Blind Date With a Book

If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably already seen this cool little concept, perhaps in your own local bookstore, library, or even pictures of it online. “Blind Date With a Book” is probably the most common term for it, though I’ve also seen “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Either way, it’s the same  process; wrap up a book in plain, brown paper, making sure nothing on the book’s actual cover is visible. Then, a description of the book is written on the cover. That description, not the cover and blurbs created by the publishers to give the book a very specific image is what the reader uses to decide if they’ll take it home. As much as the publishers might feel  annoyed at all their hard work getting covered up, for readers it can be a fun, unique experience

I myself just recently made one of my first Blind Date With a Book purchases. Maybe that seems a bit strange. I am a voracious reader after all, and spent plenty of money on books already. On the other hand, I am ridiculously shy when it comes to dating and romance, never one to make the first move. If I’m waiting for an inanimate object, even a book, to make the first move for me, it’s no wonder that it took me a while to try out a Blind Date With a Book.

Perusing the Blind Date books, I happened across one that caught my eye. The description said it took place between a group of nerdy friends at their first con (convention, like ComicCon, for the uninitiated.) That plus the mention of a same sex romance as one of the plot threads intrigued me, made me feel like this was more than just a silly YA Romance book, (I could tell from the description alone that it was certainly a YA book, anonymity be damned.) I’m also a huge fan of the general nerdy, Mecca-like gathering atmosphere some of the bigger conventions have, and I hadn’t really read too many books that used this setting before, so I was intrigued.

When I got home, I opened the books and found this:2017-03-31 13.55.33

To be honest, I’m not sure this is a book I would’ve picked out if it hadn’t been my blind date. Sure, I love the title, Queens of Geek. That sounds like it could be my official title, after all. Still, the pink cover and the fact that it was published by something called “Swoon Press,” probably would’ve turned me off. I’d had my fill of YA romances long ago, way before I left the target YA age range. Romance in general is not my favorite genre, and this book was definitely being sold on that YA Romance angle, with a slight nerdy twist.

On the other hand, the blind description focused on the nerd angle in part but also on the dynamics between nerdy friends and online creators. This isn’t simply another teen romance, although their were reference to the male love interest watching one of the female main characters through “his dark lashes.” A few choice lines like that gave me shuddering flashbacks to some of the pulpier vampire romances I read in my vampire makeout/Twilight phase, but this was a better book. It was well written, creating characters that were more than a sum of any cliches, nerdy or romantic, and really nicely captured the convention atmosphere, as well as the lives of the vloggers, bloggers and panel stars that come to these cons. I was pleasantly surprised and reminded that I could sometimes be too judgmental of books with heavy romantic story lines, especially in the YA realm. I couldn’t have learned that without my blind date.

Overall, my Blind Date With a Book went better than I’ve ever seen or heard of a blind date with an actual person go. I recommend you take advantage of this little novelty if you get the chance. If you already have tried it, I’m curious. How was your blind date? Did I just get lucky? Did you learn anything new about your tastes? Let me know in the comments below.

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Book Pilgrimmages: American Gods and The House on the Rock

Sure, books are all about taking you places without physically travelling at all, but what about books you love that take place in real location? Wouldn’t it be really cool to visit these places yourself? Sometimes, you can, and that’s  exactly what I did with the House on the Rock.

When I first read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I assumed he made up the House on the Rock. It sounded so strange and fantastical, exactly like the sort of place he would create for his mythic America in the novel. Then, in an afterward section, he clarified that it was indeed a real place, which surprised me. Still, I would have no idea how detailed and accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the house would be until years later, when I visited it for myself.

The House on the Rock was one of the most amazing, bizarre places I’ve ever visited. I came away from it not even fully certain how to describe my experience. I decided to refresh my memory of the part the location played in American God’s and reread the small section wherein Shadow and Mr. Wednesday meet with other old gods at the House. When I read the passage just after my visit, I was shocked to find that Gaiman’s words almost perfectly captured every detail of the strange setting, even down to minuscule mechanical displays and and features.

I couldn’t get many decent pictures of all the strange and eerie spectacles at the House on the Rock, because they liked to keep their mood lighting nice and low, and there was so much going on in any given room that even with the flash on I couldn’t capture it all. Still, I took some interesting photos, photos I think are even cooler when you pair them up with Gaiman’s brilliant descriptions of the same spots and props. I may have had a hard time putting to words what I saw in the house, but Gaiman was brilliant, as always.

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“Prim-Lipped Victorian china dolls stared in profusion through dusty store windows, like so many props from respectable horror films.”

Yeah, this is just one close-up glamour shot of a single creepy doll that I was especially sure wanted to watch me while I slept. There were many, many more, and I laughed to myself when I read this quote, happy the eerie Neil Gaiman agreed with me that these dolls belonged in a horror movie.

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“They went farther in, down a red corridor, past rooms filled with empty chairs upon which rested violins or violas that played themselves, or seemed to, when fed a coin. Keys depressed, cymbals crashed, pipes blew compressed air into clarinets and oboes.”

Yes, Shadow was also right to later note in the same passage that the automatic bows on the string instruments don’t always seem to be actually playing the instruments. As far as I could tell, the musical rooms were a mixture of prerecorded songs, and actually played instruments. You can tell a few instruments are really being played because a recording would sound better, actually in tune and all that. The whole picture, no mattered how manufactured or not, is a strangely beautiful one, emphasis on strange.

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they came to a room called the Mikado, one wall of which was a nineteenth-century pseudo-Oriental nightmare, in which  beetle-browed mechanical drummers banged cymbals and drums while staring out from their dragon-encrusted lair. Currently, they were majestically torturing Saint-Saen’s Danse Macabre.”

I was not sure what to call the House’s creator’s fixation on Eastern decor, but in many cases, pseudo-Oriental nightmare was very fitting, both in the unfortunate level of exotic fetishist attitude House creator Jordan exhibited in these displays, and in the way that they genuinely inspired fear and nightmares in me, and probably other guests as well. I would also say “majestically torture” is exactly what these strange robots do to the famous tunes they’ve been created to play.

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…a room that went up for many stories, the center of which was filled entirely with a replica of a great black whalelike beast, with a life-sized replica of a boat in its vast, fiberglass mouth

Yeah, technically the whale beast isn’t in this photo. This is instead the gigantic octopus fighting the three-stories high whale statue, because this house is so crazy that Mr. Gaiman was underselling it on occasion. It was also legitmately difficult to get a decent, well-lit picture of the whale because it was so big, that I couldn’t get enough of the thing in frame to give you a decent idea of what monster you were looking at.

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“…above them hung dozens of angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.”

Okay, so the angel in this picture, if you can make out against the riot of opulent details in this photo, has both her hair and clothes in this picture, but it was still amusingly obvious that she and her many sisters were probably bought from a Out-of-Business department store, and the wings look incredibly simply and fake as well, but with so many of those strange beings in the same room, amongst all the the other decor, they were still strangely awe-inspiring.

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“And then there was the carousel. A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in Gothic profusion.”

Yes, the carousel, the climactic centerpiece of Gaiman’s tour through the house. It is as outrageous and beautiful as he makes it sound, but I didn’t sneak on to ride it, so I’ll never know if it can take you into some other godly dimension or something like it did in the book, but Gaiman was incredibly accurate in his description of the rest of the House, so this could very well be true. Someone just has to go to the House on the Rock, jump the barrier around the carousel, ride one of the crazy animals, and let me know what happens. Thanks in advance guys, really appreciate it.

 

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Books

Some people like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by dying everything green and getting hideously drunk, and while one of those things is definitely an Irish tradition, I say you’re missing  a lot in a celebration of Irish culture if you’re just using it as an excuse to get blackout wasted.

Maybe it’s just me in my little book nerd camp, but there are so many brilliant Irish authors that taking a look at some of their work on St. Patrick’s Day is the best way I can see to celebrate the holiday. There’s plenty of of obvious classics to go on about, and newer names as well. Here, I’ve collected just a few names to start out with if you want to celebrate some quality Irish authors.

Emma Donoghue: Yes, this is a newer name, and she’s one of my favorites. Born in Dublin, Ireland but now living in London, Ontario (yes, there are two Londons,)  she’s  Irish-Canadian, but I won’t disqualify her on that account. Her most famous book is probably Room, which was turned into an award winning film starring Brie Larson, which Donoghue also wrote the script for. It’s an emotionally brutal experience on and off screen, but one written well enough to make the pain more than simply brutal or exploitative.

She’s written plenty of other books well worth a read, and several of those have won awards as well,  mostly for LGBT representation. One book in particular, though, should get you in the St. Paddy’s Day mood. Her newest book is Wonder, about a young girl fasting for months and becoming a “miracle girl,” with a nurse coming in and trying to see if she can keep this girl alive, or perhaps even prove this miracle a hoax. This one takes place in 19th century Ireland, so it’s a nice book to keep you feeling very Irish.

Seamus Heaney: I can never resist encouraging people to read more poetry. Of course, W.B. Yeats is usually considered the quintessential Irish poet, but you’ve probably already read him in school, however long ago or not that was. I’m trying to introduce you to some figures you probably haven’t tried before.

Okay, technically you probably actually read Seamus Heaney in school, but not his original work. Heaney wrote what’s currently one of the definitive translations of Beowulf. His work made this millennia old poem an action-packed engaging read when I had to read it for school. I mean, sure, the monsters and dragons were already in the poem, but Heaney made these warriors and their battles into something readable and enjoyable to a modern audience, something I definitely missed when I had to take up a bunch of dry and archaically written medieval epics and romances later in the poetry timeline. His own poetry isn’t typically about slaying dragons and warriors parting in mead halls, but don’t hold that against him. He wrote some truly vivid, picturesque work. Some of his collections include North and Field Work.

Tana French: Now here’s for you mystery lovers. Tana French is a popular mystery writer. She was born in Ireland, has lived in a couple different countries since then but now resides Dublin. Before she started writing, French was actually convinced she should be an actor, and spent years in that field. Lucky for us, she took to writing in her 30’s, crime and mystery books specifically, a genre she’d always liked.

She has six books out as of now, all a part of her Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with In the Woods in 2007 and ending, though hopefully not ending ending, with the most recent The Trespasser. They all center around a group of homicide detectives in Dublin, the titular “Murder Squad.” A quality series with a solid reoccurring cast of characters is always a nice, comfy book-home to come back too, even if that comfy home is full of grisly crime and murder.

There, that’s three Irish writers to enjoy this St. Patrick’s day, if you’re looking for something to do between getting drunk at the St. Patrick’s Parade and getting drunk over corned beef and mash potatoes that have been died green. Maybe you’ll find something you want to pick up and stay with after the holiday too.

Jane Austen and the Reverse Bechdel Test

Jane-Austen-portrait-victorian-engravingHey everyone. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I have to start my Women’s History Month post with a fact that is technically about men. In all of Jane Austen’s books, there is never a scene of men alone, talking to each other. There are men, of course, in her books, and they do talk to each other on occasion, but always in mixed company, with men and women present. It’s not a perfect reverse Bechdel test fail, where two men don’t talk to each other about something other than a woman, but it’s close. Austen, of course, being a proper Regency-era lady would never have been able to witness men talking to each other without any women around, and being the brilliant author that she was, she wouldn’t settle for secondary resources illuminating the matter.

No, she made her books about women and their lives. The men could be there but they couldn’t expect any solo time on screen. This is a gross over-generalization, but the men were mostly there for the women to coyly flirt with and consider marrying. This, I think, is why Austen could be a very important educational tool for dudes  during Women’s History Month.

If you have a Y chromosome, here’s a fun little sympathetic exercise you could do next time you’re wondering why women  complain so much about Women’s Rights when they’re obviously totally fine today. I bet some of you dudes might already have experienced reading Austen in high school or for some literature class. Unless you’re an unusually intense English-lit nerd, it was probably an unpleasant experience. Sure, lit classes specialize in ruining old books for readers by forcing the classic down the student’s throat, but with Austen, there’s usually a different complaint. “Ew. It’s all about a bunch of chicks, just talking about what dudes they’re gonna marry. Boring!” Yeah, Regency-era  marriage politics were never my favorite part of Austen books either, but this illustrates an interesting point. It’s a point that you could illustrate with just about any type of chick-lit, but I want to show here with something that has more substance and staying power than that.

See, guys, how boring it is when the only men that are around are introduced for the sake of a love interest with the main protagonists? Really boring, isn’t it? Really, even an Austen book has a more male presence in it than the average movie has a female presence, so you’re not even experiencing the worst possible time here in this bizarro flipped universe that is Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Persuasion. People can go on and on about the brilliant themes and character arcs Austen has in her books, but it just doesn’t feel like written for you dudes at all, so it’s really all so boring. How do women, (and people of color for that matter too,) deal with this stuff everyday? Well, women have managed, for quite a while now, with the help of society telling us our stories or less important and less interesting. So yeah, we’re doing great guys, no worries, (she says, before breathing in and out of a paper bag with Gloria Steinem’s face printed on it for a couple minutes.)

Women  find it notably easier to identify with male characters because that’s mostly all they’ve been given in any sort of story; books, movies, television, etc. Sure, books have a way better rate of female representation on average because, according to statistics, women read slightly more than men, but I’m bringing up the Austen of it all to illustrate a point. Literature, not just books but fine literature and books considered good enough to one day end up in that classy Western literary canon, is a field dominated by male authors and male characters. Sure, we’ve been given tastes of well written female characters in literary classics, and a smattering of female authors strong enough to be included in the literary canon, but with a vast and imbalanced history, women still have a seemingly impossible amount of catching up with the men folk if something like an equilibrium is to be reached.

Okay, so we’ve got a long road to go, still, when it comes to women being represented in literature, as characters and as writers. In the mean time, let’s try to actually celebrate Women’s History Month, not just by posting encouraging hashtags and reblogging posts about inspiring Women’s Rights activists, but by reminding people why we need this stuff. We may no longer live in a world where I need to plot out husbands and marriages in lieu of careers, but we do live in a world where not enough people realize that representing women isn’t as easy as putting a pink bow on one character or making kids read one incredibly talented Regency-era romance novelist in school. We can change that, one Reverse Bechdel test experience at a time.

Conjuring a Brilliant Finale

There’s not much better about being a book lover than that sudden rush you get when a book that you’ve been waiting forever for, (or at least, it feels like forever,) finally comes out, and you let a sudden, crazy rush of energy fuel you as you run and pounce on the nearest copy of the book you can get before devouring it. I got to indulge myself in this geeky rush earlier this week when I discovered A Conjuring of Light, the final book in V.E. Schwab’s  Shades of Magic series was released. Schwab dastardly ended the previous book in the series, A Gathering of Shadows, on a seriously high-stakes cliffhanger that left me tearing out my hear, so my excitement for this final book was even higher than normal. I’m in the thick of reading it right now, and so far it’s been more than worth the wait.

I don’t plan on giving a fully comprehensive review because I haven’t finished reading the book, which is notably longer than the other two, and it is the finale. I want to convince you to read the series, not spoil the whole entire thing.

I’m definitely not complaining about the book’s length. That’s just more time I get to spend in a fantastically inventive world, or worlds. As I mentioned in passing before when I referenced the series, these books take place in a couple different worlds, all layered over each other, all very different and unique, but all with a city called London in the exact same place. Red London is where the bulk of the action takes place, Grey London is actually our own London during the tale end of the reign of King George III. White London is a dangerous, magic-starved world and Black London is best left unspoken of. The series has dueling magicians, pirates, nobles, pirate nobles, and plenty of royal intrigue.

Schwab has a big job ahead of her in Conjuring, wrapping up all the plots, subplots and character arcs. That’s always the scariest part of any series ending, seeing if everything can be wrapped up satisfactorily. I find that, especially with popular series, you always wind up finding some people disappointed. I tend to be on the optimistic side with series that I’ve invested so much love and time into, seeing only the best in them. I’ve endured bloody, deadly, tragic endings and, (perhaps even more,) happy endings trying much too hard to adorn every possible surface with sentimental and frilly wrapped-up bows, but I still try to see the best in any big ending.

Schwab, though, is a highly experienced writer who’s written and concluded many books, and even another series, so I have no problem keeping faith in her and encouraging everyone I come across to try this series out. I’ve seen each book get progressively more buzz as it came out, and it warms my heart to see more and more people read and enjoy a series I love so much. That is one of the other chief joys of being a book lover, sharing that passionate frenzy over discovering a new read.

So what are you waiting for? Go check out this series! It’s a great, exploratory fantasy riff that’s original and engaging. You don’t even have to wait the agonizing months I did to resolve the second book’s brutal cliffhanger anymore. Just race out to the nearest bookstore and pick up the next one. Trust me, you’ll want to. This series is that addiciting.