Thursday, December 30, 2010

10 Books that Made an Impression in 2010

(Read about my feelings on year-end lists here.) Presented in no particular order:

1. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson was an engrossing, read-through-it-all-at-once experience. Wildly inventive language, a pressing subject matter, and a compelling narrator made for a recipe that left me both hungry and satisfied.

2. Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief haunted me. I kept returning to the words, lingering over images of Max and “Poppa” Hans and Rosa and Rudy and Liesel long after I put the book down. How can you get a more fascinating narrator than Death?  Bonus points for one of the most resonant ending lines I have ever read.

3. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book moved me to tweet a recap in response to @HarperChildrens’ challenge: “Boy grows up among the dead, finds them lively. He stumbles into scrapes, brushes up against beauty, and learns how to leave.” It has charming characters crafted by a charming British wit who writes in charming prose. It won the Newbury. (I want to say “read it,” but this is a no pressure list.)

4. The Attolia series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings) by Megan Whalen Turner. I blazed through these four books in a staggeringly short timeframe. She constantly surprises. Political intrigue is not utilized nearly enough in YA literature. I love complicated, grown-up relationships. (Another Newbury!)

5. Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Fire. Graceling was a great debut novel. Smart, surprising, and well-written. Good world-building is hard, and she pulls it off easily. What was I saying about political intrigue and complicated, grown-up relationships? Oh, yes. Fire has them both in spades. Yahoo for intriguing heroines and a cast of supporting characters who are just as complex! Eagerly awaiting Bitterblue.

6. Philip Roth’s Indignation. I took an all-Roth, all-the-time class and was lucky enough to have the wife of Saul Bellow as my professor. (She is a profound thinker and writer in her own right.) Really, a few books could go here (Portnoy’s Complaint, The Professor of Desire, The Dying Animal), but this book was the one that stuck.

7. The Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins: My first time raiding the Walden library was to grab these two books. They knocked me off my feet. While they’ve been compared to Battle Royale (yes, I see it), they actually made me care about the characters involved. There were stakes and layers and really twisted surprises. While I didn’t wholly love the last book (reviewed here), they were fantastic reads.

8. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney E. Martin. SubtitledThe Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, this book hummed with compassion. It takes on eating disorders and what causes them from the trenches, through the observations of a young woman. Science and anecdotes blend fiercely. A gripping nonfiction read for any girl or woman or man who wants to understand what it's like.

9. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: I was overwhelmed by this slim little book. My review (written in the New Year) is here.

10. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater: Review is here. Team Werewolf.

OK, I showed you mine. Show me yours?

Top 10 Reasons Why December Stresses Me Out

I have a tiny panic attack each time I see a headline like “The Top 10 Books of 2010.” You see, my eyes process those words correctly, but my brain interprets them as “READ THESE BOOKS NOW, YOU UNCULTURED HEATHEN.” So, “The Most Awesome Movies of the Year” becomes “THE CINEMATIC EXPERIENCES OF A LIFETIME YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON, SLACKER.”

It gets really bad around December when everyone and their mother’s blog puts out a year-end list. Though I can usually find some consensus, there’s enough difference in opinion to populate several more lists. (Some people like to disagree on purpose, like those perverse human beings who write “The Top 10 Best Things Not Found On Anyone Else’s Top 10 List.”) There are also the overachievers for whom “Top 10” isn’t enough. So we get Top 20, Top 50, Top 100…Top 500. (Pitchfork, you’re on notice.)

Of course, I still read them all every year. It’s the same impulse that compels me to check out the return carts in the library: “Did I read that? Yeah, I did! I have great taste. I'm aweso...Oh, that looks good! Wow, there’s a lot of Stieg Larsson there. I should really get around to those.” Ultimately, I love keeping up with what other people are reading and watching and listening to, even if my already-stuffed “to-see” and “to-read” lists start to bloat uncontrollably come December.

Now that I’m a blogger, I know I should jump on the bandwagon. (Who am I to deny other people their voyeuristic thrills?) Still, I have my reservations. I’ll just get those out of the way.

Top 3 Reasons I’m Not Qualified to Write a “Top 10 Books of 2010” List:
  1. I barely read for pleasure during the first half of the year. I was busy with school books and requirements and exams and my internship and a 170 page thesis. (My friends fit in there somewhere.)
  2. I didn’t read for pleasure all summer. You can blame job applications and a 5 season backlog of How I Met Your Mother for that. (I regret nothing.)
  3. I only started reading for pleasure again in September. I tore through a ton of books, but I was primarily playing catch-up with my personal list. (Some of the books I read were published in this year, most were not.) 
Now that's cleared up, here is my (absolutely no pressure) 10 Books that Made an Impression in 2010.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay

For my first review, I thought I’d go big or go home. Mockingjay is the (highly anticipated) final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy. I was a relative late-comer to the series, having devoured both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire only this past spring. (You know how fashion magazines have “closets?” Well, Walden Media’s publishing office has a bestseller library. Thank you, internship!) Still, I waited anxiously, along with everyone else, for this last book.

I didn’t and don’t envy Suzanne Collins the task of writing Mockingjay at all. I hate to compare, but the last time I looked forward to a book this much was HP and the Deathly Hallows. Closing THG was trickier than finishing Harry Potter (in my opinion) because J.K. had four books more to bring everything to a satisfying finale.

(Here be serious spoilers. Read nothing beyond this point if you have not read the book.)

This reason, I suspect, is why I loved the ending of HP and wasn’t totally on board with Mockingjay. I found myself missing a ton in this book. Cinna, I missed fiercely. I missed his character and I missed what he represented. I missed the pageantry, the subtle intrigue of that showy circuit, and I really missed the random, superbly inventive violence of the arena. While there were some nasty traps in Panem’s deserted streets, they had to be triggered. The characters (and thus the reader) could see danger coming, so it didn’t really have the same impact. I feel like Collins missed that aspect too. I always got the sense she relished those terrible touches even as she’s deploring what caused them. 

Which brings me to Prim’s death: It was a nice touch having Prim die, essentially rendering the whole of Katniss’ fight empty. The bomb that killed her was a twisted and beautiful concept, but overall, the death felt like a trick. All of the elements came into place so conveniently and served the story so well, getting Gale out of Peeta’s way while artfully hammering home “the point” of the whole series. The key word there is “artfully,” as I felt the artifice. Maybe I was reading too fast, but there was no worry, no build. Nothing indicated that Prim might be in the Capitol. How did she get there? (Heartless moment: I didn't care. Prim never felt particularly developed to me.) To me, it was a deus ex death. Disappointing, as I know Collins is capable of planting subtle seeds (like the delicious pay-off of Plutarch Heavensbee’s mockingjay watch and the clock arena). Verdict: mishandled. 

A lot of other deaths in Mockingjay were similarly senseless, though I didn’t mind a majority of them. (It can be argued of all the deaths in the entire series were meaningless.) I can understand that Collins wanted us to be numb to the deaths, perhaps as a way to place us more firmly into Katniss’ frame of mind, but I still wanted some sort of send-off for Finnick. I know Collins can write a good death because of Rue (tragic) and Mags (heroic). In this book, Boggs got a great death, its tragedy enhanced by its accidental nature. Cinna got a passable death. (I kept hoping he was alive, so when I found out my gentle, creative soul was tortured to death “offpage,” it stung.) Even President Snow got his good death!  Finnick didn’t get that courtesy. He became a heartbreaking figure when he revealed his past, found happiness with the woman he loved, and then disappeared completely. On top of that, the muttations that killed him kind of sucked. Overgrown albino iguanas that smelled like roses and hissed? This from the author who gave us wolf mutts with the eyes of 21 dead tributes (and gave me lasting googly-mooglies)? THOSE WERE AWESOME. 

Speaking of awesome, some things I was beyond pleased with: The supporting characters! Beetee had so little plot time and still felt like such a delightful presence. Plutarch was alternately amusing and horrifying. Both Haymitch and Coin were complex and alive. I adored each member of Katniss’ hardcore camera crew. Also, I have a soft stripe for Tigris, the former stylist turned tiger lady, and Buttercup. (Collins writes a good cat.)  I was tickled by “hijacking,” both the wordplay and the deed, as well as the names of Castor and Pollux. Some effective socks to the gut: the hospital roof caving in, Johanna’s water phobia, the “Hanging Tree” song, and “real or not real.”

In light of these supporting characters, I felt most keenly the loss of Katniss. Even if she was forced into most situations and lucked out of many of them, she had a survivalist core and a heroic lean.  I lost track of those attributes in the book. PTSD!Katniss felt like Hormonal!Harry (5th book), so I tolerated her in the hopes she would shine through in a clutch situation. However, when she shot down the planes in District 8 or brokered the mine deal in District 2, it still didn’t feel like enough to redeem. It was close, but it fell short. Worse, after her actual heroic moment in shooting President Coin, no one would listen to their symbol of rebellion or even think to try? Though it was poetic that the Mockingjay figure is silenced, I resented that all choice was taken away from her, that she was invalidated. 

On that, let’s just jump to the love triangle. Collins didn’t give Katniss the dignity of choice. After the double bomb, she just can’t look at Gale ever again? Really? I was interested in that choice. It would have said something about Katniss. She would have had agency. She could have refuted the insulting accusation Gale made about choosing whoever would best help her survive. (Was her future, left to their devices, so far off from his prediction?) Gale and Katniss would never have worked because they were both fire? So Katniss and Peeta (still, I can’t help but think of pita) are fire and…bread? Fire and a flower? And Gale just disappears conveniently in a far-away government job? While I appreciated the roughed-up version of Peeta, having him swoop in and make the decision for Katniss is not OK.

I guess what it boils down to is that I wanted a little more heroism from my heroine. It’s a purely selfish wish, and I acknowledge that. I do realize that The Hunger Games is more about survival than heroism and that Katniss never asked for any of it. I can be fine with the ending. (I have to be. It’s the only way it ends.) I can believe Katniss had fought enough, that she deserved to rest, so she lets herself stop. And she does.  

I guess I’m bumping up against the issue of what readers want out of a story versus what the author gives the readers. Is it fair to place these expectations on the author? No, probably not. Will they be there? Yes, always. Did I still enjoy the overall work? Yes, absolutely. Ultimately, I care about these characters and I’m intrigued by the ideas. (I wouldn’t have written this much in review otherwise.) At the end of the trilogy, I appreciate being left with resonant, relevant social commentary: Children are sacrificed on the altar of their parent’s anger until it can be put aside or burned up. There is a place for living in the middle, between the excess of Panem and over-correction of District 13. Finally, don’t ever underestimate the combination of human nature and ingenuity.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Library Karma

The day I discovered you could request books from libraries, an angel got its wings. It was way better than Christmas though. One day of gifts and a month of anticipation was nothing compared to constant promise and year-round presents, always exactly what I wanted.  

When I joined the Boston Public Library as an official Massachusetts resident, the first thing I did was investigate their request system. Findings: modern magic. You can ask for any book in their libraries-wide catalog and track your request online—watching your position tick down (sometimes from several hundred), holding your breath when an item is “In Transit,” doing a little happy dance when it reaches its final destination. Once processed, the books lie in wait on the Hold shelves, outfitted with little slips of paper that mark who the next lucky reader is. 

I was looking for the last of mine (ROS 5152) after collecting three others. The errant one was Scott Westerfeld’s Behemoth, a young adult sequel I had pounced on as soon as it went online. I perused and puzzled and peered. Not on the shelf, not on the overflow carts. I asked at circulation but had no luck when they looked either. It was decidedly missing. I was completely baffled until it hit me: Someone took it. On purpose. 

The library was suddenly a lawless place, anarchic, chaotic. In my temple of order, I felt violated. (And I really enjoyed Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief! Insult to injury.) This system, so easy and convenient, so full of potential, was irreparably flawed. A person could just take whatever they wanted from the shelves. Nothing was stopping them.

Wait. I could just take whatever I wanted. It was a free-for-all! I spied Mockingjay, casually resting in front of me. I had 23 more spots to go on the queue, but it was right here. The Maze Runner sat a few rows down. I could snag that too.

Temptation. I wanted to grab them and read them and finish them and not wait. My fingers itched, but I couldn’t make them move. They knew better. 

These books were not meant for me. Any experience I’d have with these stolen goods would be tainted. I knew each flimsy slip of paper marked someone waiting for that book, waiting just as I had, in turn, patiently or impatiently watching the numbers count down. I couldn’t perpetuate my disappointment. So I left their books waiting for them and resolved to wait a second queue for mine. I had been tested, but I had triumphed. I felt sort of like a heroine, even if I was a stewing, bookless heroine.

As soon as I got home, I checked my account to make sure my re-request had gone through. Before I could look though, I saw a notification for a hold. A book arrived for me in the span of my half hour commute home. Which? Click. Mockingjay laughed at me from the screen. OH, FOR PANEM’S SAKE!

Thusly punished and rewarded, I let it go. It’s almost better this way. At least now I know. The thief who stole my book will definitely get what’s coming to him. Library karma. It’s a thing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Rita Skeeter Exclusive

Scooped! You heard it here first:

1. I had no idea that Runcorn was such a bookish fellow. When does he find the time? I bet it takes a lot of energy to persecute Muggle-borns for the Ministry of Magic, and he probably didn't get any reading done when Harry Potter stunned him and went on a Polyjuice-fueled adventure in his likeness. (Worst forced sick day ever.) I just hope he won't use this upcoming feature for nefarious purposes.

2. This is going to be so helpful. I'm happier than Hermoine on an exam day. Go BPL!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hello World!

I was recently bitten by the blogging bug. You can blame business lunches or my buzzing brain, but I'm definitely ready to scratch this itch.

A little about me: By day, I design web applications, manage projects, and support clients for a small internet start-up. By night, I satiate my brain by reading my fill. The ultimate goal is to merge my day and night selves with a job in publishing.

A little about this space: I’ll be focusing on style and substance, reviewing new books and revisiting a few old favorites. While I’m mostly interested in YA fiction, there will be some adult and nonfiction palate cleansers. Anything with words is fair game.

I'm writing up posts, reading everything I can get my hands on, and doing it right the first time around. Bear with me while I get my bearings, and watch this space for more!

Yours in cyberspace,