In defense of Stephenie Meyer

Sorry in advance for being all CAPSLOCK!-y on you today, folks.

So Stephenie Meyer, as you may know, is a producer now. Her production company’s first release (Austenland, hooray!) is coming out soon and she’s been doing the press tour for it and, as part of that press tour, she recently did an interview with Variety (as one does).

And in this interview, OF COURSE the interviewer goes there. And SM responded thusly:

DM: What about a return to “Twilight?”

SM: I get further away every day. I am so over it. For me, it’s not a happy place to be.

DM: Is the door completely closed on that?

SM: Not completely. What I would probably do is three paragraphs on my blog saying which of the characters died. I’m interested in spending time in other worlds, like Middle-Earth.

Whereupon the interwebs promptly exploded with the rage of the Twilight fandom. How dare she say she’s “over it”? How dare she write anything flippant about these characters? How dare she disrespect her fans this way? SHE OWES US. SHE IS NOTHING WITHOUT US. WE BOUGHT HER HER HOUSE DAGNABBIT! (language cleaned up for the sake of the tiny tots, obviously.)

And on Twitter at least, it wasn’t just the Twilight fans. Some writers were also upset, though definitely not quite to the same level. Their beef was generally along these lines: “If I ever say I am so over [INSERT NAME OF THEIR DEBUT NOVEL HERE] you have permission to push me overboard off of my yacht while I am drinking champagne.” (This part really reminded me of the mommy wars section of the internet: If you are not treating your manuscript-child with the same love and reverence with which I treat my own manuscript-child you are no proper author and you probably WROTE YOUR BOOK SITTING IN A COFFEE SHOP PUMPED FULL OF CAFFEINE INSTEAD OF WRITING IT IN THE LOVING ENVIRONMENT OF YOUR OWN HOME ALL NATURAL THE WAY GOD INTENDED.)

(Sorry for that digression.)

So I’d just like to take this moment to say to anyone who got upset with Stephenie Meyer for the above quote:

LIGHTEN UP.

I have several issues with this latest backlash against her, several of which were already summed up in various places on Twitter by talented authors, agents, and readers. Sadly, I don’t have links to all of these excellent comments. (If you really want to see a good sampling, though, check out Maggie Steifvater’s Twitter account. It’s a good place to start.) So let me just say a few things myself.

1. SM did not say that she hates the Twilight books, nor did she spit upon them, nor did she laugh at anyone who read them, nor did she insult her fans in any way here. She simply said she is over Twilight. Now, eight-ish years ago, the word “Twilight” would have meant this:

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These days the word “Twilight” encompasses much, much more:

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And most particularly, this. (Out of respect for SM, these are the only pictures of this type I’ll be posting, but the attacks both against the books/movies and Meyer herself are myriad and staggering. Full disclosure, I do find some of the Twilight mockery to be hilarious if done well, but much of it is sheer malice and hatred for the sake of hating.)

And let’s not forget the fun of having her intellectual property stolen and leaked all over the internet.

Now, leaving all questions of money aside, imagine that level of both devotion and hatred was your life for the last 10 years. Wouldn’t you be over it, too? Wouldn’t you maybe agree that it’s not a happy place to be?

Now, even considering the money, as Maggie Steifvater pointed out, if you were offered $3,000,000 to be cursed at every time you did everyday errands like shopping, would it still be worth it? I’m sure SM is grateful for the blessings Twilight has brought to her. But you can still be over something and remain grateful for the blessings it’s brought you. Personal example: I’ve struggled with infertility for years. I’ve met great friends because of it. I love my son in a deeper and different way than I might otherwise have done. I’ve learned a lot and grown as a person, and I’m grateful for all these things. But I am SO OVER infertility itself. It’s not a happy place to be.

2. Fans: Stephenie Meyer does not owe you anything. You pulled this argument once before when SM said she wasn’t going to finish writing Midnight Sun after the incomplete draft was leaked onto the internet. She didn’t owe that book to you then and she doesn’t owe anything to you now. Neil Gaiman explained this pretty well in reference to George R. R. Martin and readers’ entitlement issues (slight language warning). Twilight fans: the deal was, Stephenie wrote the books, and you paid for them. That’s the end of the deal between you right there. Anything else she chooses to do to interact with you or as regards writing more words is her choice and hers alone. She does not owe you anything new because you haven’t paid for anything new. You paying her the money was you fulfilling your part of the bargain as reader. You’ve already gotten your money’s worth. She didn’t force you to buy her books; you did that freely. You have no more claim on that money, and no claim on her. Deal with it. I repeat: STEPHENIE MEYER DOES NOT OWE YOU ANYTHING.

3. Third, which I perhaps ought to have mentioned first: If you read her comments again, she never actually insults or disparages or says anything against or belittles or derides or really even mentions her fans. This is NOT ABOUT YOU.

4. Authors: maybe you shouldn’t make any snap judgements about how you would never, ever say you were over your debut novel (which, please note again, SM did not actually say) until you’ve spent the last ten years listening to people EVERYWHERE berate 1) that book you worked so hard to write, 2) those characters you grew to love, 3) the movies you were so excited to see because your characters would be onscreen, and 4) you yourself. I know every author faces rejection and frequently have to deal with trolls, but how many can say that the majority of public opinion loudly reviles them? How many have the distinction of being the “it” thing to hate?

5. Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that she is, in essence, never going to be allowed to move on from her first project. I think this article does a great job of laying this out. All artists want to grow and challenge themselves and explore new things. Actors leave TV shows to do new things. *coughDowntonAbbeycough* Authors write new books and new series. Musicians write new songs. Architects build different kinds of buildings. Really, this is how art evolves, by letting people try new things and keep moving forward. One of my favorite authors (whom I will not name because I don’t have the exact quote here) has commented in the past that it’s a bit difficult when someone says that her debut novel is the best thing she’s ever written. Not because she doesn’t still love that novel, and not because she’s not proud of it, but because if she peaked that early and hasn’t gotten better or learned anything in the last few decades she’s been writing, then what was the point of writing all those other books (aside from the burning need to write and tell stories, of course)? SM has been living and breathing her debut project for the last 10 years and now that she’s starting to pursue new things, people aren’t letting her move forward. Could this maybe, possibly, have been her more polite way of saying “PLEASE SHUT UP WITH THE QUESTIONS ABOUT OLD PROJECTS ALREADY can’t we just focus on Austenland? I am more than just a bestselling cultural phenomenon, thank you very much.”

kitty

Anyway. I’ll get off my soapbox now. The bottom line? The internet needs to chill out and leave SM alone for just a little bit. Follow her example and get over it.

Oh, and you all need to go see Austenland. Because it’s delightful (I was fortunate enough to see it at the Sundance Film Festival and you can bet I’ll be catching it at a theater near me).

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Year of 52 Books: Rounding up, rounding out, rounding off

So things got kind of crazy there for awhile and even though I was reading like crazy, the already-way-behind-schedule reviewing process went from a slow trickle to nothing at all. Cap it all off with a more-than-a-month-long stint as The Plague House, where at least one member of our family of three was sick at all times, and yeah. The final tally never happened.

But life is slowly getting back on track and here’s the final tally.

Yes, I did read 52 books this year.

In full, I actually read 61, but some of those were what I considered “aside” books; ones I wasn’t going to count toward the final tally in any event because it felt like taking a break from a project to read them. Some of these additional 9 books were fluffy free-on-the-Kindle self-published chick-flick-lit type books that I read in an afternoon, a couple were re-reads from earlier in the year, etc. Because I told myself they weren’t for this project, I won’t list the titles here.

I also started a handful of books which I did not finish for various reasons such as lack of interest at the time, distraction, prioritizing, the fact that my life took a crazy turn and suddenly I just wanted to read YA and not depressing classics for awhile, etc. I will probably finish all of these at some point, though. These books were as follows:

  • The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller
  • The House of Mirth (reread), by Edith Wharton
  • The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, by Doug Stewart
  • As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, by Joan Reardon

I did “read” several books in audiobook form. All the audiobooks I listened to were produced and read by B. J. Harrison of The Classic Tales podcast. If you haven’t already subscribed to this podcast, I strongly suggest you do so because, hey, free, but also really great productions. I’ve been listening since 2007ish and the quality is consistently great. (And no, Classic Tales has no idea I exist; these opinions are all my own.)

If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not ever going to finish posting full reviews for all of the 52 books, so I’m including a list here of the full 52, plus stars and mini-reviews where I feel like it. I may come back in the coming weeks and write a more complete review for some of the ones I found most interesting (either in a good or bad way), but for now, and without further ado, I give you…

The LitGroupie 2012 Year of 52 Books List!

  1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. 4 stars. Review here.
  2. The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, by Karen Karbo. 1.5 stars. Review here.
  3. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. 5 stars. Review here.
  4. Longitude, by Dava Sobel. 4 stars. Review here.
  5. Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson. 5 stars. Review here.
  6. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. 5 stars. Review here.
  7. Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale. 4 stars. Review here.
  8. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. 4 stars. Review here.
  9. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. 5 stars. Review here.
  10. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. 3 stars. Review here.
  11. The Shakespeare Manuscript, by Stewart Buettner. 2 stars. Review here.
  12. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. 4 stars. Review here.
  13. The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas, père. 3 stars. Review here.
  14. The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart. 4 stars. Review here.
  15. How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. 3 stars. Review here.
  16. Bridget Jones’ Diary, by Helen Fielding. 3 stars. Review here.
  17. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. 4 stars. Audiobook. Review here.
  18. The Game, by Laurie R. King. 4 stars. Review here.
  19. Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde. 5 stars. Review here.
  20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike. 5 stars. Review here.
  21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz. 4 stars. Review here.
  22. Enemies: A Love Story, by Josh Schollmeyer. 3 stars. The story of the relationship between Ed Siskel and Roger Ebert. It felt like reading one of those documentaries they show on TV with the quotes from various people who knew the interested parties.
  23. Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer. 3 stars. My first experience with Heyer and it was delightful. Good, clean Regency fun, although I did want to smack several characters upside the head at several different points. But, you know, in a good way.
  24. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan. 3 stars. Read this for book club and enjoyed it. The prose was more lyrical and less forced than my previous Amy Tan experiences and I thought the story was well-told.
  25. A Breath of Eyre, by Eve Marie Mont. 4 stars. Clever re-imagining-ish of Brontë wherein a girl who is a scholarship student at an upscale boarding school manages to read herself into the Jane Eyre story. Fun parallels between the two stories, although some of the in-book portions felt like too much text had been lifted straight from Brontë and made the pace drag a little. Believable conclusions and romance, given the premise.
  26. Chalice, by Robin McKinley. 5 stars. This is a perennial re-read for me and I still think the best word for it is “incandescent.”
  27. A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster. 4 stars. Audiobook. It was good to re-visit this, and some of the longer passages in the book seem less trudgy when you’re listening to them rather than reading them yourself. George Emerson is still dreamy.
  28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King. 5 stars. Review here.
  29. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. 5 stars. Audiobook. I’ve always loved this book and the recording buckled several swashes thoroughly.
  30. Dragonhaven, by Robin McKinley. 5 stars. Another perennial re-read. Seriously, if you haven’t read any Robin McKinley, just go read all of her books right now. (Except maybe Deerskin, which is wonderful but not for the faint-of-heart. Think gut-wrenching like-unto-but-still-way-different-than Wintergirls.)
  31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King. 5 stars. Review here.
  32. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. 5 stars. Seriously, how had I not read this before? A WWII story told from the POV of Death, which sounds like it would be awful but is the very opposite. This book also made me cry. So, so, so good.
  33. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. 3.5 stars. This book was good but it makes me exhausted to think of reading it, let alone writing it. Another book club pick, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with this while I was reading it, especially with some of the choices in how religion is portrayed, but it all sorted itself out in the end. Worth the time investment to read.
  34. The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley. 3 stars. Audiobook. Another dashing tale of derring-do wonderfully read by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales.
  35. Endlessly, by Kiersten White. 5 stars. Can I just say how much I loved the Paranormalcy series (this is the final book in the trilogy)? Inventive, hilarious, swoon-worthy, and endlessly creative (you see what I did there?) without being over-the-top or fluffy. And oh, the snark. The glorious, glorious snark. A most satisfying conclusion.
  36. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. 5 stars. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book but I still love how creepy and awesome it is.
  37. The Actor and the Housewife, by Shannon Hale. 5 stars. Yes, I know. The title makes it sound like the chickiest of fluffy chicklit ever. But this book has substance and soul, wit and heart, and takes a deep look at some difficult questions. No, I’m not joking. You absolutely should read this book. It is one of the few books that makes me laugh until I cry and also produces real, for-truly sobbing tears, of both the heartbreaking and cathartic type. Did I mention you need to read this book?
  38. Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson. 1 star. Oh, how I wanted to like this book, because of all the traveling and neat places and things he sees (hence the fact that I actually finished it). But I couldn’t get past, well, Bryson. He is not a pleasant traveling companion. I know we were supposed to share Bryson’s contempt for his travel buddy Katz (from his college-aged Grand Tour, as it were), but I mostly just felt sorry for Katz and could easily chalk up Katz’s bad mood on his being stuck with Bryson. The humor was of the smugly superior sort that assumes the reader also wants to sneer at everyone the author personally happens to disagree with (“I needed coffee like Dan Quayle needs help on an IQ test”); the tone bounced back and forth between hating this city for not going ahead with any development projects and hating that city for having over-developed in exactly the way he just said city A should do things; and the itinerary seems to have a contractual obligation to stop and discuss the red-light district in every city he visits (no actual paying trips to the red-light district, mostly just academic descriptions of it. Oh, and of any topless sunbathing in the vicinity). My disgust for the author and the book as a whole deepened when I found out in the fourth-to-last paragraph of the book that, rather than being a single man who goes on this months-long trip with the frequent fixation on said topless sunbathing and other woman-objectifying commentary throughout, the author was not only married but a father (he decides against continuing his tour into Asia in part because “[m]y long-suffering wife was pregnant with her semiannual baby”). Way to be classy. I’d love to take this tour of Europe again with someone I like and who is actually enjoying the voyage rather than sneering at everyone and everything.
  39. Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 5 stars.
  40. The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 4 stars.
  41. The Mislaid Magician, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 4 stars. This charming trilogy was the antidote I needed after read #38. This trilogy is basically Regency fantasy. Think Jane Austen, but with enchanted chocolate pots and charm bags. And swoony magicians and such. The first book is the best, but the others are delightful as well.
  42. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. 5 stars.
  43. Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones. 4 stars.
  44. House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones. 3 stars. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is another perennial re-read, I had only read Castle in the Air once and had never read House of Many Ways before. I liked both of the sequels, but my favorite part of what I guess I’ll call the Ingary trilogy is the Howl-Sophie dynamic, and you just don’t get that as much in the later books, even though these books are delightful in their own rights.
  45. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. 5 stars. My favorite of the three books. This is the one that deserves to be two movies, rather than Mockingjay, but that’s a story for another post.
  46. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 5 stars. Audiobook. I love this story, and it had been long enough since my last reading that I couldn’t quite remember all the twists and turns. Spooky and awesome.
  47. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. 3 stars. I love the way the series ends, but I had forgotten just what a horrible book this is in terms of what has to actually happen to get to that ending. The book as a whole I think is more of a 1.5 star until she wraps things up and then I’d give it 4.5, so we’ll average it out to three. But really. Horrible. (The events, not the writing, which is still good.)
  48. The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 3 stars. Audiobook. I enjoyed the adventuresome parts of this story, although Jurassic Park may have ruined some of it for me. It also took a little while to get past the automatic squick reflex of any talk of “species superiority” as regards ethnicity and just enjoy the rest of the adventure. Yes, I know, different times and all, but the racism (although benign in its intent) got rather uncomfortable in places.
  49. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. 5 stars. Wow. I just. I can’t. This book. Yes. Very yes. Snark, wit, cunning, planning, boarding school, boys, the dilemma of I-want-to-be-respected-and-recognized-as-being-as-smart-and-resourceful-as-I-am-but-I-also-like-having-a-boyfriend, secret fraternities, and grammar. Yes, you read that right. Smart, sexy, feminine and feminist, Frankie is one of the best I’ve seen in the “girls who do things” canon. And not just because she’s kind of an anarchist grammarian. READ THIS BOOK.
  50. The Yellow Room Conspiracy, by Peter Dickinson. 4 stars. A really great mystery that doesn’t feel like a whodunnit. I don’t know how else to describe this except that if you like Downton Abbey this feels kind of like that but really not at all.
  51. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. 5 stars. Audiobook. Because how could running Christmas errands be better than doing it while listening to Dickens? A sentimental but deserved favorite, and a really great reading, again by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales.
  52. The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. 5 stars. This is my other traditional Christmas read. I still get indignant when I read it about the travesty of a movie adaptation they made (which, full disclosure, I haven’t watched, but having read the spoilers and seen that they’ve made a smart English boy a brooding American teen, there’s an EVIL TWIN conspiracy thrown in and for some reason there is now a chase through a shopping mall—?!—I still feel qualified to judge it). Every chapter, nay, every paragraph and sentence, just screams out cinematographically. It’s like reading a movie. It’s all there. Why on earth would you change it, especially in post-Harry Potter days when you KNOW that audiences have NO PROBLEMS accepting a British pre-teen boy as a hero? But anyway. This is another book that you should read if you have any love for fantasy, especially fantasy that builds off of (but is not) the Arthurian canon. And, bonus, it’s part of a series! More books = more enjoyment!

And for the winner of the coveted Six Stars, I’ve limited it to books that I read for the first time this year, because otherwise my perennial re-reads would be unfairly represented (and we all know that Persuasion gets at least ten stars anyway). So I’m going to say the Six Stars winner is a tie between two books:

  • Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King (#31)
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (#49)
  • Honorable mentions to: I Capture the Castle (#3), Destined (#20), and The Book Thief (#32)

So there you have it, folks. The Year of 52 Books challenge has been completed. What a great year of reading, and it was fun to look back at this list and remember what I was doing during the year based on what book I was reading at the time. I’m already on book I think 9 or 10 this year (being sick leaves a lot of time for reading) and am looking forward to next year’s literary reminiscing.

(Thanks to everyone who actually stuck around this long!)

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19, 20, 21: Thursday Next, Destined, and Jane Austen Education

19. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

*****

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I truly think that there is no more brilliant writer working today than Jasper Fforde when it comes to the sheer magic, creativity and genius of building alternate worlds and dimensions and realities. (If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.) That being said, I still haven’t made it all the way through the Thursday Next series (this is book #2 and this was the first time I’d read it). I think probably it’s because I know there is only so much Thursday Next in the world and I want to savor it all, and have the joy of anticipation in looking forward to reading more.

For those who don’t know about Thursday Next, she is a detective working for the SpecOps police force in an alternate dimension-type universe where there are such things as Literary Police, the Crimean War is still going strong (well, at the time of the books, which take place in the mid-1980s of this particular universe), people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show-type productions of Shakespeare plays (audience participation galore), and rogue Baconians go door-to-door to try and convince people that Francis Bacon was the REAL author of Shakespeare’s plays. Time travel is possible (there’s a whole police division called the Chronoguard) and with the right inventions you can actually step into the printed word and meet literary characters. This ability comes into play in this book as Thursday joins JurisFiction, the intra-literary police force (her mentor is Miss Havisham, yes that one), and starts learning the ropes to solve literary crimes.

To say this book and this series was completely lovely and brilliant and amazing just doesn’t quite cover it. Trust me, just start reading the Thursday Next books for yourself if you haven’t already done so (Book One is The Eyre Affair). Five stars.

 

20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike

*****

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I started reading Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series last year, just as book three came out, in the mistaken belief that it was a trilogy and I wouldn’t have to wait months for the resolution of any evil cliff-hangers. Hah. It became clear to me about 5 pages from the end when things reeeeeeeaaaaalllly weren’t winding up fast enough that I’d been mistaken and yes, book three ended on one of the most evil cliffhangers I’ve seen since Catching Fire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about my feelings on Twilight, but I’ll sum up here by saying that, yes, I do love the Twilight books like I love cotton candy: it’s sweet, it’s fluffy, it reminds you of dates at the amusement park with your high school crush, and it’s not something you should eat all the time or you’ll get sick. Also, the main character bugged the crap out of me until book four when she finally became interesting to herself and therefore to me.

So when I say that the Wings series is kind of what Twilight would have been like if the main character were strong and assertive and solved problems and could take care of herself and had other things going on in her life besides an all-consuming love for a boy, that’s a compliment. Laurel is everything I wished Bella was and more. The mythology that Pike has created for this world is fascinating, the prose is fluid and clear, and yes, the boys in the inevitable YA love triangle are both amazing. (Although I really wish I could figure out how to pronounce “Tamani.”)

So much for the series as a whole. Destined was the best capstone to a series that I’ve read in a long, long time. I can’t imagine a more perfect way for this story to wrap up. The action of the book takes place mostly in a 24-hour period immediately following the evil cliffhanger from book 3 but never feels drawn-out or clunky; you’re turning pages as fast as possible to see what happens and how on earth can they possibly get out of this horrible mess? But everything works out just as it should. Nothing feels forced or contrived; nor does it feel like Pike wimped out or pulled any punches. And the epilogue, oh my goodness. I may cry gratuitously at movies and Taylor Swift songs (that’s a whole ‘nother story), but it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. So when I say that I cried at the epilogue—not ugly Bridge to Terebithia tears or wrenching middle-of-Hunger-Games tears, but cathartic tears and those tears you get when everything is just filled with a sense of rightness—that’s high praise.

Even if you think you’re sick of the whole YA paranormal romance type of series, I suggest you check out the Wings books. They’re a prime example of the genre done right. I’m looking forward to finding out what else Pike has up her sleeve in her career; this series is a most auspicious beginning. Five stars.

 

21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

****

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I really enjoyed seeing Jane Austen from the perspective of a male grad student skeptic and how he came to learn to love Austen, as well as learning life lessons from her books. His takeaway lessons from the novels were not the same as mine in a lot of cases (and a few points he brought up I don’t think I quite agree with), but in some other cases he put something so brilliantly that it was what I hadn’t realized I’d been thinking all along. His comparison between the writing voices of Austen and Joyce, for example, nailed exactly what I’ve thought about the two styles for quite some time.

Deresiewicz’s writing style is friendly and comfortable but also very smart, and I thought the personal anecdotes and relations he made between his life and how he came to Austen were quite interesting. I don’t know if this book will convert any non-believers (which seems to be at least part of the point he’s writing from), but it’s worth picking up if you are even a casual appreciator of Jane Austen. Four stars.

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Skipping around: Three Mary Russell books (Yo52B #18, 28 and 31)

I’m skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren’t those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven’t, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I’ve spoken to you at all in the past two years there’s a 90% chance I’ve recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910’s and 1920’s who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King’s Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I’ve read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King

****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O’Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what’s coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I’d heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that’s because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn’t work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary’s parents’ estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven’t started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You’ll Be Glad You Read list.

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Year of 52 Books #14-17: Moonspinners, Decide, Bridget, and 39 Steps

So. In the interest of catching up (really this time), I’m just going to post a few thumbnail-type reviews.

14. The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart

****

I love this book, and re-read it every year around Easter time (yes, that’s how far behind I am with my reviews) and then spend the next few months dreaming of Mediterranean holidays. This book chronicles the adventures of Nicola Ferris, a secretary at the British embassy in Athens, who takes an Easter holiday with her cousin in an out-of-the-way village in Crete. She promptly stumbles into a mystery involving a pair of brothers, kidnapping, thievery, boats, crab-pots and both attempted and accomplished murder. The action is great, but what I love best about this book is the feeling of place that the descriptions evoke. I can easily picture myself into the landscape and always come out of the book slightly bewildered and disappointed that I’m no longer sitting on a patio in the Greek sunshine sipping mint drinks. Four stars.

15. How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

***

This was another Kindle Daily Deal which I picked up on a whim because I thought, looking at the title, that it might help me with some of my less-decisive tendencies. In fact, in the author’s note on this book, he explains that he decided to write it because he was tired of spending fifteen minutes in the cereal aisle trying to decide between Apple Cinnamon and Honey Nut Cheerios every time he went grocery shopping. However, this book isn’t a how-to guide like you might expect, but more of a how-do guide to the brain and its inner workings. Lehrer opens each chapter with a fascinating story of a real-life situation in which a type of decision was made (such as the Mann Gulch fire, which Megan talked about in her review of Young Men and Fire), and then talks about what parts of the brain and which brain functions influenced, prevented, or made such a decision possible. Most of the time it was fascinating, although sometimes I admit I got bogged down in the super-scientific parts. But if you are interested in the ways the brain works and affects such things as panic, intuition, gambling, autism, serial killers, memory, addiction, etc., then you’ll enjoy this book. The writing style is clear and coherent so that even the super-technical parts are understandable, and the storytelling parts are, quite simply, riveting. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t help with my cereal selection process. Three stars.

16. Bridget Jones’ Diary, by Helen Fielding

***

It had been several years since I’d read this, and flying out of my home state and hometown to move to a new city across the country called for something light-hearted. My Kindle offered me this. And it did what it needed to, in that I was distracted and diverted, but I was a bit disappointed to find out that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first time I’d read it. Maybe it’s that I’ve gotten older and don’t have the patience for as much juvenile-type behavior as Bridget engages in. I don’t know. Despite my impatience with some of her antics, though, Bridget did manage to get in a few great lines, for which I must give her (and Fielding) due credit. My favorite lines this time around (in no particular order):

On the end of a relationship:

It’s no good. When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you see or do reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love. How can you not be left with the personal confidence of a passed-over British Rail sandwich?

On trying to set the VCR record function:

Feel exactly the same as feel when trying to follow signposts on roads. Know in heart that signposts and video manual do not make sense but still cannot believe authorities would be so cruel as to deliberately dupe us all. Feel incompetent fool and as if everyone else in world understands something which is being kept from me.

And of, course, the classic:

It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.

All in all, a fun read. Three stars.

17. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan

****

In the interest of full disclosure, I “read” this in audiobook format, which I still think totally counts, while pushing a napping toddler around the apartment complex. This book follows expatriate Scot Richard Hannay, who has recently returned to London from southern Africa and is about to die of boredom. He has determined to leave the country again when he is approached by a stranger claiming to hold information vital to the security of the nation, and who pleads for Hannay’s assistance in hiding him until he can contact the proper people. Hannay puts him up for the night but ignores the wilder flights of his guest’s tales of political plotting. However, when his guest is murdered, leaving Hannay his notebook, Hannay finds that he must not only believe the wild tales of his guest, but must also dodge both the British police (who suspect him of being the murderer) and a formidable force of foreign spies bent on silencing Hannay before he can thwart their nefarious plans.

Bottom line: great book. Lots of action, lots of intrigue, lots of close calls and lots of fun. I’d seen several film adaptations of this story so was excited to get the chance to discover the original. I think the original is of course the best, but was surprised by just how many universal elements from the adaptations were missing from the original book. For example, I kept waiting and waiting for the beautiful woman to appear so they would be forced to run across Scotland handcuffed together and outwitting dangerous spies and . . . nothing. No woman at all other than one or two throwaway characters like farmers’ wives and the like.

I was pleased to find, however, that the resourcefulness, daring and general awesomeness that characterize the Richard Hannay of the adaptations were all there and more. Definitely a character you enjoy spending time with, and certainly one you’d want to have on your side in a pinch. Four stars.

I loved the version I listened to (done by BJ Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast). I highly recommend checking out his podcasts and audiobooks if you haven’t yet done so.

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Year of 52 Books #13: The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, père

***

 

I love the idea of gardening but I am an irredeemable plant-killer.

I can back up this assertion.

Ninth-grade biology was traumatizing in many ways (anyone else who took Mr. Ekberg’s class can attest to this), but one of the assignments I actually was looking forward to was the project for the asexual reproduction unit. We had to grow and tend an asexually-reproducing plant and keep it alive until it reproduced asexually (yes, I am deriving a disproportionate amount of amusement from typing “asexual” so many times. In some ways I might still be in ninth grade).

“If you’re not so great with plants,” Mr. Ekberg told us, “try a bryophyllum. They’re pretty much impossible to kill.” My ears perked up. My previous biology project—growing a flower from a seed—had failed spectacularly. Come to think of it, all my elementary school and primary class bean sprouts had met similarly sad fates. Bryophyllum sounded right up my alley.

For those of you who don’t know what a bryophyllum is, it looks a-like this:

Cute, right? All those little flowers on the edges are the asexually-reproduced new plants.

I marched up to Mr. Ekberg’s desk with the other students to get my bryophyllum starter. I cradled it carefully all the way home. This was going to be my first real, successful plant, I just knew it. I’d keep it alive until it reproduced and get an A on my assignment but then I’d also keep it alive FOREVER. This plant was going to come to college with me, just you wait and see. Hadn’t the teacher said they were impossible to kill? Yes. Yes, he had. He had even gone further: “If you can manage to kill a bryophyllum, you should probably just give up on plants altogether.”

Well, I did get an A on my assignment. Two days later the bryophyllum went from beautiful, A-grade flowering to brown, dry, dead practically overnight.

I pretty much gave up on plants altogether. Except in books. Because, as we know, the plants in books cannot die merely from being in my presence. (They may not have taught you that in biology, but I am here to share important tidbits like that.) This is part of the reason why I like books which feature gardens or plants or growing things.

So I was excited for this book. It was another book club read. Kristen already described it (aptly) as a horticultural thriller. It follows the efforts of a tulip breeder, Cornelius, to create a perfect black tulip and win the national prize. He must battle his neighbor’s jealous efforts to thwart Cornelius and steal the prize for his own. He must deal with false imprisonment. He must learn to balance his love of tulips with his love of Rosa, the prisonkeeper’s daughter. And he must not get too entangled in political drama. Can he do it? Will his fortunes and love affairs flower like a prize black tulip or wither like my ninth-grade bryophyllum? Will the reader accidentally learn some history on the way? Will good times be had by all?

This book moved much more quickly than the other Dumas works I’ve read, but felt slightly less richly developed. It was still an enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone else who, like me, dreams of the flowers they cannot grow. Or, you know, who just likes a good horticultural thriller. Three stars.

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Year of 52 Books #12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

****

Not too much to say about this one, since everyone has read it or seen the movie and I have little to add.

I re-read this book in preparation for the movie, as it had been about two years since the first time I’d read it. I was impressed again by the urgency of the writing, how the pace keeps moving the reader along, as if by staying in one spot too long the reader, too, will get attacked by giant flying fireballs. As before, I cried for Rue (even though I cry at the drop of the hat where movies are concerned—it’s ridiculous, really—it takes a lot for a book to make me cry, so this is fairly high praise). Katniss frustrates me some of the time because it seems like she switches back and forth very quickly at times from competent kick-ace huntress to “wait, what, you actually like like me?” and the contrast seems choppy and uncharacteristic. But that’s probably just me. All in all I still really liked it. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to unpack my boxes of books and re-read the rest of the trilogy. Four stars.

If you’ll indulge my other nerdy obsession, I would like to take a moment here and move away from books to comment briefly on the movie. I thought it was well done—the visuals (when they weren’t obscured by shaky cam) were spot-on; the actors were well-cast, and I loved the adaptation choices they made to help move the story out of Katniss’ head and onto the screen by showing the games control room and the commentary by Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith (see, e.g., the tracker jacker scene). That last bit may have to do with my personal opinion that anything which introduces more Stanley Tucci into a situation is a good thing, though.

I had issues with the overuse of the shaky cam. To clarify, I have absolutely no complaints with the use of shaky cam during the actual games portion of the movie. It lends a good sense of realism to the situation, fits with the emotion of the scene, and also keeps me from having to see too many gory details (and, let’s be honest, kept it a PG-13 rather than an R so more of the books’ target audience could see the movie). HOWEVER. There is no need whatsoever to use the shaky cam while showing opening expository shots of miners walking home from work. If you’re giving your audience a miner-induced headache from immediate shaky cam two minutes into the movie, you’ve got a problem.

Shaky cam aside, though, I liked the movie, but was slightly disappointed in it. It seemed like with all the positives they had going for it—the right cast, right director, right adaptation, right visuals, etc.—they still somehow missed giving it that elusive element called “heart.” I enjoyed the film but it rang a little bit hollow for me. I never truly connected with it. I don’t think I would have sponsored any of the Tributes except possibly Rue, and even then I didn’t cry half so hard for her in the movie as I did in the book. And if you know how ridiculous my crying-at-movies level has gotten, that’s the best example I can give. I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t grab me by the shoulders and make me care like the book did.

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