zeborah: Zebra against a barcode background, walking on the word READ (books)
[personal profile] zeborah
I suddenly recalled today not only that I'd been planning to post my "books read" each month, but also that February ended a wee while ago. (I may have mentioned a few times that time is weird at the moment. The other day I was on the bus and heard people talking about the end of daylight saving coming up sometime. I blinked several times. It was like the conversation implied that time was actually moving on in an orderly fashion, unaffected by trivialities like geology.)

Anyway, so here they are:


Suckerpunch by Hernandez, David
Hooked me in at the start but the way events followed each other more realistically than determined by a story shape didn't quite work for me. (There was a story shape, it was just more in the gaps between the events.)

The Necessary Beggar by Palwick, Susan
This book did have faults from my point of view: it made the problems faced by immigrants, and alcoholics, and the uninsured ill seem a bit too easily solved, especially with the ending which wrapped up everything too quickly and tidily. (I'd actually have preferred the necessary beggar to be someone else; it would have been better thematically, and the news of it could still have inspired the requisite happy ending, and it would have added a little touch of realistic randomness which isn't always appropriate to fiction but would have been here.)

But. A big but: this was a great read. I have to admit I'm having trouble pinpointing exactly what I loved about it, because I suppose the culture wasn't completely original or anything – but the philosophy of generosity suits me very well, and the balanced handling of religion (both Christian and invented), and the mode of desperate silence, and that theme: the pain and burden of forced silence and of deception by omission; and on the other side of the coin the healing power of generosity and forgiveness, which sounds so trite except... well, beetles and clowns. So I just really, really liked the book.

A Golden Age by Anam, Tahmima
I'm very enthusiastic about this book, and not only because at one point it refers to Sultana's Dream and I'm like, “Yes, I've read that!" As one might half expect from such a reference this is a deeply feminist story: the story of those who wait, but don't just wait.

The prologue tells of Rehana's children being taken from her after her husband's death, so it's a bit of a jolt to have chapter 1 begin 10 years after she's won them back. But this lacuna becomes instrumental later while the story explores her determination to protect her children in another context entirely: Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan. Her love of and fear for her son Sohail is a staple of such stories, but I especially liked the development of her more difficult relationship with her daughter Maya; and of her own character in supporting her children and friends and country – with which she has yet another nuanced relationship. There is a subtle but I think a very deliberate interplay of themes which holds the tales of family and country effortlessly together.

The House of the Mosque by Abdolah, Kader
Explores the rapidly changing eras of Iran's recent history through the eyes of one family. I never quite kept up with all the relationships between the characters, but still felt like I knew them. The prose is beautiful and deceptively simple; often much meaning is packed in an allusion and a silence. (As in the beginnings of a love affair where so little was explained in the characters' speech that a previous reader had pencilled in a question about this elision. I love marginalia, so pencilled in an answer: the trick was in applying the poetry under discussion as a metaphor to their relationship.)

A few tropes were a little cliched, so less effective than they could have been; but I had tears in my eyes more than once at the various dilemmas and difficulties faced by the main characters. The ending ring of autobiography, but I couldn't figure out whether that detracted from the fiction or added to the realism.

Dreamfall (Cat, #3) by Vinge, Joan D.
I am, apparently, hopeless at avoiding part threes in a series. Fortunately this stood well enough alone. As a story, it hangs together well, although the ending works better in a series than a stand-alone.

On the downside, I'm struggling to think of any way in which the book was not problematic. First off, I should mention trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Second, explicitly comparing the aliens' plight to that of Native Americans and then portraying the aliens as a peaceful, spiritual people with mystical powers makes my head hurt; even though it's not quite that simple, the only aliens we see are rebels or collaborators or druggies. And to top it all off, the author has wiped out all actual Native Americans in her world except for one guy with a medicine bag who knows hardly anything about his heritage and only exists to occasionally encourage the protagonist.

Then the only women in the story are: a love interest; a mother, who gets killed; a wise grandmother, ditto; another love interest, who has to reject her sister for the hero; and said sister, who is mad. Oh, there are a couple of other spear carriers, but I can't even remember who. There are certainly no positive inter-female relationships.

Having one of the major antagonists be an antagonist because she is mad also made me sigh.

And then there was simply the gigantic gaping plot hole: apparently the aliens are so peaceful because if they kill someone they die themselves. Thus they have been easily oppressed. And it has never occurred to a single one of them that they could minimise their losses if one of them used a bomb or something to take out a whole bunch of the enemy.

The house in via Manno by Agus, Milena
A short easy read, with an interesting conceit: the narrator explores the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, each story leading by topic rather than chronology on to the next. I do want to read more books using this organisational technique: it fascinates me and I want to figure out how to make it work myself. Unfortunately the stories, or story, itself was a bit slight even for this short text and ultimately forgettable, although there were some enjoyable twists along the way.

Disobedience: A Novel by Alderman, Naomi

A novel about two women, raised as Orthodox Jews and once girlhood lovers, now (since one married the other's cousin) struggling respectively with being a lesbian and with being an Orthodox Jew.

Usually I'm, at best, intensely frustrated with books about adulterous love triangles. Now this joins “The Princess of Cleves" to make the only two such books that, by contrast, I loved. (this probably has something to do with the fact that neither treats love as fated or impossible to resist or the most important consideration in the characters' lives.) And I believe it's the only book where I love all three main characters from beginning to end.

And the structure of it, mingling characters and culture and religion in one organic exploration of the theme (of which one example might be “Sometimes I think that my life is a punishment for wanting. And the wanting is a punishment too. But I think, if God wishes to punish me, so be it; that is His right. But it is my right to disobey.") is just wonderful.

The Sky Inside by Dunkle, Clare B.
Young adult, but not as young adult as it looks.

The prologue is a great example of counter-productive prologues. It tries to get you interested in the story by showing what's at stake, but at this early point I have no reason to care about the characters who are suffering. Later on in the book, after the naive (understandably so; he's a kid) protagonist has sought and earned and found the knowledge of what's going on, we find ourselves confronted with the same situation, and this time we care.

The book (ignoring the prologue) starts out simply, the setting almost cliched, but there's enough nuance to it that it builds into something quite powerful. Often I can't believe in the inhabitants of dystopias, but these characters were all real people leading real lives within their limitations - and it wasn't only the main character resisting those limitations. The ending, too, is hopeful without being unrealistic.

And one book I didn't finish (in fact barely started):

Orphen
My attempt to introduce myself to manga by picking the first one I see at the library that says "volume 1" was probably doomed to failure even before 95% of the libraries in town were forcibly closed. I think I'll find it easier to get used to the manga format if I first identify a story that wouldn't annoy me no matter what format it was in. I managed a couple dozen pages, I think, before deciding that not only did I have very little idea what was happening, I was pretty sure that if/when I did figure out what was going on I'd only hate all the characters.

Date: 2011-03-20 07:33 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
I liked The Necessary Beggar a lot, especially the believable bureaucratic elements of the refugee/immigration/portal fantasy experience. My notes say that I thought there was too much pairing up, and I agree that the ending is a bit too neat, but it didn't interfere with the book. Have you read Shelter?

Dreamfall is definitely the weakest of the Cat books - I loved the first one, but neither the sequels nor the short story went the way I wanted them to in both character and plot development.

I have to finish The Sky Inside! (um, and my own booklog for February) I was enjoying the world-building, and then the plot had a Pied Piper moment and I put the book down while moving between houses, and was subsequently distracted by psychic cop thrillers. As so often happens.

Date: 2011-03-21 08:48 am (UTC)
cyphomandra: fluffy snowy mountains (painting) (snowcone)
From: [personal profile] cyphomandra
If I get my house back (still no news, grr) I can lend you the Palwick if you can't track it down. And the Vinge. Also, I apologise for the extraneous italics in my above comment!

Date: 2011-03-20 09:13 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] llygoden
Having one of the major antagonists be an antagonist because she is mad also made me sigh

Going off at a slight tangent, this was the biggest problem I had with Jo Walton's Among Others.

The Necessary Begger sounds interesting. I need to start reading some more recent books by a wider variety of authors. On the other hand, I also need to reduce the size of my To Read pile. Why do books look so shiny when you buy them but a year or so later that same book can look dull and unappealing?

Date: 2011-03-20 06:20 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Becky here. Thank you for mentioning Disobedience -- that is one that I have not heard of, and sounds like one I need to read. That tiny excerpt there truly caught my attention.

Date: 2011-03-22 04:43 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Becky again: I am going to look for it when/if J takes me to the bookstore tomorrow. If it doesn't snow again (I am heartily sick of winter this year, we get a sizeable storm every other week (or day, sometimes) since christmas this season). As decent fiction books on Judaism tend to be rare, I tend to go after the ones that folks mention. Naomi Ragen writes good, edgy fiction about women in Orthodox Judaism as well.

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