Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Collapsing Empire

It's stupid how I always forget how much fun John Scalzi is until I read another of his books, and then I want to eat them all up.  Maybe it's because they're a little light--not that they don't deal with interesting and complicated ideas, but that they are so upbeat and amusing that I retain that and forget the meat of them.  I think that happens with Terry Pratchett, too, which says something.  Their books are always better than I remember them being, even when I remember them being very good indeed.

I finally picked up The Collapsing Empire because Linden and Elizabeth both loved it soooooo much.  Like the kind of recommendations that are hard to ignore.  The first three or four chapters are all from different points of view, so I actually found it a little tough to get into at first; just when I got invested in someone, we'd move on to the next someone.  Eventually it leveled out at three main characters, though, and two of them come together--if not physically then into the same storyline--fairly quickly, so that slowness falls back pretty quickly.

And all three characters are COMPLETELY likeable. (I feel like the fact that I'm talking about the likeability of the characters says a lot about this as a science fiction novel--which is to say that it works really well on a human level.)  Cardenia, as a younger and bastard daughter, was never supposed to rule an empire, but when her older half brother died suddenly, she suddenly became the heir to everything. Her matter-of-fact attitude is just what you want to see in a Leadership Thrust Upon Her scenario and is immensely satisfying. 

Marce is the son of a minor nobleman on a planet called The End because it's just so far away from literally everything.  He's an academic with important information (about how the empire is collapsing) that he has to get to the emperox. He's just kind of a dude, but he's likeable for all that--very much the Everyman buried over his head in intrigue.

If it was just them, I'd say they're TOO likeable.  Like, rational, level-headed, pretty flawless Normal People.  Their biggest flaw is they're so straightforward that maybe they're not nuanced enough.  But then you get your third hero--Kira.  She's the daughter of a wealthy merchant house that's caught in the middle of another house's power grab.  Kira is foul-mouthed, impatient, frank to the point of being insulting, and frequently gets distracted by sex.  She's also immensely good at her job (which is basically making money in any way that can be painted as legal or well-laundered), which makes her the most fun character to follow.  Like Marce and Cardenia, Kira is super-competent, but she's not an obvious white-hat good guy, and I think the strength of that really carries the book in a lot of ways.  I was free to love the lawful good heroes because I had this chaotic neutral to cleanse my palate.

The story is about a space empire that is linked by the Flow, which is the only way for ships to travel the vast distances of space.  When the Flow begins to change, the thousand year old empire is going to have to change with it.  But of course (as we all know), changing an enormous society--including bureaucracy, religion, class system, and financial system--because nature is telling you that what you're doing ain't gonna fly no more is not as easy as it sounds (*cough*globalwarming*cough*), and the attendant intrigues begin.

My main criticism matches that of Thea from The Booksmugglers--namely, this story doesn't stand alone.  I had no idea it was going to be part of a series until I was halfway through, but this is definitely one-third of a larger story, not a story in itself.  I liked what I read, and I wasn't trying to rush it, but I don't think it's served by being split up--I think I would much rather have read one 1200 page book than this and then two more later.  Not just the cliffhanger problem, but the fact that everything I've read so far is prelude.  I think going into it as part of a serial story is going to work better than as a series--even though the next installment is over a year away.

Ugh, a year.  Well, at least I'll have time to catch up on all the John Scalzi that I don't know why I haven't read.  Ghost Brigades, here I come!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fabulous Magical Spies

The first time I read the blurb for Murder, Magic, and What We Wore, I knew I would be reading it at the earliest possible moment.  Lady Annis and her aunt are left penniless on her father's death, but Annis discovers that she has a skill that might solve their money problems--she can sew glamours. With a few stitches, she can change a wool garment to silk, or keep the wearer safe, or make her unnoticeable.  Annis has an eye for fashion; she thinks they have a chance.

But she's also begun to suspect that her father was on more than a business trip when he died--that in fact, he's been a spy. She approaches the Home Office and offers her services, but when they turn her down, she may have to figure out how to do her part for England on her own.

I read Kelly Jones's previous book, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, out loud to my son a couple of years ago, and we really loved it. This move into YA has all kinds of delightful elements--spies! balls! magic!--but I really, really wish they'd come together into one cohesive picture. Each of the parts is quite charming and delightful, but I got a bit of whiplash moving between them.

When Annis and her aunt find themselves destitute, they fear they'll have to be governesses or paid companions--a fall from social grace and a very limiting life.  Annis's skill might be able to save them--but becoming a seamstress, even a glamourist, would still exclude her from her social circle.  So her idea is to become a secret glamourist.  With the help of her maid, she disguises herself an an old French woman, Madame Martine, who is the new modiste in a small town outside of London.  Annis can have a normal social life while Madame Martine makes enough money to live on.

This is my favorite part of the plot--if you left the spies out of it completely, I would have loved this book.  Annis is completely overconfident (she's excellent at repairing and altering dresses, but quickly realizes she's never made one from scratch before), the pressure of being penniless is a wonderful tension, and her growing friendship with her world-wise new maid is absolutely heartwarming.  Annis is maybe too successful at everything--the upper class, they really are just like you and me--but it's charming, and she puts snobs in their place, demonstrates the actual, literal importance of clothing in the lives of young women, and finds her own competence.

At the same time, though, she's trying to unmask a plot to break Napoleon out of exile, and trying to get hired as a spy, and it's the clunkiest thing in the world.  Again, Annis is overconfident, but it comes across as much more arrogant.  I also saw through pretty much all the plot twists here (is literally EVERYONE in London a spy?), and all the suspicion just got in the way of the really sweet story of a girl trying to earn her own way in the world.

The book was so charming that I wanted to love it, and I'm going to read the next book Kelly Jones writes, because the premise here is so delightful, and what works here works so delightfully well.  But the pattern didn't quite come together into the beautiful piece I wanted it to be. 

I received a free advance copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thrillers, Backfired

In following up on my thriller kick, I requested Final Girls, by Riley Sager, from Netgalley. Not to be confused with the Mira Grant book by the same title, this is a thriller about a woman who survived a horror movie scenario as a teenager and, ten years later, finds the safe boundaries of her comfortable life tested by a visit from a fellow "final girl."

Let me summarize my feelings with an anecdote. I was looking at a list of summer's best thrillers on Kirkus and when this book popped up (with a star!) my response was, "dammit, now I can't trust the rest of the list!" Sadly and in short, I did not love this book.

It started out really promising: Quinn lives with her perfect boyfriend in a perfect apartment in New York and runs a perfect baking blog. All is well. She is completely over what happened to her ten years ago, when her spring break trip to Pine Cottage ended with a slasher murdering all her friends and her running screaming out of the woods with no memories of the past hour.  She's fine. Even if the only people in her life besides her boyfriend are the cop who rescued her that night and another Final Girl.

The Final Girls are a club of three women who survived similar horror stories.  Lisa was the sole survivor or a sorority house massacre; Samantha survived a murderous rampage at a motel.  They've never met, but they've emailed, and the press is fascinated with them. Mostly that's in the past, though, until the beginning of this book, when we find out that Lisa--the oldest of the three, their den mother and emotional center--has committed suicide.

As Quinn's carefully composed life starts to fray at the edges, she's in for another surprise--Samantha, who dropped off the map years ago to avoid the press, appears on her doorstep. Quinn is torn between wanting nothing to do with the role of final girl that they share and a strange fascination with the other woman.  Thrillerly hijinks ensue.

I didn't hate this book, but I might under other circumstances have stopped reading it.  There are two ways to do this kind of heavy-handed thriller--one, go serious.  Throw the horror movie script out the window and think about how real people would behave in the very real scenario of something ridiculous and unbelievable.  Two, go the other way--total camp.  Maybe this is a world where horror movies don't exist, so no one can even imagine this situation.  Or maybe you just go over the top in a Cabin in the Woods type homage to the tropes. 

What you can't do is use the tools of camp--heavy-handed adherence to tropes--and take yourself this seriously.  Like, we're not just talking murderers, we're talking murderers with interesting weapons and face masks.  You can't treat that like a real thing that happens without building a whole world around this.  This book set up the horror to be too campy and then took it way too seriously.

Plot-wise, I couldn't figure out where things were going for a long time, and I actually found that most confusing.  The best part of the book was the last quarter, when I had finally figured out the trajectory of the story (and the twist, probably too early). The mystery here is whether Sam is who she claims to be, and whether she's got evil intentions or not.  But the thing is, she's so clearly and completely messed up that I just didn't care if she was explicitly sinister or just kind of a jerk. 

There is a thing that happens where you're drawn to someone horrible and you fight with them and try to walk away but it doesn't work and you just keep sitting down to drink Wild Turkey with them after midnight.  But--and maybe this is just me--I would never, ever do that with someone I didn't trust, so I could not understand Quinn's behavior toward Sam.  It made the book feel like a random assortment of happenings, rather than character development around a plot.

I think this speaks to a bigger problem with getting involved in a genre that's new to you.  I know my favorite genres (sci fi, fantasy) inside and out. I know the tropes and can see them from a distance, and recognize pretty well who's going to play with them vs. adhere to them vs. butcher them.  I know the backlist and the frontlist and what's coming next season and can winnow down what I want to read with comps and recommendations. 

But in a new genre, everything is unknown.  Who's advice do a trust? Whose taste do I agree with?  Not just which writers are good, but what style of thriller to I even enjoy?

I'm still learning.  And with romance or mystery, I can find trusted recommenders from other genres who can get me started.  Thrillers, though, I'm flying blind. 

So let's see what's next.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pet Peeve: Femmephobia

I've recognized this for a while, but I'm going to hereby codify it: if a book starts in the first few pages with a young woman moaning about how annoying it is that she has to hang around with other vapid young women, I'm out. This is especially bad in historical fiction or fantasy, where you have a princess (or other noble woman) who wants to be outside being a tomboy, or in the lab studying, but instead has to talk to people who are only concerned with clothes and gossip.

I'm sorry to say that this why I'm not planning to read Meagan Spooner's Hunted. I've never ready anything else by her, and I've heard her widely praised, and I'm not going to pretend that this is a review of the book.  It's not--I'm pretty confident, actually, that it's a good book.

But I really, really hate the shortcut to letting us know how great our heroine is by comparing her to all those other girls who are so shallow.  Most people have trivial interests and passions that can look like trivial interests to outsiders.  The heroine here, Yeva, would rather be hunting than sewing with the other ladies; in some books, the problem is a young man who would rather be reading than hunting.  It's not the specific pursuit; it's the dismissal of it as shallow, unworthy, and trivial.

It's especially bad, though, when it's girls being called vapid for acting like girls.  Our excepto-girl is a tomboy, so that's okay then.  I don't mind at all if she doesn't want to embroider. But I am surrounded by brilliant people who will tell you; an interest in needlework does not make you vapid.

Peace out.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Strange Addiction: Thrillers

You know how sometimes you get a craving and you just have to watch four or five episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer every night for a month, or reread as much of the Babysitters Club series as you can lay your hands on? As one does? Well, for some reason, I've been overtaken by an unfightable urge to read thrillers.

I think it might have started with Ararat, actually, which was more on the horror end, but which seriously let me down in the adrenaline department. Then I read Emma in the Night, which enthralled me for some reason--just the right amount of dread versus mystery, knowing there were secrets and having to discover what they were.

That was so satisfying that I wanted more right away. I jumped right into Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens, which was on my radar for some reason I don't even remember--probably just because the library got the ebook and I turned it up trolling for new purchases.

At first, I wasn't even aware what itch I needed to scratch, but the "missing girl returns and we learn what happened while experiencing the aftermath" premise was just like Emma in the Night, which I think is why I picked it. At the beginning I wasn't sure about the book, because we start right in with the narrator telling us (well, telling her therapist) about her abduction and the long months she spent trapped with her kidnapper.  It was well written, and exactly what you'd expect that story to be--messed up man, woman trying to survive, getting her head messed with, indignities and violations and horror.  It felt....salacious.

I think I kept reading because of the structure--the chapters are numbered sessions, and the story is essentially a monologue of Annie talking to her therapist.  We never hear the therapist's voice, but Annie does make reference to her advice, and to the strategies she tries to deal with so many of the problems she's still struggling with.  I find that process intriguing, and that kept me reading.

The further into the book you get, though, the broader picture you get, and the more the story of Annie's life now emerges. While the abduction was fascinating in a horrible way, the recovery process was so interesting.  Her mother has never been great; her best friend is too pushy; her boyfriend (ex?) is patient and kind.  But as the story unfolds--both on the mountain and of trying to fit back into the world, it becomes obvious that there is still unfinished business, and that the "now" period is not just emotionally fascinating, but full of danger, as well.

So I really couldn't put this book down, though I think in another mood I might not even have picked it up.  I will say that, as much as I loved the therapy envelope story, I did find that the book didn't actually read like a monologue.  This is one of my pet peeves--epistolary novels, or first person accounts that claim to be in the narrator's voice, but that lapse into author-speak--sentences constructed as a writer constructs them, not as a character would say them. In this one, each session starts out with Annie addressing the doctor in her own voice, but as she starts to talk about what happened (as opposed to her current feelings or addressing the doctor directly), her voice quickly changes.  I didn't mind the style at all, but I found the transition in every chapter discordant.

Makes me want to write an epistolary novel, firmly staying in character.  If anyone wants to write a corresponding novel with me, let me know!

So now I'm done with my thriller and have to decide whether to shift back to one of the many other books I'm in the middle of (space mystery! historical fantasy!) or just greedily scoop up something else about someone being stalked or unearthing an ancient evil or suspecting that their dentist is out to get them.  Who are we kidding? It's summer! Bring on the thrillers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Murderbot of My Heart

Everyone was all excited about All Systems Red before it came out, but I'd never read any Martha Wells before, so I couldn't figure out what it was by a pretty straighforward-looking "cyborg soldier protects people" story that had all my bloggers quivering with anticipation. But hey, I put it on reserve and waited and waited and waited and the reviews kept coming and finally I gave up on the waiting and bought the darned thing and read it and OH MY LORD was it good.

(Note for the record: me buying a book and reading it in the same month is, like, unheard of.)

Our surveying party is investigating a new planet to investigate whether it's worth it to buy the rights to its natural resources.  They've been outfitted for the mission by the Company, which does such things--habitats, scientific equipment, life support, transportation, and a SecUnit, a security bot, who is our narrator.  It calls itself murderbot; it doesn't have a name.

The SecUnit isn't typical; its governor drive, which is supposed to control its behavior and prevent anything unauthorized, has been hacked.  Murderbot hacked the drive itself, but mostly nothing's changed--it goes on missions, takes care of its people, and just wants to be left alone to watch the entertainment that it's downloaded--mostly serial dramas.

But something's gone wrong with the other outpost on the planet, and it looks like someone might have it in for our team.  Murderbot's gotten kind of fond of this team (OH MY GOD SO HAVE I) and they have to work together to figure out what's going on.

Okay, so this is kind of perfect.  The thing that's so great is our protagonist's voice, which is kind of sardonic and kind of wistful and incredibly natural.  It's observant and smart and competent, but also laid back and funny and reserved.  This is what everyone's been talking about, and no doubt, it made the story.

But what doesn't get enough credit is the story itself, which serves as a setting for the character to unfold.  The book is a novella, which means it's pretty short, and pacing can be tricky here--you can't have too many twists and turns.  But the fact is, the "what's going on on this planet?" mystery is, well, not a MacGuffin, because we are very concerned with how it will turn out and it is definitely life or death.  But it's the perfectly paced and structured opportunity for these characters to unfold.  Any slower, lingering on the characters, and it would get sentimental.  Any faster and it would be Dan Brownish.  Instead, you get the perfect balance.

We get to watch Murderbot spend more time reluctantly with the crew, and to meet the crew themselves.  We get to know Mensah, who is just a model of great leadership (and to learn why), and Ratthi, who is sweet and maybe sometimes spacey, and Pin-Lee, who is more competent than a robot in a lot of ways, and just all of them.  They are likeable.  And then you have Murderbot, who basically has severe social anxiety, but who's still fond of these people.  As things get darker and more real, the bonds they're forging get stronger, in spite of all the differences.

Honestly, as an extrovert surrounded by introverts, watching the crew interact with Murderbot was just so poignant.  They try, and then they try to try the right way, but it doesn't feel right, and they slip, and it's just so damned sweet and funny and I loved every minute of it.

Lianna, I'm sorry, I know your list is full. But you have no choice; you have to read this one.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Emma In The Night

I never thought of myself as a reader of thrillers, but lately I've been picking them up more and more often, and weirdly they've been working out for me. I think I requested Emma in the Night, by Wendy Walker, from Netgalley because I liked the title, and maybe the cover.  And it was one of those many "girl comes back from her mysterious disappearance, but where has she been?" stories that seems so popular lately.

The funny thing is, the only way to make a story like that work is for there to be a decent amount of characters hiding information from the reader, which frequently drives me up the wall (see my opinions on Jodi Picoult).  Secrets may be kept for a reason from other characters, but if you're inside a character's head and they're thinking about The Truth but not telling you what that truth is, well, that's cheap dramatics.

So it's a fine line to walk for me, this kind of psychological thriller where we're finding out what happened, rather than watching it happen.  Emma in the Night, I'm pleased to say, walked that tightrope and kept me reading to the point where I finished it in a day, which is not a thing that I am known for.

Cass and Emma are sisters in a messed up family, and three years ago they disappeared on the same night.  Now Cass is back home and begging her parents and the police and anyone who will listen to find Emma.

Abby Winters is the forensic psychologist who worked on the missing person's case three years ago, and she's never been able to shake it.  She recognized that this family had some ugly secrets, but she was never able to dig them all out or convince her superiors that they were relevant to the disappearance.  With Cass's return and the hunt for Emma, she can finally find out the truth.

What unfolds is told from two points of view.  Cass's parts are in first person, and her careful, deliberate personality--the product of a lifetime spent jumping through the many hoops required in her family--means that we know full well that we're not being told everything.  Every thought that Cass has is deliberate and specific, and we will follow the investigation with her, but the past will unfold when she's ready to tell it.

With Abby, though, we can follow the investigation and see how Cass's clues play out in the real world.  I think the biggest flaw in the book, actually, was how Abby's psychological expertise was treated by those around her--the rest of law enforcement was very dismissive of her theories about the family, which seems like the opposite of my understanding of how any criminal investigation works; aren't the family the first set of suspects?  Don't you bring in a forensic psychologist to listen to their opinions on the psychology of the parties involved?

I suspect that some of the psychology behind this is also a little loosey-goosey, but I don't expect much from a thriller.  And I have barely put the book down all day, which is what you ask from this book, so in that respect, it's incredibly successful at what it's trying to do.  Highly readable.