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...