The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.

Weekend Shorts: Mitosis and Nancy Drew

I’ve got two very different stories to talk about today — one a delightful interlude to tide me over until a sequel, the other a horrible travesty upon my childhood. Which to talk about first…

Mitosis, by Brandon Sanderson
MitosisOh, let’s start with the good. I like good. I like Steelheart. I like this story, which starts with our good friend David really super extremely excited about… eating a hot dog. I mean, I get that he hasn’t had one in ten years, but… a hot dog? I’d be more excited about, like, pizza, although I don’t really like Chicago-style pizza… this is not the point! Although, pizza, yum.

Anyway, there are hot dogs eaten and also we find out — spoilers if you haven’t read Steelheart yet, which, go do that now — that the Reckoners have managed to more or less reclaim Chicago, although they can’t do much about that steel everywhere, and also that David is being called “Steelslayer” and given all sorts of credit for defeating Steelheart. So of course another Epic, this one aptly called Mitosis, shows up in Chicago demanding to speak with David to find out what really happened. We learn a little bit more about the Epics and their powers and weak spots, and we get a decent setup for the upcoming Firefight, and all and all I am entertained.

The Demon of River Heights, by Stefan Petrucha
The Demon of River HeightsAaaaaaaaaaaaaah. So you may remember that ages ago I partook in a Nancy Drew Challenge in which I was going to read all of the 56 original (well, “original”) Nancy Drew books, except I only made it to 11 before I was like, I think I can predict the next 45 just fine, thanks. But I read and loved all 56 as a kid, as well as all eleven billion of the new Nancy Drews that were out in the early nineties, so I couldn’t help myself when I realized that this graphic adaptation existed in my library. Please, help yourself and avoid this!

For one, this graphic novel suffers from the all-too-common GIGANTIC BOOBS problem, with even sporty George sporting a rack larger than mine. I’m not sure the artist understands the audience for Nancy Drew stories. Secondly, it suffers from the same predictability as the original series, except with more explosions. Thirdly, it was published in 2005 and is a ridiculous time capsule of mid-aughts technology, you know, when smartphones were this crazy new thing that had yet to take over the world? So Nancy drives this hybrid car, which she keeps forgetting to put gas in, and also keeps losing cell phone reception, which, fair. But then George has this fancy not-iPad with “wifi and cell-phone dial-up” that, I shit you not, she uses to look up how to fight a bear while Nancy is FIGHTING A BEAR in the MIDDLE OF THE WOODS. So there’s that, and actually that’s just a few pages in so if you want to pick up the book just to enjoy Nancy punching a bear in the face I think that’s probably totally legit. I can only imagine what will happen in the rest of the series, because I am NOT reading any more of it. (Unless you tell me it’s awesome, then maybe.)

Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart“I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.”

I gave this book to my husband to read first, since he’s a bigger Sanderson fangirl than I am and I can trust him to tell me if a book is worth reading. He flat-out loved this book, and when he was pestering me to put it on the top of my TBR he kept waxing poetic about that first line, “I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.”

So I started reading it, and I read that first line, and I was like, all right, that’s cool, I guess. But by the end of the prologue, when our narrator repeats that line? Sold. Sold, sold, sold.

The premise of this book is that one day, people start waking up with superpowers, which is awesome, and then proceed to become supervillains called Epics, which is… less awesome. No person who gets these powers becomes a hero; all of them seem to be out to become the most badass subjugator of regular human beings. The titular subjugator, Steelheart, is the more or less benevolent dictator of Newcago, a Chicago which has turned to steel because Steelheart, you know, and is also constantly under darkness to protect another Epic called Nightwielder.

But our narrator, David, is not content to live with the status quo, not leastly because Steelheart killed his father in the prologue and should therefore prepare to die. He finagles his way into an underground (literally; much of Chicago’s population lives underground these days) resistance force called the Reckoners, who kill off minor Epics here and there and who are a little put off by David’s half-baked plan to take down Steelheart. But of course they are swayed to it, and so we get to watch the plan finish baking and culminate in an epic battle (get it?).

It’s a pretty good story, with the villains and the heros and the intrigue and the fighting, but where it is great is in the humor. The most obvious source of humor is David’s inability to craft a good metaphor, or a bad one, or really any kind of metaphor, although once he explains them to himself or others they make a weird kind of sense. But there is also the fact that these Epics end up with some really terrible names like Fortuity and Refractionary, and that one of the Reckoners has decided to embrace his Scottish ancestry even though he’s super Southern, and it’s this sort of constant background humor that really made me fall in love with this book.

I do have one complaint about the book, and this is pretty spoilery so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you haven’t read it yet. There is a hint of a completely unnecessary romance subplot throughout the book, and so when the one main female character was taken out of the equation I was disappointed that the one main female character was gone but happy that at least there wouldn’t be that lame romance subplot. But then later a thing happened and I ended up feeling exactly the opposite way, so… yeah. I am keeping my fingers crossed for no lameness in the second book, but it’s a YA novel and I hear that romance stuff sells books.

Other than that frustration, which is not an unusual one for me when it comes to YA books, I really super enjoyed reading this book. It’s fast and fun and has a great premise and I highly recommend it to anyone who needs some brain candy this winter.

Rating: 9/10

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

DivergentThis is a book that I almost read based on glowing reviews from friends when it came out, but then didn’t read based on some serious hate coming from another friend and a pile of other books to read. I’ve liked my fair share of YA dystopias, but I’ve also been extremely disappointed by others, so I wasn’t too concerned about giving this one a pass.

But then my book club picked it to read, and so I girded my reading loins for what would surely be a pretty bad book. And then I read the dang thing every spare second I had, because holy cow.

I will state up front that like many of those who dislike this book, I tend to disagree with the basic premise, which is that society has divided itself into five factions based on behavioral traits — one each for honesty, selflessness, thirst for knowledge, and kindness, and one for the incredibly nebulous notion of dauntlessness, which in practice has a mixture of daredevil-ness, bravery, and aggression that just doesn’t lend itself to an easy definition. Just picking aggression would probably have done wonders for making sense, but to Roth’s credit she uses the uncertainty in definition as a plot point, so… okay, fine.

The plot part is pretty standard — teen does not fit within boundaries of rigidly defined society, teen attempts to shrink self to fit boundaries, teen instead expands self and explodes society (sometimes literally). Nothing really new there.

But it’s the way that Roth tells the story that I find fascinating. The first person narration that bothers so many people is something I really appreciate because it keeps the story contained and lets us find out what the heck is going on right along with our narrator. And I really liked said narrator, Tris, because she’s a smart and resourceful girl who has to make a lot of tough decisions and who falls in love with just one boy at a time, thank you.

And the story builds really well, I think. It starts small, with the testing and the Divergence and the choosing, then goes into learning a lot about this strange Dauntless group, and then becomes about this big inter-faction schism and impending war. There were few if any dull moments in the book, and you probably could have kept time by my thumb tapping over to the next page on my Kindle.

If I had had the next two books available for me to read immediately after finishing this one, you can bet that I would have read them already, because even just the short preview at the end of the book I had had me clamoring for more. However, I did not, and it turns out that a little bit of absence from this book does not make the heart grow fonder. I still want to read the books, but the urgency is much less when there are newer and shinier books to occupy my time. Maybe after I see the movie (because I very much want to see the movie), I will feel compelled to devour the rest of the series?

Recommendation: Definitely worth a read, but if you’re not feeling it after the first few chapters, you should go ahead and put it down.

Rating: 9/10

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

Shining GirlsThis is a novel that I had seen all over my internets, and everyone had been really really excited about it. So when I had the opportunity to be first on the holds list for it at my library, you know I took it. And when I needed a break from the YA, time-travelling serial killers sounded like the perfect fit.

Yes, you read that right. There are two main characters whose points of view (all third-person, if you care about things like that) the story is told from, and one of them happens to be a time-travelling serial killer. It’s weirder than that, though, as said killer travels through time via a strange house that spits him out where he needs to be, and when he gets to the house the first time his list of targets and trophy stash are already in place. Because time travel.

The other main character is one of the killer’s targets, whom he has failed to kill. She’s got crazy issues, of course, and she takes on an internship at a Chicago newspaper (in 1993, so it’s not that weird!) partly to have access to the information she needs to be able to solve her own murder (her words) and possibly the murders of other young women in similar circumstances.

The narration jumps back and forth in time, as you might expect, and so we figure out what’s going on in fits and starts and with some really really interesting scenes just left in the middle of the book to frustrate you (okay, me) until they are eventually resolved. I, as you may expect, LOVE this fact.

I also really liked how the characters were written, fleshed out enough to get them through each little chapter but mysterious enough to leave me wondering about them even at the end. And I definitely cared about all of the characters, especially the victims but even a little bit the killer, who I hoped would maybe get over his batshit craziness because he seemed like… not a decent guy, maybe, but a guy who could be decent if given a house that told him to do good things, you know?

The only part of the story that I didn’t absolutely love was the end, which veered wildly off the course I had set for it and defied my expectations in good and not-good ways. There’s one piece of resolution that both makes perfect sense and no sense, and while I’m pretty sure it falls in the “good ways” camp, it’s going to take me a while to really wrap my head around it.

This is definitely one of those books where I need someone to go and read it right now and then come back and talk to me about how crazy it all is, so if you could get on that, that would be great!

Recommendation: For lovers of multi-narrator stories and stories that break your brain a little bit and people not too squicked out by violence and gore, because oh, yeah, there’s rather a bit of that.

Rating: 9/10

an RIP read

When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were StrangersIt’s a bad sign for a book when I have nothing to say about it at book club. It’s even worse when I have nothing to say about it after book club. Plenty of people at the table were all, “This book is excellent!” and, “Wasn’t this part excellent?” and I was just sitting there, eating my food, thinking, “How long ’til I can go read a better book?”

Well, okay, there’s a start. This wasn’t a bad book, not by any stretch of the imagination. The writing was good, the premise was solid, and the characters were interesting, if not sympathetic. I just… didn’t care about the book.

So there’s a girl called Irma, and she lives in BFE Italy, where her mother has always told her she must stay, or else die with strangers like all of the other people who’ve left for greener pastures. But then Irma’s mother dies, and her father gets all weird, and her aunt is sick, and everyone’s like, hey, it’s the late 1800s and therefore you should go to America, land of plenty, and send us back all the dollars. And so she goes, and she meets people along the way who are cool and not-so-cool, and she takes a crappy job and learns about how mean people can be, and other nice and horrible things happen to her, and then she American Dreams her way to a better life. Spoiler?

I’ve certainly read books like this before, books with no discernible plot other than “life happens” but that are still awesome because of the characters or the writing. But they have to have awesome characters and writing, and this book just had pretty decent characters and writing.

Others in my book club praised the historical fiction aspect of the book, which is something I’ve never really gotten into, and the sense of culture and culture shock that Irma experiences. I’m not sold. But I will praise the American Dream aspects, especially in our current non-dreamy recession time, because it’s always nice to see a person with no money and no job raise herself up with nothing but hard work and dedication. Maybe some of that will rub off on me!

So… yeah. Have any of you read this? What did you think? Can you explain what I’m missing?

Rating: 5/10

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (13 August)

-contented sigh- I love this book. You should, too. Go read it, now.

What? That’s not enough information, you say? Well. Fine.

I first read this book three years ago while in New Zealand and had to tear myself away from the pages to go hang out with people in Auckland, which is one of my favorite places in the world, so… yeah. I’d been wanting to re-read it for awhile, but I worried it wouldn’t hold up to a second reading, but then the movie was coming out and other people were reading it and I really wanted to read it again so I did! And it held up just fine.

This is a giant sappy love story about a girl called Clare who meets her future husband, Henry when she’s six and he’s thirty-six. But Henry doesn’t meet Clare until he’s twenty-eight and she is twenty. Right. Because Henry randomly travels through time, going to seemingly arbitrary wheres and whens. The story flows mostly chronologically through Clare’s life, with brief jaunts elsewhen here and there, and describes Henry and Clare’s meetings and courtship and attempts (successful and failed) to be a normal couple.

It’s really sweet and made me cry a whole bunch at three in the morning while I was finishing it, even though I knew what was going to happen, even though everyone and his brother knows what’s going to happen, which I think is a strong point of the novel. Or I’m just a big ol’ sap. Or both. You never know.

Rating: 10/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

See also:
The Soul of the Reviewer

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher (30 July − 3 August)

This is the second book of the Dresden Files series. The supernatural culprit this time is werewolves, as you might have guessed by the title. A few people show up dead, ravaged by not-quite-wolves, and Harry is called in to figure things out. He is first lead to a gang called the Streetwolves, nerdy college types who have decided to become werewolves and who are led by a not-at-all-human werewolf called Tera with a proclivity for walking around naked. He also finds a businessman who is cursed to become a wolf at the full moon and who has irked the mob boss from the previous novel. Also, a misunderstanding leads his cop friend to arrest him as an accomplice, making finding out which wolf did it a little more complicated.

Rating: 8/10

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (4 July − 6 July)

This is the first book in a series called The Dresden Files, about a wizard who investigates paranormal crimes. It was recommended to me by a librarian, and I quite enjoyed it.

The wizard is called Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, and he’s got a lot of baggage − he has killed a few people in his time, had some uncomfortable interactions with black magic, and has a pretty crappy love life. In this book, he’s out on two weird cases: in one, people are dying by having their hearts explode, and in the other, a guy who is sort of into magic disappears and his wife wants him found. The Chicago mob gets involved, and also demons, and a skull that contains a spirit who knows all about potions. It’s a little bit all over the place, but it’s totally fun. I’ve got the next book in the series lined up on my shelf.

Rating: 8/10