Friday, November 29, 2013

One Misty Moisty Morning

There's nothing like getting into a new Epic Fantasy Series.  There is nothing so consuming, nothing quite so satisfying, and--to my mind--nothing quite so intimidating.  I mean, this is a thousand page book with a cast of zillions.  Maybe there's a pronunciation guide or six pages of maps, or the dreaded family tree.  And even if you're ready to read it, you know there are two more in the trilogy, and then a few other equally ponderous trilogies set in this world.  It's a lot to ask of a reader.

It's a lot to ask of a writer, too, which is one of the reasons I'm always so reluctant to invest in one.  When you pick up a thousand page book by an author you've never read, you are making a commitment that could bring you to readerly grief--wasted time! accidentally getting invested in events that are poorly written and being forced to suffer through more of the book to find out how they turn out!  The humanity!

So the good news--the great news--is that Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire (which sounds like the name of a video game, right?) is definitely worth my time.  Once you break the seal on a new author like this, tons more pages pour out, and I'm going to be reading Brandon Sanderson's universe for probably years--and that's just to catch up to where things are today.

So here we have some cool worldbuilding--the Lord Ruler is in charge of the Final Empire, which is to say the whole world, and he's just the despot you'd expect.  It's all anyone's known for a thousand years--nobles killing skaa, brown plants that barely produce enough food for the population, misty nights you can't go out in.  We've got rich spoiled nobles and poor downtrodden serfs, plus those people who lurk on the fringes of things--the thieves and beggars.

You've got some very interesting characters, most notably Vin, a street urchin clinging to the edges of  crew of thieves, no friends and no connections.  When she meets Kelsier and his band of specialized criminals, she finds herself caught up in a plan to overthrow the Final Empire.  Her participation leads to her first close-up view of the lives of the nobles, and she examines her own understanding of the world and those of her new friends.

Okay, there's a summary.  And the characters are really engrossing, though describing them wouldn't do much good. (God, don't read the back covers of epics till you're done with them.  Long explanations of intricate power plays are what the actual text is for, not the back cover!) The parallels between Kelsier and his singleminded desire to destroy the Empire and everything we learn about the Lord Ruler at the time when he created the Empire centuries ago are really great. 

There's a but; how big a but depends on how you feel about this sort of thing.  First, Vin is the only female within miles of this book for the full first half.  Around the middle, a nasty, snooty noblewoman tries to involve Vin in her political maneuverings.  I'm 2/3 of the way through, and this is literally every female speaking character in the book.  A big point is made of how women in particular are abused by nobles (half-blood babies cannot be permitted to exist, so if a nobleman sleeps with a skaa woman, they have to kill her after), and how most women in the criminal world end up being prostitutes.  The particular oppression of women is not counteracted by any examples of female characters at all--to the point where it's freaking conspicuous.

There's also a lot of talk about boring and vapid court ladies, which comes off as femmephobia when you look at the fact that everyone at court seems kind of vapid, but only the women are described as such.  It's not like most of the men are leading lives of the mind or anything.  Everyone's gossiping, but Vin complains about having to listen to women gossip.  Oh, and on a more plotted level, Vin falls clunkily in love very early on.  I mean, okay, you need her to fall for this guy, but you've set her up as this incredibly guarded, experienced criminal, and then she turns into a Blushing Teenaged Girl in front of the Cute and Maybe Not So Bad Enemy?  Please.

Plus, the machinations are AWKWARD.  The snooty noble lady says things like "you should be grateful to be used by your betters."  It made me long for the intricate levels of courtly intrigue in a book like Dune

Oh, man, Dune.  Now THERE'S an epic.  I wish the sequels weren't so unabashedly weird.

Anyway, I'm listening to The Final Empire as an audiobook, and I had my doubts about the reader at first--he has a harsh voice and it too him a while to really get the voices of some of the characters.  But I'm totally into it now, and I'm really glad I'm listening to it.  I feel the sweep of it a bit with the distance of the book.

And I have a guess that one of our trusted crew members is a traitor.  I won't tell you who, but I think Kelsier ended up at Hath Sin because of one of their crew, and that his wife was framed.  I am waiting for the betrayal.  No spoilers!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Club for the Time Being

I still don't know what that means in the context of this book, "for the time being."  There's a LOT going on in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being--like, a LOT; maybe more than is good for the book--and the idea of time and time beings is just one of many, many things.

Well, wait, I guess it's not so much that I don't know what it means--a person, anyone who lives in the flow of time, is a time being.  It's more like I don't quite know why that observation is useful.  As I said, a lot of things going on here.  As usual, I think a question list is a good place to start, although I also think that the last question will be the most important one.

1) Time: since it's in the title, let's talk about it.  This is a multipart question, though, and some parts work better than others.
   a) Where does time come up?  What kind of references, what kind of metaphors?  Explicit references and the ones that are built into the story, like the relationships between all the threads of narrative and how they unfold.  (I am really tempted to spew out a list here--the Friends of the Pleistocene, Ruth pacing herself as she reads, Proust--but you could go on forever.)
   b) How do all of these references to time support or relate to the actual themes of the book?  Is time actually a theme, or more of a motif?  Why are these references there?

2) Okay, so we've done time.  Let's do other themes.  There are tons--alienation and the character against society; nature (the island/the temple) vs. civilization (Tokyo/New York); death (duh).  Can you think of more?  Are they related to each other, or just piled on top of each other?

3) Does this book contain too many symbols and motifs?  Like, what's up with the Jungle Crow?  And pet cats?  What about the protagonists' relationships with little old ladies? French language and literature? Did all the parallels between Nao's life and Ruth's seem meaningful or add to the story for you? How?

4) Is there a difference between magical realism, surrealism, and dream logic?  And do you hate dream sequences as much as I do?  I also hate drug trips and mad ramblings (OMG JOSS WHEDON I'M LOOKING AT YOU), but what this book had in spades was dream logic.  Is this book magical realism?  Like, what do you think was going on with the pages of the journal? And what about the scene where Nao goes to class after the attack?  Is that her telling her story the way she wants it, or is it dream logic, or magical realism?

5) What's your general opinion of books where the protagonist has the same name and many of the same characteristics of the author?  Do they make you suspicious, seem overly precious?  Do you ever wonder what it must be like to know that person and either look for or see yourself in their books?  Have you read Everything Is Illuminated?  Do you suspect that Jonathan Safran Foer is too precious to live?  Woah, wait, that had a lot of magical realism in it, too.  Do you think the books are related in other ways? 

6) Back to Time Being and eponymous characters, how did you feel about Ruth's relationship with Oliver?  Did they seem to kind of hate each other?  Was this just standard long-marriage stagnation, or was it actual disdain?  Were you rooting for her to maybe leave, move somewhere with a good internet connection and a Starbucks? And harking back to question (5), how would you feel about this book if you were the real Oliver?

7) Did you feel like the story was hitting you over the head with things, or did they creep up on you?  For example, did you figure out what was going on with Babette before Ruth explained it to Oliver? (I didn't.)  Did you figure out what was going on with the internet bidding war before Oliver explained it to Ruth? (I did.) At what point did you realize that the book was not actually going to be the remarkable life story of a Buddhist nun that you were promised in the cover copy?  Were you resentful?  Are you still?

Dude, there is a lot to say here, and I've been writing this post for days (around getting a new computer due to a major crash experience).  I don't know how much I loved the book itself, but I did like it.  And I truly did love that it had me asking so many questions.  If I knew the answers to half of them, I think I would have loved the book itself, too.  I do like questions, but I'm very, very big on answers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Unthinkable Unfinished

The thing about having an enormous reading list of exciting books that I'm dying to read is that my tolerance for a three-star book is minimal; something I might push through on another day is not going to hold my attention when so many tantalizing books are waiting in the pile.

Thus the sad fate of Nancy Werlin's Unthinkable.  In the afterword (which I skipped ahead and read; go figure, right?), she discusses how the book came about--how someone suggested she do a prequel to her excellent book Impossible, and she ended up writing a sequel instead.

Impossible is the story of Lucy, whose family is cursed.  In every generation, a baby girl is born.  That girl grows up to have a baby at 16 and then go insane.  Lucy and her adoptive parents don't believe in the curse--until Lucy finds herself pregnant and haunted.  Now, they need to find a way to break the curse before the baby is born. This was a lovely book, about the power of family, and how important it can be to have allies, and how cycles can be broken. 

Someone suggested the author write a prequel about Lucy's ancestor, Fenella, who was cursed centuries ago by a jealous fairy and has been his prisoner ever since.  Werlin declared a prequel to be a terrible idea, since of course we all know that the story has a sad ending.  Instead, she writes a sequel--Fenella, released from Fairy at last, has to earn her last bit of freedom by committing three acts of destruction--the counterpoint to the three acts of creation that saved Lucy originally.

So we have Unthinkable, which tells of Fanella reentering the world to free herself by harming others.  Interspersed, we have the story of young Fanella walking blithely into her curse.  It's all just so sad and depressing.  And frustrating!  There are so many places where things didn't have to end up the way they did, but by the time the book is underway, the whole thing feels like an exercise in cruelty, like one of those thought experiments where you have to decide which of your most precious loved ones you would save from a fire.

I'm sorry to set this aside; I really did love Impossible.  But as I said, there is a stack of exciting books beside me, and in a tight race like this, Unthinkable just isn't going to place.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


I'm done with Fairest; let me tell you why.

I talked about my concerns in my review of the first volume, and my feelings about all these things have only gotten stronger.  Fables is an amazing, epic story with just as many strong, flawed, complicated, fascinating female characters as male--maybe even more.  I appreciate the desire for a spinoff series to tell one-off personal stories and fill in backstory, but the implication that women need this special place when Willingham had given them such a great seat at the table is just infuriating.

And then there's the imagery.  I linked to a bunch of covers in my previous post--do you want to see some more?

God I hate these.  I mean, they're lush and sexy and provocative, and I'm not offended by sex.  The one on the left I even find kind of gorgeous.  But I'm offended by the fact that this entire series seems to be about reducing the breadth of these characters.  Gah.

Anyway, these are reasons that I thought about stopping.  But ultimately, I'm driven by my baser instincts, and I will follow a good story into a lot of ugly places (The Color of Light comes to mind as a book I have loved for a long time that, as Jolene finally pointed out to me about 10 years ago, really hates women).  So I actually kind of liked the first volume, and I was really looking forward to the second.

Unfortunately, Bill Willingham did not write this volume.  Apparently the reason for the spinoff series is to give other writers a place in the Fables universe.  Amazon tells me this volume was written by Lauren Beukes.  I know nothing about her, but I do know that this story didn't make any sense at all.  I read the first two issues in the volume, and I could not for the life of me follow what was going on. 

There was this random paper crane the flew in through the window and suddenly Rapunzel knew that her children who she thought didn't exist did exist and were in trouble.  And then they're in Asia and we're flashing back to a time when the old world Rapunzel ended up in a Japanese fable realm for some reason.  And then we flash back forward to her unauthorized trip to Japan to track them down, where she runs into all these relevant characters on the same streetcorner in one night and then goes to this place with one of them that is--what, somewhere?  I don't know.  I don't get it. 

I can tell you that the most interesting part of the story was the problem of how to hide the fact that her hair grows four inches per hour on a 20 hour international plane flight.  I found this to be a fascinating problem.  They solved it with magic.  Snore.

Yeah, so I'm done.  The next volume of Fables proper comes out next month.  I'm just going to hang my hopes on that.

Monday, November 11, 2013

One Week Becomes Two

Ah, blog drag.  It's a thing, and I'm going to take this opportunity to appreciate the fact that my small (but loyal! and well-loved!) readership means that I get to take breaks when I don't have much to say without causing as much crisis as it would if I was a big name blogger.

I'm in a bunch of middles; I don't think there's anything from the last few weeks that has stuck with me long enough to talk about (at least, not that I don't have a plan for posting about--Sarah, I'm talking about The Tightrope Walker!).  So, just a quick rundown of my in-the-middle-ofs.

1) Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  It's really good, but I think that Mary Roach is better when she's looking at the places where science and culture intersect.  So this book is better than Packing for Mars, but not as good as Stiff or Spook. I enjoy her loving treatment of the scientists who study these things, though, and it's still a Mary Roach book, which means it brings charm and wit, and that I now know why we use the terms flammable and inflammable interchangeably, and why (probably) mythology contains fire-breathing dragons..

2) Nancy Werlin's Unthinkable.  Not as good as Impossible, and with a much less comfortable premise.  Fanella is cursed with immortality until she commits three acts of destruction that hit very close to home.  It's kind of emotionally frustrating--heartbreaking, and never quite addressing head-on the fact that, if this is the no-win situation it appears to be, it was stupid, blindly made decisions that got us  here.

One thing that's driving me crazy, though--and it's the most inane thing--is that the company that I work for does business under the name Fanilla, Inc.  So whenever I pronounce her name to myself, I'm lifted out of the story and into a scenario where I'm perusing my paycheck.  Just...weird.  Like dating someone with the same name as your dad.

3) Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  I have many thoughts on fandom about this one, but it's about to get back-burnered in favor of the book club selection; I fully intend to come back to this one.  I'm enjoying it SO much.

There's more: random library pickups (Love You Hate You Miss You), Netgalleys that aren't holding my attention (Palace of Spies), a really good high fantasy novel that I'm just realizing doesn't come anywhere near passing the Bechdel Test (Mistborn: The Final Empire).  But I don't have much else to say right now.  I'll see what happens when my opinionated kicks in--or maybe just my excitement over the next batch of reads.