Tag Archives: Novels

On Chaeng-rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea”

23 Jan
Check out Chang-rae Lee's newest novel, On Such a Full Sea.

Check out Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, On Such a Full Sea.

I haven’t posted a review in a couple of weeks now, and you can all blame football for that. My beloved Seahawks are going to Super Bowl XLVIII, and they need my full attention during post-season to make it. In fact, you can all thank me and my absolute devotion for the win against the 49ers this past Sunday. After all, I own a Richard Sherman jersey. That being said, I have been as distracted as one of Chang-rae Lee’s fictional B-More residents in On Such a Full Sea, with their vids and shows and mind-numbing routines. Lee’s dystopian sci-fi veers slightly from the fare of his previous novels and reminds me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: both set in a futuristic, dystopian, American setting, and both written with a straying, almost whimsical style. But through a futuristic, crumbling America, Lee addresses familiar issues: human resilience and the art of story telling.

An unnamed narrator begins weaving the story of Fan, a young B-Mor resident who raises stock fish, and her quest to find her missing boyfriend, set in a landscape of a ruined America. The narrator is presumed to be some distant relative of Fan’s (being that B-Mor is a whole city built on massive family clans, it’s safe to say), and the story that he/she tells begins to grow to an epic scale. Fan leads a quiet life with her boyfriend Reg and a house full of cousins and uncles and aunties. Even on a day-to-day basis, though, the narrator sees something of a hero in her, and when Reg suddenly disappears, Fan trades the protective walls of the city for the open, dangerous counties and the citizens she leaves behind turn her into legend. They idolize her and her lost boyfriend. While Fan only dreams of the fish tanks where she felt most at home, all of B-Mor dreamed of her heroism.

To Fan, diving in the fish tanks is an act of self-control, and depriving herself of air for minutes at a time is a kind of transcendence.

To Fan, diving in the fish tanks is an act of self-control, and depriving herself of air for minutes at a time is a kind of transcendence.

On Such a Full Sea is strongest in its commentary on story telling, the development of legends. Fan is only known through the eyes and ears and speculation of the narrator and B-Mor’s Fan-atic (you like that?) residents. As I read, I realized everything I knew about Fan, her odyssey across the impoverished countryside, the various strangers–good and bad–that she meets along the way, even her love for and devotion to Reg, are all fabrications and projections of the story teller. Because of the reader’s distance from Fan, however, I never felt attached to her in any one or truly invested in her plight the way B-Mor’s Fan fans clearly were. Her character, while interesting, wasn’t easily understood or empathized with, and by the end of the book (no spoilers) I felt the need to go read something more captivating. The beginning of Fan’s quest is exciting, gruesome in some parts, and absolutely entertaining, but this mood tapers off in favor of more speculation, and Lee’s attempts at more shocking futuristic features falls short. This is book for people looking for a gentle read or something to spark no small amount of discussion, but I couldn’t bring myself to add a fourth star on Goodreads, if you know what I mean.

Author Chang-rae Lee graduated from University of Oregon and now teaches creative writing at Princeton, so I guess you could say he's doing well for himself.

Author Chang-rae Lee graduated from University of Oregon and now teaches creative writing at Princeton, so I guess you could say he’s doing well for himself.

Advertisements

On Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”

3 Jan
Don't even think about the 1997 film adaptation. Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is classic Sci-Fi.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is classic Sci-Fi, though I’m still trying to figure out why he titled it Starship Troopers instead of Mobile Infantry.

Apparently, I am a shoddy Sci-Fi fan. I haven’t read Asimov, I’ve only read one Philip K. Dick short story, and Starship Troopers is my first Robert A. Heinlein novel. There are probably a million other glaring errors in my genre fiction education, but this is a good way to start 2014.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, like many of Heinlein’s novels, continues to hold prominence in the Sci-Fi literature world. It’s war. It’s space. It’s war in space. What more could you want? Well, it turns out I ended up wanting a little more after finishing this book. The hype that led me to pick it up finally, and the esteem a lot of my friends give it, made for a slightly anticlimactic read.

In Starship Troopers, fresh-faced high school graduate Juan “Johnnie” Rico lets half-boiled ideologies and a crush motivated him into service with the Mobile Infantry. Heinlein’s future Earth requires its residents to complete a two-year tour of duty before being awarded the title of “citizen.” Only citizens may vote, run for political office, or hold service positions. Only a veteran could rule the Earth’s galaxy-wide alliance. Rico’s goal isn’t political power, though, and he spends much of the book slowly understanding why he joined up. Rico survives a fatal boot camp, dozens of battles against the bug-like enemy, and overcomes many psychological dilemmas over the morality, not of war, but of military structure–of obedience, sacrifice, corporal punishment, chain of command, duty, blah blah blah.

As a pacifist, I sure do like to read about war. I understand patriotism. I get duty and honor. But I will always struggle with the philosophical justification of war, like the one written in this book.

As a pacifist, I sure do like to read about war. I understand patriotism. I get duty and honor. But I will always struggle with the philosophical justification of war, like the one written in this book.

I can’t tell if Heinlein is being tongue-in-cheek with the endless philosophical monologues and lectures about duty and citizenship. Maybe someone with more experience with him could tell me. The 1997 film adaptation certainly took the cynical view of war, but Heinlein’s protagonist seems utterly sincere. It’s not Rico’s patriotism or his ideologies about the war that eventually helps him find peace with himself; it’s the discovery of a lifestyle. Rico gives himself entirely to his  role as a Mobile Infantryman, and that’s where he finds resolution to his dilemmas.

I just wanted more battle scenes. The scenes that were included were my favorite sections. Rico’s job as an MI is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait warfare. Heinlein’s realism in this aspect and his imagination in others is what makes ST such an entertaining and worthwhile read. The MI use powered suits for travelling great distances, and each suit is decked out with flamethrowers, miniature nukes, grenades, you name it. Rico’s enemy is a hive society, an enemy type we are all used to seeing in today’s Sci-Fi, but Heinlein really broke ground on it first. The bugs in ST exist in an ant-like caste system: workers, warriors, and brains. I was as curious about the bugs as Rico and his MI crew was content in their ignorance of them. Maybe one day there will be a whole story about the bug side of the Sci-Fi world.

I just had to include a screenshot from this ridiculous movie. Watch out, Johnnie! You're only wearing a T-shirt against armored bugs, you fool!

I just had to include a screenshot from this ridiculous movie. Watch out, Johnnie! You’re only wearing a T-shirt against armored bugs, you fool! I’m hoping James Cameron reboots this movie series, because I want to see some powered suits.

Top 10 of 2013

31 Dec

Happy New Year’s Eve, world! I won’t be like everyone and say, “I can’t believe how fast this year went by,” so I’ll just say, “I can’t believe how slowly this year went by.” We get 365 days and I only managed to read a handful of books! Here’s to a fuller 2014 with more books and more book reviews! For now, it’s time to wrap up the year by reflecting on the important things. Here is my list of the top ten books I read and reviewed this year with excerpts from and links to my reviews on each of them! Enjoy, and thanks to all my followers, casual readers, friends, and family for helping me enjoy myself with this little, whimsical blog.

The Top Ten of 2013

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

10. To Be or Not To Be  by Ryan North

Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground. …

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni's Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni’s Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

9. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too. …

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

8. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Richard Forthrast—the billionaire, draft-dodger, former drug-runner, T’Rain founder—and his niece Zula find themselves invited to a figurative party of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, ex-military rogues, MI6 agents, and Islamic terrorists (obviously) that even Gatsby would envy, it’s so elaborate and wrought with confusion and angst. The plot that began with relatively simple, moneymaking scheme/computer virus becomes frightening and life threatening. But isn’t that how it always goes? …

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press' Letters.

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press’ Letters.

7. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites. …

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

6. Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

I think, at this point, I can officially classify myself as a Sarah Beauhall fangirl. When I saw the series as Powell’s for the first time, I decided I’d read it on a whim, not expecting anything more than brief entertainment or maybe something to write a scathing review on later. Lo and behold! I have to take back those thoughts of an unbeliever! Forged in Fire is J.A. Pitts’s third Sarah Beauhall installation, and I had more fun than ever. Pitts created a cast of full characters and a massive enough world to keep this series going strongly as Sarah Beauhall uncovers more dark magic, learns about a new secret order, and forms some important human bonds that help her understand the meaning of family. …

As troubling as it is genius, A Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood's iconic prose.

As troubling as it is genius, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood’s iconic prose.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s dazzling The Handmaid’s Tale and got a bitter taste of how scary religion can be. From my comfy seat in America, looking through my blinders out at the world, I can safely say I feel pretty free in comparison, and that other religions (*ahem* Islam) have gotten a little out of control. But Atwood’s beautiful novel is more like a slap in the face: America, already a so-called Christian nation, is short skip and a hop away from a society mirroring modern-day Iran’s or Afghanistan’s, a society that forbids the interaction between men and women, that “shelters” women with thick cloth and heavy restrictions for their “protection” and “purity,” that uses indoctrination and propaganda to destroy hope, to remove all routes of escape. Atwood’s dystopia is, in the end, much more frightening then the dystopias I grew up with—1984 and Brave New World—because it’s infinitely more possible. …

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

I don't usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

I don’t usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

3. The Devil in the White City by David Larson

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror. …

John Fowles's first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

John Fowles’s first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

2. The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVUCSI, andCriminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well. …

And the winner of the LitBeetle’s Pick of the 2013 is …

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time. …

A special runner up mention goes to …

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan's beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan’s beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So I didn’t technically review this book, but I spent the better part of the first quarter of 2013 rereading Robert Jordan’s modern classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, which culminated in this joint effort with author Brandon Sanderson. A Memory of Light ended a fourteen-book series and what was, for a lot of fantasy readers, an era of genre bliss. The Wheel of Time was my escapism from the minor horrors of high school, and A Memory of Light was a fitting end.

It would be a mistake to say I’m not obsessed with morbid mystery novels. I am. Just going to come right out and say it. Gillian Flynn’s novel goes above and beyond, taking morbidity to high entertainment. I won’t say Gone Girl is great “Literature,” but I enjoyed it the most out of all the books I read this year, and I think it will stand up to the test of time.

I can’t wait to read another several dozen books next year! Thanks, again, to all my followers who tagged along with me on my silly adventures through literature (and not-literature)! Send me book recommendations and help me make 2014 a more exciting year for books than 2013!

The Complete List

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

The Collector by John Fowles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North (and Shakespeare)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Vurt by Jeff Noon

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Stranger by Albert Camus

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts

A Lifetime by Morris Fenris

Underground by Haruki Murakami

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict

A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

City of Glass by Paul Auster

Ghosts by Paul Auster

The Locked Room by Paul Auster

Suicide Game by Haidji

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

NaNoWriMo: LitBeetle Goes on Hiatus

1 Nov
Wish me luck, folks. Or just join me, and over 200,000 other writers, in my NaNoWriMo endeavors!

Wish me luck, folks. Or just join me, and over 200,000 other writers, in my NaNoWriMo endeavors!

Welcome to November, ladies and gents (and androids, of course), the wonderful month of turkey dinners, frosty football fields, and the infamous masochistic event of the year: NaNoWriMo. That’s right, November is National Novel Writing Month, the only time of the year when anyone ever is allowed to write novels. This year I decided to join tens of thousands of writers around the world in NaNoWriMo, the goal being to write a 50,000-word novel in the thirty days of November. That’s essentially a hundred-page book, which may not seem like a lot to most readers, but sitting in front of a blank page (screen) wondering how the hell you’re going to survive writing one hundred pages really puts things in perspective.

After reviewing a bunch of books this year and having always been an avid reader (why is it always an “avid” reader? Why not a “masterful” or “exceedingly prodigious” or “divine” reader?), I thought it was high time I stopped bitching about other people’s books and right my own book. It can’t be that hard, right? Right??? In all honesty, writing has always been difficult for me. It’s always been slow and torturous, and to date I’ve only written a single short story that I ever want to see again, and that’s only to look at it and grimace. So this step is more an act of self-torture of the soul than anything.

This is all to say that my book review posts will be few and far between during these trying weeks. I hope to pick back up again as soon as I’ve put this month behind me.

Here’s the synopsis of what I plan on writing, but you can always check out updates on my NaNoWriMo profile page:

In an alternate, steamy 19th Century England, death is a business, and business is booming. Olivia Cutter works for The London Necropolis Company as a fraud and internal investigator. When a coworker and ex-lover shows up dead in Trafalgar Square under mysterious circumstances, Cutter is compelled to find answers, even if they lead her to the center of a massive conspiracy. With the help of her rough-and-tumble South Bank buddies and a mildly mad Scottish scientist (who happens to be her mother) Cutter will face all kinds of fun and all kinds of trouble in this alternate history fantasy novel.

NecropolisSationEntranceWaterloo1890r

I’m always open to critique, criticism, encouragement, free kittens–so bring it on! See you on the other side! (Or in a few days and I need to procrastinate by reading and reviewing a book that I [thankfully] didn’t write.)

Leaving on a Jet Plane (and What to Bring Along to Read)

13 Sep

20080727SeaTacPlane

Today, I’m jumping on a plane again, heading to Boston to celebrate the marriage of some dear friends. (Congratulations, Lindsey and Kell!) But I relish any excuse to find myself in the airport. (After all, I spent a lot of my childhood in airports, because this is what happens when your grandparents live in another state.) Airports are bizarre places. If I believed in magic, I would say airports are one of the most magical places in the human world right now. They are portals to other places, but they’re also strangely permanent and homey–with their restaurants and shops, the way people settle in with blankets and pillows while wearing their sweatpants or pajamas. I mean, you don’t see me snuggling with my favorite stuffed dog Spot down at the pub (but if you ever do, please cut me off). Airports are at once all displacing–filled with strangers and strange air–and all the same. It’s in these weird flux environments that I most love to read and write. I made a list of my favorite books to read while traveling. Let me know what your favorite travel books are!

10. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I have a soft spot for Dickens–for all Victorian literature, really–and Bleak House is my favorite of them all. I won’t go gushing about this fantastically sinister, dirty, creepy book (I mean, human combustion! Come on!), but Dickens is a great read at the airport for one obvious reason: he writes super, big honking novels. You could start reading Bleak House right out of the security gate, straight through all your delays, slogging through the six-hour flight and you’ll barely be halfway through that sucker. (Just wait until you get to the 8.5-hour Masterpiece Theatre TV adaptation!)

***

9. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Watch out! This bad boy won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so you’re not allowed to dislike it or say anything detrimental. But really, The Shipping News is the perfect book for a plane ride: it balances the loftiness and changeability of air travel with its stark setting of Newfoundland; and it also exemplifies the feeling of alienation as its main character Quoyle adjusts to a foreign, tight-knit community. Quoyle and his non-traditional family unit strive to make a safe space for themselves and discover Newfoundland, even at its most tempestuous, isn’t frightening at all, but a beautiful land of beautiful characters.

***

8. Mao II by Don DeLillo

This isn’t my favorite of DeLillo’s, but the champion of postmodern pop-culture takes it to town in Mao II, which makes it a chilling read in a place that’s plastered with logos, newspapers, and duty-free commercial everything. The novel follows a reclusive writer as he navigates a conflict of motivations: does he publish his newest book and dilute himself with the masses, or does he refrain to protect himself in and his ideas and ultimately recede entirely from the public’s eye? DeLillo’s protagonist faces what most of DeLillo’s protagonist faces, but Mao II takes him across the globe in a series of painful and sometimes horrifying enlightenment.

***

7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Sometimes I feel like I just need a good laugh. Sometimes I feel like I need a Babel fish to decipher the Bostonian accent. All the times I should have a towel handy, and maybe especially on a cross-country flight. Douglas Adams’s classic sci-fi novel rejuvenated a genre that was traditionally cradled in pulp or overly serious political metaphors. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is irreverent, subversive, and above all wildly entertaining. Join Arthur Dent–the last living human after Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route–and his unlikely companions in a journey to just stay alive in a violent galaxy, and maybe find the answer to everything along the way.

***

6. Away by Amy Bloom

Away is a novel about traveling across America in pursuit of family. Enough said. ( But no, really, this beautiful, heart-wrenching novel will fulfill any reader’s need for the epic. Lillian Leyb, a refugee in 1920s America, has survived the Russian pogrom, but she’s separated from her daughter Sophie. Now, having heard word that Sophie still lives and is being cared for by a family in Siberia, Lillian must traverse all of America, including the barely civilized hinterlands of Seattle and Alaska, to try and reach her only child. Bloom doesn’t write a long novel, and it isn’t saturated with swords and dragons and damsels, but Away is a gigantic story. It fills your imagination and heart as your read it. And you might cry. Just saying.)

***

5. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay’s poetry is imbued with her sense of constant transition. She was fluid in her art and life and love. Poems like “Assault,” “Travel,” and “Spring” speak to her obsession with the goings and returnings in this life. I can think of no better poet to carry with me while on my way “from one house to another!”

***

4. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

I read this while traveling through England, as a bright-eyed college student finally stretching her wings (meaning drinking while under the age of 21). But Kapuscinski’s own discoveries and introspection of reading Herodotus’s Histories while journeying through the Mediterranean captivated me. His journalistic training combined with his sense for the magical made me fall even more in love with travel.

***

3. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley

The first time I read this book, I was stranded for five hours in the Sea-Tac airport. Mind you, it’s a beautiful airport. I was by myself and this was before smartphones were thing. I had the most glorious time binge-reading Huxley’s classic, and I can’t step foot in an airport without being haunted by that final image of the novel.

***

2. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Would you like to talk travel? Nothing quite says it like fatal expeditions through the wildest jungle on a our planet–a jungle filled to the brim with animals and native tribes willing to protect their own with tooth and claw (and poisoned arrows), and enchanted with the hopes of a lost city of gold. David Grann’s entertaining, journalistic writing will carry you through the true story of aging Colonel Percy Fawcett, the last of his kind of gentlemen explorers, and his quest to make his name legendary by finding said lost city. The book is filled with mystery, danger, and death. What better book to take with you on your perfectly safe, adventureless plane ride?

***

1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

No, I didn’t pick this one just because it has the world “traveler” in the title. Honestly, this is my favorite book right now. MY FAVORITE BOOK. Calvino doesn’t explore travel in the literal way Kapuscinski does, or the fantastical way Adams does, or the epic way Bloom does. Calvino’s is an exploration of the journey of reading. His experimental work of fiction imitates and examines the process of the reader as we travel with the protagonist on his quest to find the book he’s looking for. A mosaic of story lines and settings begins to form the larger work of art that is the experience of reading, and Calvino’s exceptional writing (yep, I cried in this book, too) makes it possible.

What books do you bring with you on plane trips? Or train trips? Or long, epic car rides? Which are the best companions to your travels?

On J.A. Pitts’s “Honeyed Words”

10 Sep
Life (and the cover art of this sequel) gets better for Sarah Beauhall when she inherits a Ducati. Watch out, dragons!

Life (and the cover art of this sequel) gets better for Sarah Beauhall when she inherits a Ducati. Watch out, dragons!

Sarah Beauhall, the drunken lesbian blacksmith with super Nordic deity powers, is back! Honeyed Words is the second installation of J.A. Pitts’s Beauhall series, and it comes with more punch than the first. We rejoin Sarah Beauhall, her girlfriend Katie, and Qindra the dragon-serving witch–along with a host of new characters–five months after the end of Black Blade Blues. Beauhall is busy hammering out her guilt from the reign of destruction she brought down on her friends in the form of Jean-Paul Duchamp/dragon dude, but she’s too notorious now to avoid the attention of some big baddies. She tries to move on with her life by returning to the trade she loves: blacksmithing. But when she temporarily apprentices with an artsy woman named Anezka (who just happens to have a giant dragon sculpture out back), Beauhall starts noticing her life getting screwy again. And not screwy in a happy, lesbian way. With much darker magic, fire kobolds, and necromancers, Pitts throws us back into his universe of modern fantasy, and I had more fun with Honeyed Words than with the first installment for a few reasons: 1) Beauhall is a fuller, more well-rounded character, not the angsty psuedo-teen from book one; 2) side characters like Bub the kobold and Qindra as a returning player make the story more multidimensional; and 3) Pitts leaves us with major a cliff-hanger. I’m talking “Lara Croft dangling by a handmade pickax from a rocky outcropping over a hundred foot drop onto spikes in an ancient tomb’s booby-trap” cliff-hanger. Will she make it?!

This sequel is so hardcore that even the dragons go metal. Don't worry, you can buy one for yourself.

This sequel is so hardcore that even the dragons go metal. Don’t worry, you can buy one for yourself.

I’m not all love and fuzziness, though. Awkward injections of pop culture feel contrived, as if to say, “Hey, I’m a nerd just like you! Love me!!” Don’t get me wrong; I like Firefly and X-Men and The Hobbit as much as the next girl, but there’s already plenty to love in a world of smithing and dragons and Nordic mythology without the jarring references. I imagine Pitts used it to shed light on Beauhall’s geeky side, but without enough context in the story, it sheds more light on Pitts’s geeky side. This whole series has a pretty firm grip on a niche readership here, and I don’t think there’s a need to make that more selective.

Pow! Right in the references! It's not like I'm not guilty, too. I just made a reference to Lara Croft. Can you find her in this image? (From Stuff Nerds Like)

Pow! Right in the references! It’s not like I’m not guilty, too. I just made a reference to Lara Croft. Can you find her in this image? (From Stuff Nerds Like)

Enough complaining. What I loved about Honeyed Words (and yes, it was a romp of a plot) was Beauhall’s development as a person. She’s growing up, filling her role, actually changing. Also, Pitts didn’t make her the end-all, be-all of the series. She’s the muscle, and she certainly has the guts and the fancy sword, but for the majority of the book other characters take on the leadership roles. Jimmy is the brains and the coordinator. Katie has the faith. Even Qindra is, in many ways, more of a hero than Beauhall. Props to J.A. Pitts for not only creating a well-balanced, flawed hero and three-dimensional, crucial secondary characters. I’m looking forward to reading more about these lovable characters in the third book, Forged in Fire, and I am stoked! (So to speak.)

On Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

7 Sep
You really need a copy. Like, really really.

You really need a copy. Like, really really.

I came back to work 20 minutes late from lunch because the book was too good to put down. That was a dozen pages in. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a whirling, magical read that takes its readers into the mind of a half-mad girl named Merricat. Through her strangely beautiful, sometimes frightening mind, we learn the story of the Blackwood family and Jackson’s incredible skill and a suspense author.

The Blackwoods–Mary Katherine (or Merricat), her older sister Constance, senile Uncle Julian, and the cat Jonas (who, I believe, is the best cat character in a book I’ve read since Nobu in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles)–are despised by the villagers for being rich, eccentric, and the center of a notorious murder mystery. Six years earlier, Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and aunt all fell dead at the dinner table. Arsenic in the sugar. Constance made the dinner. She stood trial and was acquitted. But the villagers refuse to let go of such a prime opportunity to bring an old, snobbish family to its knees. Since Uncle Julian is bound to his wheelchair and Constance’s trauma keeps her trapped within the boundaries of the garden, Merricat is the only one to venture out to the market and the library, enduring the endless taunts of the cruel neighbors, but this is the routine, and despite it all, this little family is happy. Then, one day, Cousin Charles arrives at the Blackwood mansion and turns everything upside down.

In 1966, Hugh Wheeler adapted the novel into a play. In 2010, Adam Bock and Todd Almond adapted the novel into a musical for the Yale Repertory Theatre. (Source)

In 1966, Hugh Wheeler adapted the novel into a play. In 2010, Adam Bock and Todd Almond adapted the novel into a musical for the Yale Repertory Theatre. (Source)

Between Constance’s agoraphobia, Uncle Julian’s random ramblings about murder, and Merricat’s constant shivering (someone get that girl a jacket!) over foreboding omens, you should be able to tell that things aren’t quite right with all the players here. Plus, I’m telling you right now that something’s not right with all the players here. Jonas is the only one who behaves the way he should. In one instance, a “friend” of the Blackwoods calls Julian “eccentric.” Merricat immediately takes issue with the term:

“I was thinking that if eccentric meant … deviating from regularity, it was Helen Clarke who was far more eccentric than Uncle Julian … Uncle Julian lived smoothly, in a perfectly planned pattern, rounded and sleek.”

Merricat, too, lives smoothly. She lives in a system of her own magic, where routine, symbolic objects, and special words create a protective barrier between the things she loves and the people she wishes were writhing on the ground in pain in their death throes. Yeah. It gets dark real quick.

I thought of Merricat as a River Tam type character. There are plenty of awesome crazy-girl characters out in the media world. Who is your favorite?

I thought of Merricat as a River Tam type character. There are plenty of awesome crazy-girl characters out in the media world. Who is your favorite?

Throughout the novel, Uncle Julian–obsessed with getting to the bottom of “the most sensational poisoning case of the century”–attempts to rewrite the day of the deaths. Out loud he speaks the lines of his unfinished book on the subject, and through him we learn the details. Who knows how factual his version of the story is? Over and over he asks Constance if it really happened, if any of it is true. He is the most unreliable of storytellers, along with Merricat. They are the lunatic storytellers who operate by their own rules, the rules of the moon. You could easily get lost in Julian’s and Merricat’s labyrinthine minds and piecemeal narratives, a testament to Jackson’s writing. More than anything, I was charmed by their lunacy, and it’s not until later, as the mystery unfolded and with some space from finishing the book, that I realized how disturbing it all is. Make sure you wear a decent shawl while reading this, because–between Merricat’s quietly frightening mind and Jackson’s simple but eloquent writing–We Have Always Lived in the Castle will give you chills.

The woman herself. Shirley Jackson wrote dozens of short stories, mostly mysteries and thrillers, and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1960.

The woman herself. Shirley Jackson wrote dozens of short stories, mostly mysteries and thrillers, and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1960.