Friday, April 29, 2011

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Young Adult Sci-Fi
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-316-05621-2
First edition, hardcover
Source: library

Sometimes I wonder why the best books out there get the least amount of hype. If I hadn't seen Maggie Stiefvater talking about this book on GoodReads-- her comment just happened to be near the top of my "update feed" when I logged on-- I would have never picked it up. Her comments were mostly to the tune of, "This book is amazing." She then listed a few specific reasons why she felt that way, none of which gave away the story. So I checked out the book blurb and thought, sure why not? I like sci-fi. I like YA. This seems different from the majority of what's out there now. I'm in the mood for "unique."

From the inside jacket:

Even at night, the wrecks glowed with work. The torch lights flickered, bobbing and moving. Sledge noise rang across the water. Comforting sounds of work and activity, the air tanged with the coal reek of smelters and the salt fresh breeze coming off the water. It was beautiful.

In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging copper wiring just to make quota--and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue a lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life....

After reading that, yes, I was intrigued, but it did not prepare me for the journey I took through those pages. The blurb does not even begin to scratch the surface of this multi-layered story. That final line made me think, oh dear, there is a corny romance thrown in the mix. But no, really, there isn't. And what I felt was a major plot point--the messed up relationship between Nailer and his father--is not even mentioned here.

This is not a cupcake read, people. It is DEEP and DARK.

The story is engaging, and the world-building... it's just so NATURAL. It's how I wish all sci-fi would read. It flows without the slightest blip. And the scariest part? The situation presented felt like something our world could realistically be headed toward.

No surprise, this novel won the Printz award and was also a National Book Award finalist. But I am surprised that more people in the YA community are not talking about it. Male protagonists are rare in YA. Even more rare is good YA sci-fi. This book has both, and I highly recommend it for teen and adult readers. 5 of 5 stars.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grace Interrupted by Julie Hyzy

Where I got the book: by winning an author giveaway. Release date is June 7, 2011.

Grace Interrupted is the second in Julie Hyzy's Manor House Mystery series, set in a large manor house which is one of the main attractions in a town that lives for tourism. The heroine, Grace Wheaton, appears to have just about got her act together as the new manager of Marshfield Manor when the arrival of a large group of Civil War re-enactors throws a spanner in the works. The murder of one of their number implicates Grace's love interest Jack, and Grace has to rely on some of her former antagonists to help sniff out the clues that could clear his name.

Meeting Julie Hyzy early this year was my first introduction to her line of cozy mysteries, and I haven't yet read the first in the Manor House series. But it was easy enough to pick up the gist of the characters: Grace has returned to her childhood home after a troubled past, and is trying to make her new life in her mother's tumbledown old house work, with the help of two roommates and the support of her boss, Bennett (who is interested in Grace, but not for romantic reasons). Her romance with Jack is at the will-they-won't-they stage, and relations with some of the people she met in the first book (Grace Under Pressure) are equally shaky. Plenty of room for growth in a series that looks quite promising.

I enjoyed Hyzy's breezy command of dialogue and skill in quick character sketches. The novel moves along at a good pace, and although I didn't warm immediately to Grace, I really enjoyed some of the other characters. Grace seemed a bit two-dimensional to me: her past troubles were hinted at, but she didn't show a whole lot of vulnerability in this book. Perhaps I need to read the first novel in the series.

I found the Civil War re-enactors very interesting: I've seen re-enactors at work (play?) and was captured by the details about the levels of realism--or not--that can be achieved. I would have liked to have seen more about the realities of running a large tourist attraction with multiple events going on.

The climax of the action was excellent; the pace picked up very nicely, the identity of the culprit was not outrageously obvious, and the overall result was satisfying. There were some plot threads--including the ongoing romance--that pointed forward to some fun developments as the series progresses.

The overall taste of the novel, if I can describe it that way, was of a well-stacked sandwich paired with a glass of fresh, fruity wine--nothing heavy there, but a good, everyday literary meal to refresh me after a hard day's work. This is the kind of escapist story that I enjoy reading when I'm ready to relax, yet still want to engage my mind just enough to keep it ticking over. I think I'll persevere with Grace and see how things develop.

Oh yes, and there was a cat. I'm not one of those people who goes all soft over pets in novels, but the animal-lovers out there will enjoy the furry plotline.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mary Doria Russell/CHILDREN OF GOD

Spoilers alert: This book is a sequel to the same author's The Sparrow, reviewed here a few weeks ago. In that earlier review, I tried not to include plot details which would ruin first-time readers' appreciation of the book. Likewise, in this review, I'll resist including spoilers about Children of God. But I can't promise to avoid spoilers about The Sparrow here; my assumption is that if you're thinking of reading this one, you've already read the earlier book. Fair warning, okay?

The action in Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off:

Emilio Sandoz has done his big reveal before the Jesuit inquiry into the disastrous mission to the planet Rakhat years before. Sandoz remains a proud but broken (and lonely) man, his faith in God shredded by all that he's been through. The same characters are in place around Sandoz: Jesuits Father General Vincenzo Giuliani, Brother Ed Behr and priest John Candotti, and the others participating in the inquiry and Sandoz's subsequent care and recovery. Sandoz continues to sleep poorly -- as who wouldn't, after having his hands maimed so horribly, to say nothing of years of gang rape by the Rakhati poet-singer Hlavin Kitheri and his carnivorous friends?

As in The Sparrow, Children of God's structure swings back and forth between events on Earth and events on Rakhat (and en route). Chapter headings continue to require both "where" and "when" details. And the "when" bits? Still stretched out over decades, thanks to the strange effects of Sandoz's near-light-speed travel to and back from the distant planet.

But these threads of continuity lead to a very different book.

Remember the surprise -- the shock -- from the first book, the discovery of how different things were on Rakhat than anyone had anticipated? (Alien, indeed.) Those surprises continue in the sequel; in many cases they overturn the surprising conclusions which themselves overturned our expectations while reading the first book. For in this book we spend proportionately much greater time in the lives and minds of the Rakhati themselves.

Particularly, Russell places us for long stretches in the company of the "villains" of The Sparrow. We learn what happens to Supaari VaGayjur, the ambitious merchant who delivered Sandoz to Hlavin Kitheri in exchange for social advancement. And long passages explore the everyday life and motivations of Kitheri himself. We learn a lot more about both the gentle Runa and the predatory Jana'ata, and why Rakhati society has evolved the way it has, and why it's stayed that way.

A less skilled author might communicate all this in long, dry expository passages, as in a history or geography textbook (with big swatches of text excerpted from psychological journals). Russell doesn't do that. She uses characters -- familiar and new ones -- as vessels of history and personality; the context soaks into our awareness gradually rather than being injected forcibly.

(On the other hand, she also continues her practice from The Sparrow, as I mentioned in the earlier review, of telling us about her characters' states of mind rather than revealing them through behavior. It's more understandable here, maybe; after all, we have no built-in inner compass to help us map Rakhati behavior to psychology. But at times it did require -- for me -- long patience.)

Children of God introduces us to new human characters, too, and these additions lead to further upheavals in Sandoz's assumptions about what God might or might not have planned for him. For Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, and there faces the aftermath of his first visit. I loved this about Children of God: a common theme of science fiction is how human culture might be remade by a first visit from extraterrestrials, but we seldom get to see it from the other side. And as we might imagine with Earth's first unexpected contact, so with Rakhat's: many, many things are turned upside-down.

(Remember that Sandoz has made two near-light-speed journeys between Rakhat and Earth since leaving the former: one outbound and, now, one returning. Planetary time stretches out, so in what Sandoz perceives as months, over a decade passes back on both his home planet and on Rakhat.)

Finally, early on in Children of God we learn what we -- what I -- never suspected: Sandoz was not the only one to survive the earlier mission. What that survivor experiences among the Runa and Jana'ata races lies at the heart of what Sandoz comes to understand, not just about his two visits to Rakhat but about his entire life.

In a "reader's guide" section which the publisher added to the end of Children of God, Russell says she was surprised that its popularity seemed to exceed that of The Sparrow. I myself would not choose to take Children of God with me as reading material on an interstellar journey (although The Sparrow might make the trip). Much of the pleasure of the earlier title came from seeing the characters interact with one another. Those characters were not just fresh to me, but innocent of what they would find on Rakhat. Children of God is a book which must fight its way back from despair and terror, which makes it a book of a wholly different, a darker character. The narrative here spends much more time in the minds of institutions -- the Jesuits and the larger Roman Catholic Church, the Runa and Jana'ata cultures. Furthermore, The Sparrow's tone benefited from much light-hearted conversation and flirtation between men and women; in Children of God, you'll find almost none of that.

I also must mention that I found the passages focusing on Hlavin Kitheri... well, repellent. Even after coming to appreciate, objectively, how his mind worked and why it worked that way -- even after he goes a long way towards redeeming not just himself, but the whole of Jana'ata culture -- I still hated the character. (I did admire Russell's skill at bringing him to life.) It was like watching George C. Scott in Patton: I kept thinking, y'know, You monster. You S.O.B. Don't even try to justify what you're up to. 

So, recommended or not? I gave The Sparrow 95 out of 100; Children of God, I'd probably place around 85. Still very happy to have read it, I hope to look into Russell's more recent work. (She didn't stick to science fiction; her latest is about Wyatt Earp's friend, Doc Holliday!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shift by Takumi Yamazaki

Where I got the book: won from LibraryThing as an Early Reviewers giveaway.

As I worked my way through Shift, I kept wondering if Takumi Yamazaki had read The Secret (which I did not like, if you remember). There are some definite echoes of The Secret in this small tome, Yamazaki's debut in the Western self-help industry (he is, apparently, "a best selling author in Japan").

Or maybe he hasn't read The Secret. Maybe this style of self-help philosophy is just in the zeitgeist, a result of a generation that has been told, and told, and told that its wishes can come true.

The premise of Shift is that you can, by the power of thought, shift yourself up to where you want to be. Get that promotion, that house, that car (isn't it funny how these books are so often about getting money, as if money really solves problems?) You are impeded from reaching your potential by homeostasis (the idea that things find their own level, i.e. we are all much more comfortable in our comfort zone) and scotoma, which is a blind spot or mental block.

Shift is punctuated by little exercises, to be done alone or in groups, mostly in the form of writing down your goals and telling them to other people. It is a 200-page book, but contains an enormous amount of white space because it needs to pad out quite a small amount of writing into an acceptable format for publishing. To this end, it also contains a whole lot of little drawings featuring the guy usually seen symbolizing "Men" on a restroom door. Restroom Man gambols through the book supposedly illustrating the Deep Thoughts contained therein, but I frequently found it hard to make the text square up with the drawings.

All this could be a problem of translation; I get the impression that the text was translated fairly closely from the Japanese, instead of being rewritten with a Western audience in mind. In editing non-English speakers it's sometimes necessary to insert an extra sentence here and there to show thinking steps that are left out in the original language; I'm no linguist, but what little contact I've had with Chinese has taught me that a lot more meaning can be derived from context than is possible in English speech. Could be that the same is true for Japanese, and this makes Shift a very easy book to read if you don't pay much attention to logical sequence, but frustrating for those of us who like to dot our i's and cross our t's.

The fundamental message of Shift, as far as I could make it out, is similar to The Secret: Think positive and all things are possible. You can make things happen. I also spotted some of the same unfortunate advice: For example, if you want to be rich you should live as if you are rich (which is fine until you realize you just blew a month's salary in a day) and you should hang around with the kind of people you want to be (also an expensive proposition if your goal is to be a multi-millionaire).

I felt very sad when I read that if a friend comes to you with a problem, the solution is to say "Oh hey, that should be no problem for you!" and then start chatting about something else. In
other words, you shouldn't really listen to problems, because you should be too busy chatting up successful rich people instead. I'll be sure to do that the next time I see a friend who has cancer or whose husband just dropped dead. Yeah.

I've said it before: I have nothing against positive thinking, and nothing against people who are willing to work on their attitude to achieve their goals. I think that having goals is a good thing. But becoming the person you were intended to be goes a whole lot deeper than reading books like Shift. I wouldn't recommend it, even for the sake of seeing the Restroom Man drawings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RIVAL by Sara Bennett Wealer

Young Adult Contemporary
HarperTeen, 2011
ISBN 978-0-06-182762-4
First edition hardcover
Source: library
Meet Brooke: Popular, powerful and hating every minute of it, she’s the “It” girl at Douglas High in Lake Champion, Minnesota. Her real ambition? Using her operatic mezzo as a ticket back to NYC, where her family lived before her dad ran off with an up and coming male movie star.

Now meet Kathryn: An overachieving soprano with an underachieving savings account, she’s been a leper ever since Brooke punched her at a party junior year. For Kath, music is the key to a much-needed college scholarship.

The stage is set for a high-stakes duet between the two seniors as they prepare for the prestigious Blackmore competition. Brooke and Kathryn work toward the Blackmore with eyes not just on first prize but on one another, each still stinging from a past that started with friendship and ended in betrayal. With competition day nearing, Brooke dreams of escaping the in-crowd for life as a professional singer, but her scheming BFF Chloe has other plans. And when Kathryn gets an unlikely invitation to Homecoming, she suspects Brooke of trying to sabotage her with one last public humiliation.

As pressures mount, Brooke starts to sense that the person she hates most might just be the best friend she ever had. But Kathryn has a decision to make. Can she forgive? Or are some rivalries for life?

The story of Rival is more than just a simple rivalry. While the singing competition between Brooke and Kathryn definitely drives the plot, what really engaged me throughout the book was their relationship, both past and present.

I'm not usually a fan of the flashback technique, but for this story it totally worked. Wealer gives the reader just enough information at just the right times, about just the right things. You develop real sympathy for both Kathryn and Brooke--you want them both to win, but you know they can't both win. I honestly had no idea who was going to win at the end, or how it would all go down. Until the moment it happened.

As a former "dedicated violinist" and current "casual pianist" (playing music was 90% of my childhood and is now 10% of my adulthood), I tend to be especially critical of music-oriented fiction. Any misinformation or liberal stretching of the truth will immediately turn me off. Rival did not do that. Not one bit. Wealer even used musical terms as section headings, cleverly relating their definitions to the events of the story. For example, the first section is labeled, Dissonance: a harsh sounding of notes that produces a feeling of tension and unrest.


The skillful presentation of the story combined with Wealer's crisp writing style and clear musical know-how made Rival an instant favorite for me. 5 of 5 stars.


Sunday, April 3, 2011


A while ago, I heard this author do a very good reading, and decided to pick the book up. A couple days later, it was announced he'd won the PEN/Hemingway prize for first fiction, which boosted the book to the top of my TBR pile.

The Madonnas of Echo Park is a series of cross-sections of Mexican American lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with family and neighborhood threads that arc over the twentieth century. The book is a member of the burgeoning new genre of novels told through intersecting and overlapping short stories (like Olive Kitteridge or The Size of the World). I'm increasingly finding myself pleased by this format, which does everything a novel should in terms of world-building but allows the reader to inhabit multiple characters.

Characters range across the spectrum of southern California lives: an illegal laborer who faces deportation if he doesn't do something shady for his boss; his ex-wife, a maid for rich Hollywood types; their daughter, who as a teenager witnessed a gang shooting of a 4-year-old girl; a racist bus driver; a jolly ex-con; etc. My favorite story (of course, with my friendship fetish) was the one featuring two (female) best friends who fall out but can't forget each other--it rang true on many levels for me. I imagine individual readers will have a particular favorite based on what resonates for them.

I recommend the book particularly for the homage it makes to strong women (as implied by one of the several ways of interpreting the title). The stories are both accessible and touching, a necessary addition to American literature in the (very unfortunately) rare depiction of Mexicans in America--the often unrepresented fifth or quarter of US population. (Why haven't I encountered more books about the experience/history/culture? Any recommendations?)

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I picked this book, a very brief collection of short stories, up off a friend's shelf a couple days ago, remembering that I'd intended to read it for my gaps list, and decided now was my chance. I ended up finishing the whole book this morning in one sitting at a pastry shop. At first I thought I wasn't going to like it, but now I find myself so fixated on particular ideas that I needed to come home and blog about it.

The collection was first published in book form in 1981, but the stories were published individually starting in 1974 in different magazines. The stories vary in their darkness and hopefulness, but many are set in the Pacific Northwest and focus on traumas--small or large--in American lives and families. Most of the stories are very short--10 pages or so, some even less--so they are ideal for reading in short single sittings.

The story in the collection that made the strongest impression on me was probably "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off," about a mute family friend called Dummy who raises a bunch of bass fish and then can't bear to see them fished. (In this example, as in others, the title of the story ignores the bulk of its content and instead focuses on an often side-stepping or mundane "take-away" from the overall story arc--a comment, I think, on how we tell stories to ourselves and others, how we recast the truth to suit our purposes, and how we try to hide what matters to us behind what we think is supposed to matter to us. That's only my editorial note, though.)

Another story I found very affective was "So Much Water So Close to Home," about a woman who is pretty sure her husband and his friends murdered a young girl whose body he reported finding in the woods. Although it was not my favorite, I feel obligated to mention the eponymous story, too, which features two couples, both remarried, discussing their previous loves and whether or not they were real or correct. In all three cases I've mentioned, the story isolates day-to-day moments and tensions and draws on very dark elements--murder, attempted murder, suicide, all of the above--almost as afterthoughts.

Not all of the stories are as dark as the ones I've mentioned: they also deal with quieter moments, haircuts, breakups, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, child-rearing, yard sales.

I'm glad I read this not only as a reader but as a writer--I think Carver offers a specific idea of what a short story writer can create in a small number of pages, and also suggests some boundaries for what needs to be expected of a short story writer. Although I didn't love every story, I did get the impression that Carver was very careful to never bite off more than he could chew. I would recommend the collection to anyone who is working on very short fiction of their own.