What I Read on My Winter Vacation

I went away for a few days.  You may or may not have missed me.

I spent a little under a week in Aruba, most of the time with a book in my hand.  It was glorious — sitting on the beach, waves crashing nearby, sun shining down, turning page after page.  Or, when I decided I’d been baking enough for the day, moving to a shadier spot, on the balcony of our room, or closer to the bar/pool area, claiming a lounge chair where the daystar’s rays couldn’t scorch me.

When packing the slew of books, I had some tough decisions to make.  See, the stack o’things to be read is ever-growing.  It’s hard to select just a few of those to come with me on a trip, since I have no idea what I’ll be in the mood for after finishing one book and getting ready to move on to another.

For example, I seem to be on a fantasy kick, but the subgenres’ll get me every time.  I’ve read a lot of … what are the kids calling it these days?  Scoundrel-lit?  Thief-lit?  Rogue-lit?  Call it what you will, I’ve found myself spending time with very many wonderful bastards these last few months — Scott Lynch’s and Joe Abercrombie’s in particular.

But I wouldn’t want to fill my carry-on with that sort of thing, only to find myself on the beach, closing the covers of one bastard novel and suddenly not ready for another just yet.  OR finding that one of the books I’d brought with me in that vein was so good that I can’t even read anything remotely like it for my next book.   That’s happened before, too.  The last book that left me stunned and stung was A Feast for Crows. I don’t think I went anywhere near fantasy for a month after that.  The one before it, I believe was The Historian. No vampire novels for a bit.  Before that, probably The Time-Traveler’s Wife — which left me so shaken and breathless that three days passed before I could seriously start another book.

Also, there needed to be a mix of how challenging the books were.  You can read all heavy novels, sure.  There are times I’ve gone long stretches doing only that, or the opposite, reading a sequence of books that didn’t require very much thought at all.  But again, why stick myself with all works of great denseness and complexity, to find myself wanting something light and no bookstores to be found?

And what about old vs. new?  While the to-be-read pile isn’t dwindling, there are always new shinies in stores omgrightnow.

So, with that in mind, I selected four books to come with, and added a fifth at the last moment.  Adding the fifth was actually a very smart move, it turned out.

The list:

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Iron Angel by Alan Campbell

The Warrior-Prophet by R. Scott Bakker

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The first three I bought in one fell swoop the Monday before we left.  I’d wandered the sf/f shelves, scanning the authors and titles, thinking “Nope, nope, nope, dunwanna, nope…” most of the way. It was one of those trips where I knew there were books there I wanted to read, authors I’ve been meaning to try, but nothing called to me.   Seemed I was working from the end of the alphabet backwards, though, and as I was starting to despair, I hit the Cs and saw Iron Angel. I can’t explain my draw to it.  Weird thing for angels as characters, I suppose, that I’ve never been able to really trace.  I read the back; it seemed interesting.  The cover art was neat.  The first sentence passed muster.  Then there was the blurb — nice things said by Scott Lynch, of the Gentlemen Bastard series.

Thus, it seeded the pile.

I found nothing in horror, and drifted over to the YA section, to see what might be there.  Life As We Knew It had come highly recommended from coworkers and booksellers alike.  Added to the pile immediately.  Then Uglies. I’ve been hearing plenty of good things about it for a long while now.  The author was on a few panels I attended at Worldcon 2004, and I liked him.  Good, okay, three books, take me home.

At home, The Warrior-Prophet was never in question.  It’s one of those books I need long stretches to dedicate to reading it, and here were six days of long stretches.  Just as we were leaving, I feared that those four might not be enough, or that I might suddenly decide I wasn’t in the mood for one of them.  So, The Name of the Wind was rescued from the top of the pile.  I stood a long while in front of my bookshelves, trying to figure out if anything else wanted to come with, if anything demanded a reread, or if a last minute genre craving might strike.  Nothing else jumped out, though, so five it was.

For the most part, I think I made some pretty good choices.  In the order they were read, here’s what I thought:

Life As We Knew It

The premise: an asteroid knocks the moon out of its orbit, pushing it closer to the Earth.  The aftermath unfolds in the pages of a high school girl’s diary.

I was drawn in pretty quickly, since the event happens just a few days after the book opens.  There are tsunamis (the book is set in rural Pennsylvania, out of the water’s reach), volcanoes, food and gas shortages, and a very long winter.  Overall, it was a good book.  My problem with it, as a matter of fact, had nothing to do with the writing or even, really, the story.  I’d say Pfeffer pretty well captured what a sixteen-year-old would be going through when her world’s coming to an end.  I’d absolutely recommend it to someone looking for a good YA book.

So what’s my gripe?  Not enough.  Not in the sense of wanting to know more about those particular characters — the Evans’ story was very complete.  I wanted to know what was going on in the rest of the world — what other natural disasters were occuring? How were people dealing with them?  There was food and gas and electricity in some places; you know this by the end of the book.  How did they get back on their feet?  How would they be rebuilding?  There’s a companion novel, The Dead and the Gone, that might address some of this.  It’s set in New York City, so the characters might be a little more connected to worldwide events than the first book’s narrator was.

Again, this is nothing at all to do with the books and everything to do with my fascination with What Happens When the World Ends.  It’s why I love The Stand so much, why I always end up rereading it.  The brief-lived Jericho handled it well.  Battlestar Galactica. Swan Song.

Would it work in a YA novel?  Sure it would.  But it wasn’t an element that made it into this one on the scale I’d’ve liked.  We did get a glimpse into some of it, the frantic rush to stock up on food and supplies in the days following, the way no one around town talked about how much food/fuel/clothing they had stored, the idea of who was Family and who was Not.  It’s there, on a small scale.  It simply left me curious as to the larger.

Then came The Warrior-Prophet. I’d read the first book, The Darkness That Comes Before, a while back.  Easy enough to slip back into the world and travel with Achamian, Esmenet, Kellhus and the Holy War on the journey to Shimeh.  I won’t say too much, for fear of spoiling, but I’ll be picking up the third book soon.

After that, I didn’t so much need a break from the heavy as I wanted to give The Warrior-Prophet time to fade a bit before moving on to more sweeping fantasy.  (Though, yes, you could say the Bakker isn’t fantasy in the same subgenre as the Rothfuss or the Campbell, but I still needed something to cleanse the palate, if you will.)

So, Uglies. Setup: when you turn sixteen, you get an operation that makes you pretty.  Your face becomes symmetrical, your eyes widened, lips made full, everything that biology says makes people look at you and want to protect you, be nice to you, like you.  The main character is almost sixteen, awaiting her operation, when she meets a girl who has decided not to go through with it.

Verdict: pretty good.  I’ll most likely be picking up the sequel, Pretties. The worldbuilding’s neat, the characters believable.  My only real gripe is that, early on, the message about what we consider beautiful and why was a little heavy-handed.  But again, a good, quick read for young adults.

And then it was almost time to go home.  I was going to start in on Iron Angel, but I’d missed one important bit on the back of the book:  it’s a follow-up.  So, looks like I need to go off in search of Scar Night before I can read this one.

Which meant it was time for The Name of the Wind. I bought it after someone, somewhere, linked to one of his blog entries.  From there, I checked out the rest of the site, including an excerpt from his debut novel.  I was sold from the first few lines and picked up the book that afternoon.

Then got distracted by other things.

So, I started it while we were waiting for the ride to the airport, and after a day of flying, I’m about halfway through.  I’m reserving judgment still.  The writing is excellent; the story has me hooked.  There’s one element to the tale-telling I’m not sure how to take just yet, though, so until I’ve finished, the jury’s staying out.  But so far, very good stuff.  From what I’ve read so far, I can see why his fans would be clamoring for him to hurry up and finish the next book.

Now I’m home, out of the sun, back to responsibility in the morning and the to-be-read pile growing once more.

Help me add to it!  What’s on your to-be-read pile?

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One Response to What I Read on My Winter Vacation

  1. Gris says:

    Let’s see… atop of the tottering pile at present…

    Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (A debut novel about demonic possession. Demons are commonplace; they are named, studied “strains” of disorder that jump into humans, cause their own brand of havoc, and jump on to the next person. The main character is unique: Del Pierce was possessed at age five, and the Hellion never left. Now at 20-something, he wants to be finally rid of his demon. Starred review from Publishers Weekly.)

    Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago (From the flyleaf: “On the first day of the new year, no one dies. This of course causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is initially celebration—flags are hung out on balconies, people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home—families are left to care for the permanently dying, life-insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots.
    Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with scythe and filing cabinets, and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small d, became human and were to fall in love?” I could say the idea grabbed me. Or I could just say I was just tickled by the word “preposthumous.”)

    The Prince of Ill Luck by Susan Dexter (I read what I discovered too late was the last book in the “Warhorse of Esdragon” trilogy quite some time ago, and adored it. The books are not a trilogy in the traditional sense– the fabled black stallion Valadan is the only linking character between them. This one is about a prince cursed with horrible bad luck who wins the hand of a duke’s daughter by solving an impossible challenge. Of course, *she* utterly despises him, and is only interested in finding her missing parents. Oh yes, and her mother is a witch, and has been missing for 15 years. A witch should be able to lift a horrible curse, right? At least, the prince thinks so, which is why he’s going to stick to the girl like a burr until they find her parents, no matter what she does to try to get rid of him….)

    The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (In 15th-century Venice, a street urchin is taken in and apprenticed by the Doge’s chef. While Luciano is learning how to chop, haul water, and eavesdrop, and pining for his unattainable love, the city is abuzz with rumors about an ancient book of powerful, secret magics. As the intrigue swirls deeper around him, Luciano beings to suspect that there is much more to his maestro than a garden of strange plants. Who can he trust, and who guards the truth? For one precocious chef’s apprentice, the fruits of knowledge may be the sweetest of all.)

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