Friday, December 26, 2014

bittersweet six

It's gotten a little quiet around here lately. I can't even suggest that it's the calm before the storm, because I'm not sure when I'll have the focus and energy to write more consistently. The sad truth is that I have six books with partially finished reviews sitting in my queue here, going back to October, and about as much motivation to finish and post those reviews as numbers like that would suggest.

This is not the end - this is a blogiversary post, after all, if sadly uncelebratory - and I'm likely to still keep posting as I can, but I can't see the pace picking up any time soon. I am reading - I am almost always reading - but the energy to write about it seems to have vanished almost entirely.

But here is the good: I still get a lot out of writing these pieces, when I do get to them. I get a lot out of reading them years later, too, even when I'm dissatisfied with what I've said. I still delight in meandering around the (admittedly much, much smaller) circle of book blogs that I like to read daily or weekly or whenever the authors post. I still think about books exhaustively, I still love planning out and tracking my reading, I still love that feeling I get when I clear out my TBR stack in despair and try something completely random and new.

To those of you who have stuck with me, and continue to wander by every once in a while: thank you. Those of you whom I know, I consider to be my best bloggy friends - many of you I have known, through your writing, for as long as this blog has been around or longer. I'm inspired by your erudition and your commitment to reading and to writing about your reading, and I hope to be able to continue to share our love of and our thoughts on books for another wonderful year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The Shadow Speaker
by Nnedi Okorafor
Hyperion, 2007
336 pages

Okay. This review is so unbelievably overdue, given I read this book for Aarti's initiative, A More Diverse Universe. But maybe I can get it into the same year. I had kind of hoped that this book would grow on me when I left it, but unfortunately that didn't happen. I was really excited to read this story, and I think in the end I was disappointed partially because of that.

Ejii is growing up in what used to be West Africa - and still is, but not any West Africa we recognize. After a cataclysm of proportions we start to recognize only as we get further into the book, magic has returned in a big way to Earth. Portals between Earth and other worlds have opened in places, animals speak, and certain humans have magical powers. Ejii is one, a shadow-speaker. She communicates with the shadows, which gives her some powers of telepathy and precognition. She is also the daughter of a man who was a violent, dictator-like, fundamentalist chief of the village, before he was slain by Jaa, the Red Queen. When the shadows tell Ejii that she must follow Jaa to an important meeting between the leaders of Earth and the other worlds, Ejii is torn. She's afraid to go, but curious and determined. So she sets off on the back of her talking camel, Onion, and soon realizes that her journey is going to be stranger, more dangerous, and more important than she could ever have fathomed.

It's not that the whole book was disappointing. So I'm going to start with the disappointing bits in a bid to end on a high note.

This wasn't a good book for me, personally, and I think it basically boils down to the fact that I'm about twenty years too old to really appreciate it. When I'm reading, characters are a key component of my enjoyment; these characters were extremely plot-driven, as opposed to having a plot driven by the character's choices. Characters did things that were utterly in service to the plot and seemed bizarrely out of step with what I thought their characters would do, which meant I was constantly reevaluating my understanding of each character. Not in a good way. It felt very disorienting and I didn't end up very attached to any of the characters. This is usually a death-knell for any book for me.

The thing is, if I was thirteen years old I would have loved this. The characters are BIG - everything is very melodramatic. The teens act like young teens - which would be great, except that most of the adults did too. As an adult I tend to like my characters more nuanced and less shouty and more emotionally consistent, especially if they are supposed to be important and intelligent world leaders.

What saved it for me was that the concept and the world-building are top-notch and really interesting. The setting was gorgeously-described - the descriptions of the colours and the smells and the sights were fantastic and fantastical. I also absolutely loved the language Okorafor uses: there are untranslated words that add so many layers of sound and tone to the writing, and the words that Okorafor makes up for the fantasy elements are magnificent and playful. I liked how the magic worked, I loved that it was never fully explained (because it wasn't ever entirely clear to the characters how they were able to do what they did, or how it was supposed to work - this, however, didn't feel lazy on the author's part, but carefully considered) and I was really interested in how the technology and the magic met and negotiated each other in this world.

But unfortunately, I do prefer my books to be more heavily weighed towards the character than the plot, and this was backwards for me. I think as an angsty pre-teen I would have just eaten this up - I've always been a sucker for interesting world-building, and the cultural background, so different from my own, would have been a huge plus - but as an adult it fell flat for me. I would, however, read more Nnedi Okorafor - I've got both Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker on my list. Those are both books written for a younger audience too, so I'll have a better idea of what I'm getting into this time. I like her ideas and I'm hoping I can find some more consistent characters.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2012
318 pages

Oh John Scalzi. You are one of the big Good Guys in my world. There are so many reasons to be impressed with Scalzi and his writing, most of which one can glean from his blog and his Twitter feed, both of which I follow daily. He's not universally loved - someone with a blog tagline of "Taunting the Tauntable since 1998" is not going to be universally loved - but for someone with my sense of humour and sociocultural views, he's brain candy.

So are his books. They are clever, funny, extremely well-written, entertaining, thoughtful, and often moving. Well, the three I have read, one of which was non-fiction, so I suppose my sample size is limited, but I have faith. Old Man's War remains one of my favourite science fiction novels ever (and it's military SF, no less!) and holds the distinction of being the most fully genre-y book that my entire adventurous book club agreed was great.

Those of you who have watched Star Trek (any iteration) will be familiar with the concept of the redshirt, whether you know it by name or not. These are the minor characters, the ones who might not even have a name, who are along for whatever away mission might be happening, and who generally end up dead in order to prove that there's some sort of danger. Notice that with extremely rare exceptions, the main characters don't end up dead. They might end up injured, but not dead. It's the low-ranking extras who bite it.

Redshirts is about the ones who end up dead. Scalzi imagines them with real lives and loves and ideas, histories that are more than just pertinent to the storyline, and a realization that the way things are happening on their ship, the Intrepid, is statistically totally improbable. They are fighting to regain control of their lives, which means they are literally fighting for their lives - fighting The Narrative, an unseen menace that takes over people's minds, bodies, and even the laws of physics with disturbing regularity. And what's worse, as Jenkins, the conspiracy theorist who eventually convinces our main characters says, is that the sci-fi television show they're all living in isn't very good.

This is very clever, loving satire. It pokes gleeful holes in all the SF television tropes, but it does it in a way that is thoughtful - it really follows the consequences through - and what I really appreciated was that it wasn't only about the satire. It was also a book about friendship, love, and loyalty; about peeling back layers and asking the important and sometimes difficult questions. It was about fate versus free will, and even about what it means to die, and what it means to live.

I think having more than a passing familiarity with Star Trek in its many incarnations helped in the enjoyment of this book, because I really got it. I got the jokes, I got the references, and I appreciated all of them. It added an extra layer of glee.

But - and this is important - because of all the other wonderful things about this book, and the fact that it isn't just about the satire, you don't have to be familiar with Star Trek to enjoy the story. Or even get most of the jokes, because the relevant parts are explained. This is a funny book whether or not you know the backstory, and it contains far more than it appears at first glance. Highly recommended for science fiction buffs, and definitely readable for those of you who don't read sci-fi but think you might like it. It's an excellent entry into the genre.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

The Briefcase
by Hiromi Kawakami (translated from Japanese by Allison Powell)
Counterpoint, 2012 (originally published in 2001)
176 pages

"But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was."

I've wanted to read this book for years, but I didn't realize it was actually released on this side of the pond with a different title and I've been spending a lot of time waiting for the book Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami to make it over here. Turns out it's been released for a couple of years in North America as The Briefcase. Either title is apt. Glad I finally found it.

Of course, as is always the case with books that one waits ages for, I'm not sure this one quite lived up to the hype in my head. I think part of that was the translation, which didn't seem quite as... lyrical as I'd hoped and expected, but a little more workmanlike. Which is fine, and may reflect the style of the original writing, but wasn't exactly what I was hoping for when someone compared this to one of my all-time favourite books, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - the only things in common I see between the two is that they are by contemporary female Japanese authors, and feature a female first person narrator.

The Briefcase is, however, as advertised by its UK title, strange, and once I was rolling with it there was a lot to like about it. Tsukiko, our narrator, is a Japanese salarywoman - we never hear exactly what it is that she does - she is single, she is idiosyncratic, she is emotionally detached, and she knows it. She struggles to connect and yet she's not really all that interested in connecting. She drifts around but she's not really interested in putting down roots. She's inexperienced, emotionally and in most other ways, but she's not really interested in getting experience, other than because she thinks she probably should.

It is also a love story; Tsukiko meets the man she thinks of as Sensei, a retired high school teacher, at the local bar, where she often spends her evenings. It might complicate things that he used to be her high school teacher, but they are both well beyond those days (Tsukiko is in her late thirties, Sensei in his seventies), and didn't much like each other back then if they thought about each other at all. It is Tsukiko who finally breaches the gap between them, who declares herself, much to her own chagrin and even surprise. They are both terribly awkward and somewhat wounded, though Sensei doesn't appear to let either of those things bother him at all.

If anything, this is a study of loneliness and quiet, and the difficulty of connecting with others in the world. It's not depressing, is the interesting thing, or sad. It is melancholy and contemplative, but it's also a little bit funny at points, and it celebrates certain aspects of life - food, mostly, and the brief, transitive connections we do manage to make. Tsukiko is frustrating as a narrator, but she's frustrating in a believable way, and she's interesting, despite the fact that she herself would certainly deny that characterization. The reader hopes for the best for her, even as we realize that she's probably going to sabotage herself. It might not be serious sabotage; but it will be a sort of sabotage that always leads her back to her dreary, lonely status quo. There is something strangely poignant in that.

In the end, I don't quite know whether to recommend this or not. It has stuck with me, since I finished reading it months ago (took notes! hooray!) and I found it a relatively quick read. There's not much plot (always okay by me) and the character development is... elliptical, might be the best word, though Tsukiko's character is strong and unique. The language is workmanlike. But it's unusual, and a little haunting, and probably worth a read if you're interested in contemporary Japanese fiction.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel

All Men Are Liars
by Alberto Manguel
Riverhead Books, 2012 (originally published in Spanish in 2008)
224 pages

Well, it's been months since I finished this book. Luckily I took good notes.

Originally published in Spanish, this is a novel in five distinct parts. An investigative journalist, Teradillos, is trying to get to the bottom of the story of a famous literary figure by the name of Alejandro Bevilacqua, an ex-pat Argentine who died under mysterious circumstances in Madrid. The first person interviewed is Alberto Manguel himself (in case anyone is curious, Bevilacqua is indeed a fictional character). Manguel tries to distance himself from Bevilacqua, whose body was found under Manguel's balcony when Manguel was out of the country, but is not very successful at it. The second part is told from the perspective of Bevilacqua's lover, the third from a character Bevilacqua spent time in an Argentine prison with, the fourth from another person in Bevilacqua's past, and the fifth and shortest from Teradillos himself.

Hmm. My notes begin: "I am too stupid for this book" which is an interesting statement. Let's dissect it a bit.

This is indeed literary fiction, and I don't read a lot of that. What's more, it's interesting and ambitious literary fiction that winds, maze-like, around itself. It doesn't take itself too seriously but it is serious. I haven't read widely enough to be able to follow all the perambulations and permutations, and I'm only just familiar enough with Latin American history to understand a little of what is happening. This is a novel about Argentina under a dictator, a novel about disappearances and corruption, exiles and torturers - even at a remove, being set as it is in Spain and France thirty years on from the events so central to the tale. What's more, it's about the ordinary faces each of these things have, about the banal people behind the atrocities, about the banal people who get caught up in them. And how those ordinary, seemingly boring people, can be fascinating in and of themselves.

It's also about how we tell stories about ourselves and others, and sometimes we know that we're crafting fictions and sometimes we're blissfully unaware of it, but we are nothing but our stories either way. It helps our case if we are in control of our own stories - the author and wordsmith in the third section, the man who was a prisoner with Bevilacqua, presents the most coherent and convincing tale of all of them, and yet because of the structure of the novel we're aware that it is just a story, even as we fully believe it.

In short, I'm not sure I am in fact too stupid for this book. I think I did pretty well with it, for all my inferiority complex about reading literary fiction. And I enjoyed it, too. Something I did do, though, was spoiled it a bit for myself, which was objectively stupid - don't read ahead in this book if you can help it. And even if you can't. Part of the enjoyment of it is letting it unfold slowly, letting the mystery slowly solve itself. I learned a fact too early by seeing something quite a bit further along in the story than I was myself, and I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I'd let it unfurl in the way Manguel meant for it to unfurl.

My notes on the first two sections are incredibly detailed, and then I read the third and got totally swept up in it such that I didn't bother taking notes, but it's the section I remember most vividly. 'Apologia,' the first, is told from Manguel's own "perspective" and while we learn the basic details of Bevilacqua's life through him, we also gain an incredible amount of insight into the character Manguel has created of himself - that he is a little self-indulgent, a little delusional, not entirely in touch with his own feelings. He repeats multiple times that he was not fond of Bevilacqua, that Bevilacqua foisted himself on Manguel as an unwanted guest; but one suspects Manguel was more fond of Bevilacqua than lets on even to himself.

The second section, 'Much Ado About Nothing,' is an about face. Manguel is a liar and a sad sack, full of himself and totally useless, generally. Andrea, the narrator of this section, is at least as delusional as Manguel, and less self-aware; she's a narcissist. Everything that matters, matters on her terms. She was Bevilacqua's lover, but it's clear to the reader that she was in love with her own idea of the man, not the man himself. The Bevilacqua she discusses is a very different one from the man Manguel tells us about - the two are almost irreconcilable, but because of Andrea's inability to countenance that anything beyond her own version of events and people might have merit, we give more credence to Manguel's version despite the fact that Andrea was objectively closer to Bevilacqua.

There's more to say about Andrea, but I can't without major spoilers. Suffice to say that even though she's not a terribly subtle character, there are some subtle ways in which Manguel (the author) reveals her to us. This story, though technically about Bevilacqua, tells us more about the people around him than about he himself.

The third section, as I say, is the most self-aware and the best-written, and the quality of the writing leads us to believe it almost unconditionally even though we know these are personal accounts by people with vested interests. We remain objectively aware that we are reading a story, one person's version of events, but we cannot help but lend this particular person weight because of the way he tells his story. There's quite a lot to be said for this.

The fourth section was where things fell down for me a bit, told as it was from beyond the grave. It explained a lot of things that were left as mysteries in the first three sections, and while it was... fine? I would have been okay if those things were left unexplained, or ... explained in a more subtle way, like the rest of the story had been up to this point. This section felt kind of heavy-handed, unlike the earlier portions. It was well-done for what it was, but I wasn't sure it fit.

The fifth section, Teradillos' own, was a satisfying, solid ending, but there's not too much else to say about it beyond that.

Do I recommend this book? I certainly read it quickly and I enjoyed it. What's more, I think I have enjoyed thinking about it even more than reading it. I don't think it's absolutely brilliant but it was engaging and thought-provoking, and it's hard to ask too much more from a book. For fans of historical fiction, Latin American fiction, and literary fiction especially, but even if you're none of the above, this is an easy read to help you stretch out of your comfort zones.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

The River of No Return (River of No Return 1)
by Bee Ridgway
Dutton Adult, 2013
452 pages

I cannot figure out for the life of me why I didn't like this better than I did. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy it; I stayed up until 1:30am to finish it, and it kept my attention, and I didn't ever feel like throwing it across the room or giving up. I just didn't love it and I can't figure out why. And unfortunately I didn't take adequate notes, and so this review is going to be an awful lot shorter than it might otherwise have been.

It's exactly my kind of candy - historical romance (Regency, even), plus mystery, plus science fiction/fantasy. There are spicy bits, believable spicy bits. And it was smart and well-written, too. I did find it sagged in the middle, but to be honest, a lot of what I'm reading these days seems to sag in the middle and that suggests to me that it's more me than the book.

Nicholas Davenant used to be a marquess. He used to be fighting Napoleon, an officer in the British Army. But then one day, a Frenchman was about to cut him down - and instead of dying, Nicholas disappeared, jumping ahead in time to the twenty-first century. He is greeted there by a representative of the Guild, an organization devoted to finding, rescuing, and helping acclimatize those who make the jump from the past. He is taught how to build a new life, and while there are hints that things might not be perfect and he misses his family and his old life, he spends ten very happy years in Vermont, farming. But then his suspicions bear out - things aren't entirely right, he hasn't been told the whole truth, and he's about to learn all sorts of new and unsettling things from the Guild.

And that's only the summary of one character - Julia Percy, being the other, is an orphan, and neighbour to Nicholas' family. We meet her just as her beloved grandfather is dying, and she is about to be alone in the world, faced with a desperate, and desperately mean, cousin taking over the estate. The narrative switches back and forth between these two.

I didn't particularly love any of the characters, even though I enjoyed them and particularly Julia. I did love that Ridgway made things so complex; none of the characters are black and white, evil or not - even Mr. Mibbs, who does veer very close to irredeemable villain, has enough mystery surrounding him that I'm prepared to concede that he might have some sort of reason for being so thoroughly horrible. Arkady, for example, could have been a creepy, frightening, powerful villain - but while he's slightly creepy, and frightening, and powerful, he's not entirely villainous. His motives are clear and his actions, while repellant to the mains and therefore the reader, make a kind of sense. I believed that he believed he was doing the right thing, or at least, the righteous thing. That's not always an easy thing for an author to pull off.

The twists were varied and some of them I saw coming, and others I did not. It's a bit of a maze of a book, but it never really seemed to lose its way, if that makes sense, despite my feeling that things got a bit slow in the middle. The ending was a satisfying cliffhanger, if that makes sense. There's a lot to explore in the next book, and nothing feels quite safe or secure, which is exactly as it should be.

So why didn't I love it? I still can't say for sure. That I never really connected firmly with any of the characters is probably the big reason, but I'm not sure what it was that kept me from connecting. Certainly the plot was well-done and the historical bits very well-done, and the characters were interesting. It just didn't connect. So don't let me stop you from reading this, is what I am trying to say, if it tickles your fancy - you'll probably have better luck than me. But there is something mildly disappointing about finding book likeable when I really expected to love it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

The Bird of the River (The Anvil of the World 3)
by Kage Baker
Tor Books, 2010
272 pages

I cannot possibly be objective about this book, because it is all my favourite things. It breaks my heart that there will be no more books in this series, and that this particular book has gone out of print without even a paperback run. Why, for gods' sakes, is no one reading Kage Baker?

Books like this only come along once in a very long while for me. And on the surface, Kage Baker's writing is... different? I want to say "workmanlike" but that doesn't do it anywhere near justice (though to be fair to "workmanlike" I actually very much appreciate writing that does what it's supposed to do without being fancy about it, even though I appreciate the fancy stuff too.) It's very storyteller-like. It's propulsive without being manipulative, it's clear, it's concise, it's descriptive in the ways that mark the important details and give the reader enough to build a sharp, clear picture without being overbearing. It's unsentimental but deeply respectful of her characters. It's simple without being patronizing. The pacing is spot-on.

Writing this makes me want to read it again right now.

Baker's writing is utterly unlike much of what I read, even though this book employs several familiar fantasy tropes. It felt new, though. I surprised myself by how much I loved this book in particular, even though I really liked The Hotel Under the Sand and Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy. But the idea of the book appealed to me. One of the things I love about it is that it is so unsentimental, which it shares very much in common with the first two Bakers I read. I said it's propulsive without being manipulative and I think that's one of the things that appeals so much to me about Baker's writing: she can make me feel attached and concerned and interested, without feeling like I've been told either implicitly or explicitly how I should feel. She was a writer who took her reader's intelligence and compassion for granted, and I like that very much.

The premise of this book caught my attention immediately. Eliss and her family, her younger half-brother and her drug addict mother, are trying to find work for her mother so that they can survive. Her mother is a diver and they're looking at river boats because in her mother's condition she isn't strong enough to dive in the sea as she used to. They find themselves upon the enormous barge The Bird of the River, a ship so large as to be a floating village unto itself. The crew's job is to clear the wide, slow river of snags and underwater hazards, so they need divers; Falena is hired, and Eliss and Alder start finding their own way upon the boat as well.

There's quite a lot more to the plot, and it explores themes of loss, racism (Alder is of mixed race, and part of the reason they can't settle down is because of the colour of his skin), violence, addiction, loyalty, family, poverty, love, coming-of-age. Which makes this book sound heavy and overloaded, but it simply isn't. This isn't an issues book - it's well-rounded and the issues are there because the world and the characters are rich and well-developed. None of them weigh this book down in the slightest.

I really, really loved this book. I'm hoping to find a paper copy even though the book is out-of-print. I know I'm going to want to read this again and again. Possibly tonight.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Naked in Death by JD Robb

Naked in Death (In Death 1)
by J.D. Robb
Brilliance Audio, 2010 (originally published in 1995)
5 discs, abridged

Welp, that was another abridged audiobook. It wasn't supposed to be, but it was what I could get, and I've wanted to try this series for a while now. For those not sure, yes, JD Robb is a different incarnation of redoubtable, prolific romance author Nora Roberts. This series is exceedingly popular and long-lived, and incredibly all 40 (40!!) entries in the series have above a 4 star rating on Goodreads. The setting appealed to me - I like mysteries, and the idea of a series set in a futuristic New York City, but still a police procedural and a romantic thriller, really tickled my fancy.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas is a young and very successful police inspector with the New York City Police and Security Department in the year 2058. After a particularly messy episode with a domestic assault and murder, in which she's been responsible for the death of the murderer, she's immediately called in to a top secret investigation involving the gruesome murder of the prostitute (legalized, now) granddaughter of a very powerful, very right-wing Southern Senator. The top suspect is the charming billionaire Roarke, a man with deep secrets. But as Eve grows to know Roarke she becomes convinced that his secrets don't include coldblooded murder (this one, at least.) And she finds herself increasingly fascinated by this contrarian, handsome, and likely very dangerous man.

I know why this series is so popular. It ticks off alllll the fantasies: young, scarily competent, slightly maverick, and secretly scarred detective; fancy gadgets that do cool things; a possible conspiracy of the powerful and a hard-ass boss for our detective to fight against; and very rich, very good-looking, very alpha male hero. The writing is extremely competent and even excellent in places. The tone is perfect. The plot is... not a big surprise at any point, exactly, but there's enough tension to keep it interesting. In short, this book is straight-out escapist fiction and it doesn't pretend to be anything else, and it's very, very good at what it does.

Any problems I had with this book really had to do with the abridgement I listened to and nothing else. And that's not even saying that the abridgement was poorly done; it wasn't. It's just that any romance that is abridged feels too fast, and mysteries that are abridged often leave clues that the author might have buried a little better feeling pretty bare. The predictability of both the plot and the identity of the murderer are partially due to the format I chose.

So I need to talk about Roarke and the alpha male hero. Intellectually I find myself pretty conflicted about this, but in some ways Robb(erts) has made this easy: Eve is not a wallflower, nor is she too perfect. She saves herself when she needs saving, but she's messy, and she makes an acceptable number of mistakes. I say "acceptable" because I really think that this kind of story needs a protagonist who makes errors, but she can't make too many because otherwise the story stops being enjoyable because the reader is too worried - Eve hits these notes perfectly and manages not to be either one-note or stereotypical; she's very likeable and she's very competent and she's not a push-over.

This is important, because Roarke is super-alpha. In his desire to take care of Eve and help her out, he does a couple of things that are pretty creepy if one thinks too hard about it. To the author's credit Eve calls him out on these things, but she doesn't do the sensible thing and get him out of her life entirely. And this is where I have trouble. I feel that, by enjoying the alpha male, I am somehow buying into a misogynistic social construct, and I don't like that. On the other hand, I also feel like it's unhelpful to suggest to women that certain avenues of fantasy or desire are off-limits or shameful. I don't have the background to be able to take this discussion too much further, and I obviously still have a need to work through it.

But simply: I enjoy Roarke as a hero, and I find the scenes with him romantic and sexy, and as a fantasy his behaviour doesn't creep me out, even if I encountered someone like him in real life I'd stay as far away from him as possible. I can spend as much time as I would like trying to justify this, but I think I just maybe need to own up to it: as a fantasy, this works for me. It can be borderline - there are alpha males I find just insufferable and not attractive at all - but something about this combination, Eve and Roarke, I find sexy and believable enough as a fantasy to enjoy the relationship.

If it's not clear from all of the above, I really enjoyed listening to this, and I'll definitely read/listen to more of the In Death series. Do I have the need to read all 40+ books? Maybe not, but I'm glad I've started. A solid mystery and vivid characters, with the bonus of a well-realized, very interesting and fun setting. If you're not a fan of the alpha male romance, steer clear, but this is a good bet for those who like that sort of thing. Even if you're a bit conflicted about it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DNF: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Random House Audio, 2013
11 discs, unabridged

I don't normally to this, but the reaction I had to this book and the fact that I was over halfway through when I threw in the towel makes me want to write something about it. Luckily I have a place to do that. Hello blog!

Um, so this book has actually been fairly well-received. And I felt the premise was really interesting, and definitely creepy, and things started off strongly. I didn't love any of the characters but that's okay... or so I thought. It made me think, it made me curious to know what was happening next. I was listening on audiobook, and it's a rare audiobook that I don't finish, so I figured I'd just keep going even if I wasn't loving it (also: book club.) But then the rage started.

The premise is that Mae Holland starts work at a big tech company in California, a company called The Circle. It's a bit like Facebook and a bit like Google and a bit its own thing (and has already subsumed Facebook and Google and all the rest.) It's a great place to work, but all is not as it seems. About a disc and a half in, it was really feeling like things were too good to be true - and of course they were.

And then. The further we got, the more I disliked Mae. This is 100% intentional on the author's part, and I think what I find most interesting here in my reaction is that he really did a good job. When I was sending my comments to the book club, I made a confession: I know I have said in the past (likely here on the blog too) that I don't have to like the main character in order to enjoy a book. This may be true, but I'm not sure I can actually tell you the title of a book I've enjoyed where I didn't like the main character. Mae starts out a bit... not loveable, but as the book progresses she becomes more and more obnoxious, stupid, vapid, selfish, thoughtless, and righteous, none of which is very fun to spend time with. In fact, I started wondering why I was spending hours of my life with characters I mostly wanted to punch in the face.

When, finally, one night at 2am I was still awake feeling furious with her, just over halfway through the book, I quit. I am not saying this is a rational response, or a good one, but it's not unusual for me to get really emotionally invested in a book. I prefer that I get emotionally invested in a positive way. I don't really have room in my life for books that make me feel that much rage right now. I need my sleep.

The premise was really interesting, and I think important. It certainly did make me think very seriously about how I use technology and how I feel about privacy, and why I think privacy in my online and physical life is important. It had things to say about the gradual erosion of our privacy and of meaning in our lives, without feeling like a conversation with a grouchy old uncle who thinks we should all go back to rotary telephones and making our own jam. (I am kind of with him, though.) It is even clear that these ideas that erode our privacy can be good - they can be convenient, they can help the world become a better place - but we have to be vigilant and we have to have protections in place, protections with teeth, sometimes to protect us from ourselves.

At any rate. I didn't finish it, but I don't think it was a bad book. Just definitely not for me. And it was a useful book to me, making me a bit more conscious that my desire to know everything about how smallfry is doing at her first day of preschool this morning is maybe not actually what I really want in the grander scheme of things...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lords and Ladies by Sir Terry Pratchett

Lords and Ladies
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Corgi Books, 2013 (originally published in 1992)
400 pages

LOOK! More Pratchett! I haven't forgotten about the Discworld. In fact, I think it basically stays in the back of my head all the time. I putter about my library and in my head, I am always on the watch for the Librarian. I would welcome him with a banana. I would never dare call him a monkey.

One learns all sorts of things from the Discworld, you see. I've been trying to explain these books to a few non-converts lately and I just can't seem to get it right. I'm too deep into the Discworld at this point to be objective, and while I objectively recognize that these books are not for everyone, emotionally I just can't understand why everyone doesn't adore these books the way I do.

In Lords and Ladies, we're back with the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, who, if you recall Witches Abroad (and you should; it's one of the best) went on a trip, leaving the tiny country of Lancre to get about on her own. This, it turns out, was maybe not such a good idea. It's circle time, meaning the walls between universes are becoming thin. Those walls are there for good reason. On the other side of those walls are laughing, merry, beautiful elves. Beautiful, bloodthirsty, greedy, amoral elves.

As with most Discworld books, amid the merrymaking (some of it quite bloody) and the madcap, slapstick, and occasionally subtle humour, there are serious notes. As with Witches Abroad, Pratchett peels back the layers of stories and what they mean and what they can do, but in a different way here. Memory and its failings is part of it: it's been so long since the elves were in Lancre that no one remembers them as they truly were. They have become laughable and cute, and in some cases glamourous - because elves can make themselves look like what the humans observing them desire. The point that no one remembers the hidden horrors because all they remember is the surface beauty and class of the elves is made a couple of times. Elves are compared to cats: beautiful, classy, charming creatures when they want to be - and mercilessly cruel, deadly, and capricious, too. When all that's left are the folktales and the superstitions, the tales of heroes and villains, then it's quite possible for history to repeat itself. One knows one is supposed to leave milk out for the fairies. One forgets that's because one really doesn't want the fairies to have to come in to the house to get it themselves.

Surfaces and what they mean also make an appearance - what elves are on the surface, what each of us is on the surface. Hard to explain this more without spoilers, but let's just say that when it comes to Magrat Garlick, surfaces matter a lot. And changing the surface helps her change the interior when she needs that change the most. We've probably all been in a situation where the clothes we're wearing help us feel up to the task (or not) - at a job interview, or meeting an important personage - and Magrat suffers an extreme case in the latter part of Lords and Ladies. To cathartic effect.

In the end, I liked this book but I didn't love it the way I've loved some of the other Discworld books I've read. I'm not entirely sure why, though I did find it a bit hard to follow towards the end and had to read a couple of sections two or three times to get exactly what was going on. The danger never felt particularly acute, not in the same way it has in some of the earlier books; I always figured something was going to happen to fix the situation. The solution was telegraphed a bit, too.

But as always, saying that this particular Disworld book isn't quite as good as some of the others is like saying that coconut cream pie is all right: I might prefer pumpkin, but coconut cream is still pretty delicious. And contains enough cream to keep the fairies sated.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

Old City Hall
by Robert Rotenberg
Recorded Books, 2009
10 discs, unabridged

Here's an interesting case: a book I can acknowledge was not terribly well-written, in the main, but that I still quite liked.

I think I read a lot of things that aren't brilliant writing, and I generally enjoy them if they've got decent characters and a good story. It's pretty rare that I can ignore out-and-out poor writing so comprehensively as I did in this case. But Old City Hall was at least extremely entertaining to listen to, and at best it was great. The writing isn't consistently mediocre; it even has some very good moments. Enough that I have hope for the future books of this series.

And as I said, something did grab me. Maybe I just enjoyed hearing a mystery set in Toronto, or maybe in the end it was the characters - wooden and obscure as some of them felt - that did it.

A newspaper deliveryman arrives at the penthouse apartment in a downtown building at exactly his appointed time, bearing a copy of The Globe and Mail for Kevin Brace, Canada's most famous radio voice. But instead of the usual punctuality and polite chat he has come to expect, Brace meets Mr. Singh late, with blood on his hands and a stunned expression - "I killed her," he says. Sure enough, Brace's younger common-law spouse is naked and dead in the hallway bathroom, a single stab wound to her abdomen. Brace refuses to speak to anyone, including his lawyer, and the pieces in what should be a cut-and-dried case just don't quite fit.

Ari Greene is the lead detective, and the series is named for him, but this story is told from multiple perspectives as well as Greene's, including Nancy Parrish the defence lawyer, Arthur Fernandes the prosecutor, and Daniel Kennicot, a young criminal-lawyer-turned-police-officer. It's a fairly straightforward procedural and steeped in Toronto in deep winter. Because of the multiple perspectives we don't get terribly deep into the heads of any of the characters, and Greene is a bit of a cipher, though the bits with his father are lovely. Daniel Kennicot was the character who really stood out for me, and this is a good thing as things seem set up to continue with him as a main character throughout the series.

The problems come in with the plot, a little, and the writing, a lot. The plot is well-done, except that it starts to spin a little out of hand, as though Rotenberg was trying to jam as much in as he possibly could, and make comments on certain societal things. It gets complicated and I do like that while the mystery wraps up there's still enough messiness to make it believable. And while I enjoyed the procedural aspects of the book a lot, I did find that Rotenberg gets a bit explain-y. He gives the reader too much information - doesn't let us come to our own conclusions, about characters or about events - and he often gets a bit dry while talking about aspects of the legal system, such that he's almost taking the reader aside and saying, "okay, this is how this works, this is why these characters are doing that."

I don't really need to be told how close to reality it is, I'd rather feel it's close to reality, if that makes any sense.

Regardless, I enjoyed, and enough that I'm hoping to get to The Guilty Plea soon. Paul Hecht, by the way, does an excellent job of the narration. I kind of forgot I was driving sometimes, I was paying so close attention. I should probably watch out for that. Recommended for fans of light and easy-to-follow mysteries, especially if you want a different sort of setting, and want to experience a parallel universe where the Maple Leafs are actually kind of a hockey team and not a joke.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Viking Canada, 2014
258 pages

This is a book best read by people who love words and stories. It's not a heavy story (surprising, given some of the subject matter) but it's heavy on the literary references and book world in-jokes. This is an easy, fast read, gently funny and somewhat predictable, which makes it a very comfortable summer read, even for someone like me, who generally doesn't read a lot of contemporary fiction because I like to keep reality out of my reading space.

A.J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a small literary bookstore on Alice Island. It's a quiet place in the winter, and a very busy place with tourists - the summer people - in the few sunny months. Things are not going the way A.J. planned; his wife, and business partner, was killed in an accident, and business is slowing, and A.J. is not the sort of person who can attract business the way his vibrant, socially adept wife could. But things are about to change for A.J. and his small circle of friends and acquaintances, with the introduction of a small, abandoned girl into his bookstore and his life.

I think if anything I'd maybe describe this story as a bit of a love letter to short stories, a mild statement on the value of sharing books, and a bit of a fairytale. It struck me that it managed to be neither maudlin nor manipulative, both very easy traps to slide into with a book like this, which I appreciate hugely. It wasn't terribly deeply examined either, so while some very difficult things happen to some of the characters, I'm not sure how much staying power this book has with me in the grand scheme of things. Weeks after I've actually finished reading the thing, I'm still enjoying the afterglow but maybe not as loudly enthusiastic as I was.

One thing that did strike me as I was reading was the way Zevin used multiple narrators. I am not usually a fan of this technique in the way Zevin was using it. Many times certain narrators have very important bits of information that other narrators don't, and because we care about what happens to these people and the relationships they have with each other, it becomes very tense, wondering who will find out what when and exactly what the fallout will be, and suspecting it will be very unpleasant for everyone involved. However, I think because of the way Zevin handles her characters, which is gently, I trusted her. The tension was there, but not overwhelming, and left space for enjoying the other aspects the story. Namely the literary references and the book world in-jokes.

Also, her foreshadowing is pretty clear. The ending, though not its specifics, is telegraphed, and I saw it coming. I was supposed to. I appreciated this as it meant nothing was a huge surprise (or not much) and it occurs to me that I'm not wild about being surprised in books, at least not about some things. At least not in the usual course of things.

It's not a remarkable book, but it's lovely and charming and - I've used this word already a couple times, but it fits - gentle. It's funny and if it treads lightly, that's okay by me. A recommended speedy, very readable summer book. Book clubs will likely get some mileage out of it, though hard to know how much. It might be fun to pair a couple of the short stories that form the backbone with the book; the Flannery O'Connor alone packs a more visceral punch than the whole book, if you like that sort of thing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly

Apologize, Apologize!
by Elizabeth Kelly
Knopf Canada, 2009
320 pages

This is a book that, like the family it chronicles, is a little dysfunctional. It has a severely split personality and I felt quite strongly that it got away from the author around the 3/4 mark, but she did bring it back, in the end. It's possible I was so thrown by those sections because this is not a usual kind of read for me, but despite the fact that I was a little blindsided it felt a little formulaic, too, which is a very odd juxtaposition. I saw it coming but couldn't quite believe it when it happened.

See, the thing is, a book tends to have a certain tone. And as much as explicit foreshadowing can, the tone can set the stage for what comes; the reader knows that there will be something of a certain magnitude and a certain temperament down the road. Part of an author's job is managing these expectations, I think. What happened to me as I was reading this book was that I did hit the crisis of a certain magnitude, as I expected - it was heavily (but not heavy-handedly) foreshadowed, the tone and early plot very nearly demanded it - but then rather than maintaining the level, several other events of enormous magnitude and very different temperament happened, and they felt out of place, though I understood where Kelly was trying to go with them. We veer crazily from madcap family tragicomedy to a war zone to medical malpractice before we finally come back to our senses, rather than unfolding in a way that feels both logical and emotionally true. I ended up with whiplash.

Which is not to say that this book doesn't have it's excellent moments, and I read it very quickly, almost compulsively, and I liked it, in the end.

So, the summary: Collie (yes, named after the dog) is a first-person narrator, detachedly telling us about his early life and his loudly dysfunctional, incredibly wealthy, strangely endearing (most of them) family. He sees himself as the sane one, the normal one, but he loves all of them, even his emotionally and sometimes physically abusive mother (I didn't see anything likeable about her at all; she had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which makes her the odd one out in the book) and he spends a lot of his time wanting to crawl into a hole to die of embarrassment, attempting to contain the damage, or trying to coax some sort of order out of the chaos. He's a very sympathetic narrator, and he doesn't spare himself. Dysfunction has made him who he is and he's benefited hugely from the wealth and profile of his family, but he's also very aware (and the reader more so) of just how destructive the dysfunction he grows up around is to everyone touched by it. It's not harmless, even if it is really funny a lot of the time.

One of the blurbs compares this to a Wes Anderson film, and while I try to take those with a grain of salt, I think that one is quite apt. The madcap antics of the eccentric characters that appear harmless on the surface, the underlying melancholy, the peaceful moments, the black humour, the slow unfolding of a tragedy that seems inevitable. That's the first part of the book and it holds up as a comparison. The rest of it not so much.

Collie is the most relatable character in the book, perhaps excluding the verbose, blustering but quietly tender Uncle Tom (acting as the family's live-in maid and servant, pigeon racer, alcoholic.) But getting back to my point that the dysfuction, while amusing, is not harmless: Collie is also incredibly dysfunctional in his own way. Because of the way he has grown up and the personality he has, he is a person whom things happen to; he is at the mercy of everyone around him. He is not forceful - almost religiously not forceful - and he doesn't hold convictions, and he doesn't have any follow-through either. He's a limp fish and while he doesn't ever ask for exoneration, it is not hard to imagine him saying "really, it all had to turn out like this."  And yet somehow I still liked him.

Tonally the book is uneven, but I did enjoy it for what it was, and I'm glad I read it. Mildly recommended to fans of contemporary dysfunctional family narratives (it's a whole genre!); you won't find it a difficult read, and it's got some lovely moments.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

three for the price of one!

How about a few mini-reviews to get caught up on things? In two cases because I don't have a huge amount to say, and in one it's because nymeth already said it all and better. Actually, it's kind of that way with two of them. I will get to that.

So, it's been a good month for romance over here, with two really enjoyable romance stories being ingested in an incredibly short space of time. One was a full-length novel and I ate it up the way one eats potato chips: delicious while the bag lasts and then you kind of feel a little ill because of the speed with which it disappeared. The other was a novella and I read it in two days and loved it. And the third book, unrelated to romance at all, was kind of a flop, but kind of not.

The Spymaster's Lady
by Joanna Bourne
Berkley Sensation, 2008
384 pages

This was one of those romance novels that's been on my radar for a long time; I read a number of great reviews back when I was doing a lot more blog reading than I am able to do right now. My library has it as an eBook, and I needed something fast and light, so away I went.

And it was fast and light, and a great deal of fun. This book is well-written, and the humour is funny, the danger is real, and the chemistry between the mains is palpable. Actually, in this case, I felt like the chemistry was actually more exciting than the inevitable payoff, but because some of the other stuff was so enjoyable I didn't mind so much.

This is a book with multiple perspectives - we get the heroine's version, the hero's, and the villain's (there may be others, I can't remember and I should have taken better notes, but those are the three main ones.) They're each likable or rabidly dislikable in the appropriate ways. Annique is a French spy, on the run after a task gone wrong has seen her run afoul of both her own countrymen and the English during the Napoleonic Wars. Grey is an English spy who helps her escape a predicament, but determines to capture her himself and bring her back to London for England's gain. Of course, the course of true love and serious spy games never did run smooth.

The villain POV stuff is always a tricky one for me and it rarely works; here it didn't either, and I felt it added nothing, nor moved the plot along. The villain is a bit overdone overall, but over the top doesn't feel out of place in a romp like this. There were a few things that stretched credulity for me for some reason, but there was also a nice couple of twists and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Governess Affair
by Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan, 2012
101 pages

It is possible that I didn't love The Spymaster's Lady quite as much as I might have because I chased it with this absolutely fantastic little nugget of romance writing. I am not sure this is the best romance story I've ever read - I am still very fond of some of Julia Quinn's books - but ... but it's really close. The writing sparkles and the story and characters - well, I'll point you at Ana's discussion of this piece, because even if she's coming at it from a very different angle from me, she's hit on why this is an excellent little piece.

It is a novella, so some of the character development seems a bit speedy - particularly the attraction between the two mains, Hugo and Serena. But within the conventions of the genre, Milan has written something that feels both plausible and sweet, working with the time period she has chosen (mid-1800s.) This story goes down really easily and yet makes one think, which is a lovely thing. Maybe it was just the length (I certainly don't think so) but I didn't end up feeling overstuffed at the end of this one despite the fact that I read it in less than 24 hours. In fact, I plan to dive right in to the first book in the Brothers Sinister series, to which The Governess Affair is a prequel. I'll be curious to see if Milan can pull off the full length as well as she's pulled off this novella. Really looking forward to it. Also, go read Ana's bit, serious. A feel-good story that made me feel happy after I'd read it.

Rooftoppers
by Katherine Rundell
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013
278 pages

Well, this was interesting. Again, I have Ana to thank for drawing this book to my attention, and while it didn't work out for me in the end, she kind of warned about that too. Interestingly, I think it maybe didn't work for me for different reasons. What happened to me was similar, though. Started with great promise, and then kind of lost steam. I loved the beginning, and the relationship that Sophie, our protagonist, has with her guardian, a scholar named Charles. It's charming and it's strangely believable, and if it's a bit over-the-top and a bit whimsical, I was on board.

Rundell has a proficiency with description and one-liners that is dynamite to read. Some of the language is beautiful and her writing is both funny and joyful, and that can usually carry a book for me. But. My problem is that Sophie is fixated, from the beginning, on something, to the point where nearly everything else is eclipsed. She recklessly endangers others she has grown to care about, and herself, in her quest, and this doesn't seem to have consequences. Maybe this is just a personal nitpick, but I don't find that sort of thing believable at all. In the end, it made me very lukewarm on a character I was otherwise disposed to adore. I'll read more Rundell because I think there's great potential here, and it is quite possible that middle-grade readers will enjoy this book more than I did.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Venetia
by Georgette Heyer (read by Richard Armitage)
Naxos AudioBooks, 2010 (originally published in 1958)
4 discs, abridged

Let us just be clear: I would far prefer to have read this unabridged than listen to it abridged, except that this Regency romance classic is narrated by King Thorin. So I let my standards slip a bit and chose to listen to the abridgement anyway.

And you know what? There were a few points where I think I missed out, and if I noticed I was missing out I'm sure there were more points where I missed out and didn't notice. That bugs me. But overall this abridgement works, and the narration, though weird to get used to at first (Richard Armitage does a good job with voices, but slightly less so with Venetia's voice) works really well, and the whole story is just a lot of fun.

I have never read Heyer. I would like to, but there is a lot I would like to read, and I can't remember when Venetia hit the top of the list as far as which Heyer I wanted to try first. Probably Aarti convinced me, because she made Venetia herself sound so fantastic. (Though it occurs to me too, re-reading Aarti's musings on this book, that perhaps I didn't miss so much in the abridgement, after all.)

Venetia Lanyon has led an incredibly sheltered life, by anyone's standards, for the first twenty-five years of her life. Her mother died when she was young, and her father closeted himself up and, by neglect, refused his children any emotional or practical support outside of feeding, sheltering, and clothing them. Venetia never went to London for a Season, and aside from being a bit wistful about the damage this has done to her prospects, she doesn't particularly feel the lack. Her elder brother is off in the army fighting Napoleon and her younger brother, whom she is close to, occupies himself with his studies, and Venetia manages the household, reads, walks, visits the neighbours, and generally enjoys herself. She has a couple of suitors - neither particularly suitable in her mind, but neither completely objectionable either - and some vague plans for the future, for it's fairly certain that her elder brother will eventually come home and marry, and she will be without a home.

Enter Lord Damerel, who is as worldly and rascally as Venetia is sheltered and good. Damerel isn't some rake-with-a-golden-heart, either, which is a trope I don't usually mind if done well but tends to be pretty stereotyped if not. He's thoroughly debauched, with the debts and the trail of women, and he's not terribly repentant, either. But when Venetia and Damerel meet, sparks fly, and something changes for both of them when they let themselves do the unwisest of things: they become friends.

There is a lot to like here, but I think what I liked best was how honest the leading couple is with each other. Damerel doesn't pretend to be something he's not (virtuous or wounded/damaged, being the two tropes that come to mind) and Venetia is pretty clear with him - and herself - as to her feelings and expectations on that front (she's mostly quite entertained by his stories). She might be sheltered but she's not stupid. And I loved that while everyone else is concerned about her reputation - that all-important currency for a woman in the period Heyer is writing about - Venetia really doesn't give a fig, as long as she gets what she wants. What she wants is Damerel. This particular character point, the carelessness of her own reputation and her willingness to court scandal, is supported by her sheltered upbringing and the fact that she's practically on the shelf without any serious prospects that she can stomach, not to mention that everyone in her life has worked very hard to keep her ignorant of some rather important bits of information. One can't really blame her for happily scheming to thwart all of them, especially since she's not thwarting them out of some sort of revenge or malicious impulse. It's just that their good opinion of her ceases to really matter.

What this comes out to is a light, highly entertaining Regency romance where the characters are all very believable (even the awful ones are believably awful) and the motives and means don't seem to be imposed from a different time, which is an achievement given how strong-willed and carefree Venetia is. The plot isn't terribly exciting or ground-shaking but it's solid and has enough turns to keep one's attention. The dialogue is funny, Venetia is fantastic, and the audio abridgement might have left me feeling like things were a tad rushed but overall still worked out really well. I think this was a great introduction to the Heyer canon for me and I'm absolutely looking forward to the next.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Shadows by Robin McKinley

Shadows
by Robin McKinley
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013
356 pages

Before I go too far with this review, I think it would be helpful to explain a bit about my relationship with Robin McKinley's writing. McKinley was the first fantasy author I read outside of Tolkien, and that book - The Hero and the Crown - made a huge and lasting impression on me. The lead character was female, she was an outcast, she was determined and kind and confused and smart. I devoured that book, and turned back to the beginning and devoured it again, and I have never stopped loving it, though the related book The Blue Sword is the one I love more and has become one of the books I've read the most over the years. I've also read Deerskin (and holy shit was that ever an eye opener when I read it as a young teen - it's not an easy book to read, subject-matter-wise), a number of her short stories, Beauty, The Outlaws of Sherwood, Chalice, and Sunshine - which is also my favourite McKinley book and one of my top three books of all time. I do fully intend to read her entire backlist at some point, with either Spindle's End or Rose Daughter being next on the list.

Suffice to say, I am fairly well-versed in McKinley's works. And while I like some of her books and stories better than I like others, I always respect her work, if that makes sense. She has really excellent characters, and very detailed, realistically flawed worlds, and she rarely wraps all the bits up by the end of the book, but she doesn't write sequels. Sometimes I don't love her endings, but unlike some books, when a McKinley ending doesn't quite work for me it doesn't generally ruin what came before (Chalice might be a slight exception to this rule; I really disliked the ending of that one, enough that I haven't read it since my first reading.) And another thing about McKinley is that each book is different; though there are common threads running through her body of work, the narrative voice is often wildly different between stories.

It's the narrative voice of the titular character that makes Sunshine such a hit for me, and it's that same voice that turns a lot of fans of her other books off that particular one too, I find. It's very unusual, a first person perspective that is almost, but not quite, given stream-of-consciousness rein. I love Sunshine. I love her, and I love the way I can almost become her when I'm reading that book. I love the way some of her expressions, idiosyncratic and odd as they are, bleed into my own personal stream-of-consciousness narrative when I'm reading that book and often for weeks after. I love her turn of phrase, I love the way she thinks. She, more than any other fictional character I have encountered, feels like a friend.

This is key to my feeling about Shadows, because Shadows is pretty much in the same vein. Maggie, the main character in Shadows, is younger and lives in a very different world from Sunshine (maybe?) but that next-to-stream-of-consciousness narration is there in full force. We are right there, inside Maggie's teenage head, as she's telling us the story, and she takes us on her tangents (some of which circle back to be important, and some of which are just flavour) and she flashes back and she uses a lot of slang.

By which I mean to say that I really, really liked this book, and it's probably not for everyone.

Maggie is seventeen years old, and her mother has just remarried after her first husband, the father of her two kids, was killed by a drunk driver seven years previous. Maggie feels she would probably be predisposed to dislike the guy - she's fair-minded that way - but she outright hates him, because he's not normal. He is an immigrant from Oldworld, where magic is still common, which is bad enough. In Newworld, where Maggie and her family live, magic isn't just not practiced, it's illegal. Anyone who shows any sign of being genetically predisposed to magic has their magic gene removed as a kid, and anything that seems odd is reported to the authorities immediately. There are still breaks in reality, completely unpreventable, but the army deals with those using advanced technology. Magic isn't necessary and it's destabilizing and unsafe. But Maggie's new stepfather, Val, has strange shadows that follow him everywhere and seem to move on their own, and Maggie can see them, and they terrify her.

There is a lot going on in Shadows, and part of what I love about it is that it's so easy to read anyway. We have a coming-of-age story. We have a society that might almost be a dystopia, but it's not, not quite, because there are some safeguards against completely authoritarian rule. But it's close, and over the course of the book we see how easy it might be for ordinary people (and even the not-so-ordinary ones) to just accept what they are told as truth, and how easy it might be for those who mean well to step over the line into despotism. What we have, in short, is a world that's unsettlingly familiar, in all its political chicanery and popular intellectual laziness.

We have a love story, but it's fairly secondary. We have a female friendship, between Maggie and her lifelong best friend Jill, that is realistically and beautifully portrayed; they're not catty, they're not mean to each other, they get each other, and sometimes they argue. We have a lot of diversity - Maggie is white, Jill is black, one of the love interests is Eastern European, and another of their good friends is Asian. We have a lot of parallels to our world - certain countries we recognize exist, like Japan, and there are cellphones and drunk drivers and pizza parlours and animal shelters and cliquey, slang-spouting teenagers muddling their way through high school and life. It's also absolutely not a world we live in, with its regularly occurring breaks in reality ("cohesion breaks" or cobeys) and magical gene splicing and "physics of the worlds" departments in local universities and a big army structure designed to clamp down on magic.

We also have a plot that develops surprisingly quickly and smoothly, given the roundabout narration, and that then proceeds with inevitable speed. This book moves once it gets going, and everything slots into its place, and while one's disbelief has to get suspended at one or two points, it mostly works. The end is a bit cheesy. But I've seen far worse.

Oh, and the book is funny.

I don't think this book is for everyone. Some of the slang is a bit overdone (for me, the parts where it worked amazingly well far outweighed the parts where it didn't) and as above, the ending didn't quite fit. But the detail of the world, and the enjoyment I got out of living in Maggie's head, and the fact that all the pieces don't always get explained (there's a bit about Val, the stepfather, that we never learn more about and it's BIG), and the fact that I used the word "cobey" in conversation without realizing in that moment that it wasn't actually a real thing that happens... You should read this, I think. It's not your ordinary young adult novel. It's not your ordinary adult novel. It's something McKinley does well, which is write something entirely, completely new, using bits and pieces of old, and throwing in a strong, vital, honest, and realistic female lead as a bonus.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in 80 Days (Extraordinary Voyages 11)
by Jules Verne, translated by Michael Glencross
Penguin Classics, 2004 (originally published in French in 1872)
248 pages

I feel kind of guilty, because a) I haven't been blogging, and b) I am cribbing a bunch of these notes from my book club notes and so am kind of not really blogging again. But at least there's some new material up here. It's not that I haven't been reading - I have - but more that I haven't been finishing much, and I have started quite a bit and either given it up for good or given it up for an indefinite period of time. It's also probably something to do with having a two-year-old who wants us to read and read and read, and who goes to bed late, and it's something to do with work changes that have been happening (good!) and spring! is! here! So we're spending lots of time outdoors and birdwatching and gardening and... not blogging.

Anyhow. So Jules Verne. This is the first thing I've ever read by him, though I recall that Journey to the Centre of the Earth was one of my favourite movies as a kid. The little bits of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea that I used to catch while it was playing on repeat on one of the three t.v. channels we got when I was a kid used to scare the complete pants off me, so I never have seen the full thing. And I have somehow escaped seeing any of the adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days at all. Verne is a bit of a gap in my reading, being as he is often considered the grand-père of science fiction. Perfect, therefore, for my genre book club.

Around the World in 80 Days was originally published in 1872 as a serial in France, and collected into a novel edition in 1873. It is considered one of Verne's best works, though it contains none of the speculative technology that Verne employed in other works, and therefore can't really be considered science fiction. That said, it is speculative, in that no one had actually accomplished the feat (the first person to do so, in 1889, was Nellie Bly), and employs the best factual information Verne could get at the time; so it skims very close to science fiction. It is considered a classic of modern adventure fiction. The main character is Phileas Fogg, a rigidly eccentric, very wealthy British gentleman who takes a bet at his club one evening that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. He drags his newly employed French valet Passepartout along for the ride (Passepartout, it could be argued, is the real hero of the story.) Along the way they rescue a maiden in distress, purchase an elephant, take a wind-powered sledge across the frozen prairies, are attacked by Sioux warriors and waylaid by an enormous herd of bison, arrested, and finally resort to piracy on the high seas to get where they are going on time.

I didn't really love it but I certainly didn't hate it either, and I'm quite glad I read it. I think the big hurdle for me (aside from some of the cringe-worthy and unhappily predictable racist bits, particularly in the section where the train across the American prairies is attacked by Sioux warriors) was Verne's pedantic style, and his habit of getting sidetracked by... uh, "interesting" technical details. He spent more time describing the shortcomings of the P&O ships than the rescue of Passepartout from the Sioux.

The characters were placeholders and occasionally totally inexplicable, and clearly there to serve the plot, though I will admit that this does leave the reader's imagination entirely free to fill in whatever gaps they would like, and mine generally did. It was interesting to read the portrayal of Phileas Fogg compared to Passepartout, knowing that certain French/British rivalries were still very much in force at the time of the book's writing: Fogg is completely unreachable; Passepartout, while more relatable, is often rather a puppy-dog-like dufus, though a very brave and agile one.

One piece of criticism I read suggested that none of the English translations available really do Verne's writing justice, which could be part of the problem, though part of me doubts that the translators can do much when he chooses to spend a bunch of time elaborating on the genius of American railway engineering instead of the inner life of his characters. If I had the patience I could see trying a different translation, and perhaps I will some day, but I thought Michael Glencross did quite a serviceable job with the material he had.

As an interesting side note: I had to see if wind-powered ice sledges actually existed, because I was pretty much thinking that was an invention straight out of Verne's very creative, very speculative, and very scientific mind. Apparently not. Right around the time Verne was writing this book they were making headlines for racing trains and beating them.

All in all, glad I read it, would recommend it to the right person (interested in historical adventure, perhaps, and in a light, quick read.) Not going to be considered one of my favourite books, but I do feel like Verne is part of the consciousness of our culture, and now I have a better background understanding of why. Would probably try Verne again, most likely Journey or 20 000 Leagues, though I'll admit Five Weeks in a Balloon rather tickles my fancy too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Blackstone Audio, 2008
22 discs, unabridged

This book is phenomenal, and therefore I'm not sure how I'm going to talk about it without gushing unscientifically all over the blog. One looks at 22 discs of what is essentially science biography (though much, much more than that) and quails a little at the task one has set oneself, but if I didn't love exactly every minute of it, it was close. This book is extremely well-written and lends itself to listening, though I think I will eventually re-read as well, since there were quotes and details that I know I have forgotten due to being in a car and not being able to stop to write things down.

For a brief summary, to help me put my thoughts in order: this book takes us, time-wise, from Captain Cook's voyage to view the Transit of Venus from Tahiti to that fateful voyage of the Beagle, with one Charles Darwin along as ship's naturalist. This book is described in some places as a book that delves into the lives specifically of astronomer Sir William Herschel and chemist Sir Humphry Davy, both names which are hopefully at least vaguely familiar to most people. I would say that in addition it is framed by the extraordinary life and career of Sir Joseph Banks, who was a self-financed naturalist aboard Cook's ship the Endeavour and went on to become one of the British Royal Society's greatest presidents, presiding over that body for 41 years.

With Banks' life and Royal Society presidency framing the book, we do spend a lot of time with William Herschel and even more with William's sister Caroline - whom, I am horrified to say, I had even not heard of - and then subsequently Davy, whom I knew of mostly as the inventor of the Davy Safety Lamp, that ingenious mining lamp that saved many a coal miner from a horrible fate. Turns out I had a lot to learn about Romantic Science.

Holmes makes a strong case, and makes it explicit in his Epilogue, that part of understanding the history of science is understanding the people who shaped science, not just listing their discoveries or theories. The term "scientist" didn't even exist until after the 1830s, and even as it started to emerge was incredibly controversial (attached, as it was, very provocatively, with the term "atheist," though it was also attached to "economist" and "chemist" and the like.) Therefore, understanding the major players and the major achievements in this tremendously exciting and fertile pre-modern period is tremendously important when we're trying to understand how we got where we are today.

So, biography: not one of my favourite genres. I tend to spend a lot of time wondering how the heck the biographer knows So-and-So was thinking That when This happened, particularly if So-and-So didn't leave a lot of documentation behind. Luckily for us, the So-and-Sos of the Romantic period in Britain tended to leave heaps of documentation behind: letters, lab notes, journals, published works, even memoirs. Holmes quotes liberally from all of these and makes connections, and occasionally includes corroborating quotations from So-and-So's friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and contemporary media (newspapers, pamphlets, even satirical and critical publications). In other words, I had no problem with the biographical portions of the book.

What I realized was a) how little I really did know about that period of history, and b) how much we knew, even back in the late 1700s. How quickly, once the voltaic battery was created, Davy started isolating and identifying elements. How soon the Herschels realized that the universe was enormous, that we were just one little planet in a universe that likely contained millions of such planets and almost certainly contained other forms of life. Think of the religious implications of this at a time when challenging accepted Christian doctrine could be deadly in Britain (Holmes mentions, briefly, the mob attack on Joseph Priestley's library and home; I believe there were a number of factors there, but religion was the big one.) The Herschels, happily, managed to avoid any such violence, despite the fact that Herschel was pretty clear on the fact that he believed there was life on the Moon. Their whole story was totally fascinating, not just because of their combined brilliance and the number and importance of the discoveries they made, but because of the relationship they had, the emotional and sometimes strained bond they shared. Apparently other Herschel biographers tend to be hard on Caroline; Holmes is mostly very sympathetic to her, providing a well-rounded picture of both siblings and their relationship. He provides a convincing argument that they felt deep affection for each other, but doesn't gloss over the fact that both had their difficult moments and unhappiness.

I think what struck me most profoundly about the whole book was that Holmes didn't just look at the lives of the scientists or their achievements, but also, so importantly, at the lives and thoughts of the literary figures who were their contemporaries: the Shelleys, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and Erasmus Darwin (whose enormous poem The Botanic Garden is now firmly on my TBR), and many others to a lesser extent. One of the digression chapters, in which we veer away from the lives and accomplishments of the Herschels and Davy, is on the beginning of hot air balloons; in addition to being the most tragic chapter, for reasons that should be easy to understand, it's also one of the more amusing, thanks to a few well-chosen quotes from Sir Horace Walpole. We see that science and poetry are connected, intimately, at this period of time, though arguments about the oppositional nature of science and literature, empirical fact and creative imagination, are starting to surface as well. This splitting of science from the arts is touched on a couple of times, I think to good effect. It's a topic I find particularly interesting, especially in our society where it tends to be assumed that someone who is good at math necessarily is not at all interested in literature, and someone who loves to paint couldn't possibly give a fig about physics. Holmes even touches on one of my particular pet issues when discussing Davy: applied science versus theoretical science, and the need in a progressive society for both.

This book is absolutely well worth the time and effort. I ended it wanting to know more, which is not to say that Holmes didn't give me enough to ruminate on. The Age of Wonder is at times sad, thrilling, awe-inspring, frustrating, funny, and always, always fascinating. Holmes writes incredibly well - very clearly, with occasional dry humour, creating tension without manipulating the reader so that suddenly you're halfway through the book and it feels like you've just started it; and he manages to make everything very accessible so that even those who aren't familiar with the scientific concepts he's discussing will have no difficulty following. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013
336 pages

This is a book that kind of surprised me. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, but in the end I enjoyed it very much. The thing was, when I started, I was kind of - meh. The dynamic in this book is often found in children's books with an environmental theme: little guy, loves the swamp, all good; big bad guy, inexplicably hates all nature, and is totally, almost comically, irredeemable. Little guy through dint of hard work and some luck shows up the big guy, who vanishes from the picture, never to return. Paradise is saved.

I find this plot and character dynamic really problematic for a couple of reasons, but let's flesh out The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp a bit first. The success of this book is in the details. And do not get me wrong: this book is successful. It's funny, tender, clever, creative, and hugely enjoyable. I'll get my vent off my chest first, but then I'll get to the good bits.

In this case, the "little guy" is actually played by three characters in two separate but connected storylines: Bingo and J'miah are the titular true blue Swamp Scouts, raccoons who have taken an oath to protect the swamp and serve the Sugar Man, the giant creature who mostly sleeps but occasionally wakes to eat some delicious sugar cane or deal out some mayhem to enemies of the swamp. Chap Brayburn is the 12-year-old grandson of a man by the name of Audie, proprietor of Paradise Pies Cafe, birdwatcher and swamp dweller. Audie is recently deceased. So now, enter Sonny Boy Beaucoup, our first big bad guy, owner of the swamp who is about to repossess Paradise Pies Cafe and turn the whole mess into an alligator wrestling stadium and theme park with his business partner and World Champion Alligator Wrestler, diminutive, unsavoury, and fierce Jaeger Stitch. Our second strand of big bad guys, to counter Bingo and J'miah, are the Farrow Gang, a family of big, bad, itinerant wild hogs bent on eating the swamp's delicious muscovado sugar cane. The swamp is in terrible, terrible danger from foes human and not.

Okay, so my problem with setups like this is that there are never any grey areas, and maybe for children's literature that's okay, sometimes. Kids do have a more defined idea of right and wrong in situations like this, and cut-and-dried "swamp/other undervalued natural area = good, development of said area = bad" with heroes and villains really does appeal. Heck, it appeals to adults; I felt as satisfied as anyone when Sonny Boy gets his. And I am a naturalist, I would even go so far as to call myself an environmentalist: I am all for anything that celebrates nature and the environment and touts its value. I can enjoy a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the developer who hates nature gets his ass kicked in the end.

The problem with this kind of black and white situation is that it exists essentially nowhere in reality and while it's fun to play that wish-fulfillment game, it's also destructive. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that there are quite so many supervillainous, obsessive nature haters out there as environmentally-themed fiction would have us believe. People who don't see the value of a meadow, yes; people who want to destroy the meadow because it's a personal affront to them that it exists? Who rub their hands together, revelling in their gleeful evil plans? I am not so sure. Perhaps I am wrong.

The thing is, this black and white rhetoric isn't limited to fiction; it's been a staple of some segments of environmental movements, and that kind of rhetoric doesn't generally win friends or supporters. I did genuinely believe as a kid that people who built parking lots and malls were evil and actively hated the planet, but as an adult I can see that's not the case; they simply don't see it, I think, and sometimes they do see it but they also see jobs, economy, and yes, personal cash. (As an aside sure to win me friends, I do still occasionally wonder if the tar sands operators and their political champions do actively hate nature; I am not quite sure how they can justify what they do without some sort of pathological issue.) I can see where jobs and economy and protecting nature intersect, I can see where there are no simple solutions and where pretending there are does everyone, including the environmental movements, a disservice.

All right, so there, in a too-big nutshell, is my problem with this book, which is mostly a problem with this type of book. On the surface this is a simple, moral-heavy story with incredibly simplistic solutions. I want a little more nuance in the discussion, because I think kids can handle the nuance. I think adults need the nuance. Let's get to the parts that I liked, the parts that had me reading quickly and past my bedtime and occasionally giggling out loud.

The narrator's voice. And I know I'm not going to be joined in this by everyone who reads this book, but I really, really enjoyed the narrator's voice. Perhaps it puts me in mind a bit of a very Southern US E. Nesbit, with its empathetic warmth, the comic asides, and chattiness, and I like that sort of thing. The narration should have seemed hokey and overdone, but it didn't. To me, it added to the charm and the atmosphere of the book. And the narrator keeps the pace moving at a good clip; I can't believe how quickly I read once I got going. I didn't want to put the thing down.

Many of the sections are told from the point of view of the raccoons, and these were by far my favourites, though I liked Chap a lot. The raccoon storyline was what brought originality to the book, made it something beyond the little-guy-vs-big-bad environmental fable. It's a bit coming-of-age, a bit of myth-making, with the denizens of the swamp heavily anthropomorphized but still animals. I developed an incredible fondness for Bingo and J'miah and that could be because I do have a bit of a fondness for raccoons in general (while still recognizing they can be terribly destructive, even slightly malicious little jerks) but it's also because Appelt makes them relatable, charming, full of mischief and also full of good intentions.

I loved how human ephemera plays a roll in the ecology of the swamp. Bingo and J'miah live in an old Chrysler De Soto, and J'miah discovers some treasures in it - to tell what they are is to spoil it, and part of the joy of the narration is the way it hops around, lighting on things and connecting them, bit by bit.

And - slight spoiler - I loved that Appelt felt that the existence in the swamp of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, that elusive but perhaps still-extant dweller of the deepest parts of the swamps of the southern States, could remain a question mark. That kind of ambiguity and subtlety is missing from the overall plot and I would have liked more, but I am happy with what I got.

Recommended and I'm really looking forward to hearing what the parent-child book club has to say about this one. If the cut-and-dried environmentally-themed narrative with bad guys and good guys doesn't appeal to you, this will probably irritate you on some levels, and if you're not a fan of folksy narrators this book will drive you up the wall and likely over it. People who have problems with anthropomorphized animals will also want to steer clear. But if you're curious about an original story, steeped in atmosphere, told with warm humour and charm, this is a good choice. If you like an environmental message and like it when people get their nature facts right, this is also fun. If you like rattlesnakes, if you wish the bad guys would just be unsympathetically bad and lose a little more often, if you want to believe that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is still there somewhere in the deepest, darkest part of the swamp, pick this one up. Many thanks to Cecelia for bringing it to my attention in the first place!