Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Married the Bishop

No, wait, he became bishop after I married him.  Not me, I mean, Linda Walheim, the narrator, protagonist, VERY erstwhile detective, and eponymous bishop's wife of the novel The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.

Okay, I go back and forth between writing a polite review about the many things this book tried to do and where it fell short and just rambling on about how I didn't like it.  The latter is more entertaining and satisfying; the former is the more generous choice in a world where an author is quite likely to find your review.  The former, however, is also not where my skill set lies.

Let's settle in between for something straightforward, because I don't want to spend a lot of time on this.  To sum it up: the reason I finished this book was because I had a distant (and shrinking) hope that it would turn out to be a complete mind-bender and that the narrator--a passive, hand-wringing waffler of a Mormon housewife--would turn out to be the murderer.  That would have been fascinating, if nothing else.  Sadly, it's not a spoiler to say, no dice.

This is a book where a rough summary is easy and a detailed one is impossible.  Short version: Linda Walheim is a good Mormon housewife whose last kid is almost out of the house and whose husband is serving as bishop, putting her in a vicarious position in the center of ward (like a parish, only Mormon) life.  A couple of the domestic dramas turn out to be complicated by disappearances that might relate to murders.

The longer version is almost illegible, because nobody's motivations make any sense.  A man and his five year old daughter report his wife mysteriously missing.  He claims she's run out on him, but her parents claim that she was escaping abuse.  Linda, who lost her only daughter at birth years ago, can't believe any mother would leave her daughter like that. (This assumption is neither backed up nor challenged.)

Linda (for some reason) inserts herself into the investigation.  Though she has almost no contact with the police, she questions people and is nosy.  Really, in many ways, the sense that she's trying to solve the mystery comes entirely from her thinking about it a lot.  There are many scenes, in fact, where she does something like sit in a chair and think vague thoughts for a long time.  Kind of assumed that she'd turn out to be mentally ill.  Nope.

Revelations roll forth, as well as other mysteries, and I won't spoil them except to say that this reads very much like a first draft.  If the original events played out the way the Big Reveal demonstrates them, it would not make sense for any of the people with things to hide to behave the way they do early in the story.  It's like the plot was made up as it went along, but nobody went back to look for continuity.

In many ways, I read it as an anthropological exercise; a book by a Mormon author in a modern Mormon setting did contain some interesting details.  But every time she got close to something (men have too much power in the Church; "family secrets" can hide violent and dangerous things; even men who are not sexist can be pretty sexist), she skirts away from it and neither explores the issue nor even gives you a comforting platitude about it.  I'd feel better about this book if it read like solidly believed dogma instead of a doubter who doesn't really want to bother with what it means to doubt.

And where the HECK were the police?  She never calls them, she keeps telling herself she can't do better than them, but when she searches the house, she finds the victim's discarded cellphone?  That the police missed somehow?  And then doesn't tell them?  But then a cop shows up and gives her a very reasonable lecture about how the police are going to help, and "they probably won't believe me" is a dumb excuse, and she agrees, and then keeps doing the exact same stuff she's doing.

I guess I was looking for a Susan Isaacs thing, where a random lady insinuates herself into a murder investigation and turns out to have some bright ideas, insights, and uncovers information--just Utah instead of New York.  But no, this is about a random lady who stands very still and watches life moving around her, thinking hard about having an opinion, but in the end not really doing much of anything at all.

Except in that one, seriously unbelievable scene with the SWAT team--oh, I just can't.  I'm sorry.  Not recommended.

(And here's where I admit that I got this book from Netgalley for an honest review.  Well it's definitely an honest review.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Words Words Words

I'm digging into the backlist these days, trying to spread out the shiny new stuff with things that have gotten buried near the bottom of the TBR list.  A few people I know read Maxx Barry's Lexicon recently and I've been aggressively avoiding the spoilers, so I dove in.

This book!  Guys, this book.  I have been fooled by this book at absolute minimum three times, and surprised at least four more.  It's seriously packed with action, with worldbuilding, and with character development--often sketchy characters, who are hard to penetrate but flawed and fascinating. 

The premise is fairly simple: there are people who, through gifts and advanced training, can use words to affect people's neurobiology and effectively hypnotize or force them to obey ("compromise," they call it). The plot is more complicated: we are following two stories.  Wil is abducted in an airport and ends up in a major chase where he's not sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  He has no idea why this is happening to him, and neither do we.

The other story follows Emily, who's a street kid hustling three card monte in San Francisco when she is discovered by the Poets and brought to their school to be educated.  She doesn't quite fit in, but she's an avid learner and boundary pusher.

These stories tie together.  These people are on a collision course.  This book is intense and clever and so much fun.  The world building is smart, and the twists are surprising and inevitable.  But the cool thing is that even the few things I guessed "early" (like, before the flat-out reveal) weren't disappointing.  The book wasn't relying on the twist, or the surprise, to keep me interested.  I felt just as delighted when I knew what was going on as when I was blindsided.

I'm not quite done yet--this is the moment of my most intense thrill when I need to blog about the book.  And I'll admit that it's not entirely without holes--at no point, for example, is the mission statement of the Poets really hinted at, even when you're among them.  I guess building a hypnotic army is enough?  Their mystique keeps you on your toes, but it seems like a bit of a blank spot.

* * * * *

Later...

Okay, I'm back from vacation and I finished the book and holy cow it was awesome.  The ending was a little confusing, but the characters all followed their own paths to the end, and it was still a supremely good read.  Seriously, every time I thought, "here's the twist, here's the way the story's going to go," I was surprised.  Way to go, Max Barry!

Monday, July 07, 2014

I Am Waiting for More

I don't know what's going on with Allen Zadoff's I Am the Weapon series.  The first one was published under Boy Nobody a while ago, and now maybe it's being republished under The Hit, I guess?  Or maybe that's overseas; I'm unclear.  Anyway, I read I Am the Weapon and got really into it--slam, bang, boom.

So now we have I Am the Mission, and again, lucky enough to get an ARC.  In fact, I was sitting there on Netgalley waiting for it to come out, and I almost peed myself with joy when I saw it, requested it, and got it, right away.  And then I gulped it down, and now all I want to know is what the next one will be called and when it will come out.

I'll admit, Mission isn't as good as Weapon.  The second in a series rarely is, and my theory is that, even when the book is great, it can never surprise you like the first one did--finding a new author/character/series to love is a big part of the thrill, and that New Series Energy is not going to be there for books two through &c.

So Mission didn't get to surprise me as much.  Also, the author challenged himself here--this time our narrator is up against a paramilitary organization, which means he's not the only guy with training in the game.  There's also some internal strife at the Program, which, given the fact that things already operate on a Really, Really Need to Know basis, means he's pretty confused and adrift, support-wise.

This time, his name is Daniel, and he's being sent in to kill the leader of a militia-style camp/cult of young people.  It's a short term job; he's to strike at a recruiting event, not to go inside the compound.  These people have already taken out one Program kid, and they're not risking Daniel.

But a plan never survives first contact, and Daniel finds himself inside, cut off, and trying to fulfill his mission and navigate the fraught politics of a paranoid military organization.  On  the way, he finds and figures out more about his own organization, and maybe even his own past.

I'm usually not one for the broader story arc, preferring the mission on the table for the day.  But honestly, the camp parts dragged--it was a lot more waiting for an opportunity than acting, and the real drama of the story wasn't there.

It was with Daniel, cut off from the Program, examining his own motivations.  I'll admit that I guessed some of the twists and turns early, but it didn't take away from them.  This is a solid middle book, and I am completely set up for the third one.  We're going to find out about Daniel's father, and the moral ambiguity of being an assassin for the good guys is going to wash out in the end.  Allen Zadoff, get writing!

Friday, July 04, 2014

Refreshed

That moment when you read a random book and LOVE it, but realize it's the first in a trilogy.

But THEN, it turns out that the next book in the series comes out TOMORROW!

(Please excuse the sentence fragments.  It pains me to write them, even for rhetorical effect.)

I noticed J. Kathleen Cheney's The Golden City on the shelf at the library, and I thought about reading it, but I didn't pick it up until I got a solid recommendation from a chat friend.  I picked it up, I started in.  Society girl is packing for an elopement in 1900s Portugal, with the help of her secretly-seria (siren) handmaiden/companion.  So right off the bat, you have some fun stuff--servants, elopements, selkies.  I'm having fun already.

The elopement goes awry, and when the society lady is murdered, Oriana--seria, spy, unemployed professional companion--is determined to find the killer and avenge her friend's death.  Her kind are forbidden in the Golden City under pain of death, and her personal and family situation is complicated.

For all the magic, though, and all the politics and selkies and seria and things, this is a flat out (alternate) historical mystery, and it's a really excellent one.  In addition to Oriana's point of view, we get that of Duilio, a gentleman scholar who works with the police on occasion and is half-selkie himself.  He's been investigating mysterious disappearances that are tied to Oriana's friend's death.

I think the best thing about this book is that there is so much going on and I understood ALL of it.  I knew who the characters were, even when there were a lot of them.  There's so much rich background detail, and it's presented in such a smooth, NON-infodumping way that you really have no idea which details are going to come back as important later and which are just rich worldbuilding.  I think that kind of smooth storytelling is better here than in pretty much any mystery I've ever read.

There's so much more to love here, too.  I can see people wanting more depth in a lot of the cool things that are touched on--like how Oriana comes from a matriarchal society, but living in a patriarchal one--but I also love how they're just neatly embedded in the rest of the story.  Like when Duilio thinks something about not minding women working (or something like that, that seems kind of condescending), but then later Oriana has a similar thought about men. 

Duilio and Oriana as a pair is probably not too surprising to anyone who's ever, you know, read a book, but this is another thing that's just done so smoothly that I loved it.  They do not fall in love, or even lust, at first sight.  They find in each other an ally in their hunt for the truth, and they team up.  There's also no faux friction, mistrust, will-they-won't-they distrust.  They get along well, come to trust each other, and work well together  And after a little while, they both start to realize that they like each other.  But they're in a busy, intense period, so they don't really do anything about it.  These are two mature adults whose potential romantic feels take a comfortable backseat to the very real and important work they're doing, and I was practically standing up and cheering the whole time.

The plot is complicated and involves spies and art and politics and society matrons and magic and all kinds of things, and there's a huge cast of characters, some friends, some enemies, some uncertain.  I love that they had allies and trusted friends--this wasn't an "only we can save the world" situation, but a pair of people who were leading an important team.

I loved, loved this book.  Excuse me while I go buy the sequel--and hope like heck that Oriana's in it more than the cover blurb implies.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

There Is No Post Title That Encompasses These Two Comics

I tried really hard to think of a clever theme to tie Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals to volume3 of Spera, and god help me, I can't.  It's probably for the best.  Really, it's just that I got advance copies of both, and they're comics I've read in the past week.  So I'll just review them, if that's all right with you.

First of all, I think it's quite daring for someone to publish something that makes him the number one hit when you Google "sex criminals."  That takes some gumption, or something.  I usually go right for Matt Fraction, but the premise here had me seriously skeptical--this guy and this girl discover that they both have the power to freeze time when they have an orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank.

Crazy, definitely.  But tasteless?  No, actually.  It's one of the most sweet and sincere books about sex and falling for someone.  Here we have two people who are both really into sex--and who both have a secret sex power.  Suzie tells the story, starting in flashbacks to her childhood, then with meeting John, which is sweet and romantic and set up to be a really great one night stand, till they find out they have more in common than they ever would have imagined.

We get two coming of age stories--Suzie's rather sad one and John's kind of standard adolescence.  We have a lot of "what would you do with your magic powers" fun scenes.  And we have a lot about the complexities of navigating the beginning of a relationship with someone you're absolutely infatuated with but don't necessarily know that well yet.  This was just such an incredibly charming read; I can't wait for the next volume.

(Also, make sure you read all the background filler--the posters in the porn shop, the signs in the library.  Absolutely hilarious; the authors have a lot of fun with how silly a lot of these things are, sex-related and not.)

Josh Tierney's Spera has reached volume 3, and I feel about the same as I did about it before.  I like Lono and Pira, two princesses on the run.  I find Yonder charming, and I find their adventures fun.  I am starting to feel, though, that I'd like a little more depth.

This volume teased it a bit--two young men from Lono's collapsed kingdom show up, enraged with their princess for abandoning her people.  But I didn't want a story about these two boys learning not to be so angry--I wanted Pira and Lono to maybe turn around and see that if adventuring is what you want, you've got an evil queen and a conquered kingdom that maybe could use your attention.

As usual, there is a different artist for each story, and I find this distracting.  I wish there was a little more harmony across the styles; I don't need them to match in look, but in tone, it would help.  At least one of them I found so muddy it was quite hard to read.  And at the end, you get a big handful of short stories, again, by different artists.  These are charming, even more so in that you don't expect the same cohesion from them.  I think I'd appreciate them a bit more if I followed the comic online instead of in book form, though.

So basically, what I want from Spira is to step up its game--turn into a more cohesive story.  I appreciate that it's a light, adventuring princesses thing, and I don't mind if they don't end up facing Pira's mother.  But I do think that the episodic snippets are starting to get in the way of character development, and I'd love to see this story do more.  It's such a great concept, and such charming characters; I think it has a lot of potential.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dibble Dabble

I start in on a bunch of stuff and get distracted.  I won't say that my awesome streak is broken, but we're dialing it back to normal with a few duds among all the delight.  So, a quick spin through the thanks-but-no-thanks list, with a stop in charming-and-delightful land to freshen up in the middle.

Misdiagnosed: One Woman's Tour of--And Escape From--Healthcareland, by Jody Berger. Didn't get much past the first chapter of this one--the problem with a memoir is that the narrator and the protagonist and the author are generally the same person, and if you don't like them, it's not worth going there.  I rather like medical memoirs (though admittedly I've read more from the doctor's POV than the patient's), but from the very beginning the author just doesn't know how to handle the health care system.  She doesn't ask good questions, gets annoyed when she's given a tentative diagnosis instead of a real one, insists that she doesn't take drugs (as in, I won't take aspirin), and clearly has trouble prioritizing her health and her travel appropriately.  I understand that the system can be confusing, and that dealing with your health is scary, but she seems to bring the chaos with her, even by her own account.  Pass.

Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.  Read this one out loud to Adam, and I was surprised at what a hit it was.  I've often heard Danny's dad mentioned as one of the best parents in literature, so I was a little surprised that the story turned out to be all about poaching--kinda criminal, plus hunting which is not always embraced nowadays.  I wasn't thrilled how the poaching was justified by how awful the victim was (Adam really liked saying "Mr. Victor Hazell," though), but it's true that it was a charming story, and Danny and his dad are just a great couple of characters.  This was just a lovely book, and Adam really enjoyed it.  I think he's old enough to follow Charlie & the Chocolate Factory now, and I'm excited to dive into more Dahl.

The Mind of Winter, by Laura Kesischke.  Whoa, nellie, never you mind.  Someone (Booksmugglers, maybe?) put this book on a list of anticipated releases ages ago, so when I saw it at the library I picked it up.  When I read the blurb to Mike, he shook his head sadly.  And I can see that--it's a thriller about a mom of an adopted Russian (adopted as a baby, now a teenager) who, trapped at home with her daughter in a blizzard, suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea that "something had followed them back from Russia."

Here again, though, we have a super unlikeable protagonist.  To be fair, that was her thing--the author was clearly writing an unlikeable narrator. But there's a difference between observing that someone is superstitious and asking "what's wrong with them?"  Your in-laws are not judging you every time they ask how you're doing.  If you're that paranoid, a) I don't want to hang out with you for a whole book, and b) I don't feel a lot of sympathy when you start to feel persecuted by something you can't put your finger on.  You clearly felt plenty persecuted before.

 So that's the round up of late.  More to come, though, because I also read a couple of interesting comics and a FABULOUS novel.

*Disclosure: I got a free advance copy of Misdiagnosed from the publisher. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Little Gems

It's so often surprising where the good ones pop up from.  I mean, random shelf browsing has a pretty reliable 25-45% return rate (in my completely made up statistical experience), but when it comes to a category--nun books, Regency romance--a random choice is not necessarily the best way to get the job done. 

The world of Jane Austen follow-ups is a big one, ranging from retelling her original stories from alternate points of view to sequels or spinoffs of minor characters.  Roaming the aisles at the library, I saw something called A Visit to Highbury by Joan Austen-Leigh, and the author's name caught my eye.  The fact that it was actually Jane's great great grand-niece didn't actually promise a good book, but I liked the notion of the owner of Harriet Smith's boarding school having something to say.

And somehow, this book is incredibly charming.  At first I was waiting for it to get all modern--for one of the new characters to turn out to be a hustler of some sort.  But no, it's just a really nice little story, told in the form of two sisters who haven't seen each other in years corresponding.  Mrs. Pinkney is unhappy in London with her new husband, who is not sociable enough for her tastes, so takes up writing to Mrs. Goddard, the schoolmistress who is watching the events of Emma unfolding in her village.  Mrs. Goddard relates village gossip; Mrs. Pinkney tries to get to know her husband.  Mrs. Goddard has servant problems; Mrs. Pinkney befriends a young neighbor.  People are cranky and selfish and shy and whatever other flaws people have, but they stretch themselves and become better. 

This is just one of those books that is lovely.  Just lovely and charming and dear, in its small and domestic way.  It makes me very happy to be reading it.