Saturday, 28 May 2016

Book Lists: The Woods

In writing my review for Uprooted yesterday, I asked friends on Facebook about other books where the woods played a featured role that they enjoyed. We had a discussion about why Canadian literature tends to feature the woods so prominently, as well as suggestions for a number of genre books that fit the theme.


Since I'm contemplating starting a book group that would read around specific themes for three or four months at a time, I need somewhere to keep these lists, and my blog seems as good a place as any.

Here's the list -

Touch by Alexi Zentner
Margaret Atwood Short Stories (probably Surfacing too)
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter
Mythago Wood and Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

What books make you think of the woods and why?

Great suggestions that have come in:

"Little House in the Big Woods" - Laura Ingalls Wilder
"The Snow Child" - Eowyn Ivey
"When the Wild Comes Leaping Up: Personal Encounters With Nature" - edited by David Suzuki

Friday, 27 May 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik


This was already a big book last year before I ever picked it up. At the time I started it, it was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula. When I was about halfway through, it won the Nebula, which caused a friend to observe that I was reading it "before it was cool." However, I read half of it after, so that was only half true. I questioned whether or not that made me Schrodinger's Hipster?

Honestly, it doesn't matter. I really really enjoyed this book, and I'm pretty sure that would true whether or not it was popular. And it certainly was popular before me, given that it has been nominated for all the awards this year. 

I have read three of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which I enjoyed but didn't love, finally giving up because I wasn't getting enough out of them. There were good things, but much that didn't hold together. With Uprooted, she'd taken a quantum step forward, using the forms she's working within to structure but not confine the story she wants to tell.  

In the Temeraire books, she was trying so hard to write Napoleonic War naval books with dragons that it often meant that the plot was sidelined in favour of the convention of that small genre of fiction. She did it well, but there was no question that it prevented the books from taking flight.

In this case, she's taking the forms and patterns of fairy tales, but instead of being confined by them, she's set free to weave a truly enchanting, sometimes terrifying story that was wholly satisfying.

I am sure that surprises no one. I've long been public about how much I love books that are based on fairy tales, if they're done well. This is one of my favourites so far, not quite as dear to me as Catherynne Valente's Deathless, but getting closer than I might have thought possible. So really, I'm delighted that she won the Nebula.

Okay, I swear to goodness that I'll get to the plot and specifics about the book soon, but first, one more meandering. Just before the Nebula ceremony, I read an article someone had written for Barnes & Noble about the nominees and who the writer thought would win. Uprooted was dismissed because the reviewer liked it, but thought it was too weird. I was about halfway through the book at that point, and I just stared in bafflement at that phrase. Too weird? In what way?  

Then I finished the book, and my thoughts are unchanged. I mean, what exactly is weird about this book? Narratively, it's very straightforward. The characters live in a fairy tale world, but are clear extrapolations on tropes you find there. There's really nothing drastically experimental about it. There are books out there, some that I dearly love, that are truly weird. This is not one of them.

Too weird? I mean, have you ever read a fairy tale before? 

Because this is a fairy tale above all else. There are elements of Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, as well as just the general feel of a Germanic folk tale. 

The book starts in a small town on the edge of a vast malevolent Woods. It reaches out and takes people, corrupts them and sometimes sends them back. They cannot be cured. On the edge of the wood, a wizard known as the Dragon lives in a tower. Every ten years, he selects a girl from the villages to be his servant for the next ten years (and, it is presumed, his bed warmer.) It is always the girl with the most spirit, the most beautiful and daring, the most like a heroine from an adventure story.

Everyone knows who it's going to be this year. Except that it isn't. It's her rather plainer, much messier friend, Agnieska. Do I want to say why? I don't feel like it's a massive spoiler - he recognizes untapped power in Agnieska, and he dislikes her as a person, but feels the responsibility to teach her how to use it.

Royalty visits, with complications. Agnieska has trouble with the Dragon's style of magic, and discovers her own. Tragedy strikes her village, and Agnieska starts to kick over the traces, to push the Dragon to do something about the Wood.

More than that I don't really want to say. It's a really marvellous unfolding of the story, completely satisfying as Agnieska negotiates magic and malice, politics and passions. The other characters may do things that are infuriating, but Novik is always very clear as to why they are making the choice they are making, even down to aspects that you wouldn't expect.

Also, although romance is by far not the most important part of the book, the romance that does occur I really enjoyed. The reasons keeping them together and apart were convincing, and I was very happy with the way it all played out.

All in all, Novik has created something very special in Uprooted, and I strongly recommend it.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins


I still don't know very much about poetry. I don't know where to go to find new poets. I have little sense of the time and effort it takes to craft a poem. All I do know is that ever since I was introduced to Billy Collins' poetry, I have loved it very, very much. I've written reviews for two of his books of poetry previously, and I'm not really sure what new to say, except that Picnic, Lightning (a reference to Nabokov's Lolita) is similarly marvellous.

It's hard to explain what it is that always strikes me so keenly when I read Collins. It's not sentimental, but there is this sense of the eternal behind the mundane, the eternal through the mundane, a moment where the scattered debris of our lives is not just what it is, but is also something that connects us. This description makes it seem more touchy-feely than it is. 

I always have a hard time explaining what I feel in these poems. It's that ephemeral and yet not shallow sense of connection, of paying attention to moments that otherwise pass by, thousands of them a day, and yet, when attention is placed just right, with just the right words, there are glimpses of transcendence and yet still of the sheer ordinariness of most of life.

I need that, in particular today, when I'm in the middle of a day where computers and tedious tasks and people not doing things they're supposed to are cluttering up my mind. It's not so much that I can get past that, to some zen state, but rather that I can recognize it as part of a pattern, a day that might resonate with other people if not for the same petty reasons, then for the same aggravated heart.

But that's what I'm bringing to this review and this book today.

There were several poems in this collection that I just absolutely adored - "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Alley" for one, about the idea of a golden past and the use poetry makes of it, and "Looking West" for the sense of solidity and movement at once.

I am not sure what else to say. I don't know how to analyze poetry. I took one English course in university and dropped it as a subject forever, taking my refuge in History and Drama. This is going to be a short review, but I continue to really love Billy Collins' poetry, for its depth and its surface, its accessibility and its sometimes sly and hidden layers. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

"Green Grew The Lasses" by Ruth Laura Wainwright


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

From: Galaxy, July 1953

"Green Grew the Lasses" gave me remarkably few lines to add to my "hilarious things to retweet or review" file, which is impressive. In fact, it's not a bad little story. It's not mind-bogglingly good, either, but it's quite competent. There are a few minor issues, but on the whole, perhaps worth a read. It's one of only a few old SF stories that I've reviewed that were written by women, and the other that comes to mind was such a mess.

Unfortunately, I can't find out much about who Ruth Laura Wainwright was, and on online databases, this is the only story that shows up.

It's all about gender, which means it's right in my wheelhouse. It also has a take on a world without men that is entertaining because it is also such a rare perspective. In most variations I've seen on this idea (and oddly, the one novel I remember reading it I can't trace and no list of books with this theme seems to include it), the abolition of men has happened with living memory. The women left remember what men were (and virtually always, there's at least one man still around, getting to carry the load of masculinity for a world.)

In this story, the women in a small California town start to turn green, and then to get pregnant without intercourse. It doesn't take the reader long (although it takes the characters much longer) to figure out that the four green women who just moved there are not from around here. In the sense that they're from another planet, and the weed they've planted in this town is behind both the hue and the babies. Venus, apparently, has never had men. It has no concept of men.

So when the Venusian women are confronted by men, they're not hostile, scared, or even lustful. They're just baffled. What are these people and what possible use could they be? And that attitude never changes - they never decide that men are bad. They just don't see the point of them.

When the women of the small town make it clear that they don't want to come back to Venus to help repopulate the feminine utopia (without the need to work, apparently), the Venusian women leave. (See, each has only one daughter via the fainweed, and so I would guess that attrition through accident would slowly deplete their numbers).

That is one quibble I have, though. I'm fine with most women not wanting to go back to Venus, but really? Not one single woman in 1950s suburbia hears the story about a world without work, populated only by women, where they'll have one daughter and spend the rest of their lives doing pleasant things, and says "fuck yes, sign me up"? Really? Not one?

(One woman does go back with them, but that's because she's determined to show them the error of their shiftless, menless, baby-out-of-wedlock ways. Or maybe that's just why she says she's going. Actually, that character is a little inconsistent, veering between small-town petty moralist and New York gal who is too worldly for her California cousins.)

The characters are a little dense, needing to be hit over the head with an anvil before they figure out that these four women (one named Patty Pontiac or something like that, for goodness sake!) aren't from around here. In other words, they're none of them science fiction readers. I don't mind it taking some convincing, but there's taking a while to be convinced and then there's just being obtuse.

Still, there were few hilariously bad lines, and I enjoyed this take on a world without men running into them the first time and being totally uninterested in the concept.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

We Were Liars by e. lockhart

 

*Many Spoilers*

This is a book that depends on a twist, which makes it hard to talk about, how it succeeds or fails as a narrative structure without spoiling great swathes of the plot. So I'm going to spoil it with rather more abandon than I usually do. If you don't want to know what happens, stop reading now. 

I am not an avid reader of young adult fiction. I don't avoid it, but I rarely find books that strike a deep chord with me in that particular genre. Unfortunately, this book gets firmly put on that pile. In chatting online about one of the issues with friends yesterday, I started to think through what the book does, and why in the end, I think it does them badly.

First, this book is all about the twist ending. It's what you hear in the advance buzz. I think it's mentioned on the inside cover. The twist ending is the thing. However, I tend to only like twist endings when they a) feel inevitable given what has gone before and b) if the book works perfectly well if you know what the twist ending is in advance, and get to appreciate what the author is skillfully doing maneuvering you towards that end.

In other words, twists can be fine, but if they're all you got? It ain't enough.

That's one problem with this book. Other than the twist, there isn't that much here. The other is that this is all about rich people problems. Which is not to say I don't think rich people don't have problems, but when they're taken out of socioeconomic context and simply revolve around us feeling bad for people who own their own private island with four mansions/larger houses for summer living, in addition to everything else, and how difficult their lives are...I really do find it difficult to care.

Particularly, once I started to think about it, the story really isn't about who the story is about. As written, this is about four young people (mostly cousins, with one Indian-American friend) trying to stay close while their families are being pulled apart. This doesn't work for two reasons.

First, because the author is so trapped by needing that twist ending, we really don't get much of the sense of the families being pulled apart, of the internecine battles over inheritance. We don't get the conflict, and therefore there is no build to the twist at the end. It feels toothless, and leads not to a gasp but rather to a moment of "why the fuck would they ever have wanted to do that?" You cannot wait until the last thirty pages to tell us "oh, and the mothers of these children had been fighting between themselves all summer and making everything miserable" and still have it have the punch, or more specifically, the slow burn, that would then make that ending at least understandable.

*Twist Spoiler*

The four kids set fire to their grandfather's mansion on the island two years ago. Three of them died. They're present all book, but they seem to be ghosts or hallucinations.

You need the build-up to that act to make it make sense. Leaving that out? Nonsensical.

Secondly, this means that the real story is about the parents, not the kids. We don't get to see the hard times the kids are going through, and really, it doesn't seem to be that bad. They're literally a year away from college and getting to live their own lives, and we don't get a keen sense other than that their mothers think the inheritance is important. But not too much of that, because it might give away the twist. (See above, re: not letting the audience know what the fuck is going on.)

If this is actually a story of rich people being so dependent on their parents that they never have learned any skills or abilities and then being threatened with that being pulled away by an increasingly senile adult, why wouldn't you focus on that? In other words, if you want to King Lear the shit out of this, don't you think that maybe that's where the story is?

I know, then it wouldn't be YA, but seriously. Make your main conflict affect your main characters. This doesn't seem like rocket science.

And then we get to the amnesia. The remaining teen has amnesia around setting fire to the house. It's the most peculiar fucking amnesia in the world, in that not only has she blocked out a traumatic event (maybe, but dicey), but her amnesia is SO selective that every time someone tells her what happened, she forgets THAT AND ONLY THAT. Wow, memory does not work that way. (Hence why she doesn't realize her cousins aren't real? I guess? We're never led to believe that persistent hallucinations are really a problem.)

You know what? I was in an explosion when I was young. I don't remember every moment of it. But there was never a time where I forgot that I'd just talked about it with someone. EVER.

So what we have here are rich people problems without context, a withholding of plot until the twist ending, a story that has its main conflict not affect its main characters, and amnesia that is a plot contrivance in the worst possible way. All hanging on a twist ending that does not redeem the rest.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell


You start a David Mitchell book, and you know its going to intertwine in some way with his other books, part of this huge universe behind the scenes. Given that many of his books have as their theme the interconnectedness of people, it's fitting that those interconnections go beyond the covers. I suppose it could be considered distracting, but I am a huge David Mitchell fan, and every time I discover the connections between his books, it gives me a thrill of absolute and utter delight.

This is a book of interconnected ghost stories, about a house that appears once every nine years and someone disappears with it each time. The stories themselves are creepy, and the forces behind the house remind me of some of the aspects of other Mitchell books. But then, in the last story, a new character is introduced and one word is mentioned, and it made me so unreasonably happy.

It makes me happy because if you don't know Mitchell's other books, it's just a word. But if you do, then you know, suddenly, that this last story will be very different from the ones that have gone before, and get a general idea of just how it's going to be different. Just one word. Suddenly, you know more than the average reader, and certainly more than most of the characters. 

I am the target audience, as I've read all of Mitchell's books except one (number9dream), and I love being in that club where the books unfold into each other like a flower. I had the same experience reading Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet after The Bone Clocks, and discovering how those books nestled together in delightful ways that significantly changed how I read both. 

I confess to a bit of uneasiness about books that are written for insiders, but I generally think that Mitchell's books are perfectly accessible to those who are not already massive fans of his. To someone who is coming to him fresh, this is a creepy little book of ghost stories. There's just that added layer of metafiction if you have more knowledge, easter eggs that are left just for those who have read all of his books. Not just references to make readers happy, but ways in which the reading of the book is substantially changed by knowing more. 

It comes down to this - this all works without the layering of meaning. It's not gimmicky, and it genuinely adds to the world he's creating. 

However, for those of you who haven't devoured every book he's ever written except one, there's a lot here to like as well. This is a book of ghost stories, each one creepy in a different way, and weaving together into a satisfying whole. Who is behind the disappearances at Slade House, and who or what is calling people to it are all gradually and satisfyingly revealed.

I had creepy crawly feelings running down my spine a few times in this book, particularly when something seemed to be going well for someone, because you knew it just couldn't be that easy. Not when there were more stories in the book.

It's certainly not as substantial or dense a book as many of his others, but if you like supernatural horror or something like it, I think these stories would be up your alley. And if you enjoy them, maybe you dip a toe deeper into David Mitchell's universe and see that the water's fine, but the ripples spread from book to book and beyond.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley




People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by LibraryHungry

I am not easily squicked. It comes from growing up with an emergency room nurse as a mother, and therefore having a different line than most people between "normal dinner table conversation" and "why the fuck would you say that while I'm eating?" There aren't many books that push those buttons for me, largely because I am not a visual thinker, and so descriptions of what gross things look like I can shrug off. (It's a bit different if we add in sound or smell.)

I bring this up because I was about two-thirds through this book before I started to tell my husband "you know what? This is really gross." Not too gross, because most of it was visual in nature, but definitely approaching the limits of what I can read while I'm eating.  (Stiff was probably the only book that was too much to read while I ate. I read while I eat a lot, so this is an important consideration.)

However, despite the grossness of the threats in this book, it's mostly quite rollicking fun. We have here a British secret service made up of people with supernatural powers (including a vampire). In fact, the British government has long more or less conscripted everyone with strange powers and pressed them into some kind of service within the Checquy.

Myfanwy Thomas (who, to my perpetual discombobulation, pronounces it "Miff-un-ee" like it rhymes with Tiffany) is one of the eight people who run the Checquy, as a Rook, which means that she's essentially one of two running all internal matters. As the book starts, she has no idea who she is, but whoever she was before whatever happened happened at least knew that this utter loss of identity was coming, and has tried to leave her enough notes to keep her alive and maybe figure out who wanted her mind erased.

It's a spy novel, essentially, with lots of crazy powers running around (Myfanwy can control other people's bodies, although her former self had a serious mental block about doing so, something that does not carry over to the new Myfanwy.)

We get a lot of history of how the Checquy came into place, and a slow burn through what the conspiracy is and what the former Myfanwy had discovered before her identity went poof. There are also strange houses with chanting and purple light from which no one comes back, a dragon hatching, and the threat of the Belgians. Well, the Grafters, who are Belgian fleshmancers. Or flesh scientists? Whichever, they can do some truly creepy shit with the body, and have been enemies of the Checquy for centuries, at least until they were destroyed in a battle a couple of hundreds years ago.

It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that the next part of that sentence is "Or were they?"

It will also likely not be surprising that the threats are both from without and within. 

My only real problem (and it's a small one) is that we get all these documents from the former Myfanwy to the present Myfanwy, and somehow it takes her weeks to actually sit down and read them all. If it were me, I'd be reading while I ate. I'd be reading in the car while being driven to work. I'd be reading on the fucking toilet - if all you have between your new self and possible death or more brain death, the reading of this stuff would not done when I got around to it.

Other than that, this is a fun spy story with superpowers, shading slightly on the gross side, but not terribly so. I would certainly be interested to hear what happens next, and I'm told the next book will be forthcoming soon.

Book Notes: While I was writing this review, there was a lively discussion on my facebook about other books with issues of identity and the complexities thereof. Here are some other books that people contributed as suggestions:

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory (the first story, I think)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Isniguro
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
books by Virginia Woolf or Philip K. Dick
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Quick by Lauren Owen



*Some Broad Spoilers Below, But Few Specific Ones*

I feel like this novel is trying to do a lot of interesting things with vampires, but doesn't quite stick the landing on many of them. The writing is good, and the ideas are intriguing, but almost none of them are followed to the point where I was satisfied. Time and again, the really interesting stuff was dropped long before I was ready to let it go. I've mentioned that I love Daryl Gregory for his ability to follow through on the implications of an idea far longer that I would have expected. This book has the reverse - there are ideas I desperately want to see developed further, but they just keep getting dropped.

Hopefully with further books, Owen will figure out how to make her ideas work together rather than using one for a while and discarding it. There is a lot here to like, and a great deal of potential.The style of the writing seems to be deliberately borrowing from the multi-narrator effect you get from Dracula or The Woman in White. It works not badly, although like The Woman in White, the story's never quite as interesting after you get away from the characters in whom you have the most invested.

The story starts with Charlotte and James as children, brother and sister, and their experiences growing up. It shifts then to Victorian London, where James has gone as a young man to try to be a writer. In what is probably the most interesting part of the book, he starts a sexual relationship with the other man who shares his flat, and their  desire and the repercussions are compelling.

It is therefore extremely unfortunate that the author then promptly kills one of the young men and turns the other into a vampire. Even more unfortunate, beyond jumping right into the Bury Your Gays trope, is the strange decision to have the vampires all be virtually sexless. There is no trace of sexual desire in any of them after this point, and given the discussion I sparked on my Facebook this morning, that's damned unusual.

So, not only does being turned into a vampire suck the sexual desire rightout of you, it also means that not only is one of the two gay characters dead, the other one's sexuality is just...dropped. Vampirism is generally all about desire, sometimes campily so, even if desire is transferred from sex to blood.

It becomes a question why the first part of your book focuses on this (and does it in an interesting fashion) and then has it disappear altogether! Unfortunately, this is only the first of several themes that are raised and then dropped.

Charlotte comes to London to try to find her brother, who is fighting giving in to his vampirism, and we're given a taste (so to speak) of that. The Gentlemen Vampires Club (The Aegolian, I think) behind James' transformation is delving into medical study of their own phenomenon, and we get slightly into a class war between the upper-fanged vampires who want to only turn the best and brightest, and the dingy biters of the streets, who are kept more or less under control in a Dickensian neighborhood, with more literal sucking dry of the poor.

Wait, I forgot to mention that it's pretty heavily implied that Oscar Wilde steals and rewrites James' play into The Importance of Being Earnest, since it is dropped mid-vamp attack on their way to visit him. But nothing's really done with that.

Meanwhile, Charlotte falls in with other roving vampire hunters, except that they don't really hunt vampires, since these vampires are much harder to kill than the ones we've come to know. Mostly they help vampire targets get the hell of the biting grounds. We get a little of what it's like to be a female performer/vampire preventer, but that's another theme that I would have liked to see a whole lot more about, not to mention the repressed love between her and her partner, the father of her former fiance. (This is the problem - this is all so interesting and really quite well written! But it's just not developed!)

From there, we focus on Charlotte's attempts to find a cure, but the pacing gets weird, and while again, there's some interesting stuff, it's not followed through on in a satisfying way. This is not a bad book. It's just somehow unfinished. If you have too many ideas, refocus. If you raise a provocative idea, follow through.

If I wanted to be a truly horrible person, I could end the review like this: it just doesn't have enough bite.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Good Harbor by Anita Diamant



This is one of those books that leaves me feeling ambiguous. There are things I liked about it. There are things I didn't like about it. It certainly wasn't one of those books that seized me until I just had to tell everyone else to read it. But it also wasn't one of those books that left me angry and ranty. (There's been a lot of ranting recently, hasn't there?)

I'm going to digress for a minute. I'm well aware that after the first week that these reviews are posted that they exist in a place where no one will read them in order, or reverse order. People may look for a specific book, but the reviews more or less exist in isolation, unless perhaps we're talking about different books in the same series.

And yet, even knowing that, I often write these reviews with a chronological sense. No one may ever again read this review shortly after the one on The Breaking Wave by Nevil Shute, and so when I talk about reading two books about overdone guilt close together, it will likely be baffling.

That doesn't, however, change the fact that I did read these books in the space of a short period of time. Because I did, I noticed the overdone guilt more than I might have had it been one book by itself. So I'll continue to write my reviews as though they'll be read in the order in which I wrote them, because that's the only way I can capture how my experience of reading was altered by the order in which I read, and what else was going on in my life that made some things pop out and others recede into the background.

That was a roundabout to say I'll keep reviewing the same way, but it's something I've been thinking about.

Because this review is going to be about how overdone the guilt was in Good Harbor, and yet it's not something that would have jumped out at me quite as much if it hadn't come so close on the heels of the utterly unrelated The Breaking Wave. 

This is a book about two women who forge a friendship, one who is trying to get over the death of her toddler son 25 years previously, the other who is distant from her husband and pushed away by her teenage daughter.

Let's talk about the good stuff. Anita Diamant does write female friendship very well. I can see the appeal of the book, and the message, although I am always vaguely discomfited by an insistence that true intimacy is only possible between women, and husbands are just right out as potential people to share your feelings with.

Is my marriage really that abnormal? I have wonderful, amazing female friends who I wouldn't change for the world. But I also have an incredible husband, and the first thing I did after I got home from a long day yesterday was to snuggle up in bed with him and just talk for about an hour. If the person you're spending your life with isn't someone you can have both a casual conversation with and someone to whom you can unburden yourself...then what is the point?

That aside, the female friendships are strong. The part that I didn't like so much was the overdone guilt of the mother who had lost a child 25 years earlier. I get guilt around that. I do. But to think that the universe gave you breast cancer because you read a book to another child at some point in your life? That's guilt verging on the pathological.

And it gets worse, and this is where it really got under my skin as an essentially solipsistic guilt - when one of the main characters persists in looking at her sister's agonizing death from breast cancer as somehow punishment for having lost her own child. That's right - she looks at someone else she loves' death, and tries to make it all about her. I cannot tell you how uncomfortable that made me.

Also, her entire family fell into the trap of just...not talking to each other, and everyone knowing they weren't talking to each other, and it all boils down to everyone thinking no one else wanted to talk. I think that's fine for the start of a book, but when it carries all the way through to the last chapter, it feels like false drama. If there are serious and pressing reasons why people don't talk, that's one thing, it's another when it's just "I thought you didn't want to talk about it."

I'm done griping. I promise. This book was pretty good. Not really my cup of tea, but not bad. And there were a few places where it tread on personal irritants. Take from it what you will. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Half-Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire



I got this book out of the library on a whim. I follow Seanan McGuire on Twitter, where she's very entertaining, I've absolutely loved the two Mira Grant books I've read, and that particular day, I needed something that was at least a little light. My local library didn't have any of the earlier books in this series in, nor any of the earlier Toby books, so I picked this up.

It got me through a week where I was largely on trains to or from my mother, and then sitting by while she was in surgery, or in the days after, sitting by her bed while she rested. (The surgery went well, all is good.) I desperately needed something diverting at that very moment, and this book delivered that and more.

Most of all, it was fun, and it made me grin, and the family stuff was thoroughly delightful, the relationship enjoyable, and of course, all the cryptozoology just fascinating. I should also say, I read this book without having read the ones that preceded it, and had no problems.

Alex is the only son in one branch of two families prominent in cryptozoological circles, to the point of intermarriage with cuckoos, and possibly other humanoid species?. He's interested in the reptile variety of hidden monsters, predominantly, working undercover at a zoo in Ohio. He's juggling normal tasks with surveys of the local cryptozoological population and trying to keep a seven-year old girl from sneaking in to spend some time with her fiance, a giant snake. 

So when a petrified body shows up, it's right up his alley, not that he can let the police know that. Of course, there are at least three species that could be killing this way, two of which are animals he wouldn't hold responsible (but would still have to stop). The other option is gorgons, one of whom is his assistant, Dee.

Alex also has to juggle family responsibilities and a relationship with a hot Australian big cat keeper that is sort of on the rocks. It's a busy book, in a good way. You feel plopped down in the middle of the life of someone who isn't a lone hero, out on his own, untouched by those around him, except for the woman swooning in his arms. (I've read too much of that recently. This was a welcome change)

Nope, this is a hero who is firmly rooted in his family, with clear priorities to keep them safe. It's a refreshing change. And so much more interesting! How boring it is to have characters who don't really care about everything, no handy buttons to push.No connections, and being able to compartmentalize everything is boring. Caring is so much more intense.

I should mention the pets. Crow is a miniature griffin, the size of a large cat, and with much of the same temperament. It's hard not to want him for your very own immediately. And the Aeslin mice, (Narnia reference?) talking mice with a worshipful reverence for members of the Price family and intense desire for snacks? Amazing. Love them so much.

At its heart, this book is a murder mystery, and the solution satisfying, from both a monster and a human perspective. It's complicated, as such things always are. It also has moments that feel genuinely dangerous. 

Overall, if you want a solid urban fantasy mystery with entertaining animals and strong characters, I would highly recommend this book. I'm looking forward to reading the others in the series.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Breaking Wave by Nevil Shute



Sometimes I think I am just not that good at reading some kinds of mainstream fiction. I am too easily aggravated. That's far too broad of a statement, I am aware. It's not like I only read science fiction, or even that science fiction is devoid of characters or plots that piss me the hell off. Still, I have even less patience for those elements when they come wrapped in mundanity.

Take, for instance, guilt. There are times when themes come up in multiple books in short order, so they stand out more in company than they would have by themselves. This is the first of two books (the second I haven't finished yet) that I read recently with a character who had guilt that verged on the pathological.

I actually found it more aggravating in the second one and more understandable here, but this idea of having survived something, or even done something that causes you guilt, and to then go out and see everything that happens in the world as a gun aimed directly at your head by God.... It's not that I don't think people do put themselves through that kind of unimaginable guilt. But push that this far, and you end up with an extreme solipsism, wherein other people's pain and deaths and lives are only relevant in so far as they say something about the guilty character. 

There's a self-centeredness to it, and when it's pushed to the levels it is both in this book and the other one I'm reading, it verges on the irritating as fuck. You just want to shake the character and tell them that not everything is about them. Not everything is about their pain. 

To recap: reading about guilt can be interesting. But when it looms this large, for reasons that seem entirely specious, it's not that fun to read. Not that this is supposed to be fun, exactly, given that it's about how many who served in the British forces in World War II found it hard to move on from the days of war. It's not so much a story of how war broke them, but rather that war spoiled them for more mundane life. That there's now a generation that crave war. (It is perhaps notable that none of these people saw front line action, although one was a fighter pilot who was badly injured.) They want the war back, to have those days of purpose and excitement at their fingertips again, damn the cost.

The main character is Australian, but has bounced back and forth between Australia and England since the war. On his (theoretically) last return to Australia to settle down, he arrives to find out that his parents' housemaid has just killed herself. On further investigation, he discovers she was his late brother's fiancee, a woman he'd actually just spent years looking for.

Why did she kill herself? I'm not sure there's an entirely satisfying answer here, but it is explored in full, through her guilt over having followed orders and shot down a plane that may have been trying to escape Nazi Germany. (But was flying right towards the hidden D-Day preparations, so....)  She has become obsessed with her life equalling out the the lives she took, counting deaths like beads on a rosary. 

It's interesting, and Shute's point about the war being a high point for some is a strong one. If you weren't right in there fighting, it might have seemed an adventure. 

I didn't love this book - the fiancee's need to see everything in the world as a vengeful God out to punish her got oppressively frustrating. Still, there's something here worth reading, if it's a topic you're interested in.