This is a list of the books I've read in 2013, with a few of my thoughts on each.
In the Belly of the Bloodhound
|In one of the previous Jacky books, our heroine went to a school where she learned to "be a lady" and made a fine enemy: Clarissa, who is a snob and even has a slave. Subsequent books put her back on ships where she belongs, usurping control and tricking men more than twice her age while getting herself into loads of trouble. Enough trouble, in fact, that she's become wanted for piracy when this book finds her again, and she's returning to her old school in order to "lie low." Too bad Jacky doesn't know how to do so.
Oddly enough, this almost felt like fanfiction to me at first--as if people liked the characters in the school and the rivalry enough to demand that they be revisited--so here we were, with Jacky hanging out with her old crew and being reunited with Amy. But then something very peculiar happens. Jacky and her schoolmates are kidnapped and they're kept on a slave ship. The Captain and the terrible man who masterminded everything intend to sell these rich little white girls in foreign lands, but Jacky has other ideas.
The most interesting thing about this book is that Jacky reads people very well. (A little too well, sometimes, I think . . . but it is, after all, a fictional story.) Far from being helpless, Jacky mobilizes the kidnapped crew, and she figures out all their strengths and weaknesses. She knows that she has to designate her enemy, Clarissa, as one of the three leaders, or else Clarissa will make trouble for her. She knows how to give the other girls purpose--by using their strengths and covering for their weaknesses. And--most importantly--sometimes she screws up, which is vital in a story like this because Jacky really is far too clever sometimes and it wouldn't make sense if it didn't backfire sometimes. The author does a very good job relaying the filth and brutality of the girls' experience, and one other nice touch was the little stories Jacky tells to the other kidnapped girls to keep them entertained and keep their spirits up. (Even the crew members assisting their kidnapper like listening to her stories!) And it's nice that their success in escaping their kidnappers doesn't depend on silly coincidences or luck. There were so many individual personal stories going down, too--each kidnapped girl had her own personal battle to fight--and not all the bad guys lost and not all the good guys won. Jacky's penchant for mischief and irresponsible fun is balanced well with her fear of horrible punishment and her enduring love for her absent sweetheart.
|Francesca Lia Block
|The magical Ms. Block revisits her famous character Weetzie Bat, but shows us who she was before the magic: Back in time we go, to when Weetzie was Louise, a mousy thirteen-year-old with a drunk mother and an absent father. The usual Block standards make their appearances: anorexia, a host of mysterious circumstances that are never fully explained, the gathering of misfits, a passionate connection to Los Angeles as though it is a living thing, and romantic framing of everything from clothing to movie stars. Weetzie is relatable for the most part--I especially enjoyed hearing about her getting condescended to in English class for "overwriting"--and the prose is a little less decorated than I'm used to, plus the first person is accessible. But as a seasoned Block reader, I found some of it repetitive--especially since this isn't the first book I've read in which the main character finds solace in connecting with another outcast girl and another outcast boy at their school--and the fact that some of the seeds we read about in the Dangerous Angels series were planted much earlier than had been hinted before seemed a bit of a stretch. I'm also a little tired of evil and creepiness manifesting as witchy girls with long black hair while charmed forces of good are sunny beautiful blondes, but I think some of the reason we see that so much is that the author is going for archetypal and fairy-tale feelings. It didn't really give me anything I wanted to know about Weetzie's life--certainly not the way Necklace of Kisses did (as it told us about Weetzie at forty).
The Actor and the Housewife
|This is the first of the author's adult works I've consumed and I'm delighted with it. First off, I LOVE the concept--a man, Felix, and a woman, Becky, both married, who are FRIENDS and do not have a romantic relationship--but even more than that, I love how it is carried out. Because the man, who is a famous actor, has been trained by society to assume that any positive feelings he has about a woman must be romantic or sexual, and that's very true to life. As an aromantic asexual woman myself, ALL of my relationships with men have been some kind of friendship, and people don't take "friendship" seriously as a lasting, committed relationship of any kind (just look at Becky's relationship with her friend Augie in the book; she mentioned having been sad to lose him, since after he got married apparently having a female friend just wasn't possible anymore). This shows how it can be done--how friendships don't have to be "more," or rather, that they don't have to be romantic or sexual in order to be important and real, and that they aren't "less" because of the lack of that element. I loved that Felix did not know how to have a friend because of what society had taught him, and how Becky and Felix figured it out together. I loved that Becky was constantly honest with her husband throughout, thereby heading off any misunderstanding. And furthermore, I loved the writing style--it was poised, a little strange sometimes because occasionally there was a "narrator's voice" explaining Becky to us, but most of the time it was third person through Becky--and I really appreciated that there didn't seem to be any "as you know Bob" moments. For instance, Becky and her husband had a bet at one point, and all they had to say was that they bet "the usual." There was no condescending, patient narrative voice explaining what their usual was. We had to wait until Felix asked what the bet was before we find out that Becky and her husband bet Slurpees.
I loved Mike in this book. Loved Becky. Loved Felix most of the time. And I have to say this . . . I was extremely invested in this book, to the point that I cried at weird times, because I wanted so badly for Felix and Becky to continue to be friends, not lovers. I was terrified that their relationship would ruin one or both of their marriages. I was terrified that they would eventually realize they loved each other THAT WAY all along and suddenly everything that had been built here would collapse. I am not going to tell you the ending. I am just going to tell you that I am utterly in awe of how Shannon Hale showed their relationship evolving--how Becky used writing sometimes to work through her life, how her delightfully, achingly poignant and complicated way of feeling grief and beauty and responsibility and religious devotion were all so accessible through the storytelling, how sometimes the entire story was so meta it seemed to be about itself and know it was about itself. So many complicated issues were explored: motherhood (wow, WOW), the meaning of a kiss, the concept of story, self-esteem, religious beliefs (and how to be devoted and steadfast without being obnoxious and preachy), everyday life vs. Hollywood life, children growing up, grief, sickness, relationships with estranged parents, outside perceptions of other people's relationships, sibling rivalry . . . this book. It has everything. I want to hug it. Or at least send copies to several of my friends.
Under the Jolly Roger
|The adventures of Jacky Faber continue, and I thought this was the best yet. Jacky is really developing as a person and her flaws are more obvious amidst all her talents, which makes her really quite an interesting, multi-layered person. I love that she has female companionship again--she really has a lovely sisterly relationship with Mairead and the celebration of their common interests and kindred spirits is quite a joy to read--and I also think it's really interesting watching her come into her own. The way her plots almost always seem to go right is a little suspicious, I guess, and I'm a little put off by whenever an author creates misunderstanding between characters by simply preventing them from communicating even though they have to go out of their way to throw plot points that will stop plain exchanges from happening. (I'm referring to the miscommunication between Jacky and the boy she loves, Jaimy.) But the plot wherein Jacky gets abducted by a press gang and ends up using the unfortunate circumstances of the captain to gain traction with her crew and rise to power is admirable. It's complex and just ridiculous enough that you can believe she thought it up. And I really like her relationships with every character. I got tears in my eyes sometimes watching her get reunited with other characters she'd been missing and watching how the unexpected outpouring of emotion affected her, and I think it's really hilarious how Jacky is so frustrated by her spreading reputation for being merciless when she knows she's just a fun-loving, ambitious girl at heart. I love this series for Jacky and her evolution as a character, and I believe I will keep reading it.
|Gene Luen Yang
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise, Part One
|Fun graphic novel that helps fans of the television series get some closure by finding out what happens after the Fire Lord is defeated. The character development for everyone is pretty great. We find out Toph went on to start a metalbending school (and we meet a few characters--her students, whom she calls "lily livers"), and we see that Aang and Katara have officially cemented their relationship. Plot-wise, Aang and Zuko have agreed to work with the Earth King to get the Fire Nation colonies out of the Earth Kingdom. But Zuko is still a tormented man (well, because he's Zuko, and he SO does not want to end up just like his dad). Aang makes him a promise that he does not want to ever be in a position to keep, and drama festers between Zuko and his imprisoned father. It's fast reading and gives us more of what we loved about these characters in the animated series, and I loved that it invoked the familiar old elemental opening only to continue it in a way that hadn't been done before. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.
Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian
|Let's start with the good: Colfer's great characters are back, acting as they always did, pulling their signature moves, and nobody was left out. There were tons of compelling ideas, as well as a sort of explanation for why Artemis himself has tangled with the fairies so many times, and the plotting was typically intricate. But even though I enjoyed it and had moments of real breathlessness and excitement, I was starting to see the strings a little in this one. Weird little flashbacks to backtrack and explain why something was now possible; an unusual amount of cheeky author-talking-to-the-reader narration; characters second-guessing each other and counting on each other in exactly the way they needed to for everything to work out in the end; and SO many characters with their own individual problems that I felt that the connection suffered. Combine all that with the fact that I have been thoroughly sick of Opal Koboi for a couple books now (so, admittedly, that's probably how the heroes feel), and you have a book I was just a little disappointed in. Because Colfer has killed important people before in his books, I wasn't entirely sure that Artemis Fowl would live through his final gamble (especially since I knew this was last in the series), but I did have a feeling that either there would be a catch that would save everyone from certain doom or they would go back in time or something. I also kinda thought Colfer didn't spend enough time exploring the repercussions of the plot on his characters; I would have liked to see their emotions more (though Artemis going into a dangerous situation and having the narration deliver the fear was very good), and would have appreciated more aftermath. I think more introspection could have been offered at the expense of all the extra little plot lines, and maybe that would have left us with a stronger, more resounding memory of these fantastic characters. I'll miss them. (And, as usual, the code across the bottom of the pages has another bit of fun for you if you feel like decoding for a while. Here you get to see the glory of Artemis Fowl the Second's last will and testament.)
Princess Academy: Palace of Stone
|In this sequel to the award-winning Princess Academy, we're back with Miri and all her fellow Mount Eskel dwellers, watching as she is invited to the lowlands of Asland with some other Eskelites to mingle with nobles, scholars, and artisans. In the beginning, Miri's certainty that she would return to Mount Eskel in a year's time left a pit in my stomach, thinking she would find a reason that she had to stay in Asland and she'd never see her family again, and from that point on I was really ensnared in the emotional turmoil Miri had going in her head. Asland is of course a whirlwind of amazingness for Miri and her mountain-dwelling friends; she attends the academy and learns about the whole world, their history, their politics, and their ethics. I related to her sadness when she thought her own home had lost its history because of its failure to document, and was really impressed by the way the author brought out Mount Eskel's unique way of "documenting"--people of the stone have their own mysterious connections, as we've learned in the previous book. Miri's relationship with Peder is further explored, which was a delight; she found him growing distant as he labored to learn his craft as an apprentice, and in the meantime she finds herself attracted to and bamboozled by a young revolutionary named Timon, whose strong ideas and compelling rhetoric pull Miri into an uprising quite before she realizes she's in over her head. Miri's strength as a character has always been in her vulnerability balanced with her idealism, and in the second half of this book her strength shines again to make us all remember why we loved her so much in the first book. Her doubts and fears are realistically felt as she realizes she has unintentionally helped put her friend Britta--the princess-to-be--in danger by fanning the flames on the revolution, and though scholars insist she must choose her path and cannot "do both," Miri knows there has to be a way. So many choices pull Miri in impossible directions--Peder or Timon? Support the revolution or support her royal and noble friends? Stay in Asland or return to Mount Eskel?--and as usual, she finds her special Miri way to use her personal ties, her warmth, and her words to make things right and make her mark. Shannon Hale is as always right on point with her complicated and realistic characters, her compelling concepts and rich invented history, and her way of keeping big plots delightfully personal and believable. I loved it.
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
|This was sort of fun. I worked in a bookstore for six years so my friend Fred thought I would particularly appreciate this, and I did. So many of the things people were recorded as saying were bizarre and off the wall, and many of the requests based on ignorance were chuckle-worthy (e.g., asking if Anne Frank had written a sequel; expecting Harry Potter to have its seventh book split into two because that's how the movies were; Tequila Mockingbird). And of course the customers attempting to use their own beliefs and morals to shame bookstore workers about what they carry or don't carry was familiar territory to me. However, I guess I didn't actually find anything in the collection that bowled me over or had me laughing ridiculously; I kept a blog of my bookstore-working years from 2000 to 2006 and I encountered some customer comments that were way more shockingly ignorant, creepy, scary, or hilarious, so I came out the other end of this book mildly amused by not blown away.
Curse of the Blue Tattoo
|As with the previous book in this series, Jacky as a character is a delight, and the layers of relationships with other characters are refreshingly complicated. I love that Jacky is imperfect, and that I sometimes thought she was being a little jerk, and that she was lovably rebellious without doing it for the sake of being a rebel. I don't mind that Jacky is kind of a Mary-Sue sometimes; it's kind of cute how she embraces her talents and doesn't really seem to know how special she is, though sometimes sure, that's a little unrealistic. So the book's strength is definitely the characters: A+. However, I'm giving the plot a fat C-. It's not that the plot wasn't interesting; it's that it was very contrived this time. As soon as certain people or plot points appeared, I saw exactly where they were going, and to add insult to injury, occasionally the characters made these terribly transparent moves. If you've read the book, you'll probably know what I mean when I say I saw what was coming as soon as a) the preacher had a suspiciously convenient habit of talking to his dead grandfather in order to explicate the plot; b) Jacky met the racing horse and immediately learned to ride him; c) Jacky got walked home by a suspicious character who asked questions about her living space while she responded obliviously; d) Jacky set eyes on her friend's older brother and the plot revealed that he was betrothed to one of her worst enemies. In every one of those instances I saw the introduction and thought "Oh, please, REALLY? You're going to go there?" And the book did, without exception. The only time I was actually surprised by the plot was when the consequences of Jacky getting arrested were revealed. That said, the narration is a lot of fun and I enjoy finding out what nutty thing Jacky is going to do next, so I will keep reading this series.
The Marriage Plot
|This book did a great job spotlighting the post-college indecisiveness with regards to one's relationships in the context of a larger life. Despite having focused on plots ending in happily ever after for her academic career, primary character Madeleine is unsure of the direction of her romantic future. With two men interested in her--both of whom represent different things in terms of stability and passion--Madeleine wrestles with her family issues, her academic future, and what she herself wants out of a marriage. Bachelor number one, Leonard, is brilliant and captivating but marrying him will mean dealing with the lowest of lows along with the highest of highs because he is "manic depressive" (what they called bipolar people then). And Mitchell was frequently exploring his religion and put Madeleine off sometimes with his lack of action and whatnot. What I really appreciated about this book was how complicated Eugenides makes relationships out to be, and how it absolutely is NOT as simple as meeting the right guy and falling in love. Some of the truths discovered by the characters--and the words Eugenides uses to describe them--are really what make this novel special. I preferred his previous book, but I loved how his characters had these layered idiosyncrasies and imperfections that felt so real, and I loved how well it captured the post-college malaise.
See the list of books I read last year!
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