Monday, October 29, 2012

Monarchy, Idealism, and Psychic Horses

Once again--it seems to happen so often--the two books I'm reading dovetail strangely.  This time, it's causing me some challenges keeping the tone of the two books sorted out.

You've got two pseudo-medieval, very much YA fantasy novels.  Mercedes Lackey's Redoubt is the newest Valdemar novel (if I say psychic horses, I hope that gives you a really good shorthand for this series of books in general).  Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is also a sequel, this one by Shannon Hale.  Both of them are about lowborn folks who end up living and being educated at the palace, getting involved in politics and, to a lesser extent, the personal lives of the royals.

Mags, the hero of Redoubt, is the apprentice spymaster to the King of Valdemar.  By day he's a Herald (which means he has a psychic horse sidekick) and by night he roams the city meeting with sketchy folks and getting the scoop on the underworld happenings.  The Heralds of Valdemar are the arms on the law--they are honest, upright, and true, and they speak for the king and dispense his justice in the same way the Superman speaks for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  Government is all about doing good.

When Miri, the heroine of Palace of Stone, comes out of the highlands of her childhood to spend a year studying (so she can start the first ever school in her hometown, as well as hang out with her friend the Princess), she's entering the world of politics for the first time.  Turns out everyone kind of hates the king, who's been demanding tributes and stomping on the poor.  Or at least, so say the new friends Miri meets at the university and the salons she attends.  Down with monarchy!  The king is a leech upon the people!

Switching back and forth between these books is a head trip.  When I read about Miri's friends discussing the end of monarchy, I keep waiting for Mags to come bursting in with a bunch of Heralds.  The rebel leaders will be revealed to be conniving and tricking the good honest folk into believing that the king is doing less than his best, which is a LIE, of course!  It makes my head swim.

Another layer of this is knowing the Shannon Hale is Mormon.  I don't know enough about her to have any idea how conservative or liberal she is, but this really affects my expectations for where this book is going to go.  Are the rebels going to turn out to be on the side of the good and the downtrodden--as they appear to be right now to the very naive Miri?  Are they going to be duplicitous, a power-grab disguised as freedom-fighting?  Or just misguided communists? 

In my mind, this depends on Hale's politics, which I don't know anything about.  It's frustrating to feel like I'm looking to the real world to guess what's going to happen in a book.  Here's an essay on Hale's website where she talks about creating the religious homemaker character of Becky in the book The Actor and the Housewife (which I disliked for being Hugh Grant fanfic). 

So, how do I feel about the monarchy?  I like idealism, but Lackey gets treacly.  I like freedom, but Hale gets heavy-handed.  Let's see if I get confused or if things just shake out nice and balanced.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service

That's actually the subtitle of the book.  The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, has been keeping me company while I waited for my new Kindle, and believe  it or not I haven't read an electronic word in the two days since Grimm came in the mail.  I'm having too much fun here.

It took me a little while to get the hang of it, I'll admit.  The complicated plot isn't hard to follow, but I had a lot of trouble catching my stride with the tone.  There's real danger, there's wry humor, and there are funny names.  I kept trying to figure out if we were talking Terry Pratchett, Tom Clancy, or Monty Python.  I eventually got the hang of it, but it's only today that I found the analogy I was looking for--it's James Bond.  If James Bond was fighting supernatural manifestations instead of all diamond thieves and international masterminds, this would be the book.  It's over the top and melodramatic, with plenty of humor thrown in.  The plot works straight, but the reason you love it are the fun bits.

The reason I didn't go straight to Bond is because the main character is a paper pusher.  There's a lot of wonderful dry humor about administration, red tape, and standard operating procedure.  And, as I said, there's a lot going on--Myfanwy Thomas has lost her memory.  She wakes up one day and finds herself an elite executive at a national agency that handles supernatural threats in Great Britain.  She has no idea who she is or what is going on--her only clues are the notes she left herself, knowing the memory loss was coming, warning her of a traitor in her agency.

There's the whole traitor plot, which is actually quite the nail-biter. A lot of the fun, though, comes from just trying to navigate day to day operations at an office where you've never been, but everyone knows you.  And of course, there are the standard threats to the nation from sentient purple fungi and ancient Belgian brotherhoods.  Plus, while all this is going on, you get the letters from the old Myfanwy, telling about her life and how she ended up where she is.

It's complicated enough, but it's not as complicated as you might fear.  There are good guys and bad guys, and even before we know exactly who's who, we have a good instinct for where folks are going to fall.  I'm not done or anything, but it doesn't seem to be a story with a big twist at the end.  Myfanwy's just so down to earth, I'm having fun with her.

This is not a compelling review.  Somehow I'm not feeling very articulate today.  Still and all, I'm having a blast with this book--highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

La Grande Sophy Remembered

Readers, I would like to say a sad goodbye to my Kindle.  Her name was La Grande Sophy, and she had been with me for nearly a year and a half.  Well, she was replaced once by an identical copy of her.  That was a seamless transition, and we pretend it never happened.  She was a milky alabaster in color, with a keyboard and 3G. 

I named her partly for Georgette Heyer's heroine, The Grand Sophy, but Frencher, because it was important that its name alphabetically came before Mike's Illustrated Primer.  If you have two Kindles on the same account, the one that comes alphabetically first will be the default in the One-Click Buying drop-down menu, and I am the impulse shopper in this relationship.  So La Grande Sophy she was, and she held my to-read pile with quiet dignity for a long time. 

She was lost due to a foolish attempt on my part to cram her into my bike basket along with my laptop.  I didn't think I was squishing her, but the next time I pulled her out, the screen was a mess, and she never came back.  She was in her slipcover, too--supposed to be safe!  May she rest in peace.

She has been replaced, after much deliberation and some expense, by Grimm, a slim, dark, handsome cousin of hers.  He's mysterious, but is a teasing way.  I suspect he might be some sort of vampire, but the good kind.  He lacks Sophy's bright, tranquil alertness, but he makes up for it with the kind of illusion of casualness hiding careful attention that James Bond brings to his work.  I think we'll get on well together.

Thank you for everything, Sophy.  I'll miss you.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Twin-Off: The -Offs Trilogy, Final Showdown

Really, it's not so much a comparison as a complementary situation.  I'm deep into two books that are incredibly different and perfectly suited to balance each other out, and both feature a pair of male-female twins as their main characters.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is about Nick, whose wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle in their living room.  His sister, Go (short for Margo, which nickname I seriously love), is one of the few functional relationships in his life.  We watch the investigation unfold from Nick's point of view with a sour, hungover stomachache just from hanging out with him, and see Amy as a brittle, aggressive person.  Then we watch their relationship unfold from the beginning through her journal entries and start to wonder if Nick is really the guy he thinks of himself as or the guy he knows the world sees.  It's dark and makes you feel kind of hopeless about people.

Patricia Wrede's The Far West is the third book in the Frontier Magic series, and it's so exactly what I wanted it to be. We pick up where we left Eff--working at the college menagerie, living with her parents, everything going along.  Her twin brother, Lan, is still living at home, and appears to be going through some real self-examination after the incident in the last book, but that's not what this story is about.  The reason for reading Eff's story is that it's the story of a place and a time, and I wish I could find a book that did with real history what this does with alternate history.  Her friends visit and pass through, she and the professors at the university try to figure out what's up with the medusa lizard they're studying, and Western expansion unfolds around them. 

The Far West is a slow, easy novel that gets you caught up in the day to day.  Gone Girl is a mover, grim and kind of icky, but fascinating.  It's so perfect that whenever I need a break from one, the other is waiting right there for me.  If you'll excuse me, I have some books to read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I did a thing the other day that I try very hard not to do--I revisited a score I gave a few months ago and dropped a four star book to a three star.  This was based partly on reevaluation--I really don't remember liking the book for four stars.  But it was also because, in a head to head of YA novels about a bunch of teenagers trapped in a mall, No Safety In Numbers fell a distant second to Monument 14.

One big ticket item in any book where the kids have to sort things out is where the heck the adults are and what they're doing.  Safety had adults in it, and while many of them were wandering around passively, some of them were taking action.  Just because we're following the kids doesn't mean the adults disappear.  But there's definitely a sheep-like element to the behavior of most (though not all) of the adults that the kids are all too vital and probing to fall prey to.  They're not sheep!  They're individuals!

Monument, however, had the kids trapped without adults.  The adults are on the outside, doing their best to survive the earthquakes and chemical weapons.  When we do meet adults, they're commanding and firm, and there are complexities to their presence--they're just as much characters as the kids are.

And really, it's about the characters.  Both books have some parallel characters--the popular jock who's not as much of a jerk as tradition holds, and the popular jock who is.  The self-sufficient loner who knows how to make his way in the world.  Hot popular girl.  But Safety's characters are somehow still thumbnail sketches--the non-jerk jock has to be a stealth non-jerk, because Jocks Are Jerks is written in stone somewhere.  Not because jocks are people who are sometimes not jerks, or because often someone gets to be popular by being really, really likeable.  Monument's Jake is a real person, a hand-shaking, back-slapping, let's-all-chill type of guy.  Yeah, he's got problems and plenty of flaws, but being a flat out jerk is not one of them.

What about Jerky Jock?  There's Safety, with a dude who elbows random strangers out of the way and runs someone down with his car, or there's Monument, with a dude who teases mercilessly, occasionally threatens, and steps up at least partway--you know, like a real human being--when the situation calls for.

So yeah, there's no way I could give Monument a lower score than Safety.  It was tighter, made more sense, and had a lot more of the good, meaty how-to details I love.  Plus, while the ending was not very resolved, at least it was an ending.  Definitely the winner of this kids-in-a-mall-off.

Monday, October 15, 2012


This month, book club was a close tie between The Language of Flowers and The Age of Miracles.  The club went with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's Flowers, but I read both, just out of curiosity, and I think they're a great study in contrasts, especially about what makes a "literary novel." 

I've already mentioned that I didn't like Miracles. It was less an awful book than a waste of time and a good premise.  Almost nothing happens.  Occasionally the narrator will let you know about interesting things that are happening, inasmuch as the world is coming to an end.  But it doesn't affect the day to day life of anyone you know; your main character just has a standard twelve year old's coming of age story--and a particularly boring one, as I'm pretty sure Julia doesn't actually take a single action in the whole story.  She just rambles around and watches people live their lives.

I really did like The Language of Flowers.  Although it was also a coming of age story, the main character--tentatively and with great emotional barriers--does actually do things.  She reaches out and shies away and hurts people and is hurt by them, and then makes up with them and tries again.  It's really a book about getting it wrong and trying again.

What I think is interesting in looking at the two books next to each other is about my overall discussion of literary fiction.  I think these two books aim very solidly for the same high-middle-brow range of literature--the land of book clubs and reviews in popular mainstream magazines.  And they both have, I think, the same quality of a "hook."  Miracles has the end of the world; Flowers has a character who has been chewed up and spit out by the foster system, who got kicked out of the best home she'd been in by committing some unnamed horrifying act--she's messed up and misanthropic, and she likes flowers and pretty much nothing else.  For want of a better descriptor, the bare bones outline is a bit lurid, which, as we all know, sells.

So what does Flowers succeed at where Miracles fails?  It's all in the details. Even at the moments when Victoria is at her most passive--and her passive aggressive moments are remarkable--she's filled with emotion.  She freezes it out, she goes into shock, she suppresses rage--it might look like nothing is going on, but a lot is going on.  Julia, not so much.  She's an empty vessel, a wide-eyed lens to look at the world around her.

The other characters in the books have room to wiggle, too.  Let's look at Mother Ruby, who is kind of a third tier character in this book--neither the protagonist nor one of the main players, but a big role anyway.  Mother Ruby is solid and knowledgeable, and yet she screws up.  She is needed and just what Victoria needs at the moment she appears, but she's not all-knowing.  Then you look at Hannah, Julia's best friend at the beginning of Miracles, and you realize that she's just an object to act on Julia.  What's important is not who Hannah is; it's what she does to Julia.  But since Julia doesn't seem to react, then that "what she does" means nothing.

My review of The Language of Flowers is "great read," though I would caution you that if your book club is composed of 70% social workers and child psychologists, they're going to explain how attachment disorders work and how in real life, Victoria would never, ever heal.  But the real point I wanted to make here is that, when I talk about not liking literary fiction, I know I'm probably misusing the term.  What I dislike is a book in which NOTHING HAPPENS.  It doesn't have to be space opera, soap opera, or even musical theater.  Emotionally, though, I need real motion, agitation, and a breath of life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brokeback Tankers

Do you think  my titular puns are getting worse?  I think they might be.

Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker won a bunch of awards last year, so I always figured I'd read it.  Took me a while to get around to it, probably because I was a little put off by the first few pages of Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which is overwhelmingly world-building and kind of hard to follow, I thought.  So I put this book off.

This book, though, is really great.  The blurb is pretty straightforward--it sounds like setup, but it's really the meat of the story--Nailer lives in the poor community centered around tearing apart derelict oil tankers for scrap.  In a post-petrolium world, this is dangerous business, and everyone is hanging on by their fingernails.  When a hurricane rips through their beach community, it leaves behind a prize--a wrecked sailing ship, and a survivor who could be worth a fortune, or who could get him killed.

All this is on the inside cover, so you kind of expect it to happen in the first ten pages.  But really, that's about a third of the book, and everything else that happens stems from that, so it's not like any of it is a surprise.  There was a little stretch in the middle where I was adrift, because I wasn't sure what direction the story was going to go in, but that was pretty brief--the story is about Nailer, and wherever he is, you're happy to be. 

Usually your protagonist in a book like this is a little smarter or kinder or better than everyone around him--because in a rough world, most people are keeping their heads down and doing whatever ugly things they need to do to survive.  You don't want your protagonist doing these things, so you're with the special guy who rises to the top.  And that's not untrue here, but it's not nearly as clunky as you expect, either.  Nailer isn't the only one who does generous things, and he doesn't always do them, either.  He believes the code that the people around him live by--the book just happens to catch him on a day when he rises above it, and everything spills from this. 

I need to write my reviews while I'm still reading the book, or right after.  I finished this at least a week ago, and it's hard to blather on as I usually do.  But I really, really liked this book, and I definitely want to read the next one--which follows a character who's a genetically modified half-man, which is one of the more interesting world-building details.  We'll see if I can ramble more eloquently on that one when the time comes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Yet another thrilling book month!  Although, to be honest, a lot of the books I'm excited about are not new releases.  Still--let's do a quick run-down of October's exciting (to me) new releases.  Most of them came out last week, but I haven't read them yet, so I don't have to writhe in anxious anticipation.

The Far West, by Patricia C. Wrede.  You remember The Thirteenth Child and Across the Great Barrier, of course, because I loved them so much.  I think this is the last one in the series, and I can't wait--one of the best things about this series is the real danger and excitement of discovery, and I really hope Eff spends most of this book out West.  Oddly, the book was out in print about three months ago, but not as an ebook till now.  I actually bought this the day it came out; I was that excited.

I think I have loyalty issues surrounding Redoubt: Book 4 of the Collegium Chronicles, by Mercedes Lackey.  I mean, you can't say these books are good--as I keep saying, I aged out of Valdemar ages ago, and I'm starting to suspect the author did, too.  I read the first sentence of the sample and I cringe a little.  But I know--I know--that when I dig in and start reading it, the super-organization and competence of everyone in these books is just going to knock me backwards.  And of course, Mags is going to think everyone hates him and turn his back on them at some point.  But on the way, we'll learn about the super-organized dining hall system at the Collegium, or the forensic investigation units in the City Guard.  I love it when a fantasy author gets fed up with the medieval world they've modeled their own world on for not being innovative.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, is the sequel to his first book, The Passage.  I started out loving that book and ended up really liking it.  It read like early Stephen King--perhaps a bit ambitions, especially toward the end when our characters start traveling, but a great balance of forward motion and character development, with effectively scary bad guys.  I have some strong suspicions about what's going to happen in this next book, at least in broad strokes.  My only fear is that it's going to be hugely long, and I'll need to invest myself when it's time to dive in.  I have a hard time with commitment.

Son, by Lois Lowry--after all this time, another book in The Giver series!  I have to admit, I didn't love Messenger all that much--I can't really remember the details, but I remember not really getting the details even just after I finished it, and not really finding the ending very satisfying.  But Lois Lowry is so awesome, and the various worlds/societies in this series are so interesting and different, I can't wait to see what else she does with it.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, first hit my radar because of Netgalley, where I get my publisher's galleys.  This is proof that they're doing a solid thing for the publishers, because I got excited about this title.  I wasn't given a copy for review, though--don't blame them; I suspect this publisher sticks with outlets that really follow their demographic--which means I'm now going to have to buy the book.  And I will, if the sample's any good--I'm really interested in transgender issues, and the description makes this sound like a sad, hopeful novel.

Whenever I do one of these, it seems to be mostly sequels.  I guess it's partly because everyone's writing sequels these days, and partly because I mostly get excited about a book because I've read the author before.  Still, I am just drowning in exciting new books by authors I haven't read--many of which, I'm ashamed to say, have been on my to-read list forever.  Still, I soldier on.  Really, it's quite remarkably.  I understand now why you admire me so much.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Steering Friends Wrong

A couple of months ago I thrust the book Twilight Eyes at Brenda, urging her to read it.  It's a book I've read four or five times, but not in at least 15 years.  Dean Koontz is one of those authors I used to read all the time but haven't in ages.  I know that his new books started to turn me off, but I did keep returning to old favorites for a long time, so I imagined that he had changed, not me.

Brenda was less than impressed--which is fine; visceral reactions are personal, especially for things we first experienced in ninth grade--and I got it into my head to pick the book up again myself.  And when the library had the ebook--well, why the heck not?

Wow, Bren, I'm so terribly sorry I subjected you to that.  The book is exactly as I remembered it, and/but there's so much wrong with it!  From the purple prose with multi-page descriptions of the charm and magic of the circus midway (many, many such descriptions), to the seventeen year old narrator's preternatural level-headedness and convenient psychic flashes, to the fact that the first half of the book unfolds in less than a week, including his seduction and wooing of an ice-princess-type woman who magically falls into bed and love with him, and did I mention the long, lavish descriptions of EVERYTHING?  Pages and pages and PAGES of tension building around every little thing.  Maybe I'm a jaded inhabitant of the new millennium when I'm saying you could use a little more action here, dude.

I don't skim, but here I am, skimming. And you know, with the skimming, things are good.  It's the book I remember--the action that does unfold is good, exciting, tense.  It's kind of a worldbuilding novel--it's about the unfolding of all this information about the secret predators that live among us.  And the story it's telling is good--it's just about twice as long as it needs to be to get there. 

I know this reaction is me changing, since the book remains the same.  I do wish I could figure out if it's impatience born of our quick-cut culture, or if it was always this slow, but the building tension really worked for me as a teenager because I had never been that scared before.  Like, NEVER.

Since it's October, I was thinking of rereading 'Salem's Lot, which is (I think) my favorite Stephen King book.  But now I'm worried it won't hold up.  Then again, I didn't even read King for the first time till my mid-20s.  What do you think--will it work out?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Follow Up and Winding Down

Okay, this has been the most insane work week(s, really, three of them) I've ever experienced, but Claudia's back, thank God in sweet heaven, and so I can breathe again and maybe even read a book and MAYBE even blog.

Right now I'm wrapping up the last book I reviewed, My Soul to Keep, and as I get closer to the end, the true shape of the book emerges, about which I have some interesting observations.  Well, I find them interesting--as the tag line says, you're free to find them interesting or not.

I don't want to spoil the book, but I can say without ruining anything that your point of view in this book shifts back and forth between Jessica, intrepid reporter who notices weird things and then eventually realizes that her husband is immortal, and David, aka Dawit, said immortal husband. 

It's in third person, so it's not like there are multiple narrators, which is a relief.  I definitely think both POVs are necessary to make the story work; strictly from Jessica's viewpoint, you would have absolutely no clue what's going on for way too much of the story.  In the end, this is the story of a messed up relationship, and it's important that we be able, along with Jessica, to see David as really wonderful, not someone sketchy who's hiding something.  But to keep the plot moving, we need to know what David knows.  Also, it's a pet peeve of mine when characters in novels like this spin wild theories out of the little data they have and then happen to be right.  (Stephen King, I'm looking at you!  "I bet the operate on a sense of smell."  What evidence? "Well, it only makes sense." How do you figure? "Let's risk our lives to find out!")

Anyway, I do think the book lags a bit in the middle.  It would have more tension if I was denied some information, which I'm not--I know what Jessica thinks and guesses and suspects and knows, and what David needs and wants and plans.  There needed to be some information kept hidden from me, because the tension of "when and how will Jess find out?" was not quite enough there toward the end.

But what compensates for this is the really amazing picture of David.  He's incredibly self centered; being immortal has completely messed with his perspective (of course).  But he loves his family, in ways even he can't understand.  He's got all this loyalty and he doesn't know what to do with it.  It's like there's this messed up immortal, and you can't be sure how much of it is because he's a messed up person and how much is immortality messing with you.

And can we stop for a second and talk about how rotten immortality would be?  I mean, long life would be great and all--a few hundred or even thousand years of bopping around.  I'm not talking about Hob from Sandman type of immortality, or even Highlander just-don't-cut-off-my-head stuff.  I'm talking true, Captain Jack Harkness cannot be killed indestructibility.  I mean, if absolutely nothing else, I don't want to be around when the sun explodes in 10 billion years.  How is that anything but sad and painful?  I was surprised, when I brought this up to Mike, that his instantaneous reaction was anything but, "Immortality?  Ugh, no!"  I'm sorry, but there are scenarios in which death is an important back door that needs to be open, thank you very much.

Wow, that sounds grim and creepy.  But then, it's October!  It's thematic!  Coming up: goblins and purple prose.