Sunday, June 25, 2017

Strange Addiction: Thrillers

You know how sometimes you get a craving and you just have to watch four or five episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer every night for a month, or reread as much of the Babysitters Club series as you can lay your hands on? As one does? Well, for some reason, I've been overtaken by an unfightable urge to read thrillers.

I think it might have started with Ararat, actually, which was more on the horror end, but which seriously let me down in the adrenaline department. Then I read Emma in the Night, which enthralled me for some reason--just the right amount of dread versus mystery, knowing there were secrets and having to discover what they were.

That was so satisfying that I wanted more right away. I jumped right into Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens, which was on my radar for some reason I don't even remember--probably just because the library got the ebook and I turned it up trolling for new purchases.

At first, I wasn't even aware what itch I needed to scratch, but the "missing girl returns and we learn what happened while experiencing the aftermath" premise was just like Emma in the Night, which I think is why I picked it. At the beginning I wasn't sure about the book, because we start right in with the narrator telling us (well, telling her therapist) about her abduction and the long months she spent trapped with her kidnapper.  It was well written, and exactly what you'd expect that story to be--messed up man, woman trying to survive, getting her head messed with, indignities and violations and horror.  It felt....salacious.

I think I kept reading because of the structure--the chapters are numbered sessions, and the story is essentially a monologue of Annie talking to her therapist.  We never hear the therapist's voice, but Annie does make reference to her advice, and to the strategies she tries to deal with so many of the problems she's still struggling with.  I find that process intriguing, and that kept me reading.

The further into the book you get, though, the broader picture you get, and the more the story of Annie's life now emerges. While the abduction was fascinating in a horrible way, the recovery process was so interesting.  Her mother has never been great; her best friend is too pushy; her boyfriend (ex?) is patient and kind.  But as the story unfolds--both on the mountain and of trying to fit back into the world, it becomes obvious that there is still unfinished business, and that the "now" period is not just emotionally fascinating, but full of danger, as well.

So I really couldn't put this book down, though I think in another mood I might not even have picked it up.  I will say that, as much as I loved the therapy envelope story, I did find that the book didn't actually read like a monologue.  This is one of my pet peeves--epistolary novels, or first person accounts that claim to be in the narrator's voice, but that lapse into author-speak--sentences constructed as a writer constructs them, not as a character would say them. In this one, each session starts out with Annie addressing the doctor in her own voice, but as she starts to talk about what happened (as opposed to her current feelings or addressing the doctor directly), her voice quickly changes.  I didn't mind the style at all, but I found the transition in every chapter discordant.

Makes me want to write an epistolary novel, firmly staying in character.  If anyone wants to write a corresponding novel with me, let me know!

So now I'm done with my thriller and have to decide whether to shift back to one of the many other books I'm in the middle of (space mystery! historical fantasy!) or just greedily scoop up something else about someone being stalked or unearthing an ancient evil or suspecting that their dentist is out to get them.  Who are we kidding? It's summer! Bring on the thrillers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Murderbot of My Heart

Everyone was all excited about All Systems Red before it came out, but I'd never read any Martha Wells before, so I couldn't figure out what it was by a pretty straighforward-looking "cyborg soldier protects people" story that had all my bloggers quivering with anticipation. But hey, I put it on reserve and waited and waited and waited and the reviews kept coming and finally I gave up on the waiting and bought the darned thing and read it and OH MY LORD was it good.

(Note for the record: me buying a book and reading it in the same month is, like, unheard of.)

Our surveying party is investigating a new planet to investigate whether it's worth it to buy the rights to its natural resources.  They've been outfitted for the mission by the Company, which does such things--habitats, scientific equipment, life support, transportation, and a SecUnit, a security bot, who is our narrator.  It calls itself murderbot; it doesn't have a name.

The SecUnit isn't typical; its governor drive, which is supposed to control its behavior and prevent anything unauthorized, has been hacked.  Murderbot hacked the drive itself, but mostly nothing's changed--it goes on missions, takes care of its people, and just wants to be left alone to watch the entertainment that it's downloaded--mostly serial dramas.

But something's gone wrong with the other outpost on the planet, and it looks like someone might have it in for our team.  Murderbot's gotten kind of fond of this team (OH MY GOD SO HAVE I) and they have to work together to figure out what's going on.

Okay, so this is kind of perfect.  The thing that's so great is our protagonist's voice, which is kind of sardonic and kind of wistful and incredibly natural.  It's observant and smart and competent, but also laid back and funny and reserved.  This is what everyone's been talking about, and no doubt, it made the story.

But what doesn't get enough credit is the story itself, which serves as a setting for the character to unfold.  The book is a novella, which means it's pretty short, and pacing can be tricky here--you can't have too many twists and turns.  But the fact is, the "what's going on on this planet?" mystery is, well, not a MacGuffin, because we are very concerned with how it will turn out and it is definitely life or death.  But it's the perfectly paced and structured opportunity for these characters to unfold.  Any slower, lingering on the characters, and it would get sentimental.  Any faster and it would be Dan Brownish.  Instead, you get the perfect balance.

We get to watch Murderbot spend more time reluctantly with the crew, and to meet the crew themselves.  We get to know Mensah, who is just a model of great leadership (and to learn why), and Ratthi, who is sweet and maybe sometimes spacey, and Pin-Lee, who is more competent than a robot in a lot of ways, and just all of them.  They are likeable.  And then you have Murderbot, who basically has severe social anxiety, but who's still fond of these people.  As things get darker and more real, the bonds they're forging get stronger, in spite of all the differences.

Honestly, as an extrovert surrounded by introverts, watching the crew interact with Murderbot was just so poignant.  They try, and then they try to try the right way, but it doesn't feel right, and they slip, and it's just so damned sweet and funny and I loved every minute of it.

Lianna, I'm sorry, I know your list is full. But you have no choice; you have to read this one.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Emma In The Night

I never thought of myself as a reader of thrillers, but lately I've been picking them up more and more often, and weirdly they've been working out for me. I think I requested Emma in the Night, by Wendy Walker, from Netgalley because I liked the title, and maybe the cover.  And it was one of those many "girl comes back from her mysterious disappearance, but where has she been?" stories that seems so popular lately.

The funny thing is, the only way to make a story like that work is for there to be a decent amount of characters hiding information from the reader, which frequently drives me up the wall (see my opinions on Jodi Picoult).  Secrets may be kept for a reason from other characters, but if you're inside a character's head and they're thinking about The Truth but not telling you what that truth is, well, that's cheap dramatics.

So it's a fine line to walk for me, this kind of psychological thriller where we're finding out what happened, rather than watching it happen.  Emma in the Night, I'm pleased to say, walked that tightrope and kept me reading to the point where I finished it in a day, which is not a thing that I am known for.

Cass and Emma are sisters in a messed up family, and three years ago they disappeared on the same night.  Now Cass is back home and begging her parents and the police and anyone who will listen to find Emma.

Abby Winters is the forensic psychologist who worked on the missing person's case three years ago, and she's never been able to shake it.  She recognized that this family had some ugly secrets, but she was never able to dig them all out or convince her superiors that they were relevant to the disappearance.  With Cass's return and the hunt for Emma, she can finally find out the truth.

What unfolds is told from two points of view.  Cass's parts are in first person, and her careful, deliberate personality--the product of a lifetime spent jumping through the many hoops required in her family--means that we know full well that we're not being told everything.  Every thought that Cass has is deliberate and specific, and we will follow the investigation with her, but the past will unfold when she's ready to tell it.

With Abby, though, we can follow the investigation and see how Cass's clues play out in the real world.  I think the biggest flaw in the book, actually, was how Abby's psychological expertise was treated by those around her--the rest of law enforcement was very dismissive of her theories about the family, which seems like the opposite of my understanding of how any criminal investigation works; aren't the family the first set of suspects?  Don't you bring in a forensic psychologist to listen to their opinions on the psychology of the parties involved?

I suspect that some of the psychology behind this is also a little loosey-goosey, but I don't expect much from a thriller.  And I have barely put the book down all day, which is what you ask from this book, so in that respect, it's incredibly successful at what it's trying to do.  Highly readable.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

DOOM on Mt. Ararat: A Review.

I've been meaning to read something by Christopher Golden for ages.  He cowrote books, movies, and a bunch of other stuff in the Ghosts of Albion world with Amber Benson, who is one of the top ten Most Adorable People. He wrote Joe Golem and the Drowning City, a novel that was illustrated by Mike Mignola, who is one of my absolute favorite illustrators.

So when I saw on Netgalley that he had a new book coming out--and that it was a horror novel set on a remote and snowbound mountain peak--I scooped up a copy of Ararat.  So exciting! Biblical! Snowy! Horror! And finally, Christopher Golden!

Guys, I might not like Christopher Golden so much--at least I don't care much for this book.  And it's so sad, because the premise is just right.  I've practically seen this movie before and I loved it (though I can't quite pin down its name).  Ararat is the mythical resting place of Noah's Ark, and when an earthquake uncovers ruins, there's a race for the site.

The winners are Meryam and Adam, partners and adventurers who write books and make movies about their world travels.  They assemble their team in a cave on the side of a ridiculously high mountain shrouded in snow as a blizzard sets in.  It's your classic enclosed space horror story--you've got your observers from the Turkish government, several guides involved in a family feud with various loyalties, a Catholic priest, a UN observer, a guy from the "National Science Foundation" with a shady past, archaeologists and grad students and a doctor...you get the picture.

Honestly, I'm ready for this to be turned into an episode of Doctor Who; I think it could make a good episode, if it was rewritten a little bit. A lot of the problems are ground-level problems; it can be confusing to figure out what's going on, who's in which room.  I never got a clear idea of how this ark fit into the mountain--whether the walls and floor were all wood, or part stone and part wood that had rotted away (both are mentioned), how most of the ark related to the mouth of the cave (the wind is basically in every corner, so it seems pretty open?), or how the different "rooms" were split up.  There's a lot of running through spaces separated by plastic sheeting and I was pretty confused.

There was similar confusion with the motivations and characters.  The same person would one minute say they should create a rock slide and bury the mountain and the next minute freak out because he couldn't convince them NOT to destroy things.  Are things romantic between those two people?  Wait, I was under the impression that she was old enough to be his mother.  And is this guy you keep calling Ben occasionally the same guy you call Walker in every other place?  I literally had to flip back twice to confirm that Ben and Walker were the same person.

So you've got a big ol' jumble.  Then there's the meat of the horror, in which a demon was entombed on the ruins of Noah's Ark, and the overeager investigators released it to now haunt them all.  From the very first, everyone feels gross and tainted when they enter.  At many turns, plot points are driven by characters "just feeling" how awful something is, or almost vomiting, or whatever horrible creeping sensation.  But it didn't do a great job of showing things as creepy--we went straight to being told how their bodies felt creeped out.

There's a demon, a creature with horns, a skeleton in a tomb.  It doesn't really have any motive that we can tell--it's just evil and hey, now there are people here to terrorize.  There's no sense of a purpose or goal, either to the good guys or the bad guys.

The other great opportunity that was missed here is an "atheists in foxholes" story.  You've got a bunch of  rationality-loving scientists, a few people with radically different ideas of faith, people who have been searching for the ark forever, people who are looking for something to believe in. And this came up as a topic, but I never felt it as in any way pivotal to what was going on, either to the conflict or to my understanding of the evil.  Nobody even had a crisis of faith!  Where's the drunk priest from Stephen King's Salem's Lot? There is an exorcism that is pretty much as unspiritual as you can get.

Okay, I'm going to stop ranting now.  I'm sorry to rip into the book so hard, but I had such high hopes.  And the plot is pretty great--I actually think this would make a really good movie, with actors to give some thought to the emotional journeys of specific characters.  There's even a built-in documentary crew.  But the book? It just kind of sat there.  Big ol' nope.

*Oh, but my favorite bit--I don't know if this was actually what the author meant to imply, but he pretty much said that in his world, the National Science Foundation doesn't exist.  It's a smokescreen, see, for DARPA.  I mean, maybe what he meant is just that DARPA uses the actual, legit NSF (which sponsors some great shows on PBS, BTW) as a smokescreen, but he actually says pretty baldfacedly that NSF is "just" a smokescreen.  I'm offended by the book on behalf of the NSF, so there.
------------
Correction: I just realized that I did NOT get this book from Netgalley.  I saw it on Netgalley, but wasn't able to get a copy; I eventually got it from the library.  Which is embarrassing because I absolutely would have quit reading it in the middle if I'd realized that.  But hey, at least you know my review copy opinions are honest!

Monday, June 05, 2017

After Afterparty

Daryl Gregory's Afterparty is getting another post, which feels excessive, except that I wrote the last one before I finished it and a) shouted out loud several times during the last 60 pages, and b) did not mention Ollie ONCE in the last post. This is a sad failure on my part, and by god I'm going to rectify it.

See, Ollie is amazing. There is a standard role in an action story where the hero has a sidekick who has all the skills, and the hero just rides along on their coattails. Right? Like Hermione in Harry Potter, and any spy's computer geeky sidekick. It's not even that whenever Lyda needs to get something done Ollie is there; she's just there, getting things done before Lyda even knows they need doing or are possible.

Mental illness is a big theme in the book--issues of belief and how religious faith affects your thoughts and actions, how some kinds of faith can look like mental illness, and what it's like to live and function in the world while mentally ill all converge here.  It's a pretty irreverent book, but on the whole I found its treatment of mental illness very respectful.

See, Lyda and Ollie met at a psychiatric facility--specifically a neuropsych facility.  Lyda sees and hears an angel because she overdosed on Numinous.  Ollie is an ex-CIA agent who overdosed on alertness drugs.  On her medication, she's a brilliant, rational person with agnosia--she's not blind, but she can't tell what she's looking at.  All visual stimuli are the same to her--she can't tell a person from a couch from a wall.  Off her meds, she is highly perceptive and can see patterns in any and everything--and she's extremely paranoid.  Unmedicated Ollie is incredibly effective and dangerous to herself and others.

And this book treats her so well.  She's a damned genius, on or off her meds, and she is fiercely loyal and bold and fragile and invincible.  Lyda and Ollie's relationship is so poignant--Lyda's emotional fragility is balanced by Ollie's bold vulnerability, and watching them transform as a couple is incredible.  Romantic isn't quite the right word, though it's a romance--it's about how they find strength in each other in spite of themselves that I love.

Damn fine book, this.


Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

I can't believe I waited so long to read this book.  I've checked it out of the library several times, but even after I read the author's One Hundred Nights of Hero and loved it, I didn't think I could get into The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, by Isabel Greenberg.

After I pushed through the first part, and fell in love with the book, and read it through in an afternoon, I went back to try to figure out why the first few pages turned me off.  I think there were two related factors--one is that it reads, in many ways, like a creation myth, or a fairy tale.

The framing story is of a boy and a girl who meet and fall for each other, but for some reason can never touch each other.  Some force keeps them apart.  This has the simplicity of a story out of myth--and I am not a big fan of myths or fairy tales, actually.  I am too interested in character, and in cause and effect, which are often pretty nonlinear in stories like this.

The related problem is that the boy and girl fall in love in the first three pages, pretty much upon meeting each other. Within two panels of meeting, they are soulmates and getting married, which is a big turnoff to me. The story appears to revolve around the problem of solving their non-touching problem.

But it's not.  It's so much more than that.  Since they can't touch, they tell stories, and from the first story, the book unfolds into a delightful travelogue of a storyteller from the far North and his journey through all the lands of the world.

First, though, we begin with a story that also reads like a myth, but without the distance that troubles me about that kind of story.  Three sisters find a baby and ask the shaman to split him into three babies so they can each have one.  This is the beginning of a chain of events that leads to distant lands and, eventually, to the South Pole, and the marriage of two people who can never touch.

I love these stories.  Three sisters with different personalities could be summed up in a Brothers-Grimm-like sentence, but they're not--they're smart and human and they love each other and annoy each other and make mistakes and realize they're mistakes and try to fix them.  People screw up in this book, and they can be friendly to one person and cruel to another.  This book is full of such incredibly human characters that the fairy-tale elements of the story spring into three-dimensional life.  Even the gods here make sense in ways that they just don't when I read mythology.

I'm so glad I persevered here, and I want to thank Aarti so much for recommending this, and for loving it so hard that I couldn't help coming back, even when I had doubts.  I am won over, and I'm so glad I persevered!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Afterparty

I discovered Daryl Gregory through We Are All Completely Fine, which was insanely creepy and which I loved. I haven't read many more of his books, but I've always meant to, especially since Brenda loves them so much.  For some reason, Afterparty was the one I've been most drawn to, probably because it seemed like the least disturbing--the least warping of reality going on.

It's everything I had hoped, and even more than I had known to hope for.  I figured there would be atmosphere and intensity, but I don't think that I had hoped for the depth of character study or the complicated ideas about god that I got.

Lyda Rose was part of the small team that invented the drug Numinous. Now, years later, one member of the team is in prison, one is dead, and Lyda is in a psychiatric hospital. When she learns that Numinous is back on the street, she gets out and goes to find who's responsible and stop them.

The story hinges around Numinous, though.  This is a drug that allows the user to experience god. They will see and hear and feel whatever god is appropriate to them--one person sees an angel, another sees Ganesh, and a third just experiences the sensation of being loved and forgiven in a profound and deep way.  All of them, though, know in their hearts that this is god.

Withdrawal is pretty bad, though, and if you overdose, well, god can end up talking over your shoulder forever. 

The book is action-packed, with enough double-crosses, dangerous characters, and chase scenes to populate a John Grisham novel.  The pace is kind of relentless, but what makes the story stick to your ribs is Lyda's conviction that a drug that makes you perceive god is incredibly dangerous--and the people who fight her for it.  It seems obvious that it would be bad, but the influence of the drug on specific characters is often benign, even when it resembles psychosis.  And someone wants the drug out there, but we don't know if it's for profit or faith.

This is a book full of delusions and imaginary friends, and the narrator is far more reliable than her own mind is.  Rarely have I read a book with this many ideas and this much action packed so tightly together in such a fast-paced package.  Brenda was (as always) right; I need to read more Daryl Gregory.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Rutted

I know I'm in a rut when I run out of books I'm in the middle of.  Usually I'm cycling through a solid 4 to 6 books at a time, but for a short window today I was down to one, and now I've started my next audiobook (Broken Homes, Ben Aaronovitch), so I'm back up to two.  (Aside: I can't tell you how valuable a long series of good books with great readers is.  Rivers of London and Flavia de Luce; I basically switch back and forth between the two, and I have at least another half dozen books before I need to choose something for myself outside my pantheon.)

I've been seriously cranky lately and not in the mood for a lot of books, which has resulted in a lot of set-asides.  I haven't even finished The Obelisk Gate yet, which is an incredible book!  I love it!  It's just so sad and stressful; I read three pages and the emotional wrench puts my brain out of joint for two days.  I am a fragile creature in need of lightweight pleasures that are somewhat guaranteed. 

I read The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman, at Cora's suggestion, and it should have been just perfect for my mood--cheerful fantasy adventure!  It was in so many ways the perfect book for me right now!  But I kept seeing the dark side of everything, even here, and I'm mad at Irene's superiors for not taking better care of her.  And, I'll admit, kind of annoyed at how swoony Irene is over her hot young protege.  I'm down with the Famous Detective crush, but I am not sold on Kai.

Oh, and one thing that's holding me together is that two of my absolute favorite fanfiction authors are co-writing a longer piece right now.  I cannot even explain to you how much this means to me; it is exactly the combination of laughs and angst and familiarity that I need in my life right now.  And we haven't even gotten to the smutty parts yet.

So what do I pick up next?  I'm thinking I need guaranteed joy, so I'm thinking of going to a favorite author.  This is why I'm glad there are so many Sharon Shinn books that I've been holding off on, or Lois McMaster Bujold.  I have the first Penric book out from the library, and I still haven't read Royal Airs.

Or I might go deep genre, like a horror/thriller, or a sci fi mystery--I have Ararat and Six Wakes waiting for me.  Something that is not intended to delight but to pound me over the head with anxiety.  Because anything I'm going to read will do that, so it might as well be on purpose.

This, of course, in addition to Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory, which I'm still pushing through.  It's brutally good.  Although there is something about the fact that the Canadian authorities--though I *know* they are totally serious and a world-class police force--are called the Mounties that makes it impossible not to chuckle when they're involved in a boat chase.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire, Part 2: Extra Crispy

All right, guys, let's bang this out (pun intended but failing, since there is not even a romantic lead in this book yet, never mind any chicka-chicka-pow action).

Chapter 4
Up all night riding a horse through the dark forest, not tired at all.  Madeline's running on adrenaline.  I'm trying to remember being that young so I can believe that, and I'm almost there.  She is surprisingly cool with being in the woods in the middle of the night, though, for someone who has never been camping.

She's heading for the sea--I think that's telling.  I think she's going to meet a visitor from America, a dashing, white-haired Colonel....seriously, what's gonna happen with the age thing?  Remains to be seen.

But also, on the subject of the sea, if you live a two days ride from the sea, how have you only seen it once? Did your family not go on vacation like proper rich folks?  HAVEN'T YOU BEEN TO BATH, MADELINE, WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?

Speaking of all caps when she considers going back, "her heart answered with a resounding NO." Sic.  Her heart is shouty.

She's on the road "when dawn hits," as any good "simple woman" (ie no particular status, because that exists) would be.

She looks out at the sea.  Would she ever have seen such a sight if she'd married Reginald?  You know, if the Duke had kept her locked up in his mansion instead of traveling, because everyone knows that Dukes don't go to Bath every year to take the waters.

"Madeline had never been in love, she was too practical for that."  Practical, just the word I would not use for her.  Her sister "relied too heavily on the world of servants and fancy dinners."  The only people who didn't have servants were servants (and some of them even did), and fancy dinners were just called dinners.  I am more and more convinced that the only way this book even begins to make sense is if time travel comes into it at some point.  This is Lianna's theory, and I am rooting for it so hard!

A normal town looks pretty run down to her eyes, but hey, destiny awaits! On to chapter five!

Chapter 5
Not shabby, in fact, but charming and quaint!  I really hope she sees someone without teeth or missing a limb soon before she drinks the water or she'll romanticize her way into some sort of dysentery.


Oh, here's the opportunity she's been looking for--a run down tavern!  She's never been in a tavern before, but serving wench down by the docks just "feels right." Paris Hilton has just found the dive bar in which to support herself on tips, just like she's always dreamed!


Most beautiful woman she's ever seen working behind the bar.  The sea air hasn't roughened her features.  Also she's a redhead, and "the woman smiled with kindness" and hired her on the spot, so that's all right, then.

OMG, it's gonna be like Cheers!  That would be amazing--she's the Diane character who comes in all eager to help and with her weird, upper-crust ways and....yeah, no.

But hey, it turns out that being a waitress is super easy, and the redheaded hottie is named Caoimhe, which is pronounced Keeva (Kweeva, actually, according to Wikipedia). She has a pat response about not asking her to spell it, which is interesting considering the literacy rates of barmaids in the countryside a few hundred years ago.

Do not worry, sailors on shore leave are not actually troublemakers!

The Irish don't use contractions, either, I guess.

I can't even with this writing.  Boss asks, do you mind if the new girl shares a room with you? The answer, direct quote, is "I figured you'd ask me to do that, so I did not have much of a choice."  Those words don't make any sense.

I am at 45% of the way into the book, and I believe we have a hero!  "Madeline turned to answer the man, not quite caring for his tone, only to come face to face with the most handsome man she had ever seen." Aaaaaand chapter.

Chapter 6
Ooh, he's tall and crusted with salt.  Like a delicious margarita. And his hair is both light and fair, which must be very pale indeed.

Run on sentences, and his eyes "hid behind glasses with dark frames," which "somehow made him seem all the more handsome." I'm gonna dwell on this; I don't know when this book takes place, but when were thick black glasses invented? I'm doing a little internet research, and it really doesn't look like there were non-wire glasses before the 20th century. Certainly not big thick black ones.  What would they have been made out of? Tortoiseshell would have been brown.  Ebony, I guess?

Her mouth is dry, he likes what he sees, she can't figure out why this conversation is happening....

You know what? Me neither.  This is AWFUL.  Even posterity isn't worth this.  I'm sorry, internet, I love you, but I can't do this to myself.  I'm deleting this book; it is all my self restraint not to burn my poor kindle to prevent contamination.

I'm sorry I did this to you, and to me.  God help us all.

Monday, May 22, 2017

White Tears

Like, whoa.  I probably wouldn't have picked up this book if Jenny hadn't recommended it and called it incredibly scary. It's about music aficionados, and music is none of my business.  But it's a ghost story, and ghosts are most distinctly my business, so here we are.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru, is about Seth, who is an oddball audiophile, and his best friend Carter, who is a wealthy dilettante audiophile. They live in New York on Carter's money, collect old blues records, and produce music, giving it a classic sound and printing it on vinyl.  Carter is obsessed with older and older records, more authentic, less heard--true blues, he says, is played on the porch and on the corner, not in the nightclub.

I mentioned Seth is an oddball, right?  He wanders around the city recording ambient noise to play back later.  One day, he records a singer in the park.  Carter becomes obsessed, lays a guitar track over it, and pretends that it's a long lost record by a made up blues man, Charlie Shaw. But when they put it online, they hear from a collector who has heard the record before.  And then things go all Big Tuna.*

So this is a ghost story and it's creepy as hell.  It's also a ghost story where you're kind of rooting for the ghost.  From the beginning, Carter and Seth are not a likeable pair.  Carter is a pushy, privileged rich kid who is obsessed with the pursuit of "authenticity," the ultimate hipster appropriation of the work of marginalized people.  If you get less marginalized, then you are less authentic, which is why Carter is obsessed with early blues records. 

Seth, our narrator, is the kind of nonentity that you start out feeling sorry for--he doesn't get people!  He's socially awkward!--and end up finding incredibly off-putting because he lets people walk all over him. He's so complicit in Carter's awfulness that he's not really sympathetic either, and the fact that he lets it go is almost worse.  There's a scene where they're trolling a guy on the internet--casually, almost as a throwaway moment--that is just the worst. 

Then there's Carter's sister Leonie, who is also rich and privileged, though she seems to have her head on straighter than Carter.  But because Seth has a serious creeper-crush on her, we really only see her as an object of his desire, and just about the only other person in his world.

Okay, but let's get to the point here--this is a book about race, in which there are pretty much zero black characters.  This is a book about guys who worship the music of black people but don't know any black people, and are afraid to go into their neighborhoods.  This is about privilege that doesn't recognize itself, and #notallwhitepeople #exceptreallyallwhitepeople.  It's about appropriation lifted up and taken all the way through to the horrifying extreme--and the results of that.

I wanted it to be cathartic, just because it was so horrifying in so many ways.  But even when things follow the path that you would script for catharsis, it doesn't really come to that.  Revenge may or may not be justice, and it may or may not be necessary, and better than nothing, but it can still leave you cold, and dead, and lost.

I hope that doesn't sound like a pan--this was an incredible book.  I'd recommend it for people who like their fiction stylish with a lot of substance, too.  I am thinking Brenda will love this, because it's so damned creepy.  So. Damned. Creepy.

*This is a reference to the point at which David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart goes from weird to creepy-doomed weird.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Disambiguation: Long May She Reign

Rhiannon Thomas's Long May She Reign should not be confused with the final book in Ellen Emerson White's President's Daughter series. I read that Long May She Reign years ago, and it was a really excellent book about the aftermath of things.  That whole series is fascinating in the way it's structured and how different the books are, but that is NOT the topic of this post.

The topic of this post is this book:

This is a YA fantasy about an awkward nerd girl (she's a chemist who gets panic attacks when called upon to speak in public) who, when hundreds of nobles are poisoned, finds herself queen of a country in pretty rough shape.  She has to cement her hold on the throne and solve the murders at the same time--a classic Power Thrust Upon Her scenario.

This is one of those books that skews just a little young for me; the thing about YA is that they market so many books that way that it's not as useful as I wish it was as a category.  The story is interesting and the book is good; I feel like it's missing some of the political complexity that could have made it greater. 

But it had its own kinds of complexity that I really admired.  People with good intentions do bad things, and people with bad intentions do good things.  The bad guys are given interiority, at least in the end--even the off-page ones. Mourning is a big part of this book, especially mourning people you have a complicated relationship with. It's maybe not quite deep enough for me, but it's refreshing anyway. 

This book is really the same story as The Goblin Emperor in many respects--it's a very YA version of that incredible novel. Freya here is less centered than Maia is in that book, but the problems she faces are the same.  Freya spends a lot of time telling herself to think and very little time acting, though, which I never really understood as a new ruler.  Grab hold of things--someone's got to take charge!

Maybe that says more about me than her.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Distractions: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

Netgalley, the new release shelf at the library, the $0.99 Kindle sale page--these things suck me in.  The list is long enough, but when I see a description like this one, I can't walk by, and Netgalley is kind enough to provide a review copy so I can read the memoir of a woman who realizes her husband is a psychopath.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, by Jen Waite, sells itself with a straightforward appeal to those of us who read advice columns for the problems: It's the story of the author's realization "that her loving husband—the father of her infant daughter, her best friend, the love of her life—fits the textbook definition of psychopath."

Now, I'm not here for a marriage falls apart memoir. There are plenty of those, in real life and in literature, that dissect the vagaries of the human heart, where people try but can't, or won't try at all.  No, I'm here for the elaborate web of lies, so outrageous it's shocking he even dreamed it up, never mind tried to convince you of it.  I'm here for the many who is living a double or triple life, who kept you believing in him through months or years of manipulation.

That's not this book, though.  I don't want to complain that Marco's indiscretions are too quotidian--he basically has a lot of sex with a lot of women and dumps his wife right as she gives birth.  It's ugly, and he's clearly got a personality disorder.  And the story of Jen's realization of the extent of his lies is interesting, a dissection of the play by play of its exposure. 

But really, he wasn't playing at a very advanced level. He didn't send emails from fake accounts or make up fake business partners.  Heck, he didn't even get a separate Uber account for visiting his lady friends.  This is not about recognizing how the complicated webs of our society depend on a certain baseline understanding of reality, and how people who are willing to play with that can mess with the rest of us who take it for granted.  No, it's about a guy who was really good at faking being a decent person, but who actually was not a decent person after all.

Given that limitation, though, it's a good book and a well-told story.  Some of the recreated conversations are clearly more "what I wish I'd said" than what could actually have taken place, but that doesn't mean she doesn't admit to the places where she breaks down and acts like less than her best self.  I respect that; we don't always present well in the crisis.  And her journey toward understanding, especially her parents' unwavering support, is really reassuring. 

There is definitely an angle to this where her safety net is so vast (her parents have a huge house and are retired and have plenty of money to take care of her and the baby till she figures out what's what) that the stakes feel kind of low--all that's at stake here is her heart.  And she gives that enormous privilege only a glancing mention near the end of the book. 

But your heart, your faith in the world--those are real things to be at stake, and real losses, and I don't know how I'd deal with it if something like that happened to me.  The presentation here of this exact situation is one that I think a lot of people will be fascinated by, and a few people will recognize to the point of discomfort.  Definitely a fascinating summer read, for the interested observer.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire

It is impossible to shock me with the name of a romance novel, so I might not have noticed that Colonel Sanders was starring in his own book unless it was explicitly pointed out to me by a coworker.  Let us take a moment to acknowledge the existence of this:


Let's bask in it.  Tender Wings of Desire. Bask in the Colonel's exposed shoulders. Bask in the mom jeans that his beloved is wearing, and the key chain attached to her purse strap.  Bask in the highland castle, flowered field, ocean waves, AND sunset al captured in the background.  And bask in the delicious chicken wing she gazes at past her beloved's head.

And because I love you, dear Internet, I am going to read this.  For you! Normal people would live Tweet it--I'm sure someone has, and if so, point me to it, please!--but what I have is a blog, so that's where we're going with this.  Strap in, kids--we're doing this in real time.

Dedication: for mothers everywhere. Thank you, Undisclosed Author (Who I Assume Is a Marketing Writer Who Said "Yeah, I Could Whip That Off For You In a Few Hours, Sure.") I'm touched you thought of me.

Chapter One.  Our heroine is named Lady Madeline Parker and she hates embroidery and thinks it's pointless.  But her sister Victoria is prim and likes embroidery, unlike Madeline, who likes riding horses.  So wait, where are the mom jeans?  This is all Regency!  THE COVER LIED, CALL THE PAPERS!

Okay, moving on. It's hard no to judge this on Regency terms--like, "zero musical ability" is not a colloquialism of the time, and this many adverbs would be bad writing any day. Oh, and both sisters have "pale, dewy skin," which just makes them sound...moist? Maybe pre-fungal?  

Chocolate colored curls, thick golden ringlets, marrying a duke, blah blah blah. Someone has read enough romance novels to know the patterns, anyway.  It's actually impressive how many cliches are packed in per paragraph.  

Madeline doesn't know why her sister cares "so terribly much" about marrying "so very young" when there is a whole world to see. "Victoria looked as though she might faint from the scandal."  This is actually well supported in literature--the British upper classes are likely to faint at anything.  Strong men have been known to fall over dead upon opening a startling letter.  So this part is legit.

Wait, Madeline's embroidery hoop is next to her on the settee?  I thought she threw it across the room a few minutes ago?  I can't be bothered to scroll back; make a note for the continuity experts.

Stubbornly, matter-of-factly, fully, preferably, terribly. Every page, packed full.

Ooh, Madeline doesn't feel a spark with her handsome fiance-to-be Reginald.  He's too bland and blond.  Perhaps a white-haired colonel will sweep her off her feet?

For some reason no one uses contractions here.  "I do not know about being a duchess." I guess that's how they talked in ye olde fashioned times.

Two sisters who envy each other, because the younger wants to marry but the older wants the freedom to wait.  What will they do?  WILL THEY SWITCH PLACES?

Chapter 2
Interesting--a lot of books that go for this kind of cliche (we like our heroine because she's a tomboy, not a girly girl) end up being pretty femmephobic, but Madeline likes to get dressed up and look pretty.  I can appreciate that.

I don't think "sure" was used as a synonym for "admittedly" by anyone who referred to the ton by that name. Especially not twice in the same paragraph.

Fashion porn--petal pink, green ribbons, hairstyles. I have never read an actual romance novel that spent as much time on clothing (well, on clothing that was not about to come off) as this.

Did the Victorians or the Regenciers or whatever "throw" balls? Either way, Madeline has terrible manners.  She can't keep her parents' friends straight and she doesn't know enough not to drink when people toast to her.  And oh my god, you do not address a duke as Duke!  I am rolling my eyes so hard at this girl. She has clearly not learned nearly as much about being a society lady as I had at the same age.

Chapter 3
Okay, there's an amorphous "plan" taking shape now.  Will she run away to the new world and meet Colonel Sanders?  Will she discover the glories of fried chicken?  I mean, the cover didn't give any real information at all!  All I know is, waiting till the day before the wedding was a bad plan, kid.

(Also, a bride did not plan her own wedding back then; her mother did.)

The pauses to describe people's looks reminds me of the Babysitter's Club and Dawn's long straight blonde hair and Stacey's short blonde perm and Mary Anne's two brown braids.

The extent to which they will go to avoid contractions is amazing.  "'Little late for that, do you not think?'" That's the weirdest combination of modern and faux-antiquated phrasing I can think of.

I read a fanfic recently that made a point of the fact that saying "okay" would mean nothing to the Victorian gentry.  I do not want to denigrate fanfic by pointing out that this is worse than most fanfic, but it is SO MUCH WORSE.

Chapter 4 
I'm 30% of the way through the book and there is no hero yet.  Unless she ends up with Reginald?  No, that's not going to happen.  I have to call it quits for the night, though.  I was really hoping this would be funnier--it's not a send-up of romance novels; it's just a really bad romance novel.  Like, really bad.

I wonder if someone could make a living out of this?  Cranking out specialized tie-in novels for products?  Romancing the Roomba. Whirlpool of DesireThe Cowboy Duke's Honda Civic.

To Be Continued!






Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Space Between the Stars

I go back and forth about putting the book name in the name of the blog post, but you know, I think it's useful to know what you're getting into: today, I lean in that direction.

The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett, is a book that I received for review from Netgalley, and the blurb couldn't be more up my alley. Post-viral civilization collapse! A ragtag band of survivors aboard a spaceship! A lone wolf developing grudging respect for her new compatriots!  What's not to love?

But I don't love it. There are a few things that come together, some of which fall into the "just not for me" category and some of which are, I think, real weaknesses.  "Just not for me" is that the characters are all very angry; "actual weaknesses" I would mostly categorize as clunky. Thinking about it more, I think this is an issue book--an after school special-level point-maker.

Jamie is a veterinarian working on a backward colony planet when the plague hits.  Thanks to a long incubation period, it's spread through all the inhabited worlds before anyone realizes the danger, and the fatality rate is 99.9999%--meaning across the known galaxy, there are only a few thousand survivors.  And thanks to the nature of the virus, people who stay close to other people pass the mutating virus back and forth--the denser the population, the higher the fatality.

This does not explain why there aren't more survivors on the cattle station.  However.

Jamie is a bit of a misanthropist and very much a loner.  A few things to know about Jamie: she is separated from her husband. She recently lost a near-full term pregnancy. Her mother died when she was a young teenager.  And she was born as a conjoined twin whose sister died in the surgery to separate them.  So in case you didn't notice, Jamie is a person who is very distant from other people.

We pick up other characters as we go along, and at first I thought the fact that they were all somewhat opaque was going to be a mystery--that everyone would be hiding a secret, or that we would learn that there's more to people than  meets the eye. But although there are some secrets, there's not a lot more nuance--Lena is an eccentric religious zealot; Lowry is a level-headed, spiritual man; Mira is every stereotype of a woman who has suffered sexual abuse (sometimes she reflects contradictory stereotypes at the same time); and so on.

The whole book takes place pretty immediately after the end of the world, but there's not a lot of complexity to the emotions of the characters. Sometimes they get upset, and that's the explanation, but there's no unexpected depth to anyone's reactions.  Eventually it's turned into a story about how society is evil and corrupt and the people who try to run things are out to stomp down on individual choice.  Honestly, I'm reading The Handmaid's Tale right now, too, and once we get into the totalitarian part of the book, the comparisons are too easy to draw, and this book is almost a caricature of that much better one.

There are several autistic characters, as well as others who fall somewhere between extreme introvert and apparently on the spectrum--including Jamie, who is very sensitive to touch and often uncomfortable in social situations.  Sometimes the book almost reads like a fantasy of how much easier it would be to live in the world if there weren't so many people in it, and that maybe it would even be easier to connect. And sometimes that came across in ways that really bothered me, like when Finn, who is explicitly autistic, doesn't want to be touched, but Jamie persists in trying to comfort him, and eventually he holds her hand gratefully.  That is not my understanding of how to handle that kind of touch sensitivity, and it feels kind of disrespectful of that kind of difference.

So sadly, this is not the book I had hoped it would be.  I think what I like in a good apocalypse/dystopia story is how people come together in adversity--to find hope, to find peace, to stand up.  I don't mind if it's a long road to that--whether it's Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Himself, it's about how the human spirit survives.  But these characters are so blank that I just can't find the human spirit in them; all the non-misfits are blank-faced fascists, and the misfits end up monologuing in detail about how there's nothing wrong with living the way they do.  I'm calling this one clunky, preachy, and not for me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

American Gods

Can you believe I never read American Gods before now?  I blame Neverwhere.  I didn't love that one, and that left me a little hesitant to read Neil Gaiman's other big novel.  But then they made it into a TV show and book club picked it for the month and here we are--I wrapped up the novel a couple of days before the show premiered.

Let's start with the novel, since that's how I did it. (Deliberately; I can't read the novel after the show or movie.  Once I've watched it, that's pretty much a commitment not to read the book; see Little Big Lies.)

Shadow is in jail for three years on a small time offense, but he'll be out in just a couple of weeks, and he can't wait to get back to his wife Laura.  When she dies days before his relief, his whole world is pretty much empty--until, on the way to her funeral, he meets Mr. Wednesday, an unorthodox con man who offers Shadow a job.

Mr. Wednesday is charming and insistent, and Shadow is at loose ends, so they begin to cross America together, enlisting other old-timers like Mr. Wednesday in the impending war.  Apparently, the old gods and the new can't get along. Shadow is his driver and assistant, sounding board and sidekick, and he begins to learn about the much, much weirder side of the world.

So, the thing that Neil Gaiman does so well is to place the fantastical and portentous beside the mundane and everyday.  It's what Stephen King does, only where King goes straight to grandiosity and horror, Gaiman lingers in the land of wonder--Gaiman's gods are as mundane, in their own ways, as the human world in which they coexist.  But the power of this book is in the long drives through small towns with their high school athletes' achievements on the welcome signs, the stops for roadside chili and pie (not bad, but not the best chili in the state, however it was advertised), and the neighbors you get to know when you realize that you are unprepared for a Colorado (I think?) winter and need some help finding the long underwear store.

Even Shadow is an everyman--the loss of his wife has him drifting across the top of life, not really digging into it (or maybe he's just like that?)--but he is not prepared for the supernatural that starts to go down.  He takes it in stride like someone on a mild tranquilizer would, in that he realizes that this is impossible nonsense, but also that it's happening and that rolling with it is really the only viable option.

I think that's what I loved best about the book--how it really captured the feel of a diner or an apartment full of old people or a public park in a way that allowed you to follow the story when it drifted into the "backstage" experiences that involve the moon and the world tree.

But (and here we're going to be switching over to episode 1 of the Starz series) this is just where the TV adaptation drops the ball, I think.  Or no, that implies that it tried something and failed; the TV adaptation is playing a totally different game--I was expecting some kind of ball game, but I got pro wrestling instead.

The show could not possibly be more glossy.  It uses slow motion and shifting frame capture rates to create hi-res visuals. There are multiple scenes in which a curtain of blood just washes across the screen, looking like cherry Kool-Aid. The best chili in the state is served at a bar shaped like the inside of an alligator's mouth.  It's a really cool visual--but it goes straight to surreal. The experience of a mundane world that touches a stranger one is missing, because the entire world is strange and hyperfocused.  Instead of seeing the banal in the gods, we are seeing the otherworldly everywhere we turn.

I might be the only person who was not impressed by this.  I'm somewhat less of a sucker for high art on TV than a lot of people--I like a good looking show, but not when the style gets in the way of the substance--characterization, emotion, story--which I think was happening here.

See? Glossy.
Maybe it's that I just finished the book and it was too fresh in my mind.  Maybe it was casting a hunky action hero as our everyman (I cannot picture the actor who plays Shadow smiling.  Cannot.)  Or maybe it's just that I don't like gloss as much as the rest of the world.  But I just couldn't feel at home in the show the way I did in the book. If anyone else runs across a non-glowing review of the show, I'd be interested to read it.  I'm feeling pretty alone in this assessment. 

But I will say, I did really love the book.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Chocolate Heart

The eternal temptation of Netgalley is a lifelong problem that I wrestle with, and one of the hardest things is not to scoop up middle grade books as fast as I can.  I want to read aaaaaallllllll of them with  my eight-year-old, but he is picky enough that I'm hesitant to commit to an ARC with him.

But I could not just walk by The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis. It's about a dragon who gets turned into a human girl and decides to be a chocolatier.  I love that you can wrap it up with that unlikely one-liner, but that doesn't come anywhere near capturing the charm of this book.

Aventurine is a dragon who is tired of staying in the cave all day, but is too young to go out on her own.  She's not a scholar like her siblings, and her mother and grandfather are frustrated that she seems so directionless. But she is the stubborn kind of young dragon who will sneak out of the cave to prove her mettle--and run headlong into a mage with a sharp sense of self-preservation.

Trapped in a human body with no way to get home, Aventurine heads to Drachenburg, the nearest human city, to try to make her way. She does not understand humans, and her confusion and frustration with them had my son laughing. As a human, Aventurine discovers chocolate and realizes that she knows exactly what she wants to do with her (new human) life.

Enter the cast of secondary characters, who are, I have to say, the best.  There is her first friend, Silke, who is clever and unconventional and knows the city intimately.  Marina, the cranky, stubborn chocolatier who runs a second-rate chocolate house that should be the best one in the city; Horst, who runs it with her and is somewhat less cranky and stubborn.  We get glimpses of the king and the two princesses, who are different from each other and the most well-rounded tertiary characters I might have ever seen.  We even get to know Aventurine's family over the course of the book--proud, ambitious dragons who know exactly what they think of humans.

Every character here is individual, and they get to do clever things and surprise us. You could rewrite this story from anyone's point of view, even the people who hardly appear in it, and you'd have a fine tale.  I love that Aventurine is cranky and blunt and rather dismissive of humans, but learns to value them even as she learns her own true worth.  I love how her bluster at the beginning gives way to humility and then real competence.  I love that however human she is, she is still always ready to roar.

We got such a kick out of this book, Adam and I.  It was a great readaloud, and a real pleasure.  I have one of Stephanie Burgis's adult novels on my kindle, and you can bet that's coming up in the rotation very soon.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dope Queen

Busy weeks turn into busier ones and the next month is going to be nuts.  Not sure if I'll be able to keep up with posting. Fair warning!

You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson of Two Dope Queens podcast fame, was not my usual thing, but was pretty damned great.  (At first I wrote darmned, like darned and damned together, and I swear I almost left it in because that's a pretty great new word I invented.  But (as you may have noticed), I digress.) "Funny person writes book" is not always my thing; it's something I loved when I was a kid, but I think most of the ones I read now seem pretty shallow.  This book was anything but.

So take Bossypants, and Yes, Please--these are written by famous people who have relationships to maintain, but from whom you really want the gossip.  So it ends up like when you were a kid sneaking an R rated movie hoping for something salacious and you ended up getting My Left Foot and you're like, wha?

But Phoebe (if I may call her Phoebe, which I can, because we're besties now--hey, Pheebs!) is not boring. She gets personal and she gets real--about a lot of things, but especially race.  And I really appreciated that, because I've found that I have a huge appetite for stories about how this big ol' white world we live in can be super awkward for non-white people to put up with. I like being reminded that yes, being black in America is tough, all the time, if only because you never know where the next microaggression is coming.

This is not all the book is about--not by a long shot. My other favorite thing is her cultural references, because she will drill down to a moment in an episode of a show that you watched--yes you did, you know you did--or a movie that she watched over and over as a kid just as often as I did, and she understands just how I think in pop culture references.  There were a lot of great "Yes! That!" moments in here.

But what I appreciated was how real she kept it--not just about race, but about being a woman comic, and about being insecure and confident at the same time, and about being ambitious in a world that doesn't want to support you.  She shared the real experience of being a black woman in entertainment, and it was funny and sweet and real.

And now I have her podcast to listen to, which I'm super excited about and loving so far.  Yay, Phoebe!

I do have one criticism, though it's not about the book cover but the Amazon listing for the book.  You'll notice the colon in the title? Total misuse of a colon.  I understand that it's traditional to use a colon in a subtitle, but I strongly dislike the practice of a colon followed by an "and."  My only crit.  Sorry, Pheobes--love ya, sweetheart!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Gang of Liars

I'm in the middle of a bunch of really great modern classics of the fantasy and sci fi persuasion that I'm enjoying very thoroughly, but somehow I can't stop picking up lightweight YA stuff and whipping through it in the background.  This week's installment of Sharon Off Track is the upcoming One of Us Is Lying, by Karen M. McManus, and a hat tip to Netgalley for the advance copy for review.

It starts out all Breakfast Club, with five very different kids in detention, then takes a twist toward (according to the blurb) Pretty Little Liars, with one of them dead and the other four suspected of his murder. The police are pretty sure they conspired to do it.

But here's the thing: all four are first person POV characters.  We spend time in each of their heads--including during the incident--so the only way for one of them to have done it is for them to be actively lying in their narration of the story.

But...there's no framework for their accounts--these aren't diaries or confessions or anything.  They're straight narrative which would make that kind of lie really cheap, a cheating form of unreliable narrator.  Which leaves us with--who did it?

If I sound intrigued by this book, I completely was, maybe more than it deserved.  It is a straight-up high school story whose drama takes place mostly in the halls and classrooms (and teenagers' bedrooms and family rooms, plus the police station).  This is usually not my jam.  And it's a straight-up whodunit, so if I was expecting anything, it was really trashy pleasure.

But I ended up intrigued by the story.  There were a ton of secondary characters, all very easy to keep straight.  All four characters had friends and love interests and families at one level of involvement or another.  There were secrets--SO many secrets; the victim ran a gossip blog and had a lot of enemies. 

But there was something so much more human about this story than the description offers.  This book contained not one but TWO sets of fiercely loving sisters who support each other.  There was a cathartic breakup, and one that just seemed sad.  There were loyal friends and partly loyal friends and crappy friends and crappy friends who are maybe also evil, and there are adults who do not have it together (and, of course, bungling police--I mean, that's just a detective story inevitability, right?). There are loving parents and indifferent parents and absent parents and parents who are trying but going about it all wrong and those who have been wrong but will maybe make it right.  Guys, there was so much uplift of the human spirit in this book, right beside the salacious gossip!


When it comes to the end--no spoilers--I'm torn.  On one level, it was very satisfying--the information was all there but not pointing right at it.  As a mystery ending, it was very good.  On the level of humanity, on which the book was so surprisingly successful, it was a little weaker--more soap opera and less human condition.  I would love to discuss the ending with someone and its implications, but it's not necessary--it's the ending the story needed.

And that's what this comes down to; you've got a readable book that was so compelling that I was explaining the plot to my husband and he was trying to figure out whodunit with me.  That's a success story if I ever heard one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

War and Empire

The thing about reading KJ Parker books is that, after just a couple, you realize that the unreliable narrator and the twist are definitely coming.  So when I pick up another one (which I always will, because my god, these down-to-earth, irreverent geniuses he writes!), I know that a big surprise is coming. So, like, is that a spoiler?

Who cares?  Mightier than the Sword appeared  on Netgalley and I hopped right on it, as I will do with any KJ Parker novella that pops up in my line of sight.  I'm terrible at unreliable narrators, never do get over believing them, even when I'm sure I shouldn't.  And his narrators--even the scoundrels--are just so darned likeable.  I think it's because they're very, very competent.  Remember Blue and Gold, where the narrator solved about eight different life-or-death problems with one really basic plan?  Remember the bit about his wife?

Mightier than the Sword is another book about a favored son of an empire, winner of wars and highly regarded, given a seemingly impossible task and dealing with personal trouble on top of it.  Our narrator here has proposed to his lady (of the night) friend, of which proposal his aunt the Empress will not approve, and has been sent to investigate the raiders who have been attacking the northern monestaries.

Most of the book is a tour of the northern monestaries, and my Major Thing about monastic life might have fed my love of this part, but anyone who's into political fantasy will be into this.  These are people who are now far from the center of the empire for one reason or another, But who are at the center of their own worlds, and each house has its own way of things--illuminating manuscripts or working the field, rich or poor, strict or lenient.  All being attacked by barbarians we can't pin down.

There are, I'm sure, enough clues to figure it out, if you're willing to follow the twists and turns.  But it's so much more satisfying, in my opinion, to sit back and let everyone's cleverness wash over you.  I know there will be a twist; I suspect someone is going to betray our fellow, though it's possible he'll betray someone himself--you never can tell around these parts.  I don't care.  I am a sucker for competence. 

If you're waiting eagerly for the upcoming continuation of the adventures of Eugenides the Thief from Megan Whalen Turner, let K.J. Parker tide you over.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Monstress, At Last

I got an ARC of Monstress from Netgalley when the first volume, Awakening, came out, and I immediately sat down an read the first five issues straight through.  It's rich, dense, lush, and challenging, with incredible worldbuilding, powerful characters, gorgeous artwork, and incredible adventures.

But the tension was so much that I got overstimulated and put it down.  This happens to me a lot, especially with the best stuff--when I watch movies by myself and they get exciting, I almost always pause the video to get up and walk around. When I'm reading, I often switch from book to book when things get to exciting in the one I'm absorbed in.  I hit my stimulation threshold--especially for the good stuff--really fast.

This was a stupid thing to do, though, because Monstress is amazing. The art is by Sana Takeda, and it is lush and rich and intricate. The story is by Marjorie Liu, and it's harsh and beautiful. I've read that the two do not share a language, and that their collaboration involves interpreters.  I can't imagine what goes into producing even one issue of something so complex.

The worldbuilding is complicated enough that I was confused at times, but only in the way that you can just read past.  It took a while to get the hang of who is on what side in the war, partly because there are species that look the same and partly because of the factions and betrayals going on.  Basically, though, it's the humans vs. the part-animal Arcanics, and the Arcanics have been beaten, enslaved, and harvested for a magical substance that their bodies produce, in particular by a certain religious cult.

Maika, our main character, had been captive, but was living in freedom with her best friend, Tuya, before going back behind enemy lines for information that she couldn't get any other way.  She wants to know the details of what happened to her mother, and she finds some answers, more questions--and an artifact, a mask that connects her to a horrifying creature.  It fills her with power--and hunger.  Her enemies are in danger, but so are her friends.

This book. I'm not the first one to tell you this book is incredible, but this book is incredible.  Everyone is hungry for something--safety, power, memory--and everyone has their own agenda.  It's so easy to get caught up in the more notable amazing things--the world is populated by women! the art is absolutely incredible! the monster, the terrifying monster!--that it's easy to overlook the subtle wonderfulness of the storytelling--Maika's confusion about the right path; the unwavering goodness of Kippa the fox girl; all the people facing complicated moral choices and making the ones you might not have expected.

Best comic I've read in a year, I think--and it's been a pretty good year. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Feminist Utopia

You know anything about beguines? In the 13th through 16th centuries, these were lay women who lived in monastic communities--basically nuns without the vows.  They would commit to living by the rules of the community, but were not bound to it for any period of time and were free to leave when they wanted.  At a time when the options for a woman's life were quite narrow, this seems like an incredible opportunity--the benefits of community living without the lifelong restrictions of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Maresi, by Maria Turtschaninoff, has had me thinking about beguines.  The Red Abbey is a community of women and girls, on an island where no man may set foot.  From all over the world, they come--sent by their families for the best education, or fleeing oppressive societies where women may not be educated, or just because it is a safer place for them than wherever home was.  They come as novices and they stay as sisters, or they return home, or go off into the world to use the things they've learned to make the world better.  They are protected by the Mother, the three-faced goddess.

Maresi is one of the oldest novices in the abbey, and she loves it there.  She loves the rituals and the food and her friends and the library. She loves studying with Sister O and looking after the youngest novices. When Jai arrives--frightened and on the run--Maresi shows her the ropes and they become friends.

There is danger and drama in the book, and that's all great and thrilling, but the thing that makes this book so incredibly wonderful is this lovely community, this ideal of people who work hard for common goals and give each other freedom to be themselves.  The sisters have different tasks and different lifestyles, and the novices work where they are needed and where their skills fit best.  Maresi has her opinions of everyone, but when the cards are down, every member of this community stands together.

I've been thinking a lot about community lately--about the groups we belong to that consist of many loose ties, small tugs of obligation and connection to people you would probably not have chosen individually, but who together make your team.  Community is hard, because not every relationship is comfortable, and because it is almost inevitably going to include people you'd rather omit if you could.  But you can't; you're stuck with them, and they're stuck with you, and if you're not better off because of each person included, you are better off because it's hard to get left behind.

The Red Abbey is an idea of community in a dangerous world; it's a place where people protect each other and know the value of themselves and their sisters.  I could read my way through the cycle of days over and over again, even without the storms and pirates and demanding goddesses.

This book makes my heart swell with gladness to read.  Maresi and Heo and Jai and Enneike and the Rose and Sister O and Mother--I would very much like to meet and live and belong with these wonderful women.

(I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley, but that was ages ago and I didn't read it till now.  So thank you, Netgalley, and I'm sorry that I waited so long!)