Friday, September 24, 2010

What I've Been Reading: Mid-August '10 Edition

So far I've been doing a lot of writing about writing but not so much about reading.  It seemed to me to be time I wrote a bit about what I've been reading, why I've been reading them and what I thought about them. 

Livvie Owens Lived Here
by Sarah Dooley 

Livvie Owens Lived Here by Sarah Dooley 

I won a copy of Livvie Owens Lived Here through an online contest.   I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise, which only goes to show that I need to keep myself far more open to books outside what I would consider my "regular" genres.

Author Sarah Dooley has taken on a substantial challenge: to write a YA novel from the perspective of a teenaged girl with autism.  Dooley, who works with autistic children during her 40-hour work-a-day week, does a fairly good job of balancing what seems believable language and thoughts for Livvie and her desire, as a writer, to be eloquent and almost poetical in her descriptions and similes.  There were times I thought this worked well and other times a sentence pulled me out of the story as seeming less believable.

The blurb on Goodreads for Livvie Owen reads:
"Olivia "Livvie" Owen feels things differently than her parents and two sisters. Livvie is autistic. Her family has had to move repeatedly because of her outbursts. When they again face eviction, Livvie is convinced she has a way to get back to a house where they were all happy, once.

The problem is, Livvie burned down that house.
And while this is true, the description really does an injustice to the book.  The story is really about the way a family that is both financially strapped and on edge, come to terms with changes in their lives.

I read Livvie Owens over the course of two days and, by the end, was disappointed their story didn't go on longer.
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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
by Susan Jane Gilman

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman 

I don't remember where I found a copy of Susan Jane Gilman's Hypocrite in a White Pouffy Dress, but two things grabbed me about it right away: the cover (seriously, click through and take a look.  I'll wait.... It's a seriously great cover, isn't it?   How can you not want to read a book with a cover like that?) and the cover blurb from Frank McCourt that reads:

"Thank you, O Lord, for sending us Susan Gilman's tales..."

Where Hypocrite... is a collection of stories about Gilman's upbringing in New York City, of her parents' attempts at having their children taught 'enlightenment' and of growing up (a bit), Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is the story of a daring, foolhardy trip Gilman and a college friend take in the mid 1980's, shortly after college graduation, to China.

And just because this image makes
me so very a happy: the fabulous
Frank McCourt and his former student,
the equally fabulous Susan Jane Gilman
At the time, China had just begun opening up to Westerners and Gilman and her traveling companion (known pseudonymously as Claire Van Houten) are the first whites that many of the Chinese have ever seen.  They are treated with equal parts awe, suspicion, mistrust and as potential friends by the various people they meet.

I love good, quirky travel books and Gilman's writing about t his trip would have been enough for me to be completely happy with it.  However, it turns out that being completely out of her element, at various stages panicked, sick enough to need hospitalization, unfamiliar with the language, food or customs was the easy part of Gilman's trip.

The real problem was that her traveling companion's odd behavior wasn't just becoming odder and odder.  It was that her traveling companion was suffering from full-blown, undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.  In a foreign country.  That was already highly suspicious of Western culture.  Where traveling from place to place usually took a day or two of waiting to fill out the forms to buy tickets and then another day or two to pick up the tickets.  Where as hard as it was getting into China, getting out is even harder.

Undress Me... has now supplanted Hypocrite... as my favorite Susan Jane Gilman book.

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The Glass Maker's Daughter
by Vance Briceland

The Glass Maker's Daughter by Vance Briceland

Full Disclosure: I've known Vance online through his LiveJournal for... well, I forget how many years.  Vance has prodded and nagged me along the lines of "Why, exactly, aren't you writing" for several years and has helped me with several mentor-y tips along the way.  I've read several of his other books (published under another name) and was thanked in the introduction to one of them for some last-minute, final-read-before-being-submitted work I did for him.  When I get my first book published, he's one of the people who will be publicly thanked.

That having been said, I still liked The Glass Maker's Daughter.

The story starts by setting up the time-honored traditions of Cassaforte, the nightly rituals that supposedly keep the kingdom safe and the ceremony that gives each child his occupation in life.  The heroine of the story,  Risa, expects to be chosen by the gods to follow in the family's glassmaking (plus enchantments) business.  Instead, she the gods decree they have no placement for her.

Twisting away from what appears to be a Lowry's-The-Chosen beginning, Risa finds herself in the midst of political intrigue that threatens to destroy her homeland.  She finds her way, in part, with the help of two of the Prince's guards and, in part, through her own stubbornness -- a trait that lands her in increasingly more trouble.

Risa is wonderfully flawed, eager to prove herself while not yet truly understanding herself or her homeland.  It's a fun read, with enough action and danger to keep the pages turning.

(I'm also looking forward to reading the two sequels , The Buccaneer's Apprentice and The Nascenza Conspiracy)

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The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann
The Affinity Bridge by George Mann 

Classic Steampunk in all the right ways.

A passenger airship crashes in the middle of Victorian London killing all aboard and the brass and gearwork automaton pilot cannot be found.  Queen Victoria (kept alive by various life support systems) asks Sir Maurice Newbury to investigate.  Along the way, Newbury and his assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, are attacked by automatons and, yes, zombies.

Mann gets the Victorian societal sensibilities just right.  Despite the mysteries to be solved and the unfortunate undead to be avoided, there still remains a hesitancy towards displaying emotions.  I had the sense that while Mann took his characters and his story seriously, he was also making sure that he didn't take everything so seriously he didn't have fun with this story.

At the heart of this book is a mystery that not only moved the action along, but kept me guessing as well.

This was a dashedly fun book to read.  (I'm already on the lookout for the sequel, The Osiris Ritual)

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The Difference Engine
by William Gibson
and Bruce Sterling
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling  

A Steampunk classic... for some reason.

Okay, so the Wikipedia article for this book proclaims, "It is a prime example of the steampunk sub-genre." And, yes, I grant you that it is "science fiction re-imagined from a Victorian perspective." And, yes, there are technological advances unknown to the real Victorians.  And, yes...

The problem is, there just isn't much of a story here.

I knew I was in trouble when I got to page 66 and wondered why I was wasting my time.  The book had completely changed directions after the first section, leaving me with characters I wasn't interested in who were in situations I didn't care much about that had little in the way of rising tension and conflicts.

By page 250 I decided since I'm writing Steampunk I should be able to say I've read what many consider to be a classic of the genre.  I would finish it just to say I had finished it.  Bragging rights, I thought.  It's a challenge.

Then by page 265 I decided life is too short (and my bedside To Be Read stack of books too tall) to spend time slogging through a story that just does not connect with me.  At all.

I suspect some of my annoyance stemmed from having just read several very good books.  Still, with so many good ones out there, why spend time with ones that don't work for you?

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So, what are you reading?  What have you liked lately?  What have you given up on trying to finish?  And what books would you recommend me adding to my TBR stack?

-- Tom


  1. I've just added Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven to my TBR list (which is already enormous). I just finished The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Both were amazing in different ways, and we're giving away a copy of Speak on our blog Tues. Thanks for the book recommendations! :)

  2. I think you'll like "Undress Me...", Kristi. My wife has a habit when she reads a great book of finishing it and then starting it over again right away. I was sorely tempted to do this with "Undress Me..." -- but my TBR stack had just grown by four or five books thanks to several library requests all coming in at the same time.

    I'm on the library's wait list for "Speak." (since I didn't win it from the blog contest) : )

    -- Tom

  3. Tom--I also wished that LIVVIE hadn't ended when it did. I felt that the family dynamics were really true to life!