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A More Diverse Universe: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image of The Hundred Thousand KingdomsBook bloggers were the ones who put The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit Books, 2010) on my radar, so reading it for the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour seemed like the perfect reason to move it to the top of the TBR list.

First in a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms lays the foundation for an overarching story but also has a satisfying completeness in itself. It took me a little while to get hooked, but about halfway through, I realized why so many readers liked this book so much.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, as you might guess from the title, mentions multiple countries in the course of the story, all under the rule of the Arameri family of Amn, in the palace of Sky, in the city of Sky. The story is set many years after the Gods’ War, when one of three powerful gods vanquished the other two and the world changed for the humans living under the sway of the pale-skinned Arameri, who wield the power of the one remaining god, the Skyfather, also known as Bright Itempas.

Yeine, the main character and narrator of the story, is a nineteen-year-old warrior chieftain from the forested country of Darr, the child of a Darren father and an Amn mother, who was the exiled daughter of the ruling Arameri family. Yeine describes herself near the beginning of the book as “short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.” When she is thrust into the thick of palace intrigue and succession squabbling right at the start of the book, no one is more surprised than she is.

It doesn’t take Yeine long to get her bearings. It took me a lot longer, what with all the skillful world-building going on and the backstory of world mythology that was common knowledge to Yeine but had to be told to the reader. (I’ve never been good at geography. Or mythology, for that matter. All those gods and who does what…) Themes of race, gender, slavery, wealth, power, and religion thread through the book, but are never allowed to take over. The strong plot and the ultimate bad boy love interest move the story along quickly, once the story gets going and as Yeine starts to understand more.

I haven’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy to compare The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to, so I’m not the best reviewer of this book, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms won the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel, so judges who are very familiar with the genre have recognized its merit. Readers looking for a fantasy with a strong female main character and detailed world-building should definitely give it a try.

Read the first chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms here.

View the complete schedule for A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour hosted by Aarti at BookLust.

When Mama Ain’t Happy…(You Know the Rest): Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Cover image of Happier at HomeAn enjoyable follow-up to The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling memoir about her year of researching theories and following advice from happiness experts), Happier at Home is about Gretchen’s second happiness project – this time focusing on family and home life over the course of a school year. Kind of like a five-year status update, Happier at Home is the author’s book-length response to questions about what difference her year-long happiness project really made in her life and a continuation of her research into ways to feel happier and more appreciative of the many good things in her life.

She emphasizes in both books that her reason for pursuing these happiness projects isn’t that she’s unhappy, but that she wants to be more mindful of her good fortune on a daily basis and more consciously happy, not every moment like some kind of whacked-out Pollyanna, but over all. Some of her resolutions aimed at boosting her happiness at home require inconvenient effort or the tackling of unpleasant chores, but they contribute to her having a happier life in the long run – like knowing you will feel better after exercise, even if you don’t enjoy the exercising itself. She also stresses that the happiness project idea isn’t going to be helpful in cases of actual depression or overwhelmingly difficult situations; it’s for people who, like herself, are happy enough, but could become happier with some adjustments to the way they do things or view themselves.

One important lesson from my first happiness project was to recognize how happy I already am. As life goes wheeling along, I find it too easy to take my everyday happiness for granted, and to forget what really matters. I’ve long been haunted by a remark by the writer Colette: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I didn’t want to look back, at the end of my life or after some great catastrophe, and think, “Then we were so happy, if only we’d realized it.” I had everything I could wish for; I wanted to make my home happier by appreciating how much happiness was already there.”

I read The Happiness Project as a memoir, a stunt memoir along the lines of A. J. Jacobs‘ books or Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, where the author does something wacky or difficult for a period of time and writes about it. I don’t read many self-help books because I know I’m not ready to change anything major about myself or the way I do things, but I kept thinking of anecdotes from The Happiness Project even months after reading it, so it made an impression on me. Although the author’s books and blog may inspire readers to start their own happiness projects, the books aren’t really self-help but the author’s personal story. What makes each person happy is so individual that each happiness project has to be designed individually by the person embarking on it. Reading Happier at Home, I enjoyed learning about how she tweaked her original project, acknowledged herself to be a homebody at heart, and concentrated her efforts on creating a happier home and family life through changes in her own behavior, schedule, outlook, etc..

The author does talk a lot about herself, which I guess some reviewers found annoying in her first book, but it makes sense that she discusses her own thoughts and motivations, and uses them as examples in her book, since she can’t make resolutions for anyone but herself (although she admits that – like most wives and mothers – she would like to.) I also think she was trying not to reveal details of her life that would infringe on the privacy of her husband and two daughters. (Thankfully, she avoids the cringe-inducing over-sharing of Julie Powell’s second stunt memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, for which she apprenticed herself to a butcher and revealed intimate details about her marriage and extramarital affair that must have made her husband squirm.)

Although it stands on its own, Happier at Home is best read as a follow-up to The Happiness Project. I would recommend The Happiness Project and Happier at Home to readers who enjoy memoirs of research projects with a touch of whimsy – like Drop Dead Healthy by A. J. Jacobs, Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, or A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Read an excerpt of Happier at Home here.

Enter each day over the next couple of weeks to win a copy of Happier at Home from the author’s Happiness Project page.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Happier at Home signed by the author from HarperCollins during Book Expo America.

Happier at Home
Rubin, Gretchen
Crown, Sept. 4, 2012
978-0-37-88878-1
$26.00 U.S., $31.00 (Can)

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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Zombies All Around: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry (Audio)

Here’s one to recommend to guys who steer clear of the young adult books because of all the girls dressed in long, flowing gowns on them (as observed by Stephanie at Read in a Single Sitting).
Rot & Ruin, the first YA book by horror author Jonathan Maberry is set in a near-future dystopia. Familiar, yes, but this YA dystopian novel has ZOMBIES. Plus, none of this killing somebody only by accident because you aren’t the kind of person who can kill somebody even when you’re fighting for your very life. Rot & Ruin has real fighting, with swords, guns, knives, rocks, and pitchforks (if necessary). There is dismemberment and worse in this human coming-of-age story, but also a flinty romance and a family reconciliation. So it’s not all body parts and zombies!
Fifteen-year-old Benny Imura and his friends – Nix, Chong, and Morgie – are normal teens growing up in the town of Mountainside, needing after-school jobs. Benny is regretting his vow to Chong not to date within their crew, now that he’s been seeing Nix (the only girl) with new eyes and knows that Morgie didn’t make the same vow. Normal teen stuff, except that if Benny and his friends don’t find jobs after turning fifteen, their food rations get cut in half. Also, their job options include fence tester, carpet coat salesman, and zombie spotter (excellent vision required).
As Benny eventually realizes, the “town” he’s always known is really just a frightened band of humans who fenced themselves in after the zombie apocalypse known as First Night – tightly rationing resources ever since, living in fear of the hungry zombie hordes beyond the fence, in the no-man’s land known as the Rot and Ruin.
The Recorded Books audio version of Rot & Ruin, narrated by Brian Hutchison, was hard to get through my library, but I recommend reading this one instead of listening to it, anyway. With the audio, I noticed lo-o-ong stretches of other characters’ explaining things to Benny, filling him (and us) in on the backstory. I think if I had been reading instead of listening, these long breaks in the action wouldn’t have stuck out so much. Also, the narration on the audiobook sounds very adult, not like a fifteen-year-old boy, as The Guilded Earlobe points out.
Recommend this one to teens looking for something to read while waiting for the next in The Ranger’s Apprentice series, or for something after The Hunger Games trilogy, if they’re not afraid of zombies. There’s action, adventure, a reluctant romance, and…a sequel! (Dust and Decay)

Other opinions on Rot & Ruin (mostly good):
The Guilded Earlobe
Milk and Cookies
Paperback Dolls

We Need to Talk About Daniel: The Good Father by Noah Hawley

In the first two pages of The Good Father, a novel in the form of a father’s memoir by Noah Hawley, Dr. Paul Allen summarizes, as if for a case study, the activities of his twenty-year-old son Daniel in the months prior to the shooting death that is the catalyst for this book. Over the rest of the book, he attempts to make sense of the shocking crime Daniel is accused of committing.
A rheumatologist, Paul thinks of himself as a “medical detective” – the clinician who is called in to review test results, scans, and every detail of a patient’s symptoms when a diagnosis remains elusive, and who puts the pieces of the diagnostic puzzle together. So he painstakingly reconstructs the chain of events in Daniel’s history, tries to uncover symptoms (anger? depression? neurological disorder?) that he missed, busy as he was with his own career and new family. What part of Daniel’s upbringing or psyche put him on the path to being accused of the assassination of a beloved politician? How much should Paul blame himself, for divorcing Daniel’s mother and moving to New York when Daniel was only 7, leaving him to fly for so many years – an unaccompanied minor – back and forth between him on the East Coast and his ex-wife Ellen on the West Coast?
Paul throws himself fully into his son’s defense, hiring a high-powered attorney and trying to understand the person that his son has become – a lone gunman, a drifter who calls himself Carter Allen Cash and who is seen as some sort of monster. He pores over investigative reports and witness statements, imagining scenarios and reconstructing the events of his son’s life that led him to that watershed moment when he was caught on video holding the gun.
Though not as explosively as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (which was from the point of view of a mother whose child committed a heinous crime), The Good Father builds up tension steadily as details are uncovered and facts are revealed; a psychological profile of Daniel as a directionless young adult emerges. Paul’s obsession with proving his son’s (and, correspondingly, his own) innocence starts to jeopardize life with his new family – wife Fran and their twin 10-year-old sons, Alex and Wally, who are now the bewildered half-brothers of an accused murderer.
Career-driven and sure of himself, Paul is not an entirely sympathetic character at first. He is arrogant and imperious with his son’s arresting officers, confident that he can fix things for his son. But these hard edges quickly erode, and, except for one scene in a men’s room that reminded me of The X-Files, The Good Father is a pretty realistic portrayal of a father might react to the implosion of his son’s life and the derailment of his own. (Remember Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files? He has a book out. Or, I should say, the actor who played him on TV does.)
The fourth novel by Noah Hawley, who is also a screenwriter and producer, The Good Father will be released in March 2012.

Other Opinions (Mostly Good)
The Coffee Lover’s Blog
For the Love of Books

The White Rhino Report

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from Doubleday, a division of Random House, through NetGalley.

Dark Humor with a Twist: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth in a sequence of quirky, quasi-mystery novels by English author Kate Atkinson (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?.) Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, where the second book was set, but, according to her Web site, Started Early, Took My Dog is her “hymn to Yorkshire [England].”
Started Early, Took My Dog
follows the same style as her other novels about Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned reluctant private investigator, but it seemed to me as though she may be getting tired of using the popular formula. (Maybe the BBC TV show, Case Histories, has caused her to lose interest in Jackson Brodie as a fictional character or maybe she is just going on with the books for the sake of readers who want a happy ending for Brodie, or maybe she is under contract with her publisher and the money is good.)
In Started Early, Took My Dog, as in the other Jackson Brodie books, readers get bits and pieces of the actions of different characters who at first seem completely unconnected, but whose past and present lives eventually intersect, merging briefly before breaking apart. Most of the main characters in Started Early, Took My Dog are police or former police, and as in all the Jackson Brodie books, most of them have an air of world-weariness, an attitude of “I’ve seen it all while eating a sandwich,” such as might develop over years of seeing lives full of human drama reduced to dead bodies on a daily basis. Occasional flashes of joy or despair startle them out of their bleak outlook, reminding them that life still has unplumbed depths and keeping them from offing themselves.
The writing is still excellent, as always, and the humor is still strong. Started Early, Took My Dog is worth reading just for the author’s one-line descriptions of what her characters see and think. Maybe because Jackson Brodie’s love interest is offstage in Scotland for the entire book, or because I’m more of a cat person and so wasn’t charmed by Brodie’s rescued pup, Started Early, Took My Dog just didn’t charm me as much as the earlier books.
There are some spoilers in it about events in the previous books, so I recommend reading the books in order.

Other blogger’s opinions (mostly good):
B. Morrison

54 Books
International Noir Fiction
Judging Covers

The Things We Do for Love: Delirium by Lauren Oliver (Audio)

Audiobook Review — In Delirium by Lauren Oliver, love isn’t a drug; it’s a disease. In this near-future novel in the New England-y setting of Portland, Maine, love and all other strong emotions become a thing of the past once you turn 18. That’s when you undergo the operation known as “the procedure” that modifies your brain and cures you of all passion or any real memory of passions you once felt, allowing you to sail calmly from high school into an arranged marriage and career or, possibly, for the young women, motherhood.
As the soon-to-turn-18 narrator, Lena Haloway, has been told throughout her education, this is for the good of society — the new normal for all the pockets of civilization remaining in the world that was overrun by war, poverty, and the disease. The procedure makes it possible for government authorities to maintain the safety and structure of the enclosed society, to protect the isolated Portland citizens from the fugitives who rebelled against the procedure and escaped — the “Invalids” — who are out there in the Wilds beyond the electric fence and the armed guards, Lena suspects, but are not acknowledged by the authorities.
Just before the fateful summer after graduation when Lena gradually comes to understand that everything she’s been taught may not be true, she meets Alex, a mysterious, slightly older boy who is cured, and therefore, safe, but still seems to affect Lena in a strange and unfamiliar way. Modest, unassuming Lena realizes far later than the reader that Alex likes her (not her beautiful, rich friend Hana) but, by then, she has almost completely succumbed to the disease.
Underneath the dystopian overlay, this is a teen love story. Girl meets boy and the whole world turns upside down. The danger of Lena and Alex’s forbidden summer romance is real, however, with the punishment a lot worse than being grounded for a month, so after a slow dip in the middle, the tension in the story builds nicely as the date for Lena’s procedure gets closer. The ending leaves plenty of questions unanswered for the sequel, Pandemonium, coming out in March 2012.
Listening to Delirium, you’re never going to forget that you’re reading a young adult book aimed squarely at young female readers (and their moms), but if that’s what you’re in the mood for, it’s a good audiobook choice. Narrator Sarah Drew does a great job with the voices of the teens Lena (unsure but brave), Hana (carelessly confident), and Alex (husky/drawling/ironic) and with the adult voices. Some listeners may find Lena’s voice a bit gushy or overemotional, but over all, Sarah Drew’s narration conveys the joy and grief that Lena naturally feels but tries to repress, having been told by teachers and parents for so long that it’s not good to feel them. The adult voices, in contrast, are unemotional, suitable to a society where family ties are formed of duty rather than love.
Delirium may be available as a free audio download through Overdrive at your public library. Listen to an audio sample here.
Other opinions on the audio edition of Delirium (all mostly good):
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
Good Books and Good Wine
Hooked to Books
Super Librarian

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