Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Traitor

In I Am the Weapon, his name was Ben and he was sent to kill the mayor of New York.  I loved it.  In I Am the Mission, his name was Daniel and he had to infiltrate a terrorist militia compound.  Good stuff.  And finally, the third one, I Am the Traitor, has arrived, and he's come back to his own name--Zach--and he's out to take down the Program that turned him into a killer.

If that sounds like it's from a movie trailer, it should, because that's what this whole series reads like--a rampaging action movie. And it moves--all the deep background stuff that's been going on in the first few books pays off here--Zach's friendship with Howard, his confusing relationship with Mike, Mother and Father and Zach's memories of his childhood.  He's driving toward the truth throughout this book, and it's just where you want him to go.

There are some drawbacks along the way.  There's a girl (as there was in each of the other two books) who seems to be jammed kind of forcibly into the plot.  There are a lot of scenes where they're going from one place to another in what, if you stop to think about it, isn't really a very well-thought-through plan.  Howard manages not to get killed in some of the most unlikely scenarios.

But you don't want to nitpick with a book like this.  If the costuming isn't perfect, if the setup isn't convincing, well, the scenery whips by fast enough for it to go unnoticed if you squint.  The building is intense, and the denouement (if one can use such a word for such a book), if unlikely, is a satisfying ending to what's gone on so far.

So, is it as good as the first two?  No.  Does it deliver what you need to wrap up a really cool series?  Yeah, I would say so.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Rat Queeeeeeeens!!!!!!!

Guys, guys, Rat Queens volume 2 is coming out!  In just a couple of weeks!  AND I GOT AN ADVANCE COPY TO READ AND I'M SO EXCITED AAAAAUUUUUUGHHHH!

(If I was a blogger who did gifs, there would be a gif here.  Picture it.)

The book begins the morning after the debauchery that ended the first volume, with a lovely post-house party scene that involves hangovers, breakfast, and random bedmates wandering through the living room.  There's no shame--everyone says a cheerful hello (and a few raunchy comments are made), but someone shows up from city hall and we're off on a new adventure.

Over the course of this volume, we get some great character development on most of the Queens--snippets from Violet's life as a dwarf, where she gets the "just a girl" treatment and works for the family business as a model, and bits of Hannah's past, including the reason why she and Sawyer are on-again-off-again despite their clear chemistry and affection.  And these are the minor bits--most of the past in this story belongs to Dee.

It turns out Dee has left a lot behind, and that someone has stolen an important relic from her people that could put the world in danger.  Also, Sawyer's in trouble, and, of course, the rest of Palisade is, as always, in danger (in addition to the world-danger).

So all this is going on, and in the meantime, we're getting the bits that really make this series sing--the broad, interwoven cast of characters, many of whom have twining history (Hannah's nemesis used to be a college friend; Sawyer's second in command is another AMAZING woman; Orc Dave gets some nice moments, both with Violet and without).  Betty gets a little bit of the short shrift here, but she still has some nice moments--funny ones, of course, because she's the stoner and that's her role, but another great moment when she realizes someone she cares about is in trouble and goes berserker. 

This is everything that I loved about the first one--the sass, the affection, the heroism, the human drama, the horrifying monsters.

There was a change in artist last year, after the original artist and co-creator, Roc Upchurch, was arrested for domestic violence.  He was replaced as the artist for the series, which means that the last two issues in this volume had a new artist, Stjepan Sejic [sic].  I was worried about this, because I did love Upchurch's art.  But I'm really happy with Sejic's art--it's different, but it's clear and easy to follow (I'm pretty easily confused by muddy visuals), the characters all seem very much themselves, both recognizably and intuitively.  It feels nearly seamless, and I'm left happy--happy with the whole series and wiggling with delighted anticipation for the next one!


Sunday, May 03, 2015

Lies and Lies

The compulsive liar, the con artist, is a story that is always absolutely creepily intriguing.  I have a couple of second-hand doozies in real life, and it's fascinating to try to poke them apart and figure them out.  I think the creep factor is largely because it reminds you how much we depend on other people's self-reporting for the things that we believe about them, both internal and external.

The Impostor's Daughter is a memoir by Laurie Sandall.  It's her own story, but clearly the emotional center of that story is her larger-than-life father, the stories he tells about himself, and whatever truth lies behind them.  It's a graphic novel, and it seems to be her first, but she's an accomplished writer and she knows how to tell someone's life story.

It's interesting, because knowing she's a magazine feature writer (which happens in the middle of the book), certain elements of her style kind of came together for me.  There are these different threads of the story, and they come together, but--I'm not sure quite how to say this--it's like the importance, the relevance of the story is assumed? 

Okay, let me try to explain that.  We start with her childhood, where her father with his amazing stories and enormous personality is the center of the family.  Laurie, as his favorite, is close to this--she gets a lot of her father's love and the family's spotlight.  As she grows up, she comes to realize gradually that his stories aren't just amazing, but outlandish, and even unlikely.  As a young writer, she decides to interview him and write about him, a project which starts as a profile of an amazing man but kind of morphs into an investigation of his lies and the people he's hurt with them. 

Along the course of this investigation (which doesn't end but grows more intense after she publishes her article), we also follow Laurie's personal life and struggles--her successful career as a magazine writer (and how growing up with her father taught her to be a good interviewer), her growing addiction to Ambien, her on-again-off-again relationship with a great guy who's not right for her. 

These are all really great stories, especially her research into her father's stories and his real history.  There's the unsatisfying element that often comes with a memoir, in that you can't wrap up the ends as neatly as you can in fiction, but enough other threads come together that it's emotionally a satisfying ending.  And her personal story is really effective--how easily a life can be either mostly fine or a complete mess, with just a change in lighting and angle. 

The place where things aren't tight is the beginning, and I think this has to do with the fact that the tension, the sense of what's at stake, isn't set up at the beginning the way it needed to be.  You start with a little kid listening to her father's tall tales, and before you know it she's a young adult telling these stories to other people at cocktail parties.  Yeah, her father's full of tall tales, but there's no sense for the longest time that this is a bad thing.  Of course, later we find out that these aren't just eccentricities or yarn-spinning, but lies that have hurt people but the tension is kind of placed into the story, rather than being earned.

I think I associate this with magazine writing because it does read like a magazine piece, in that the Thing that the journalist is investigating and writing about is assumed to have import--that the Thing is worth writing about is a given, because you're reading it.  The New Yorker doesn't have to explain to you why this new ballet company is worth reading about--you're reading the article because you want to read whatever The New Yorker has to share with you. 

That's kind of true of a book like this (con artists! compulsive liars! titillation!), but because it's also very much about her personal life and how being her father's daughter affected her, I think the implications of her father being the unlikely character he was (is?) need a little more explicit spelling out. 

This is really just me thinking about how the book worked, how it was put together.  It's not so much a complaint as an analysis--while I think it would have been a better book for this kind of structural change, her personal life and her investigation were interesting stories in and of themselves, and absolutely worth reading. 

Lying is fascinating, really.  The vast majority of what we know about the world is second (or more) hand; when you start to look closely at the reliability of information sources, it can really mess with your mind.  When you're a kid and your parents are the source--well, that's going to mess you up. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Uprooted

I just this minute finished Naomi Novik's Uprooted, which I got from Netgalley for review. (Thank you, Netgalley!)  I loved His Majesty's Dragon, but drifted away from Temeraire after a couple of books; my attention wasn't quite held.  Here comes her new series, and I was excited.

I've been trying to write this review for a couple of days, actually, even though I hadn't finished the book.  But I want my review to be clever and charming and touching and everything wonderful, and I can't find a way to adequately convey how much I loved and adored this book, so I'm going to go with bullets.

So: Things I Loved About Uprooted (In No Particular Order)

1. Let's start with Kasia, because the book does.  Everyone in the Valley assumed that the wizard would choose Kasia when he came back, as he does every ten years, to take a girl away to his tower.  Kasia is beautiful and accomplished.  Nieshka, our narrator, is chosen instead.  She's taken away from her village and family and her best friend, and as her new life grows, you expect her one to recede in the narrative.

But no, her best friend Kasia, maybe the person she loves most in the world, doesn't disappear conveniently as Nieshka moves on to bigger things.  She is a pull, a motivator, an ally.  Nieshka will risk everything for Kasia, and she is asked to.

2. A totally separate thing to love that also has to do with Kasia is the number of characters in this story who could have been the protagonists.  If you wrote a book from Kasia's point of view--where her best friend is whisked away, but reappears when our protagonist is in danger and then they have adventures together--this would be a fabulous book.  Nieshka is the center of the larger story, and she's telling this one, but hers is NOT the only story.  This is one of the many things in this book that I always want to see in books and so rarely do.  Marek, the prince, has his own story that he is living, and you could tell the whole thing from inside the capital, too.  This isn't one story, it's a score of them woven perfectly together.

3. Something that's bothered me in most fiction I consume for a very long time is how the notion of what is right versus what is expedient is often painted as black and white.  There is the Moral High Ground, where people are Good and don't let their side down, never give up, fight to the death (though rarely does it come to that for our main characters!).  The people who want to compromise are always slimy politicians, so worried about how they'll look that they never do the Right Thing.  The real world is so much grayer than that.

This is handled so beautifully here.  When Prince Marek insists they push forward in the fight against the malevolent magic of the Wood, he may be right or he may be wrong, but he doesn't seem irrationally shortsighted.  When Nieshka sees the war with their neighbors as wasteful and unnecessary--which it is! and pointless!--it is clearly pointed out that this may well be, but the enemy cannot be relied upon to think the same thing.  While war shouldn't exist, you can't will it into not being by simply pretending it isn't there.  You need another plan.

4. I call this one the Perfect Knowledge Problem, which also comes up a lot in books I read.  The Right Thing To Do is not always easy, but in most stories it's easy, at least, to discern.  You know what the Heroic Act is, if you can just bring yourself to do it, or survive it.  This is a book full of imperfect knowledge, where it's often impossible to tell which act is the heroic one and which is foolhardy.  And often enough, the characters choose wrong.

5. And they're always a dozen steps behind!  This should be frustrating, but it's not--it's so realistic, so brutally perfect.  Every single character here is doing the best they can with the information and motivations they have.  Every one of them is trying hard to do what they perceive to be good.  Without exception.  And everything is, of course, still a mess, because perceptions of good differ, and people have imperfect knowledge, and things don't always come out the way you planned.  Life is messy.

Luckily Nieshka is good at messy.  When the Wood becomes more dangerous, she finds the magic (oh, the magic!  The world of magic here!) to fight it.  When politics are needed, she tries to learn them.  Mostly, she just pushes on, past her limitations, holding on to her friends.

I loved this book.  Loved.  It was a delight.  I worried, at one point, when the scene changed, that we were going to get into a Slimy Politicians and Political Machinations story, but, while those factors are not entirely absent, it never becomes a turn-off.  This book contains good against evil, and man against man, but those are not the same battles.  I can't tell you how satisfying it was to read a book where everyone was doing their best, where even the people who are chasing our heroine with an army are truly trying, with all their resources, to do their own version of the Right Thing.

Okay, here's where I say it wasn't flawless.  Much as I loved Kasia, she was kind of a cypher, more a role than a character.  (I think this was done for a reason, because there was a bit of mystery about her, and I'm hoping there will be a sequel from her point of view.)  I wish that Nieshka had connected a little better to a lot of the secondary characters, because while they were believable and served the story well, I wanted a bit more of a sense of them outside of their roles.  The magic system was fascinating, but mostly described in metaphors, which made complete sense, but again, I wish it had been a bit more concrete in some of the details.  If you need me to pick nits, I can.

But I loved it.  Loved loved loved.  I want to read it again for the first time.  I want to read another one.  I'm going to go back for more Temeraire just because I can't not at this point.  This book was wonderful.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Short Stories

Bah, anthologies.  I devoured them by the bucket in high school; short stories are a great way to consume a ton of fantasy very quickly, without the level of investment required for a novel.  I own SO many volumes of Sword and Sorceress! (And why didn't Dorothy J. Heydt's character Cynthia ever get a novel of her own?  A crime, I declare it!)

But I was not as discriminating then, and I've had so little patience for anthologies lately, because I can't bear to skip around and not "officially" finish them, but I also can't bear to read my way through the parts that are either outright blah or just not for me.

So those are my prejudices going in, and the reason that I didn't absolutely love Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios. I've never read an anthology--even an all-star one!--that was not uneven. 


Some of the stories were great! Some were kind of thin.  Actually, "thin" is probably my biggest complaint--I don't know if it's that the stories were particularly short, or because some of the authors didn't have a good instinct for YA, but some of them felt phoned in, either being all setup/worldbuilding with no incident, or just being kind of generic.

And generic is what it shouldn't have been, because the great thing here is the broad representation you have in this volume.  The point of this book is to see characters you don't see nearly often enough--a superhero with one hand, a girl in wheelchair fighting to break a curse, tons of non-white, non-straight characters having the usual fantasy adventures.

I think that the stories that did this best were my favorites--Faith Mudge's "Signature," about a girl who finds out that she and the owner of the bookstore where she works have both entered into deals that might be too much for them, was one of my favorites.  Priya Gowda is in a wheelchair, and her story is informed by her traditional family and the limitations the world sets on her, but there's far more to it than that.  "Chupacabra's Song," by Jim C. Hines is a really touching story about a girl on the autism spectrum who has a way with animals that may be more magical than her vet father realizes.  "Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell", by E.C. Myers, is about a girl whose schizophrenia and meds interact with the new popular party drug in unexpected and upsetting ways. 

These are stories that do the best task of storytelling--take a character, with all the details and subtleties that make them human--and put them into a situation that requires them to face it.  Each one is shaped by who the character is and what they are trying to do, and they're all especially exciting and moving, because they do such a wonderful job of expanding around these things.

But then there's Garth Nix's "Happy Go Lucky," in which a high school girl from an elite stratum of society suddenly finds out that life isn't fair when she's stripped of her privileges.  Reading it reminded me very powerfully of the Twitter feed @dystopianYA, because there is nothing here to make it stand out.  Sure, Jean's parents are both dads, and she's dark-skinned, but this is not meaningful to the story in any way.  Really, there's nothing here that doesn't look exactly like Matched, or Divergent, or any of a hundred other utopia-is-really-dystopia books on the shelf.  Someone tapped Garth Nix for a story and he ripped one out in a couple of hours. 

There were plenty of other stories that were not much more than the sum of their blurb: "Cookie Cutter Superhero": when you get a chance to go into the Superhero Machine and turned amazing, do you want them to make your body "normal?";  "Krishna Blue": what if a gifted artist developed the dangerous skill of consuming colors from the world around her?; "Double Time": if you could go back in time five minutes, would things really be better?  (The last one, at least, was a nice little story about a figure skater with an overbearing mother.  Maybe it was a little simplistic, but it was actually pretty charming.)

Okay, so not bad.  But these were light, quick reads--I might say that they were very YA, but that sounds pejorative.  Really, they're focused around being a teenager, which is great, but many of the stories spend more time spelling out their fantastical concept, rather than speaking to me.

But of course, this is always going to be the anthology problem.  If I was thrilled 1/3 of the time, entertained 1/3 of the time, and deadly bored 1/3 of the time, is that a good read?  In a novel I'd have a firm opinion on that, but in an anthology, who knows?  I'm certainly in the minority in walking away disappointed, and let's admit that I haven't read an anthology in years, at this point.  And I love very much that this book made room for characters who don't show up nearly often enough.  I just wish that these characters would show up all over the place, so I could have more of the ones I loved.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Harrison Harrison

Harrison Squared! Daryl Gregory's novel about the monster-fighting teenager has hit the shelves, starring Harrison Harrison, one of the main characters in the super-creepy novella We Are All Completely Fine.  My friend Brenda, an enormous Gregory fan, agreed to write a joint review with me.  My parts in green, hers in brown.  

Quick summary: we both like the book, though maybe not as much as we'd expected.  It's very much a YA book, with an almost whimsical charm--not what the novella might lead you to expect.  

BRENDA: I feel like Harrison Squared was made for me. I love Daryl Gregory and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, I memorized “The Cats of Ulthar” for a speech in high school. That said, this doesn’t rise to the same level as my favorite Daryl Gregory books (Pandemonium, Unpossible and Other Stories, Afterparty, and We Are All Completely Fine). It’s entertaining and a fast read, but it doesn’t have the same sort of depth as his other books.

SHARON: The reason I wanted to read Harrison Squared at all is because of We Are All Completely Fine, but I think that served this book poorly, because they're quite different in tone.  I was expecting and hoping for something much darker, grittier, and more ambiguous.  This was very much a YA book, and I can't love it as much as I wanted to because it's standing next to the book in my head.

The tone caused me one other problem, which was that the details of this creepy, Lovecraftian little town were so over the top that it made it hard for me to really submerge myself in the world.  Harrison arrives at this school where there's a class on tying nets and swimming in an underground lake under the school and that history book!  The math homework! And he finds them as outrageous as I would, but there's no notice of this.  I mean, would these students be able to pass the MCAS?  How has no one else ever noticed the weird cultishness?  The details were wonderfully amusing, but I couldn't figure out how seriously I was supposed to take them.


This book feels like Harry Potter sometimes, when he’s exploring his bizarre school. It is entertaining (I laughed out loud at his History textbook, The Subjugation and Domination of Various Peoples and Lands: A Guide to Effective Government), but not particularly satisfying. It’s like the book started out as an ongoing inside joke:
  • Practical Skills – just tying nets
  • Cryptobiology – trying to reanimate a dead frog with electricity
  • English – textbook Catastrophes of New England: 1650 to 1875
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry
I loved the contemplation of the nature of memory in the prologue – “’facts’ I’ve layered on over time, like newspaper on a paper mache piñata.” This is one of the reasons I love short story collections that are obviously a person trying to create meaning by looking at the same thing in many different ways, getting to a point where the least true-to-life story is also the most “true.” I feel like a lot of Daryl Gregory’s work is like this. In particular, he returns often to the story of a relatively normal person dealing with the eccentricities of genius, including in this book. He even rewrote one of his novels as a short story (and vice versa) to continue to look at it slightly differently. I’m actually a little disappointed that Harrison’s supposedly fabricated memories are true.



I love the phantom limb sensation. I know that later it will be discovered that it is somehow metaphysical  and is warning him of the presence of something supernatural. Also, I love that the main character has a physical disability (“maimed and limbless” according to Coach Shug) that is at the same time integral to the plot and treated very matter of factly. I love characters like that (think MilesVorkosigan).

   

Neither the mother nor Aunt Sel are believable characters, and they don’t add much to the book. They’re too exaggerated. Which is one of the reasons why I dislike when we switch to the mom’s point of view briefly (outside of my general dislike of POV shifting).



I love love love Lub. He’s so free and cheerful and odd. And the juxtaposition between him and the way his people are depicted in Lovecraft should be jarring, but just seems original and creative.

I feel like I'm complaining too much; the other side of this simplicity is that the pleasing parts are so simply pleasing.  I agree that the mother was kind of a flat character, but I found Aunt Selina to be delightful.  She should never have been in charge of a young person, but that of course fits right in with a teenager trying to save his missing mother.  She's proud and impulsive and kind of brittle and I had a lot of fun with her.  I loved Lub, too, and the all the other teenagers you get to know (including the very weird and creepy Isobel and what's going on there I'd like to know!  There's a whole other book there.)

How did you feel about the end?  Ambiguous much?  This seems like it's setup for a series, but I'm not sure if the part that's still hanging will support it. 


I didn't see it as setting up a series so much as the hand coming up out of the grave at the end of a horror movie, showing that everything is not actually okay. I mean, how could you have an HP Lovecraft based book with a happy ending? 

Definitely too much of a YA book for me, though. This always happens when I get my hopes too high!
Other random thoughts:

  • Fingercant is cool. I want to learn it.
  • I knew immediately the Albatross was a boat. I hate it when characters don't figure out something obvious.
  • The Scrimshander is legitimately scary.
  • I want to read Thomas Glück’s book. It makes me think of Bloody Jack.
Yes to all of those, especially Thomas Glück's book!  This book was a lot of fun; it lost points only for the expectations I had going in. 

Thank you so much for reviewing this with me, Brenda!

*Review copy received from Netgalley.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Reportage

Instead of a review, an update, because I'm not wrapping anything up anytime soon.

Let's see, I finished Lock In, and also the tie-in novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Hayden's Syndrome.  I basically stand by everything I said in my post from the middle of the book--it's a fascinating, well-written take on illness and identity, and the world building is amazing.  The mystery is good, too, though I definitely got lost in the middle, as I almost always do in a mystery, losing track of who we're talking about and which of them said what in an earlier scene.  But it's fine--a good mystery will carry you over those bumps, as this one does.

Unlocked came as part of the audiobook I listened to, and it was good, but I don't think it added very  much to the novel.  The viewpoints, the stories, and the process it described were all pretty much covered in the novel, and wound neatly in with characters and a puzzle, which made it more engaging.  It didn't really add anything, but I think it made a fine appendix to the main book.

I had started reading Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis, and I was enjoying it a lot.  It takes a broad concept--every time this boy closes his eyes, even for a blink, he sees/hears/experiences someone else's life, a girl in another world entirely--and then addresses the very detailed nitty gritty around it.  It also shares major plot points with two other books I read recently; like the title character in Harrison Squared (review forthcoming), Nolan is missing a leg, and as in Lock In, the question of having control of your own mind and body is a significant issue here.

I did set it aside for a while, though, because I got my hands on Naomi Novik's new book, Uprooted, which I'm halfway through and completely in love with.  Whether or not you are a big fan of Temeraire (I loved the first one and kind of drifted away during the third), the first half of this book is a delight.  I'll let you know how the rest goes when I get there.

I read volume one of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth, because the internet keeps telling me to (especially the Book Smugglers), and the first volume was good, though kind of disturbing.  I'll have a review when I've read more.  I've got a bit of a comics backlog right now, actually, with some ARCs and some library grabs and new volumes of Angel & Faith to get to.

Really, this is just a post of promises for real reviews that will be coming soon.  And they WILL be coming, honest.  I just need to get a little more reading in sometime soon.