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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County Book by Berkeley Breathed

The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County BookThe Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County Book by Berkeley Breathed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to pick up a pile of classic Bloom County strips at a library book sale. This is the only one of the set that I remember reading before. It also seems to be when the comic strip was at its best.

In this volume, Bill the Cat runs for president, with Opus as his running mate. Opus is called in front of a congressional committee to determine his liberalism, which takes him out of the running. Bloom County is ordered to meet a gender parity quota, only to learn there's already a woman among them, sparking a witch hunt. Oliver, the young black scientist of the group, discovers that cat sweat regrows hair, and its outlawing (due to "acking" side effects) turns it into a lucrative illegal trade. And Opus breaks into an animal testing facility in hopes of reuniting with his mother, leading to a run-in with the title characters ("Even their uzis are pink!").

This set of strips has Opus gaining prominence as a main character in Bloom County. Whereas earlier strips put him in more of a sidekick role, in these, most of the stories center around him. I don't think that makes him an author mouthpiece, though, unless the author suffers from very poor self-esteem. The strip never resists a chance to point out how awkward, effeminate, and undesirable he is.

The issues that come up in the comic strip kept up with current events very well in their publication in the late 1980's. Most of the punchlines reference the news soundbites in ways most readers would recognize. That doesn't make them foreign or hopelessly dated, though. We still talk about the media's reactionary nature, the War on Drugs, gender roles, animal testing, and divisive politics.

I've been enjoying revisiting these old strips. Dated as some of the jokes are, it's nice to finally understand some of them in their proper context. I'm glad I had the chance to do so.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Eat Slay Love (Living With the Dead, #3) by Jesse Petersen

Eat Slay Love (Living With the Dead, #3)Eat Slay Love by Jesse Petersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Living With the Dead series, a lighthearted look at the zombie apocalypse. This installment finds a ramping-up of the tension and stakes.

Sarah and David survived a zombie apocalypse that started where they were in Seattle, and they've made something of a name for themselves as they cut a swath through the zombie-infested countryside. In this, the third book, they're making their way to a rumored Midwest Wall, which supposedly stopped the invasion from spreading east. If it's real, it's possible Sarah's mother survived the outbreak, and that there's still a place where civilization is intact.

The vest majority of the book takes place in rural Oklahoma, where they pick up a former celebrity news reporter, barely escape an insular community of survivors, and meet a drug-addled former rock star. Both Sarah and David get a chance to show off what they've gained in the zombie apocalypse, as the threats get ever more dangerous and they're called on to tap all their resources.

All of the books are told in a self-help format. The first book is about saving their marriage with a common enemy, so the chapter headings are all themed after relationship advice. The second establishes their zombie-hunting business, so it's styled after business manuals. This one is more of a general/motivational self-help, which strikes me that the concept is running thin. It still works in this book, but I can't imagine how a future book might fit the theme.

There's a strong thread throughout this book about taking advantage of the zombie apocalypse, for better or worse. David and Sarah aren't the only couple who resolved their differences to fight zombies, and many characters tap into strengths that had been languishing in the civilized world. Obviously it's not an improvement for people turned into or eaten by zombies, and Sarah speaks longingly of the trappings of society, but the survivors are changed by the experience, mostly for the better.

I've read reviews of the fourth book that suggest stopping with this volume. It does wrap up a lot of plot threads. I'm content with where we leave Sarah and David at the end of this book. One gets the idea their story is done. There are a couple of threads still left hanging, but they don't seem they'd overly affect these two in the life they've accepted by the end of this book.

If you like humor and snark in your zombie books, I recommend this series. It's a nice change of pace from the grimdark that dominates the genre. There's still gore and death, but it's tempered well with levity.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. Her voice generally captures Sarah's snark, though some of her emphasis and pronunciations are a little off. And by this third book, some of her voices for characters are indistinguishable. There were times when I couldn't tell if a character was speaking, or if Sarah was narrating.


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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Progress: Milestone

I finished typing up the first draft of my dragon story. It took longer than I thought, because I reworked as I went. More tension here, less bickering there, shortened rambling conversations, those sort of fixes. I don't think my beta readers will believe me that I cut about half the sex from the original draft.

I also had to write a prologue and an epilogue. Well, I didn't have to. I could've thrown the reader in without preamble. But parts of it are really hard to depict without slipping out of my first-person narrator for a bit.

The first time I tried to write this, I tried to alternate interludes with the story, but it killed the pacing, and I ran out of things for the other characters to do.

The story is currently 123,915 words, which is a respectable length for the genre. I already know the next one is longer, but who knows how much of that can go?

I'm looking forward to typing up book two. I enjoy this story.

Review: Tales Too Ticklish to Tell by Berkeley Breathed

Tales Too Ticklish to Tell: Bloom CountyTales Too Ticklish to Tell: Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Several months ago, I found a pile of Bloom County books at a library sale. Of course I snatched them up. I have fond memories of reading these when they were new, though I didn't understand a lot of the punchlines at the time.

In Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, Breathed's style was pretty well cemented. When you think of Bloom County, you think of these character designs, and this type of humor. It's bitingly sarcastic, a little absurd, and allows for no sacred beliefs to go untouched. Media scandals, TV evangelists, scapegoating, gun control, short attention spans, and objectification are all examined and skewered in turn.

As with Loose Tails, what surprised me was not how dated the jokes are (and some of them really are), but by how well some of them hold up. If you ever need a reminder that the media has always been lazy and sensationalist, look no further than its depiction in Bloom County. The characters regularly comment as they watch the news or read the paper, and we see how their local paper distorts what it hears to make an attention-grabbing headline. Above-the-fold scandals were the clickbait of their day.

There are places where the author lets his unconscious biases show, but, for the most part, the satire is evenly doled out. Some of the characters lean liberal or conservative, but they're all poked at in equal amounts. And, when the ultimate man's man, Steve Dallas, is taken and turned liberal, he's an object of ridicule, and his old friends are horrified. If one considers Opus the author's mouthpiece, then it's clear which way the author leans, but an argument could easily be made he's not.

I don't know how much entertainment value these comic strips have for generations who didn't live through what they parody, but, for someone who can remember most of what they discuss, it's fun to revisit them. They hold up surprisingly well, and finally understanding jokes that flew right over my head when I first read them is gratifying.


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Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's CradleCat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won this book through a giveaway at Roof Beam Reader. It's the first full-length Kurt Vonnegut book I've read. I was unprepared. Though, I'm not sure any amount of preparation would've been enough.

Our unnamed narrator is researching material for a book about the day the atomic bomb first went off, from the perspectives of family members of Dr. Hoenikker, one of the scientists who invented it. In the course of his research, he learns of a substance called ice-nine, which can change the properties of water so that it needs a much higher temperature to melt, invented by Hoenikker. He notes its potential for worldwide catastrophe, then thinks nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until he winds up in an island nation where the inventor's three children converge, and our narrator is drawn to events that lead to ice-nine's release into the world.

Throughout the book, the narrator describes a philosophy he's taken on in the place of the Christian religion, called Bokonism. It posits the uselessness of religion and the meaning behind seeming coincidence. At first, the reader is led to believe this is a longstanding belief he's been assimilating for years. It's only as the book goes along that one realizes how recently he picked it up, and that, when he speaks about events most people would assume will happen after the book wraps up, he's foreshadowing.

The book is told in satiric, rapid-fire prose. The chapters are short, and they read as vignettes saturated in irony. Bokonon teaches our narrator that man is the only thing worthy of being regarded as divinity, but the behavior of human beings in this story is far less than divine. People are selfish and greedy, and, above all, hypocritical. The island nation our narrator visits has outlawed Bokonism and is sworn to execute its founder, but it turns out that all its citizens practice it in secret, even the leaders who've made it a crime worthy of painful execution.

I can't remember the last time I read speculative fiction written in this time period that didn't evoke the Cold War. This one makes its analogue plain as day, evoking the atom bomb from the very start. The message is clear: people are self-destructive by nature. Giving them a weapon that could destroy us all can't end well.

There are some aspects of the book that made me uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if Vonnegut didn't realize he was being racist, or if he was making fun of the sort of people who'd say such things. The way he presents comments about Newt's height make me think it's the latter, but it's a close thing.

This is an odd book, but not an unpleasant read. It goes at a nice clip, and it has plenty of wry satire to entertain. It seems a bit preoccupied with its satire rather than characterization or language, but it can be forgiven. I'd liken it to the movie Dr. Strangelove, at least in tone. I'm glad I got the chance to read it, so I can quit treating Vonnegut like an obstacle to overcome, and instead view him as a writer I'm sometimes in the mood to read.


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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth CenturyThe Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My interest in history is in the everyday. Random facts and dates and politics may tell me what shaped the world we have today, but I want to know what people were doing while all that went on. This book, then, was right up my alley. And it was in my 2014 TBR Challenge because otherwise, I was never going to get around to reading it.

The book is, as the title says, a guidebook for anyone wanting to visit England in the 1300's. It discusses customs, fashions, crime, justice, economic classes, conditions living in cities, food, travel, people's homes, and, briefly, the Black Death. It's the first history book I've read about the time period that doesn't dismiss research suggesting the Black Death was viral. But there are entire books devoted to that particular puzzle. In this, it's little more than a footnote, except to note how its effect on lifestyles and the population.

The book is absolutely packed with information. It covers any aspect a person visiting from our time period needs to know so they don't stick out. It presents the populace not as clueless rubes, but as people living their lives and worthy of respect despite their lowbrow humor.

Unfortunately, the Time Traveler's Guide isn't terribly readable. It's excellent as a resource to consult to get a good idea of the flavor of the time, but, as a cover-to-cover read, it's rather dry. That exhaustive research and thorough information doesn't take long to get tiresome. It's like that person at a party you were sorry to ask about their area of expertise when they're still going on about it an hour later.

Overall, this is a valuable resource for anyone who needs to get the flavor of everyday life during the time period. I recommend keeping it on hand to consult as needed, rather than reading all the way through at once. I'm going to keep it on hand, but I'm not going to read it as I did this time around again.


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Review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich CuckoosThe Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I realized after I picked up this book that it was abridged, and that the only unabridged audio is a performance. I have no idea what I missed, but I did listen to a compelling story, worth delving into the source material.

If you've heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you've probably seen one of the Children of the Damned movies. I've heard of it through Seanan McGuire's InCryptid books. There's a race of cryptids called Cuckoos, and they're much like the creatures described in this book, with a greater variety in appearance. Sarah gets her last name from Gordon Zellaby, the layman who studies the strange children.

The book describes a small town in the English countryside, struck mysteriously by a sudden sleep that lasts a day and a half. Anyone passing into the radius immediately falls asleep, and wakes up when dragged back out, usually by a hook. Our narrator escapes the daylong sleep because he and his wife are away celebrating his birthday.

Soon after what everyone calls the Dayout, all of the women of childbearing age realize they're pregnant. Initially they make these discoveries separately, but, when they start risking their lives in ever more desperate measures, the town doctor talks Angela Zellaby into rallying them around for mutual support. When they're born, all of the children have a particular shade of blond hair, and golden eyes. And their mothers start to do their bidding, whether they want to or not. As the children grow older, at twice the rate of normal children, Gordon Zellaby starts to notice some other remarkable things about them.

Despite the book's overall patronizing tone (the women are "hysterical," and not in the funny way), it captures the crux of many pro-choice arguments. The women lament being used as a container, remark they feel used, and there's palpable tension as the due date grows near. Many of the women unsuccessfully try home abortion techniques, and risk their lives in the process. Surely even the most staunch abortion foes wouldn't argue the world was better off with these fictional children in it.

Mostly, Midwich Cuckoos evokes Cold War panic. The notion that the children are there to destroy society within is hard not to see as a parallel. The truly terrible events in the story are triggered by actions taken by the Soviets.

The book, then, is dated in some ways. It most shows its age when one of the characters remarks that, at least the children aren't black. I can only hope he wasn't meant to be an author mouthpiece.

The choice of narrator for this book is a curious one. The narrator participates in very little of the story, and serves only to tag along and observe the most interesting parts. He even has a convenient job in Canada that takes him away from the village for the 8 years where nothing much happens with the children, and he returns for a visit just in time for things to come to a head. He doesn't add any commentary or opinions that enhance the story.

This book is well worth a visit to the original material, despite how dated it is. If nothing else, it's a glimpse into how classic scifi/horror was crafted. The genre hasn't changed much in the intervening decades.

As mentioned above, I listened to this on audio. Despite the fact it was abridged, it was a pleasant listening experience. Jeremy Clyde's performance didn't detract from the story, and added to it in places. He was easy to understand with a consistent volume.


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Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Ripper by Isabel Allende

RipperRipper by Isabel Allende
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed everything I've read of Isabel Allende's. I'm not generally a mystery reader, but I thought I'd give this one a chance, to see if Allende really is that versatile.

Amanda Martín is a teenager obsessed with true crime. She takes part in an online roleplaying game that starts off devoted to solving the Jack the Ripper mystery. It soon moves on to modern crimes. When her astrologist godmother predicts a "bloodbath" in San Francisco, Amanda turns her players' attention to finding a connection between recent unsolved murders. Meanwhile, her father, Bob Martín, investigates the murders in his capacity as detective. Indiana Jackson, Amanda's flaky mother, is all too happy to ignore the terrible crimes, until she becomes the target.

Much of the plot revolves around Ryan Miller, a Navy SEAL and war veteran who's missing one leg. He's friends with Indiana and her daughter, and is in love with Indiana. He becomes a target of the investigation after the murders hit close to home, and the narrative sows enough doubt that only a familiarity with the murder mystery formula eliminates suspicion.

The story has a slow build. It isn't until the last third of the book that the pieces come together and the tension really picks up. When it comes, the reader realizes why all these disparate pieces of information were dropped in. There's no time to pause to figure out where a person fits in the story once it really picks up.

The timeline is somewhat nonlinear. By that I mean, the core of the story progresses from January to April 2012, with frequent stops in the past. It flits around, often jumping entire decades from one paragraph to the next. I was sometimes lost in the narrative, unable to determine if we were in modern day or in the midst of another flashback. Eventually, the context would reveal it, but it could be disorienting.

This is no simple murder mystery. It's not unique in being a murder mystery with mystical elements, though they're subtly done. The book also explores topics like PTSD, online friendships, trust, the pitfalls of genius, war, guilt, with a few sly literary references tossed in. Blake Jackson, Amanda's grandfather, is talking about writing a book, and he discusses the process and research within the narrative.

I don't think I'm familiar enough with mystery novels to call this a success as a mystery. As a book, it's well-crafted. The ending hit me hard, but it was the ending this book needed.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini. He has the sort of voice that suits a mystery novel, and a good familiarity with the accents the narrative called for, but he sounded strange, reading female dialogue. The audio quality sometimes turned sibilant sounds into a piercing whistle, which made turning up the volume a risky proposition.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Fragments (Partials #2) by Dan Wells

Fragments (Partials, #2)Fragments by Dan Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had a good idea of what to expect from the dystopian YA genre, and from this series. This is the second book, so one expects a certain amount of wheel-spinning and delaying tactics. Instead, this is a ramping-up of an already intriguing series.

In Partials, Kira Walker found a one-time cure for RM, the disease that killed most of humanity and kills all newborns after just a couple of days. But it's not a permanent solution. In Fragments, she goes to the Manhattan headquarters of ParaGen, the biotech company that manufactured Partials, seeking a permanent answer. Back on Long Island, her longtime boyfriend and all the friends she left behind struggle with a Partial invasion, as Dr. Morgan comes looking for her.

There are several perspective shifts within Fragments, but they're all a necessary part of the narrative, and they serve to wind the dramatic tension tighter with every passing scene. Every new thing the characters learn just makes things look more bleak and hopeless.

Not that the book is a series of tragedies. Bad things happen, and Kira's faith that there must be a solution is severely tested. Choices have consequences, and even decisions that look like the right ones turn out to have negative consequences. But the narrative has bright spots. One gets the idea that, if there is a solution, Kira will wrench it out of its hiding place. How she'll do it, and how many will die along the way, is where the tension comes in.

Unfortunately, like all middle books of a trilogy, Fragments has to leave a lot of conflicts unanswered by the time it wraps up. So, while there is a resolution, it's not a very satisfying one. It's a good reason to pick up book 3, but my expectation that would happen is why I was so reluctant to pick up book 2 for so long. The resolution also depends on a character monologuing at length, which, for all it revealed, got tiresome. But these are minor complaints in a very enjoyable page-turner.

This is an excellent addition to an intriguing series that I feel stands out from most dystopian YA. If nothing else, it's a master class in building narrative tension.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Julia Whelan. Her narration is crisp and easy to understand, though a lot of her male characters sound similar. And I don't know if it was the library copy I borrowed, or if it's the original audio, but it had a metallic quality that muffled the audio. It's not the audio quality I've come to expect from HarperAudio.

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Review: To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney

To Love and to Cherish (Wyckerley Trilogy #1)To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my bid to read more romance, I hit upon two awfully similar books. I couldn't help but compare this to The Notorious Countess Confesses. It's a sweet story, but it suffers by comparison.

Christian "Christy" Morrell is the vicar of Wyckerly, a small English village. His best friend, Geoffrey Verlaine, returns on the death of his father, bringing with him his lovely wife, Anne. Geoffrey is considerably more bitter and mean than Christy remembers. Anne and Christy grow close, especially when Geoffrey goes off to war.

To Love and to Cherish is formula historical romance, even if the hero is beta all the way. (Apparently lovable men in the past were either rakes or priests.) Man and woman meet, are attracted to one another, are kept apart by circumstances, until they aren't. The final obstacle is easy to guess.

I was able to identify with the characters, and feel invested in their success. Their relationship unfolds realistically, with no artificial constructs to hold them back. Everything that keeps them apart is fully supported by the rest of the story and the setting. The characters lack the dynamic energy of the last romance novel I read, but, by themselves, they're well-rounded.

This book carries a content warning for rape, though it has to be the strangest handling of rape I've ever read. The act redeems the perpetrator, instead of illustrating how irredeemable he is, and the person it happens to seems unaffected, except to provide that redemption. It seems like a milder course of action might've taken the place of the rape, with no effect on the narrative whatever.

The religious theme runs strong in this book. Anne's subplot is that she finds religion, while Christy's faith strengthens. It's too smutty to be a Christian romance novel, but those of a Christian bent will appreciate its themes more.

This is a fun romance novel for those seeking historical with a beta male hero. I do not recommend reading it soon after reading another one you really liked, though; it lacks the tension of other historical romance novels I've liked, and the choice to include a rape, rather than ramping up that tension, just proves puzzling.


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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Progress: The Fun Part

I finished editing the first two books of the urban fantasy trilogy. The second book wound up needing a major rewrite to tighten up the plot and add tension and give some of my characters something to do. I'd meant to kill off a character, who survived in the previous draft. I fixed that.

It was not a fun change to make. I was morose for a whole day. I hope that helped me capture the fallout. We'll see. I have a crit partner reading it now. I realized after I'd sent it that I overwrote the ending, but I'll fix it.

Finishing that means I get to go back to the dragon story. I spent most of the holiday weekend typing the first book, and editing as I went. I got to know and understand the characters while writing all three books, so there are aspects I have to make sure I include from the start. I can also see holes where I neglect one or another of my ensemble cast, so I know I'll have to go back and give them something to do. I've slowed down the development of one plot point, cleaned up some of the redundancy and rambling, and spaced apart the reveals more.

Last night, I had to delete about five (double-spaced, rewritten) pages, because I was trying to resolve a conflict too soon. Characters needed space to ponder ramifications and illustrate their sincerity and make amends. Solving it too soon would let a character off the hook, and stunt development. The conflict wasn't even there in the first draft, but it became an essential turning point. I know it'll need more tweaking in later drafts, but I'm pleased with its addition.

I think that reflects my biggest writing weakness. I'm always in such a hurry to get to the good parts that I don't give enough narrative space to the buildup. An awful lot of my rewrites involve delaying plot points or leaving loose ends hanging a while longer. Maybe I can put a patch on my pantster ways by writing myself notes about scenes I'm excited to write or factoids I need to drop casually into the narrative. It's worth a shot.

When I wrapped up last night (okay, early this morning - I don't sleep well in summertime, so I might as well make my insomnia productive), I was at 64,250 words, with about half of my handwritten draft typed out. So, yup. It's an epic fantasy. Among other genres.

What I didn't expect was that I'm really enjoying what I've written. I'm looking at the words with a critical eye, but I keep running across turns of phrase that crack me up. My main character couldn't be more different from me, and has a quirky way of viewing the world. I hope the character's voice makes the series's concept easier to stomach. It's not fully revealed until the end of book one.

I'm actually excited at the idea of people reading this book. A little embarrassed about all the sex, but I've managed to pare it down to a less embarrassing degree. This is a story I could share with the people who've asked to read it without disclaimer.

Well, maybe not all of them. My co-workers may have to wait for it on store shelves. I don't want to know that people I know in a professional capacity have read it.

That's not all I'm working on. In my between times, I've been writing the third book of the urban fantasy trilogy. I've only ever written one draft of that book (as opposed to dozens of the first, and a handful of book two), and what I wrote isn't worth preserving. There's been a major thematic and world-building overhaul since I wrote it. Plus, it's tedious as hell. I feel a lot better about how this draft is turning out. In my typical fashion, I'm not completely sure how it'll pan out, but I have a lot of things to keep the characters occupied in the meantime.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: The Red Queen Dies by Frankie Y. Bailey

The Red Queen Dies: A MysteryThe Red Queen Dies: A Mystery by Frankie Y. Bailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club. This is one of those cases we're I'm grateful to my book club for putting it in my sights. I would never have known it existed otherwise.

The Red Queen Dies is set in Albany, NY in 2019. A high-speed rail between NYC and Albany has made travel between the cities more feasible, which also invites more crime. Most of it can be caught on one of the cameras set up all over the city, monitoring every street and dark corner. But sometimes, something slips past. Hannah McCabe is assigned to one such case, which appears to be the work of a serial killer. The third woman to turn up dead of a phenol injection straight to her heart is a Broadway actress.

The book is a fairly standard police procedural, with some whimsy sprinkled in. The near-future Albany posited in the book is plausible, and logical based on the advances in technology the book suggests.

What makes the book personally appealing is its setting. I don't get to read a lot of books set where I live, and Bailey makes good use of Albany as a backdrop, sprinkling in familiar landmarks and local history. And I learned a few new tidbits, while I was at it.

The Alice in Wonderland connection, too, is integrated well, without ever feeling heavy-handed. There were places where I felt there were missed opportunities to bring in more references, but one wouldn't want to bog the narrative down.

I don't know how appealing the book is without that local connection. There are a lot of loose ends at the end of the book, and a point that may be a plot hole, or it may come up in a later book. And the dialogue is a little too on-the-nose; people say exactly what they're thinking, repeat pieces of information we already know, and go on for several sentences where most people would stop at one. This is textbook police procedural, too, with all the dead ends and exhaustive research and false starts that involves. It can get tedious if you're not a fan.

But the book also has a lot to recommend it. The world building is superb, the authenticity carefully crafted, and Hannah McCabe is an intriguing main character. I didn't get much of a handle on the biracial detective, but the glimpses I saw made me interested to read more.

I'm glad my book club made me read this book. I hope Bailey has more mysteries ahead for Hannah McCabe.


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Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

PalimpsestPalimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had to browse through other reviews of this book to organize my thoughts about it. Some people loved it. Others hated it. Often the reasons were the same. Very few reviewers felt the way I did.

Palimpsest is about a sexually transmitted city. It follows a quartet of individuals, all linked together upon their first entrance to the fantastical city. One gets there by sleeping with a person who's already been, and inheriting a tattoo, a small map of one of Palimpsest's neighborhoods, somewhere on one's body. To go back, a person needs to find another person with a tattoo, and sleep with that person. But is there a way to stay for good?

Our four heroes are Amayo Sei, November Aguilar, Ludovico Conti, and Oleg Sadakov. Their reasons for needing to return to Palimpsest are their own, but they share their experiences within it, smelling the same train tunnels Sei visits and feeling the pain of the bee stings November receives and tasting the delicacies Ludo gets to try. They inevitably meet others with their own relationships to Palimpsest, most clamoring for permanent entry.

The writing is incredibly sensual, and not just because the narrative forces the characters to sleep with many people. The sights and scents and sounds and tastes of Palimpsest are explained in more detail than anything in the "real" world all must return to when they wake. The sex scenes, by comparison, are cursory, a brief but necessary encounter. I spent most of the book wondering if they were meant to be idealized, or just something the characters endured to get what they want. Very few of them thought anything of their partners, and they were all aware they were being used to get to Palimpsest. The book, then, becomes a look into the extremes people will go to when they're addicted, just for one more hit, one more time. The book doesn't read as a paean to casual sex, but a warning.

Palimpsest works better on a metaphorical level than a literal one. As lovely as the writing is, there's very little narrative tension. There is a conflict, but its unfolding feels like an inevitability. It's less roller coaster, more lazy river ride. I understood the characters' various reasons for needing to return to Palimpsest, but I didn't feel them. They felt like an afterthought, tacked on to justify the narrative. Which is curious, because the characters show plenty of signs of emotional investment in their various causes.

Palimpsest introduces us to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. November, the catalyst for most of the action in the book, is inspired to pursue immigration to Palimpsest by her childhood love of the other book. Palimpsest was written first, or at least published first, which means Valente likely had to write The Girl Who Circumnavigated around the plot points she established in Palimpsest.

Love or hate it, Palimpsest will likely change the way a reader looks at the world. Reading only the surface means a reader misses all kinds of allegories and observations on human nature. It works best when one sits back to enjoy the lushness of the prose, and lets it work its magic.

I listened to Palimpsest on audio. Unfortunately, the narrator felt a need to reproduce the characters' accents, often to a cartoonish degree. As there's very little interaction between them, it didn't even serve to distinguish them from one another. It distracted from the narrative, and got annoying by the halfway point. I found myself cringing at several points, as some of the delivery struck me as racist. If I listen to this book on audio again, it will be with another narrator.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Bird, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theory, I like fairy tale retellings. I say "in theory" because I've read too many that disappointed me. Still, I'd heard good things about Boy, Snow, Bird, a take on the Snow White tale, and it seemed like a good concept to go by.

Boy Novak escapes her abusive father in New York City in the 1940's and winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has some trouble fitting in, but eventually finds a job she likes, and a man she could marry. His name is Arturo Whitman, and he has a daughter named Snow, through his deceased wife, Julia. Boy marries Arturo, and soon after gives birth to a dark-skinned baby girl she names Bird. It turns out, the Whitmans are white-passing. Most of them, at least. Arturo's sister, Clara, is dark-skinned. The family urges Boy to send Bird to be raised with her aunt. Instead, Boy sends Snow, seeing something in the girl that makes her fear for her daughter.

The narrative skips over thirteen years, then has us catching up through Bird's perspective. Otherwise, it's told through Boy's, which makes it hard to blame her as the evil stepmother. Bird's reaction, on hearing her mother described as such, is puzzlement. She watches her mother for signs of it, and ultimately dismisses the claim. The crux of the story is in why the person would accuse her of it in the first place.

Mirrors are a recurring theme in this book, as in the original Snow White tale. Boy is entranced by reflective surfaces, which Arturo initially takes for vanity. Snow and Bird write back and forth, and briefly discuss Bird's quirk of sometimes not seeing herself reflected in a mirror. Snow writes back that the same thing happens to her. The day Boy decides to give Arturo a chance, she's just had a vision of herself, reflected, hands covered in blood. Bird has a talent for mimicry, a reflection of a person's voice. And characters serve as reflections of traits others possess. Bird proves a reflection of the dark skin in the Whitmans' blood, and her grandmother can hardly bear to look at her for it. Snow reflects back people's best traits, and people love her for it.

I loved the language in this book. Sentences flow into dialogue which flows together, despite each character's distinct voice. Boy and her friends have a back-and-forth banter that evokes movies of that era, or Peter S. Beagle dialogue. Boy and her mother-in-law have a tight, formal presentation. Bird's dialogue skips along merrily, full of laughter and curiosity. Snow's is mild and checked, like she's always making sure she said the right thing.

Characters can be hard to keep track of, especially with the shift in perspectives. Bird knows several people Boy doesn't, but she also knows people by their last names (Mrs., Ms., Mr.), while Boy was on a first-name basis. I kept wondering if I was supposed to know the people Boy was talking about.

I also spent most of the book puzzled about people's motivations. I think the point of the book was to slowly reveal Boy's inner workings, but she makes some choices that totally baffled me. When Bird hears that her mother is evil, I wasn't as quick as she was to dismiss the claim. Some of her motives really do seem to be manipulative or spiteful, until the very end.

The book didn't end where I expected. It seems like the most interesting event is just gearing up when it breaks off. Except, this is Boy's story, and the fact that she takes those steps is all the reader needs to know.

As a fairy tale retelling, I'd call this book a success. It had its reason for using the Snow White framework, and it had a new story to tell within it, beyond just giving the evil stepmother a chance to give her perspective. I liked what Oyeyemi did with it. This is beautifully written.


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Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sixth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Margaret Atwood's books, but I can never make myself pick them up to read. The challenge seemed like as good an excuse as any.

The story is told through the perspectives of three women. Tony Fremont is a petite history professor, Charis (whose last name is never given, to my recollection) works in a spiritual gift shop and spouts New Agey nonsense, and Roz Andrews is wealthy and owns a women's magazine. All three have been betrayed by a woman named Zenia, and it's this shared experience that holds them together. Otherwise, they have very little in common. Tony is timid and lives inside her own head. Charis is evangelical about her respect for all life, and Roz is brash and bold. Roz is also the only one who identifies as a feminist, though all three exhibit different ideals of feminism. They believe Zenia to be dead, until, over lunch, they see her walk into the restaurant.

Zenia is less a character than a force of nature. She's a chameleon, changing her looks, personality, and approach just to best insinuate herself into these women's lives to wreck them from the inside. She tells each a different story about her childhood, one that echoes each woman's own childhood trauma or resonates in some way. She lies to all three of them about where she is in her life, and she plants seeds of doubt in their own competence, as well as in how well they can trust the men in their lives.

Zenia could be argued to represent a lot of things. She could be the voice of a society that wants to punish the three women for not performing femininity. She might embody mistrust and doubt, sure killers of a relationship. I was leaning in favor of Zenia being an aspect of each of the women whose lives she ruins. On the surface, though, she's manipulative and remorseless. I recognized women I've known in Zenia, though I wouldn't flatter any of them by comparing them to her. She's an amalgam of the evil women pitted against women can do.

The narrative delves deeply into each of the three women. We get series of flashbacks for each of them that show their childhoods, how they met Zenia, how Zenia wrecked their lives, and how their present situations came about.

Interestingly, each of the women winds up in a better place because of Zenia's interference. Charis's Billy and Roz's Mitch were toxic, and the women are better off without them. Charis's grief is the catalyst for her going after an inheritance she deserves. Roz's magazine takes off with Zenia's help, and Zenia gives Roz's son the reason he needs to open up to his mother. While Tony mistrusts West after he returns from being used up by Zenia, he's more devoted than ever after the events, and she buys a lovely house in the meantime to distract herself from her grief. Not that I would argue that Zenia set out to do them any favors. That they were all better off after Zenia tore through their lives was not her goal.

I had to admire Zenia, in a way. She lies with perfect conviction, manipulates everyone around her deftly, wriggles out of consequences without even mussing her hair, and always ends up on top. She's resourceful, and always has a backup plan. We learn very little about her, and what we do learn is unlikely to be true. But we do see a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

This book is written extraordinarily well. That's not to say it was an enjoyable read. I spent much of my reading trying not to compare my own troubles with Tony's, Charis's, or Roz's. I sympathized most strongly with Tony, though I'm quite certain my story won't end so neatly. The book did lend me some new perspectives I hadn't considered. Despite my discomfort, I'm glad I read it.


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