Sunday, February 28, 2016

Jane Steele

Five stars aren't enough--can I borrow some from elsewhere?  Eight, ten stars, a dozen or more; Lyndsay Faye's Jane Steele was so much fun.

So, the blurb I first read on Netgalley sells it as Jane Eyre meets Dexter, and while I only know the basics about Dexter, this both drew me in and made me skeptical.  The first couple of pages had me a bit worried, too, because the narrator talks about how she became a murderer early in life, and about her vile nature. But at that point, I had a review copy in hand, so I plunged boldly ahead.

Now, I'm all about a good antihero, but I also tend to think a lot about collateral damage in my media.  One of the things I loved about Daredevil and Jessica Jones is how it deals with the fallout of all the big battles from The Avengers.  One of the things that bugs me about a lot of fanfiction is how it glosses over how truly cruel and damaging the much-loved bad guys are when it wants them to get with our favorite love interests.  They're bad guys because they hurt people, and often don't regret it; I can enjoy them as characters without wanting them to get their way.

So I was worried from the beginning about whether I was going to like Jane Steele, but oh, Reader, did I ever.  It's true that Jane kills a number of people, but she is not a sociopath into whose head you're trying to see--she is a human being who is often in untenable situations, in a world where she has little recourse.  This is exactly the kind of moral complexity I love in a story.

If you wrote a very rough outline of the plot of the book Jane Eyre, you would have the bones of this story--brought up in a house where she is the unwanted cousin/niece, sent away to a terrible school, left with few options in life and fending for herself, taking a job as a governess in a house with a gruff, socially odd master...well, you see. 

But you only have to take a small step closer before the details change dramatically.  Jane is clever and practical, and she has her own strict code of ethics, even while she understands that by the morals of society, she is evil.  And on some level she believes herself so; this tension is one of my favorite parts of the book. 

There is lots of other tension, too.  The author does a marvelous job of teasing each twist, pointing out just where she should have let well enough alone, or enjoyed herself while she could.  Sometimes that kind of flourish bothers me, but here I had enough trust early enough that this just kept me running for the next of fate's cruel tricks.

Our heroine is also, in a rather charming twist, a huge fan of the novel Jane Eyre, which has just been published. She sees the parallels and chuckles over them, especially when Miss Eyre has an easier time of things than Miss Steele ever did.

When Jane finally meets Charles Thornfield (our cleverly-named Mr. Rochester stand-in, who is much less creepy and condescending than the actual Mr. Rochester), the plot becomes more concentrated, and the backstory of the other characters--all circling around the Sikh Rebellion and the wars in the Punjab in the mid 19th century--becomes the driving force of the plot.  By this point, though, Jane's heart belongs very straightforwardly where she's given it, and we are following her wherever she takes us.

And everywhere she goes is delightful indeed.  I love her clever pragmatism, I love her grit and fire, and I love how she believes herself to be bad but still finds herself doing good, almost without believing it.  This book was an absolute pleasure to read, and I've already added Lyndsay Faye's previous books to my to-read list.  You should absolutely read this book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Three Thieves: The Dark Island

I have spoken before of my love for Scott Chantler's Three Thieves series, and I'm thrilled to tell you that there's a new chapter called The Dark Island that's just coming out in a few weeks.  I have read an advance copy through Netgalley, and I'm happy to report that it is everything I would have wanted it to be.  Dessa and her friends being awesome! Revelations and adventures! Heroism and friendship! Captain Drake being all stern and honorable! The only thing I might want from this book is for it to be twice as long, so we could spend a little more time lingering with these characters.

I absolutely love the art here, which is so simple and clean and yet so perfectly expressive.  The story cuts sharply back and forth between two threads--in one, Dessa and her friends have found a floating island--hovering, really, above the ocean--and are getting ready to explore it; in the other, her pursuer Captain Drake has found a boy he's sure is Dessa's long lost twin, for whom she's searching.

Now, this is the point where I have to admit that I was so excited to read this one that I didn't go back and do any rereading at all; I will say that the series would be better served if I had.  It was pretty easy to pick up the visuals, but this story started to bring together a lot of elements of the previous five volumes, and I think refreshing on those details would have been worth it.  And I'm having to look up a lot of characters' names for this review--Dessa is the only one I actually remember.

So Dessa and Topper and (quick glance at the book) Fisk make their way to the island and start to figure out what's going on.  I won't give too much away, but we start to get a sense of what Greyfalcon is up to here.  At the same time, Captain Drake is chasing Jared, and we (and Drake) learn a bit more of what Greyfalcon has been up to for years.

I've found Drake to be the most interesting character here for a while.  I love Dessa for her quick, bold bravery, and oh, I love Fisk for his protective loyalty (and Topper because he's hilarious, and because someone has to be pragmatic in this family of idealists).  But Drake is the one whose story really calls out to me.  He's the tragic knight, whose loyalty is showing itself to be at odds with his morality.  It's an old story, but in the stark way it's laid out here, you can't help but wonder what side he's going to end up on.  I'm hoping he doesn't pull a Ned Stark on us.

I think I'm going to go back and start from the beginning on this one, and maybe bring Adam in on it--he's old enough now, at seven, to follow it and enjoy the story.

I read on the website that there will only be one more volume, so things are coming to a head.  The second volume should be out this year, too.  I'm excited, both for the rest of this story, and to see what Scott Chantler will do next!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown

Oh, how I wanted to love Sorcerer to the Crown.  Because of all the amazing reviews.  Because I enjoyed other things I've read by Zen Cho.  I was waiting for it to come out, and then Netgalley sent me a copy, and I started it right away, and....

Well, actually, what happened was that I ran into a problem reading the Netgalley copy on my Kindle, because it was a PDF, and the cropping made the font very tiny and hard to adjust.  My eyes aren't great, so the tiny font was kind of a dealbreaker--I read a few pages at a time with a kind of grim determination, but petered out fairly quickly.

But then I managed to figure out how to crop the PDF so it read a little easier, and I started going further,, it was still too small to read comfortably (seriously, guys, my eyesight, I'm not even kidding).  By this point, I'm 2/3 of the way through the book, and it languishes for another month.

Finally, though, I got my hands on a print copy from the library and, for the first time in probably months, sit down to read an actual book in actual hardcover.  Maybe this was the solution, because the last third was by far the most interesting. 

But alas--I didn't love this book as much as I wanted to.  I found it slow; we spent far too much time with the staid, upright, rather boring Zachariah and not nearly enough time with the confident, no-nonsense, cocky Prunella.  We spent too much time having the same conversations in different drawing rooms, rather than (best) adventures or (a decent second) different conversations in really whichever drawing rooms, would be fine.

But there WAS so much to love about the book, and I will tell it to you now.  Aside from the obvious and unusual focus on non-white people in this type of Regency novel (I don't actually know what Regency means, but suffice it to say England between 1700 and 1900), the details of how these characters are dealt with are so lovely and real.  Zachariah's internal conflict between love for his mentor and adoptive parents and resentment that they forced him into all kinds of roles he didn't want to play; his mentor's true love for him contrasted with the low-grade, unthinking racism of his time; Prunella's status as somewhere between white and not, somewhere between gentlewoman and not.  The subtleties of living in a world that claims not to hold things against you but, on one level or another, does.  All of that is brilliantly done.

Prunella herself is such a delight to read about.  She's intensely competent, determined in her goals (whatever they may be), and a gifted player of the game.  I was quite shocked by the ending, actually, and the calculated, somewhat ruthless choices that she makes, but that only made her a better character.  She moves through a world that will never be easy with an indifferent ease, and it's hard no to love her for it, even if it makes her feel somewhat distant much of the time. 

In the end, I think this is the review I related to most, even though I actually enjoy authors like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, in their own right.  I don't feel as apologetic as she does, but I did find the language a slog, and I found that it felt like I was being put at a distance from the story, rather than drawn into it the way that the original books or even my favorite imitators (Joan Aiken, say) do. 

So close to being my book, really, but in the end, sadly, not my book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Wave

Work book club!  It's been ages since we've met, before Christmas I think.  Vacations and then illnesses and then one thing and another.  Finally we just said that we'd have to sit down and do it.  Turns out that one of the main things that was slowing us down was that nobody really liked the book.

Which is a shame, because it was full of potential.  The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean is about, as it sounds, crazy-big waves.  This is one of those science topics that I know nothing about, so pretty much any angle you want to take on this, you have a chance to tell me interesting stories from some little corner of science and/or history.

But I don't think I ever realized before how much skill goes into making a book like this.  There's a lot of good raw material here, but the author, Susan Casey, is a sports writer, and she doesn't know how to use her material to its best advantage.  What I think happened is that she had a great idea, but the more research she did, the more she realized that the science is either really complicated or largely unknown, and she bloundered.

From the end of the first chapter, I was itching to restructure the book, ask for big additions and rearrangements.  The first chapter is about surfers, which was a good approach--get interested, watch waves in action.  The second is about scientists at a wave science conference. Somewhere in one of these chapters, there should have been a breakdown of how waves word--what makes them break, what the difference between a breaking wave and a non-breaking one is, where the energy comes from.  I looked some of this up on the internet and it's fascinating--how the momentum of the wave is interrupted underwater, causing the top to move faster and break over the bottom.

So many questions I'm left with.  What's the difference between a regular giant wave and a tsunami?  How does a surf ride on a big wave work--how do you get off (barring a fall), what's it like in the foam, what is "the drop" that you keep talking about?  How big are the "normal sized" waves at one of the big surfing areas that she discusses--not the days that bring out the pros, but the regular days in between?

The structure of the book was basically switching back and forth between surfing and other wave stuff.  So every other chapter was about surfing.  Now, I can envision a really good book about pro surfers, but this wasn't quite it.  Every character is described with a one-sentence physical description, every one of them is level-headed and humbler than your average surfer, and I couldn't tell any of them apart.  There are tiny hints at the darker parts of the scene--when she describes how one of her calm, humble friends beat a guy up in a bar because he told everyone where the waves were (leading to overcrowding), when we meet one female surfer at the surfing awards (and she gets ogled and catcalled), when one of these great guys who's really in touch with life flies halfway around the world while his wife is nine months pregnant because he won't miss a wave.

There are all these moments that I interpret as kind of awful, but not only won't she pass judgement on them, she seems to be trying to make them seem okay.

There are a lot of really interesting bits.  The chapter on Lituya Bay, in Alaska, was fascinating; the world's largest tsunami was there only a few decades ago, and there were witnesses and evidence.  There's a lot of great info on how and why that happened.  There's a story about a ship that was caught for days in an enormous storm and, being a research ship, got some amazing readings.  There's a chapter on salvage companies in South Africa, and how they rescue ships and people and cargo when the ocean gets to be too much.

But there was no throughline, and no real episodic structure (as a Mary Roach book might have had).  The story had no spine, no buildup, and it was hard to tell what was going on when in one chapter, 20 foot waves are causing havoc and in another, 40-footers are being dismissed by the surfers as not very special. 

I kind of want Mary Roach to go out and write this book now--take this as a starting place, take all of Susan Casey's notes, and go write the book I wanted this to be.  It's not the charming digressions or the funny (often raunchy) side observations.  What's missing is the sense of there being something to be learned, something to be understood, even if you never do figure out exactly what.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Marvels

There's something about Brian Selznick's art that I can't resist, and the stories that he unfurls through his art are irresistible.  This is what brought me to his recent novel, The Marvels.

This book begins with about a hundred pages of illustrated story, as we follow five generations of a theater family.  We begin with two brothers performing a play on a ship, which ends with a storm and a wreck. The story travels to London, to the building of the Royal Theatre, and through generations of good and wicked characters, loving and distant parents, great and mediocre actors. 

The art is absolutely gorgeous. I could look at this art all day.  I would like to hang some of these illustrations on my wall, particularly the first image in the book, of the ship at sea.

And then we transition into the text.  This part of the novel takes place in 1990 in London; Joseph has run away from boarding school--between his absent parents, his trouble at school, and his departed best friend, he has nothing to keep him there, so he goes looking for the uncle he's heard of but never met. 

Joseph is about 12 and unprepared for this adventure, but luckily he finds his way to his uncle's house where the solitary man reluctantly takes him in.  He finds that his uncle lives a strange, reclusive life, in a large, old-fashioned house where everything seems frozen in time--there is nothing modern in the house, and his uncle travels by horse-drawn carriage.  Their lives are lit by candles, and the contents of each room are perfectly preserved; his uncle is very specific that nothing must be moved or changed.

Well, this is a mystery that any 12-year-old will want to investigate, and with the help of the spunky girl next door, Joseph goes poking around into everything, breaking stuff and causing trouble and finding clues to the history of the Marvel family--clues that point to their history being Joseph's own.

And I....really can't stand this.  Maybe it's because I'm too much of a grown-up, but everything feels so contrived and forced.  Joseph is an irritating kid--the kind who's always causing trouble for other people in books (asking annoying, embarrassing questions; instantly doing exactly what you just asked him not to do, even if that's something designed to keep the house from burning down.  

Honestly, maybe this is a success on the book's part; so many kids' heroes are meant to be strange and awkward, but they're "Hollywood ugly," meaning they're really normal and relateable, but somehow nobody gets them. Joseph isn't this kid--he's genuinely kind of annoying.

Then there's the mystery.  Yeah, his uncle's life is clearly weird.  But he just met this guy, who barely knew he existed.  How does he go from "arrived in the middle of the night; trying to figure out where the bathroom is" to "must poke into ever drawer to find the Answer" in literally a few hours, when there really isn't even a question. 

Honestly, I kind of spend most of the book sorry for the uncle and wishing that he had another option besides putting up with Joseph and sending him back to boarding school, because neither seems like a great path to me.  I mostly wanted Joseph to leave him alone for five minutes.

And then the solution to the whole mystery, while sad and poignant, is...weird?  Not quite "it was all a dream," but trivial along that line.  I'm left feeling like I'm not quite sure why I read this story.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is a book for someone who feels as out of place as Joseph--completely unattached to anything, alone and adrift.  And I feel for him, I really do.  But I don't relate to him; his alienation bears pretty much no resemblance to my alienation, and instead of wanting to reach out to him as I so often do with kids in books who just need a friend or caretaker, I just wish he'd keep his head down and stop being so weird.

God I'm a jerk. I mean, I look at this review and I'm demonstrably being a jerk about it.  But I just don't care for this story.

Oh, but the art!  The silent story of the Marvel family, as told in pictures that are lavish and atmospheric and at the same time loose and mysterious!  I would love to see so much more of this.  Just without all the words getting in the way.

Monday, February 08, 2016


You know the feeling when you start something and you just know it's going to be exactly right?  Like when you're in the movie theater and the lights dim and the music comes up and you see the familiar Star Wars scroll across the screen, or when you walk into Mariah's house and you smell carnitas and you're just like, BAM! Yes, that's going to be exactly it.

That is exactly how I felt when I heard Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's voice when I first hit Play on Ben Aaronovitch's Moon Over Soho.  I really loved Midnight Riot, the first book in Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, about recently graduated cop Peter Grant, who finishes up his probationary period only to find himself selected for the supernatural beat. I looked back over my blog and I can't believe I didn't review it, because it was a fun, smart supernatural thriller with a great cast of characters and a narrator with a really wonderful voice.

And speaking of voice, I could listen to these audiobooks all day.  Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the name of the actor who reads the audiobooks, and he's amazing.  He does a huge range of accents, from nasal soccer moms to a Glaswegian coroner, from the earthy mother spirit of the river to Peter's precise, upper-crust mentor.  It's a full acting job, and Peter's weary, pragmatic take on what it takes to be a police officer (85% of the time, patience with drunks) are perfectly rendered. 

I just started the new book today, but just hearing his voice pour out of the car speakers left me feeling like something wonderful was happening.  It's just the feeling you want when you start a new book; I am all in.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Into the Dim is one of the QueryShark books I was posting about on Monday.  When I saw it on Netgalley, the blurb billed it as a YA Outlander, and since I've never read Outlander but heard good things--plus, I recognized the plot!--I figured I'd give it a whirl.

I go back and forth on whether I'm not the audience for this book, or if it's just not great.  On one hand, I think it would work much better for an actual teenager--the romance especially seems aimed at a very young crowd.  On the other, I think part of the reason I think it would work better on a young teen is that it's not just simple but simplistic, and I hate to imply that teenagers don't deserve better than this.

I almost gave up quite a few times over the first half, but I decided that I wanted to write about it, and I try not to write about ARCs that I didn't finish (since that seems unfair).  So for the first third, I was giving it a fair shot; for the second third, I was kind of hate-reading.  I'll grant it, this, though--for the final third, I wanted to know what would happen.  Once the action picked up, it swept me along well enough to keep me interested.

But it took so long to get there!  The setup was fully half the book--setting up the emotional stakes, getting Hope to Scotland, and leisurely training/prep time before the actual time travel.  There was no tension there, and that made the clunkiness of the writing stand out.  I'm pretty sure that every noun in the first chapter had an adjective before it.  Definitely at least half of them did.  Hope sits in the hot church surrounded by hypocritical people whose loud whispers reach her burning ears.  Again, by the time the plot picked up toward the end, I didn't notice the writing anymore, but I noticed the heck out of it for the first chunk of the book.

The villains are broad--Celia's just a Mr. Burns-style caricature of evil; the evil medieval characters are all anti-Semitic (while the good ones don't believe all the horrible things their culture says about the Jews); the loutish guards are looking to rape women at every turn. 

Even our main characters are cartoonish.  Collum's totally useless and badly timed emotional outbursts--who put him in charge of this mission?  Bran's witty comments in the face of anger.  Again, maybe this would read as more relatable to a teenager; these kids just seemed whiny to me. 

Also, the fact that Hope has literally never had a friend is strange, and used strangely.  There are all these moments where she's learning about how important friendship is, but almost none where she has no clear ideas about boundaries, or fails to get social cues.  What was her mother thinking?  I've read the whole book and still can't figure it out.  And don't get me started on how her eidetic memory (which is used in some useful ways in the story) also seems to give her the ability to calculate any physical action perfectly--like, to literally see the possible paths or motions and their results and choose the best one.  There are some cool books that use the characters' superpowers like this as plot devices, but this is just a bit much.

Oh, plus: there's a group of bad guys who call themselves the Timeslippers.  That's what they named themselves. The good guys are called the Viators.  The MacGuffin is called the Nonius Stone.  There's a whole stretch where they're doing the time travel world building part where you're just getting these names dumped on you, and you can't help but picturing the Evil Celia trying to make up a name for her renegade time travel group and saying "The Timeslippers!  That's it!" and laughing an evil laugh.

So yeah, I didn't care for this book.  And I feel bad ripping on it, but there it is.  It was pretty bad.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Query Wins, Losses

I've mentioned QueryShark before, the blog run by literary agent Janet Reid in which writers send query letters for her to critique. It's a great exercise, and many people send in multiple drafts until they get one that will work. I love this site for a lot of reasons: behind the scenes book creation stuff, picking apart writing on a very fine level, and tiny previews of books--three of my favorite things!

Recently, two books popped up in Netgalley that I had first read about on QueryShark.  I have a weird ability to retain book premises, so I noticed right away, and I'm reading them both.  This happened last year with one book, too, so I decided to go back to some of my favorite queries and see if I could find them on Goodreads or Amazon.

It was amazing--I very quickly found a whole bunch of them.  Not surprisingly,  my favorites were mostly the ones that the Shark gave the thumbs-up to, either in a first draft or after multiple revisions.  The more I looked for, the more I found, which was really pretty exciting.  Not all of them are right up my reading alley, but I do think I'll probably give most of them a shot, at least out of a sense of internet fellowship.

Here's what I've got!

Into the Dim, by Janet B. Taylor.  I'm reading this one right now, an ARC from Netgalley.  The Query Shark post is from 2010, and there are a decent number of changes from that version in the book.  The book isn't quite delivering on the final version of the query--the voice, in particular, is very different--but I'm going to review it soon. That should get its own post in a couple of days.

The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig.  This was on QueryShark in 2013, and it's another one that I was really excited about when I read it.  This is another ARC that I have from Netgalley, and I can already tell a dozen pages in that it's going to be really good.  The writing is excellent, anyway, and I'm already fond of at least three characters. I'll write more about this one when I finish it, too.

Premeditated, by Josin McQuein, is another QS post from 2010 (actually, the very next one after Into the Dim).  I read that one last year, actually, after QS herself posted that its publication had been announced. I reviewed it then; the book didn't quite live up to the really excellent premise and blurb.  But the blurb--which was basically the query letter--was irresistable.

Comedy of Terrors is another one I remembered from the blurb--there was a castle with an idiot whose job it is to take the blame for things, but somehow he ends up having to save the world?  Basically it sounded like a slapstickier version of Christopher Moore's Fool, which, as we all know, is My Favorite Book, so this one stuck in my head.  Turns out it's been published, and the author is named Graeme Smith.  Don't think I'm not going to investigate.

Ooh, and Waypoint Kangaroo is coming soon, too!  This one, by Curtis Chen, I remembered only that it was a guy who was kind of an inept smuggler with a special talent--control of a pocket universe, allowing him to move things around undetectably.  I was thinking how useful that would be just the other day; I'm thrilled to see the book is coming out this year!

Nine Days is a mystery by Minerva Koenig about an ex-criminal in witness protection whose handler is killed and whose new boss is suspected of the crime.  There's a lot more to it, of course, but the selling point is really the voice of the query, which is sharp and funny.  If the novel reads anything like the query, the fact that I don't usually ready mysteries will be no problem.

So yeah, QueryShark's best queries actually have a pretty excellent record of getting published.  And I love the throughline of finding out how the stories of these novels ended.  I'll review as many as I can, starting with Into the Dim later this week. 

Thanks, QueryShark!