Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories #1) by Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories, #1)Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up when it first came out, but, unlike most Seanan McGuire books, I didn't immediately tear into it. I was familiar with Rose's story thanks to the serial fiction published in The Edge of Propinquity. It turns out the book is as far removed from the serial as the serial is from the original song that inspired it.

Rose Marshall is a road ghost. If you've ever heard the tale of the hitchhiking ghost who vanishes before reaching its destination, you know the other side of Rose's story. Rose is a benevolent ghost, but there are those who don't think so, and want her stopped. And then there's Bobby Cross, the reason she's been stuck at age 16 for the last 60 years. She lives in fear of being caught by him, at the same time as she rescues those who die on the road from his grasp.

The story doesn't entirely lose its serial-fiction roots. Rose repeats herself frequently and explains things the reader might already know. Each chapter could easily be read as a stand-alone story, though you'd lose the overall narrative arc. Rose warns the reader early on about the fluid nature of time to a ghost, and so it makes sense that she might go over things she's already said. She's not sure where the reader is jumping into the story.

Rose's voice is more lyrical and rich than Seanan McGuire's other first-person narrators. She speaks in metaphor and imagery, evoking the sort of rambling thoughts that can only come to mind when you're alone on a lonely stretch of road with nothing better to think about. That's not to say the book rambles. She often sets the mood with a few well-placed words. Her voice reads as a combination of road metaphors, 1950's slang, and trucker shorthand.

If you've read the serialized version of this story, you'll have the bare bones of the plot laid out, but you'll have missed out on a lot of details that tie the story together. I couldn't do a compare-and-contrast, because I can't be positive if I forgot certain details from the serialized story or if they weren't there. I do know that this version of Rose's story is the richer and more vibrant.

Rose's story takes place in the same universe as McGuire's InCryptid stories, which start with
  Discount Armageddon

. Rose refers several times to the Healy family and its creepy, possibly-haunted house in her hometown, though none of the family members make an appearance. Rose is seeing another side of that world. I can see where she might cross paths with a future InCryptid story, but there's no room for it in this tale.

Once upon a time, the "Sparrow Hill Road" short stories made me interested in looking up road ghost stories to learn more about the tales Rose refers to. Sparrow Hill Road in its polished form makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived through, and finishing it makes me miss a friend I've never met. Unlike in the short stories, this version leaves room for more of Rose's story. I look forward to visiting more of the second America Rose guides us through.

I've been recommending this book all over the place to friends interested in ghost stories and local tales and urban legends. It's an excellent compilation of those tales, at the same time as it gives them a face and their own voice. I can't overstate how highly I recommend this book.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in my 2014 TBR Challenge, which puts me right on track for a book a month. I requested this as a gift on the strength of Audrey Niffenegger's debut, but delayed it because I suspected it couldn't stack up. What a good instinct I have.

Her Fearful Symmetry is about twins and isolation and death. It starts with the death of Elspeth Noblin following a long illness. Her twin, Edie (short for Edwina) Poole finds out when Elspeth's lawyer contacts Edie's twins, Julia and Valentina, telling them they've inherited her apartment and a tidy sum of money, with strings attached. The apartment is across from Highgate Cemetery, about which Robert Fanshawe, Elspeth's grieving lover, is writing his thesis. When the twins move in, Valentina and Robert start to fall in love, until Elspeth's ghost lets herself be known.

The first two-thirds of this book are compelling, and promise a build to a strong finish. Unfortunately, the book devolves in the last third to an object lesson in how bad it is to be selfish. All of the characters choose selfishly, to everyone's detriment, including their own. If I could remove one trope from the literary canon, it would be characters who screw themselves over. I read the last several chapters with a growing sick dread, and wanted to throw the book when it played out exactly how I feared. Unlike in The Time Traveler's Wife, the ending isn't hopeful. It's just bleak. One character is celebrating her fate at the end, but it feels tacked on.

The book has a lot of missed opportunities. I understand the appeal of a sad ending to make it seem more poetic, but I hate watching characters develop into worse people throughout the narrative when I started out liking, or, at least, understanding them. The more I learned about Elspeth, the more I questioned Robert's initial devotion and why he didn't see through her earlier. I started out feeling sorry for Valentina and Julia, and wound up feeling they deserved one another. Even Martin, the character I liked best, does something unforgivable, and the narrative lets us guess just how deep his betrayal runs.

I don't insist that all characters are likable in a book, but I hate watching the inevitable fate they deserve unfold. It makes me embarrassed for them that they couldn't learn any other way.

If you liked The Time Traveler's Wife, I can't recommend this one. It tries to capitalize on the elements that worked in the earlier book, and instead stumbles all over itself in a clumsy narrative about terrible people. This is one of those reads that made me angry with its wasted potential. It had such a compelling premise and promising setting. That this was the result infuriates me.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles #2) by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know what made me give Scarlet a try when I found

such a chore. I suppose I'm just more forgiving of debut novels. Or more of a sucker for fairy tale retellings than I'll admit. Either way, this is a vast improvement.

Scarlet introduces the title character, who lives in rural France, wears a red hoodie, and has bright red hair. In case it's not perfectly obvious yet, it's a futuristic take on Little Red Riding Hood. We open with Scarlet furious the police have given up on finding her missing grandmother, when she meets a mysterious and very strong man who goes by Wolf. He knows where to find her grandmother, and off they go to Paris to rescue her, with a jaunt through the woods breaking up their journey. Her story is interspersed with Cinder's, who escapes from prison with a roguish thief who has a space ship, and tracks down Scarlet's grandmother, too, in hopes of getting answers about her past.

The narrative tension is vastly improved from the first book. There are no easy choices for our characters; they're often faced with causing one person's death, or causing several more, or their own. Cinder's reluctance to embrace her true identity costs her, but it also works to Scarlet's benefit. Nothing just works out for anyone; they have to use all their resources to fight a powerful enemy, and they still come out behind.

This book, at least, has a kind of resolution. It's not the resolution we might hope for, but there is a brief lull for the characters to catch their breaths before launching into their next task, and we have a good idea where they might start when the next book opens. The story ends on a hopeful note, with these two resourceful young women having found one another.

The love story in Scarlet is more compelling than in Cinder, though it's not without its predictable turns and cliché tropes. The characters are aware of how quickly it happened, yet it doesn't feel forced or rushed. Considering the circumstances, they'd both have to be fundamentally broken to feel nothing.

This is a promising progression of this series, and it's convinced me to pick up the next book. I feel like all Cinder lacked was another plot to offset the main one, or to introduce some of the greater conflicts we see in Scarlet. All of that is fixed in this installment. And now I find myself looking forward to book three.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Rebecca Soler. Her voice was better suited to Scarlet's fiery temper and Wolf's quiet menace. Another narrator might have exaggerated the French accents the story called for, but they were subtly done. One of the android voices was rather more screechy than I liked, but it did fit the character.

View all my reviews

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say what inspired me to pick this up, except that it was available as an audio book through my library, and I didn't know what I wanted to listen to next. I'm glad I went in without expectations, because I think the author did a lot of things with this book I might have closed my mind against if I expected something else.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a US-born Dominican boy named Oscar de León, cursed to never find love. The narrative takes us from modern-day America back to the early reign of Trujillo, the Dominican dictator assassinated in 1961, and forward into the narrator's hope for the future. The story is actually a first-person account by Yunior, who doesn't step into the story until about halfway through. He falls in love with Oscar's sister and becomes Oscar's only friend, and witness to the curse plaguing him and his family.

Oscar is the consummate nerd. He's overweight, obsessed with all things SF, and spends much of his copious free time writing out his epic tales. In college, Yunior finds Oscar sitting in his room watching Akira most days. I was worried the narrator would blame Oscar's lack of a love life on his nerdy habits, but Yunior, himself, is also into geeky things, and he has no trouble attracting two, sometimes three women at a time. (Not that the women know how many he's seeing.) There is some fat shaming in Oscar's depiction, and, though we see how hard it is for Oscar to try to take up running, Yunior isn't terribly sympathetic to Oscar's struggle with his weight.

The story's attitude toward women is hard to pinpoint. As Oscar treats them like an unattainable goal to keep throwing himself at until he racks up enough Nice Guy points, and Yunior treats them mostly as interchangeable objects to have sex with, it would be easy to call this a misogynist narrative. Except, we also get several sections in the perspective of Lola, Oscar's sister, and we hear of their mother's struggles in the Dominican Republic as an attractive, dark-skinned girl. So the female characters we see in any depth are just as fully developed as Oscar and Yunior.

Most of my interest in this book lay in the perspective of Dominican culture, both in the Dominican Republican and in the immigrant communities in the US. I know precious little of the history and culture, and, while this is hardly a comprehensive lesson, it did lend me a lot of insight. Yunior is proud of his heritage, but he doesn't romanticize it. He's well aware of its limitations and how it shaped the immigrant communities he and Oscar are a part of.

The choice of language in this book can be disorienting. Yunior can go from talking like a professor to spouting Spanish profanity to a street lingo peppered liberally with the n word. It was discomfiting to hear that word dropped so casually, even by someone reclaiming it. Yunior's language choices are essential to understanding Oscar's troubles with fitting in, though.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of those books I'll keep thinking about long after I've finished reading it. There's a lot going on, even in what look like the most straightforward scenes. I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone who wouldn't be angry with me for not preparing them, but the best way to approach it is unprepared, with your mind open but aware of where it's coming from.

The edition I took out from the library also included Drown, a short story collection. Most of the stories are about Yunior, the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. They cover his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his life in New Jersey and girlfriends he's had, and a boy without a face who features in two of the stories. The final story in the collection tells how Yunior's father came to the US and gained citizenship, and why it took him so long to bring his family to live with him. The stories lend some perspective to Yunior's characterization, and they offer more cultural context, but I wouldn't have picked them up on their own.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. I thought the former narrator did an excellent job of carrying most of the book, and the latter did a fine job on reading the few female-perspective sections. Davis sounded authentically Latino when the narrative called for it, though I can't comment on whether he sounded Dominican. He treated the material as a performance. I felt he stepped into Yunior's role in the story, rather than just reading his words. I'm glad I listened to this on audio, because the Spanish interspersed throughout the text is easier to get in context if you know how it's supposed to sound, and Davis's inflection made it a lot easier to follow.

View all my reviews

Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club. With the difficulty I had getting into it, it's for the best that I did, because I would've abandoned it, otherwise. It turned out to have some interesting highlights, though I'd hesitate to recommend it to others.

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary is a varied and complicated one. This focuses mostly on two of the men who made it possible: Professor James Murray, who compiled most of the information that went into the dictionary, and Dr. W.C. Minor, an asylum resident who contributed many of the quotes used to capture the essence or history of words. The majority of the book focuses on Dr. Minor: why he was in an asylum, what he did while he was there, how his contributions helped. Dr. Minor has a combination of free time and access to books that proves essential to the making of this dictionary.

The structure of the tale isn't linear. It jumps around in time, starting with a tale of when Professor Murray and Dr. Minor first met. Only, it turns out, that's a sensationalized account people passed around as the truth. The real story is far less interesting, but you don't learn that until about three quarters of the way into the book.

Though it is true that Dr. Minor wouldn't have had the time to put in all his work on the dictionary without his stay at the asylum, to present it, as this narrative does, as wholly positive is romanticism of mental illness at its worst. If you asked Dr. Minor if he'd rather have contributed nothing and never been plagued by delusions of demons getting into his room through the floor, it's just a guess, but I'm willing to bet he would've chosen mental health. The illness later proves so distracting to Dr. Minor that he's unable to contribute further, anyway. Think what he might have been able to do if inspired to help and given full control over his faculties. Think what he might have accomplished on his own. We've come a long way from locking people up in asylums, but we still have a way to go in our attitudes toward mental health.

The book seems a bit scattershot at times, unsure what it wants to focus on. The dictionary, itself, is rarely discussed except in very dry academic terms, and Murray is barely a footnote. And yet it's not quite a biography of Dr. Minor, because it leaves out a lot of detail that might've shed light on his struggle. It doesn't even offer a psychological diagnosis until the last pages, nor does it touch upon the kind of Victorian psychiatry Dr. Minor would've been subject to. In its place, the book speculates, with little to back it up.

I found this an interesting read. I thought it captured the scope of the project of compiling the first English-language comprehensive dictionary well, and I picked up several interesting tidbits of information. In the end, though, I didn't find it readable enough to recommend others read it, unless they're really interested in the OED.

View all my reviews

Review: George Carlin Reads to You by George Carlin

George Carlin Reads to YouGeorge Carlin Reads to You by George Carlin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember George Carlin as a lot more open-minded. I suppose, when I was still in high school, his comedy must've seemed gleefully subversive. Revisiting these books mostly just made me sad.

George Carlin Reads to You is a collection of three of George Carlin's books on audio, read by the author with the kind of comic timing they deserve. They're not narratives; some of the jokes are one-liners, or they're just lists of observations. There are a few longer jokes, or stories about his upbringing, but there isn't anything to tie them together.

Unfortunately, a lot of his humor is of the punch-down variety. He picks on people with disabilities, complaining about being asked to stop referring to those with physical disabilities as "handicapped," and frequently stooping to poke fun at people with intellectual disabilities. I can already hear the George Carlin who wrote these books sneering at the "politically correct" terms above, but his lack of empathy doesn't make him funny.

Carlin seems to assume the reader is male, relating stories he assumes the reader will be able to relate to because they're just like him. He couldn't have written the book from any perspective other than his own, but his assumption I was in on the joke was often alienating.

The book wasn't a total waste of time. There were some jokes that got me laughing out loud, though their being framed by punch-down jokes often detracted from the humor. Carlin did have some interesting ways of looking at the world, when he wasn't reveling in being a jerk just to be a jerk.

If you like George Carlin, this is certainly George Carlin. I just remember him being funnier. I think I'd rather remember him from my favorite sketches, most immortalized on YouTube. This collection just makes him sound like an old man too set in his ways to learn better.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust (Oz Reimagined) by Seanan McGuire

Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust (Oz Reimagined)Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is only one of the short stories in the Oz Reimagined anthology, but it was released as a standalone short story on ebook. I wish more anthologies would do this. I've read far too many anthologies I wish I'd just picked through for the reasons I bought the anthology lately. And, in this case, I don't think I'm enough of a fan of the Oz books to justify picking up the whole thing.

"Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust" posits an Oz beset by humans from our world, who crossed over the Deadly Desert and are now relegated to their very own Emerald City ghetto. Dorothy is all grown up, and is tasked with keeping humans in line, but they resent her for her status and for beating a path to a land that's less than magical to them. The story is a very short murder mystery. A body is found in the human sector of town, only it's clearly a plant to stir anti-human sentiment.

If you hold the Oz books as sacred or purely innocent, you're unlikely to enjoy this story. This takes a lot of the magic out of the world. Ozma is controlling and petty, and Dorothy is far more cynical than the young girl who was once horrified to accidentally kill two witches. Sand from the Deadly Desert is a drug, called Dust, that's potent and often lethal.

The alterations aren't without precedent. Considering what happens to wilderness not under federal protection, it's not a stretch to suggest that large numbers of human immigrants into a magical land may have a negative effect. And Dorothy couldn't possibly remain an innocent little girl forever. I'm not familiar with Ozma's role in the books, but power has, historically, gone to people's heads, and it sounds like Ozma has a lot of it.

If you're looking for a nostalgic stroll through the books you loved as a child, you may want to skip this. But if you're looking for a creative take on what may have been, I'd recommend giving this story a shot. It's a quick read, compellingly written, and easy for even those of us not as familiar with the Oz books to follow.

View all my reviews

Review: The Heart Goes Last (Positron #4) by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last (Positron, Episode 4)The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might just be the most frustrating serial fiction ever. Not because of how it's written, but because of the publication schedule. This is most certainly not the end of the story, but there's no release date on episode 5, and this one came out over a year ago.

The premise behind Positron is a near-future dystopia, where people deep in debt voluntarily go into prison for six nonconsecutive months a year. The other six months, they spend in suburban paradise. Stan and Charmaine are happy with their choice to enter the system, until Stan finds a note he believes was left by the woman who lives in their house during their off months, and fills his head with all kinds of fantasies. Only, it's a code name used by Charmaine, so she can cheat on Stan with Max, the man who occupies their house during the months they're imprisoned.

Four installments in, Stan's death has been faked and the subversive forces are working on getting him out, while Charmaine is being ogled by the guy in charge at Stan's funeral.

I'm honestly not sure if I'm rooting for Stan and Charmaine's eventual reunion. The only things they have in common are that they lie to each other and lust after other people. Stan was momentarily interested in his wife again when he realized she was the sultry vixen he'd been lusting after, thinking all along she was boring and pure. But he's easily distracted by a defective sexbot, who imprinted on a stuffed animal instead of the man she was built for. And, while Charmaine genuinely grieves for her husband, there's a heavy burden of guilt involved, as she believes she killed him.

I guess I'll see what future installments bring. I sure hope there will be future installments.

View all my reviews

Review: Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteSix-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like fairy tale retellings. At least, in theory, I like them. I've found a lot I was dissatisfied with, often because the characters were shoehorned into their roles without a lot of character exploration. Despite the glut of Snow White retellings, this one sounded different enough it deserved a chance. Besides, it was nominated for a Hugo.

Six-Gun Snow White takes place in the Old West, in an untamed land populated by robber barons and the exploited native population. A silver baron, Mr. H, takes a native girl named Gun That Sings as his wife, without consulting her on the matter. He threatens to exploit her family's land to gain their grudging consent. She has a single daughter, and dies. Mr. H's new wife ironically names her Snow White, and spends much of the girl's childhood bathing her in ice cold milk to take the darkness out of her skin.

Snow White escapes her stepmother, and just in time, because, as in the original tale, the evil stepmother wants Snow's heart. The huntsman comes in the form of a bounty hunter who sees Snow as just another spoiled kid who'll be easy to track down. But she's clever and resourceful, and learns everything she can about surviving in the lawless lands. The dwarves show up as the women running an all-female town.

The ending of the story takes it in an odd direction. I suppose it would have to; everyone knows the iconic story, and we can't have a predictable ending. I would've had an easier time with it if I'd been clear on the relationship between Snow and her stepmother's mirror-child, the reason why the stepmother needs Snow White's heart. There's a strong bond between Snow White and Deer Boy, but I was never sure if it was familial or emotional.

The western angle on the Snow White story is a new one to me, and a non-white Snow White is a clever twist. And this Snow, for all her adherence to the plot formula, directs her own fate. She becomes the central character of the story, not just its victim. This is no damsel summoning woodland creatures with her innocence. This Snow White carries a gun, and doesn't hesitate to use it when she needs it.

Despite the many, many Snow White retellings, this one manages to stand out from the rest. I don't know if I'd call it my favorite, but it is compellingly written, with an excellent sense of character, motivation, and the importance of the essential symbols, like the mirror and apples. This didn't win the Hugo, but now I'm really intrigued about the novella that did.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 15, 2014

Progress: The Plot Thickens

Here I thought I'd written three books in 4 months.

Now that I'm finished typing up book one of the fantasy trilogy, I've been working on book two. I already knew it was longer than the first book. As I typed, I looked for things I could cut.

Instead, I found myself adding to the story. When I write my first drafts, I'm often in a hurry just to get the story down before I forget, so my second drafts involve expanding and clarifying. This one is no exception. I realized, as I reached the 2/3rds point of what I'd written of book two, I could easily split them without losing anything. In fact, it gives me room to explore some of the aspects of the world I glossed over to wrap up the book. There were several distinct points where I made the decision to leave a plot seed alone because it would've made the book that much longer.

And so, the fantasy trilogy is now a tetralogy. Or a quartet. I like quartet better. People actually know what that means.

It takes a lot longer to write new material than it does to type up a draft that's already written. My progress has slowed to a crawl. My hands are grateful for the respite, but I'm impatient to get back to typing up what's in my little notebooks. There's a weird kind of thrill in pulling apart what I wrote to form it into something better. I'm rarely in a better mood than when I solve a plot puzzle I've written myself into.

Meanwhile, my crit partner is going through book two of the urban fantasy trilogy, and she has a lot of good feedback. I should be working on editing, but I just like the dragon books more.

In my little snatches of between-time, I'm writing book three of the urban fantasy trilogy. It has the opposite of the above problem. I feel like I've run out of plot, and it's only just past the halfway point. I have a few ideas, but I won't know until I write them if they feel like padding. It's not like I'm writing very fast. I have time to figure out how to fill those pages.