Friday, May 31, 2013

Other books I've read

I don't feel like I've read a lot this month, but apparently I have because I managed to fit in three books. Granted, I think I read all three in about a week and a half, meaning the rest of my month has been pretty devoid of reading, but I did have that lovely literary binge in the middle.

Anyway, in addition to "White is for Witching" (reviewed earlier) I also read "Miss New India," by Bharati Mukherjee and "Zahrah the Windseeker," by Nnedi Okorafor Mbachu. I chose all three of these as part of the women of genre fiction challenge. I enjoyed reading the other two books far more than I enjoyed "White is for Witching," and in hindsight, I kind of wish I'd reviewed one of those. Oh well.

"Miss New India" is about a woman, Anjali/Angie who is coming of age in India and being pulled between a traditional life, focused on marriage to a man of her parent's choice, or a modern life in the vibrant, pulsating cities like Bangalore. She's really kinda lazy, and until her soon-to-be-fiancee rapes her, she's on track to do the easy thing and just get married like her parents want her to. After that she leaves for Bangalore, where she meets people (one of whom turns out to be a terrorist), has a bunch of adventures (including being detained by the police because she looks like her terrorist friend), and grows from a pretty much overconfident youth into a much more humble, insecure adult. She also never really gets a job. It was interesting. In some ways it felt like Angie was supposed to be sort of an Indian every woman, and it felt like the author was critiquing certain Indian attitudes, especially regarding marriage, work, materialism and beauty, and changing cultural norms. At the same time, Angie felt like a real person, especially in those moments where she's most flawed. I don't know that I really liked her, but I understood her.

"Zahrah the Windseeker" is the other book I read and it is one of my favorite reads in quite a while. I was expecting a YA and really it's  more of a middle grade (MG) book; that said, I loved reading this book. Zarah, our protagonist, is a girl born with vines growing in her hair--she's 'Dada.' It isn't until later that she realizes her dada-ness also allows her to fly, and then she has to overcome her fear of heights to actually use this amazing gift. Zarah lives in a world where all the familiar technology we know is provided by plants, and that world is probably what I loved most about the book. This is a hero's journey in which Zarah must overcome her fear and a bunch of monsters of the forbidden jungle in order to save the life of her friend. It's a fantastic read and one I'm really surprised I haven't heard more about. At the same time, I don't really have my finger on the pulse of MG and it was published in something like 2005, so that may explain why I hadn't heard about it. But a great book!

Friday, May 17, 2013

White is for Witching

I am not into literary novels. For that reason alone, I probably should have avoided this book. "White is for Witching" is a very literary read, which translates into beautifully written but meandering, lacking in plot, and full of characters who aren't necessarily interesting or sympathetic. In fact, the most sympathetic characters are the minor characters. 

The story (such as it is) follows Miri and her twin brother, Elliot, who are mourning after the death of their mother, Lily. Miri, who had pica to begin with, totally loses it after her mother's death and basically starves herself stupid. Very stupid. Not stupid enough to keep her out of Cambridge (?!?!), but stupid nonetheless. I suppose the book could be seen as chronicle of a  mentally unbalanced woman killing herself through starvation and dragging loved ones down with her. It's not a very pleasant arc, and the inciting incident isn't quite satisfactory, but again, it's literary fiction. Things don't apparently have to make sense here. They often don't.

A folk tale appears many times in the story and I suspect WifW is supposed to be a re-imagining of the folk tale, but it doesn't work as that for me quite. In the folk tale a soucouyant is stealing the life force of young people. In the end, a brave girl banishes the soucouyant by rubbing salt and pepper on her skin (which she steps out of at night like a day dress). In WifW it's never even clear who the soucouyant is, which is a point even made in one of the chapter titles. In my reading the house (or the goodlady, who I think is the soul of the house) is the most likely candidate, though Miri is certainly also a candidate. Ore (who tells the story) makes a comment about her story mostly being about the end of the soucouyant. I suppose this could also be a story about the beginning of the soucouyant, though even there it's not quite right because the house starts collecting people long before Miri's around. It's not really clear why, or at what point the house changes from a benign run-of-the-mill house to a rather more sinister eat 'em up house, but there it is: we're dealing with the end of the soucouyant, not the beginning.

I also wasn't pleased with the dangling threads all through the book. Yes, I know it's far more realistic to have things that are never resolved, but in a book I don't expect half the book to be scenes that deal with something or someone that is so peripheral to the plot they might as well not be there. There most glaring to me were the multitude of subplots revolving around immigrants. The Silver/Dufresne family members are very WASP-ish and yet surrounded by immigrants, both legal and illegal, from all corners. The Silvers are very sympathetic toward immigrants, but the house they live in isn't. In fact, the house works hard to get rid of everyone except the Silver women, apparently seeing even brothers and husbands in the same light as the Kosovoan refugees are seen by society at large. I wonder if the author was trying for an allegory here, but it's not one that works for me. 

I don't know. It's a book that I think is trying to get me to think about it, but the characters and plot aren't compelling enough for me to really invest in.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Like many creative people I am beset by feelings of inferiority, anxiousness regarding my performance, and feelings of worthlessness. It's not fun, it's not helpful.

It's the basilisk's eyes.

I killed my dream of becoming a scientist by staring so deeply at my insecurities I paralyzed myself. I effectively made myself irrelevant. Nobody else had to tell me I sucked at science; I was very good at that all on my own.

I started out writing thinking, "Oh, this'll be better. I don't feel insecure about this so it'll be better. People like my writing."

Now I'm something like 30K words in (so probably half to a third of the way through my book) and the insecurity is kicking in.

I find myself asking, will people like my story when it's done? Is it really that well written? Is this dumb? Are my characters boring, flat, inconsistent, too similar, too much like me? Is this plot going to work, or are there gaping holes that I don't see because I'm too close to this?

I've failed once. I don't want to fail again. I hate failing. I don't know if I can handle another failure. If I never get published, fine, but I want to give this writing thing a go. I may never make a living at it, I may never find an audience or success, but I just want to finish this story, make it the best I can, and get on with life.

Is that too much to ask, basilisk?

I know I can improve when it comes to writing. I know I can become a better story teller, better writer, better thinker. I never had that confidence with science. I always thought the amount of scientific ability I had was fixed, and fixed relatively low. I never felt like I improved, never felt like I was critical enough or consistent enough or creative enough. I never felt like I could find good ideas.

Writing is different for me there. I can get better, I can find and create good ideas. I can identify the places I need to get better (or find people willing to help me find them) and then focus on improving. That is a powerful thing.

Enough winging. Time to write.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Across the Universe

So, overall I enjoyed reading Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. I'll probably read the next one, too, even though there were things about this book I didn't think were stellar. It's a first novel and a YA, so I can excuse a certain amount of heavy-handedness and other flaws. This certainly isn't a book I'm going to think back on in the future, though.

I'm more than a little surprised, too. Revis posted the first chapter of this book on her website and it's so good I've thought about it regularly, basically every time I look at my "to read" list on goodreads and realize I still haven't knocked it off the list. It's a stellar opening--Revis gives us a sympathetic protagonist, Amy, dealing with a wrenching emotional decision (whether or not to accompany her parents on an interstellar journey that will require her to be frozen for 300 years or stay on Earth and live out a life with her Aunt, Uncle, and boyfriend) and an intriguing mystery (why the freezing is continuing even though the launch has been delayed).

There is no answer to that mystery. Amy's parents are lost to her anyway. The first chapter really is just setup. It's also the best chapter in the book, imho.

Amy is awakened accidentally (kind of) and, because of the way she was unfrozen she can't be re-frozen. The scientist in me wonders why they can't just wait a few years for her tissues to completely turn over/heal (if it even takes that long) and then re-freeze her, but that's nothing ever explored. Now that Amy's thawed, she's thawed for good.

The other protagonist is Elder, a 16-year-old boy who was crushing on Amy even before she was unfrozen simply because she's a red head. Apparently it's not just in fantasy that red heads have super magical powers. Science fiction red heads are apparently super attractive, especially to a boy from a mono-ethnic culture.

A note on mono-ethnic cultures: humans pretty much evolved in mono-ethnic groups. We also pretty much fought in mono-ethnic groups for most of our existence, since most fighting was with neighboring tribes who also, not coincidentally, were often kin. Does this have anything to do with the book? Well, let's move forward.

So, as it turns out, Elder is the next in line to be supreme leader of the people aboard the generation ship. His mentor, Eldest (gee, I wonder if there's any significance to the similarity of their names) is teaching him all about being an effective leader. By effective leader he really means a tyrant willing to do whatever it takes to keep the people on the ship happy and alive. It's a completely closed system and it sorta makes sense democracy as we know it just wouldn't work, but the tyranny espoused by Eldest is over the top. He claims the three reasons for strife are 1) differences, 2) lack of a strong leader, and 3) individual thought.

As it turns out, it's so over the top, Eldest's favorite leader is Hitler. You know, 'cause he was a strong leader who sought racial homogeneity and stamped down individual thought.

Oh, and Lincoln sent the blacks back to Africa to maintain the racial homogeneity of North America.

Yeah, I get it, rewriting history is bad. This is so extreme it's hard to take seriously, and it just feels so lazy. I know it's YA, so Revis may have felt she needed to use kind of lowest common denominator history in her book, but it's got to be possible to use someone other than Hitler, and defame someone other than Lincoln. Sheesh, she could have made up her own, in-world leader and let Amy fill us in on the details. Really, she already shows in so many other ways how bad a person Eldest is that the Hitler thing is redundant anyway.

But anyway, Elder doesn't quite understand things yet and Amy is a wrinkle in Eldest's plans for continuation of his little corner of the human species/ship domination. Eldest does stuff to isolate Amy, most of which pushes Elder toward her more firmly; there's a subplot revolving around protecting the other people in stasis, some of whom are murdered through improper unfreezing; there's this thing ominously called "the season" that's obviously a frenzied mating season. Stuff happens.

The murder subplot's really pretty obvious since there are only about six major characters, and the motivation of only one of them is left unexamined.

The season thing is also pretty obvious, though the scientist part of my brain didn't quite turn off enough to buy it. The humans on board have a single mating season when they're 20 years old. All women, from basically a few days of mad sex with whatever male is nearest, get pregnant immediately. They then raise their children, who subsequently have a single mating season at 20. Okay, I get that they manipulate everyone's hormones to time them together; I get that they have magic science that informs them if a woman is likely to conceive.

Something like 20% to 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. I guess they get around that with their magic gene splicing serum that also turns some of the people into mad geniuses and keeps the rest docile. Fine.

They have to have more than one mating season. To have a stable sized population you need a replacement rate of about 2.1 children per female. So, if they only have one mating season, everyone has to have twins or triplets. I guess the 40 year olds could also get pregnant, though a lot of women are infertile by that point in their lives. Magic science, making women baby factories twice in their lives.

The thing I found most disappointing about the book, though, was that it's so very male-dominated. While it doesn't fail the Bechdel test, Amy is the only major female character. Of the three other named women one shows up in one scene only and another shows up twice, and dies in her second appearance. That scene (Amy taking Steela up to the fourth floor from which nobody has ever returned is one of those scenes where the character is so inexpressibly (and out of character) stupid you want to strangle someone.

I know, I'm complaining a lot. I really did enjoy reading the book. I liked Amy (most of the time) and liked Elder as characters. It's good that it's a fast read, thouh as it does not hold up to close scrutiny.

I don't know if I'll read the next one. The first chapter (included at the end of the book) again sets up an interesting problem and is quite well-written. After the promise of that other first chapter wasn't really realized, though, I'm a little wary of committing to the second book.