Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Backlog: Grist Mill Road

Catching up on the books I read during my long hiatus, I come back to Grist Mill Road, by Christopher J. Yates.

I've been on a long run of thrillers lately--I don't know why, maybe because they're kind of fluffy?  You get a lot of tension without using up a lot of brainpower. The fantasy and sci fi that I enjoy in generally pretty intense in world building and when they're dark, it just seems more significant, somehow.

So: thrillers, suspense, murder.  I got Grist Mill Road from Netgalley for review, because a blogger with dark tastes liked it a lot. She and I don't always agree, but this one was good.  It takes advantage of multiple points of view to tell a twisty story that keeps you guessing without a lot of surprise revelations--just a slow unfolding of perspective.

At the beginning of the book, our narrator is Patrick, looking back on his childhood and telling the story of his friendship with a boy named Matthew--a little older, a lot rougher, getting up to some dangerous games.  A girl named Hannah comes into their lives, and eventually a Big Awful happens.

Later in the book, we get more perspectives--we get information from Hannah and even from Matthew, and we learn about their lives now, years along, as well as more aspects to what happened back then.  We learn where the cracks are in their lives, and we learn more and more about that horrible day.

My favorite part about this book is the ambiguity that it leaves you with.  It starts with a clear story, the kind of story you usually get in a narrative.  And then it muddies the water more and more without changing the facts, until you can't see who could have done what to change things.

Less fluffy (really, is that the word I want?) than what I'm usually going for in my suspense, but worth it, because the twists really illuminate a lot about how the world is.  What more does anyone want in their books?

Monday, September 03, 2018

Everyone Is Horrible

No, wait, that's not the name.  You Were Made For This, that's what it was called, by Michelle Sacks.  Given where I heard about this book (Kelly, who reads mostly grimdark books about creepy rural poverty, found it ridiculously dark), I knew I was in for a rollercoaster of garbage people, and oh em gee did it deliver.

We meet Merry and Sam, who have left behind the hubbub of New York City for the Swedish countryside.  Merry gardens, cooks from scratch, and takes care of their baby son Connor.  Sam travels into the city to build up his new video production business.  They walk in the forest and swim in the lakes and eat nourishing food and take photos of their gorgeous lives. They are perfect.

Maybe there are cracks.  Maybe we wonder why they really left New York, and whether Merry is quite as natural a homemaker as she makes out.  But their life looks pretty perfect.

They hear Frank is coming to visit.  Merry's childhood best friend, Frank is a gorgeous, successful globetrotter whose life is the opposite of Merry's.  She's a consultant with a new boyfriend every season. She's going to spend her sabbatical with Merry and Sam.  It sounds lovely; Merry could use some company, living way out in the country.

I don't even really need to tell you the forms that all of this unraveling will take; it's right there in the setup.  I mean, if this was another kind of book--an intimate examination of characters and life choices--I would still spend the rest of the book waiting for the lives I've described above come crumbling down.  And they do, most spectacularly.

The story is told from all three points of view, which works very well. It doesn't rely on mystery to carry it; there are things you don't know for a while, but you're not relying on the weight of the thing the characters know and you don't to drive the tension.  Flaws start to crack open and what spills out is darker than you even thought, while still remaining entirely in the realm of what you expect from these characters--Merry isn't as tranquil in her role as we thought; Sam isn't just a doting husband and father; Frank doesn't have it all.

If there is anywhere you're wondering if the book will go, yeah, it goes there. It gets ugly, but never in any way that you were not promised from the beginning.  The use of different points of view to paint each character as both real and human while also nasty and cruel is fascinating because it works both ways; you learn both the good and bad about each person not only from their internal story but also from how they see each other.

This is a very specific kind of book; if you're looking for domestic suspense that is very character-driven and not afraid to go ANYWHERE, this is for you.  It wasn't the book of the year by any stretch, but it kept me reading right straight through.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

DNF: Night Film

I wanted to love Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. I'm not sure if my reasons were very pure (The Jennys liked it! It's both scary and highbrow!), but I made it to page 100 (of almost 600) before deciding that I couldn't do it.

I wish I could say that the book is just not for me, but in many ways it is for me.  The narrator is an investigative reporter who has fallen into disgrace due to his weird behavior during an investigation of a reclusive filmmaker.  Now, years later, the filmmaker's daughter is dead of an apparent suicide, and the reporter finds himself looking into the daughter.

This is basically a good and interesting (if overly long) book; I think I would have finished it if it was 400 pages instead of 600. I can list the things that bothered me very precisely, and I tried very hard to put up with them.  But at the rate I was going (that font was small), I was going to spend three or four weeks with this book, and my nitpicks would have driven me bonkers.

Three main problems, from broadest to narrowest.

1) The book really depends on the sense of eeriness that comes from the mysterious filmmaker Cordova.  He never makes public appearances; all of his movies were filmed on his enormous private estate. The movies are so scary that his later ones weren't shown in theaters; there were secret underground (literally, in Paris catacombs) screenings with coded messages about when and where, and people who saw them were never the same again (woo!).

It takes a lot of people to make a movie. And the whole "art so profound it literally drives people mad!" is just too hard to imagine.  I just wasn't convinced by the idea of these movies being supernatural, and if the book wanted to convince me, it needed to show me earlier not just tell.

2) The main character, reporter Scott McGrath, is very much an obnoxious white guy.  If the author had been a man, I would have put it down on page 20 when he comes home 4 hours late without letting the babysitter know, complains about his ex-wife's hobbies, and bullies his way into conversations he wants to have with people who don't want him around.  Because the author's a woman, I gave the book a lot more space, but I only appreciate an unlikable narrator if the book is pretty explicit about the unlikability being deliberate.  While I don't think he's supposed to be likeable, per se, I am not convinced I'm supposed to despise him as much as I do.  (This is very much a "not for me" factor, though; I am very down on entitled men right now.)

3) Finally and possibly most annoyingly, the italics. They are everywhere. Within dialogue or in the narration, any word that's emphasized, even if you would have naturally emphasized in in your head, got the italic treatment anyway.  It was like listening to Holly Golightly talk when she's in prime society girl mode (note that italics are sometimes used to call out phrases, rather than emphasize; still annoying). 

While this is maybe the most shallow of my issues, it's also probably the one that killed me in the end. I think that's because this persistent annoyance in the text really separated my judgement from the author's, which made me not trust her on the other issues.  As I said, I can deal with an unlikable character if I feel like the author and I are in on that together, but the use of italics made me feel antagonistic toward the author--not the narrator, Scott, but the author--and that was the kiss of death.

I might still pick up Special Topics in Calamity Physics to see how different it is and whether I can connect with the author in another context.  But for now, I'm dropping back to something simpler and possibly involving some Crazy Rich Asians.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Things I Can't Even Explain To Myself: Rereading

At a moment when I have 25 books out of the library, a bunch of exciting new releases buzzing around me, and personal recommendations thrust upon me, I am somehow right now doing more rereading than I've done in years. In addition to all the new books I'm in the middle of, I keep picking up old favorites.

I've been meaning to reread The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for probably years. I finally took it off the shelf this weekend when I realized that the movie is available on Netflix.  I've rushed through it and it's as much of a delight as it ever was; Juliet's letters remind me of Helene Hanff's correspondence in 84, Charing Cross Road. I'm a bit suspicious of the movie version, mostly because it's quite clearly a straight-up romance, and I didn't see the romance coming for the first two-thirds of the book the first time I read it.  On reread, I agree with myself; it's not a romance. It's a bigger, more deeply human story than that.

Then, while transcribing an old episode of the Reading the End bookcast, I was reminded of the existence of Sorcery and Cecilia, and so now I'm reading that, too, because Regency! Dresses! Friendship! Sassy narrators are great, but sassy letter writers are something else again.  I wish I could figure out how to tell an epistolary story. I just love the vehicle it gives you for tone of voice, when it's done well.

Finally, somehow, I find on my bedside table my copy of Archangel, by Sharon Shinn. Another romance, this one has a very formal narrative voice, quite the opposite of my other two reads.  I'm finding myself burning with rage on Rachel's behalf, maybe even more than the book intends me to.  Gabriel's a jerk (but I'm only a quarter of the way in). I'm realizing in this read through that some of the "forced to marry" elements here that seemed so romantic before now have me right brassed off.

There's a tag in some fanfic called "dubcon," short for "dubious consent," which means one or more of the characters are on board with shenanigans, but against their better judgement. It's a gray area that covers a lot of plots, and to each his/her own, but I don't like the "forced to do something and, once begun, realizes that maybe it's not that bad."  I don't like that in real life and I don't really like it in my fic. When Rachel is told that she has no choice but to marry Gabriel, it's not okay in the book.  She's been a slave, and her freedom was within her grasp when he takes it away again.  The fact that her new fate ends up being okay does not really detract from it being essentially another form of slavery.  Though, I'll admit, I haven't finished this reread; I'm curious how much nuance this issue gets.

So Archangel is getting away with something when it convinces me to love it.  Also, look at the cover it has to overcome! That might be the worst cover I've ever seen on a book I love.  And it's weirdly...symbolically sexual?  Or something? And yet I love the book.

Looking back over this, I realized that they are not just favorites; they are all three comfort reads.  This makes sense; it's been a bit of a rough month. I didn't realize I was doing it, but this looks suspiciously like self-care.  And yeah, I have a pile of library books to get back on top of, but darn if this isn't a freeing feeling--reading for the known quantity, rather than a battle with the TBR list. I feel nourished.

Good night!

Monday, August 13, 2018

SecUnit of My Heart

I was about to name this post Murderbot of My Heart before I looked back and found out that's what I named the post where I raved about All Systems Red, the first book in Martha Wells' incredible, delightful series about everyone's favorite socially anxious, warmhearted killing machine. I can't think of another title, because "my heart" has to be in the post name, because my feelings are going to overflow.

There have been two more books in the series since that first post, and the fourth and final novella comes out in October, at which point I will be buying it on release day and weeping that there isn't any more.  That's what I did with Artificial Condition, the second in the series.  I literally had "Buy Murderbot" in my calendar for that day, which Brenda (who can see my calendar) assumed meant I was feeling particularly stabby that day. (She is now also a huge fan of Murderbot.)

Artificial Condition was excellent; our beloved SecUnit (who doesn't really refer to itself often by name, and whom I don't like calling Murderbot because I love it and won't let it be down on itself) is investigating the events that led to its former murderous rampage, to try to determine how it happened. To get where it's going, it needs allies--like ART, a superintelligent research transport (who learns to love media)--and work, in the form of a security consulting gig that is pretty much as straightforwardly a terrible idea as it seems.

Along the way, our SecUnit meets nice people, pretends to be human, interacts with other bots whose feelings about autonomy are pretty intense, and has to beat up some bad guys.  And watch some Sanctuary Moon reruns, of course.  (I would very much like to watch Sanctuary Moon; if someone wants to create some sort of fan webcomic or something, I would Kickstart that).  In sum, this was great.

Today, though, I finished Rogue Protocol, which I was fortunate enough to get as an ARC from Netgalley for review (thank you, Tor.com!). Artificial Condition was great, but Rogue Protocol was even better.  Murderbot's investigation has expanded to include GrayCris, the company that tried to kill Dr. Mensah and the rest of the survey party in All Systems Red.  SecUnit is on the trail of proof of larger evildoing by the company, and would like to get evidence to help Dr. Mensah in her legal battle with them. That's how SecUnit ends up with another exploration team, this time investigating a decommissioned terraforming installation that is maybe way more dangerous than it seems.

I love how full of good people these books are.  It might seem kind of sappy sometimes, if there weren't so many bad people, too. But so many competent people are doing the best they can here that you can't help but enjoy watching them all work together. There is another AI character in this one, and watching SecUnit deal with its feelings about Miki--all of those feelings, many of which SecUnit can't quite pin down for itself--is really what makes this all worth it.

I love that this set of books has such a clear character trajectory, as SecUnit really processes what it means to be a free agent in the world--not just that you can choose your friends and causes, but that you almost have to.  It's so clear to the reader that SecUnit is, for some definition of the word, "human" that watching it figure that out for itself is a huge, meaningful adventure to be on.

Also, super competence porn.  I never thought I'd be so excited about armed drones.

However many stars there are to give, this book gets more of them. I will be shoving this book at people for months.  Go read it, please! Now!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Revenge Fantasy Satisfaction

Jane Doe is a good title, but it's simple and hard to search for.  The book, though--the book is a blast.  Apparently I'm having a moment of loving my non-neurotypical narrators.

Victoria Helen Stone's new novel (she's written many others under a couple of names) is a methodical telling of a woman out for revenge.  It's one of those books that doesn't really have much of an arc, and you're propelled on less by tension than by curiosity--the character sets out to do something and you watch her do it.  You can't look away.  It's competence porn about destroying someone's life.

See, our narrator, Jane, is not like most people.  The word she uses for herself is sociopath, though I'm not sure she meets the clinical definition.  She says that she does feel emotions, but rarely, and not urgently.  She does have the impulse control problems and lack of guilt and shame that might come with sociopathy, but , as she points out, that doesn't make her a murderer.  She has no reason NOT to murder someone--no guilt, no shame--but she doesn't particularly want to, either.

Until, maybe, now.  Because her best-and-only friend was taken from her, and the man responsible needs to pay.  So Jane leaves her high-power job and dyes her hair soft blonde and gets a job as a temp in his office, and waits for him to notice her.

And the wheels are in motion.

This was the book that I wanted the YA book Premediated to be. Watching a master at work is pretty delightful, and honestly, it was just glorious watching a woman move through the world without apology, calling out all bull as she sees it.

Thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for steering me right with this one!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Undead Girl Gang

Because the title is so good that I can't improve upon it.

I wanted this book to be great, because of the title and because of the premise: Mila doesn't believe that her best friend kills herself, so she brings her back from the dead (along with a couple of other girls) to figure out who murdered her.  Creepy, delightful romp!

Undead Girl Gang, by Lily Anderson, has a lot going on--possibly way too much.  I want to start with the fact that the Jennys read this at Reading the End last week, so check out their podcast for an excellent review that covers the good (friendship!), the bad (uniformly stupid adults), and the ugly (really wild misconceptions about suicide).  I agree with their entire review, so I'm going to cover most of this with some quick bullets:
  • The best part was the friendship that grows between Mila and her (resurrected) best friend, Riley, and the two other girls she accidentally brings back as well, Dayton and June.  "The Proper Nouns," as Mila calls them, have been popular bullies for years, but now they have a forced proximity/grudging respect thing going on, which is super charming.
  • The book has wild tonal swings from silly conversations about junk food to huge murder plots, but it skimps on some of the emotions you'd most expect in this situation, namely shock and any kind of existentialism. I don't think there's one conversation about what happens after the girls' seven-day resurrection is over and they go "back."
  • All the adults are horrible.  Mila's family is completely indifferent to who she is as a person, even as she's mourning her best friend. Her wicca mentor shoots up a house containing living people for VERY POORLY DEFINED REASONS. The school councilor seems pretty damned vapid (though I think the book tries to fake you out as though this was a misconceptions; I think it fails at that).
These are all the things that the Jennys lay out very well.  I think what bothered me most, though, was the logical inconsistency--or maybe just the failure of the plot to hold up if you look too close.

Which sounds dumb--I'm sorry, are there holes in your raising the dead plot? But the murder mystery gets extreme short shrift, to the point where you can use the Law of Economy of Characters to figure out who did it. I knew very early on, and I was hoping it was a fake-out, but no, it was just sitting there, right out front.

But going back to the beginning, there are all these moments where Mila figures something out--like "the murderer must be one of our classmates" and the book--neither in-story nor the author--does nothing to dissuade her from that.  Like, if there's a serial killer, it must be one of the students, because all the victims are high school girls.  I...don't think that's how crime works?

Or the wiccans are all "this is very dark magic; mess with the balance and it will turn back on you threefold," but....actually no?  There is (spoiler not spoiler) no actual magical comeuppance for the act of raising the dead.  That's a pretty big omission when a big plot line is about how bad an idea it is to raise the dead.  I mean, it actually goes pretty well, I think?

And without spoiling it any further, I will say that the explanation for why the killer did it failed to fit any kind of psychological profile I can imagine.  It was as though 75% of the book was written and THEN the villain was chosen and an explanation was given.  If you don't think back too hard and you squint your eyes, maybe it makes sense--his motivation makes sense--but nothing about him or his past actions or anything else fits in any way with the final explanation.

I'm sorry to be so moany--I will review a good one next.  And it was a sweet, entertaining book with a likeable but sourpuss main character and some charming friendships.  I was just not able to suspend my disbelief--in the emotional stuff, not the necromancy--enough to call it a good pick for me.