Thursday, May 29, 2014

Not to Be Confused with David Bowie

Okay, first: if you're like me, when you think "Goblin King," you think of this guy:

Right?  But don't be confused.  We're talking about a book called The Goblin Emperor, no matter how many times I tried to make Maia the Goblin King in my head.  And Katherine Addison's protagonist, Maia, does not look anything like our pale, lean Mr. Bowie above.

In fact, quite the opposite.  He's the fourth son of the emperor of the elves, by an unloved and set-aside goblin wife who was married for political reasons.  Maia is short, stocky, dark-skinned, and relatively uneducated.  But when his father and three older brothers he's never met all die tragically, he finds himself thrust into a role he's entirely unprepared for, and that not everyone wants to see him fill.

This book has gotten a lot of much-deserved love around the internet.  It's a very specific kind of book, about a mannered society where form is very important and meaningful.  You'd say it was a story of manners, but it's not, exactly, because most books like that stay a bit removed from the let-down, informal internal lives of the characters. The Goblin Emperor is very much about how these social forms are isolating, but also how they are the bones of civilization.  I was reminded of reading Dune, and how the many layers of subtle behavior are parsed instinctively by the politicians.  

Maia has no one, in the world.  His mother died when he was young and he was sent into exile with a distant cousin to raise him.  This cousin was angry, resentful, and cruel to Maia, leaving the boy completely unprepared to live in polite society, never mind rule it.  When he gets to court, he's faced with problems as basic as how to live with constant bodyguards and people needing things from him and as complicated as determining whether his father's death was entirely accidental.

So I will say that I loved this book--loved the world building especially, and loved that Maia was a good character--smart if uneducated, determined to do the right thing, if not without resentments and angry impulses.  Most people, in fact, were good here, which I also liked--pompous did not equate to evil, and everyone was trying to make things work, as far as they could.  There were bad guys, but most of them thought they were doing good, one way or another--if not objectively, capital-G Good, then at least doing the best they could toward whatever end they thought was important.

A couple of things tripped me up in the book--one was the language, which was very cleverly used, but got away from me at times.  I completely lost track of everyone's name, entirely, especially since they all had first and last names and titles, and they were called different combinations of them through the book.  I think Csevet is the only one I was able to keep track of, because he had the fewest syllables.  There were absolutely points where I had no idea who was on stage for pages at a time, till someone would say something military or religious, or you'd get a "she" thrown in and I could place them.

Also, I think the middle sagged just a little.  It's not that I ever got tired of the character development, or that it ever stood still.  But I realized recently that one of the things I like about stories is watching people solve problems.  This was the problem I had with How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia--not a lot of problem solving--and I think that The Goblin Emperor had a lot more information gathering, a lot more passive preparation for problem solving, than I wanted.  I wanted Maia to take some kind of haphazard control of his life earlier than he did.  By the end, everything was where I wanted it to be, but it took Maia a little longer to get into the right headspace than I wanted--I'd rather have seen a few more fumbling efforts on his part, rather than his very slow movement toward true ownership of his life. 

I will say, though, that I'm really disappointed that there probably won't be a sequel to this.  It doesn't need one--we are left at the beginning of a golden age, you can just tell--but I wish I could spend more time with Maia, his bodyguards, his betrothed, Csevet, and the rest.  I wish I could see the great, confident man Maia will become.  That's a pretty great place to leave your feelings about a book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wonder Love

R.J. Palacio's Wonder came out a few years ago, and as usual I didn't get to it till long after everyone who told me how great it was.  I do listen to you all--I really do!  There are just so many great books out there.

In a lot of ways, it's a very simple story--a boy with severe facial deformities attends school for the first time.  Auggie has been home schooled through fourth grade, mostly because he's been in and out of the hospital for various surgeries. 

But now, in fifth grade, it's time for him to go to public school.  It's nothing more or less than you would expect--a combination of stares and avoidance until people get used to him, some people being nice, some being polite, some being mean. 

I think the amazing thing that's going on here is the perspective--in a few different ways.  First, the importance of peer relationships at 11 years old is given just the right emphasis.  Some books will get you swept away with how vital your social standing is to your overall quality of life at that age, and it's not untrue, but it's also not untrue that a couple of jerks don't have to ruin your life--or they can, if they put their minds to it--and that a loving family can carry you a long way through rough social waters. 

The other cool thing is that the story is told from various points of view.  Auggie gets more time than anyone else, but two of his friends, his high school-aged sister, and his sister's boyfriend all get chapters to tell their perspectives, and that is absolutely invaluable.  Because being Auggie is hard, and complicated, but knowing Auggie is life changing, too, and not without its own complications.  And the book portrays that beautifully.

Then recently, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new short, The Julian Chapter.  Julian is the "bad guy" of Wonder; he does most of the teasing, and any deliberate meanness pretty much originates with him.  I'm always interested in the book from the mean kid's point of view, but it's not that I expect a lot of new insights.  Mean kids are mostly angry and scared and traumatized, but they've turned that outward.  Lauren Oliver did a great job telling that story in Before I Fall, and it's going to be tough to top that one.

But I can't be surprised that Palacio brought the same humanity and balance to Julian as she did to all her other characters.  Even Julian's mom--who photoshopped Auggie out of the class portrait--is treated with care and respect.  And Julian's combination of denial, panic, and simple selfishness is so...understandable.  All the bad guys here are people I'm just a jot of self-awareness away from being, all the time.  Even Julian's "redemption" is well-earned.

I think what R.J. Palacio brings to this set of stories is the true idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself.  You don't love yourself the same way you love other people.  You love yourself through a deep awareness of your flaws, with your heart always open for the forgiveness that you always need.  A book full of struggling, non-boring, good people is a rare find; I wish I could read this one for the first time again.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Finger on the Trigger

I have no recollection of why I requested the ARC of I Am the Weapon, by Allen Zadoff.  At first glance, it really doesn't seem like my kind of book, does it?  Heavy on the YA, kind of violent, romance-y.  But then, if you make a list of the things I do look for in books, we do hit all those items here: how-tos, problem solving, extreme competence, and characters who find their boundaries tested.

(Also, when I was a teenager I dreamed up a story about juvenile assassins, so I'm kind of attached to the premise.)

I'm generally skeptical about assassin books, because it's one of those things that sounds all dramatic, and sure, it probably leads to some adventures, but really its practitioners are unlikely to be lovely people.  Being a killer has an exciting ring to it, but I don't trust a lot of books to make this as complicated as it needs to be for the premise not to be kind of depressing and offensive.

This book, though, grabbed me tight and didn't let go.  I gulped it down, and it's made for that--the first person narrator addresses the reader in spare, practical prose.  The competence is finely honed, and his humanity is hardly in evidence.  He's a tool, a weapon, and that gives you both the dramatic adventure that you want and the cold heartlessness that you need to convince me to follow along.

The narrator is, I think, 17, and he's been an assassin for several years--ever since his parents were killed by his best friend.  He works for a mysterious organization, and he believes that he's doing good, though that belief has little to do with his day to day life. 

He's highly trained at fitting in as a teenager, and I think that's one of the most entertaining aspects of the book--watching him carefully fake being a normal kid, all the while watching his back, knowing that he could take out everyone in the room before they knew what hit them.

Of course there's a girl, and she gets in the way of the mission--this could have been cheesy, but it's handled really well, because it's not about instalove--it's about interest, fascination, and something that clicks--something about the chain of events has him thinking about his past and his personal history, and he's off his game.  The book did not go where I expected, and for a YA book that mostly takes place in a high school, that's really amazing.

Now I'm waiting for I Am the Mission, the follow-up that comes out in June.  This was a great hidden gem that I really just lucked into--seriously, so far 2014 is a really wonderful reading year for me!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Asia, Rising

Book club last month (my god, I'm behind) read Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which had a lot of buzz around it this year.  It seemed like an excellent book club pick--an interesting setting, a clever premise, good writing.  But somehow, none of us really had anything to say about it.

The structure of the book is that of a self-help book, and each chapter has a title that is a piece of advice.  Because of this, it's told in the second person, which is an incredibly risky thing to do but is handled quite well here.  It's the story of a boy growing up in poverty who hustles and eventually runs a large, successful bottled water conglomerate in some unnamed, presumably Southeast Asian country. 

Why didn't we have much to say?  Why didn't it stick with me very much?  I think because it fits that "literary" category, which is that it's a slice-of-life book.  While that life is very different from mine, making this WAY more interesting than a similar story about a North American bottled water magnate, it's still about the emotional experience of living in the world.  It's about being young, hustling, wanting more than you have, being afraid, growing old, and dying. 

I felt like what was missing here was problem solving.  I wanted the characters to be challenged or tested, but that's not what this book was about.  As Jenny says at Reading the End, "I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it."  I wanted to watch them sort things out, but any real situation-handling or problem solving that they did was offscreen, between sections.  We saw only glimpses, snapshots of the results.

Though we didn't really have a discussion, I'm going to frame this with discussion questions, just because that's what I like to do for the book club books.  I really should start doing this before the meeting; I think it might help a bit.

1) Do you think the self-help conceit added much to the book?  Do you think it affected much of anything outside of the first page or two of each chapter?  Did you enjoy the openings of the chapters?  Find that they fit with the rest of the book?  Oh, let's just say it: these might have been my favorite parts of the whole book.

2) How did you feel about the parts of the book that take on points of view besides "yours?"  Did they seem to be forced into the structure of the book, or purposeful asides from the author? 

3) Did it seem weird that the character's behavior toward his wife was so notable weak?  What does it mean for a second person book when "you" are behaving in ways that you don't approve of?

4) Do you notice that I'm mostly talking about the writing style?  Is there anything to say about the story?  I'm trying to think of questions, but none of them mean anything.  What did you think of the father?  Did you miss the sister when she went off?  Were you embarrassed for the main character when he showed up on the date in his tacky new clothes?  What did you think about....?

Really, this is pretty sad.  I don't have much, even thinking about this months later.  Has anyone else read this book?  If you have, do you have any interesting questions you'd bring to a group discussion?  Please, help me.  I'm fading fast here.

Man, we should have read Harry August for book club.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, I'm Still Into Zombies

So shoot me.  I know, it's past its apex.  And even my fascination has run a bit thinner--I've gotten much more discerning about my zombie media consumption.  But the best zombie stories are really empty world stories; they're about living on the brink of annihilation, in which everything familiar has become a threat, and there's something hypnotic about this notion that I don't know if I'll ever really get all the way past.

And that is all to the good, because along comes M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts, and after reading the free five chapter preview on Amazon, I sat on the edge of my chair and waited...waited...waited for it to be available in the states.  But then I lucked into an advance copy, and the rest is (or shortly will be) history.

Oh, I hate doing this part of the review, where I try to tell you the premise in a way that's interesting and catchy--I'm not a blurbologist.  Melanie's world is limited to classes and her cell, teachers, other children, and soldiers.  Something's off about it, but you figure out fairly quickly what's going on--civilization has mostly fallen, and we are in a military lab trying to cure the disease that turns people into hungries.

Melanie is crackling smart, and patient with her very restricted world.  She loves learning, and she especially loves her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau.  Her story is the story of a little girl who has nothing, but loves the world anyway, and it's incredibly touching, even after you establish that there is something deeply amiss about this world, and even about Melanie.

This book... this book.  It's about how tragedy hones you down into the essence of yourself. It's about how passions can become obsessions, and how one person's collapsed remains of a world is another's new opportunity. Sure, it's about what it means to be human, but it's also about what it means to see someone as human, which is another thing entirely.

Plot-wise, mostly it's a traditional British Walking Adventure, though, making our way across a destroyed British landscape.  The walking part has been hit or miss for me historically, but it's done well here, and the post-apocalyptic landscape is a very solid example of the genre.  But what makes you--me--love the book is Melanie, Justineau, and Parks, and how you come to root for each of them.  Even Caldswell is intriguing and fascinating and...maybe admirable?  I'm not sure I'd go that far. 

But I can't put the book down, which is everything I wanted it to be.  I highly recommend grabbing the Extended Free Preview (which is listed as the Kindle edition on Amazon right now).  I think that's all you need to get how I feel about this book.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

If I'd Known Then What I Know Now

The life relived is a thing these days, I think, like vampires or zombies.  Kate Atkinson's Life After Life did it in a literary fashion; Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has a different spin that is both more compelling and more explicitly philosophical.

Harry August lives his life through, and when he dies he is born again--in the same year, the same place, to live the same life over.  He is a kalachakra, and after going through the usual first-few-lives rough spots--thinking you're crazy, getting all philosophical, wondering if you're the only one--he learns of the Cronos Club, a group of people with the same gift/affliction.

Each of them lives their life in a loop, and they meet repeatedly during the overlaps.  They're libertines, researchers, adventurers, and philosophers.  But something else is happening--the future is changing, and Harry needs to figure out why.

This book sounded intriguing, which is why I picked it up (disclosure: I got an advance copy from the publisher for review).  Then I read the Book Smugglers' review at Kirkus, which was kind of mediocre, so I put off reading it for a bit.  But when I did pick it up, it drew me along almost seamlessly, and I couldn't put it down.  

Groundhog Day is an apt comparison.  Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall also came to mind.  But unlike so many other books structured around this premise, this one was really an adventure/mystery type of story.  Most of these other repeated life books are about trying to get it right, trying to be a good person, or trying to find the meaning of life.  But when that comes up in this novel, it's somewhere between a sideline and a McGuffin. 

Of course, these long-lived people who are so different from the rest of us wonder why they live and what it means.  They mostly don't wonder, though, what they should be doing with their lives.  Each of them sorts that out for themselves, to whatever extent it's possible.  Some pursue knowledge as the source of understanding, some pursue pleasure, since they can.  Some work to do good for us normals, while others work to help other kalachakra.  The answer to the book is not the answer to the great mysteries.

The Book Smugglers review speaks of August's detachment, and they're not wrong.  That didn't bother me, though--it seemed like a scientist's account of the events.  The first half of the book is mostly given over to learning about how it works to live this kind of life--how you manage childhood with adult memories, how the Chronos Club communicates, the risks and rewards of living multiple lives.  I love this kind of detailed layout of a complicated system, and it's done very deftly here. 

The adventure picks up in the second  half of the book, where Harry has discovered the problem and is trying to sort it out and solve it, and I won't spoil that, but I will tell you that it trots along and keeps you rolling.  There's a bit of a slow spot in the middle between the two sections, where we've learned all about kalachakra life but we're only just starting to suspect the danger, but that lag passes pretty quickly. 

Okay, my ONE big complaint here?  There's a framing element to the story, a premise that it's being written as a letter to someone.  That only comes up in a very few places, but when it's revealed at the end, it doesn't make sense.  I just feel that if you're going to use a framing story like that, it has to make sense, and this doesn't.  To hide the identity of the letter's recipient, the author has structured a letter whose writing makes no sense.  It doesn't come up enough to be a big problem, but it's kind of annoyingly careless for such a tight, controlled writer.

I think this could be a very interesting book club book, if you wanted to do something lighter and really engaging.  There are a lot of good things to discuss--the relation between science and morality, the perils of immortality, the value of an immortal life vs. a mortal one, what you'd do if a loved one told you he was immortal and had lived the same life over and over again, the role of fatherhood in the story, the notion of forgetting as death.  Not really the direction my book club would usually go, but I kind of wish I had them to discuss it with.

Also, now I'm going to look up who Claire North is (I believe it's a pseudonym) and find her other books!

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Swooning with Pleasure

Okay, now we're starting in on the backlog of books from my hiatus.  Unfortunately, just limiting myself to the ones I really want to talk about, that's still an awful lot of books, and as you all know, I'm much worse at writing about books I read a while ago.  Still, I have so very many things to say here!

Guys?  Guys.  Have you read Fortune's Pawn yet?  Have you read Honor's Knight?  If not, you should go out and do that, because I can now definitively say that the trilogy delivers from top to bottom.  Rachel Bach's Heaven's Queen gave me everything I wanted from Devi Morris, the phantoms, the Eyes, Caldswell, Rupert, and even the Lady Gray.  My only complaint is that there wasn't nearly enough of the secondary characters from the first book--I wanted more Nova and Basil and Hyrek.

We start out right where we left off last time--Devi and Rupert on the run.  They spend a little bit of time scrambling around, which is much more about being in love than getting anything else done, and I have to say it's the weakest part of the whole series. 

I just don't have strong feelings for Rupert.  There's a lot of telling instead of showing abut how attractive he is and how connected she feels to him.  Especially considering that I'm fully capable of falling hard for a literary character--hell, I'm half in love with Devi--Rupert just doesn't give me much to work with, and consequently the little period of sweet tranquility they experience just kind of drags, and everything that's supposed to feel all teamwork-romance-bliss is just kind of boring.

But, you know, it's not that bad.  The story moves forward, there are some complications, and when they come up with a plan and start to execute it, things take off.  Then you get what you want from the rest of this series--you find out about the phantoms, and Devi figures out her infection, and everyone is taken captive and the lelgis want to kill them and so do the Eyes but Devi outfights and outclevers them until she brings the whole system DOWN and saves the world and everything. 

Wait, were those spoilers?  Come on, you never though it wasn't going to end well, did you? 

This was a romp--if the love had had me convinced, it would have been the perfect book.  As it stands, it is merely an incredibly satisfying and ass kicking book that makes me want to read everything else Rachel Bach has ever written and also possibly to meet and be BFFs with Devi Morris. 

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Buffy vs. Angel: What Am I Doing Here?

Okay, I'm so far behind with these posts, the guilt is overwhelming me.  I need to just write something, so we'll start with an easy one and just kind of blather about Buffy, because I can always do that.

For example, I was listening to the soundtrack of Once More with Feeling on the ride to work today, and I STILL have to fast forward through Giles's song, "Standing in Your Way," because I will never be not enraged about him leaving.  There are so many things wrong with that.  I think I've come the conclusion that it's a writing problem--there's just no way it's a realistic thing for a person to do.

But even knowing it's the fault of Joss Whedon or whoever was writing the show at that time, I still blame Giles.  Because yes, a 20 year old who's just been through a hugely traumatic experience right after losing her mother should totally be standing on her own two feet.  What the hell kind of a person does that?

Okay, but I'm here to talk about the most recent updates to the Buffyverse, namely the conclusion to Season 9, The Core, and the last volume of Angel & Faith, Death and Consequences.  (There's actually a more recent volume just out, but I haven't read it yet.  Waiting for it from the library!)

Death and Consequences comes first chronologically, so we'll start there.  Here's the thing--this run of A&F is better than Buffy is right now.  It's well-written, neatly balances the bigger story arc (Angel tries to bring Giles back to life!) with the individual stories (Faith has it out with the London slayers who hate Angel! Drusilla's around! Family issues!), the character work is great, the writing is funny.  The stakes are worth it, the struggle is hard, but I don't know how it's going to turn out.

But I still hate Angel.  Hate him.  Christos Gage (writer) is trying to make me not hate him, but I wasn't a huge fan at any point in the story, and after Twilight, I just can't.  I can't tell how much the story is retconning and how much I just missed the first time around.  Supposedly ameliorating tidbits--like Angel was planning to bring everyone to the new universe when the old one perished, or he was possessed by Twilight, not under his own power--are dropped throughout.  But they're a way of dodging what seems to me like the most interesting thing about the whole Angel situation, which is that he made a choice to let there be destruction in the name of what he considered a greater good, and he was wrong.

By taking that back, by making him a victim instead of a perpetrator, it seems like an easy out.  It's too hand-wavy.  But at least the Giles part is real--he was clearly possessed when he killed Giles, but he clearly blames himself for it (because he let it get that far--which implies that he WAS acting of his own volition!).

This is a screed already.  I apologize.

Anyway, The Core was a great ending for Season 9 of Buffy.  The Scoobies in action together, a resolution to the exhausting, drudgy problem of the season, a big bang for a couple of important characters, some sisterhood stuff, good people making bad choices and having to live with them--everything you want.

Oh, yeah, and Spike!  And not angsty Spike--the Spike who was Dawn's unlikely protector in Season 5.  I have an enormous soft spot for Spike--soft isn't even the word--but he's a hero, and it's nice to see him acting on that a bit.

He was actually in Death and Consequences, too, and while he still gets played for some laughs, he also gets to be a hero, which just seems right to me.  I mean, he's the only known case of someone UNVAMPIRING himself, specifically so he could be a good guy.  Yes, he's snarky and not all that bright, but he's a doer, perceptive and loyal to an almost unhealthy point.

Oh, god, this has gone beyond screed.  I'm just ranting.  I'm going to quit now before I start linking to fanfiction.  But I want to throw in a link to this review from the Nerdist of the beginning of Season 10, which, first, has me really excited, and second, captures my feelings about the progression of the comics really well (along with my desire to see what a 30-something Scooby gang is up to).  Buffy 4 Ever.