Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Sticks and Bones

Seanan McGuire's Down Among the Sticks and Bones, sequel to her novella Every Heart a Doorway, is the story of Jack and Jill and their door, and how they came to the Moors in the first place.

My favorite character in the first book was Jack, so getting the story of Jack and Jill here was so delightful. I didn't want to put the book down, at all, and when I finished I went back and reread Every Heart just because I wanted a little bit more.  I love how dark this story is, and how many things Jack and Jill are not to each other, even when they are always sisters.

The story can be split into two parts--their life before the door, that turned them into people fit for the Moors, and their life after the door, in their new home.  I had actually expected the part in our world with their parents to be brief, more prequel, but it is actually a substantial part of the story.

I got frustrated with this part a bit, because it creates a lot of distance.  First, the parents are inhuman.  Like, the fact that they're stiff and prim and have all the wrong priorities is not inhuman, but they seem to have no perception of other human beings as people, especially their daughters.  It's so exaggerated as to be--and here lies the twist--fairy-tale-like.

And that's the thing that I realized about the first half--this is the odd, distanced, abstract telling of a fairy tale.  My other complaint was how much showing instead of telling we get, and how the girls end up acting like archetypes, even when they know they're not. I've always said that I'm not a huge fan of fairy tales themselves (though I'm down with a good retelling) because they are not about character at all, and the first part of this book is an exaggerated version of that. 

But this is all the more to contrast with what happens when you get to the Moors.  There, each character is specific and individual. The Master--an actual inhuman monster--has more individual personality than both of the twins' parents put together.  Dr. Bleak is very human, even as he is harsh and abrupt.  Even the villagers seem more real than the people who attended their parents' barbecues--they perceive what's going on around them and react to it in emotionally appropriate ways.

Reading this book was pure pleasure, and I love the person Jack becomes.  She's cold, and hard, and flawed, and that's partly who her mother made her and partly who Dr. Bleak made her and partly who she just is.  But she's smart and determined and acts with surprising generosity.  I think that a cold, hard person who is also generous is a character type that I'm a sucker for, is what it comes down to.

The third one, Beneath the Sugar Sky, comes out next January, and Tor previewed some of the illustrations (with a few short excerpts) today.  It's about Sumi, who deserved a better ending. I truly cannot wait.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Romance Titles Redux (Sorry, No Quiz)

I just....even as I read more romance, an accumulation of romance novel titles will always amuse me.  Especially when they're clustered into types, by publisher or pub date.  Like, this is literally the list I'm looking at of upcoming releases.
Twins on the Doorstep
The Navy SEAL's Promise
Garrett Bravo's Runaway Bride
Buying His Bride of Convenience
The Italian's Pregnant Prisoner
Sleigh Ride with the Single Dad
Christmas Amnesia
Amish Christmas Twins
These are JUST the ones that are all in a row.  There are others on the page that are great (One Night Stand Bride), but they're mixed in with less bluntly-titled volumes like Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer and Never Christmas Without You.

I see two clear groups: Heartwarming Domesticity and Dubious Consent, with a couple of fun oddballs thrown in.  Christmas Amnesia is kind of my favorite standout here.  I kind of want to add mechanical birds and a sentient sockpuppet for a kind of absurdist Hallmark Movie.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Six Wakes

Mystery! Sci fi! Thriller! And what does it mean to be human? All this and more, tonight in my review of Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty.

I feel like I'm coming very late to this party, so you can't possibly have missed this one. I mean, aside from the fact that I read this a month ago, everyone else reviewed it when it first came out--wait, was that earlier this year?  Whoa, it feels like twice that long.

Excuse me, I've lost track of the scale of time.  Gonna go stare into space and regain my perspective.

Which is an interesting segue into the fascinating conceit of this novel, which is that the main characters are all clones. Some people, you see, choose to clone themselves--you grow a new body to adulthood, make a mindmap, and when you die--of old age or an accident--your most recent mindmap is uploaded into the new body and you just keep going from there.

The laws governing clones are very specific: no cloning the living. If that happens, the newest clone is the "real" person and the previous one has no legal right to existence.  No altering mindmaps or genetic structure of the person.  Despite these rules, cloning is controversial, largely on religious grounds.

The six particular clones in this story are the crew of a generation ship--cryogenically frozen people and saved mindmaps and genetic information for clones are stored on a ship that is being sent on a 200 year journey to a habitable planet.  These six crew members are going to monitor the ship for 200 years, cloning themselves as necessary to get through it.  They also all happen to have criminal records, which will be expunged at their new home.

But--the book is a locked-room murder mystery.  Their clones all wake up with no memory of the last 30 years; the last thing they remember was the day they departed.  Their bodies are in various states of murderedness (including one at Not Quite) and the computer AI has been sabotaged.

This is our story.  These six people suspect each other, and as they try to solve the mystery of their own murders, their various histories (with various levels of nefariousness) come to the fore.  They can't trust each other, and all of them are some flavor of messed up (some with violent pasts), and the AI (also not entirely trustworthy) is starting to come back online and look over their shoulders.

So yeah, it's pretty great.  There are a lot of unlikeable characters, but also a lot of likeable ones, and you can't be sure who to trust from either group.  A lot of the story revolves around the last few centuries of cloning history (which of course all of these people have experienced), and the question of how to protect the rights of a new class of citizen with many physical advantages over other people and much social prejudice--well, that's one of the most interesting parts of the book.

As I said, I read it a month ago, which is a million years for me, so I'm not feeling it as viscerally now as I did then. But it was a compelling read, and I really appreciated that some of the characters had personal opinions that were very angry and unappealing to me, but were painted as fully human.  Everyone here was the hero of their own story, which I think is one of the main truths in life.  The recognition of that always makes a book stronger; it definitely did here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Excuse Me While I Go All Rageballs

Welcome to Feminist Outrage Corner!  Not that I need a new thing to rant about, and not that I have much to add to this post from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  The title says (almost) everything: "Male Authors, Thrillers, and Ambiguous Pen Names." Go read that article first, because they cover most of my feelings there. And in the comments. And the linked articles.

I mentioned I recently got into thrillers.  I hadn't put this together, but women-written, women-centric thrillers are part of the reason for this.  First, because even when they're tropey, they tend to be less sexistly tropey.  Second, they tend to be very much about the experience of the characters as human beings. I'm pretty unabashed about this right now; it's not that I don't read books by men, it's that I am skeptical of picking up books by men.  They have to clear an extra hurdle to make my reading list, for reasons like this, thriller or no.

Anyway, I read Final Girls recently and didn't like it. I felt like the main character's thoughts and her feelings and her actions were all out of alignment.  And I guess you could attribute that to her recovery and the ugly stuff that's dredged up over the course of the book, but it just felt off to me.

So now, when I find out that Riley Sager is a pen name for a dude, I have two feelings. The first one is, yeah, that explains it.  This is what a dude thinks a girl is like. She says she feels one way but then acts another. She doesn't even know what she wants.  Chicks, you know? With their cupcake businesses.

Second feeling: yes, when women get a little wedge of the thriller market, you know what that corner needs? More guys. And if they won't let you in, sneak in the back.  And to anyone who compares this to JK Rowling publishing under her initials, I can only say that there is a huge difference between trying to beat a system that's stacked against you and trying to win more in a system that's stacked for you. There's a huge difference between sitting in the wrong part of the bus if you're white and if you're black.  There's a huge difference between wanting to go to an all boys school and an all girls school.  Someday there might not be, but right now there is.  One is making a little room for yourselves in a space that tries to shut you down; the other is taking a space you already dominate and keeping Them from getting in.

I'm not upset that he wrote from a woman's point of view.  I think that's great.  If he'd used his own name, I'll admit I'd have been more skeptical before picking the book up, but if it had been good, I would have given him full credit. I don't mind the anecdote in the article where a guy tried on a bra to make sure he was describing the process of getting dressed properly (though the first time you put on a bra is insanely awkward; you have to do it every day for months to get it smooth). That's research; people take trips and look at buildings and eat new foods to describe them properly in books. 

It's that they're lying.  These aren't pen names for privacy. They're pen names to trick me.  And sometimes they work, which, okay.  I liked Before I Go to Sleep and didn't realize it was a guy, and that doesn't change my opinion.  But I do feel a little lied to.  And the more I think about that as being deliberate--as figuring out what I want and then conspiring to give me something else, hoping it will be good enough--the more I'm just mad.

Anyway, thanks, Smart Bitches, for the rant.  No, really.  I feel like my vision is getting clearer and clearer, and even when that's painful, it's definitely a good thing.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Collapsing Empire

It's stupid how I always forget how much fun John Scalzi is until I read another of his books, and then I want to eat them all up.  Maybe it's because they're a little light--not that they don't deal with interesting and complicated ideas, but that they are so upbeat and amusing that I retain that and forget the meat of them.  I think that happens with Terry Pratchett, too, which says something.  Their books are always better than I remember them being, even when I remember them being very good indeed.

I finally picked up The Collapsing Empire because Linden and Elizabeth both loved it soooooo much.  Like the kind of recommendations that are hard to ignore.  The first three or four chapters are all from different points of view, so I actually found it a little tough to get into at first; just when I got invested in someone, we'd move on to the next someone.  Eventually it leveled out at three main characters, though, and two of them come together--if not physically then into the same storyline--fairly quickly, so that slowness falls back pretty quickly.

And all three characters are COMPLETELY likeable. (I feel like the fact that I'm talking about the likeability of the characters says a lot about this as a science fiction novel--which is to say that it works really well on a human level.)  Cardenia, as a younger and bastard daughter, was never supposed to rule an empire, but when her older half brother died suddenly, she suddenly became the heir to everything. Her matter-of-fact attitude is just what you want to see in a Leadership Thrust Upon Her scenario and is immensely satisfying. 

Marce is the son of a minor nobleman on a planet called The End because it's just so far away from literally everything.  He's an academic with important information (about how the empire is collapsing) that he has to get to the emperox. He's just kind of a dude, but he's likeable for all that--very much the Everyman buried over his head in intrigue.

If it was just them, I'd say they're TOO likeable.  Like, rational, level-headed, pretty flawless Normal People.  Their biggest flaw is they're so straightforward that maybe they're not nuanced enough.  But then you get your third hero--Kira.  She's the daughter of a wealthy merchant house that's caught in the middle of another house's power grab.  Kira is foul-mouthed, impatient, frank to the point of being insulting, and frequently gets distracted by sex.  She's also immensely good at her job (which is basically making money in any way that can be painted as legal or well-laundered), which makes her the most fun character to follow.  Like Marce and Cardenia, Kira is super-competent, but she's not an obvious white-hat good guy, and I think the strength of that really carries the book in a lot of ways.  I was free to love the lawful good heroes because I had this chaotic neutral to cleanse my palate.

The story is about a space empire that is linked by the Flow, which is the only way for ships to travel the vast distances of space.  When the Flow begins to change, the thousand year old empire is going to have to change with it.  But of course (as we all know), changing an enormous society--including bureaucracy, religion, class system, and financial system--because nature is telling you that what you're doing ain't gonna fly no more is not as easy as it sounds (*cough*globalwarming*cough*), and the attendant intrigues begin.

My main criticism matches that of Thea from The Booksmugglers--namely, this story doesn't stand alone.  I had no idea it was going to be part of a series until I was halfway through, but this is definitely one-third of a larger story, not a story in itself.  I liked what I read, and I wasn't trying to rush it, but I don't think it's served by being split up--I think I would much rather have read one 1200 page book than this and then two more later.  Not just the cliffhanger problem, but the fact that everything I've read so far is prelude.  I think going into it as part of a serial story is going to work better than as a series--even though the next installment is over a year away.

Ugh, a year.  Well, at least I'll have time to catch up on all the John Scalzi that I don't know why I haven't read.  Ghost Brigades, here I come!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fabulous Magical Spies

The first time I read the blurb for Murder, Magic, and What We Wore, I knew I would be reading it at the earliest possible moment.  Lady Annis and her aunt are left penniless on her father's death, but Annis discovers that she has a skill that might solve their money problems--she can sew glamours. With a few stitches, she can change a wool garment to silk, or keep the wearer safe, or make her unnoticeable.  Annis has an eye for fashion; she thinks they have a chance.

But she's also begun to suspect that her father was on more than a business trip when he died--that in fact, he's been a spy. She approaches the Home Office and offers her services, but when they turn her down, she may have to figure out how to do her part for England on her own.

I read Kelly Jones's previous book, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, out loud to my son a couple of years ago, and we really loved it. This move into YA has all kinds of delightful elements--spies! balls! magic!--but I really, really wish they'd come together into one cohesive picture. Each of the parts is quite charming and delightful, but I got a bit of whiplash moving between them.

When Annis and her aunt find themselves destitute, they fear they'll have to be governesses or paid companions--a fall from social grace and a very limiting life.  Annis's skill might be able to save them--but becoming a seamstress, even a glamourist, would still exclude her from her social circle.  So her idea is to become a secret glamourist.  With the help of her maid, she disguises herself an an old French woman, Madame Martine, who is the new modiste in a small town outside of London.  Annis can have a normal social life while Madame Martine makes enough money to live on.

This is my favorite part of the plot--if you left the spies out of it completely, I would have loved this book.  Annis is completely overconfident (she's excellent at repairing and altering dresses, but quickly realizes she's never made one from scratch before), the pressure of being penniless is a wonderful tension, and her growing friendship with her world-wise new maid is absolutely heartwarming.  Annis is maybe too successful at everything--the upper class, they really are just like you and me--but it's charming, and she puts snobs in their place, demonstrates the actual, literal importance of clothing in the lives of young women, and finds her own competence.

At the same time, though, she's trying to unmask a plot to break Napoleon out of exile, and trying to get hired as a spy, and it's the clunkiest thing in the world.  Again, Annis is overconfident, but it comes across as much more arrogant.  I also saw through pretty much all the plot twists here (is literally EVERYONE in London a spy?), and all the suspicion just got in the way of the really sweet story of a girl trying to earn her own way in the world.

The book was so charming that I wanted to love it, and I'm going to read the next book Kelly Jones writes, because the premise here is so delightful, and what works here works so delightfully well.  But the pattern didn't quite come together into the beautiful piece I wanted it to be. 

I received a free advance copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thrillers, Backfired

In following up on my thriller kick, I requested Final Girls, by Riley Sager, from Netgalley. Not to be confused with the Mira Grant book by the same title, this is a thriller about a woman who survived a horror movie scenario as a teenager and, ten years later, finds the safe boundaries of her comfortable life tested by a visit from a fellow "final girl."

Let me summarize my feelings with an anecdote. I was looking at a list of summer's best thrillers on Kirkus and when this book popped up (with a star!) my response was, "dammit, now I can't trust the rest of the list!" Sadly and in short, I did not love this book.

It started out really promising: Quinn lives with her perfect boyfriend in a perfect apartment in New York and runs a perfect baking blog. All is well. She is completely over what happened to her ten years ago, when her spring break trip to Pine Cottage ended with a slasher murdering all her friends and her running screaming out of the woods with no memories of the past hour.  She's fine. Even if the only people in her life besides her boyfriend are the cop who rescued her that night and another Final Girl.

The Final Girls are a club of three women who survived similar horror stories.  Lisa was the sole survivor or a sorority house massacre; Samantha survived a murderous rampage at a motel.  They've never met, but they've emailed, and the press is fascinated with them. Mostly that's in the past, though, until the beginning of this book, when we find out that Lisa--the oldest of the three, their den mother and emotional center--has committed suicide.

As Quinn's carefully composed life starts to fray at the edges, she's in for another surprise--Samantha, who dropped off the map years ago to avoid the press, appears on her doorstep. Quinn is torn between wanting nothing to do with the role of final girl that they share and a strange fascination with the other woman.  Thrillerly hijinks ensue.

I didn't hate this book, but I might under other circumstances have stopped reading it.  There are two ways to do this kind of heavy-handed thriller--one, go serious.  Throw the horror movie script out the window and think about how real people would behave in the very real scenario of something ridiculous and unbelievable.  Two, go the other way--total camp.  Maybe this is a world where horror movies don't exist, so no one can even imagine this situation.  Or maybe you just go over the top in a Cabin in the Woods type homage to the tropes. 

What you can't do is use the tools of camp--heavy-handed adherence to tropes--and take yourself this seriously.  Like, we're not just talking murderers, we're talking murderers with interesting weapons and face masks.  You can't treat that like a real thing that happens without building a whole world around this.  This book set up the horror to be too campy and then took it way too seriously.

Plot-wise, I couldn't figure out where things were going for a long time, and I actually found that most confusing.  The best part of the book was the last quarter, when I had finally figured out the trajectory of the story (and the twist, probably too early). The mystery here is whether Sam is who she claims to be, and whether she's got evil intentions or not.  But the thing is, she's so clearly and completely messed up that I just didn't care if she was explicitly sinister or just kind of a jerk. 

There is a thing that happens where you're drawn to someone horrible and you fight with them and try to walk away but it doesn't work and you just keep sitting down to drink Wild Turkey with them after midnight.  But--and maybe this is just me--I would never, ever do that with someone I didn't trust, so I could not understand Quinn's behavior toward Sam.  It made the book feel like a random assortment of happenings, rather than character development around a plot.

I think this speaks to a bigger problem with getting involved in a genre that's new to you.  I know my favorite genres (sci fi, fantasy) inside and out. I know the tropes and can see them from a distance, and recognize pretty well who's going to play with them vs. adhere to them vs. butcher them.  I know the backlist and the frontlist and what's coming next season and can winnow down what I want to read with comps and recommendations. 

But in a new genre, everything is unknown.  Who's advice do a trust? Whose taste do I agree with?  Not just which writers are good, but what style of thriller to I even enjoy?

I'm still learning.  And with romance or mystery, I can find trusted recommenders from other genres who can get me started.  Thrillers, though, I'm flying blind. 

So let's see what's next.