All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater (audio)

From GoodReads: Here is a thing everyone wants: a miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: what it takes to get one.

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

Thoughts:

– While I loved the Raven Cycle by Stiefvater, I’ve had mixed experiences with her other books. Therefore, I didn’t know if this would be one of the good reads or not-so-good reads. I didn’t buy the book, but waited to get it from the library. Only then the library was taking too long, so I decided to change the audiobook from Audible. If it didn’t work out, I could always return it. Long story short: It worked out. I loved it. I will definitely need to get a physical copy for my shelves at some point.

– Back in 2009, I read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. It was my first experience with very experimental magical realism, and I absolutely loved the book. I spent years reading other books billed as magical realism but they never had the same absurdist, hyperbolic feel to them. This book? It was like Like Water for Chocolate in its feel and texture. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that I would compare to Laura Esquivel.

– There’s a section of this book that takes place in San Antonio. Some authors make up things about a city when they set part of a book there. Some do research and find specifics from that city. Stiefvater fell into the latter category. Not only did I see touchstones that anyone who has ever heard of San Antonio could toss into a book, but I felt nuances about the city that would only come with some true deep research. Thumbs up.

– The actual plot/story of this book could have fit into a handful of pages. This might sound like a bad thing, but it isn’t. The plot isn’t the point. The point is the meandering expression of many, many stories and all the ways they relate, even if only tangentially. Imagine sitting down with an oral storyteller and having them relate a story. While they tell it, they go off on tangents about the backgrounds of all the characters. They tell anecdotes about side characters’ adventures both present and past. They personify animals and inanimate objects. They’re in no hurry to get to the end of the actual story but they always come back to it from time to time. It’s a glorious experience.

– Family. I don’t have a physical copy in front of me, so I can’t find the exact quote, but near the beginning of the book, it says something about “cousin” meaning something more for this family than in most families. That’s exactly how my family is – all tightly wound and close to each other, cousins growing up together. I know that’s not how every family is, but as I was growing up, I thought that it was. I related to the Soria family in this way from the very first scene, and I was amused every time someone’s father’s cousin’s ex-wife’s sister’s hairdresser’s uncle popped up to give advice in the past that had somehow rippled into legend.

– This book is all about hyperbole. There’s magic in the book – saints performing miracles – but the magic is almost metaphorical. If that were all the fantastical elements in the book, it wouldn’t be nearly as charming. It’s the narration and retelling of stories in such an exaggerated, unrealistic, magic way that really makes the book. Again, I don’t have a physical copy, but I remember a story about a character’s father. This father, at birth, was the weakest of his eight siblings, but he began lifting weights when he was five, and by the time he was fifteen, he could lift all eight of his siblings at the same time. Or there was the statement that was dropped right at the beginning about how a particular character’s parents had been dead for longer than he had been alive. Think about that a second. These sorts of stories and statements were dropped with complete casual unconcern, like statements of fact. It was utterly delightful.

– And this leads me to discuss the audio performance, read by Thom Rivera. He was perfect. He read all those casual hyperboles in a complete straight manner. He read the narration like an old fairytale or folk tale. In his reading, the narrator was a character just as distinct and real as any of the actual characters. I don’t know what my experience would have been like had a read the book in print first. I just know that the audio turned what I would say is a really great book into a phenomenal one.

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Sunday Coffee – Life in Photos

I tire of those memes that show up talking about how we’re all addicted to phones and so we’re not actually paying attention to the world around us. Looking at our phones does not mean we’re not engaging in the world. Maybe Jason and I will both look at something on our phones together while out on a date, some interest that we both want to research and discuss. Maybe we chat to each other via text while on different floors of the house because we’re both multitasking in order to make time for a movie or a game with the kids later on. Maybe my friends and I are all looking up pictures of our pets to share, or funny comics about a mutual book we love and want to share with each other. Staring at a phone does not equal not paying attention or not engaging. It’s just a tool for a different form of engagement.

Same goes for taking photos and videos. I love that my phone has a great camera on it. I’ve always been a photo-oriented picture. Long before digital photos were a thing, I managed to take 25 rolls of film’s worth of photos while on a six-week study abroad program. Did I always have my camera on hand, often staring through a screen at the things around me? Sure! Does that mean I experienced the trip less? Hell. No. In fact, having roughly 600 photos from that trip reminds me of all the things that I would have forgotten without the physical reminder. And now, with a digital camera phone, I can take as many pictures as I want without worrying about wasting film and having to develop the photos. I have thousands of memories to call up in clear detail at the touch of a button, and that is a lovely thing.

Back in 2013, I scanned and digitized all my physical photos. It was a massive project that took months and – again – was totally worth it. I set my photo library to be my screensaver and to have my favorite pictures rotate on my desktop. In 2015, I KonMari-ed my digital photo collection, paring it down to 6000 or so. (Think that’s a lot? I started around 15,000. Conservative estimate.) And this fall, I’ve launched another photo-related project to help me (and my family) get even more enjoyment out of these thousands of memories. I uploaded the photos onto a shared icloud photo album, and set them to randomize as my TV’s screensaver. It has been so fun to see my boys’ eyes light up when they see certain pictures and to ask for the stories behind them. Guests have been entranced when over for birthday parties, dinners, and gatherings. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the words, “Oh I remember that!”

And thus the naysayers can continue to grouch about phones and pictures and all the rest. We’ll keep our joy regardless.

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City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett (audio)

From GoodReads: The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now, Bulikov’s history has been censored and erased, its citizens subjugated. But the surreal landscape of the city itself, forever altered by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it, stands as a haunting reminder of its former supremacy. 

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched — along with her terrifying “secretary,” Sigrud — to solve a murder.  

But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem, and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

City of Stairs is the first book in a trilogy of cross-genre fantasy thriller/spy novels. I only heard about the series recently, from Michelle at That’s What She Read. The plot description was a maybe for me, so I went ahead and checked the book out from the library for further investigation. A few chapters in, and I went ahead and got the audiobook on Audible. The audiobook is 18 hours long – but once I began listening, I did so nearly nonstop for two days.

There is a lot packed into the book: slavery and revolt, the nature of divinity in relation to its believers, the importance of unedited history, discrimination against whole races of people, the motivations of humanity. You can read very deeply into the book for many philosophical discussions. Or you can read the book simply for the plot, which is full of action and twists and crazy things happening, both magical and not. The cross-genre aspect is fantastic, making the book part fantasy, part spy-thriller or detective novel, part literary philosophy. Since I enjoy all three of these, it was awesome to see them all working in tandem. I’d encourage people who like any of these genres to give the book a try, as it’s not too heavily laden on any particular genre, and can be read on multiple levels.

As for the writing, I was very impressed. The world-building and cultures and history are intricately planned and detailed (sometimes almost too much so, in places). The characters feel real and rounded and definitely not perfect, which you find too often in fantasy, but also not completely unlikable (too often found in thrillers). The pacing was very good, except in those few places where too much history/etc was given all at once. The conclusions to all the mini-stories within were satisfactory, and the book could definitely be read as a standalone if you don’t want to move to the next book. However, there’s enough setup for the next book to be lured in, and this combination of not-too-much-not-too-little is one I really appreciate. I don’t know if I’ll read on immediately – I might need some more brain time with Book 1 before moving to the second – but I will definitely be reading on.

Performance: The audiobook was read by Alma Cuervo, my first experience with her as a narrator. I loved the way she did all the voices. Each person was fairly unique in their speech and I could usually tell who was speaking even in long sets of dialogue with many speakers. My only complaint had to do with the recording, which seemed to pick up lots of swallowing and mouth-clicks. I don’t know if that’s due to the narrator, or something to do with the the edit of the recording. Either way, it made the performance a little less enjoyable, though I still plan to continue the series on audio because I liked the rest of the performance a lot.

Posted in 2017, Adult, Prose | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Wellness Wednesday – Eighteen Years

My oldest son turns 17 today (happy birthday, Morrigan!), which means that I’ve spent nearly 18 years as a mother (including pregnancy time). You learn a lot about yourself and about motherhood in that number of years. Here are a few that have been personally on my mind a lot lately.

Fat-shaming is common and accepted during pregnancy, even from medical professionals.
When I got pregnant with Morrigan, I weighed around 135 lbs – a perfectly normal, healthy weight for my height. I seemed to gain at the ideal rate throughout my first two trimesters, then suddenly began gaining tons of weight in the third. I wasn’t eating more or anything, just gaining more. One week, I gained six lbs or so between visits, and the nurse who weighed me then raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Been hitting the Ben & Jerry’s this week?” This is just one of many instances of other people commenting on my body – often in the negative – during this time. I can’t even enumerate how many other comments came my way over the course of my three pregnancies. It’s like having a baby in your uterus opens the floodgates to people saying whatever the hell they want to you.

Every body deals with pregnancy and the post-natal time differently.
As I said, I gained vast amounts of weight in my third trimester. Because of all the various medical professionals telling me that this was my own fault, I decided I had to “do better” in my second pregnancy. I once again gained ideally in the first two trimesters, only to gain massive weight in the third. By the time I got to my third pregnancy, I ignored all the advice. I didn’t gain a pound during the first two trimesters, so when I gained tons in the third, I actually had an ideal gain for the pregnancy. The same rules applied to labor and delivery (No, you don’t want me to wait until my contractions are five minutes apart because they’re four minutes long each and will never get that close) and post-natal weight issues (doesn’t matter how much I diet and exercise after birth, my body will not budge up or down until I hit some magical marker around 10 months post-delivery).

Not everyone enjoys being pregnant.
I hated every second of all three pregnancies. There was not one positive thing. And other than sciatica, I had relatively easy pregnancies – no morning sickness, no anemia, no major swelling, etc. And still, I hated every second. I hated trying to nurse my kids afterwards and gave that up fairly quickly, too. The sooner I could get back my body’s autonomy, the happier I was. I’m just not the pregnancy-loving type. And that’s okay.

Not everyone enjoys being a parent.
No, I don’t particularly enjoy being a parent. Sure, there are good times, and I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of my kids. I love them to pieces and treasure the memories we’ve created over the years. Not enjoying parenthood has nothing to do with whether or not you love your kids. This is something that our culture frowns upon. We don’t talk about it. People assume that if you don’t like parenthood, it means that you don’t like your kids or that you neglect your kids or that in some way you’re doing your parenting job wrong. Not true. For further discussion of this, I redirect you to Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, which explains far better than I could the paradox here.

Not everyone wants to be a parent, including those who have chosen not to have kids and those who had kids anyway.
I love kids. Kids of all ages. I enjoy spending time with them. And I like giving them back to their parents afterwards. This is something I didn’t understand about myself when I got married and began having kids at age 20. Back then, I just knew I loved kids, and having spent a giant chunk of time essentially acting as a parent for my three younger siblings, I also figured I had a leg up on the parenting thing. But I was wrong on all accounts, and have since discovered that I’m one of those people who would have preferred lots of nieces and nephews rather than children of my own. (Ironically, my husband wasn’t sure he wanted kids, and then discovered that he loved being a parent…) Again, this doesn’t make me a bad parent – I love and nurture my kids, and do the best I can for them – and this is another taboo that I’d love to address in our culture.

Anyway. Those are some thoughts on this 17th birthday of Morrigan’s. Would I have done things differently, had I known myself better? Probably. Does it matter? No. I love and celebrate my son anyway.

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The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

Naomi is known as the “child finder” because she specializes in locating missing children. She has a connection with those children, because she was once a lost child herself. The time before she was found is a blank, though – completely wiped clean of trauma. Only now, she’s investigating the case of a girl lost three years ago in the Oregon mountains, and the particulars of the case are sparking her memory.

What this book is: an exploration of the psychology of a lost and abused child, both during and after their captivity. It’s gruesome and detailed, and involves things such as child sexual abuse, so be forewarned if that’s triggering for you.

What this book isn’t: clear-cut. Not every question has an answer. Not every connection has logic behind it. Not every bad person is fully bad, or good person fully good. Not every missing child is found alive, and not every missing child found alive is whole again afterwards.

My personal feelings: While this was a very, very good book, I regret reading it in some ways. Every day I’m bombarded with stories about the horrors going on in our country and around the world. To read more gruesome tales – even ones tempered by survival and the creative dissociations of a child – made me feel awful. I get it – these kinds of tales are awful, necessarily so if they’re to be realistic at all. Right now, though, I guess I don’t feel like I need more realism. I don’t need to feel any more hopeless than I already do. It was the right book, read at the wrong time, if that makes sense.

I wouldn’t want to turn anyone away from it. It was an excellent book. I wish I could elaborate more on what made it particularly excellent, but to do so would involve major spoilers. In the general, it goes back to my “what this book isn’t” section. There’s so much ambiguity and morally-grey territory, no quick fixes or easy answers. That’s what makes it so good. But it’s also what makes it so grim, so if you’re feeling like me about the world right now – hopeless and particularly vulnerable – perhaps this is one to wait until sometime in the future.

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Sunday Coffee – Disturbing Themes

For the last month, I’ve been skim-reading thrillers. Not reading them enough to review them here, but kinda speeding through them when my brain needs something fast and furious to swallow down. Frankly, I’ve been disturbed by a lot of what I’ve found in them, and not by the gore or violence. I’m appalled by the number of books playing off a particular disturbing trope: a woman has been assaulted and/or abused, only to be revealed in the last chapter or two that nope, she’s been faking it this whole time in order to manipulate, drum up sympathy, or get away with murder! This is too commonplace, and often written by female authors – I don’t get it!

The proliferation of this kind of crap in fiction does not help anything. Yes, it’s fiction, but how often – in real life – are female assault/abuse victims accused of making it up, exaggerating, or otherwise falsifying their claims? Way too often. I’m not saying this kind of thing never happens, but the instance of it is a tiny minority compared to the number of victims out there. Fiction is capitalizing on this minority, often for shock-value alone, and spreading the idea that falsified claims are more the norm than actual assault and abuse. No. No no no.

I really don’t get it. I know authors need to make a living. I understand that. But throwing victims under the bus in order to shock-value your way into more money? I’m not okay with that. And if that’s not what they’re doing – if all these authors, many of them female, believe that what they’re writing is totally plausible and commonplace – then that’s another nail in the coffins of What’s Wrong With Our Society and Why Rape Culture Thrives.

I don’t want to read any more of these. Perhaps I’ll have to start reading the last few chapters of these kinds of books before I read the beginning. I’d rather deal with spoilers than the rage that comes along with enjoying a book until an unnecessary disturbing twist.

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The Call, by Peadar O’Guilin (audio)

It’s been twenty-five years since the Sidhe began their revenge on the Irish. They were banished thousands of years ago, and now they plot to exterminate the population of the island. No one can get in or out of Ireland. There is no internet, no radio, no supplies. And every day, across the nation, teenagers are “called” into the grey land of the Sidhe, to be hunted and toyed with for a day. Some survive, returning to the place they disappeared from in the human world only three minutes after the disappearance. Most return dead, often grossly changed.

Nessa is fourteen. Her legs were twisted by polio, but she’s determined to survive her Call anyway. She trains relentlessly at her survival academy, but the enemy is getting closer, and not all enemies are the ones waiting for her in the Sidhe world.

This is one creepy book. The world Nessa lives in is terrifying. There’s no way to escape. This isn’t like a YA dystopia where the characters are going to somehow overthrow their oppressors. These characters’ oppressors are a magical race from another world who live by entirely different rules, and the only thing known about them is the scraps brought back by the few who survive the Call.

O’Guilin takes us through many characters’ trips through the Sidhe world. They are grim and mostly-deadly. The teens have all sorts of reactions – some give up immediately, some are overcome with panic, some had managed to not really believe it would happen to them despite knowing it would. O’Guilin doesn’t shy from gore or death. The characters who survive do so by sheer luck, despite their training. Most do not.

And then there’s the psychological damage sustained by a people who first have to train for survival from the age of ten, then watch most of their classmates die anyway, then spend a day in the horrors of the Sidhe world. Or the psychology of the adults who never experienced the Call but must study and train children to hide, hunt, and kill. Or the psychology of the survivors, who often come back with physical deformities, and always with mental and emotional scars, and who are then encouraged to have as many kids as possible to bolster the dwindling population. O’Guilin explores these all in alternating sections from many points of view, turning everyone’s motives into something grey and uncomfortably without reference to any kind of right or wrong. Because when it comes down to it, and survival is the only thing you’re fighting for, everything else is off the table. Philosophy in action, and all that.

It was a very good book, made even better by the audio production. I’ll be honest – I don’t often read books about Ireland or fairies. Neither one usually  interests me much. I wouldn’t have picked this one out of the library if I’d seen it. It came up via Audible sometime this summer, though, and the narrator (Amy Shiels) is one of my favorites. She absolutely made this book for me. The Call is creepy and well-written and fast-paced on its own, but on audio, it was even better. I highly recommend it.

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