Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top Ten Most Frustrating Characters Ever

Or rather, seven severe to mildly frustrating characters. Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

1. Lee Fiora, from Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Always my go-to love-to-hate girl, but seriously Lee, could you be more self-hating and judgmental?

2. Pamela, of the eponymous novel by Samuel Richardson

Pamela, how could you marry your would-be rapist? And how could you agree to those egregious marriage terms? Oh, go jump out a window!

3. Mary Musgrove, from Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh Mary, are you sick? Do you need your sister to scrub your floors and take care of your children? Poor, poor Mary. (Actually I totally love Mary and her ridiculous hypochondriac and hypocrite ways. But. Frustrating, definitely).

4. Winterbourne, from Daisy Miller by Henry James

Can you get over yourself and your double standards? While you're worrying about whether or not Daisy is a "nice girl," should you maybe consider whether or not you're a "nice guy"?

5. Hamlet, from that Danish play by Will Shakespeare

Get thee to a decision already.

6. Friar Laurence, from that play set in Verona by Will Shakespeare

Sure, I could be frustrated with those silly youths Romeo and Juliet, but frankly, I don't think either of them had the IQ to know any better. So Friar Laurence, I'm looking at you. Why oh why didn't you consider that it was maybe a bad idea to fake a death where melodramatic teenagers were concerned?

7. Edward Ferrars, from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Edward, you seem like a nice dude. But why did you wait so long to break it off with Lucy and tell Elinor you loved her? You could have avoided so much trouble, and preserved your fortune into the bargain, like a proper Austenian hero.

I'm sure there are many more frustrating characters, but no more I can think of at the moment.

Friday, January 25, 2013

SFF Lit Round Two

I started my SFF Lit project last year, and decided to make it an ongoing project for the blog.

Here are my criteria for literature that I established last year:

"I look for a distinct and effective writing style that uses language appropriately and creatively, a plot with a distinct structure (beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order but present) that is appropriate to the genre/topic/characters, and characters that feel like real people and who can be understood, identified with and/or emotionally reacted to."

I've also been heavily influenced by Litlove's thoughts on what is literature.

Here's my list of SFF Lit Read in 2012:

1. The Coldest War by Ian Tregellis

Tregellis' writing style is inundated with imagery and wit, and populated with dark but human characters. I'll never forget that opening sentence, "Wizards do not age gracefully," nor the terrifying Borg-Queen-esque Gretel or the well-meaning traitor Will Beauclerk. The themes of corruption and spiritual erosion and the collision of magic and technology really make this book both fascinating and original.

2. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente brings my criteria to new levels. Her vocabulary is divine and her clear aims to revolutionize and complicate children's literature make this a fable for the ages.

3. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. valente

While not as successful as the first book, the second book is equally linguistically diverse and similarly concerned with subverting and reinventing fantasy tropes.

4. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

While the plot is very typical, this one squeaks by on the strength of language and the strong development of cultures and characters in relation to their cultures.

5. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

An older book, this was defintely one of my favorites from last year and one I can't stop thinking about. The premise is frighteningly well-constructed and the protagonist is relatable, admirable, and a little unusual in her outlook and the particular obstacles she faces.

6. The Dwarves by Markus Heitz

This is really literature on the strength of its subject matter, but Heitz really digs into the too-long-neglected dwarves (though I suspect that's over in the wake of the new Hobbit movie) and creates a convincing culture for them, plus some pretty cool characters.

7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I've debated whether or not to include this, even though I liked it so much. I decided Ready Player One is original in its reliance on references and the nerd zeitgeist, though I'm sure that others will soon capitalize on that strategy.

7/20 of the SFF lit books I read in 2012 made it to the SFF Lit list. Let's see how many I can get next year!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top Ten Settings I'd Like to See More Of

I like the creativity of this week's Top Ten Tuesday as it's not something I've really thought about a lot. Unlike some people, I don't generally pick books based on setting (though I do based on historical period). A well-evoked setting, however, can really enhance a great book and even salvage a not-so-great book. So, here goes.

1. Boston

When I read The Art Forger this past year, seeing some of my former haunts in print just warmed the cockles of my heart. If I can't move back to Boston right now, at least I can read about it!

2. Chicago

I should probably learn a little more about the city I'm in now. Maybe I can visit the sights in books and then follow up in real life if they sound fun!

3. Washington D.C.

It's the city I've lived closest to most of my life and yet I read relatively few books set there. The only two I can think of in recent memory are The School of Night, which is partially set in D.C., and of course All the President's Men.

4. Baltimore

What are some great books set in Baltimore? It's my hometown and yet I can't think of anything. I should probably remedy that.

5. Candyland/Chocolate World

This is the setting that both sets of third and fourth graders I taught last summer came up with for their play. It's obviously got an ingrained popularity and yet I don't see many (adult) books set there. What about the perils of living in a home you can eat? Does everything rot? Is it magically maintained? Does anyone ever go hungry? Is everyone sick of sugar? Does anyone have teeth? Clearly, lots of potential here.

6. Israel

Ok, this is more because I've heard of a lot of great authors coming out of Israel lately and I want to read their books (a.k.a. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid and To the End of the Land are both on my TBR list).

7. Scotland

I really want to go to Scotland and especially to Edinburgh. Maybe I should find some books to stave off those cravings (or whet them further...).

8. Pluto

You know, Mars gets all the glory. I can think of so many books that take place on Mars and even one on Venus and one on one of Saturn's moons, but nothing on poor Pluto.

9. Middle Earth

Come on. You knew this was coming. I really need to get cracking on the post-Silmarillion Tolkien oeuvre.

10. Mallorea

Can't wait to finish the tour of Eddings' universe.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Angelina Jolie Particle

50. The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

I have "absolute zero" background in physics. I never even took it in high school. Yet, I've always been fascinated by how the universe works and how we came into existence (and why, but that's another matter). Like everyone else, I was excited last July to read about the discovery of the Higgs Boson, also known as "the God Particle." But what does the Higgs really represent, what does it do, and what are its implications for the origins of "life, the universe, and everything" (you know, "the whole General Mishmash)?

Sean Carroll makes it seem not only easy to understand, but positively thrilling. A physicist at Caltech, Carroll's sheer passion for his subject shines through the book. Playful chapter titles and subtitles let the reader in on the joke, such as Chapter Six entitled “Wisdom Through Smashing,” and subtitled “In which we learn how to discover new particles by colliding other particles at enormous speeds, and watching what happens.” That's how the Higgs was found; it's a particle that emerges when other particles are smashed together.

In order to explain why scientists were looking for the Higgs in the first place, Carroll guides the physics neophyte through the Standard Model of particles. The Standard Model, a way of organizing the relationships between different particles, cannot be explained without something like the Higgs Boson. One of physics' central mysteries is whether matter is composed of particles or waves. Caroll explains succinctly, “Matter is really waves, but when we look at it…we see particles.” The Higgs Boson is a wave in the Higgs field, as photons (light particles) are waves in the electromagnetic field. Unlike any other field, the Higgs exists in empty space at a nonzero energy level. All matter (even, scientists theorize, dark matter) has to travel through the Higgs field, preventing every particle from traveling at an identical speed, or in other words, giving it mass.

How does the Higgs field give mass to other particles? Well, imagine that the Higgs Boson is Angelina Jolie. If Jolie and Sean Carroll walk at the same speed from one end of an empty room to the other, they will both reach the end at the same time. However, if the experiment is repeated in a room full of people, Jolie will reach the end later. She'll be constantly stopped along the way for autographs and chitchat. In this scenario, Jolie has more “mass” than Carroll. She holds the other particles together, at least at certain points in time.

One doesn’t need to know anything about physics to comprehend Carroll’s defense of its pursuit, which takes up the first and last chapters. He actively avoids claiming any practical applications for particle physics (though he notes that there were no apparent applications for electricity or relativity either) and instead concentrates on the wonder factor. “Science,” he writes, “is the quest for awesome,” and that’s why we should care about the Higgs Boson. This is a book not for those with technical expertise, but for those interested in the awesome. Carroll invites anyone who wants to understand the mysteries of the universe-at least, so far as he does. We peer through the looking glass with him, as we hope that the Higgs is the gate to dark matter (and who knows, maybe even red).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Second Empress

49. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

I finished The Second Empress back in mid-December, but my review has been on the back-burner. Thank you to Fashionista-Piranha for the opportunity to read it. I received it as a prize in her giveaway.

Princess Maria Lucia of Austria is asked to make an impossible choice: invite war and devastation on her country and the probable loss of her father's throne OR marry the monster who has wreaked such destruction across Europe.

Meanwhile, Pauline, a woman born into poverty and now the sister of an Emperor, struggles with her unnatural affection for her brother and a debilitating illness.

Pauline's servant, Paul, cares for his mistress and pines for her love as he watches her grow ever more erratic and cruel.

All of these stories are tied together in Michelle Moran's The Second Empress, a historical novel set in the last years of Napoleon's rule in France.

I think choosing to write about Napoleon's often forgotten second wife was an inspired decision, and I was very much looking forward to this read. Maria Lucia's sections were my favorite and I think also had the most authentic voice. Both her girlish fears and her imperial composure and maturity seemed very realistic for a young woman raised in the Austrian court. However, I wish Moran had decided to focus more on Maria Lucia's story. I found Pauline and Paul both distracting and unrealistic.

Now, Pauline seemed like a very interesting person and so did Paul, but I didn't feel Moran was as effective at capturing their voices. Paul seemed impossibly self-aware and Pauline impossibly deluded about the feasibility of marrying her brother. I also simply didn't care about them as much as characters, both were difficult to sympathize with. Or rather, Paul was generically easy to sympathize with, as he puts up with everyone's behavior, and Pauline was a hysteric stereotype, if more vindictively cruel than the average hysteric.

Although Napoleon is a presence in the novel, he seems more like a ghost or a devil that haunts all the POV characters. Moran admits in her Author's Note that she has been harsh in her treatment of Napoleon, but believes it was warranted. I agree. The book is clearly impeccably researched, and I really appreciated the detailed epilogue, glossary, and historical note. However, she didn't need to include the interspersed letters between Napoleon and Josephine. While historically accurate, they didn't add much to the plot and didn't serve to humanize Napoleon, which must have been their ostensible purpose.

I didn't care particularly for Moran's writing style. She used very plain diction for all of the characters, and her sentences and dialogue tended to be unnecessarily long. There was also a painful overuse of adverbs: there are many instances where he/she says something "honestly", "patiently," "slowly,"proudly" etc.

The Second Empress reads like the bare bones of a really great historical novel. The material is there, but it's not presented to its best advantage. I'm sorry to report that I cannot add it to the list of top-quality historical novels from 2012. I do commend it, however, for not falling into the historical romance trap that has ruined so much "historical fiction" for me in the past decade.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Finds

My recent book acquisitions include a few books that have been on my mind for a year or more, as well as a few that were completely unexpected!

From Bookmooch, the online book swapping community in which I partake, I received:

The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper

I received for review from Tor:

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

For Hanukkah, my dad gave me:

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle

Looking at them together and knowing what I know of both authors, they look like a delightful juxtaposition.

Finally, I had the opportunity to visit The Book Bank in Old Town Alexandria. The used book store was impeccably organized and boasts an impressive collection both of antiques and recent releases. I was actually surprised at the quality of the latter, since I saw several books I thought people would have wanted to hold onto! They also have an excellent selection of classics, particularly lesser-known works from well-known authors.

Most exciting for me, I finally came across the final two books of the Malloreon, which I've been looking for almost a year now. And it just so happened those were the only Malloreon books they had in stock!

The Seeress of Kell by David Eddings
The Sorceress of Darshiva by David Eddings

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bookish Goals for 2013

I'm combining this week and last week's Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. I don't want to overburden myself with too many extracurricular goals just as I start my thesis for a very intensive graduate program, so this year I'm keeping it light.

Top Five Books I Resolve to Read in 2013

1. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

2. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

3. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

4. The Seeress of Kell by David Eddings

5. The Sorceress of Darshiva by David Eddings

Top Five Bookish Goals for 2013

1. Read more short stories (perhaps an easier way to get in my SFF and stay up on this year's writers).

2. Read more nonfiction (nothing too crazy, let's just see if I can beat 2012's eight).

3. Read more books translated from other languages! It shouldn't be hard to beat last year's one.

4. Post to the blog at least 5 times a month (that was my goal last year and I mostly kept it up and even surpassed it).

5. Write more "theme reviews" like my read of The Unicorn Chronicles.