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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Bargain

Half-Off Ragnarok - Seanan McGuire

Remember that period in college (and in some cases, post-college) when you were convinced Cinnamon Toast Crunch was an acceptable substitute for any meal? You know how you managed that, right? By not thinking about the fact you were basically eating vitamin-enriched pellets, and concentrating on that sugary, cinnamony crunch.

 

 

Half-Off Ragnorok is like that.

 

Half-Off explores the world of Alex, one of the human members of the Price family. Alex is officially working at the Columbus Zoo as a visiting herpetologist with Dee, a member of the gorgon genus. Unofficially, of course, he and his family are working to protect humans from mythological non-humans–and vice versa–and his work as a reptile specialist allows him the chance to research the more unusual species in the area. While in Ohio, he’s staying with Grandma and Grandpa, a ‘cuckoo’ and a Revenant respectively, as well as cousin Sarah, another cuckoo. Work has been complicated by dating Shelby, the visiting big cat specialist from Australia, and they’ve just snuck away for a little tete-a-tete when they discover a partially petrified human. Alex’s personal and professional worlds are about to collide as they follow a trail of petrified disaster.

 

More comparisons to cereal and book comments at:

http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/half-off-ragnarok-by-seanan-mcguire/

Daily Update

It is heading into the fun part of the Wisconsin year, the months when we can be outside, gardening, biking, and just enjoying the feel of sun on my skin. With that in mind, I've been thinking about how I've been balancing between three booksites, and it just isn't easy to keep up. I remain at GR for friends, group reads, and the data base, but I'm less and less interested in maintaining my profile there. I'm rather tired of the trolls, the spam, and I've lost trust that they have any integrity. At the same time, as Leafmarks has grown, they've made huge improvements in speed, feed, and database, so I'll likely be spending the majority of my bookish time over there. Emily and Jacquie have been amazingly responsive, which adds to the personal feel. BL just doesn't work for me as much as it could. Groups never took off, organizing shelving and editing old reviews just isn't as seamless as I would hope. I'll be around BL, just not very much.

 

Magic City: Recent Spells - Patricia Briggs

Short stories are perfect for those moments when I know I don’t have much time, and don’t have patience for interruptions (really, is there anything more exasperating than having to stop reading during a denouement? Or during a chase?) I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this collection. As I don’t often read short story collections in the modern UF genre, all were new to me, although a peek at copyrights reveal all were previously published. Still, most people will recognize the authors, not the stories, as many are among the most popular in the UF field. In a couple of cases, I found I liked their short stories better than their full-length books. Ultimately, I count it a win, especially since I found a couple of names new to me.

 

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Notes on the stories:

 

The Introduction, by Paula Guran was strange and poorly done. It discusses some of what makes urban fantasy a genre, goes on to point it has evolved, and then neglects to say what it has evolved into. There’s also a disingenious line of “I’m neither learned nor erudite,” thus proving she is, in fact, erudite. Ignore it, because it doesn’t do justice to the quality of the stories.

 

Street Wizard by Simon R. Green: It’s a vinette “day in the life” of a clean-up wizard and feels like Green just tossed it off as a couple sections seemed repetitive. Still, there was a good line or two: “The streets are packed with furitive-eyed people, hot on the trail of everything that’s bad for them. It’s my job to see they get home safely, or at least that they only fall prey to the everyday perils of Soho.” Overall, mediocre. Green’s short staccato style doesn’t work well for the short, and the tone seems to mock the genre.

 

Paranormal Romance by Christopher Barzak. Sheila, a witch with a knack for love charms, can’t find a love of her own, but still has a satisfying life with her business and a cheerful gay couple next door. Still, she goes on a blind date and finds an unexpected way out. Rather charming.

 

Grand Central Park by Delia Sherman. An encounter with the fae in Central Park told by the perspective of a young, awkward teen. Captures the adolescent voice, the feel of the park and the spirit of the fae nicely. Enjoyable.

 

Spellcaster 2.0 by Jonathan Maberry. A select group of college students are working on a career-building computer database of all known folklore spells, but when one of the women doing data entry brings some irregularities to the attention of the lead programmer, things start to go awry. Very good characterization, heavy on the moralizing and plotting. I’d call it a wash.

 

 

Wallamelon by Nisi Shawl. A small group of friends discover watermelons growing in the abandoned house on their street, and ensuing events lead Oneida to connecting with Big Mama. One of the few stories centered around an inner-city African-American. Plotting was unusual and Shawl has a good feel for dialogue. Standout line (about the art museum gift shop): “Smaller versions of the paintings on the walls, of the huge weird statues that resembled nothing on Earth except themselves.” I’ll look for more by her.

 

-30- by Caitlin R. Kiernan. A story about how a writer seeking help for writer’s block from the fae goes through four gatekeepers to obtain her boon. Adequately done, but feels rather self-indulgent and in need of cutting. Nice line: “Just another wonder in the tedious string of wonders, that she can speak with teeth like that.

 

Seeing Eye by Patricia Briggs. An enjoyable PNR about a blind woman who is asked to help save a werewolf’s brother. Rather enjoyable, although there was an uncomfortable angle with family. Briggs doesn’t quite achieve the tone of suspense she seems to be aiming for.

 

Stone Man by Nancy Kress. A young teen who spends most of his life on the street gets into a car accident and discovers his magic. Unaccustomed to power and trust, he retreats into the life he knows until lured out. Done well, without being condescending.

 

In the Stacks by Scott Lynch. Completely different from his Locke Lamora series, Lynch has written a delightful story where the year’s passing grade depends on returning a grimoire to the Living Library, a library full of wild magic. Humor, adventure, daring, well-crafted–it has it all. Fun line: “On any other day, that would have required heroic effort, but it was exams week, and the dread magic of the last minute was in the air.” One of my favorites.

 

A Voice Like a Hole by Catherynne Valente. A runaway muses on fairy tale runaways versus real ones and ends up uses a talent for singing. It’s Valente; what more can one say? Tearful, haunting, hopeful. “Talking to a runaway is a little like talking to a murderer. There was a time before you did it and a time after and between them there’s just this space, this monstrous thing, and it’s so heavy.

 

The Arcane Art of Misdirection by Carrie Vaughn. A Vegas card dealer gets the sense something strange is happening at her table. When it occurs two nights in a row, she decides to investigate, and runs into a stage magician who knows more than most about unseen things. I enjoyed it.

 

The Thief of Precious Things by A.C. Wise. Only minimally urban fantasy, this takes place in a fantastical world. A fox-girl has stolen something from the crow-lords to help the humans. She can’t remember why, until she meets a human who defends her. It has the feeling of age and equivocal endings, as if it is based on an old Japanese folk tale. Beautiful writing: “The crows fold their wings tight, diving for her eyes. She whirls, snapping and snarling at the storm of feathers… She leaps, twists–a war dance. She is all fox now, her animal heart beating hard inside a cage of burning bones, wrapped in fur the color of coal.” I’d read more by Wise.

 

The Land of Heart’s Desire by Holly Back. A post on a messageboard leads to a notable uptick in business at a cafe. The trouble is that the Lord of the Unseelie Court isn’t amused to have his privacy compromised by his girlfriend’s best friend. Has Black’s usual dark tone, with a nice emotional complexity. A satisfying ending.

 

Snake Charmer by Amanda Downum. The dying dragon is about to be reborn. Mary Snakbones has her own idea about what should happen, but Simon just wants to finish avenging his dead lover and be done. An air of spooky voodoo magic, done well.

 

The Slaughtered Lamb by Elizabeth Bear. A drag queen on the streets of New York has another secret. When the fae world intersects our own, she’s moved to act and finds unexpected help. Enjoyable, a little one-trick-ponyish, but well-written.

 

The Woman Who Walked with Dogs by Mary Rosenblum. While her Mama’s at work, Mari Jane has taken to exploring her neighborhood, realizing that it is a different world at night. Another nicely done inner-city setting, lovely writing: “A cloud slid across the squashed moon like someone covering their eyes with both hands.” I’d look for more by her.

 

Words by Angela Slatter. A writer wordsmithing in her cottage attracts the curiosity of the children next door. When the parents object, it becomes a lesson on harassment. Moralistic and unsure of its tone.

 

Dog Boys by Charles de Lint. A recent transplant to New Mexico finds himself targeted by the gangs after standing up for a young woman in school. Pure de Lint. Enjoyable.

 

Alchemy by Lucy Sussex. Another on the edge of the ‘urban’ definition. A perfumist in ancient Babylon finds a spirit following her. Notable for nicely creating the feel of an ancient culture and time. Immersive.

 

Curses by Jim Butcher. Dresden takes a case representing ‘a professional entertainment corporation.’ Specifically, are the Cubs losing because of the Billy Goat Curse? Pure Dresden, and done better than usual, although he still manages to work his sexism in.

 

De la Tierra by Emma Bull. A futuristic L.A., it’s more of the non-explanational fantasy genre. As such, it’s a little rough. A young Salvadoran works as a hit man for the L.A. gods.

 

Stray Magic by Diana Peterfreund. A local dog rescuer meets an unusual dog who claims to be a witch’s familiar. Charming and cute.

 

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor with Alan Dean Foster. A Nigerian woman catches a cab to the airport, only to find herself made later and later by all the driver’s side passengers. Fun. Another one that brings in mythology from around the world.

 

Pearlywhite by Marc Laidlaw & John Shirley. A group of homeless children and their personal guides are being hunted. Moving, sad, and done well.

 

Finally, thanks to NetGalley for a copy of the ebook for review.

Meh.

The Twelve - Justin Cronin

Dear Justin:

 

We get the religious reference. Really, we do. But thanks for providing a summation of The Passage in a handy Biblical format at the beginning of The Twelve. I only partially appreciated it, however, as it reminded me of all the things I found annoying, particularly the ending. But, hey, great effort–maybe consider a little more subtlety in the next tome?

 

I have to say, rewinding and restarting the apocalypse was absolute genius. Serious genius. You must have been reading the same parts about the history of marketing that I’ve been reading in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, because you did exactly what the food manufacturers do: take a staple (say, Cherrios), imbue it with a different flavor (Chocolate, Banana-Nut, etc), change the packaging and voila! New product with a guaranteed audience that gives the impression of innovation. Starting back at the beginning of the vampires’ release and giving us new perspectives as the devastation unfolds was sheer brilliance. What a way to recycle much of an earlier story without driving it someplace new. Clever! If only King had done that with The Stand–I’m going to write him right now and suggest it.

 

***************************************************

The trouble is that despite being a clever writing concept, I think it could have benefited from focus on character creation, since we knew where much of the plot was going (especially as helpfully reminded by the introduction). Perhaps fewer narrators and some greater character innovation would have build interest. Reporting the experiences of a suspiciously rejuvenated convict/test subject, to the ill federal suit overseeing the project, to a pregnant pediatrician coping through nervous breakdown, to a mentally disabled bus driver, to a wounded veteran all becomes kind of a jumble. By the time we reached The Magic Bus tour, I didn’t much care anymore, especially when it was going to be clear I had a whole new set of character to learn. Plus, they were all rather boring. I felt like I was being told a Just So story, my absolute least favorite type of storytelling, particularly as it includes heavy moralizing.

 

Plus–ranty bit–just like King in The Stand, Cronin does a huge disservice to the female viewpoint. It is painstakingly clear that the value of the female viewpoint is because of her reproductive capabilities. Go Team Uterus! Other misogyny includes a rape scene ahead. You probably know my feelings on that by now, but if confused, check the post.

 

The unoriginality coupled with the shifting results in an emotional distance that eventually led me to abandoning the book, despite being a third into it. I just didn’t care enough about the mystery of the convict to overcome my aversion to Christian metaphors, and decided returning to the library was better than paying any more fines to those most gracious, beautiful, forgiving people known as Librarians. A DNF from me a sad statement of interest level, given that I was recently reminded that I made it through Siege. Of course, Frater is considerably less in love with her writing than Cronin is. Do yourself a favor–if you weren’t completely in love with The Passage, take a pass on this one.

Abaddon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate  - James S.A. Corey

Series OCD: sometimes I has it, sometimes I don’t. Despite the success of the first book, Leviathan Wakes (my review), after the disappointing sequel Caliban’s War (my review), I was all set to walk away from Corey and The Expanse series until friends suggested the final book was a capstone worth reading. I’d agree with that assessment; after the recycled plot in Caliban’s War disappointed, Abaddon’s Gate pulls itself together with an exploration of galactic human politics after the protomolecule has built a giant mystery Ring of material outside Uranus (cue Beavis and Butthead jokes).

 

Abaddon’s Gate opens per the series norm, with a third person point of view that will soon be abandoned for a four-part narrative. The prologue is a daredevil teen attempting to shoot the Ring in a small spacecraft, speaking in his regional cant and musing on the Ring. Shortly after, narrative switches to Jim Holden, one of the main characters in the last two books. He’s with the crew of the Roci, enjoying a shore leave after their latest contract. When Holden takes a moment, the ghost of Miller appears, cryptically saying, “It happened.” Naomi is the only one who knows Holden is being haunted, and Holden is afraid that if people find out, he’ll be an even bigger laughingstock than he is already. Narrative switches from Holden to Bull, a new voice in the series. Bull is an officer with the OPA, the Belter government, but since  he was originally of Earth, racism keeps him from playing a leading role in the military. Bull is assigned as Security Chief to a former colony vessel, commandeered by OPA for the Ring flight. Narrative changes again to Melba, formerly known as Clarissa, assuming a secret identity in her quest for revenge. Last point of view is Anna, a pastor with a wife and young child who takes a position as part of the UN Secretary-General’s advisory group flying out to the Ring. There’s an uneasy detente at the Ring, with Mars, the Belters and Earth all maintaining a military presence. When the teen shoots the Ring, the Ring reacts, and tensions ratchet up. Holden has no intention of going anywhere near Miller and the Ring, until events force him that direction.

 

Plot takes some time to build, but proves worthwhile if the reader has patience the political and philosophical issues are established. Part of the background is quickly covered; the authors clearly assume the reader has read the prior books. A great deal of the interpersonal conflict is based on racism that exists between Earthers, Martians and Belters; people are easily stereotyped because of physiological changes that occur with the human form depending on the environment. Those conflicts are fanned by political maneuvering seeking to exploit the resources of the Ring, as well as the resource of OPA’s giant colony ship commandeered from the Mormons by the OPA government. Holden and his antagonist put a personal face on the conflict, and Anna puts a face on the philosophical issues. All in all, it feels exceptionally crafted in a way to appeal to a majority of readers. The revenge plot was initially intriguing, but became disappointing as the deux ex machina started to escalate. It’s also a plot that I have the most trouble believing, and this case was no different. Excessively convoluted, it lacked the flair or joie de la vie one sees in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series or in an Oceans Eleven set-up.

 

Characterization was acceptable and consistent. The naif Pastor Anna was a little bit of an eye-roller with her “every one can be saved” sentiment. Bull was entertaining, not so much in character, but because his determination to follow the letter of the rules but not the spirit gave interesting insights into the military set-up. What stood out was the cohesiveness of the Roci crew. Their teamwork and acceptance was enjoyable, from joking around a bar to brainstorming solutions to their latest debacle. Holden has decided to abandon his responsibility for the world and focus only on his crew and Naomi, which results in needing to re-learn a lesson from the last book; thankfully, that sub-plot was short-lived. Melba was somewhat of a weak point; her personality felt insecure and whiney instead of truly obsessive.


Melba’s personality breakdown near the climax was unsatisfactory, partly because there was so little build-up of a rigid and obsessive personality. Then, in a high-crisis situation, her viewpoint is dropped as she becomes a pivot point for everyone else. While it seemed awkward, it was redeemed at the very end of the book. I found the end scene on the Roci particularly fascinating and provoking. Some might feel it leaves a loose end or two, but I rather like it.

(show spoiler)

 

Strangely, for all the focus on the McGuffin Ring, there’s very little focus on the science, mechanics and impact of the Ring. It remains a philosophical point. At the finale, I felt like the book turned into an Aesop’s fable, action scenes notwithstanding. However, Miller’s provides an excellent summation with his pronouncement, “I keep warning you. Doors and corners, kid. That’s where they get you. Humans are too fucking stupid to listen. Well, you’ll learn your lessons soon enough, and it’s not my job to nursemaid the species through the next steps.

Realness

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More - Janet Mock

I’ve been interested in this book ever since hearing Janet Mock talk on The Colbert Report (segment here). I loved her willingness to laugh at herself, her attempts to focus the disconcerting Colbert, her willingness to articulate identity issues on a show that specializes in sarcasm. Only in her late twenties, she’s written the story of her process of gender identity to date in Redefining Realness, an autobiography that is occasionally as telling for what is included as minimized.

 

Redefining Realness starts with an Author’s Note, an Introduction, and an untitled preface of  New York City, 2009, and her decision to share her past with a boyfriend who has become very close. As she takes a deep breath into disclosure, the narrative dives into her past, transitioning to Part One, Honolulu, first grade 1989. Having been born with male genitals, Janet was named ‘Charles’ after her father, but recalls feeling female gendered since her earliest years. She relates a story where a childhood friend, Marilyn, dared her to put on a dress hanging on the clothesline. It became a Big Deal, with Grandma catching her, her sister tattling and her mom having a Conversation. The anecdote becomes a point to begin educating the reader about the process of gender definition, the cultural norms that assign items as gendered (hair, clothes, walk, etc.) and how they are reinforced through our daily acts. The juxtaposition of the intellectual deconstruction with her life events foreshadows a pattern continued through her narrative.

 

Janet segues into her parents’ history, her witnessing of her dad’s ongoing affair, her mother’s discoveries leading to suicide attempts and dissolution of the marriage. The separation precipitated Janet’s dad moving to Oakland and, once her mom was pregnant with a new child and in a new relationship, Janet joining him. The rest of the narrative covers time in Oakland with her dad and his addiction issues, and the move to Texas and his family. Part Two begins with Janet’s return to Hawai’i in 1995. Throughout her moves, Janet relates moments where her gender identity was a struggle. Part Three begins with her claiming the name ‘Janet’ out loud to her high school as a sophomore, and the steps that followed as she became more out about claiming a female identity and seeking to make her identity a biological reality.

 

Two completely random observations: Interestingly, though Janet doesn’t overtly discuss it, many of those early gender moments are centered around hair, whether admiring the silky long hair of her mother, or her father punishing her by taking her to the barber for a short haircut. I found it particularly interesting as hair is a powerful touchstone in African-American culture, and Janet seemed to seize on it as part of establishing her femininity. Second, Hawaiian culture (and perhaps culture of the late 90s?) seems to be far more comfortable with gender ambiguity than most areas in America.

 

What can you say about someone’s heartfelt autobiography? I’m not qualified to judge anyone’s life; what I look for in autobiography are the moments of emotional honesty that cut to the heart of human experience, that acknowledge the complexity of what it means to be human with all of our good intentions and sad mistakes. Mock’s autobiography largely succeeds here, although with an emotional brevity that somewhat limits the feeling of engagement.

I appreciated Mock’s attempts to transcend the specifics of the individual experience, reflecting on the larger social issues that contextualize her experience. For instance, in the section where she discusses her childhood sexual abuse, she also relates some facts about sexual abuse offenders. In the section on sex work, she also integrates discussion of defined womanhood as well as the economics of survival sex work. At times, the deconstruction provides excellent insight into the situation from a cultural perspective; at other times, it makes for sweeping generalities that minimize the emotional complexities. Occasionally, the pieces also feel a little bit Gender Studies 101, although I acknowledge my intellectual exposure in the genre is greater than many readers’, it lacked some of the subtlety and finesse I expected from someone blurbed by bell hooks.

 

More disappointing are a couple sections that are minimized, particularly the less than one-page mention of losing her virginity at the age of sixteen. I don’t think it is voyeurism as much as wanting to know how she negotiated an emotionally loaded experience in any human’s life, beyond a passing note of, “weeks later, I lost my virginity…” But memory is tricky, and in my own case, what I think I remember about my own experience is no doubt different than my memories of it in my twenties, and then again in my thirties. Is it fair to ask that Mock share it? I don’t know, but for most of us, gender is tied up in sexuality, and in Mock’s own story, she makes it clear that while it is related, it is also complicated. I think I wished for more of those sorts of discussions than experiences of buying her first lip gloss or hanging at the MAC makeup counter.

 

By the end, I admired Mock’s willingness to share so much, to acknowledge the times she was perhaps (understandably) focused on her survival at the expense of others (the very definition of adolescence), and to recognize and celebrate her multiple identities. Very briefly, as part of her narrative of the sex trade, Mock acknowledges with amazing honesty “kindness and compassion are sisters but not twins… to have compassion for these men would mean that I’d have to know them and they would have to know me.” It proved a telling line, although likely not quite in the way she meant it. I found at times she was very self-critical, sounding unforgiving for perspectives I’d attribute to the arrogance of youth. I give her credit–I don’t know that I’d ever publish an entire book exposing my childhood as well as innumerable coming-of-age vulnerabilities. I hope she can find some compassion for herself.

Supernatural Holmes

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse - Wilkie Martin

Oh, the puns! The puns! I haven’t read so many puns since reading Robert Asprin. Actually, methinks I doth protest too much; I’m well known with my swim friends for frequent puns-wars with one of the other swimmers, a pundit of amazing talents. There’s a particularly pun-ishing anecdote in which Hobbes tells Andy a story about a pair of lions in a small traveling circus:

 

‘Both lions lay limp in their cage, as if dead. A juggler and a clown went in to check–the clown had nicked himself shaving and was bleeding. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the lions weren’t dead, they’d merely been sleeping and woke to find two men in their cage and the door wide open.’

‘Gosh,’ I said. That must have been scary, especially for the bleeding clown.’

‘Language, Andy.  As it happens, the lions, ignoring the clown, went straight for the juggler.’

 

Silence those groans–the puns are part of the fun. Inspector Hobbes and the Curse is the second book in a series about British Police Inspector Hobbes and his sidekick, the penniless, ex-journalist Andy. This book stands alone, enjoyable despite not reading the first. It’s a Holmesian spoof, with a hapless, feckless version of Watson, and a supernatural twist.  Told from Andy’s point of view, it follows the attempts of the two to investigate a string of mysterious incidents in the area, beginning with night sightings of a giant feline. First stop–the local Wildlife Park, where we learn about Hobbes’ camel allergy and Andy literally falls at the feet of a gorgeous woman. Subsequent inquires take them to the local pub, various farmers, on a night surveillance or two and even to a local music festival. Matters become more serious when a man dies at Andy’s feet.

 

Characterization is well done, if somewhat troublesome for me. Hobbes is classic Holmes, only a little more feral. Still arrogant, with mental and physical capabilities to match.  Side characters generally get enough attention to come into their own, including Mrs. Goodfellow the housekeeper, Dregs the dog and Featherlight Binks, local bar owner and frequent brawler.

 

Andy, however, was often my sticking point. He fulfills most of the tropes of the feckless sidekick: leaping to erroneous conclusions, cowardly, foolish, and repeatedly making one bad decision after another. In fact, he’s pretty much the Gilligan of the book. Amusing at times, but hard to root for as he hares off on one wild tangent after another. It’s clear he’s not the smartest of narrators from the start, when he’s taken to making dinner for himself and Hobbes because the housekeeper is out of town: “Certainly, he ate his [salad] without fuss, seeming not to mind the big green caterpillar on the lettuce, and he even complimented me on its freshness. He did, however, point out that the potatoes in a potato salad are better when cooked.” At times, the foolishness was extreme enough to be slapstick, so take tolerance for silliness into account when reading. That said, I enjoyed using Andy’s observations to try and interpret characters and situations for myself, a process that was complicated by Andy’s frank admittance that in Hobbes’ company, he had been encountered supernatural creatures.

 

A few notes about the writing: Martin may well be trying to channel Sir Arthur, but initially I found the writing style hard to follow. Perhaps it was my own recent reading of Eats Shoots and Leaves, but I think Ms. Truss ought to have no fear that semicolons and colons are going out of fashion. Or, at least, Martin’s doing his best to bring them back. Phrasing is occasionally awkward: “Fortunately, for my well-being, the ten-mile journey could only have lasted five minutes, since the more I got used to his driving, the more frightening it became.” Luckily, once into the story, those instances could be ignored as I focused on the plotting and the humor. It is also written with a number of British slang words, so I finally got a bit of practice with the Kindle dictionary link. “Dozy,” “conker,” “doddle,” “punters,” and “pong” all got a look-up.

 

Overall, it was an interesting mix of British detective comedy with shades of urban fantasy/supernatural mystery. I'd certainly check out others in the series. It made for a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

 

 

Half-hearted rising.

Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller - Ben Tripp

Ah, zombies and survivalism. A topic near and dear to my heart. I gravitate towards the genre like a chocoholic towards the candy section at the convenience store (who, me?). Yet I am frequently disappointed on both fronts. Searching for rich texture, a smooth taste, the essence of flavor,  I often discover a waxy imposter attempting to cash in on the cravings.  I’ve struggled with my review of Rise Again as the first time through was satisfying, at least in the quick-fix kind of way. Unfortunately, a second tasting highlighted a number of faults, and the unpredictable, cliff-hanger ending left a bitter aftertaste.

 

Sheriff Danny (Danielle) is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour in Iraq, coping by drinking herself into insensibility every night. Nominally in charge of her teenage sister, Kelley, she wakes up one morning to discover that Kelley has disappeared, leaving a long letter and taking Danny’s most prized possession, a cherry-red Mustang. On the warpath, Danny heads into the office, set on using police resources to track her sister. However, she is soon interrupted for the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration, and she has celebratory responsibilities elsewhere. Shortly after, a state trooper shows up with vague warnings about outbreaks and disaster plans. Unable to contact his department, he hangs around hoping to help out. A few kids discover the first dead body, and it’s only a short time before all hell breaks loose with people running and screaming before dropping dead in short order. Danny and a few survivors fight their way free of the town, with Danny using her position for a leadership role–and to influence a search for Kelley.

 

In fairness, the first time through was enjoyable. Started during a slow-moving night shift, the tension of disease spread and survivalism maintained my interest. Danny was an interesting heroine with a couple of significant character flaws. Side characters added interest, although few had the chance to shine. I liked the progression of the story, the direction the survivors took and the direction the zombies developed, although the setting jumps became less coherent by the end of the book. If I sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, I don’t mean to be. It satisfies on critical zombie fronts of adequate details in pre-incident, recognition, disease spread and survival strategies. It just left me wanting.

 

In my search to understand my reaction, I visited Ben Tripp’s website. It turns out that Rise Again was initially written as a screenplay. He writes, “I used the screenplay as an outline for the first part of the book, and wrote an extended treatment for the remainder of the story based on the first season arc of the projected television series.”

Suddenly, the book, the writing, the plotting, the everything–it all made sense. This wasn’t written from a writer perspective of using words alone to create a reality or experience in a reader’s mind; it was written as the blueprint of a story that would be brought to life by directors, editors, designers and actors. This became glaringly obvious on re-read. The first time through a book, plotting will carry me a long way. (That, and the limited options a night shift presents for amusement). The second time, no longer distracted by drama, I found the writing to be very unsophisticated, falling rather soundly into the “tell” school of writing:

 

Danny sprang awake as if shot up from the bottom of the ocean. Her alarm clock was ringing. It was eight o’clock on Saturday morning, Fourth of July weekend, and she was an hour late for roll call at her own Sheriff’s Station. Dispatcher Dave was calling for her on the radio:
‘Sheriff Adelman, where the heck are you? Come in, Danny.’
Danny rushed through the house, shoving her rumpled shirt into her pants, jamming feet into boots. Hat over there. Gun belt on the chair. Gun on the table. Note from Kelley. What the hell was this? Out of the official notebook, no less! Danny shoved the gun in the holster, snatched up Kelley’s note, and ran out the door. She had been awake for no more than three minutes.
As she jumped in the cab of the Sheriff’s Department Ford Explorer, another bell rang in the back of her mind.

 

At first, I put the staccato, emotionally blunted style down to the narrative centered on Danny. Given that she’s suffering from post-war stress, and that she experiences a number of flashbacks through the book, it made a sort of character sense. But as I continued to read, I realized that not only is the narrative third-person omniscient, but that that emotional bluntness remains when following other characters, as well as the general setting. (It’s actually been kind of fascinating to try and understand why I didn’t engage with this book on a deeper level). I eventually realized that while Tripp does use a number of adjectives, they tended to be neutral words instead of mood creators. In the edition I read, page 15 has a description of the interior of the police station that dominates the page. A small sample:

 

The back room of the station contained almost everything police-related. An evidence locker with a padlock on it. The communications desk with its radio, switchboard, and the walk-talkie charging station. A couple of desks for whoever needed to do paperwork or take a statement. There was also Danny’s tiny glass-walled office, a conference table, a gun cabinet with an impressive arsenal, mostly impounded. And at the back by the outside door, a pair of cells, complete with old-fashioned iron-barred doors.

It was a trim little operation, as long as nothing went too wrong.

Danny emerged from her office as tided up as she was going to get. Dave was half-carrying Wulf through the door of the nearest cell, grimacing as the old man’s smell was transferred onto himself. Wulf was complaining in a singsong murmur, but offered no resistance.”

 

Characters were a challenge as well. Danny isn’t entirely likeable with her alcoholic behavior patterns and her self-loathing, but ends up redeemable. On re-read, her actions/logic started to bother me more. For instance, at an early point, she elects to distract the zombie horde so her group can escape. She severely underestimates her own physical abilities, and worse yet, dead-ends, realizing she didn’t have a ‘next step.’ It just didn’t square well with either a leadership role or her war experience. Then there’s the police officer leaving his prior post to man a post in Forest Peaks, even though it hasn’t spread there yet. As I mentioned, as a screenplay, it suddenly made sense. Concepts like line of duty and departmental protocol can be easily abandoned for storyline.

 

Then there’s the zombies. It’s always interesting to see how a writer conceives of the living dead. Disease? Viral? Supernatural? Cultural? Alien?  Sometimes, authors choose not to answer, an occasionally unsatisfying but a completely acceptable way of dealing with the reality of survival–except they are still required to problem-solve the behavior and actions of the zombie is part of long-term survival. Tripp largely follows the unexplained path, except when Danny speculates on the spread, and her town of Forest Peak “being the high-water mark.” Apparently people panic, run, and die (then spoilery stuff). But the contagion moves really, really, fast–apparently world-wide in less than twenty-four hours, and yet it’s capable of mutating before it runs through the host population (spoilery stuff would follow here). It also only hit major cites, and not rural communities, despite traveling world-wide and from L.A. to Forest Peaks in mere hours. And the end page just breaks it all the earlier theories to pieces, leading me to a more irritated place instead of the normal satisfaction one gets reading a book. But perfect for the next season!

 

My most significant objection is with the very disappointing ending. Without spoilers, I’ll note that there is a sudden jump two years into the future, after going minute-by-minute and day-by-day for the majority of the book, a disconcerting choice that did not serve continuity well. Had more books been planned at that point, I would have stopped before the time jump, which would have been moderately satisfying and addressed both survival and character issues. Unfortunately, not only did the story continue, but it included a deux ex machina character meeting coupled with a dramatic plot twist– resulting in a significant philosophical and emotional cliff-hanger ending. On Tripp’s site, it’s noted that Rise Again “stands alone.” In view of the last page, I’d vehemently disagree. Boo-hiss. There was a star-point deducted on that basis alone.

 

Ultimately, if you are a committed zombie fan (or just in need of a late-night binge) and if you are tolerant of plot-twist, balanced on an precipice ending, you will likely enjoy it, as long as you keep in mind that you are getting the waxy, flavor-enhanced version.

Didn't give me the blues.

Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues - Diana Rowland

I tend to prefer my zombies shambling. Fast or slow, no matter; it’s the survival/contagion aspect that fascinates me. How else is a hypochondriac supposed to enjoy a disease apocalypse without worrying it could become real?  But Diana Rowland has created an unusual take on zombies with her “White Trash Zombie” series featuring a high school dropout who recently discovered she has an unavoidable craving for brains.  While it’s definitely escapist entertainment, the unpredictable plotting and an unusual narrator elevate it above average.

 

Since the day Angel woke up in a hospital room with a mysterious note and a six-pack of strangely energizing smoothies, her life has undergone a complete change. A purposeless drug addict before the change, zombiism has cured her of drug cravings and mind-numbing highs. (Downside: a need for brains). A mysterious benefactor connects her with a position in the county morgue, Angel begins a new life, so to speak: a job where her skills are valued, a group of colleagues that appreciate her and–finally–a sense of self-esteem. (Upside: a steady supply of brains in the morgue).

 

In this installment, Angel is at the morgue musing on why the latest body smells surprisingly short of brains when a gunman enters the building.  He kidnaps the stiff and leaves her holding the empty gurney. The local newspaper takes a decidedly negative slant on her performance, as well as her past history, and Angel finds her beloved job in jeopardy in an election year. At the same time, her probation agent warns her that successful completion of probation includes obtaining her G.E.D.  She can’t even escape the pressure at home: still living with her alcoholic dad, she is attempting to repair their relationship as well as maintain a semblance of independence from her police officer boyfriend, Marcus. Then Marcus ups the relationship ante by taking her to meet his zombie-uncle, Pietro. Definitely enough reasons for anyone to get the blues.

 

Angel is the star of the story, and her first-person narrative reflects blunt-speaking tendencies, self-esteem issues and a clever sense of humor. While it might appear like Angel’s behavior is more inconsistent in this book, I think differences in reacting to challenging situations and to problem-solving reflect her attempts to interact in more mature ways. I enjoyed her her growing assertiveness, her determination and efforts at self-improvement. It’s clear that for many readers, one of the strengths of the series is witnessing Angel’s effort to pull her life together and discover her potential.  Unlike many recent urban fantasy books, this one has a distinctly positive note.

 

Plotting is perhaps a touch more uneven than the first, attempting to build a complex web of events and motivations, and tying events from book one into this. Word of advice: so far, it isn’t a series to read out of order. I enjoyed the convolutions even if it felt a little super-villain pastiche at the time. By the end, it started to run dangerously close to that sticky urban fantasy borderland of “supernatural secret” that apparently almost everyone knows. However, I’ve peeked at the synopsis of the next book (I’m not really fussed by spoilers), so I suspect Rowland has Big Plans, so I’ll pass judgement later.

 

This installment also delves into the background of zombie creation and biology. Rowland has come up with one of the more inventive concepts yet (if not particularly realistic, at least it is book-plausible), and if the passages related to it felt a little bit like information-dumping, well, at least it was done well in the context of Angel’s educational background. The need for brains provides much of the humor, a clever way of pulling the reader into a sense of entertainment instead of gross-out.

 

All in all, it’s been a fun series so far, surprising me with its emotional range. I’ll definitely be looking to catch the next installment.

Pirate fun!

Iron Jackal (Tale of the Ketty Jay) - Chris Wooding

One can’t help but delight in the antics of Captain Frey of the airship The Kitty Jay. A swashbuckling rapscallion, he has an ego unsurpassed by his wit or his morals. Lately, however, he has found that his normally self-centered ethics are undergoing an uncomfortable transformation as he discovers he cares about his crew of misfits. The crew’s been together on The Kitty for awhile now, and they are finally feeling flush with success after their most recent exploits (The Black Lung Captain). The crew includes Crake, the “highly educated and eloquent” daemonist and his metal golem, Bess; Pinn, more muscle than brain, but determined to be an inventor; Harkins, a stellar flier with a severe anxiety disorder; Silo, a former slave with a mysterious past; Malvery, a doctor with a drinking problem; Jez, “who was half-daemon, and who was dead by most people’s standards”; and Slag, the irascible cat.

 

Crake was less than impressed. He’d been expecting someone fiercely intense, a wild-eyed savage of some kind. Instead he’d found a giant bearded raisin.

 

Characterization is exceptional, though undoubtedly many readers will recognize crew members as character archetypes from other sources. I couldn’t help but imagine Frey as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean as I read, but many reviewers cite Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly as well. It’s a compliment to Wooding, really, that he can weave a such glorious tale of adventure that it calls to mind other stories and characters we love. While the narrative largely follows Frey, it also spends time with each member of the crew. As they each undergo their own personal crisis, there’s opportunity for emotional development outside of Frey’s more egotistical perspective.  Wooding nicely captures the feel of a band of misfits choosing to trust each other even as they make contingency plans: Crake thought [Pinn] an odious, immoral dimwit with the intelligence of a cough drop, but he was crew, so that was that.

 

One of the challenges with characterization is how to have them handle conflict without endangering sympathy for the character. Wooding gauges the line nicely, creating Frey as a Jack Sparrow-like weasel whose morals usually come through in the end. When his crew questions him about the latest heist, Frey finds himself flailing as he tries to justify the plan:


“‘Aren’t we the bad guys?’ Pinn asked suddenly.
They all stared at him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I mean, we’re robbing them, right?’
‘We’re never the bad guys!’ said Frey, horrified at the suggestion. He was surprised the moral objection had come from Pinn rather than Crake. Pinn didn’t have any morals, so he probably just wanted the attention.
[...]
‘Plus,’ he raised a finger, ‘those on that train are gonna be armed guards. They’re paid to get shot. If people like us didn’t try to rob trains, they’d be out of a job.’
‘We’re providing employment opportunities now?’ Crake asked, deadpan.
‘Exactly!’ said Frey. ‘Greasing the wheels of foreign capital, and that.’
‘Cap’n,’ said Crake. ‘I do believe you know as much about economics as Pinn does about hygiene.’
Malvery mopped his pate, which had reddened and begun to peel. ‘Look, as long as we stop short of killing women and children, and we ain’t shooting adorable little puppy dogs in the face, I’m in.’

 

Plotting is fun, with a typical heist scenario leading to one complication after another. Much like a movie, Iron Jackal opens with a shootout and foot chase, Frey outdoing his normal cowardly efforts as he chases Ashua, a former street urchin with valuable intel. Once Ashua is on board, the heist proceeds, only to lead to unfortunate consequences, unsurprisingly caused by Frey. The crew rallies round him even as each faces doubts and set off after the MacGuffin. But what an entertaining journey along the way! A variety of setting and political situations keeps the action from feeling repetitive. The end engagement is a unexpected, complex situation that points to the direction for the next book –but is not a cliff-hanger for this one.

 

Tone and voice are wonderfully balanced, able to maintain a degree of suspense and uncertainty while cracking jokes along the way. Witty dialogue is tempered by emotional turmoil, which places it a step or two above many action-focused stories. Frey and Ashua have a Beatrice and Benedick repartee (Much Ado About Nothing), while Crake frequently makes word jokes that only Ashua (and hopefully, the reader) understands:

 

“‘Why do I need a dictionary?’ Frey complained.
‘No reason,’ said Ashua. ‘Now let’s get down there and mortify some guards.’
Frey was caught in one of those moments when he didn’t know what somebody meant and couldn’t decide whether to pretend he did or not.
Pinn groaned, as if explaining things to Frey was extraordinarily tiresome. ‘Mordant means dead, don’t it? So mortify means kill, obviously. They even sound the same. Right?’ He looked at Ashua, who nodded encouragingly.
‘Oh,’ said Frey. “Oh! Let’s mortify some guards. I’m with you now. Didn’t hear you right the first time, that’s all.’
Crake and Ashua exchanged a glance, though it was hard to tell its meaning behind their goggles. Malvery tutted to himself. Frey had the distinct impression that a joke was being had at his expense, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.’

 

Extremely readable, it’s one of those books that swaggers into your afternoon, says, “don’t mind if I do,” kicking off boots and placing feet on coffee table. For the right mood, priceless.

& laughs!

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation - Lynee Truss, Frank McCourt

I confess:  I frequently find myself self-conscious about my use of punctuation. A few years back, I even bought a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but have yet to read more than a chapter or two at a time before discovering something else to do, even if it’s bathing the dog. Similarly, I procrastinated on reading Eats Shoots & Leaves, and I really shouldn’t have. Full of humor and information, it explains some of the easier nuances to punctuation in a useful and engaging manner.

 

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning… Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.

 

Truss nicely covers the basics of beginner to advanced punctuation with chapters devoted to each:  a rationale for punction, the apostrophe and its many uses, the comma, the semi-colon and colon, the dash, the hyphen, and various brackets. She makes brief mention of the punctuation debate surrounding the Oxford comma, a concept I’ve heard referenced but didn’t understand (Is a comma needed on the noun before ‘and’ when you are making a list? Ex.: “I need to buy cream, coffee and sugar.”)  Use is reviewed from a British-English perspective, but she often makes note of where American-English differs (except for the chapter she hilariously ends with “unless, of course, you are in America“). By integrating short pieces on the history of that particular punctuation, she adds insight into language as an evolving process. In fact, she when talking about the semi-colon, hyphen and dash, she notes how usage is fading with hyphenated words, but the dash is enjoying a resurgence with texting. Examples are pulled from personal accounts, famous writers’ anecdotes, classic literature, plays and newspaper articles, adding interest.

 

Humor runs through the book, increasing its readability. Somewhat to my surprise, not only did I find myself enjoying it, but also unwilling to put it down. I found myself chuckling more than once, but that could just be nerd humor. For instance, in the section on apostrophes, she relates a law mentioned in a newspaper column, “the Law of Conservation of Apostrophes. A heresy since the 13th century, this law states that a balance exists in nature: ‘For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.’ Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant…” She also uses an engaging strategy of relating a particular story, say perhaps, punctuating Keats’ name, then continuing to reference that story as appropriate, making it into a witty running gag (Keats, St Thomas’ Hospital, Gertrude Stein, Starburst).

 

From the start, Truss acknowledges that those who insist on correct punctuation run the risk of being thought more than a little daft. One of the enjoyable aspects of her writing is how she is willing to acknowledge that truth, and yet continue to make her case for clear communication. One of my favorite sections of self-disparagement was when she calls apostrophe sticklers to arms:

Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you start to feel uncomfortable):

correction fluid
big pens
stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain
(for sticking over unwanted apostrophes)
and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
tin of pait with big brush
guerrilla-style clothing
strong medication for personality disorder
loudhailer

 

I get that frustration–I really do. While I’m prone to be sloppy with grammar in general and to be forgiving of punctuation while reading books, nothing makes my spine crawl like seeing a post/text/note stating, “I had a busy day taking care of all my patient’s.” (Patient’s what, exactly?)  I wholeheartedly agree with her; punctuation facilitates meaning. It dovetails with my feeling that text messaging is inadequate for more than simple questions, partially due to the lack of nuance from our hastily typed phrases. Punctuation, tedious as it may seem, would help clarify those messages. Besides, if we don’t start using the colon and semi-colon, our little pinky finger on the right hand might start to wither away while we type. Truss says so.  All in all, a great refresher for one not versed in the upper echelons of punctuation philosophy and an entertaining read.

Adventurous, in a bumper-car sort of way.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

3 stars for humor, 2.5 for information

 

While reading, I was reminded of long-ago biology studies, and the simplest members of Animalia that are little more than a gastric tube composed of cells. It’s astonishing, really, those primitive forms of waterborne life, and it emphasizes an interesting thing about animal anatomy, that we aren’t a solid, discrete, bounded organism: the environment moves through us as much as it moves around us. We like to think of “inside” and “outside” our bodies when in fact, it’s much more complicated. Those familiar with the gastrointestinal system (“the GI tract” in medical slang) understand that as a system rather continuous with the “outside,” it is one of the least sterile parts of our anatomy (the case could probably be made for skin as well). Perhaps that is why there are so many taboos surrounding what we eat, how we eat, vomiting, farting, defecation and such–all those different ways we interact with our environment. Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the GI tract and its unmentionables in an engaging way that is somewhat limited by basic scholarship.

 

One of her early paragraphs best explains her topic: “Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where is is converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. Lunch is an opening act.

 

That both captures the strength and weakness of her writing; while good general information is buried in her text, it is largely hidden by metaphor and humor.

 

Divided into 17 chapters, the story loosely follows the physiological structure of the gastrointestinal tract, beginning with the sensations of smell and taste, then examining a variety of topics including ‘organ meats,’ chewing, stomach acid, saliva, swallowing, being eaten alive, overfilling stomachs, intestinal gases and flamability, colonic direction and stool. It didn’t take me very long to understand that this was the Trivial Pursuit version of the “adventures on the alimentary canal,” not the informative, organized tour designed to give insight in an entertaining way. As a nurse, I was rather hoping for a tour that taught in an engaging, non-professional style, not this collection of anecdotes, historical studies and titillating tidbits of taboos.

 

Content is largely based on a wide variety of scientific studies, both historical and current, and covering both human and animal. For those that may have little background in the topic, this could likely prove confusing. For example, the chapter on chewing jumps in time from 1947 to 1817, to 1979 to 1825. The continuity jumps challenge the lay understanding of historical developments and lack the feeling of developing a professional discipline. Also distracting were strange asides about the scientists/ food professionals themselves. Perhaps in an effort to humanize the science for the average reader, she also describes appearance and personality of a number of the people she interviews. (Personally, I found this the most distracting and least informative. If I want to read People, I would. But I don’t.)  The nose section (“Nose Job”), for instance, is largely about a professional sensory analyst named Langstaff and Roach’s own experience trying out as an olive oil taster. The chapter on taste (“I’ll Have the Putrescine”) is primarily about engineering pet foods that appeal to dog, cat and owner, and talks about various personalities at the organizations she interviews.

 

Structurally, I found it was less coherently written than Packing for Mars. There’s copious footnotes, but not for intellectual background as much as parenthetical anecdotes or commentary. As the text content was just as engaging and digressive, I found myself wondering why she bothered with the footnotes? Amusement? Trendiness? They seem to be a mix of further text detail or opportunities for her to hilariously comment on her own writing. I won’t deny they were often funny; I laughed out loud at her exploration of whether a human could survive inside a whale’s stomach: “While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems (1).

 

(1)I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

 

Content concerns aside, Roach has a strong storytelling gift.  Her voice is engaging and humorous, and is generally accessible. I found that she touched on a number of tantalizing issues in the field, such as our preference for sweets (mentioned in the taste tests for dogs), dyspepsia (hidden in a story about professional eaters and stomach size) and the growing interesting in how gut bacteria contributes to overall health (couched in a story about fecal transplants). Perhaps that is where some of my disappointment comes from, that she can be aware of some fascinating, topical issues in the GI field with enormous implications for people’s health, but then instead chooses to focus on the shock-studies of boa constrictor stomachs and dissolving live foods. Recommended for those in the mood for giggles and Science-Lite.

And thank goodness for it!

Just One Damned Thing After Another - Jodi Taylor

Madeleine Maxwell has had two pivotal moments in her life to date. Her second moment arose after a former teacher suggested applying for a job as a Historian at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. During the interview, St. Mary’s is cagey about the exact nature of their work, but once Maxwell accepts the job, she discovers they are historians who use time travel to correct historical inaccuracies. St. Mary’s has a certain eccentricity about it that appeals to her own rebellious nature:

 

We finished with a tour of the grounds… Even as I opened my mouth to ask, there was a small bang from the second floor and the windows rattled.
‘Hold on,’ said Chief Farrell. ‘I’m duty officer this week and I want to see if the fire alarms go off.’
They didn’t.
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ I said.
He sighed. ‘No, it just means they’ve taken the batteries out again.’”

 

The story follows Maxwell as she undertakes orientation at St. Mary’s, trains as a time-traveler, and is challenged by her initial missions. As she and her fellow orientees embark on their first missions, the peril of time traveling becomes evident. As the Director points out to her:

Think of History as a living organism, with its own defence mechanisms. History will not permit anything to change events that have already taken place. If History thinks, even for one moment, that that is about to occur, then it will, without hesitation, eliminate the threatening virus. Or historian, as we like to call them.

 

Maxwell is fun character with a contagious humor and enthusiasm. Virtually without vanity, after changing into her new grey trainee jumpsuit, she notes, “Surveying myself in a mirror, I looked like a small, excited, ginger sack.” Interestingly, there is minimal personal background, except to learn that it was troubled, and books were a way out. It’s an interesting authorial choice, as it has the advantage of avoiding infodumping and tying the book to a particular point in time, but increases the challenge of creating a sympathetic, multidimensional person. However, her winning combination of spunk, personality and sass won me over. And the ability to hold her liquor. Usually.

 

There’s loads of humor in the book, creating chuckles all the way through. A scene where the Director is rebuking the staff for their flippant answers on their personnel files had me laughing out loud. Rather than one-note witticisms, humor here comes in many forms, from the mad-cap situations, to sly references (“thick as two short Plancks”) to generally clever writing:


I cut him off with a gesture and a complicated, ambiguous noise intended to convey–if you don’t ask then I won’t have to lie and you won’t have to take any action we might both regret, because, let’s face it, I’m not the only one up to no good here.
We both paused to contemplate the massive rule-breaking going on here.
‘Would you like some tea?’
‘Oh. Yes, please.’

 

I encountered one significant problem while reading, however, I have to apologize to Taylor and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” As I am tremendously fond of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, comparisons between Willis’ and Taylor’s books were inevitable.  Similarities included (vague spoilers, natch):

 

 

philosophically similar time traveling institutes focused on historical investigation, not exploitation; historians known for their nutty behavior; a wardrobe/costuming department; the concept of historians being unable to effect history; and the same penultimate discovery. But more important than conceptual parallels is a similar daffy sense of adventure and humor running through the book, with a little bit of star-crossed character leads.

(show spoiler)

 

 

That said, Taylor’s plot is considerably more action-focused, along with a heavy focus on institutional dynamics.

 

Other concerns include a bit of vagueness on our present-day setting. This may well be intentional as a way to keep the storyline more focused on the plot, but I did wonder what exact time period the setting is. There’s reference to email, the “latest electronic retrival system” in the library, an “electronic scratchpad” for note-taking, GPS, “blasters,” and “transporters” that take the trainees away from St. Mary’s. It led me to guess mostly-current era, with a suspicious lack of cell phones/instantaneous communication that might have made a later plot point preventable. 

 

The other concern with mentioning for those that like the science part of the science fiction seems a little light. Pure speculation would be that Taylor’s strength is the history part of the story rather than the science details.  For instance, although they travelers “can’t bring anything back,” they can apparently return covered in mud and potentially contagious with disease. Willis acknowledges the disease/contagion problem in her series and deals with it in an interesting way, but the paradox hasn’t seem to occur to Taylor’s historians though they have to decontaminate before exiting the pod.  Also, although they are “forbidden” from interacting with locals, they end up doing it with some regularity, so it opens up those pesky time-line questions, which are promptly ignored. I’m not one that cares about timeline/causation generally (‘therein lies madness’) but it’s worth mentioning for those who might notice the logic gaps. My most significant final concern is some forced and questionably authentic relationship drama that seemed somewhat out of character for both parties involved. While I appreciated the resolution, it had a false note to it that seemed like character was sacrificed for some plot tension.

 

But all those are relatively small concerns, given that its ability to hold my interest. It was literally one of those books that I did not want to put down and will certainly hold my attention for a second read. Overall, it was an amazing first novel. A shout out to Richard at Expendable Mudge Muses whose enthusiasm and whole-hearted recommendation inspired me to read this book (and the next, naturally).

 

A final, memorable line: “It seemed very possible we would all be killed by idiots rather than villains, which would be typical.

Rant, with expletives

The Hammer and the Blade - Paul S. Kemp

Mr. Kemp, forgive me. I enjoyed your book. Buddy sword and sorcery, against the odds, grit and luck, fun time.  It reminded me of an updated Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or a more interesting Riyria Chronicles. It entertained me during a slow night shift when I needed to be entertained and to stay awake, so it was working against gravity, as it were, and it still worked. Kudos.  I completely would have given it three and a half stars if it wouldn’t have been for one major plot-point:

 

 

 

SPOILER--a women-victim thing going on here with the ultimate threat of a woman being made to conceive and carry a demon child.

 

 

WARNING: apparently I haven’t gotten enough sleep, because my language filter is broken tonight.

 

It could be recent events in my life (1) (2), but I’m in one of my moods where the convention just annoys the fuck out of me, and it’s about time I say it.  I have a bone to pick with you all, authors, especially you fantasy and science fiction writers. You know–the fields that play with reality, imagining worlds, societies and creatures that haven’t been dreamed or encountered yet. So, why, why, why must you write the (female) rape threat into your book? The (female) rape scene? Is this really the only place your imagination can conceive the threat of domination?

 

Sadly, I feel fairly confident that you aren’t trying to bring awareness to an all-too-common female experience, since there’s a fat lack of representation of female roles in the rest of the story. Oh wait–whores–check. Mothers–check. Barmaids–check. We’re covered, fantasy guys! Write on!  Because you show you respect women in those roles, it's totally okay!

 

Statistics vary somewhat (CDC stats say about 1 in 5 women have been raped and yet U.S. Department of Justice says only about 1.8 in 1000 in 2005 have been sexually assaulted/raped, but you know, their sample is done with people that live in the same location for three years, which is initially the most problematic thing that jumps out at me), but it’s pretty fucking certain most of the women you know have been sexually assaulted in some way at some point in their lives. There was a Booklikes discussion (initiated and hosted by Moonlight Reader) a few months ago where women shared how distressingly common, how very ordinary sexual harassment and assault is, and how often we don’t even bother telling anyone because (3). So when you use it as a, you know, story point, you better be damn fucking sure you use it with intention and thoughtfulness, because it’s going to feel a little close to reality for your readers–a reality, I might argue, that some are hoping to circumvent by diving into the depths of fantasy and science fiction.

 

It’s not fucking liberated writing if our only role is in the text as a sexual/violent object. You aren’t “standing up for women” if our only representation is dependent upon our sexuality, even if we are rescued by your male hero before it happens. Even if you indulge in a revenge fantasy on our behalf.

 

My dear male writers who want to include sexual assault against women, I have some advice. First read The Sparrow. It kicked my ass and made me cry for a whole bunch of reasons. If you can do that with your theme/plot/scene, you have my blessing.

 

 *****************************************************************

 

(1) You mean I really have to say “no means no” to get you to stop touching me? This is not you "expressing yourself." This is you violating my space, asshat.

 

(2) Recent reads: Broken Angels, Woken Furies, Codex Born, The Merry Misogynist, The Hammer and The Blade, Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller, Pump Six and Other Stories, Blackbirds, The Summer Tree, blah, blah, blah.

 

(3) Because of a whole bunch of reasons, none of which need any fucking justification.

Ranty

The Hammer and the Blade - Paul S. Kemp Broken Angels - Richard K. Morgan

I feel pretty ranty about woman and rape/threats in fantasy/sci-fi tonight. What the fuck is wrong with authors that can imagine magic swords, demons and downloading personalities needing to have a big fat threat of violence against women--specifically--in their books? I can usually shrug off the annoyances, but its the second major book offense in a week, and I'm pretty fucking annoyed.

 

 

The Minority Council

The Minority Council - Kate Griffin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

 

Well, sort of. Take two dislikeable tropes, refrigerator females and the drug scourge, and put them in the hands of a fine storyteller, set it a city with a millennia of history, and fill it with fascinating characters, particularly a reincarnated schizophrenic sorcerer, and you get something pretty amazing with a little side helping of ambivalence. 

 

The Minority Council is the fourth (and last?) book in the Matthew Swift series; however, he does guest appearances in the Magicals Anonymous series. Charmingly, the next book, Stray Souls, is hinted at in a couple of places. At any rate, Matthew Swift is a former sorcerer, reincarnated along with the electric blue angels who escaped from the phone lines. He becomes the reluctant hero, the Midnight Mayor of the city, charged with protecting London from magical destruction. Matthew, however, has a problem caring about the larger issues, and does much better on the concrete, individual level. He only ends up managing the Big Concerns when individuals he comes to care about are affected. The Minority Council doesn’t break this trend; in the first few pages, he meets Meena, a magic user of stunning power, and when she calls him for help, he finds himself involved in London’s underground magical drug trade. At the same time, a local council worker, Nabeela, is trying to storm into the Mayor’s office, intending to bring her cause to his attention. Little does she know that the scuffily dressed man sneaking in the service entrance is, in fact, the Mayor. She convinces Matthew he needs to see one of the teen hooligans who has been somehow changed and the investigation gains momentum.

 

I continue to love Griffin’s voice. She uses a first person narrative starring Matthew/the electric angels (he switches from ‘I’ to ‘we’ regularly), which does fascinating things with characterization. But it is the overall voice, a mixture of pensive and resolute, wonderment and observant that I enjoy, a voice that perfectly fits with Matthew’s split character.  I found myself wondering if Matthew the sorcerer is indeed ‘there’ at all, or if his personality is merely the electric angels impersonating humanity. It could be because I’ve been reading Richard K Morgan’s downloaded personalities, but I can’t help but see the electric angels as the same sort of phenomenon.

 

Then there’s the writing itself. Griffin uses words well, specific, slightly unusual choices that highlight and play with meaning. At times, shades of Douglas Adams. At times, flat out great. “At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to me, I looked round, and there she stood.

 

The overt plot of the book largely surrounds the relationship between Matthew and his Alders. Having been on the receiving end of the Alders’ willingness to use lethal force, Matthew isn’t inclined to cut them any slack. Matthew sums up the problems between himself and his Alders early on: “In theory they serve the Midnight Mayor, soldiers in his army… They were magical, they were dangerous, a lot of them were dabblers in high finance, and if all of this wasn’t enough, they liked to wear black and talk in short sentences to let you know just how mean they were. They were the banes of my life and it was of only some small satisfaction to think that we were, in our own quaint way, the bane of theirs.

 

A note of levity was introduced with Kelly, Matthew’s new Alder P.A. I’m afraid I’m becoming quite fond of her, always dangerous in a Swift book. But she of the eternal optimism made me laugh out loud when she points out: “‘You say that, Mr. Mayor!’ she exclaimed. ‘But you say it in your special brave voice and, you know, I’m really not sure if I can trust your special brave voice these days because, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Mayor, there’s a very thin line between being brave and six months of physiotherapy and liquid foods.‘”

 

My problems with the series are hard to describe. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, bookaneer’s observation of Griffin’s use of the refrigerator female is sadly apparent. I admit to disappointment, particularly in a female author who ought to be aware that she’s killing off most (all?) of the strong women characters, good or bad. My other challenge centers around Matthew’s naivete. This is book four in Matthew’s reincarnation, and I started to feel like it is entirely too easy to use him as a cat’s paw in a larger scheme. He may feel like he is an actor, but remains largely an agent. Realizing that was one of the moments that made me question whether a sorcerer of Swift’s knowledge and experience was actually in the body at all, or if it was only the electric angels believing they are Swift–what other excuse explains the simplistic way they react with only shreds of intuition and little information?

 

However, Griffin does an excellent job balancing the drama of the story with humorous touches, one reason the series stands out among urban fantasy. There’s sophistication in the moral issues, and it isn’t always entirely clear that Matthew is right, however understandable his thirst for vengeance might be. The magic and magical creatures continue to impress, updated to a modern recognizable version–the magic of crime scene tape, bus passes, fairy dust, the vestments of the homeless. Overall, highly recommended, but this is one series I strongly suggest be read in order.