Monday, January 27, 2014

All the Comics

Been reading comics lately, lots of 'em.  SagaLocke & KeyAngel & FaithBone.  So many great comics so far this year.

I'm sure you've heard of Saga, which is all over the place with buzz.  It's by Brian Vaughn, who brought us Y: The Last Man.  I enjoyed a lot of things about that series, but I found the story to be kind of flawed on a couple of levels.  It's hard to tell at this point what's going to happen with Saga, but the characters are so, so wonderful. The teenage ghost half-nanny, the troubled bounty hunter and his truth-scenting cat, the romance novel-reading soldier.

I almost didn't give it a shot, because the first issue contained a rather off-putting sex scene (really, the idea of characters with TVs for faces is kind of heavy-handed to begin with), but that was fortunately not indicative of the overall tone of the series.  I am SO on board for this ride.

Locke & Key has sold me on Joe Hill.  I don't know why I haven't read Joe Hill yet--everyone tells me how great he is. The first volume of Locke & Key is one of the creepiest things I've ever read, and now I have to read a bunch more.  I'm only on number two, but I'm already getting twitchy for the point at which our protagonists realize that there's something going on.  Because right now they're just wandering around having their strings pulled left right and center and not even realizing, and this is going to get really depressing until they start fighting back.

I'm going to skip Angel & Faith; my relationship with that series is incredibly complicated and based on a long and weirdly passionate emotional history with the Buffy franchise.  I hate Angel; I like Faith; I hate Eliza Dushku; I like David Boreanaz; I'm trying to follow the Buffy comics and I need to keep the dream alive.  But I can only watch the same characters learn the same lessons so many times over before I despair of them.  So that's all I'll say about that.

Bone, though!  Let's talk about Bone. Adam and Mike have almost finished it, but I'm still on volume 5.  It's just so charming.  It's got all the elements of epic fantasy, with the adorableness of a Sunday comic strip.  And you're reading about this aw-shucks little non-human character having a crush on the gorgeous girl, and it's like Opus the Penguin all over again, but then there are all these hints of backstory, all these echoes of incredibly rich world-building that you're just getting these tastes of but that point to something rich and wonderful.

I'm really glad to be reading the recently published color versions.  I've tried to read them before in black and white, but I found that the art was a little too complex to take in easily that way.  Mike tells me that ex post facto coloring is usually bad, but this is really excellent work; you would never know it wasn't meant to be this way.

More comics coming up!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

First Impressions

Starting a bunch of new books.  Here's a rundown of my opinions based on the first 3-10% of each one (depending how long it is--I'm probably 40 pages into The Goldfinch and I just hit 3%.  Kindle tells me I won't be done for 17 hours, and every time I turn a page that estimate gets longer.  That cannot be a good thing).

The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey.  This one was a recommendation from Linden, and when the library had the ebook available I picked it up idly.  It starts with a ballerina's rundown of Swan Lake for the uninitiated and from the backstage point of view, and I was hooked.

Kate has an amazing voice. she is everything you believe hard-core ballet dancers to be--edgy, competitive, passionate, anxious--and you want more than anything to listen to her dish.  But it's not a fluffy book--it's about how ambition and intensity affect relationships and personality.

The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson.  Well, you know, meh.  The problem with a second book is always (or at least often) that you have to start fresh with a new plot.  So you start out with either no tension or unearned tension.  Plus, all the progress we made in the last book just seems to have fallen away.

There are other things that annoy me, though.  Kelsier as a charismatic character was not just holding the characters together, he was kind of holding me in the story last time.  Vin's being a jerk to the chandra.  And oh jeez, too much political meandering.  And not in a complicated Dune/Vorkosigan way, but in a boring The Phantom Menace kind of way.

That said, it's a LONG book and I'm just a little way in.  Eventually, he'll get me invested.  This reaction, though, is why I tend to avoid epics.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  The first few pages set up a delightful tease--our narrator is holed up in a hotel room, clearly on the run, but in a banal kind of way (it's unlikely that anyone at this hotel will recognize him, but he doesn't have any underwear).  This had promise.  Then we flash back to what is explicitly the afternoon of his mother's death and spend a while with them at an art museum.

It's not that it's not good.  It's well written.  But I don't yet know why I'm reading it.  The thing about Donna Tartt is that she wrote The Secret History--a wild, chilling, almost surreal ride through an upper class that almost doesn't exist--and she also wrote The Little Friend--a dull-as-dishwater story that promises to be about an unsolved murder in a small town, but which is really a slice of life in the '70s in the South.  It might have been okay, but it was nowhere near as satisfying.  Southern Gothic a few decades ago is just much less interesting and fresh than New England Gothic hiding in plain sight at a college that is practically where I went.

So far, we see hints of a New York Gothic, and I'm kind of digging them--the family that lives in a doorman building and takes cabs everywhere, but has to scrounge for change in the couch cushions to tip the deliveryman from Gristedes.  There are hints of what made The Secret History great, of this odd world positioned right behind the one I'm in.  But I'm just not sure Tartt has enough trust left from me to make it work.

She'd better--that puppy is 800 pages long and I'm reading it for book club, so no quitting.

Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta.  I'm not sure I can deliver even a first impression verdict on this one yet.  I've started but not finished several Marchetta books, and I find myself put off by the fact that she always seems to skip the exposition I want and start kind of in the middle of the story.  Not just in medias res, but with kind of an infodump that leaves you feeling stranded.

Finnikin, for example, is currently working with refugees from the destroyed kingdom of Lumatere.  But the story doesn't exactly start with him, and then give us back story.  It starts with a weird, confusing account of the end of Lumatere--full of a bunch of drama based around characters we don't know anything about and who are dead now anyway.  It's dense and confusing, and even the characters are unclear about some of it.  It's the predominant fact in the lives of all the characters, but I have no feel for it, no texture.

So Finnikin seems to be acting like a jerk when he's impatient to be kept from doing things that he's passionate about but I don't quite get.  They are traveling through all these places whose impressions I'm given, but don't quite get.

Sarah believes in this series--she read the last book several times in a row--and I'm going to read it.  But I'm not sure about it yet.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Endless Rue

I have discussed Madeleine Robins.  I love Madeleine Robins.  She wrote the Sarah Tolerance mysteries, but I hadn't read anything else by her yet--not till now, when I have fallen in love with Sold for Endless Rue

Okay, I'm out of practice here, and it's late and I need to get to bed, so this is going to be complicated.  The structure of the book isn't hard to explain, but it's hard to explain why the book is so wonderful.  Basically, the book is divided into three parts.  In the first, Laura is taken in and trained by a midwife.  In the second, Agnesa is a bride who is expecting a child.  In the third, Bieta is the daughter of an acclaimed female doctor and in training herself.

So, we've got midwives and medical students in 13th century Salerno.  If you read Mistress of the Art of Death, you know that female doctors were not unheard of at the time, and this is fascinating to me.  How different did Salerno need to be from the rest of Medieval Europe?  All of those Mediterranean places where Africa and Europe and the Middle East came together at that time are just amazing, and the details of Salerno are just wonderful.

But really, this book is about how every choice we make is influenced by all the other choices that came before--our own and everyone else's.  The character and historical details of Laura training as a midwife and medica in the first part would have been more than enough to keep me reading, but the weight of her history and the surprising ways it affects her are what make this more than just interesting. 

Laura has been kept as a slave by a man who murdered her family and destroyed her home.  When she escapes, she's hidden by Crescia, a midwife, and stays with her to learn her craft.  Most of the story is just about Laura growing up, but at every turn, we see how her personality was shaped by her life--by her family, her captor, her teacher, her understanding of danger, her fear and defiance.  And as we see how Laura is shaped by, say, Crescia, we learn a little of how Crescia was shaped by her own life. 

Then these observations are tied into how each person's understanding of the others is imperfect, and how even in agreement, they have differences.  And all these observations ricochet, explicitly and implicitly, through the different parts of the story.  And now I'm going to stop talking because I don't want to spoil it, but wow.  We can't really know each other, and sometimes the decisions we think are correct are damaging--sometimes while still being right.

If you're not someone who thinks "wow, a domestic novel with character studies of medieval midwives!  Sign me up!" then this might not be the book for you.  But lordy, it was the book for me.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Neither Ghosts Nor Zombies Nor Vampires

The dead are everywhere in this world; any shadow might contain them. Binders keep the villages safe, but something is wrong in Westmost.  Their binder is not well, her daughter, Otter, is untrained, and the most dangerous of the dead, the White Hands, stalk the village.  Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow: there's your setup.

There's some scary stuff here, and a good story, but what makes this book shine is the what it's about.  It's about chosen family, and about the ties that (forgive me) bind people together.  It's about mistakes--mistakes you don't realize you made, mistakes that have horrible results that could have been prevented if only you knew more.  It's about how life is incredibly messy, both in its strengths and its points of pain. 

There's so much that's cool and interesting and unusual here that are appealing.  The setting is based on a non-specific Native North American idea, but it's not derivative.  The specific trappings are all fantasy, though--the characters have dark hair and brown skin, wear deer hides and make arrowheads from flint, but there's nothing that feels stolen or condescending. 

Also, Westmost is not exactly a matriarchy, but it's a society of women, with only a few men.  Only women have power to bind the dead, so most boys born in the forest villages end up journeying to the plains, which are safer.  This is simply a world of women.

The friendships, though.  That's what really tore my heart out.  Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket are the main characters of the story, and the three are a family, more than anyone else.  And they have each other's backs, always--it's not even a doubt.  The friendships have facets and change, but they are never in doubt, at all.  There is no question of where any of their loyalties lie.  And in the end, really, those friendships are what save the world.

It's not a perfect book--there's a weak point in the middle, where the first crisis has past and the parts of the story that need to align for the second crisis are plopped together a bit heavy-handedly.  And, in a book about how messy life is, the writing style is somewhat stiff, in the manner of formal storytelling (which is a big factor in the story).  But I couldn't stop reading.

I said in a recent review that one of the things I loved about All Our Yesterdays was that it was so honest about how sometimes good and evil are so interdependent that you just can't untwine them; so many books shy away from that.  Well, this book is about how so often, enormous evil happens because someone makes a bad decision that looks innocuous at the time--or a decision that goes unnoticed.  Too often, everyone is able to undo their bad decisions, and the high stakes of the story are edged down because, essentially, everything turns out okay.

But not here.  The bad things that happen, they don't almost happen.  They do happen.  Some tragedies are prevented, but many are not.  There is real loss here, and not everyone gets the happy ending.  I think that's important.  It's definitely authentic.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

That Great Moment

When everybody's raving about how great that brand new book is, you can be pretty much guaranteed that you'll have to wait for months for the library to acquire it, and then another few months on a waiting list.

BUT!  There is nothing like the feeling of looking for a new release idly, no hopes or expectations, and then finding it! There! With a SHORT wait!  And it'll be a couple of weeks at most before I'm reading Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie.\, about which I know very little, except that it's supposed to be really good.

And--bonus!--this one I've already got in my back pocket.  Another one from a few top-ten lists that I picked up to read a while back and thought I lost in the Computer Crash  of '13.  But no, just when everyone's telling me how great Rachel Bach's Fortune's Pawn is, here it is on my backup drive (shout out to Mike for setting up automatic backup software before it was needed!).

I can tell already, 2014 is going to be a great book year.