Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fiction | The Dawning of the Ibis

For my book club last month, we read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. I haven’t written about it until now partly because I’m lazy and busy, but also partly because I’m not sure exactly what to say about it—a trend I am finding to be true more and more with my book club’s selections.

Sea of Poppies is sort of a difficult book to read. It’s the story of a ship, the Ibis, and its crew, shedding light on a particular moment in history, when British colonialism still ruled India, and the 19th-century Opium Wars were just around the corner. The crew is a mish-mosh bunch from various walks of life, all part of a society in which caste and place hold significance and left to wonder how much that matters when you’re all thrown on a ship together.

This is the first of a planned trilogy, and therefore feels more epic in stature than a standalone novel would. It can be very hard to follow from the beginning. Its structure reminded me a great deal of The Known World, also a book club pick, because many different characters are thrown at you from the beginning, and you feel like you’re rushing around to keep track of them all. The novel begins feeling more like a collection of scenes that eventually come together as a cohesive story as the characters begin to interact and overlap.

Ghosh says that inspiration for this story first came because he wanted to tell about the lives of Indian indentured workers which were inextricably linked to British colonialism. Sea of Poppies highlights the detrimental influence of this colonialism in India, and though this one is set immediately prior to the Opium Wars, opium still plays a huge role in the rise and fall of the characters. (And I believe that Ghosh’s planned sequels will get deeper into the Opium Wars.)

One reason this novel is hard to get into is because of the writing. Style and language shifts from character to character, including one character who speaks in pidgin English. It’s confusing for the reader, which I believe mirrors the confusion for the characters themselves as they are thrust in a setting and have trouble relating to each other. The longstanding divisions of race and class are broken down on the ship and a person’s future is determined by fortune’s wheel rather than their place in society. The usual rules of power and influence have been discarded. One of the characters, Captain Chillingworth, has a line that I found most descriptive of this story’s themes:

“Men do what their power permits them to do.”

I ended up liking Sea of Poppies, particularly after our discussion, but I have to be honest; it’s generally not my kind of story at all, and I doubt I would’ve liked it had I read it alone and without my book club. Call me a wimp, but I just don’t like to read about the darkness of man and how cruel people can be to each other (and this often seems to be the kind of story we read in book club). It’s just my own tastes. Regardless of the overarching theme or redeeming qualities, it’s hard for me to look past those things. Several people in my group thought this book amazing, but I just don’t have a desire to keep reading the trilogy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fiction | Ahwooo, Again

Yesterday, you read a nice guest post from Maryrose Wood, author of the Incorrigibles series, and today I’ll give you a sneak peek of the third in the series, The Unseen Guest, out next Tuesday the 27th!

After the disastrous trip to London, the three Incorrigible children—Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia—are back at Ashton Place with their trusted and beloved governess, Penelope Lumley. Their wolf side has been further tamed, and they are working hard on their lessons—currently, studying birds outside the nursery window. All is running fairly smoothly until Lord Frederick’s mother, the Widow Ashton, shows up with a suitor, the adventurous Admiral Faucet, and his ostrich that has suddenly flown the coop. Faucet enlists the help of the Incorrigibles and their superb tracking skills for a trip into the woods to find Bertha the ostrich. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and chaos ensues as Miss Lumley fears the Incorrigibles will abandon the nursery for their home in the wild.

Like the previous two Incorrigible titles, the third brings up many more questions on the past of both the Incorrigibles and their governess. But this time, we learn that Lord Frederick Ashton and his family may also play a role. Like why does Lord Frederick have itching fits around a full moon? And did his father really die a tragic, gruesome death in a tar pit?

For a children’s series, let me tell you…I certainly cannot figure out the mystery at all. Throughout the series, nothing is answered and more questions are asked, leaving me curious as to just how long Wood plans to drag this series out! These books are, without a doubt, loads of fun, but waiting a year for the next installment tests my (extreme lack of) patience! This is not a series of self-contained stories, as many children’s series are—episodic but featuring the same characters. This is like getting through a season of a television show where you’re constantly wondering what happens next. I think this series will be great for middle grade kids when all the books are released and they can absorb one after the other, but right now, I fear children would either forget the story from one book to the next or outgrow the reading level by the time the next one is released. However, I have to do a booktalk for one of my library school classes in two weeks, and I’m planning on doing it on the Incorrigibles.

And so I sit here and wait, thinking, “NEXT, PLEASE!”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Guest Post: Author Maryrose Wood

I was delighted to be approached as a potential stop on Maryrose Wood’s blog tour for installment number three of the Incorrigible Children series. I loved the first two and had already put my name in the queue on the library’s hold list for when number three, The Unseen Guest, would finally be released.

Today, enjoy a guest piece by author Maryrose Wood, but check back tomorrow for my rundown on the latest in the Incorrigibles’ adventurous saga!

“It is easier to change one’s boots than to change one’s mind, but it is far easier to change one’s mind about whether or not to wear boots than it is to change the weather.” —The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 3: The Unseen Guest

Since the publication of The Mysterious Howling, the first title in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, I’ve been asked many times about the origins of the sayings of Agatha Swanburne, which pop up frequently in the series. Did I find them in a dusty old tome in some attic somewhere? Was (or is) there an Agatha Swanburne figure in my own life? Do I spend a lot of time eating fortune cookies in hopes of finding pithy nuggets of wisdom to steal?

If only it were that simple. The above-quoted “Swanburnism,” as I’ve come to think of them, was written the way all the rest of them are: our heroine, Miss Penelope Lumley, gets in some sort of predicament, and I, her author, push my chair back from the desk, scratch my head and think, hmm! What specific advice does my plucky young friend need to get out of this jam? It’s the fiction writing process in miniature: we chase our characters up a tree, set a bunch of hungry lions loose around the bottom, and then try to figure out what happens next.

The Swanburnism above is from the first chapter of The Unseen Guest (in stores March 27th). In the scene, Penelope has rather impulsively made a rule, which turns out not to work quite as well as she had hoped. Should she stick to her guns regardless, to avoid looking foolish? Add a slew of new rules to mitigate the untended consequences of the first one? Or should she admit her mistake, learn from it, and start over?

Naturally, she relies on the wisdom of Agatha Swanburne to help her figure out what to do. The adage she recalls is meant to capture the complex nature of making decisions in changing circumstances. One might have many excellent reasons to wear shoes instead of boots, but if it starts to rain, it’s time to rethink your decision—and your footwear. With the help of Agatha Swanburne’s advice, Penelope does exactly that. She scuttles her original plan, sets a new course and leads her young charges into a fresh adventure.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like Penelope’s? If so, how did you handle it?

(On March 21, the Incorrigible blog tour continues with another Swanburnism discussed, this time at www.readnowsleeplater.com. Please drop by and leave a comment.)

Maryrose Wood is the author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series for middle-grade readers. You can find her online at www.maryrosewood.com, and on Twitter at @Maryrose_Wood.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A PLA Conference Recap

Part of my job in publishing is attending book industry conferences, which can be both incredibly exhilarating incredibly and exhausting. This week, the Public Library Association had its biennial conference in Philadelphia, which was easy travel—only a short train ride away. I was particularly excited to attend PLA because the public library is my intended area of work once I finish my MLS degree!

Conferences are great when you work in publishing because A) it’s a nice change of pace from sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day [the worst!!!] and B) you get to chat with the people who actually use your product and it’s nice to hear what is working and what isn’t. Of course, the thing that stinks for me as an exhibitor, at this conference in particular, is that I’m stuck in a booth all day when I want to attend the sessions and book signings and absorb it all.

However, I did randomly run into a former colleague from the library I used to work at during high school—the job that cemented my future in libraries in the first place. And in the exhibits’ closing hours, I did manage to rack up a small collection of some solid books, which is always a plus. But just as a helpful hint, booth representatives from certain major trade publishers: just because I’m wearing an “Exhibitor” badge is no reason to be a jerk to me; we’re not even competitors, and I STILL LIKE TO READ AND MAY BUY YOUR BOOKS.

My swag includes:

  • Rez Life by David Treuer—a recent recommendation from Jill that I happily stumbled upon; and this booth rep was lovely, fyi
  • The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis—because any book with the word Tennessee in the title immediately interests me
  • Heft by Liz Moore—someone I know through Tumblr and was happy to stumble upon her book
  • Barnheart by Jenna Woginrich—recommended by the Workman rep who was super nice once I showed interest in an awesome book I will buy called Farm Anatomy that is like an illustrated guide to rural living; he told me the author lived in Brooklyn and decided to move and live on a farm, and I do live in Brooklyn and dream of moving to live on a farm

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fiction | Revolutions of the Personal and National Kind

I picked up Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly at BEA a couple years ago, and it’s been sitting on my shelf since. It’s made it through the occasional shelf weeding, because I’ve always thought the premise sounded ok and if I ever needed an easy YA read, this is where I’d go. And that time had finally come!

Revolution is about a moody troubled teen, Andi, living in Brooklyn. Her 8-year-old brother tragically died the previous year (though we don’t know how for quite some time), her mom has gone a little crazy with grief, and her dad is off somewhere being a famous geneticist. It’s her senior year, and with the way she’s heading, she’s probably not going to get to graduate. She doesn’t do her work; she’s not working on her senior thesis; she just doesn’t care about any of it. The only thing she does care about is music lessons, and she’s an extremely talented guitarist.

When Christmas vacation rolls around, Andi’s dad drags her to Paris where he is working on a special project to prove whether or not a tiny, preserved heart (eww, I know) was that of Louis Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who was imprisoned by Revolutionists until his death. In Paris, Andi finds an old guitar and journal belonging to a girl named Alexandrine who lived during the Revolution and was closely tied to Louis Charles. Andi becomes obsessed with the journal and begins a quest to find out how it all ended while coming to terms with her own tragedies and future.

I really did like this book, and I’m glad I’d never weeded it off my shelf! I loved the historical story; it was almost like a scavenger hunt that we, the reader, got to play alongside Andi as she made new discoveries. But there’s one thing…and maybe this is just intrinsic to the written word format…but teenage emotions just sound so whiny on paper. I was thinking the whole time that if this was a movie, the subtlety of expression and staging of the scene would convey a mood without any words needing to be uttered, but because it’s on paper, all of that is described and it just makes me roll my eyes and say, “Oh boy, here comes the flood of emo.” I honestly don’t think there’s a solution, and maybe it’s just me—cinematography has somewhat ruined descriptive language for me. And it’s certainly not an issue unique to this book (so don’t be turned off by my rambling!), but I just especially noticed it.

On a coincidental side note, a few days after I finished this, Marie Antoinette popped up on my Netflix queue, and I love that movie. It is just so stylistically beautiful yet apparently slightly controversial in its portrayal of Marie Antoinette. And both of the trailers featuring New Order were perfection.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March 1 (ok, 5th): Next On the List

Ok, so I’m a few days late with the beginning of the month update, and that is just representative of my February and March so far. February was a pretty pathetic reading month for me. I finished a whopping two books, which is pathetic considering I have more time than usual to read as I haul 75 minutes to and from class twice a week.

W    H    A    T        I    ‘    M        R    E    A    D    I    N    G
I’ve officially given up on Jonathan Raban’s essay collection, Driving Home. I got up to page 180 or so and was intending to read and post on it in stages. I reached a stopping point so I could read Sea of Poppies for book club, and as you can see, I still have not written about that first chunk of Driving Home (or Sea of Poppies, for that matter). Once I tried to get back into it and write about the first part, I couldn’t even remember anything significant, and it was just looming as something I thought I should read but wasn’t really enjoying. And I think this ended up holding me back for a lot of last month. Overall, this book was just not what I expected. A couple of the essays were really good, particularly one about Mark Twain, but the rest were not a journey of America, per say. They felt more like literary analysis of various authors, some of them not even American! In a nutshell, I was looking for a road trip, and this was not one. Oh well.
The other pitiful part of February is that I’ve been reading the same two books for 2-3 weeks. I don’t usually read more than one book at once, because my brain can’t focus in depth on more than one story. I’ve been reading the new graphic novel Marzi by Marzen Sowa since before Valentine’s Day. I really like it, but this is something I’d usually breeze through in a weekend. When I didn’t finish it one weekend, I needed a novel to read, because I didn’t want to carry the large graphic novel in my purse, so I started West of Here by Jonathan Evison, which is a chunkster. It’s almost 500 pages, so it’s just taking a while for that reason. Plus, I don’t really like any of the characters too much. The ones in the present day sections are just so miserable, and I hate reading about miserable people. It puts me in a miserable mood. So perhaps this is also why I’m not flying through it. Add to this the numerous children’s books I have to read each week for class, and my leisurely reading is just subpar right now.
W    H    A    T    ‘    S        C    O    M    I    N    G        N    E    X    T
This week…THIS WEEK…I will finish BOTH of these books! On the coming agenda, I have a couple things:
  • The Go-Between by I. P. Hartley, finally another NYRB classic for my next book club meeting. The meeting isn’t until the 22nd, so I’ve got a bit of time.
  • The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood, the third in the Incorrigible Children series. I was so excited to receive an advanced copy for an author tour which will happen later this month!
  • Lions of the West by Robert Morgan is still on my agenda…I just have to get through these two books first!
Did you know that this month is the Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia? I am attending for work, but I’m especially excited since the public library is the realm I intend on entering once I finish my MLS program. (And I am also very excited for the cheesesteaks.) You know what conferences mean…NEW BOOKS. I only hope to duplicate my awesome book score from ALA in January!
Happy March!