Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Seduction of an English Scoundrel by Jillian Hunter

Honestly, sometimes I wonder why I even bother. I don't really like romances very much. And yet, every once in a while, when one crops up on a list by an author who hasn't utterly disgusted me yet, I pick it up. I think I'm trying to prove I'm not a book snob. See, I'll read anything! Even romance!

As much as I do like to try to read a few popular books at any given time, though, my rate of return on romances has been lamentably low. There are very few I've enjoyed, and none that I can even remember what they were named. It might be time, finally, to admit that romances, they just aren't for me.

Or at least, not when they're done like this one. This has formula written all over it. Not in the specifics, but the part where smart, spunky young woman (in some era of British history, but history isn't this book's strong point) meets alarmingly masculine rake who discovers to his alarm that this particular spunky smart young woman might just have him thinking of marriage....

Haven't I read this book before? Oh yes, I did. It was set in a school. And was more entertaining and had an actual subplot. Still wasn't great, but maybe it's not just the genre. Maybe it's just that the characters in Seduction of an English Scoundrel are paper thin. (And I keep spelling that as seducation, for some reason.) And the story started off diverting, but then became just the same "former rogue can't believe he's falling in love" that I've read before, even with my remarkably limited background in romance.

Oh, and, Jillian Hunter? When your main character is musing about what the opposite of a sensible woman is, the antonym he's looking for is foolish. Not insensible. Unless she just fainted.

But here's the part that sticks in my feminist historian craw (and I swear, I try not to evaluate this type of book by that alone.) This book tries to hide power imbalances by making it a one-upmanship game between two equals. Except that the woman is exercising the one power she does have, of not saying anything, to gain a small advantage for herself. In return, when he discovers this, the man uses his substantial power to kidnap her, take utter control of her life and promises to do so forever. Doesn't matter that it's a trick. There's a serious control issue here you're trying to pass off as sexy lovin' times.

And as soon as my brain gets involved, you know I'm going to have trouble with a book like this. Romances, I think I might stay away in the future. I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

When I started this book, I quickly became annoyed at the Scottishisms in the writing - not in the dialogue, but the way they cropped up in the descriptive text. They felt rare and out of place and smacked of shouting "look at me! I've done my research!"

Eventually, I stopped noticing them. But there is a bit of the self-conscious researcher about this book. It's well written, interesting, and mostly the details don't overwhelm the story, but on occasion, that line is skirted.

This is also the first Diana Gabaldon I've read, which may be an odd place to start, given the fervour of the following of her Outlander books. (Screw you, spellcheck, I'm Canadian, we spell it fervour.) Based on this, I will probably go on to read those books, but I'm not in any particular hurry. It made me interested, without making me eager.

Also, for a book that started out with desperate masturbation, and went on to a sex scene shortly thereafter, the rest of the 500 pages were remarkably devoid of sexy times. After that beginning, I was looking forward to it being more of a bodice-ripper. Or...what's the male equivalent of a bodice?

At any rate, the first 50 pages notwithstanding, this is more a political intrigue, following Jamie Fraser and Lord John Grey on their quest to bring a military monster to court-martial, and then later, to foil a Jacobite plot.

They travel to Ireland, find their quarry, find themselves hunted, return to England, and fight a duel. The narrative sometimes lacked urgency, but it was entertaining to read.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

*Spoilers Below*

I finished this book over a week ago, as the first read for our local "Books on Tap" book club, and have been delaying writing the review ever since. I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about it, or perhaps that I had so many thoughts that an overriding drive to the review was slow in coming. I've finally decided to give in to that and write a review about how messy this book is, how good some parts of it are, and how frustrating other parts are. The parts where the story is great, and the parts where we rely on a narrator who is, quite frankly, not the smartest.

Although everyone around Mae tells us she is smart, the brightest, and on and on. Perhaps she's bright, although she doesn't in the least really show it. The problem is not the intelligence. It's the total lack of self-reflection. Or outwardly directed reflection. Reflection, of any kind. Heck, if a student who had done well in one of my classes, as apparently she did in her college education, and was this uncritical about everything around them, I would be intensely convinced that I had failed.

This is somewhere where my personal preference for narrators may be showing. Dumb narrators drive me crazy. Unbelievably naive narrators drive me crazy. And uncritical narrators drive me crazy. I realize this is definitely something very personal, but if I'm spending that much time inside someone's head, even if I don't agree with them, I want them to critically engage with the world around them. Otherwise, I want to grab the controls and start steering this goddamn ship.

On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that that's done on purpose. I'm quite sure Eggers can write more intelligent, perceptive characters than this. He has two in the background. They're so far in the background they're almost drowned out, and again, I think he has a point in doing this.

Mind if I take a little detour into Dollhouse? I have long been one of the staunchest defenders of that show. I tell people, when I'm in the midst of my Whedon-evangelism, that to really get the most out of the show, you have to watch it as a pre-apocalyptic show. Screw all this post-apocalyptic zombie nonsense.

(Also, I'd like to say that I'm very sorry to everyone who has had to listen to my long and impassioned sermons about how Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the best show ever, followed closely by everything else, and holy shit has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gotten good. And yes, I know, written by Maurissa Tanchaeroen and Jed Whedon, but it's still close enough it bloody counts. I think you get the point. My love for the Whedonverse is complete and all-consuming and not going away any time soon. Also, the interactions between Hawkeye and Black Widow are the most awesome things about the extremely awesome The Avengers. Sorry again. I have a lot of opinions on this stuff.)


Where was I? Dollhouse. Right. That idea, that we're watching a show that quietly is showing us all the wrong steps, all the bad decisions, all the justifications that led up to the apocalypse (as shown in the unaired episodes). It's fascinating.

That's pretty much what's happening here. That's a neat idea. It's a world that is only a couple of degrees off from our own, and power is being consolidated in the hands of a corporation that masks its own grab for absolute surveillance with the expressed belief that Privacy Is Theft. Now that's a slogan to make all those of us who've read dystopias shudder right there. Good work, Eggers!

But where most dystopias come from the time where the despotic power is well-entrenched and someone, say a fireman, or Winston, or a rogue pig, or a young woman, whatever, rubs up against the strictures they'd never previously considered to be constrictive or fascist, this is, like Dollhouse, in the before times. Where someone could stop the dystopia with the right words at the right moment.

Don't hold your breath.

The dystopia here is not that far off our own world of social media, where quick gratification has replaced reflection for most people, and their lives are more and more full of obligations that social media places on them. I find this both interesting and a bit overblown. I'm certainly on board with worrying about how corporations are mediating our social media interactions, and even concerned when people become too wrapped up in responding to everything.

But the interconnectedness, by itself, not that scary to me. We've always traded information about each other, it is just the scope and the medium that are different this time. Gossip, in the sense of news about each other's lives, that's always been a part of community. It's finding the times to disconnect from community and just be alone that are increasingly missing, and so I am both on board with the worries of this dystopia and a little frustrated by it.

Of course, I've worked in sick workplace cultures, so the first day at that job, even when everyone's being all hunky-dory, the first hints of mandatory fun that appear would have made my antennae wave furiously. Wanting control of more than just the workday is a huge red flag. And then the next day, with the revelation of constant performance surveillance, impossible goals, and bullying the customers into giving you the responses you want? Out the door, slamming it behind me. I've been there, done that. Fuck that shit.

Any time someone tries to mask corporate Big Brother tactics as a friendly competition, or a way to track store numbers (why don't you look at the store numbers then?) or this fun thing we're doing? Out. Run. Gone.

So yeah, I'm a little sensitive. From the first pages, sick feeling in the stomach. This is not healthy.

This is why I'm not a corporate person. I want my non-work life to be my own. Hell, I want most of my work life to be under my own control. And I want to believe in what I'm doing. Which at least the big corporation offers to its non-reflective employees.

So this book made me uneasy, and sometimes it made me frustrated, both with main character and the sometimes overblown fears of social media, but then it equally often made me agree, with the dangers of quick surface thought rather than time to reflect and digest, and the mediation of our social media experience by corporations that definitely have ulterior motives. And add that to interference with the political system, and this became a very scary book.

Still, I'm not entirely convinced. But all dystopias have aspects of hyperbole about them. Underneath that, there are issues Eggers raises here that are serious ones, ones we should reflect on.

Even if the main character kept making me want to throttle her.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I picked this book up not expecting too much - popular Young Adult, likely to be mildly entertaining and all about girl empowerment. (Not that anything's wrong with either of those things.) Instead, I found an excellent dystopian science fiction world that gripped me from beginning to end.

One of Suzanne Collins' major themes that runs throughout the entire series, the mental and physical costs of violence, is displayed to great effect through Katniss, who herself has been damaged by the world she grew up in even before the Hunger Games start. This view of the costs of absolute rule is gradually widened to an entire damaged world, knowingly or unknowingly. Whether it is the stark coal mining town of District 12, the better-valued and provided-for districts, or the hedonistic overindulging of the Capitol, the world Collins' creates is maintained by the violence of the Hunger Games.

Part of the reason this book works so well is its indictment of the symbolic violence of the Hunger Games (and it's non-too-subtle jabs at reality TV) through showing the very personal violence it inflicts on those who actually participate and their loved ones. And the surprising upwellings of humanity in the midst of slaughter.

Katniss herself stands out as a character who is never sure of herself or her world, or even what she stands for. Survival has been her only way of life for so long she can imagine little else. I can only hope the movie does her justice.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris

So, Sookie doesn't actually have sex with anyone in this book. I think I'm a little disappointed.

This was a reread, and I've read this series all out of order, and enjoy them, while forgetting them entirely in between reads. But when I came into this one, and realized at the end that Sookie isn't actually with anyone in this book, I was a little...confounded.

No less than, wait, let's me count, four, five, no, six guys have the hots for her in this one, but she's not actually with any of them. She doesn't sleep with any of them. Although there are some smoochies. And leg-licking. Huh.

That's not what I remember about these books.

I have an odd relationship to this series, in that I started with the next book in the series, number six, and have bounced around like a ping pong ball. Now that I've read most of the first six or seven, I guess I now have a wider canvas to slot in where, exactly, this one comes in the overall scope of things.

And that's where it comes in. Her brother is struggling with his new circumstances, Sookie is sitting on a windfall after taking care of Eric in the previous book (one I've still never read), and boy, is she going to need it.

I do appreciate that grounding of these books, so over the top in other ways, in real concerns, like health insurance and missing work. Although, after she'd just said that she could have paid her hospital bills herself, although they had been paid by another party, it did strain credulity a bit that she was then worried about missing a single shift of work. If you could have paid your hospital bills on the spot, you can take a couple of days off of work on that same money.

At any rate, someone is taking potshots at Bon Temps shifters. And that someone seems to be gunning for Sookie as well. And she is circled by Bill, and Eric, and Alcide, and Sam, and Calvin, and...who was the sixth? I swear I counted six. Oh, wait, Quinn. Right!

So yeah. This is a fine entry in a series I enjoy but am not that attached to. But filled with sexual tension rather than actual sexytimes.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Some prose is merely serviceable, there to move along plot or character - readable, but not in itself worthy of mention. Other prose is like watching light dance on water, glittering and beautiful, an absolute pleasure. And then there is this book, which is like falling into molasses. The prose caught me and held me, making it an almost physical act of the will to wrench my attention away from what I was reading. It wasn't beautiful, but it was powerful, strong, dark, and indelible.

This is not an "issue book." That's a distinction I've been making in my head for a while to describe books that take an issue ripped from the headlines (I'm looking at you, Jodi Picoult, among others), do a small amount of research, probably read a facile article talking about the different ways people react to that issue, form a paper-thin character around each description, and move them across the screen like shadow puppets. There is no depth. No real insight. No one who is believable.

This is not that. Yes, it is about the aftermath of a school shooting. It is written from the perspective of the mother of the boy who did the shooting. But where Jodi Picoult's books (I say blithely, having read one, and sworn never to read one again) are all surface, no depth, this is all depth.

We Need To Talk About Kevin plunges the reader deep into the anger and anguish and guilt and pride and love and hate and confusion of one woman, trying to figure out where, exactly, her own responsibility lies. Where her husband's does. Where her son's does. This book pulls no punches, makes no excuses, grapples with the worst and the best of the human heart. It is a difficult read. It is a powerful read.

Enjoyment is not really the right word for this book. But it is riveting, and powerful, and avoids easy answers. It is worth a read.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

It's been a long while since I've read any Ibsen (and Hedda Gabler was the work of choice in the drama classes I took.)

It's hard to review plays - I read quickly, but I purposely try to stretch books over multiple days so that they have time to sink into my long-term memory. I read this at a gulp.

A Doll's House is the story of Nora, treated as a child by her husband, happy in that role, but carrying around the secret that she borrowed money to take her husband on a trip that his doctors say saved his life. When her secret is threatened with revelation, Nora finds that the action she took with pride and hope has become a morass of legal difficulties and blackmail.

But more than that, it reveals to her deep fissures in her relationship, that her husband is not who she thought he was, that she herself is seen in a moment of crisis as disposable, a mere adjunct to his own personal drama.

This play takes place over a short period of time, a time in which Nora discovers she has been treated as a doll in a dollhouse, given no opportunity to find who she is. It is a quiet plea for women and their ability to be full human beings, despite the obstacles put in their way.

I've never seen A Doll's House in performance, but I think I'd like to.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

The perils of reading books that have some similarities too close together. (Or, at least partly, at the same time.) One of them suffers by comparison. So while Ghostwritten was a strong 4, almost 5 stars, Jitterbug Perfume squeaks into a 4, just barely.

Not that, in tone, Jitterbug Perfume and Ghostwritten have much in common. But they are both books with stories that initially seem unrelated, and later are revealed as interconnected, and both of which incorporate some otherworldly elements.

And Jitterbug Perfume suffers by comparison. It's an unfair comparison, I fully admit that. But there it is.

Jitterbug Perfume is a story of passion, immortality, and beets.

The best perfume makers across the globe find themselves receiving daily deliveries of mysteriously-appearing beets.

Paired with their evolving stories of trying to discover the source of the beets, while trying to make the perfect perfume, is the story of Alobar, a Bohemian king from pre-1000s, who is personally offended by death, and manages to figure out how to say "screw you" in a grand and life-affirming manner. Along the way, he meets a woman in India, and they have sex and breathe deeply across Eurasia.

This novel was funny, and fun, but I doubt it'll stick with me. But if you're looking something fairly light, with a side order of a desperate but enjoyable search for immortality on the side, and digressions about life and the way it could be lived, I would recommend giving this a read.

But, due to pure happenstance in my case, Jitterbug Perfume is linked in my mind to Ghostwritten, and suffers by comparison. Better luck next time!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager

Of all the Edward Eager books, this is probably the one I know least well, the one I don't think I first sat down and read until I was an adult - which means, unfortunately, that it missed out on that golden period where I devoured books as a child, reread them ad nauseam, and now carry them forever with me.

So it's probably not a surprise that this is by far not my favourite Eager book. That spot would have to be held for The Knight's Castle or The Time Garden. And it's not the famil(ies) that tie those books together - these are new characters entirely.

But that isn't to say that it isn't good, and wouldn't be worth a read. If this one had been available in my local library after my grandmother first bought me Half-Magic at her local library book sale, I might have just as fond memories as I do of the others.

So when I sat down to reread this one, I knew I'd read it, but didn't remember it that well. It was a quick enjoyable read, just what I needed after plowing through David Copperfield week after week.

What I do love about this one might also be its weakest point, I haven't quite decided. The magic in Seven-Day Magic is found in a book, and therefore, most of the magic is related to books, from adventures into Oz, into Half-Magic, a Little House on the Prairie-type world, and eventually into a novel one of the children has been writing. Magic in reading, that's an idea I can get behind. On the other hand, that meant they spent most of the book in other people's fictional universes, and didn't add that much to them.

The "rules" of the magic weren't as clear here as they often were in his earlier books. The children talk about having to learn the rules and messing it up - as literate little young 'uns, they know all about magic and how it could work - but it isn't a major plot point in the way it is in the other books. This magic seems much more loose.

The other issue is that, enjoyable as this is, some of it feels like we've seen it before. Helping someone new figure out the Half-Magic rules isn't that interesting when you already know what they are. And the trip to the city to see Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka's father sing on a national TV show, and magically helping him succeed is far too much like the children in The Time Garden going invisibly to see their father's play opening, and magically help him to succeed.

There's a little too much recycled here, but I would still recommend it to people who have already exhausted the rest of his catalogue. But if you haven't, check out the other books first.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Butcher's Hill by Laura Lippman

*Some Spoilers Below*

This was a pretty good mystery, marred by a hasty ending. But after reading that dreadful Patricia Cornwell book a week or so ago, this was just the palate cleanser I needed for that genre.

I wasn't expecting too much when I opened it, and I've never read any Laura Lippman before, but from the beginning, the characters were interesting, the mysteries engaging, and the book moved quickly from scene to scene.

The theme of the book centers around children who go into the system - the detective, Tess Monaghan, is hired by one client to find the daughter she gave up for adoption, while the other client went to jail for shooting and killing a boy who was in foster care. This character, Luther Beale, claims he wants to try to make some kind of peace with the other children who were present the night Donnie Moore was shot. Tess believes him. And then those children start to turn up dead.

The problem I did have with the book is that the epilogue is far too rushed. I have this theory, that I just came up with, that an epilogue can add one major piece of information per character. More, and you needed another chapter earlier to relay one of those pieces of information or to foreshadow it, or something. But in the epilogue, too much comes out, it's all too fast, and I wasn't given time to process any of it.

For example: *Major Spoilers*

Okay, Jackie did decide to be in contact with her daughter, fine.

But wait, the entire Monaghan family had welcomed her into the fold after they found out she had had a child at sixteen by the patriarch of the family? (It's not that this couldn't happen, it just can't happen off the page and be convincing.)

And she is in the process of adopting the infant and orphaned sister of Donnie Moore?

And is something going on between her and the cop?

Some of this needed foreshadowing.

And so we find out Donnie Moore's foster parents were gaming the system for money. Fine.

But they were also gun running?

And acting as Fagin, sending out their foster children to steal for them?

It's too much of an infodump, and some of it really needed to be in the main narrative, or hinted at in the main narrative. As it stands, the book downloads all that and more, in the last 5 pages. These are important enough developments to be part of the denouement, not the epilogue.

While this wasn't the greatest mystery in the world, it was solid. Lippman doesn't have the style of the truly great mystery writers, but I enjoyed Butchers Hill, and will probably read more of her books.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

I feel like this series is developing nicely. The second book feels slightly more accomplished than the first. But two books in, isn't it about time to state clearly what's going on here? It's not a deal-breaker, because I enjoy very much this literary steampunky world, but I've stuck it out for two books. What are Les Lezards? (Yes, it's been broadly hinted at. But I'm ready for answers, not just hints. If something major had been revealed each book, but reserved part of the secrets, that would have been fine. It's substituting the hints for any real reveals that makes me a bit impatient.)

Still, this series is getting better as it goes. This one is set in Paris, and therefore brings in a whole whack of French literary figures, from Mme. de Winter from The Three Musketeers to Victor Frankenstein to the Phantom of the Opera. Along with Tom Thumb and the Marquis de Sade. I truly do have fun with spot-the-literary-reference. I'm not sure that it adds anything to the stories themselves except to make me pleased with myself for being well-read, but it is a main feature of the stories.

And, in a massive bit of improvement, none of the literary characters struck me as wrong as Irene Adler being on the side of order in The Bookman did. Although, to tell true, I've only seen movie adaptations of The Three Musketeers, but I liked what Tidhar did with that character.

Milady is the operative of a secret Parisian council, probably dedicated to preventing the lizards from gaining the same toehold on France that they have on England. But their motives may also be more suspect. She is called to investigate a corpse of a man who seems to have been given a c-section, and something removed. Her investigation takes her through the sewers of London, and into robosexual subcultures, and darned if she doesn't keep coming across bodies that just won't stay dead.

She also keeps running across Chinese operatives who are in Paris trying to retrieve whatever that guy was carrying in his stomach, but the Council wants it too. It's broadly hinted at as to what they think they could do with it if they got it, but this is one place just a smidge more clarity might have helped. I'd even have accepted monologuing.

The Phantom of the Opera is an operative too, but he seems to have been infected by the grey plague that is making corpses still walk, and he was never that stable anyway. So he's killing people left right and centre, and Milady is bound and determined to stop him, but the Council tells her to let him alone. Little people don't concern them.

She can't let it alone though, and this leads to a chase across the Atlantic to Vespuccia (apparently Amerigo gave his other name to the continent in this world) and the Chicago World's Fair. Before this happens, though, she gets a piece of the statue everyone is chasing lodged in her eye, and it starts whispering curiously scientific sentences to her, about finding its way home. Turns out the Phantom has one of his own, as does a Chinese man, and hey, les Lezards may want to use the statue to open a portal to...their own world? Seems likely, but more hinted at than said.

So all in all, I love the world-building. I enjoy the characters from literature. But after two books, I don't think I'm being overly demanding when I say that I'd like some answers. Not all the answers, but some. Seriously. I've stuck it out this far. It's getting to where withholding answers has gone past the point of creating tension, and into the part where it bugs me.

The Borgia Betrayal by Sara Poole

Wait, this is a mystery? Really? How does that work? It seemed like straight-up, not very good historical fiction to me.

What is the mystery?

Anyway, getting beyond my bafflement at reading the name of the series, we get to my biggest issue with this one.


I started exclaiming out loud every time the main character told me how I must be judging her, or must be feeling this way about her or must be thinking this thing. There were a lot of exclamations. I had to avoid reading this in public. It might have been embarrassing.

Look, main character-and-by-extension-author, you don't get to dictate how people react to your words. You just don't. And by constantly trying to predict them, you just irritate the fuck out of me. Mostly because you were almost always wrong. I was never the Miss Judgey-judgey, on-my-moral-high-horse you seemed to assume your readers would be, and thus had to apologize to about every 20 pages. Have your character be herself, with any of the complexity that you want to give her, and let your readers draw their own conclusions. They'll all be different anyway. But every time she apologized for her "darkness" and knew I was judging her, I was really judging Sara Poole. And not kindly.

Also, what darkness? She has an uncontrollable urge to kill, which she can totally control all the time, except the two times she was being attacked and killed in self-defense? Yeah, that's really uncontrollable. Yes, she's a poisoner, yadayadayada, but if you're going to have a main character who is a poisoner, fucking own it. And don't make this "darkness" that sets her apart from all other people in the world be expressed in killing in self-defense, and then, in the flush of adrenaline, not being sorry she did it. That's not sociopathy. That's...I don't know what it is, but it doesn't work.

And she's not a sociopath. From all the apologizing, you'd think so, but no. She is full of all the emotions. She is connected to and affectionate about all of the people. She just has idle thoughts of killing some of them. If that's what makes you dark and evil, well, most of people I know must be pretty damn dark.

Did I mention she's the Pope's Poisoner? Tell me that wouldn't have made a more entertaining title. Not a good title, per se, but funnier. She's the poisoner to Borgia. She's sleeping with Cesare. She's friends with Lucretia. They're all "dark" in the same way she's dark. They talk a good game, but they act in surprisingly predictable, not really all that bad, ways.

This is not a great book. But it wouldn't have gotten two stars if there hadn't been all that apologizing. You want to write about a female poisoner to the Pope, write about a female poisoner to the Pope. Stop saying you're sorry.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sabriel by Garth Nix

As you may imagine, people recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. So for a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. I decided I needed to be a little more flexible. So I started a new list from which to pick of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This is a very solid young adult fantasy. It's got some aspects that are unlike anything I've seen, and others that are more familiar, but well done. The characters are interesting, and the evolving relationships, thankfully, more subtle than a lot of more recent books. And a focus on necromancy for a book meant for teenagers? Interesting....

For the magic in this book revolves around the dead. There seem to be other sorts of magic, but they are background, and this is foreground. The fantasy world exists right beside our own, separated by a wall that reminds me of nothing so much as Hadrian's wall. In our time period, it seems to be about the 1950s. Across the wall, time does not run at the same pace, and the phases of the moon are different. The powers that be seem to know about the magical kingdom on t'other side of the wall, and man it accordingly, with soldiers. Some who have been trained in Charter Magic, the magic of the kingdom.

I'm a little fuzzy on the Charters, still. They are filled out somewhat through the book, but not entirely explained. It's not the type of lack of explanation that drives me batty, though. I get the feeling it's coming. I can wait.

But I was talking about the dead, wasn't I? Right, necromancy! For the land behind the wall, more and more dead stalk the land, occupying the bodies of the living. And there seems to be an evil force behind them. Into this comes our young adult protagonist, refreshingly, a female character. The most refreshing thing is that swooning or falling desperately in love is not her main consideration. (Okay, yes, maybe she does fall in love, but it happens slowly.)

Sabriel (My husband was convinced this was a book about angels, given the way the name is constructed. It's not.) is brought up on our side of the wall, at a girl's school nearby, where she is taught magic as well as more practical things. Near her 18th birthday, she is sent a message that her father is missing, and knows she must cross the wall to look for him. Once there, and the going is rough, she discovers that not only was he her father, and a strange sort of necromancer, but that he had an official title, which has now passed to her. This is Abhorsen, and it means the one necromancer who holds the duty of banishing the dead instead of raising them.

Now Sabriel must embark on a journey to find her father's fallen body, and figure out what being the Abhorsen means. She brings a spirit masquerading as a cat with her, named Mogget, and frees a man frozen in time and place, who calls himself Touchstone, and belongs to a much earlier age.

The middle part of the book felt a bit meandering, but I think it was to teach this new world to both Sabriel and the reader. The pace of the reveals is good, but the journey could be a bit more tightly plotted. But as the danger grows, so does the urgency.

The magic is particularly dark in this book, and that's a nice change. There is the suggestion of nicer magic about, but it is certainly not the focus. It's dangerous, it's chancy, and it involves death. For all that, the book is not too intense for young adult readers, and i would recommend it. It didn't enchant me, but it was very enjoyable.

Trunk Music by Michael Connolly

This is my first Michael Connelly, and thus, obviously, my first Harry Bosch mystery. And, as always, I throw continuity to the wind and start somewhere in the middle! Who needs beginnings?

I don't know why I was suspicious of this author. Maybe just how often he's appeared on best seller lists, which, given my recent run-ins with bestsellers (I'm looking at you, Sarah's Key!) starts me off from a position of skepticism.

Maybe it's because, like James Patterson, Connelly has appeared in one of the poker games on Castle. I like Castle, but I'm not hugely fond of Patterson, so I was unfairly lumping them together.

This is not in any way like a James Patterson book. What it is is a very solid police mystery, with some sidebars on evidence tampering, suspicion of police misdeeds and actual police misdeeds, and how one can often look like the other.

Harry Bosch is just back on the job (I don't know why) after an enforced absence, and the first case that comes his way involves a corpse in a trunk, shot at close range. Is this a mob hit? Organized Crime says no, but they say it suspiciously quickly. Victim went to Vegas often, and may have been into something shady there.

The mystery itself is very competently executed, and sufficient twisty for my satisfaction. I enjoyed Bosch's character, and in particular, the relationship he knows he shouldn't pursue but does anyway. The police politics rang true, although I dream of the day when those who try to make sure that police officers aren't abusing their authority aren't automatically villains with massive sticks up their collective asses. Because, dude, it's not like police don't sometimes abuse their authority, and it's not like we don't need some oversight of that stuff.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Fer-de-Lance/League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

To be precise, 3 stars for Fer-de-Lance and 4 for The League of Frightened Men.

Nero Wolfe books are always a great pleasure to read, and the wonder is that it's taken me so long to get back to them. There were always a bunch around when I was growing up, but they aren't something I've returned to as an adult as much as I have to, say, John D. MacDonald. As mysteries, they're entertaining, but much of the pleasure lies in the world Rex Stout creates for his main character, the insular haven to which people must bring him problems, and which he rarely ever leaves.

Of course, for that he has Archie Goodwin, womanizing leg-man, who is sent out on what seem to him nonsensical errands that somehow always lead Nero Wolfe to the bad guy. Not that Wolfe is interested in catching the bad guy for the sake of justice. Oh, no. For that, son, he's got to get paid. In fact, in both these books, Wolfe makes deals that, if they panned out the way they were offered, would shield a murderer from justice, as long as Wolfe gets his money.

Of course, it never works out that way, and he and Archie Goodwin teach the cops how to do their business, in between daily orchid-tending and eating world-class food.

Of the two, Fer-de-Lance, the first ever published, is decidedly the weaker, as the murderer is revealed fairly early on, and the snake doesn't make an appearance till near the end. When the blurb on the back promises me that in the midst of an investigation that some unknown adversary will send Nero Wolfe a deadly snake, I wanted that snake earlier, dammit! And to come with some mystery about who had sent it.

The second, The League of Frightened Men, was far better. The mystery started to click, and the twists were less obvious. Threatening (and terrible) poems are sent to a group of men, claiming responsibility for unsolvable deaths, and threatening vengeance. The men are certain they know who's behind it. But can Wolfe find the proof?

Well, of course he can. What were you expecting? The real mystery is, what could possibly entice Nero Wolfe to leave his home voluntarily?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

I don't get it.

I like to flatter myself that I'm not a particularly unperceptive reader, but when it comes to this book, I don't get it. I don't get anything about it. I don't hate it, but I have no idea what this book is about. I have no idea why it won so many prizes.

I don't get it.

(Disclaimer: I read a good deal of this while nervously watching over a cat that had had two seizures in a day, so part of the not getting it might be related to sleep deprivation and short attention span.)

Is it about post-9/11 New York? Sort of? Not really?

The New York that has been colonized by immigrants, who have their own distinctive subcultures, but come together over cricket? And why does the back of this book call it post-colonial, anyway?

Is it about a man who...well, who just drifts through his own life, plays cricket, drives his friend around, and goes to London twice monthly to visit his estranged wife and their son?

The book is so detached from its characters that I have no idea what it's about.

And the female characters seem to be there to be irrational, erratic, accusatory, or asleep. Or to want an s/m scene with a guy they just picked up off the street.

I don't get it. I just don't.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of a John Sayles movie. (That's high praise - he's my favourite director.) With the sprawling but interlocking cast, and the way it moved around in time, to show us many different characters at different moments of their lives, younger and older (not always in that order), A Visit From The Goon Squad seemed almost...cinematic.

And yet it unfolded, at times effortlessly, and although I never really knew what would happen next, I was more than happy to be along for the ride. (Maybe that's what reminds me of John Sayles - it's the same feeling I had while watching Lone Star for the first time.)

The theme of aging is intertwined with music, and being young, and making whatever music you wanted, to the business of music, and the interference of the world around you, to growing old and maybe, finally, making the music you want (if you're lucky) or wondering why you never got around to making that music at all (if you're not.) What selling out means, and what being authentic means, and whether authenticity is anything at all.

To describe the book is almost impossible. There are a few characters we return to over and over, but the book keeps looping out to show their teenage tribes, then back to show their children, and often, in other stories, what happened to those teenagers as they grew up. Who survived. Who faltered. Whether or not that faltering was irrevocable. (In this book, it almost never was.)

For this book, I think you need to have a high tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to just ride along and see what pleasures Egan has in store. If you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

As you may imagine, people recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. So for a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. I decided I needed to be a little more flexible on that one. So I started a new list from which to pick, of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Steph.

This is the second Ken Follett book I've read, and it thankfully avoids the major flaw of The Pillars of the Earth, the one that irritated me so consistently. There is no absolutely cartoonishly evil villain who adds nothing to the story except by being a horrible person and wanting to rape everyone.

I have little patience for such characters. Once you've established that they're horrible, where do you go? There can be no development, no changes, no different menace. And when your menace is all about rape? That's not that fun for the better part of a thousand pages.

This is a major step forward. There is no such thin master villain here. There are some other issues with the book, but none of that magnitude, and so I enjoyed it quite a lot more. It's an easy read, for one, for all that it is also the better part of a thousand pages.

It is the story of the Great War, told through a Russian family, a German family, an English family, and an American family. Well, family is a bit of a misnomer. This is the story of four or five young men, and makes occasional references to their parents, their sweethearts, their children. The English setting gets two more complete female characters, and the Russian and American settings about half of one each. (They're not in the book much.) So although this promises to be a family saga over multiple books, for this one at least, it is mostly focused on the young male experience, although there is quite a bit about female suffrage in England.

The story covers the lead-up to the war, the war itself, and the immediate aftermath. It's fairly interesting, and there were times when it seemed like Follett had done his research well. But then we came to the part I actually do know inside out and backwards (military history is not that topic), and he got it wrong, and so now I'm not sure.

It's a minor point, but it's mine, so:  in Toronto in 1920, there is no way in hell you could go around perfectly legally buying liquor. The Ontario Temperance Act was in force from 1916 to 1927, and buying alcohol was just as illegal here as 18th Amendment made it in the states.

Yes, I know there was massive smuggling of liquor over the border. This was due to the division of powers in Canada. Prohibiting the sale of alcohol was a provincial matter. Prohibiting the manufacture of alcohol was in federal jurisdiction, and except for a very brief period near the end of the war, the federal government declined to do so. So, we have the strange situation where it was perfectly legal to manufacture alcoholic beverages in Canada, but it was absolutely illegal to sell them. Hence why there was a supply to be sold illicitly in Canada and smuggled over the border.

The point is, walking around Toronto and going into a liquor store (post-prohibition invention, by the way) and buying cases of whiskey perfectly legally and openly? In 1920? Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Pedantic research nitpicking over. For the areas I don't know that well, nothing jumped out at me as glaringly wrong. But when we got to the stuff I do know, problems. On the other hand, this was recommended to me by a First World War historian, so maybe his military research is better than his prohibition research.

But here's my main issue with the book. As I said, it's very readable, it's fairly interesting, but if one of the representative young men was shown to have caused a major turning point in their country's history once more, I was going to throw something. Forrest Gump works by having him present at turning points, and even that doesn't work that well. This one has the young men actually being the power behind the scenes, present at and causing major events. It strains credulity, to say the least.

Let's take the Russian main character, for instance. His father is hung by Russian nobles for poaching. He is with his mother at the gates of the Winter Palace on Bloody Sunday. His mother is killed. He is in the first Russian military unit to see service in the Great War. He is the first soldier to lead a revolt in the Russian revolution. He dictates the first pronouncement of the new government. He meets Lenin at the station when he re-enters Russia. He warns Lenin to get out of town when things become difficult. He's the one who brings Lenin back to the Parliament to cement the Bolshevik victory.

Really? I mean, really? It's kind of okay to want all those things in there. It's even okay to want your own characters somehow involved. But for one individual character, utterly unnoticed by history, apparently to be instrumental in so many things? It isn't poignant, it's just irritating. Similar massive improbabilities cluster around each of the other nationally representative young men. At times, I wanted to investigate this supernatural phenomenon.

It's far too much. The stories themselves are interesting, but shoehorning your five young men into EVERY. SINGLE. EVENT. of the First World War is not only massively unlikely, it's ludicrous.

If you can overlook that, then this is a fun read. I mostly enjoyed it, although it got to the eyerolling stage pretty quickly every time a historical issue came up and somehow one of our five young men was right in the middle of it. Again.

Breathing for a Living by Laura Rothenberg

I always feel very strange reading this type of book. Like a voyeur, I worry. Wanting to hear about someone else's difficulties with life so I can sit back and sigh and think "wow, that's terrible. Glad I don't have to deal with that!" Illness as entertainment.

On the other hand, if someone has a story to be told, and wants to tell it, does that change things? How would Laura Rothenberg want her story to be received?

And then, how do you judge such a story? If I'm overly critical about someone's account of their terminal illness, well, bully for me. Congratulations. On the other hand, does something get a by?

Luckily, at least, the latter wasn't a problem. I have read at least one account by someone with CF before, when I was a teenager. It read very much like what it was, a teenager's diary. This, while it has a diary feel sometimes, is more accomplished. Rothenberg was a writer with some chops, and is able to look at what she's going through both from the inside, while still having the perspective to think about things more abstractly.

I didn't find the medical details opaque, even though I might not understand every term. They were hard to hear, though, sometimes. That we can go through so much, no, that one person can go through so much.

I'm not sorry I read this when it popped up on one of the many lists I choose books from. I'm still a little uneasy, though. But I am left with one of the two great truths that I discovered during my father's time of dying. (This comes from Niels Bohr, who apparently said: "There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.")

Our bodies are so strong.
Our bodies are so fragile.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle by Dorothy Gilman

I love the Mrs. Pollifax book. They are, as I've said before, some of my favourite comfort reads. When I need an old friend, this senior citizen CIA spy is one of my favourite companions.

This particular Mrs. Pollifax book, however, is not one of the best. The characters she meets don't jump out at me the way they do in other books, and Mrs. Pollifax herself feels a little flat.

Was Dorothy Gilman trying to figure out how to deal with Mrs. Pollifax now that she's married? If she was, I thankfully know it gets better from here. And I love Cyrus, her new husband.

In this book, on their holiday to Thailand, after Emily Pollifax is recovering from her most difficult mission yet, she is asked to do a simple exchange and then enjoy herself. Of course, nothing goes right, her contact is dead, and Cyrus is kidnapped. The rest of the novel is the search for Cyrus through the wilds.

Mrs. Pollifax has two very endearing qualities. She is genuine and makes friends everywhere she goes, and she is persistent and comes up with inventive solutions. Where this book falls apart is that we still get the former, but lack the latter.

She is just as good as ever at collecting friends along the way, although those friends do not stand out the way they have in other books. But, despite the fact that she's trying to find her husband, Emily is pretty much along for the ride. She herself isn't figuring out ways to help Cyrus. Other people are doing that for her. When she meets a mysterious man out in the jungle who ends up poisoned, she gets to wait with him while others go for help.

In short, she isn't the resourceful, dogged Mrs. Pollifax I know and love. She's still friendly, but she's not thinking.

And so, while this is still entertaining, it's one of my least favourite Mrs. Pollifax books.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This was quite enjoyable, and another book in the "I liked it but didn't love it" file. Revelation Space is a sprawling trip through time (in only one direction) through a universe filled with unknown and unknowable aliens, human factions, and a dead world, killed aeons ago by a solar flare that might or might not have been related to the spacefaring contingent of that world - according to the main character, Dan Sylveste, at least. No one else believes him.

The timelines, though, confused the heck out of me at the start of a book, as a chapter would start with a date, follow one of the three major groups for a while, then mid-chapter switch to another group, to events that could not be happening at the same time as the chapter heading. Eventually I decided to just absolutely ignore the stated dates, and then I found the entire story made sense.

On Resurgam, Dan Sylveste continues to investigate an archaeological dig related to the Amarantin, who Dan believes to have achieved spaceflight before their world died (or was killed?), with reckless disregard to life and limb. At least until a coup overthrows him (and I was never entirely sure why this archaeologist who had no apparent interest in politics was in charge of the colony anyway), and he is imprisoned for years, with only a simulation of his father and an intrepid reporter writing his lifestory for company.

On a lighthugger ship, a crew of "Ultras" - humans who have embraced technological modification - is looking for Dan Sylveste, as their Captain has succumbed to a technological plague, and Dan managed to cure him once before.

But to get to Resurgam, they need to flesh out their crew, as one member had recently gone insane, babbling about a "Sun Stealer," and to do so take on board, unwittingly, an infiltrator - Khouri, ex-soldier, whose husband is being held captive by the enigmatic Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle has one job for Khouri - to kill Dan Sylveste.

The story moves along nicely, the details are extremely interesting, but the author did occasionally fall prey to a trick I hate - having characters discover important information, and react to how important it is, but withholding it from the readers. It's false drama.

But the revelations in Revelation Space, when they come, are satisfying, speculating on one answer to Fermi's Paradox - namely, where the hell is everyone?

I will probably read more Alastair Reynolds if it crosses my path, but it wasn't quite good enough for me to run out and hunt down some more.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

I don't know, guys. I just don't know. I read the first book in this series, and was slightly baffled by the reviewers that called it the darkest fantasy EVAR. It's dark, sure, but it didn't seem over-the-top dark, or particularly unpleasant. There wasn't anything that squicked me, and the world didn't seem particularly hopeless. Sure, things were dire. Sure, characters were not pure bastions of morality. Complexity is good! Sure, there was violence and sex. None of these things seemed over the top. So while I didn't love the first book, I certainly enjoyed it enough to move on to the second one here.

But this time? I just found it a slog. I'm not outraged or squicked or in any state that provokes extreme emotional reaction. I'm a little bit bored. The grit this time was a little wearing - how about some contrast? Grit is fine, but life ain't all grit, either. A nice mix, maybe? But since this was mostly the story of how an army gets massacred, a city is lost, and a group of adventurers travel across a continent, it was just...I don't know. I'm having a hard time mustering any enthusiasm.

Blame George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie. That may be why I'm overreacting to the "people travelling" thing. Martin has way overused it, to the point where if someone sets off on a journey, and we're spending time with them, I know the characters will never arrive where they're going. So, in consequence, when you give me one of three interlocking stories that collectively take up 650 pages, of people just travelling and occasionally getting attacked, the fireside stories are not enough to make it more interesting. The relationship that develops between Ninefingers and Ferro is almost enough, but other than that, my attention wandered.

 The story of the incompetence of generals is likewise a bit interesting, but the lack of colour palette washes it out, too. There were parts I enjoyed, but quite a bit (yet again, of people travelling) made me tune out. Contrast, people. Contrast. Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora books eviscerate me because I love these characters, and then horrible things happen to them. And the horrible things are more horrible because of the relative lightness that precedes them.

The third storyline, of Glokta the Inquisitor in a city about to fall, that was probably the most interesting of the three. Because there were brief moments of hope, not necessarily that he could save the city, but that he could do something effective and make some difference. Sure, he was morally compromised. Sure, the forces were overwhelming. But there was the allowance for small good things floating in a sea of bad things. And this is in a city that's about to fall to a massacring force, where the previous Inquisitor disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and everyone's out to kill him. If you can do contrast in that kind of surrounding, you can do it anywhere.

So, where do I go from here? Is there enough to keep me reading? We'll have to see where I am next time this author rolls around on my friend's Kindle. Maybe, maybe not. If I do read the next one, I might need to force myself to sit down and start reading. It's not the grit of grimdark I don't like. It's not the complicated morality. It's not the sex and violence. It's that it failed to capture me. If I'm being blunt, I was often bored. But it's not terrible. The story is passable. The characters are okay. It's just a little bit monotone.

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Little Princes was interesting and entertaining and I enjoyed reading it. Yet it didn't grab me on a deeper level than that. As a narrator, Conor Grennan is funny and self-deprecating. I would be sad to hear that the cause that he's espousing is hinky in any way, although after recent events in the area of books written to promote charities, I'm wary about that. No sign of any of that from an internet search, though.

Conor Grennan volunteered for three months in an orphanage in Nepal. At least, that was the plan, the do-gooder excuse to then spend the rest of the year travelling the world for fun. But then he went back. And again. It becomes a personal crusade to find seven children he had discovered had been trafficked and whom he had promised would be safe - only to find that by the time the home that could take them in got there, they'd been spirited away.

That this began not because of a lofty ideal, but because of seven specific children was very interesting, and the lengths to which Conor and his colleague at the orphanage(s), Farid, went to to find those seven children and bring them to safety. Also interesting were hearing about the difficulties not only finding the parents, but in actually reuniting the families over the long term. These parents had paid great sums of money to get their children out of a dangerous area, and, they thought, into schooling and being well taken care of. From these best of intentions, Kathmandu had become populated by these children, used and misused by the traffickers in various ways.

Little Princes was interesting, and I'm not sorry I read it, but it never achieved that next level as a reading experience.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey is an unexpectedly devastating book. Funny as hell, yes, but with a creeping sense of horrors lurking just beneath the surface, and when they strike, well, they were even more awful than I'd been anticipating.

In the world Fforde creates, your place is society is determined by what colour you can see, and how much of it. The Greys are the working-class/serfs, and from there, social strata go up through the ROY G. BIV colour rainbow. Heavily hierarchical, your position is fixed at the time you take the Ishihara, the colour perception exam.

And the rest of society is heavily (and hilariously) regulated as well. No new spoons may be made, leading to a spoon black market. All towns must be on constant alert against the threat of ball lightning and swans. Ostriches do not exist. If you see one, it's Apocryphal, so obviously you don't see it.

In this world, Eddie Russett and his father are dispatched to East Carmine, his father to replace the local swatchman (read: doctor), and Eddie, to do a chair census, as punishment for a minor prank. Once there, Eddie is attracted by the nose of a cute grey servant, who threatens to detach parts of his anatomy if he so much as mentions her nose. Or does anything else.

While Fforde is setting up his surreal world, small daubs of what it would take to make this society run keep cropping up. As someone says near the end, when you set up a society to be long-term, rather than fair, any deviation from Munsell's Rules can get you sent to Reboot.

This is a hilarious dystopia, which is also horrifying. Just trust me, it can be both.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1

To tell the truth, I'm not really sure what version of this I read. It was on the kindle I still have on long-term loan from a friend (thanks again, Amy!), and I'm not going to wade through to try to figure out which one exactly it is. I read some of Mark Twain's autobiography.

And it's a lot like being at a family reunion, listening to an interesting but very meandering relative tell you all about his life. And whether that sounds like fun or hell to you may indeed indicate how you'd feel about this book. I would actually enjoy it, and I enjoyed this. Twain, as I am in no way the first to say, can turn a phrase like nobody's business. He's witty, he's caustic, and he has a cat named Lazy who rides around on his shoulder sleeping.

Twain apparently decided that writing a memoir chronologically would be boring to write, and ended up taking as much time to write as it did to live. So he decided to try something different - to dictate on whatever he felt like dictating on on a particular day, and so these stories follow a daisy chain of reminiscences, and as he finishes one, he starts on another, and they are in no way in order.

It's a little strange at time, and sometimes the patter lags, but I love Twain's writing style, and I enjoy hearing his stories, even about when they're about wanting an inventor's nuts in a...what was it? It wasn't a vice. Something similar and painful.

Much of this book is about his deceased daughter Susy, and her own memoir of her father. There's a great deal of a father commenting on his daughter's childhood biography of him, and then spinning yarns.

Also, in this edition, whichever it is, about his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, and the vagaries of renting a villa in Italy.

Hopefully this will give you an idea of whether or not it is for you. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I can imagine that it might have irritated others to no end. I look forward to future volumes myself, though.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

*Major Spoilers Ahead*

Before I Go To Sleep is okay. The writing is nicely tense, and Watson does a good job of creating a sense of foreboding as the reader discovers what's going on at the same pace as the narrator. The book feels a little gimmicky, but the writing isn't bad.

The main character in this book has the kind of amnesia where your short-term memories disappear every time you go to sleep, and never make it to long-term storage. Or at least, aren't accessible there. She's 20 years older than she remembers, and wakes up every morning next to a man named Ben who says he's her husband.

And every day, her doctor calls and tells her where her journal is, so she can see what work she's been doing to recover her memories. But she keeps the journal hidden, and the front page has scrawled on it "Don't Trust Ben."

So it's unsettling to read, but not the sort of unsettling that crawls into your brain and nests there. I finished this a couple of days ago, and can't honestly say I've given it a thought since then. It's pop fiction, and there's nothing deeper.

And that brings me to the ending, which quite frankly broke my willing suspension of disbelief, in that we're told things about one character's psychology that make all of that character's previous actions unlikely, to say the least. At the end of the book, we're told that the man who has been masquerading as Ben can't deal with the unexpected, or with complications. However, the entire previous part of the book has been about him improvising, keeping ahead of the main character as she poses unexpected challenges to the life he has created for them. These two things can't be simultaneously true.

While I was willing to buy into this fairly slight thriller until that point, this incongruity completely broke any sense of suspense. So this is a fairly well-crafted thriller, with a huge hole in the last 30 pages.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

*Minor Spoilers Ahead*

A month or so ago, I was bemoaning the fact that my local library has an incredible lack of Lois McMaster Bujold books. They only have very spotty coverage of the Vorkosigan series. So my attempts to read it have been mostly stymied. A few days later, a package showed up on my door.  A friend of mine from the other side of the Atlantic had bought me a whole whack of the Vorkosigan books. It was just about the best surprise package ever. Books! Books I wanted to read! And a very thoughtful gesture from a very good friend. Thank you again, Nele!

So I settled down to read the first book in an omnibus with warm fuzzy feelings, and was not disappointed. I'd read a book further in the series, so I knew about Mark, but, of course, not the details about where he had come from. Knowing more or less how it came out did not spoil the book for me - in fact, it made it more interesting. How do we get from here to there? That's often far more interesting than what twists are coming up next.

And hey, we finally get to see Earth! And things finally move forward with Elli Quinn! (Although, given that the later book I've read was A Civil Campaign, that raises entirely different here to there questions.) Miles and the Dendarii fleet show up at Earth, looking to get resupplied, and secretly, funded by the Barrayaran government. But the attache on earth seems more than a little suspicious of Miles in both his guises, either as himself, or as the Admiral of the Dendarii.

There are also enemy forces on Earth, both the Cetagandans and a shadowier conspiracy. Miles and Admiral Naismith both appearing around the same time on the same planet risks blowing Miles' cover, and yet, it keeps being necessary. So Miles spins a story for the press about the Admiral being his clone. And as soon as that happened, I winced. Telling the lie that is actually sort of the truth tends to make conspiracies edgy.

Because, of course, someone has cloned Miles. In hopes of replacing him and using that replacement for nefarious purposes. But what is most interesting about this are a couple of themes it raises. Family, for one. Raised by a Betan mother, Miles knows immediately that a clone brother is still a brother, with all the problems that might raise. But he can't reject Mark, and his mother would be outraged if he didn't look out for his little brother, even though they've only just met and Mark is trying to kill him. This idea of family, the bonds that are there immediately, even if the other person is unaware of them, is interesting. Mark, of course, believes this not in the slightest.

The other aspect that interested me is the idea of loyalty, personal, familial, or to a cause. And what happens when a cause becomes moribund, but there are still fanatics hanging on. I'm not going into details here, but the struggle between Mark's creator and those around him, is very well done.

And, of course, Miles and Quinn finally give in to certain...desires, and that leads to complications. Not least an argument about which Miles is the real Miles, which I can see causing real problems between them down the line. It's a good subplot, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out. Or doesn't, as the case may be.

Of course, there's always Miles, trying to juggle identities and responsibilities, with a little brother suddenly added to the latter. A very enjoyable entry into the series.

Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

This book starts off with elegant prose, beautiful description, and subtle drama. Then, about 100 pages from the end, it devolves into melodrama, as horrible events are thrown ungracefully and willy-nilly at the page. The end managed to partially suck me in again, but that intervening time had put a real dent in my enjoyment of the book.

Broken Paradise centers around two cousins in Cuba during the revolution, one of whom leaves with her family to go to the United States, and one of whom stays. It is an elegiac poem to a Cuba that is as much memory as fact. It is about the difficulty of being an expatriate, and the ways you remember the land you fled. It is about the worst of Castro's regime.

It was, for a while, a complex vision of life in Cuba. And then that fell apart. It's not that I minded what happened, it was the ham-handed way that a previously elegant author tried to stuff in one more tragedy after another. They weren't handled well, and felt forced. One or two tragic events might have worked, four or five were too many, and badly managed.

Nora has left for the United States, but will never leave Cuba in her heart. Alicia, her golden-haired cousin, stayed, for the love of a man, and suffers. Both suffer - Nora metaphorically, Alicia literally.

And it is frustrating because for a while, this book was so good, so quietly sad, so evocative. And then it felt forced. And I felt frustrated. While the ending managed to tug at my emotions despite the previous events, it wasn't enough to redeem this one.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

"From the Ocean's Depths" by Sewell Peaslee Wright

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

This sentence may tell you everything you need to know about this story and the writing style:

"Sea-bronzed men, with hard, flat muscles and fearless eyes; ready guns slapping their thighs as they–– "

Should I go elsewhere, leave you two alone? Ah yes, another story where the underlying sexual tension lies less between the men and the beautiful white, pale mermaid with tawny hair, and more between the men themselves. These are always fun, although there generally comes a point where I wish they'd just admit their attraction and leave the mermaid at the bottom of the pool.

But hey! The scientists aren't crazy amoral madmen in this one! They're even kind of the hero!

So here's the whole sordid story. One scientist, on the verge of finishing his thought transference devices, takes a walk by the ocean. There, he sees a woman washed up on shore, and carries her home, where she wakes up, darts away, and dives into his salt-water pool, and starts breathing again. (That seems like an awfully long time to have gone without breathing, but what do I know?)

She keeps attacking him when he tries to get into the pool to talk to her, and also his manservant, and he hypothesizes it's because he and his manservant are too "swarthy," and calls his whitest friend to come over to talk to her.

I'm not kidding. The mermaid is literally waiting for a white enough man to approach her.

Once the white-enough friend arrives, the scientist has him put on his thought transference device, and shows how it works. It means the white-enough friend learns that his swarthy scientist friend thinks of him like this:

"Very nice old chap, Carson, impressive even in his bathing suit."

And suddenly, we're less concerned with the mermaid again!

In a stunning turn of irrationality (perhaps caused by awkward attraction?) the scientist tells the friend to get the mermaid to put on the helmet, but for him to keep his head above water, because: 

“The salt water would short the antennae, you see. Try to get her to wear one, and then you get your head out of water, and don yours."

Wait, wait, wait. Why would it short out your antennae and not hers? Your science is bad. Or just strange. Or plot-protected. I'm going with bad.

At any rate, the white-enough friend (or as I could call him, nice old chap Carson) goes down to talk to the mermaid, who does not try to murder him, because apparently the whole "waiting for a white guy" hypothesis is true. Strangely, she doesn't swim. She walks on the floor of the pool. In fact, in the upcoming thought transference, it appears all the merpeople walk on the floor of the ocean, and do not swim. That's a lot of wasted space. And would really put you places the sun don't shine.

Also, weirdly, although nice old chap Carson is seeing her memories, which would have been experienced through her eyes, the memories don't use her gaze. He sees her, from outside. She seems to remember herself someone else's perspective. 

At any rate, nice old chap Carson finds out that she was attacked by a shark, and hence got washed up on shore. Also, he gets to see her memories of stories of evolution, of white people going back to the seas and gradually developing gills. (The details are a little, well, fishy.) Also, he finds out that she thinks he's gorgeous. But perceives him with larger nostrils. Because merpeople find large nostrils sexy, obviously.

Nice old chap Carson convinces swarthy scientist to let her go back to the ocean, the thought transference device works, all is resolved. Or is it? There's a hint that the mermaid may come back for sexy large-nostrilled white dude. And that is not a sentence I ever thought I'd be writing.

Let's see. There is a woman! She's a mermaid, and falls in instalove, so other than the gills, she's pretty much like most of the women in these stories. She has no other distinguishing characteristics. Not even snappy dialogue. Or, you know, dialogue. Merperson and all.

Weird focus on whiteness and the whiteness of merpeople. There's a swarthy scientist, for whatever gradation of colour "swarthy" means here.

And lots of suppressed homosexual desire.  It's been a while without a story with some good heavy subtext. I've been missing it. It's as close to varieties of sexuality as we ever get in 1930s science fiction magazines, I guess.

All in all, this is a disappointing story. It's not particularly offensive (not more than the others, anyway), but not much really happens. Boy finds mermaid, mermaid attacks him because he's not white enough, mermaid likes whiter boy, they talk via telepathy, mermaid goes back to the sea. 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami rewards silence. Most of the time when I'm reading, I have music on in the background. Or some particularly fluffy books I'll read during commercials or between turns of Civ II. But this book I found I got the most out of when the house was quiet, and I was curled up on my new recliner, giving it my full attention.

In many ways the most straightforward Murakami book I've read (the fourth, I think), but I found at the beginning that many of the motifs were reminding me of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Perhaps because of this, although nothing as overtly odd as in his other books took place, that slight feeling of unreality pervaded the pages. Most of the book's main characters walk close to Death, in different ways. And through that, living, choosing to live, and how, haunt the main character as he feels a pull towards two different women.

It's also a meditation on the 1960s and university culture in Tokyo, although the main character avoids being entangled in campus politics.

I don't know if I could put my finger on what was behind the lingering sense of eeriness of this book, but I enjoyed the evocation, and was glad I had been quiet enough to experience it.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

This is a really good book. Let's say that straight-up. But it isn't quite as good as the first two in the series, which I thought were phenomenal. So if I'm quibbling, remember that I did really like this. I just have such high expectations of Scott Lynch.

Locke and Jean are back. Locke is suffering from the ill effects of the poisoning he got at the end of the last book, in a heartbreaking but utterly satisfying battle over who got the antidote. One of the mages of Karthain offers to help, but at a cost. He has to come to their city and run one side of a political battle that occurs every five years. The opposition has employed a certain someone from Locke's past.

Yes, we finally get to meet Sabetha. And I am not disappointed. She's an intriguing character, as annoying as Locke, and almost as endearing. Although,  having spent so much time with Locke, it's easier for the reader to empathize with him, and want her to give him more of the benefit of the doubt. But Lynch does a good job of creating issues between them that cannot be easily settled, and beyond the quick fix of an honest conversation.

In fact, one of these issues really caught me. It circles around how power is withheld from people in society, unconsciously, and how, as soon as you have to say indignantly "I should be the leader!," you've already lost authority. Even in a society where the gender roles are less strict than many fantasy worlds, Sabetha is not apart from her society, and neither are the men around her. It's a subtle point, but a really good one.

The flashbacks are also really great. I'm a theatre geek from way back, so I loved the whole plotline of the Gentlemen Bastards having to go to another city and rescue a theatre troupe and practice their acting skills - and then, get themselves out of a great deal of trouble when both the theatre impresario and his wealthy backer are more devious than they expect. Plus, it's great fun to have Calo and Galdo back, even if only in memories.

So why is this not quite as good? The stuff in Karthain is entertaining, but it feels slight. The real meat is in the past, and in the scenes we get between Locke and Sabetha. In other words, what's billed as the plot is the least interesting part of the book. (It's still interesting, it just feels like too much setup for the payoff.) The things around the plot are phenomenal. He's integrated these aspects so well in the first two books that to see them unravelling just the slightest bit here made the pacing feel off.

It's fun. It's always fun. And this one didn't entirely emotionally eviscerate me in the last act! I started to feel that dread, but the payoff to it was more setting up for the next book than deciding to make me cry now. It's probably good that he's not going to that well too often. But still, it's been so masterfully done in the previous two books.

I highly recommend this one, even though the balance of the storylines feels a tiny bit off. Not enough to ruin my enjoyment, certainly. Now I have to wait with everyone else for the next one. That's going to be tough.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Dear Percy,

You don't mind if I call you Percy, do you? Perseus is so formal. You've never met me, but I'm something of an oracle, having foreknowledge of your future adventures because I read your books out of order am just gifted that way.

I'd like to give you some warnings.

You, son, are hopelessly dense. I don't think there's anything you can do about that, so you're kind of stuck.

But where it's really going to get difficult is the part where your friends are jerks. All of them. Every single one has information that it would be really helpful for you to know, and if you thought they weren't telling you enough now, wait till the next adventure. Or the one after. Sure, it's a way to create false drama dependency, but is that what you really want?

I have an idea. People will tell you they can't tell you something "because it's too painful," or "if you don't know, I can't tell you," (What the hell is that? Of course you can!) or "the gods forbid it," (Okay, that one you may be stuck on, but it should not be overused as a dramatic device completely legitimate random happening.) If this happens (and it will), I suggest beating one of them to death with a shovel. That should teach the rest of them.

It's too bad, because some of the ways in which you experience Greek myths are downright cool. But someone's messing with your destiny, son, and he's not going to rest until he's overused every possible way to withhold information from both you and the readers. And that gets old.

So have fun! I'm sure you'll be fine. (In fact, you'll never really feel like you're in danger, which means it's not that interesting sometimes.) And get used to no one ever telling you anything.

Was hoping the first book would be less dependent on stupid tricks to create drama, was disappointed,

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

This was charming, but slight. It's a children's book about a wooden doll and her adventures over a hundred years, including some time on a whaling ship, being worshipped as an idol in the South Seas, time in India among missionaries (I did sort of wonder about the geography that got her from one to the other. Did people who were whalers in the Maine really go all the way to the Pacific to get whales?), time with a Quaker family, with a spoiled little girl, with an old lady or two, on a steamboat on the Mississippi.

It's very cute, and very surface. She just glides along, and because none of the characters other than Hitty herself are in the picture for very long, it's little snapshots of Americana, but without much depth to them. I think kids could probably handle more depth.

I would, for instance, have been more interested to read about a doll and her experiences with one family over a longer period of time, and see what the author had to say about every day life. At times, it felt like she was stretching to find a new way to have the doll accidentally fall from one pair of hands to another. Sticking with something and seeing what developed might have been more interesting than having someone drop her in a crowd again. There might have been something there about family life, or how people relate to their dolls, and I think that could totally have bee done in an accessible way for children.

So as it is, this is a charming older book. But it doesn't really have any keen insights into the American experience or family life in the 19th century.

Also, for all the author dedicates the book to the State of Maine, there's not that much that takes place in Maine. I was excited by that dedication - my family used to go camping in Maine every year, and I wanted a book that took place there. But they leave fairly quickly, and while they're there, there really aren't any passages that capture why Maine is distinctive from other places. In fact, many of the places blur together.

I feel like I'm being harsh on a children's book, but I think children can ask for more than this. A stronger sense of place or character or plot, any one of those three, would have elevated this. As it is, it's charming. But not anything more.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Note: This Review was originally written a year ago. I don't have the flu now.

Born To Run was okay. It's not great, it's not stellar, it's not maddening. It's okay. The writing is serviceable. The research is a little spotty, but okay for the type of book this is. It made me want to try running, just a little. That's definitely saying something.

And, of course, I was more than receptive to the parts where he was talking about bare feet running, as shoes and socks are the bane of my existence. A necessary bane, perhaps, but I hate having my feet covered.

I don't know enough about the areas of science he's talking about to evaluate his evidence, but some of it seems fine, and sometimes, there are some huge logical leaps. He jumps from talking about skyrocketing cancer and other disease rates in the 20th century right to connecting to that not long-distance running any more like our ancestors did two million years ago. Not not doing as much physical activity, not long distance running.

Dude, there were 2 million years in the interim, you know? And I study the 19th century. I'm not convinced everyone was running everywhere then either, and we just suddenly stopped in the last century. Have you seen the clothes? Plus, for most people, there was too much farmwork to do in a day to take off for a five hour run. In the city, it'd be even less likely. I'm sure there are correlations to the changes in sedentary lifestyle, but trying to say that it's because we stopped running like we did two million years ago? That's a big lag for that adjustment to catch up, isn't it?

Likewise his assertion that long-distance running makes you innately a better person. I have no doubt there are great people doing long-distance running, or that getting through an experience like an ultra run would give you a sense of camaraderie and caring about those who went through it beside you. No doubt at all. It's how he keeps making it sound like that's innate to long distance running and not to anything else that I question.

But this book is strongest when he's telling stories about runners, or about the joys of running that actually made me want to try it a little bit. (She says, barely able to move from the aftereffects of the flu.) So, it's okay. If you're interested, it's not boring, and it's readable.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Bloom County Library, Vol. 2 by Berke Breathed

After the terrible experience of reading A Gate at the Stairs, what I needed was a palate cleanser. Something light, something fun, probably something I'd read before. Luckily for me, my husband and I had spotted this volume on sale for a mere $15, instead of the $40 or so it usually goes for, and snapped it up.

And I'd read most of the comics in this, but I am astonished at how many aren't in any of the Bloom County collections we already own.

So, after a terrible, badly-researched, melodramatic mess, it was lovely to sink back into a Bloom County election campaign, the death of Bill the Cat, and Opus' trip to Antarctica to find his mother.

I love Bloom County.

As Berke Breathed points out in many of the sidebars, this is mired in what is now fairly obscure 80s references, but I'm not sure I ever got those, and it never detracted from my enjoyment. (I would have been 5-7 when these were originally published, and we didn't have a television.) Wind whistling through the toes of Casper Weinberger is funny even if you don't know who Casper Weinberger is.

Politically, they're still very astute. And the characters are still as wonderful and varied and funny as ever. This volume sees the introduction of Oliver, the death of Bill, and the nomination of Opus as vice-president - not to mention frequent visits to Binkley's anxiety closet, the Bloom County newspaper desk Milo works at, Bobbie and Cutter John's romance, and Steve Dallas being Steve Dallas.

And reading their exploits was just what I needed.