Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Rogues

I had this whole post planned about how I feel about theme anthologies where a bunch of authors are given a topic and write about zombies or homewreckers or whatever, and how those anthologies are really hit or miss.

And then I realized I'd only ever read about two of those. Turns out, I just had a conflicted relationship with Zombies vs. Unicorns.

Setting that aside, though, the fact is that work for hire, written on a topic given by the solicitor, can be kind of flat.  There's a difference between inspiration and workmanship, and sometimes you can see it.  But "rogues" is a pretty broad category, and I don't think anyone was feeling very restrained when George R.R. Martin asked them to write a story for an anthology called Rogues.  Whatever else, the quality of these stories was pretty uniformly high.

Not that they were all for me.  It was both an advantage and a disadvantage that a lot of the heroes here were old favorites of their authors, coming out for another adventure.  No complaints--they all played pretty well coming in blind.  But some of the more detective-y stories were not anything I would normally have chosen to read (though I liked the idea of a black market in stolen band instruments), and some of the fantasy ones seemed to have a lot of backstory I could have used (this guy travels with a wizard who is also a puppet?).

I'm not going to run them all down, but I think my favorites were "Tough Times All Over," by Joe Abercrombie, "The Caravan to Nowhere," by Phyllis Eisenstein, and "The Lightening Tree," by Patrick Rothfuss. Oh, and Neil Gaiman's "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" was pretty great. And of course, Martin's own "The Rogue Prince" was the first thing of his that I've read, and it was pretty wonderful.  Oh, and the characters in Carrie Vaughn's "Roaring Twenties" were really cool.  Oh, plus Gillian Flynn's creep-out--that was fabulous.  See where this is going? A really great anthology.

Anyway, pretty much all the fantasy ones were really enjoyable; the more modern settings I could mostly take or leave.  The Joe Abercrombie one was really a ton of fun; basically a criminal relay race where the MacGuffin is stolen from each character in turn.  And whatever I think of Patrick Rothfuss as a dude, the guy can write--Bast going about his day in "The Lightning Tree" is one of the most fun reads I've had in ages.

So, despite what I may think of Zombies vs. Unicorns, I guess anthologies can be pretty great--if you get a bunch of the best authors going together and give them a loose but definitely crowd-pleasing topic.  Guess I shouldn't be shocked.

The funny thing is that it took me more than half a year to finish this book (aside: thank heaven for the Kindle, so I could carry this huge tome around and pop a story in whenever I had time), and I kind of wish there was more. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Chickens

So many great kids books lately that I haven't been recording!  Did I tell you about Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer?  It's by Kelly Jones and if the title alone doesn't have you hooked, you've gone the wrong way in life and should really reexamine the foundations of your book selection process.

Sophie's dad has lost his job and her family has moved from the city to a farm that they inherited from her great uncle.  Her mother keeps them afloat with her freelance writing while her father applies for jobs and struggles with low-grade depression, and Sophie tries to figure out what this new life has to offer for her. When she starts finding chickens that used to belong to Great Uncle Phil and realizes that these are no ordinary chickens--well, maybe country life is for her after all.

This is an adorable book. Let me tell you what I loved about it: it's about making the best when life deals you a crap hand.  It's about a family that is struggling but loves each other a lot.  Sophie is determined and excited about becoming an expert in something.  It's an epistolary novel! There are psychic chickens. Sophie loves the library.  There are references to other chicken books (which Adam and I went on to read and enjoy!). Sophie is biracial, and dealing with people's reactions to that is a part of her life, but not a huge one. The bad guys aren't villains so much as they are a little wrong and maybe a little selfish. But most people are good guys.

Did I mention the psychic chickens?

This book was really fun to read to my seven year old, and I bet he could have read it himself if he'd been willing to try. (How to talk him into reading chapter books himself is another thing, and advice is welcome.)

Also, one of the chickens is invisible.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Stiletto

I mentioned this book briefly in another post where I talked mostly about the exposition style. But now that I've finished it, I wanted to point out Stiletto.

Okay, so you discover an amazing book by a new author and you're insanely excited about it.  The Rook was this book, and I will shove it into people's hands (three or four people in my office are reading it right now). I've reread it about three times.  I love Myfanwy Thomas, both before and after, and that book is a delight.

And then there's a sequel--only the second book ever by the author--and you're very excited, but of course it's not quite as good.  Some of the reasons are psychological: you picked up the first book with no expectations, so mere excellence made your heart leap; you'd never read anything like this before, so there is the frisson of new discovery. The second one, you're expecting it to be excellent, so excellence doesn't make your heart leap.  You've read something like this before, so the thrill of novelty is gone.

Plus you find out that your heroine from book one--who hadn't yet met her brother! who was just becoming besties with that metal chick from the Croatoan!--is more of a peripheral character in book two.  Still there, still kicking ass and taking names, but not the primary POV character.  That's a big let-down--again, I LOVED Myfanwy Thomas and wanted badly to hang out with her more.

So yes, the experience of book two can't compare to book one.  But that doesn't mean it's not pretty darned delightful on its own.  You get to meet the Grafters, the ancient enemy of the Chequy, and to learn that yeah, they pretty much have their own deeply held hatreds. There are some great twists about the villains, and a really lovely story of grudging respect!  Who doesn't love the reluctant development of grudging respect?

So is it as great as The Rook? No. Few things are.  But it was pretty damned great on its own.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Doorway

Kinda wanted to put the book title as the post title, but that would feel like stealing; it's a great, great title.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan Maguire, is another novella, this one about a school for children who have passed through portals to other lands and been sent back for one reason or another.  When Alice comes home from Wonderland, or Dorothy from Oz, or any of the Pevensie children from Narnia, are they really going to be able to go on in the mundane world as though nothing had happened?

Nancy was gone for two years, living in the Land of the Dead, learning to stay perfectly still and become like a statue.  She loved it there, so it broke her heart when she found herself at home again, and it was only worse when her parents wanted her to be the same old Nancy she had been before, to "recover" from an "ordeal" that they didn't believe and couldn't understand. 

What she finds at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is not what she was looking for--a doorway back to the Land of the Dead--but it is comfort, of a sort--the comfort of being understood and recognized, even by people who are very different from you. 

The story is structured around a murder mystery, which is good because it adds momentum to what would otherwise be a really delightful pile of worldbuilding, but is also a bit weak, because the murderer keeps killing the interesting characters with whom I want to spend more time.  I've read reviews that wish there wasn't a murder mystery, but I think I just wish there were fewer bodies--in such a short book, there weren't quite enough characters to spare.

I did love all the characters, and the depiction of the discomfort of living in a new place full of new people. The representation was great--characters are trans, asexual, and all kinds of other ways of being, and if these things are discussed in somewhat stiff language--the words that you'd use in writing rather than conversation--they are described (as far as I can tell) with accuracy and sympathy, and their experiences are there.

I just found out that there will be more books in this series, and I'm so excited.  This is a world I want to revisit--I want to go to the sister school for children who want to forget they were ever gone; I want Miss Eleanor to find her way home.  But mostly, I feel so, so sorry for the spider queen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nuggets of Review: Lapidary

The number of little books that I've knocked out lately without writing them up has me feeling kind of chagrined--especially since I'm not deleting them from my Kindle until I blog them.  Now, of the 250 books on my Kindle, only about 3 are finished, but still; I have housekeeping to do. So let's send out a few little reports, shall we?

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilder.  The title doesn't give you a lot of info to work with, but the cover is much more on point.  Lin is a Jewel, a princess in a kingdom that is protected by magic gemstones.  Her faithful servant Sima is a lapidary, who has the magical ability to hear and sometimes talk to these gems.  Between the Jewels and their sworn servants, the Valley has been safe for hundreds of years.

But a lapidary has gone mad and Lin's family has been slaughtered.  Invaders are coming, and the only protection the kingdom has left are two teenage girls who know their duty but have never shouldered a burden like this before. 

This book is full of little things to love--the clear-eyed look at the power structures in this kingdom, the very real danger in the magic system, and especially the relationship between Lin and Sima.  It's short--a novella--but it never glosses over the layers of truth behind so many things.  Sima is devoted to Lin, but she is also bound to her service, both by custom and law, and by the very dangerous realities of the gems she can hear speaking.  Lin is called upon to be a leader in ways she never had been and never expected to be, and this happens at the time when she has the least support. The same system that gives the Valley the protection of the gems is dangerously dependent on a wild magic that can drive a person mad. There is a heft an thoughtfulness to this slim book that you don't see every day, at all. 

The closest thing I might come to calling a weakness is that it can be a little confusing.  I think this might be a me-thing, though--I really require direct lines to be drawn between the things that happen in the world and the reactions that people have.  When characters make emotional decisions or experience revelations, when someone's actions make another character realize something about them, I need it spelled out.  I do not do implication very well.  And there are moments here where characters are undergoing a lot of internal struggles that are described as a process, but not from the source.  There were moments when I couldn't figure out what Lin was realizing, or what Sima was tempted to do.

Again, this is a big weakness I have in general--it's why I can't read plays, and I suspect why I will never get along with really literary fiction.  Even around that, though, this was a great, scary, kind of shocking story. And the teasing hints of the future--the little epigraphs from a guidebook written years after the events we're reading about--were an amazing touch.

I really need to read more of these Tor novellas--I'm just so glad they exist.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Little Smile

Yesterday I bought some cherries at the grocery store, and when I was eating them in the evening I thought of the chokecherries that Brian eats in Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, the classic kid-lost-in-the-deep-woods story. FYI, chokecherries (and being lost in the woods) sound terrible.

This morning on the train, there was a grown-up in a nice business-casual outfit reading a very beat-up copy of Hatchet on the train. He seemed pretty into it.  I wanted to ask him if he'd gotten to the chokecherries yet.  It made me smile.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Libraries

I haven't had a two-library day in a long time, but today I really wanted to get Adam some of Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books--he's into pigs, and they're right at his reading level. I happened to be driving past the Arlington library and I happened to know that several were available there, so I just pulled over and stopped in. 

Turns out they also have a really impressive Juvenile comics collection, and I got a bunch of fun stuff that I think Adam's going to enjoy.  And then I got to check my books out by just stacking them on this electronic pad and scanning my library card.  The RFID reader read all the books at once and emailed me a receipt.  I was startled. Technology!

And then of course I stopped by Medford, to drop off some supplies for tomorrow's craft at the Friends of the Library table at Circle the Square, and to pick up one more Mercy Watson book, and to return a video, etc. etc. I saw some of my library friends--helped Sarah move some boxes, chatted with Tamar while she did some shelving, and got the summer reading list from Sam to see if the Friends have any extra copies of the summer reading books we can give her.  Offered to do the same for Nicole in YA; just have to pick up the list.

You know, it's not just the books.  I love the library.  I love the librarians, who are so patient and cheerful when they deal with a lot of tough situations all day.  I love the programs that my son has so much fun at. I love the Friends, which is a great group of people working hard at something worthwhile and fun.  The library just makes me happy.  So yeah, it was a good day.