Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Dread, Both Existential and Immediate

I don't think I've ever felt such a protracted sense of dread when reading a book.  Emotionally, it was like the most tense parts of a Hitchcock movie strung together for 300 pages, even though there are no more moments of high drama in My Sister Rosa than in any other psychological thriller--if that's what you could call this.

Justine Larbalestier has written some dark books (Liar) and some distant characters (Magic or Madness), but Rosa is a whole other thing. This book is creepy, but not in a horror novel way.  It's about Che, the 17-year-old son of a globe-trotting, super-cool couple who's just moved to New York with his family to pursue his parents' latest business venture.  But what it's really about is, as advertised, Che's sister Rosa.  Because Rosa is a psychopath, and Che seems to be the only one who knows it.

When she was little, they recognized she was not typical and she saw doctors and therapists.  But she didn't like that, and she learned the right things to say, and they declared her fine.  Now, Rosa is the perfect little adorable girl--to everyone except her brother.  She trusts him. She tells him things. She asks him questions.

And Che, god bless him, tries to keep her in check.  He extracts promises about what she won't do. He watches her, and he answers her questions about how to be normal. And he loves her, and also he hates her.

Che lives in such a state of hyperawareness of Rosa that I started to get really twitchy halfway through this book.  The family doesn't have much money, but they live well because the parents work for their best friends, who are incredibly wealthy.  Che's father's family tree is full of violent, arrogant people, so he knows where Rosa comes from, and he understands the risk.  But his parents won't listen to his concerns--they are hardly around--and he doesn't know what he could do to stop her if Rosa decided to do something awful.

As Che settles into New York and he begins to make friends, he watches Rosa make friends with a sense of dread. Again, just so much dread.  And all justified.  It's always on the horizon, always ominous, but so rarely does anything actually bad happen.  Rosa does what works for her, and keeping off the radar is part of what works for her.  But she's a very smart girl, and very curious, and....ooooh, it's just really creepy.

Honestly, I took a page from Jenny and read the ending when I was about a third of the way through the book, because it seemed like there was no way this could end well.  And I will say, it's not exactly a "happy" ending.  It's maybe kind of--cathartic? Like, things are all okay, but the tension that builds and builds and builds over the course of the book is definitely addressed.

Che is just a guy, going to the gym, falling for a girl, navigating a new city--and waiting for his sister to maybe murder someone.  I am going to be shaking off this dread for days to come.  Excellent and creepy as hell.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Impending Possession

Excellent title: The Impending Possession of Scarlet Wakebridge-Rosé. I liked it SLIGHTLY better before I noticed the accent mark on "Rosé;" I think it scans better without that emphasis, but that is neither here nor there.

Scarlet is haunted, and she's trying to figure out why, how, by what.  There's a presence hovering around the corners of her life, a shadowy, threatening figure. Her work is suffering, her marriage is on the rocks, and her relationship with her teenage daughter isn't doing much better. She's desperate to figure out what it is and get rid of it, and when psychiatrists can't help her, she finds herself in church. She's a lesbian who was raised Catholic but hasn't been to church in years, but she has nowhere else to turn.

At church she meets Father Angelo, an exorcist with the requisite Haunted Past. She doesn't tell him about her problem at first, but his assistant Kelton realizes that Scarlet has some ability to detect powers and recruits her to help with the exorcisms. Eventually they hook up with Dante, Father Angelo's first supernatural tutor, and they try to help Scarlet sort out her demon problem.

I got this book from Netgalley for an honest review, but if I hadn't, I probably wouldn't have finished it.  It felt like a stretched out short story, and none of the characters was very likeable.  With Scarlet, the implication is that the demon that's been haunting her has been interfering with her emotions and that's why she's been fighting so much with her wife and daughter, but that's hard to tell, since she seems to pride herself on being a hardass workaholic in the best of times.  Kelton is a one-note homophobe who is almost a caricature of a villain--which is weird, since he's supposed to be, technically, a "good guy."  Father Angelo's got a dark past, but he appears to have spent 30 years not thinking for himself at all, which comes across as very weird given that he's an exorcist.

The characters kind of thump along from one scene to the next; information about the demon unfolds, and there are past life regressions, and some of the demon logic doesn't make a lot of clear sense to me. Like, if a demon threatens you into saying some words in another language, does that count as promising something of your own free will?

This felt kind of like an early draft of something that could have been much better, if a lot of motivations had been sharpened up, and if all the characters' "humanizing" flaws had been balanced with humanizing virtues as well.

Great title, though. A long, kind of complicated title is a bold choice and almost always worth it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Always Forward

Hello! I have been lounging through my vacation and reading like a fiend and consuming SO MANY best-of lists and end-of-year blog posts (I LOVE THEM) and just taking it easy.  But the reading like a fiend has combined with the best-of lists to make me feel guilty about never quite being ready to do a best-of list at the end of the year.

So, to fend off the guilt and yet participate in this listy time of year, AND to partake of the New Year spirit in non-binding resolution style, I bring you:

The Top 10 Books Even I Can't Believe I Haven't Read Yet

1) The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. This one almost doesn't count, because I just started it, but I loved the Inheritance trilogy and so very many people have loved this, I have no doubt it's going to blow my mind.  And it's our pick for work book club this month, which I think is going to challenge us and give us a nice meaty conversation. So look just getting started and already something is half checked off!

2) Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear. I wanted to read this well before it came out--butt kicking old West magic steampunk ladies of the night. Whenever I see the cover I get tingles.

3) Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone.  This one I think I've waited for because the plot--investigating the death of a god--sounded a little too much like a couple of others that I've read and loved. I know it will be very different from City of Stairs and The Broken Kingdoms, but I definitely needed to leave some space between one reading and the next. But this is the year!

4) The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater. I'm trying not to fill this list up with sequels, because I am behind on so many of my favorite series. But this is one that I think I have to get on top of, because the first one snuck in under my radar and went from "okay, I'm reading and enjoying this" to "this book is having a profound impact on my understanding of human beings" almost while I wasn't looking. So yeah, this one makes the cut.

5) Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. The only Patchett I've read was State of Wonder, and I loved it.  This is the one that everyone talks about, and the Jennies (Jennys?) mentioned it in their gift recommendation podcast a few weeks ago.  But really, what happened was that Brenda sat down with my Kindle and sorted through the 400-something books on there, bumping the ones she couldn't believe I hadn't read to the top. On this one she and I entirely agree.

6) Fly By Night, by Frances Hardinge. People have been telling me to read Frances Hardinge forever, and I finally read Cuckoo Song a while back and they were right.  But this is the one they keep selling me on, and this is the one I want to read, and this is the one that I just got from Netgalley, so no excuses!

7) A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab. Elizabeth read ONE V.E. Schwab book and became a "buy this author's books automatically" fan.  This is enough for me. I have to read one; it was this or Vicious, and lord knows I love a good trilogy.

8) Walk on Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson.  I liked The Girl of Fire and Thorns much more than such a straightforward, standard YA fantasy trilogy seemed to deserve.  It was compelling, and it was tight, and I loved the setting and the main character's determination to become less of a hot mess than she was at the beginning of the book.  Add that craftsmanship to the Western setting of this one and I've been meaning to read it for ages.  Apparently it's the year of the old West for me!

9) Feed, by Mira Grant.  I am SO far behind on this one.  She's started a follow-up series to the completed series that everyone read a million years ago.  But I was off zombies for a while there.  I think I'm ready to dive back in by jumping back to the best I can find.

10) Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers.  I was a quarter of an inch from picking this book up when a dozen other reading obligations landed on me and I was beckoned away.  But I will come back, because I need to read about a super-competent spaceship captain who has to go into politics.  I love it when people who are not meant to be in politics have to go into politics.  Best books ever.

Honorable mentions will all go to series in which I'm shamefully far behind--I have read not even a third of the Vorkosigan saga; I am at least three books behind on Dr. Siri Paiboun; Sharon Shinn's Elementals series has two more books out, and I've never even picked up Mystic and Rider (which was another one Brenda pushed to the front of my Kindle); Ursula Vernon has a bunch of books as T. Kingfisher that I haven't read yet. As I flip through my Kindle, the list goes on and on and on.

But I will leave it here, because this is a good solid approach to January.  And hey, I'm two full chapters into The Fifth Season.  Progress already!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best Second In a Triolgy Ever

Book club loved Illuminae so much that Gemina was the next choice, and thank god because 1) weren't we all dying to read it? and 2) I needed a densely action-packed page turner to balance my other reads and my state of mind.  It was just the roller coaster I wanted it to be.

As I was reading Illuminae, I wanted to talk all the time about the big questions the book posed, about the lies an organization tells to keep its constituents safe, about the renegade whistle blower and whether being right means everyone needs to know everything, about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few--I could go on.  Gemina didn't raise that kind of question nearly as much--it was a much more personal story, about a few humans against a few humans.

I still want compulsively to talk about it, though, only this time I want to talk about it as a work of craftsmanship. I want to discuss how in the world the authors built this incredibly intricate machine full of moving parts. In Illuminae, the hits just kept on coming; in Gemina, the pieces were there, laid out for you, and you watched them click together.

The story takes place at the same time as the first book--the Illuminae characters are fleeing toward the Heimdall station, where they can jump through a wormhole back to a busier part of space and be rescued. Gemina is about all the awful things that are happening on Heimdall during that time--the intended cover-up on the attacks from the first book.  Heimdall is taken by a team of commandos, and on one level, it's pretty much just Die Hard in space.  Plus terrifying space worms and a malfunctioning wormhole.

The parts that go into this! To make the assault team interesting bad guys, individual people, and sometimes almost likeable, in spite of everything--that alone is not a simple task.  (There are photos of the team in the book; the fact that they are all hotties in their early 20s who look like vampires from Twilight--and that the team leader literally looks like one of the specific vampires from Twilight, may be the weakest part of the book.)  

This face just screams "head commando"
You've got a hero and heroine who are about as far from Kady and Ezra as you can get--if Kady is the goth geek girl at the back of the class, Hanna is the prom queen who is also a black belt in marital arts.  Ezra is your boy next door clean cut good guy; Nik is a fast talking hustler who's not quiet bad enough for his crime syndicate family.

And Ella.  Oh, Ella, who is a delight. I will spoil nothing, but I love Ella very much.

Like, I said, moving parts. Gemina is in many ways (though not page count) a smaller book than Illuminae. There are fewer individual players acting, and though there aren't actually that many fewer elements in the big bubbling cauldron of plot, most of the action plays out on a hand-to-hand combat level. This is about an assault team taking the station and the renegades stopping it; there is a lot more at stake and a lot more balls in the air, but this is a book about boots on the ground.

I'm going to say it officially; I think this is the best second installment in a trilogy that I've ever read.  It doesn't sag at all.  It doesn't suffer from trying to force some kind of weak stakes to tide us over while we set up the pieces for part 3.  It doesn't suffer from giving us a new set of characters--quite the opposite--though it also gives us a some time with some of our favorites from the first book.  It advances the overall plot while working perfectly well on its own level.

Best. Sequel. Ever.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Page to Stage

I've been reading Fingersmith on a hard deadline, almost frantically, because we had tickets to a new play at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. I've read a couple of Sarah Waters books before--The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests--and loved them both, in very different ways. But I listened to them both as audiobooks, and I'm surprised to find that this made a difference in my enjoyment.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The combination of smart, twisty plotting and gorgeous, literary writing is really irresistible. But I think I might have enjoyed an audiobook more. Waters has a way of describing things perfectly, with such precise, clean, readable prose, but in great detail.  What I've found for myself is that when a narrator has a strong voice but there are parts of the story I find slow, the actor who's reading them can bring a lot to me.

But then, maybe I just felt the stress of my timeline, because of the play.  I can tell you that the play felt the stress.  The book is, not action-packed, but full of incident.  Each part builds to the next, and while you can slim them all down, you can't cut any of them--the introduction to Sue's life in the Borough at the beginning of the book is as important to the plot as it is to the flavor and character and can't be ignored.  It's a story of many acts, and plays may only have so many.

I have a few quibbles with the production, as well--they could have used amplified audio; I sometimes had trouble hearing through the accents--but mostly, it's that it felt like an adaptation.  There's something about watching an adaptation of a book you know, a feeling that they're trying to hit the important beats of the book, rather than make its own story.  I've always assumed this is because a book has a lot more space than a movie--you can't squeeze as much into a movie as you can into a book.  There are exceptions--Harry Potter movies work well as movies, in my experience.  But your standard BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel is more about hitting the moments you know--summarizing the story--than working on its own, sometimes.

This play suffered from that.  It hustled from plot point to plot twist, scrambling through the memorable lines and moments to keep them all in. There was also a bit of a problem with tone--they added a lot of humor, which worked well by itself to alleviate the grim tone of the story (which is not as pervasive in the book). But it made the whole thing feel very uneven, especially the secondary characters and some of the darker themes.

The book, though, is full of great twists and thrills, an enormous, ongoing tension, and a really sweet love story.  I wish I had read it at a time where I had more bandwidth to give it, or that I had listened to the audiobook. I'm going to position my next Sarah Waters novel more carefully in my lineup.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Comfort, or No Apocalypses for a While

I think there are two reactions, bookwise, to the current political situation.  Some people are stepping up in their reading--reading about politics, social justice, and activism.  Aarti's been posting some amazing, thoughtful reviews this week.

I, on the other hand, am going the other way.  I am avoiding the real world in my reading life--which meant actually dropping a couple of books I was in the middle of, because they were too much about oppressive regimes or fear-mongering charmers who turn the world against your heroes.

Instead, I'm thinking comfort reads.  I was already reading Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, but it's been my go-to this week, because the whole story is so immediate and intimate.  Sue may be a thief, but she's plucky and smart, and reading the book, you could believe that there were only two houses in the world--the little pawn shop and the great dank manor.  I also love an imposter story, and a thief pretending to be a lady's maid seems like the best thing ever. Mike and I have tickets to see the show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in a few weeks, so this is kind of perfect to read right now.

I have also turned aggressively in a nunward direction.  In following Jenny's recommendation of the book The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, I wound up in the nun aisle of the library, which of course means I walked away with more than I bargained for.  So I just finished a book called New Habits: Today's Women Who Choose to Become Nuns, by Isobel Losada.  The book was published in 1999, so most of the women were interviewed when I was in college, and there have been a lot of changes in the Catholic church since then.  This book very much made me want to find an even more recent book on a similar subject.

I'm also thinking of rereading Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs, one of my longstanding comfort reads.  I think watching people be heroic in World War II--especially in a world of clear good guys and bad guys (without ignoring that the good guys were no always as good as you wish they were) might be right up my alley right now.

And finally, I'm avidly reading a Buffy fanfic that is so good I can't even tell you.  Just yesterday I caught up on he published chapters; it's near the end, but from now on I have to wait a chapter a day like everyone else.  It's called Otherwise, by one of my favorite fanfic authors, Sigyn, and it's sweet and hard at the same time.  It's a time travel story--sort of--which often just end up being wish fulfillment, "if I knew then what I know now" stories about how much better things would have turned out if the characters had done what we wanted them to.  But this is about might-have-beens, and about what you lose by dwelling on what you already lost.  I love Sigyn's older Buffy, who is harder, but also much stronger in her feelings and sense of self.

So, sweethearts, this is what I read when my heart doesn't know where to turn.  What about you?  I am always looking for another comfort read.  I think it will be a while before I read any dystopian fiction.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Review: Everything Belongs to the Future

Note: This post was written several days ago.  This book is truly excellent and amazing, but I think it would have devastated me if I'd read it today. There's a lot of anger about haves and have-nots here, and right now it's hurting my heart to think about any subject like that.  You should read this book, but if you feel like I do, you might want to wait a couple of weeks.
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There are so many levels on which to love Everything Belongs to the Future that I almost don't know how to talk about it. It's about politics and terrorism and friendship and power. It's about haves vs.  have-nots and about innocence and the health care system and time.  I want to unpack the whole thing and lay it out for you, but I can't do that without spoiling it (and the slow unfolding of details here is so beautifully crafted that I can't bring myself to spoil any of it).

In this future, there is a drug that halts aging.  If you take the fix--one pill every day--you will essentially stay healthy and not age indefinitely.  But of course, the drug company can charge a fortune for it, and does, and so only rich people--and those who are chosen by them as great artists, musicians, actors--can afford the fix.  The rest of the world muddles through outside their inner sanctum.

So right there, you have a very basic fact that I've always thought was interesting about the gap between rich and poor; a lot of what the rich have is time, in a lot of ways.  They can afford to pay others to do tedious, time-consuming parts of day-to-day life--someone to clean your house and mow your lawn. A drive instead of a long bus commute, a job that gives you paid sick days so you can take care of your health.  There are a thousand little ways in which money buys you time.

This is only the tiniest pinpoint of light in the constellation of this novella's thoughtfulness.  Ask about terrorism and betrayal and sacrifice and you imagine a huge, sweeping story, but this is about a bunch of poor kids trying to make their way in the world and maybe make the world a little better.  Every character in here is smudged and shining, broken and beautiful.

Laurie Penny did something here that I want to talk about--every moment that slides past you in the book is worth stopping over and examining, whether it's the politics and economics of the food truck, or the real fraught intensity of making out with someone so as not to get caught doing something worse, or what it means to be an old woman in a world where that is theoretically optional.  I wish I could do a book club about just this book.

Many deep thank yous to Netgalley for my review copy.