages? No problem, that sounds like just the thing to be a lovely end to my day.

But… it’s so very hard to stop after just a few pages. Just a few pages turns into just a few chapters turns into “Ugh, wait, what time is it? Not again!”

I have learned from experience that the very sort of book I think fondly of cozying up in bed to read: YA fantasy, whimsical historical mystery, foodie fiction… is exactly the sort of book I am absolutely not allowed to read in bed. Because then it will be after midnight and ugh.

And, though you might think that re-reading a book would render me immune to being carried away by it until the wee hours: you’d be wrong. Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs got me twice, and so did My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger.

Reading a good book feels like being carried away into a wonderful, vivid dream: being immersed in adventures and characters that seem so real that pages (and sometimes hours) fall away. Without, unfortunately, the restful benefits of actual sleep. Sigh. I wish reading a good book counted as sleep. Because it’s so much more fun than lying in the dark, and essentially, twiddling my thumbs.

Audiobooks are a decent compromise, I suppose. My go-to audiobooks are nostalgic tales about country doctors: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series, and Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country doctor. Each is read by a nice gent with a lovely accent. Even stories of lambing and appendicitis wind up being cozy and soothing. You’ll have to trust me on this.

Short stories work, as well. Which reminds me, I need to replenish my stock of good fantasy tales and  foodie essay collections. Why aren’t bedtime story collections more of a thing? Bite sized fairy tales or short, nostalgic pieces, of just a few pages each would be brilliant.

Of course, if I got my hands on a really good collection, I’d probably zoom through an hour’s worth of several tales at a time.

Hazards of reading in bed.

Thanks to Alyse at Casper Mattresses, who inspired this post by suggesting that I write about bedtime stories.

Phryne Fisher Binge Read

July 21, 2015

A while ago, Lisa suggested that I try watching Miss Fisher’s Murder mysteries, an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s. She assured me that it had many things I would like: crimes solved by an amateur sleuth, snark and banter, terrific 1920’s fashions, sexiness, and a great supporting cast of chosen-family eccentric characters.

Lisa knows me very, very well. In I dove, and before I knew it, I’d zoomed delightedly through the first season of Miss Phryne Fisher’s adventures. As I got into the second season, and saw the stretch of new episodes dwindling before me, I was brought up short. What would happen when I ran out of new episodes to watch? Time to save them for special occasions.

And then I chanced to see that a GoodReads friend had given 5 stars to a book she was reading… a Phryne Fisher mystery? Could it be? And were they available from my library?

It turns out that the murder mysteries I have such fun watching got their start as a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood, a delightfully prolific Australian author. The books offer up much of what I love about watching the show: The great characters, Miss Fisher, the glamorous flapper who’s not afraid to dig in and solve a gritty crime, dry wit from Mr. Butler, a foil for Miss Fisher in the basically demure Dot, banter from Chief Inspector Jack Robinson.

Having come to the books from the TV show, I can say it’s amazingly well cast, with actors faithful to the look and style of the characters, actors who have excellent chemistry with one another, and seem to enjoy each other as well as the characters they portray.

Transitioning from screen to book and vice-versa, there are, of course a few trade-offs. While Greenwood does describe the sumptuous colors of Phryne Fisher’s elegant wardrobe, seeing the glamorous fashions onscreen is so much more fun. However, on the page you get some of the interior life of the characters: mostly Miss Fisher’s thoughts (whether studying a crime or plotting her next conquest) but also glimpses of what Dot and Butler and Jane and the rest are thinking. I thoroughly enjoy Greenwood’s wit and snark on the page… so much so, that, at various points, I giggled out loud and had to read passages aloud to share them.

As much as I like the glitter and wit of both screen-Phryne and Book-Phryne and friends, I think what I like best about these mysteries is their warmth… Warmth seems like a funny word to apply to a series that deals in dead bodies. But there it is. Phryne Fisher might be changeable in her romantic allegiances, but the friendships in her extended/chosen family are devoted and steadfast.

I guess these count as cozy mysteries? I’ve always had trouble with the term- it conjures cloying visions of cats and sweaters that would clash with Miss Fisher’s fabulous silk dresses. But I like my mysteries best when they have a solid heart. it doesn’t have to be some kind of syrupy True Love Romance. A good team-friendship is my ideal. And some snark in the sweetness. Cozy’s a weird word. Can I have a new one? (That’s a line of thought for a whole other post.)

So, I can say that, whether you choose book or screen, the adventures of Phryne Fisher are a delightful and worthwhile binge.

Words I Have Needed to Look Up

July 12, 2015

This post is long overdue, I think, holding myself accountable to looking up unfamiliar words in books I’ve read.

epicene (adj): having characteristics belonging to both sexes

epistemology (n) a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature,methods, and limits of human knowledge. I see this word all the time and have to look it up, repeatedly. I confuse it with “epistolary.”

iterative: (adj) Repeating

neap tide: (n) A tide that occurs when the difference between high and low tide is least; the lowest level of high tide. Neap tide comes twice a month, in the first and third quarters of the moon. (from Have His Carcase)
neurasthenic– having a nervous breakdown, or, I gather, prone to one, or just having had one. (Describes a scholar in an article I read for school.)

omphaloskepsis: (n) navel-gazing.

 quisby: A wretch; an idle person. doing quisby: idling, not working.
plethoric: (adj) Adjective of plethora. Abundant. In the context I saw, in Sherlock Holmes, it was used to describe an agent… I think, meaning big and tall and heavy.
skeumorphism: (n) The design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts. Skeuomorphism is commonly used in many design fields, including user interface (UI) and Web design, architecture, ceramics and interior design.
subfusc (adj) dark and drab or dingy
valetudinarian: (n) An invalid, a person who is excessively concerned with his poor health or ailments. As seen in The Sign of the Four. Sort of like a 19th century hypochondriac.
totipotent: (adj) In biology, having the potential for developing in variousspecialized ways in response to external or internal stimuli. As seen in Island Practice.

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