Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dueling Titles

The Since You've Been Gone that I just finished (by Mary Jennifer Payne) is not the Since You've Been Gone I've been seeing lately on bookstore shelves (by Morgan Matson).  I got this one as an ARC, and it's not out yet.  So when I saw that in the bookstore and thought, oh yeah, I was just about to read that--it was a different book.  Don't get confused.

The book I finished today is about a teenager, Edie, whose life has been upended yet again when she and her mother had to run from her abusive father. This time they've left Canada for London, and Edie is not thrilled.  She's the new kid again, she had to leave her friends and her cat, and the teachers at her new school are not very sympathetic.

But the real story starts when Edie's mother doesn't come home from her first shift at her new job.  Because they're on the run, she's afraid to go to the police, and she really doesn't want to end up in the social services system.  She determines to find her mother, and acquires a sidekick in her quest in the form of Jermaine, a tough guy with a sensitive side from school.

This book was fine.  For the most part it was enjoyable--I liked Edie, and her relationship with her mom, and her combination of frustration and adaptability.  It moved along briskly and kept me interested.

I think the best part was the details about the peripheral characters were really nice--every single person really came alive, even the ones who just showed up briefly and would, in many books, have been flat and stereotypical.  Precious (school bully), Imogen (shy reject), the guard at the office building, the guy selling doughnuts--all these characters seemed real, and human, and there was a real sense of depth in the London that she and Jermaine traipse through.

It was kind of cool, too, that no one's race was described.  I mean, I guessed that Jermaine was black for a few reasons, but you don't find out for sure till later in the book.  And on my Kindle, I wasn't sure that Edie was white, either.  It made some of the characterization--how Jermaine has been marked as a bad seed at school, for example--more interesting, because how race played into it was left up to me for a long time.

Ultimately, the problem with the book was with the plotting.  The scene setting, the characters, the interactions were all great.  But the plot--mom's missing, have to find her!--was pretty poorly paced.  I really have no idea how to look for someone who's missing in a big city, but I can pretty much guarantee that as soon as you walk out the door and look left and right up and down the street, you're going to realize you need a plan.  Edie did not have a plan.  Even after she got one, she didn't follow it very closely, didn't seem driven by it. 

It's actually something I've seen in other stories, where the Big Thing We Need To Do is really more of a thing that we worry and talk about instead of acting on.  Edie spends almost three days worrying before she actually takes some action.  She doesn't even call hospitals, which is the stereotypical thing you do when someone's missing--I'd think that even Edie had seen a show where someone said to their errant teenager, "I was calling the hospitals, I was so worried," and would have thought to do that.

Between that and the way-too-abrupt wrap-up at the end--way, way too abrupt--I'm left kind of flat.  This would have been a better book if it had just been about trying to fit in, build a home in a new city, or something like that.  The structure felt forced and ultimately dragged down what was initially a really good read.

The really positive thing that I'll say is that I'd definitely read another book by this author.  I think, if she'd been writing the right book for her, it would have been really excellent.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two Thirds of the Lord of the Rings

Well, The Two Towers draws to a close.  Once again, I'd like to praise Robert Inglis's reading, and offer him a lozenge after the orc voices he had to do there at the end.

I understand the love for the LOTR movies.  They're hugely long, yes, but they're gorgeous and lush and rich with their own overblown sprawl.  They have many qualities that I want in a movie.  But I still don't understand the enduring popularity of the books.  There's a good story in there, but I just don't see what this Thing is that has touched SO many people so deeply.

I mean, there's the Everyman of Frodo, saving the world while the big-time heroes just watch his back.  That's got a satisfaction to it.  But honestly, Frodo doesn't get many good scenes.  He just trudges on with dignity while Sam gets to be clever or anxious, make decisions and worry about whether they're right.  Frodo is an object here, and Sam's deeply underrated.

There's a big British class thing going on through the whole thing.  The big people treat the hobbits with a great deal of respect, but hobbits are not fighters, nor scholars, nor much of anything that you'd expect to find on a quest, so there's this odd kind of...condescension, except not really.  The hobbits have status, but they don't have a lot of competence; maybe it's my own angle that looks to competence for status, not the characters--maybe I'm projecting.

One thing that kind of grates me, too, is the Good vs. Evil thing.  I don't know if it's my modern sensibilities or what, but the bad guys are so bad it's almost boring.  Orcs are faceless; what's their motivation? Sauron wants Power, but power to do what?  He doesn't want to rule the world, he wants to lay waste to it.  Why would anyone want to destroy the world?  It's kind of a nihilistic goal, and when it's not even directly stated--he's not threatening to destroy the world, just laying waste to what he does conquer--it doesn't have any dimension.

Also, I can't quite figure out how destroying the ring will turn the tide of anything, since the bad guys seem to be doing just fine so far without the ring.  Though of course, I'm still on the second book.  I have a feeling the return of the king in The Return of the King will make a difference there.  Although, where was the king, anyway?  I mean, it's not like Aragorn was lying around somewhere refusing to take up the mantle of leadership.  He was right there all along, doing the hard work of unglamorously saving the world.

Speaking of Aragorn, though, in a bit of an aside, check out the cover image for the next book.  Is he flashing us some thigh or what?  I kind of love this picture, even though I have to assume he's wearing some tight flesh tone leather pants, not going barelegged beneath his tunic.  Though I do love the notion of his crowning being an opportunity to show off his gams.

I sound really down on the book here, and the truth is that, as I said, it's a good story.  I maintain that the pacing is really odd, and that it reminds me of nothing so much as an ancient Greek epic, but I'm glad I'm reading it.  I really do wish I knew more about the literary landscape of the time, to figure out what about this book makes it such a touchstone. 

Or maybe--and this is quite likely--I just don't get the British Walking Novel.  That is entirely possible, as well.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Not Very Bohemian

I went on vacation right after book club this month, which means I didn't get a post up about it right away, when things were fresh.  Which is too bad, because it was a great meeting--the book, Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia, was a good read.  It wasn't the deepest book ever, but it had a lot going on and was fun.

The story is easily summarized: a high school Statewide music conference takes place in a battered old hotel in the Catskills.  The musicians, their teachers, the hotel staff, and other guests are snowed in, and there are shenanigans as well as danger afoot.

Let's see if I can remember any of my good questions about it. Caution: I don't remember most of the characters' names, but I should still be able to explain what I'm talking about.

1) Which of the various and interesting plot twists did you see coming? I don't want to give things away, but there are a number of revelations, some of which I suspected (the end of Jill's story) and some of which I didn't (the concierge's story).

2) What did you think of the tone of the book?  Did you find that starting out with Alice and Rabbit set the tone as kind of a coming of age story?  How did the aspects of real physical danger--the death and murder and physical threats--fit with the more getting-along-in-high-school elements of the story?

3) Related: the tension over the possibility of this being a ghost story was interesting.  Was it misleading, or just the right amount to keep you on your toes?

4) None of the teachers/chaperones who were featured seemed particularly attached to teaching; they were all musicians who had defaulted to teaching after giving up professional music for one reason or another.  On one hand, this seems like the kind of thing that is particularly likely to be true in music (more than it would be for, say, science teachers).  On the other, it removes the idea of sharing and teaching music from the book--only one character has any real sense that it's worth something to pass this on to the kids.  Are the connections between the kids and adults and their music realistic? Sad? Is there a cautionary tale there?

5) What do you think about the bad guy being a flat out sociopath?  Does this seem like an oversimplification?  Do you think the internal monologue of that person (the short access you get to it) seems like what that kind of person's head really sounds like?

6) Seriously, how sad is that hotel?  Don't you kind of just want to go on vacation there to throw them a little business?

7) Were the Shining references too heavy handed?  Or were they inevitable, since the reader couldn't avoid making them so the characters might as well?  (Hint: I vote the latter.)  And was the bigger, more dramatic homage at the end a bridge too far?

8) What did  you think of the chaperone's relatively unresolved plotline?  Appropriate?  How do you think things are going to end up there?

That's all for now!  Next month for book club: Code Name Verity, which I've already read but am thrilled to read again and talk about!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Married the Bishop

No, wait, he became bishop after I married him.  Not me, I mean, Linda Walheim, the narrator, protagonist, VERY erstwhile detective, and eponymous bishop's wife of the novel The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.

Okay, I go back and forth between writing a polite review about the many things this book tried to do and where it fell short and just rambling on about how I didn't like it.  The latter is more entertaining and satisfying; the former is the more generous choice in a world where an author is quite likely to find your review.  The former, however, is also not where my skill set lies.

Let's settle in between for something straightforward, because I don't want to spend a lot of time on this.  To sum it up: the reason I finished this book was because I had a distant (and shrinking) hope that it would turn out to be a complete mind-bender and that the narrator--a passive, hand-wringing waffler of a Mormon housewife--would turn out to be the murderer.  That would have been fascinating, if nothing else.  Sadly, it's not a spoiler to say, no dice.

This is a book where a rough summary is easy and a detailed one is impossible.  Short version: Linda Walheim is a good Mormon housewife whose last kid is almost out of the house and whose husband is serving as bishop, putting her in a vicarious position in the center of ward (like a parish, only Mormon) life.  A couple of the domestic dramas turn out to be complicated by disappearances that might relate to murders.

The longer version is almost illegible, because nobody's motivations make any sense.  A man and his five year old daughter report his wife mysteriously missing.  He claims she's run out on him, but her parents claim that she was escaping abuse.  Linda, who lost her only daughter at birth years ago, can't believe any mother would leave her daughter like that. (This assumption is neither backed up nor challenged.)

Linda (for some reason) inserts herself into the investigation.  Though she has almost no contact with the police, she questions people and is nosy.  Really, in many ways, the sense that she's trying to solve the mystery comes entirely from her thinking about it a lot.  There are many scenes, in fact, where she does something like sit in a chair and think vague thoughts for a long time.  Kind of assumed that she'd turn out to be mentally ill.  Nope.

Revelations roll forth, as well as other mysteries, and I won't spoil them except to say that this reads very much like a first draft.  If the original events played out the way the Big Reveal demonstrates them, it would not make sense for any of the people with things to hide to behave the way they do early in the story.  It's like the plot was made up as it went along, but nobody went back to look for continuity.

In many ways, I read it as an anthropological exercise; a book by a Mormon author in a modern Mormon setting did contain some interesting details.  But every time she got close to something (men have too much power in the Church; "family secrets" can hide violent and dangerous things; even men who are not sexist can be pretty sexist), she skirts away from it and neither explores the issue nor even gives you a comforting platitude about it.  I'd feel better about this book if it read like solidly believed dogma instead of a doubter who doesn't really want to bother with what it means to doubt.

And where the HECK were the police?  She never calls them, she keeps telling herself she can't do better than them, but when she searches the house, she finds the victim's discarded cellphone?  That the police missed somehow?  And then doesn't tell them?  But then a cop shows up and gives her a very reasonable lecture about how the police are going to help, and "they probably won't believe me" is a dumb excuse, and she agrees, and then keeps doing the exact same stuff she's doing.

I guess I was looking for a Susan Isaacs thing, where a random lady insinuates herself into a murder investigation and turns out to have some bright ideas, insights, and uncovers information--just Utah instead of New York.  But no, this is about a random lady who stands very still and watches life moving around her, thinking hard about having an opinion, but in the end not really doing much of anything at all.

Except in that one, seriously unbelievable scene with the SWAT team--oh, I just can't.  I'm sorry.  Not recommended.

(And here's where I admit that I got this book from Netgalley for an honest review.  Well it's definitely an honest review.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Words Words Words

I'm digging into the backlist these days, trying to spread out the shiny new stuff with things that have gotten buried near the bottom of the TBR list.  A few people I know read Maxx Barry's Lexicon recently and I've been aggressively avoiding the spoilers, so I dove in.

This book!  Guys, this book.  I have been fooled by this book at absolute minimum three times, and surprised at least four more.  It's seriously packed with action, with worldbuilding, and with character development--often sketchy characters, who are hard to penetrate but flawed and fascinating. 

The premise is fairly simple: there are people who, through gifts and advanced training, can use words to affect people's neurobiology and effectively hypnotize or force them to obey ("compromise," they call it). The plot is more complicated: we are following two stories.  Wil is abducted in an airport and ends up in a major chase where he's not sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  He has no idea why this is happening to him, and neither do we.

The other story follows Emily, who's a street kid hustling three card monte in San Francisco when she is discovered by the Poets and brought to their school to be educated.  She doesn't quite fit in, but she's an avid learner and boundary pusher.

These stories tie together.  These people are on a collision course.  This book is intense and clever and so much fun.  The world building is smart, and the twists are surprising and inevitable.  But the cool thing is that even the few things I guessed "early" (like, before the flat-out reveal) weren't disappointing.  The book wasn't relying on the twist, or the surprise, to keep me interested.  I felt just as delighted when I knew what was going on as when I was blindsided.

I'm not quite done yet--this is the moment of my most intense thrill when I need to blog about the book.  And I'll admit that it's not entirely without holes--at no point, for example, is the mission statement of the Poets really hinted at, even when you're among them.  I guess building a hypnotic army is enough?  Their mystique keeps you on your toes, but it seems like a bit of a blank spot.

* * * * *


Okay, I'm back from vacation and I finished the book and holy cow it was awesome.  The ending was a little confusing, but the characters all followed their own paths to the end, and it was still a supremely good read.  Seriously, every time I thought, "here's the twist, here's the way the story's going to go," I was surprised.  Way to go, Max Barry!

Monday, July 07, 2014

I Am Waiting for More

I don't know what's going on with Allen Zadoff's I Am the Weapon series.  The first one was published under Boy Nobody a while ago, and now maybe it's being republished under The Hit, I guess?  Or maybe that's overseas; I'm unclear.  Anyway, I read I Am the Weapon and got really into it--slam, bang, boom.

So now we have I Am the Mission, and again, lucky enough to get an ARC.  In fact, I was sitting there on Netgalley waiting for it to come out, and I almost peed myself with joy when I saw it, requested it, and got it, right away.  And then I gulped it down, and now all I want to know is what the next one will be called and when it will come out.

I'll admit, Mission isn't as good as Weapon.  The second in a series rarely is, and my theory is that, even when the book is great, it can never surprise you like the first one did--finding a new author/character/series to love is a big part of the thrill, and that New Series Energy is not going to be there for books two through &c.

So Mission didn't get to surprise me as much.  Also, the author challenged himself here--this time our narrator is up against a paramilitary organization, which means he's not the only guy with training in the game.  There's also some internal strife at the Program, which, given the fact that things already operate on a Really, Really Need to Know basis, means he's pretty confused and adrift, support-wise.

This time, his name is Daniel, and he's being sent in to kill the leader of a militia-style camp/cult of young people.  It's a short term job; he's to strike at a recruiting event, not to go inside the compound.  These people have already taken out one Program kid, and they're not risking Daniel.

But a plan never survives first contact, and Daniel finds himself inside, cut off, and trying to fulfill his mission and navigate the fraught politics of a paranoid military organization.  On  the way, he finds and figures out more about his own organization, and maybe even his own past.

I'm usually not one for the broader story arc, preferring the mission on the table for the day.  But honestly, the camp parts dragged--it was a lot more waiting for an opportunity than acting, and the real drama of the story wasn't there.

It was with Daniel, cut off from the Program, examining his own motivations.  I'll admit that I guessed some of the twists and turns early, but it didn't take away from them.  This is a solid middle book, and I am completely set up for the third one.  We're going to find out about Daniel's father, and the moral ambiguity of being an assassin for the good guys is going to wash out in the end.  Allen Zadoff, get writing!

Friday, July 04, 2014


That moment when you read a random book and LOVE it, but realize it's the first in a trilogy.

But THEN, it turns out that the next book in the series comes out TOMORROW!

(Please excuse the sentence fragments.  It pains me to write them, even for rhetorical effect.)

I noticed J. Kathleen Cheney's The Golden City on the shelf at the library, and I thought about reading it, but I didn't pick it up until I got a solid recommendation from a chat friend.  I picked it up, I started in.  Society girl is packing for an elopement in 1900s Portugal, with the help of her secretly-seria (siren) handmaiden/companion.  So right off the bat, you have some fun stuff--servants, elopements, selkies.  I'm having fun already.

The elopement goes awry, and when the society lady is murdered, Oriana--seria, spy, unemployed professional companion--is determined to find the killer and avenge her friend's death.  Her kind are forbidden in the Golden City under pain of death, and her personal and family situation is complicated.

For all the magic, though, and all the politics and selkies and seria and things, this is a flat out (alternate) historical mystery, and it's a really excellent one.  In addition to Oriana's point of view, we get that of Duilio, a gentleman scholar who works with the police on occasion and is half-selkie himself.  He's been investigating mysterious disappearances that are tied to Oriana's friend's death.

I think the best thing about this book is that there is so much going on and I understood ALL of it.  I knew who the characters were, even when there were a lot of them.  There's so much rich background detail, and it's presented in such a smooth, NON-infodumping way that you really have no idea which details are going to come back as important later and which are just rich worldbuilding.  I think that kind of smooth storytelling is better here than in pretty much any mystery I've ever read.

There's so much more to love here, too.  I can see people wanting more depth in a lot of the cool things that are touched on--like how Oriana comes from a matriarchal society, but living in a patriarchal one--but I also love how they're just neatly embedded in the rest of the story.  Like when Duilio thinks something about not minding women working (or something like that, that seems kind of condescending), but then later Oriana has a similar thought about men. 

Duilio and Oriana as a pair is probably not too surprising to anyone who's ever, you know, read a book, but this is another thing that's just done so smoothly that I loved it.  They do not fall in love, or even lust, at first sight.  They find in each other an ally in their hunt for the truth, and they team up.  There's also no faux friction, mistrust, will-they-won't-they distrust.  They get along well, come to trust each other, and work well together  And after a little while, they both start to realize that they like each other.  But they're in a busy, intense period, so they don't really do anything about it.  These are two mature adults whose potential romantic feels take a comfortable backseat to the very real and important work they're doing, and I was practically standing up and cheering the whole time.

The plot is complicated and involves spies and art and politics and society matrons and magic and all kinds of things, and there's a huge cast of characters, some friends, some enemies, some uncertain.  I love that they had allies and trusted friends--this wasn't an "only we can save the world" situation, but a pair of people who were leading an important team.

I loved, loved this book.  Excuse me while I go buy the sequel--and hope like heck that Oriana's in it more than the cover blurb implies.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

There Is No Post Title That Encompasses These Two Comics

I tried really hard to think of a clever theme to tie Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals to volume3 of Spera, and god help me, I can't.  It's probably for the best.  Really, it's just that I got advance copies of both, and they're comics I've read in the past week.  So I'll just review them, if that's all right with you.

First of all, I think it's quite daring for someone to publish something that makes him the number one hit when you Google "sex criminals."  That takes some gumption, or something.  I usually go right for Matt Fraction, but the premise here had me seriously skeptical--this guy and this girl discover that they both have the power to freeze time when they have an orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank.

Crazy, definitely.  But tasteless?  No, actually.  It's one of the most sweet and sincere books about sex and falling for someone.  Here we have two people who are both really into sex--and who both have a secret sex power.  Suzie tells the story, starting in flashbacks to her childhood, then with meeting John, which is sweet and romantic and set up to be a really great one night stand, till they find out they have more in common than they ever would have imagined.

We get two coming of age stories--Suzie's rather sad one and John's kind of standard adolescence.  We have a lot of "what would you do with your magic powers" fun scenes.  And we have a lot about the complexities of navigating the beginning of a relationship with someone you're absolutely infatuated with but don't necessarily know that well yet.  This was just such an incredibly charming read; I can't wait for the next volume.

(Also, make sure you read all the background filler--the posters in the porn shop, the signs in the library.  Absolutely hilarious; the authors have a lot of fun with how silly a lot of these things are, sex-related and not.)

Josh Tierney's Spera has reached volume 3, and I feel about the same as I did about it before.  I like Lono and Pira, two princesses on the run.  I find Yonder charming, and I find their adventures fun.  I am starting to feel, though, that I'd like a little more depth.

This volume teased it a bit--two young men from Lono's collapsed kingdom show up, enraged with their princess for abandoning her people.  But I didn't want a story about these two boys learning not to be so angry--I wanted Pira and Lono to maybe turn around and see that if adventuring is what you want, you've got an evil queen and a conquered kingdom that maybe could use your attention.

As usual, there is a different artist for each story, and I find this distracting.  I wish there was a little more harmony across the styles; I don't need them to match in look, but in tone, it would help.  At least one of them I found so muddy it was quite hard to read.  And at the end, you get a big handful of short stories, again, by different artists.  These are charming, even more so in that you don't expect the same cohesion from them.  I think I'd appreciate them a bit more if I followed the comic online instead of in book form, though.

So basically, what I want from Spira is to step up its game--turn into a more cohesive story.  I appreciate that it's a light, adventuring princesses thing, and I don't mind if they don't end up facing Pira's mother.  But I do think that the episodic snippets are starting to get in the way of character development, and I'd love to see this story do more.  It's such a great concept, and such charming characters; I think it has a lot of potential.