Holiday Odd Shelf

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Anyone who does NaNoWriMo is probably not too surprised not to have seen me. I also had a substantive editing deadline to meet with Jolly Fish, working around full-time projects with a children’s magazine.

All in all, it’s been a crazy, crazy month.

But not so busy that I don’t have a list of books to share with you. For two reasons. A week or so ago, my mom remarked that she didn’t know how I had time to read with everything else I was doing. I answered (and this is reason number one), “I find time to read for the same reason you would still go to the gym even if you lost your job.” (My mother is half-bionic fitness instructor and manager in one of the world’s largest gym chains). My mom knew immediately what I meant. She smiled. “Because you love it,” she said.

Yeah, I love it. I try not to force my love for reading on anyone else, but I, in complete honesty, don’t understand people who don’t. My brain works in a different, foundational way than someone who hates books.

The second reason is because I have an hour-long commute by train to get to the magazine office I work at. Both ways. I will not complain if for some reason I have a public transportation commute for the rest of my life. It’s guilt-free reading time, that’s what it is. I have to get to work, and I don’t have to concentrate on driving, so it’s perfect.

So if you’re wondering if there are any good books out to get your friends for Christmas, or if you need a nice novel yourself to curl up with during the holidays, I’m here to recommend some of the better ones I’ve read recently. I also read a few stinkers that you should absolutely avoid, but I won’t mention those.

 Me-Before-You

Me Before You

This one’s for the romantics (as I hopelessly am). Louisa (Lou) Clark, a 26-year-old working-class girl, lands a position as a “care assistant” to an intelligent, wealthy and very angry 35-year-old man named Will Traynor, who has spent the past two years as a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike. It’s a real “weepy,” as one British reviewer called it, but in an utterly, heartbreaking sweet way. Books like this don’t make me cry (I never cry for the obvious reasons). But some things, as the author forces you to recognize, are worth crying over.

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Rules of Civility

This one was unintentionally recommended to me by a literary agent I spoke with, who was interested in books set in the 1920s partly because of reading this book. And that is this book’s great strength: a snappy, detailed, sure-handed reproduction of Manhattan in the late ‘30s, with lots of social alchemy and quirky characters. Mostly, I loved it for the witty, elegant, growing-into-her-own narrator.

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The Rosie Project

Another one for the romantics, this one for the happy-ending-lovers. I love good love stories but they are invariably difficult to unearth, so I always share the ones I like. Don Tillman doesn’t know he has Asperger’s syndrome, although his symptoms are obvious to friends and colleagues. He flinches from physical contact and his approach to courtship consists of handing women a detailed questionnaire to test their suitability. Then along comes Rosie, who is (perhaps predictably) disorganized, irrational, and sassy.

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Reality Boy

This is the latest from A.S. King. First of all, I love everything by A.S. King, I think she is brilliant; raw, honest, funny sentences. You can read any of her novels if you like and all will be good. This one I especially loved for it’s “I demand a better life” theme. Gerald Faust spent his rage-filled childhood on a reality TV show, and now is suffering the consequences of a life he didn’t choose. Not surprisingly, I also liked the romance in it. The relationship felt very real to me, these two dysfunctional teens helping each other.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This one was actually a Christmas present given to me by a very good friend with very good literary taste. I’m sad I took so long to read it. This one is for book lovers. Not just because it’s a book, but because the characters love books too (obviously, if it’s a literary society). An epistolary (told through letters) story about London emerging from WWII. Juliet Ashton is in search of a new subject to write about, and stumbles, through letters, upon a group of people on Guernsey, one of the Channel islands. This book is charming and delightful, but steady on a foundation of truth and poise.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone–may it be filled with lots of reading!

Odd Shelf: Rainbow Rowell

After polishing off the Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (which wasn’t bad, but not Odd-Shelf-Review-Worthy), I stared Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, another Old Shelf soon-to-be-conquest.

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And I gotta say, I really loved it. YA romance is not usually my thing. Probably because I’ve reeeeead way too much of it. It’s lost its magic, at least in my case. But this was like discovering a tickly love story all over again.

So, what’s up with this book?

I’m stealing John Green’s description because he says it better:

“Eleanor is a “big girl” with bright red hair (kids on the bus call her Big Red, and she describes herself as resembling a barmaid) who has just returned to her home in Omaha, after being kicked out for a year and forced to stay with acquaintances. Every moment Eleanor is home is terrifying and claustrophobic — she shares a room with a mess of siblings and lives in constant fear of offending her abusive alcoholic stepfather, Richie. She’s also poor — she cannot afford a toothbrush or batteries for her Walkman. (Some readers may initially find this unrealistic, but through the novel one comes to have a better understanding of how poverty interacts with abuse to marginalize and oppress.)

Park is a half-Korean kid who’s passably popular but separated from the larger social order of his school both by his race and by his passion for comic books and good music. On the first day of school, Eleanor sits down next to him on the bus. Over time, she begins reading his comics over his shoulder. Then he lends them to her. They bond over music. Eventually, they begin holding hands on the rides to and from school.”

 

It’s a sweet, short read that makes you remember your first crush, however and whenever that might have been. And it’s innocent, in a way. Two-thirds of the way through the book, when Park realizes they’ve only touched north of the chin and south of the wrists, I felt as flabbergasted as he does.

Why I like it as a writer:

It’s fresh and unconventional. Eleanor and Park don’t have to battle for their love in the supernatural, paranormal way that’s currently popular. It’s simply enough that she’s a poor, bigger red-head and he’s Asian and likes to wear eyeliner sometimes. Rowell hits on points that make you say “of course” while saying them in a new way.

Example:

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat.”

“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

“I want everyone to meet you. You’re my favorite person of all time.”

“…I love your name. I don’t want to cheat myself out of a single syllable.”

Why some people might not like it:

Sometimes people don’t care for this simplistic focus or a slower-paced story. Some people don’t like reading about teenagers. But really THAT IS THE ONLY REASON I CAN THINK OF.

After I finished I read Attachments (her first novel, for adults) and it was equally good. Sophie Kinsella except not so unbelievable/shallow. (With more sweet love zingers, like THIS ONE: “I’d know you in the dark,” he said. “From a thousand miles away. There’s nothing you could become that I haven’t already fallen in love with.”) And then I browsed Rainbow Rowell’s author page and I wish she could be my friend in real life. I hope she never stops writing.

Odd Shelf: Maggie Stiefvater

Aaah–the last Odd Shelf before it goes Old Shelf.

First of all, let’s just admire Maggie’s decision to use her given name and not go with a penname, because probably no one is going to be able to properly pronounce her last name for most of her career (I personally just pronounce it the way I want).

Maggie Stiefvater’s “Shiver” trilogy wafted through the YA circles some years ago (not too long; the industry moves fast) and I tried the first book. I was kind of bored and uninvested, and though I’m sure it’s a good book and many people like it, for whatever reason I quit halfway through and never picked it up again.

I thought it was another one of those things, where I was destined to be dissatisfied with YA books forever more because I’d simply grown out of them. I didn’t want this to happen, but I used to burn through YA books at a pace of one a week when I was younger, and I thought, maybe I just don’t enjoy this genre anymore.

False.

love this genre. But I’m pickier. And YA is the bread and butter for a lot of publishers and agents nowadays, which means the shelves are awash with mediocre work.

To make a long story short, I’d kind of written Maggie Stiefvater off as an author not-really-for-me, and then I read Scorpio Races and had a change of heart.

And then, because I liked Scorpio Races so much, I picked up Raven Boys and realized, yes, officially: Stiefvater is pretty neat.

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But back to Scorpio Races.

What’s up with this book?

It’s about killer horses. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.

Based on the legends of the eich uisce — the Celtic water horse — The Scorpio Races take place on the tiny, fictional island of Thisby. Each November, water horses emerge from the black ocean and gallop the beach beneath the cliffs of Thisby. And each November, men capture these horses for a thrilling and deadly race.

Both Sean Kendrick, four time champion, and Kate “Puck” Connolly, newcomer to the races, will ride this year, and both of them have more to gain — or lose — than in any previous year. But only one can win.

And–you guessed it–Puck and Sean have a little thing goin’ on between them.

Why you should read it:

Using the Celtic legend is a really unique premise. It’s interesting in and of itself, even without the story Stiefvater weaves into it, which is also good. Life on Thisby is a very rough-and-tough small town way of living–I related it to it all, and felt nostalgic over this make-believe town by the end.

Why I like it as a writer:

Stiefvater has a naturally lyrical way of writing. It’s very poetry-like and she focuses on small people-details. And by people-details I mean she gives attention to those unnameable -isms that occur between us, how we’re reacting to each other, the little details in our faces, the changes in atmosphere. Other writers focus more on setting or fast-paced plot, but Stiefvater keeps us close and personal with the characters, traveling along at their shoulders, not above them.

Why some people might not like it:

The two viewpoint characters are both kind of moody and withdrawn. They have a lot of likeable qualities, but if you’re looking for warmer romance and selfless, charismatic like protagonists, this will probably be harder for you to get through. Also–if you’re very action-oriented, this book runs at a slower pace. Stiefvater takes time to explore her bleak island and the race itself is the main point of action and some people might find it drags a bit.

Also, apparently Maggie is a musician (as if I wasn’t envious enough by her talent), and she wrote this song for Scorpio Races, and it’s kind of awesome:

http://maggiestiefvater.com/wp-content/uploads/02-The-Scorpio-Races-Long.mp3

Odd Shelf Becomes Old Shelf

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I don’t if this happens to any other readers, but I tend to buy new books before I’ve finished reading the old ones. I mean, there’s library books to read first, right, and then you have to catch up on the new releases coming out for all the series you’re keeping track of, and then, by darn, you don’t want to read some classic book you bought, you want to read a cheap, steamy thriller, and so on and so on . . .  until suddenly you have no room on your shelf and you realize you’ve only read half to two-thirds of the book actually up there.

So today I took an inventory and I made a goal that I would purchase no new books until I’d read all the ones on my shelf that I hadn’t read yet.

And holy toledo, there were a lot.

Like, dang girl, you shoulda done this earlier. I thought to make a goal to finish them by the end of the year, buuutt . . . I might need to extend that to an entire year. And why not? July 17th is as good of a start date as January 1st, right? Right.

I’ll still probably read some new release by authors I love or series I’m following. BUT. All other books on Odd Shelf are coming from muh ol’ bookshelf. However, as a rule, I reserve the right to set down any book I start after thirty pages if I’m not enjoying it. Life’s too short to read books you don’t love.

Here’s the list (in no kind of apparent order):

A Dirty Job, You Suck, Christopher Moore

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanne Clark

Stern Men, Elizabeth Gilbert

Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett

Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds, Stewart O’Nan

Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

Sleeping Arrangements, Madeline Wickham

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

(The Narnia Series), C.S. Lewis

Killing Floor, Lee Child

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (Some of these I’m reading for the second time, but I got it specifically so I could read it before the movie)

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

A is for Alibi, Sue Grafton

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham

Second Glance, Jodi Picoult

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam (This was the first book I bought ever on my spankin’ new Kindle, and it’s still there, unread . . .)

The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, John Steinbeck (I love Steinbeck, and yet, I never have time to actually read him)

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

The Stand, Stephen King

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

Stolen Pleasures, Gina Berriault

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor

Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

Angel of Repose, Wallace Stegner

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

American Goddesses, Gary R. Henry

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Firefly Lane, Kristin Hannah

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

The Lightning Thief (and accompanying series), Rick Riordan (I haven’t read them yet, seriously)

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro

In Sunlight and Shadow, Mark Helprin

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer

All the Jolly Fish Titles I haven’t edited (there are 8)

Odd Shelf: Winter’s Tale

I love accidentally finding a book that will become a favorite.

I stumbled onto Winter’s Tale last semester taking a Shakespeare class. Because we received extra credit for watching movie versions of the plays we were studying, I looked up Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale on IMBD and found a movie starring Colin Farrell, Will Smith and Russell Crowe. It wasn’t yet released and I was about to be disappointed, until I noticed the writing credits weren’t attributed to William Shakespeare, but a novelist named Mark Helprin who’d written a book called Winter’s Tale in the early eighties.

It had this byline: “A fantasy story set in 1900’s and present-day Manhattan and revolves around a thief, a dying girl, and a flying white horse.”

I thought to myself: I love New York City. I love it especially at the turn of the century. And, by darn, I love romance when it involves a thief. Plus, flying white horse? Count me in.

So I bought the mass market paperback for a penny and read it during my trip to England.

That horse up there's Athansor--you gonna luff him.

That horse up there’s Athansor–you gonna luff him.

So, what’s up with this book?

From Amazon, here’s a slightly longer description:

“New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake–orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side.

Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl, who is dying.”

And that’s BEFORE we get to present Manhattan. (Of course “present” is the late 70’s in this story. At one point, a tycoon in the story has an interaction with a massive room-sized computer that’s pretty amusing).

Guys, I really loved this book.

I’m going to try not to gush too much because I know already, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Magical realism bugs some people. (If you’re not sure what that is, don’t compare it with fantasy. It’s more . . . modern myth, with a slight fairy tale flavor.) The descriptions are breathtakingly lovely, but long and omnipresent. But I do guarantee you won’t likely have in-the-middle feelings about it.

Why you should read it:

It’s complete insanity and rushing magic. It’s a “fire-breathing dragon of a novel.”

Some of the metaphors are still with me.

AND, this isn’t a bite-sized, one-sitting kind of read. You have to chew it slowly and take a few weeks with this one. Simply put, you can’t read this book super fast, even if you want to. Hence, because you’re spending so much time with it, you feel as if you’re gaining a relationship with it.

Also, I LOVE PETER LAKE.

AND ATHANSOR.

And you will too.

Why I like it as a writer:

First of all, this is a wicked hard style to pull off. I feel as if this, along with Cloud Atlas, Atlas Shrugged and One Hundred Years of Solitude, should be textbook writings if you’re trying to work this whole magical realism/philosophy/grand-ideas-in-fiction thing with any sort of flair.

Also, language.

Have I mentioned that it’s beautifully written?

Mark Helprin loves words and language just for the sake of language, and it shows. As the Newsday review says, “This novel…is a gifted writer’s love affair with the language.”

Why people who don’t like it don’t:

As I already said, it’s a meaty book to get through. If you’re the kind of reader who likes fast-paced plots and entertainment, this one might be a little hard going for you. It’s thick with descriptions that can be hard to get through.

Sometimes the “magic” of the story teeters almost too far on the side of “too bizarre.” I, personally, loved these bizarre moments that were almost comical in their suddenness–but not everyone will, and that’s understandable.

In the end, it gets my high approval: pick you up a one cent copy today!

Odd Shelf: Wild

It’s been a while, with finals encroaching on my life, that I’ve had time to sit and read a book I wanted for fun (hence the Odd Shelf delays). This one actually I was reading for my creative nonfiction class–ha–but I would have read it for fun and it feels especially pertinent to me because it’s a memoir about a three month hiking trip, and in less than two weeks, I’m leaving on a two month hiking trip (though a little less extreme).

And yes, it’s on Oprah’s book club. Don’t judge me for that. Sometimes she gets it right.

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Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found is a memoir written by a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the late 90’s. While the hike itself is interesting, but not overly excited, the hike is more about her recovery after losing her mother to cancer and falling into this self-destructive depression that ended her marriage.

There’s a lot of raw, spare-no-details confession. I’m not a judgmental reader–or not usually. I read bad behavior all the time and still manage to sympathize with the character. On this occasion, I found my lip curling with disgust more than once. I couldn’t understand why I was being so harsh on someone who’d clearly gone through a lot, and I realized it was because after reading certain moments of courage on the hike, I was expecting someone with more character. But that’s one of the reasons I liked this book and one of the ideas it plays with: people can be both things at once. We are at the same time good and bad, and our bad choices don’t negate the good ones, and vice versa.

Strayed uses her journals to help recall actual moments on the hike and every once and awhile the prose became perfunctory and list like–as if she was just copying over a journal entry. But other times it seemed very real and well described.

Not only if you’re into hiking–but if you understand at all the kind of activities where you function on a really basic level (the furthest thing from your mind is how you appear to others) it’s a really good read. Strayed said, “I had this idea before I went that I would always be really engaged in those spiritual aspects in this really overt way. Instead, I was so consumed with the struggle to do things like get water, cook my food, cover those miles, carry my pack, take care of my feet that were horribly blistered, and just endure the weather and the physical pain. It took me out of my head and into my body in a way that was ultimately incredibly important and healing.”

As a believer in the way nature can heal us, I absolutely recommend this book.

Odd Shelf: Legion

A year ago, I took a fiction workshop from Brandon Sanderson–a fantasy writer I’d heard of, but not really read–because his workshop was one of the only offered at my university that not only allowed but encouraged speculative fiction. After the first day, I thought (with a grimace), This isn’t a writing class, this is a Sanderson-groupie class. Every student grovelled at his greatness, hung on his every word as if it was scripture, waiting with baited breath for his pronouncement over their 1000 word fiction blurb. And as I read the first Mistborn book and found myself yawning, struggling to get through the middle, I thought: I don’t get it.

That being said, as the class progressed, some of the wisdom about the publishing business has proved invaluable in coming years, and even though his students considered him larger than life, he clearly didn’t view himself through the same awe-inspiring lens.

And then, after the class, I sat down and read Warbreaker and was forced to admit I was in danger of becoming a groupie myself. I loved that book. I still struggle with his chunkier fantasies–but it’s not really my favorite genre to read, so that’s not really a criticism on his skill as (probably) one of the leading world-builders in fantastical fiction.

So, I recently purchased his cheap e-book Legion, an 18,000 word novella.

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Can I just say, I don’t get novellas.

The length, I mean. Short stories are powerful in what Edgar Allan Poe termed the “single effect.” He believed that work of quality should be brief and focus on a specific single effect. You have an idea, in other words, and a short story, in its brevity, has the power to blast you with it and then go on its merry way. I see the artistry in short fiction, but a novella is long enough to lose this “effect” if you will.

Any novella I’ve read has always had the potential to expand into a novel that would be, almost by default, richer, deeper and further able to express the writer’s intended ideas.

Stephen Leeds, AKA “Legion,” is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his “aspects” are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society.

It’s a really cool idea–and Sanderson handles the complexities well–but I kept thinking, this could be so much more.

Sanderson’s excuse?

“The thing is,” he says, “it wasn’t long enough for me to do as a full Tor release, and I didn’t have time (while working on A MEMORY OF LIGHT) to expand it to something longer.”

So, he was busy. But that didn’t stop  him from getting a Hollywood option on it shortly after giving it to his agent. When I thought about this novella as a first episode of a speculative action series I was like, “Ah, yes. Perfect.”

If you’re going to do a novella, at least make more than one, like an episodic series. Otherwise, shorten it or expand it, that’s my advice. But this was a pretty good one, so I’d pick it up so you can say you’ve read it before it becomes a Thursday night “after Idol” special on Fox.