Thursday, March 28, 2013

King Hereafter, Part 2, Part 2

Aarti and I continue our Epic Co-Review of King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett, with this review of Part 2 of the book.  Part 1 of the review of Part 2 of the book is at Aarti's site; below is the second half of our conversation.

Sharon: One other thing I was asking myself about Rognvald--and this might not be a useful question to answer, but I think it’s interesting to ponder--is how much of his rage and frustration is envy (fraternal,  political) and how much is jealousy (romantic).

Aarti: Agreed.  I wonder how much, too, was in retaliation to the thwarting of both those things when Thorfinn had him publicly flogged.

Sharon: I think this is the part where I have to admit that my positive feelings about this book drive much closer to “appreciation” than “enjoyment.”  There’s just SO MUCH that I can’t follow, and it feels like I go for long periods of time reading about instances that are probably meaningful but not to me, or listening to discussions of people and politics that I just don’t get, because I don’t know the names or remember the relationships of the places.  I had Duftah and Malduin mixed up for a good chunk of time, which left me pretty lost.  

In fact, I’m finding it kind of hard to dive into the third part.  As history, it’s thorough and engaging, but as a novel, I feel like it doesn’t use a lot of the tools that literature usually uses to hit me where I live.  You know?

Aarti: Oh, gosh, yes!  It is hard to read this book and separate Dorothy Dunnett’s writing and research from the characters that are in it for me - which I think is true of all her books.  I too was lost for much of the book (just wait till you get closer to the end when ALL OF THESE PEOPLE come out of the woodwork and you are thinking, “Er, I feel like you are important, but I don’t remember why”).  I mean, I don’t even remember who Duftah is, to be perfectly honest.  And I still made it through the book ok, though I kept wishing that there were Cliff’s Notes.  I feel like often Dunnett thought that I could understand all the different levels of intrigue, the subtle hints and the veiled insults and challenges, and I really could not.  Did you feel the same?  I was always so relieved when Groa or someone would explain to another person (usually referred to as dim-witted or stupid) why the situation was so tense or what was wrong, etc.  I would have been that dim-witted person!

Sharon: This is an excellent description of how I feel about the whole book.  It reminds me of a mystery where the detective needs a sidekick to ask questions that we, the viewer/reader, would be asking.  Except this book provides that only about 10% of the time.  This must be getting in the way of my enjoyment more than yours; I’m finding that there are whole chunks of the book that seem to have no meaning to me because of this, and that I often feel like I might as well skip them.

I strongly suspect that if I was better at skimming I could take this book on more directly.  The fact is, I’m missing 60% of what’s there, but I’m TERRIBLE at skimming--I forget to do it, I get worried I missed the important stuff, I get confused--so I’m investing just as much of my attention in that 60% as I am in the 40% that’s clean and sharp and reachable to me.  It throws off the balance of the book.

Aarti: I can understand why you are struggling to dive into Part 3, though I do think it starts out with lighter humor, though again, I was lost as to WHY Thorfinn was doing what he was doing.  It was still entertaining to read, though!  Please don’t feel like you have to finish the book because of me, though!

Sharon: I’m going to give it one more big push as soon as I finish my book club selection for the month.  I really do want to  know what happens; I think this is a book that I might love if I was just able to skim the parts that I can’t follow.  I’m glad you’re really enjoying it!


I have promised to try and so I shall.  I make no further promises, though!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Interestingly, at no point during book club--over dinner, in a restaurant--was my mind drawn to any parallels between our meal and that of the characters in The Dinner, our selection this month.  It's an obvious parallel, even without the obsequious maitre d' or the tiny but overpriced portions.  (I am seriously, deeply in love that pecan chicken salad.)

But of course, we're not a bunch of hateful sociopaths, so OF COURSE it didn't feel anything like that horrible dinner. We're good human beings, many of whom are trained in helping young people with serious psychological problems.  Our conversation was amusing and interesting--and the book made for great conversation; it's really an object lesson in picking a book club book.  Moral ambiguity, unfolding layers of information and character, excellent writing, a quick read, and a few "what just happened there?" moments. 

The plot is described in many places: two couples meet for dinner to discuss an Issue with their teenaged sons.  You know this from the cover.  You learn early on that the two men are brothers, one a big name politician and the other more of an average joe who's kind of resentful of the fancy restaurant his brother chose.  His brother's a snob and a fake, you see.  And the first third of the book is mostly about that--about the absolutely disgusting pretension of really fancy restaurants that are just stealing your money, and about how much we hate phonies and hypocrites. 

Honestly, at the halfway point I called the book slow; if you're going to rely on hiding the real point of the book from me for that long, you have to give me an artificial point of the book to hang my hat on, and "I wish the waiter would stop telling me what country the ingredients come from" is not enough.  When the revelations start to come--the narrator found a troubling video on his son's phone; there's a story in the news recently; there's this incident from a few years ago--none of them are really surprising.  Guess the plot based on the cover blurb; these scenarios probably crossed your mind.  But about halfway through, as the revelations of fact begin, so do the revelations of character.

And THAT is where the book really kind of blows up in your face.  Because you spend time with each of these characters, feeling embarrassed for or scornful of or frightened for or frightened of each of them, and then you get an inch, and then an inch more, and you wonder how reliable your narrator is, and then you wonder if maybe he's totally reliable and your judgement is off, and then wait a minute, really!?

I've heard that this is the new Gone Girl.  (Well, someone at book club had heard it; I heard it for the first time last night.)  It's not Gone Girl, and I wouldn't ever draw that parallel of the experience of reading the book.  But when you get to the end and you look back on it, you might think: yeah, you know, the place you end up in this book is not too distant from the place you end up after Gone Girl.  You just took a completely, totally unrelated route to get there. 

And then, if you're me, you go read a nice book about nuns to try to leave that place behind you.

Awesome, awesome book club, by the way.  On which subject, I really want to watch Pride and Prejudice again.  This will happen; there will be a Viewing.  Count on it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Okay, wow, I'm kind of behind here.  This happens when I get ahead with posts; I lose track of how many I have.  Also, I've been driving to work, so I've lost a significant chunk of my reading time, and got caught up in one very dense book that I haven't finished yet.  But I've also gotten distracted--I'm so distractable lately!--and I lost track of time.

So, apologies and a little preview: on deck we have some space opera, some thoughtful YA that it turns out was not ruined by Hayden Christensen, some horrible people eating dinner for book club, and, I hope, some comics.  A lot of comics.  A lot of really good comics. 

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oh, Misty

I've explained before how I feel about Mercedes Lackey, and how I keep reading her books anyway.  This time, I was going to make another dive into her Elemental Masters series, which I've enjoyed a few of but not really followed.  I picked up The Gates of Sleep, just because the cover and the heroine seemed kind of appealing.

Sadly, this post is mostly going to be a list of reasons I didn't get past page two.  (If I ever write a novel, I'm going to have to take this blog down, because I feel like I'm so mean sometimes.)  Let me clarify that one of the reasons is that I'm having trouble connecting with any books right now--things that I might generally be able to get past are tripping me up badly here.

1) The narrator describes the character's morning dress as "artistic."  I do not know what an artistic dress is--a painter's smock?  That dress that Angela made in season 3 of Project Runway for an "art teacher?"  I especially do not know what an artistic Edwardian morning dress would be.  I need more information here.

2) I finally admitted to myself that I hate--hate, hate, HATE--that Lackey characters never smile.  Rather, they CONSTANTLY "suppress a smile."  There is no reason on earth for this character not to smile at her friends, but instead she suppresses a smile.  When it's a hardened warrior trying not to give away her image, fine.  When it's a queen not laughing at ribald jokes, okay.  But when a character is in a room with some of her dearest friends and feels warmly toward them, there is no reason she should suppress her smile.

3) In the 1800s, it is not necessary to mention that a carved cradle is "hand-carved" as though that is impressive.  That it is intricately, or elaborately, or delicately, or fancifully, or in some other way impressively carved would be useful.  Hand-carved is only special because we now live in a world where that would be rare.

Some of this is sloppy, and some is just personal tweaks.  Another time I would--will--read past these quirks.  But, sadly, not this week.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Don't Worry Your Pretty Head

I'm still torn about the very notion of Fairest, the Fables spinoff that's about the women of that universe.  The first issue was perfectly enjoyable--I liked it better than the first issue of Fables itself--but my reaction is all over the place.

So, I think Bill Willingham really excels when he's writing episodes in a bigger overarching story.  I'm pretty sure Fables is the only thing I've ever read that I feel that way about--I'm almost always a bigger fan of the "monster of the week" episodes than I am of the "cigarette man conspiracy episodes" (and if you didn't watch X-Files, that won't mean much, but you can translate it to pretty much any franchise you'd like).  But I think Fables is always at its strongest when it's going somewhere, whether it's up against the Adversary or the somewhat less compelling Mr. Dark.

That's why the first two trade paperbacks were the weakest, and why the Cinderella spinoffs, while fun, always seemed slight.  Willingham needs time to develop things.  This one reminded me of Cinderella--pretty good story, but the really compelling parts were the ones that tied tightly to the broader story from Fables.  Specifically, that would be the Snow Queen and her return to herself after being a servant of the Adversary for so long.

Okay, all that said, let's talk about what's really bothering me--the idea that the female characters need their own series.  Now, I realize that this was probably just the answer to the question "what can we spin off to make some more comics?"  And this seems like a very female-positive answer.  But the thing is, the women weren't taking a back seat in the main book, and it feels really marginalizing to give them a series of their own.

Also?  Let's take a look at some of the covers of the individual issues.

(Images courtesy

And then the cover of the next trade collection.  I'm just saying, there's a lot of naked and near-naked ladies here.  It's not that out there for comic books, but it's actually way more sexualized than Fables usually is.  

As for the story itself, it's not so bad.  There are definitely some riffs on "what women need" and "how relationships really work," but most of them are DEFINITELY made ironically by the annoying pest of a character.  I didn't love how one character fell for Ali Baba completely unnecessarily and then the other one felt all left out--there's so much more going on in all these people's lives, and the fact that Ali is just there does not make him all that covetable.

I'm going to keep reading these, make no mistake.  Other writers will be coming into the story (the next one will be Lauren Beukes), so we'll see what direction it goes in.  The one-off story at the end with Beauty and Beast looks  like a really promising exploration of those characters with some good twists.  I hold out a lot of hope here.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

King Hereafter: A Joint Review

I'm very excited to be reviewing Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter with Aarti at BookLust.  I feel this way partly because I love Aarti's blog, and partly because the book was full of words and content and plot, and I was grateful for a little hand holding.  It's not the story of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but rather a take on the historical figure on whom Macbeth is based.  I understand this to be a matter of some speculation, but I know much less about the subject than Dorothy Dunnett (you do, too, I guarantee it), so I'm going to take her at her word.

This is a long book, so we're going through it party by part.  This is the first half of our conversation about Part I; you can find the second half at her site, here.  Part II coming soon!

I'm in blue and Aarti's in red.  So, without further ado...

I have so many things I want to talk about in this book!  There’s the world she’s building, the writing style, and the politics.  But I think the first thing I wanted to mention was just how much the fact of the book being tied to Macbeth influenced my expectations and experience.  I find that in books that are based on other stories I know, I’m always looking for the characters I know about, and looking for how the stories fit together.  So I kept trying to figure out who was Banquo.  

But of course, this isn’t based on the Shakespeare, but rather on the history that he was writing from.  And it’s a different story from that one in almost every way.  Did you find the Macbeth tie in distracting, or that it set up expectations?  Or do you think it added anything to your experience of the story so far?

At the risk of sounding very uncultured, I’d have to say I don’t think Shakespeare’s Macbeth has tied in much at all for me because I hardly remember it at all!  I read it in high school and then never again, and all I can say is that Groa is nothing like Lady Macbeth so far :-)  I do think that Groa’s son, though, might be seen as a slight nod to the witches of Macbeth as he seems to have the ability to predict the future.  But I like that he is so fond of Thorfinn and just states what he thinks are facts, and then those facts just happen to turn everyone else’s world upside down.

I’ve read Dunnett’s other historical fiction books - The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo and it’s interesting how these ideas of fate and destiny are present in all of them.  In a way, if you know the story of Macbeth, you know how this story will end, but what’s so interesting is that Thorfinn himself seems to know how the story will end, but he’s still going out there doing his best every day to make the most of it.  I love that.

I also just love Thorfinn and Groa.  I was worried that I wouldn’t like Groa because I don’t love most of the women Dunnett writes.  But Groa is great and I am so looking forward to seeing her grow.  And Thorfinn - he’s so inscrutable and hard to read.  So many times through this part of the book, I feel like he was having conversations with people on multiple levels, and I really only understood the most obvious one!  Did you get that feeling?

Through most of the first section I felt the absence of female characters.  There’s Godiva, who is absolutely amazing and I want to be her, but she’s really the only one till Groa comes in.  I love her, too, and I felt like I understood her better than any other character, by far.  She starts out sort of on the outside of everything Thorfinn is doing, which is hugely frustrating (because she’s so great and you want her to be in the middle of the action), but it’s frustrating for her, too.  I think that makes it even more satisfying when she does get to play an active role, and when she and Thorfinn finally become close.

As for Macbeth, the story is already so far from the Shakespeare that the parallels are more interesting than informative.  I mean, killing Duncan was just a selfish, dirty move in the play, but here, it’s the only thing that made sense.  A lot of my enjoyment of the story comes, I think, from getting a feel for the rules these people are playing by--how do you predict what all the other players are going to do, and what does loyalty look like?  The latter is a huge deal here, because there are friends and there are allies, and they’re related but not entirely overlapping.  Thorfinn’s relationship with Eachmarchach is a great example--they’re clearly true personal friends, but on both their sides there’s an element of cultivating the political allies they need.  (It reminds me of all my friends who say they hate networking; all social activity is a little bit networking!)

Let me ask you this, though; how much of the outline of background events did you actually follow?  I feel like I recognize about half the names that are used in a lot of the descriptions of things that are going on, and can pinpoint and remember the details about even fewer.  There’s always another uncle or step-cousin or half-brother, and so many are named Thor and Finn!  (A character named Finn appeared in the other book I’m reading and I had an instinctive reaction of trying to figure out whose cousin he was before I realized that he worked at Google and had probably never been a-viking.)  I’m fascinated that the story can be so engaging when the “lens” is set so wide, and so much of it is taken up with broad descriptions of political maneuvers and war craft.

Head on over to Aarti's site for the second half of the review.  And stay tuned for more of Thorfinn, Groa, and all the other guys named Thor!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Mr. Penumbra Stands Alone

February was the least prolific reading month I've had in the ten years or so I've been keeping track, and very possibly ever.  I finished two novels and one collection of comics--and one of the novels I started in January. There were a few factors there--an emotional slump, a few false starts, and at least four really long reads that I've put a ton of time into but not yet finished.  Hopefully this means March will make me look like a whiz kid, but right now I'm feeling kind of a reading slump, where everything I pick up seems either too hard or just bad.

I have WAY more to say about the graphic novel, Fairest, but I think that needs a post of its own.  so let me just give a little shout out of love to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreThis book absolutely made my month--it was just what I needed to read.

I knew almost nothing about this book when I started it, and you don't really need to.  The only thing I think it helps to know from the beginning is that this is a bright, hopeful book.  I kept waiting with dread for the grimness to come in, but it never does.  There's a bad guy, kind of, but although he's sinister, he's more of a B-conflict; the main conflict of the book is The Mystery.

Clay is an unemployed graphic designer in desperate need of a job, so when he lands the role of night clerk at a small "independent" bookstore, he's not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.  But he realizes that the store is kind of a front for a lending library for the terminally eccentric, and he starts to learn more about books and the goals of a secret society.  With the help of a girlfriend who lives her job at Google, some of the smartest technology in the world, and some of the oldest examples of the printed word, Clay assembles a crack team of brilliant, kooky friends and allies to solve the mystery of centuries.

I loved almost every character in this book--they were all super-competent and passionate, and they were all great ambassadors for their little worlds--the artists, designers, programmers, researchers, antiquarians, anthropologists, bibliophiles.  Each of them got a chance to showcase their arena, and nobody got sniffed at.  Not so realistic--almost cartoonish in its upbeatness--but so right for me at the exact moment I read it.

There was an exception; I hated Kat.  Everyone in my book club hated Kat.  I think it was easy to hate Kat, partly because Clay LOVED Kat--every sentence she appeared in for the first third of the book involved the word "cute," or maybe "gorgeous" or "adorable."  Or else Clay was distracted by how awesome and charming and frigging cute she was, wearing the same shirt every day.  Kat is kind of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl--not quite the traditional definition, because she definitely has her own goals, but she's definitely the perfect girl who is just totally on board with whatever the hero wants to do and opens up a whole new world of possibility to him as though she had nothing else to do with her time.  Even the changes she goes through in the story make her seem kind of sad and childish, like an object lesson--which wouldn't be so bad if she had started out more complex than "supersmart and adorable."

Anyway, she was by far the weakest part of the story.  Everyone else shone.  I'm not going to read too much into her being the only major female character--I loved the book too much.  I'll read more Robin Sloane (please, I'd like him to write some more, please) and hope he does something a little more interesting with women then.

Saturday, March 02, 2013


The Morning News does a Tournament of Books every year, and they've released the brackets!

(See it in more detail here.)

I have to admit, this kind of "competition" seems kind of silly to me--how do books go head to head?  How can you put Round House up against The Fault In Our Stars?  That's the only bracket where I've read both books, and aside from both being about teenagers, they have pretty much nothing in common; comparing them is apples and oranges.

But of course, I haven't read most of them (many on my to-read list, though!).  So I can put only slightly more thoughtful consideration into this than I do into picking Superbowl Squares--which, I will point out, were randomly generated.