Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Invisible life of Addie LaRue

V. E. Schwab
Completed 10/19/2021, Reviewed 10/19/2021
5 stars

This is the book club selection for December.  Once again, I read it early because I wanted to get it from the Library and there are tons of holds on the e-copies and I lucked out getting a hard copy.  The book astounded me.  It started off a little slow, but burned itself into my heart, leaving me devastated at the end.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good modern fantasy romance, but boy, did I love it.  This book has great prose, a great main character, and a really interesting plot.  It bounces back and forth between the past and the present, but the chapters are pretty short and you don’t lose the plot in either timeline.  This book came out in 2020 and I’m surprised this didn’t end up on more awards’ short lists.

Adeline LaRue is a young woman in the early 1700s in France.  She’s about to be married off and she desperately does not want to be.  She prays to the gods to get out of this marriage match, but makes a mistake by praying to the gods who answer after dark.  But in the end, she sells her soul for freedom.  The god in question of course finds a way to trick her and makes it so that no one remembers her once she is out of their sight.  So when she returns home after making this deal, not even her parents remember her.  Thus begins a three hundred year journey of trying to survive in a world that doesn’t remember her, until one day in New York in 2014, she meets a young man who does.

Adeline, or Addie, is a terrific heroine.  She starts out a desperate peasant who is shocked by the reality of the deal she made with the god.  Over the years, she figures out what it takes to survive when she cannot hold a job or keep a place to live.  On the anniversaries of her deal, the god makes reappearances to tempt her to give up and let him have her soul.  But she becomes wise to his ways, never giving in, choosing her complicated, invisible life over the alternative.  When she finally meets Henry, the man who remembers her, she finally finds a love that lasts more than one date.  Granted, when she dated, she dated the same man for many months, though always restarting the relationship each new day.  But with Henry, she gets to actually let herself fall in love.

Henry is also great.  He’s a sad sack who is just over the love of his life, a love that wasn’t returned.  In fact, all his relationships ended because it seemed he was never enough.  With Addie, however, she sees him for what he really is, a good man worth loving, something he’s craved his whole life.  

The god, who Addie calls Luc, which could be short for Lucifer, is a major player in the story.  He only pops in infrequently, but he gives Addie her whole motivation for making her plight work to her advantage.  He’s not really the devil as he is one of the old gods, but he does have an evil streak.  He plays games with Addie popping in when she least expects it, ruining when she has something good going.  But by doing this, she learns how to read him.  And after three hundred years, she gets very good at reading people.  

The last fifty pages or so of the book is quite enthralling, in contrast to the first fifty which were a little slow and disorienting.  When I got to the end, I was simply devastated by three words.  You’ll know them when you get to them because they are in italics  😉.  I had an online doctor’s appointment right after I finished the book and it was hard to keep focused on the appointment and keep my eyes from running.  I still feel emotionally spent as I write this review.  This merits five stars out of five.


Friday, October 15, 2021

The Humans

Matt Haig
Completed 10/15/2021, Reviewed 10/15/2021
4 stars

This is the book club selection for November.  I’m reading it early because I wanted to get it from the Library and the ebook version already had several holds on it.  I’m glad I read this book.  It’s a well written, interesting, philosophical take on being human, told from the perspective of an alien.  It has a lot of very dry humor.  I didn’t find any of it laugh out loud funny, though the book has been compared to Douglas Adams.   I can’t say I actually enjoyed the book, though I was consumed by reading it.  I guess it filled me with pathos for the human condition.  

An unnamed alien takes the form of Professor Andrew Martin, killing him in the process.  The actual Professor Martin has solved the proof of a centuries-old mathematical theory.  The alien’s mission, to prevent humanity from advancing too far, he must kill anyone Martin may have shared the proof with.  The reason: this knowledge would advance human knowledge in such a way to cause it eventually to destroy itself.  In the process of infiltrating Martin’s life, he develops empathy for his wife and son, thereby thwarting the mission.

It’s an interesting way to tell the story of a brilliant mathematician whose life is falling apart and trying to put it back together again.  Without the alien angle, that would be what this book is about.  Martin is a philanderer who ignores his son and basically has only one friend.  Every other acquaintance is either an intellectual rival or not worthy of the time of day.  With the alien’s narration, it transforms into something richer and more deeply understood.  It’s kind of ironic since the alien doesn’t understand human emotion, as well as customs and behavior.  Nor does it know anything about Martin’s life.  It fakes it until it realizes it’s having emotions and is falling in love with the wife and son.

The prose is really lovely.  My only problem with it is that Haig waxes philosophically quite often.  Those parts, while interesting at first, eventually start to drag the passages down.  Fortunately, the chapters are very short, so they don’t go on too long.  I preferred the parts of the story where there was actual interaction between the characters.  With the alien’s naivete, it made for some really rich sequences.  

The character of the alien is done very well, as are those of the wife and son.  The son is particularly interesting in that he’s a suicidal loner.  I thought it was a very authentic and compassionate plot line.  It is one of the things that helps the alien become more human.  It’s the alien’s turning point from assassin to traitor to his people.  Overall, the interaction of the whole family is just terrific.  

I give the book four stars out five.  It’s very nearly a five-star book in that it made me feel an awful lot of emotions as the alien developed them.  But it’s just that reason that made not really enjoy it.  It didn’t make me feel either happy or sad, but I ran the gamut of everything else in between.  I do recommend the book, though.  I haven’t read anything else quite like it, although it’s been compared to “The Man Who Fell To Earth” among other books.  It will leave you with a sense of wonder about the human condition and make you think about what makes you human as well.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Spinning Silver

Naomi Novik
Completed 10/13/2021, Reviewed 10/13/2021
4 stars

Like its predecessor Uprooted, this book is a retelling of a fairy tale, this one more well-known, infused with Slavic myth and culture.  It is loosely based on Rumpelstiltskin.  It features three women of different classes whose paths become intertwined when the faerie king, known as the Staryk (which I think would mean “old one” in Polish) king, prevents winter from receding.  It is very similar to Uprooted in storytelling style, pacing, and prose.  I really enjoyed the book, which won the Mythopoeic Award and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards in 2018 and 2019.

The book begins with Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose father is a moneylender.  As she comes of age, she becomes angry at how he is too kind to force his customers to repay their loans, leaving the family in a near impoverished state.  So she becomes adept at collecting for him.  In addition, she makes wise investment choices and her family soon rises back to a more middle-class lifestyle.  One of her customers, an abusive drunk, won’t repay his loan, so she bargains with him to have his daughter work as a servant for her family for pay.  Wanda finds the arrangement more than satisfactory as she gets to escape from the physical and emotional abuse the father wields.  Word gets around that Miryem “turns silver into gold” and soon the Staryk king comes demanding she change his silver to gold.  After three times, he steals her away against her will to his kingdom as his queen.  In this land of Fae, her metaphorical ability becomes real magic.

The third woman, Irina, is the unattractive daughter of a duke.  Miryem “changes” the Staryk king’s silver in fabulous jewelry that the duke pays a premium for.  He uses it to enhance his daughter’s looks and dowry and he matches her with the tsar himself.  Little do they know that the tsar is hiding some evil magic of his own.  Irina and Miryem, in their new roles as tsarina and Staryk queen, try to use the magic around them to try to halt the spread of winter into spring and summer, a fate which seems tied up with the Staryk king.  

The plot is pretty complicated.  Novik juggles a lot of plots here, but she tells the story deftly, with good pacing and form.  The story is told from the three women’s perspectives in first person.  At first it was a little confusing, but I was able to follow along easily as the book progressed.  I hit a few snags as three more characters became narrators in first person, but that eased as well.  

The characterization is remarkable.  Even though there wasn’t much difference between the speaking style of the narrators, it was easy to tell who was who by what they were telling.  I liked all three characters, having clear pictures of them in my head, and empathizing with the plight of each one.  The gist of all three is that their lives are out of control because of the dominant men in their lives.  However, each one finds a way to overcome their plights by chance, trickery, and intelligence.  These are three strong, determined women in a time of subservience to men.  It’s empowering and exciting.

The men in the book are slimy or just plain evil, but not without redemption.  They were just as three dimensional as the women.  One exception was Wanda’s father who remains an abusive alcoholic.  Another was Miryem’s father is too kind for his own good.  

I give the book four stars out of five.  My only complaint was that the prose had a cold quality to it.  And I don’t think it was because of all the snow in the story.  The book was well written, but the prose was spare, as in not lush.  But it was fast-paced and very readable, particularly through the second half of the book.  It’s an enjoyable read and makes me interested in her next venture, a new series not in the fairy tale vein.  


Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Garth Nix
Completed 10/7/2021, Reviewed 10/7/2021
4 stars

I’ve only read one other Garth Nix novel, “Sabriel”, and I enjoyed it immensely, though I read it way before I was writing reviews.  I enjoyed this book immensely as well.  It’s about an extended family of booksellers that keep the Old World spirits from invading the New World, that is, the present.   It has good prose, great action, and tremendous world-building.  It’s been nominated for several awards, including the Mythopoeic this year, I’m sure because of the strength of the magical world Nix created.

Susan is an eighteen-year-old woman who doesn’t know who her father is.  She leaves her ditsy mother to go to school in London and also to find her father.  She goes to a man, whom she calls Uncle Frank, looking for clues, only to find him being disintegrated with a silver hat pin.  She’s rushed out by the killer, only to find out he’s the good guy and her uncle was a vampire-like gangster.  Suddenly they are surrounded by fog and chased by something unnatural.  She finds out her companion is someone who deals with the supernatural.  She also finds out that she may have something stirring within her which is otherworldly.   Soon Susan is in a race to not only find her father, but to save her life.

This synopsis only lightly touches on all the supernatural things that Susan encounters.  After the opening, the excitement only builds.  I have to say that this was one of the most exciting fantasies I’ve read in a long time.  It’s kind of fluff, but it’s highly entertaining fluff.  It’s also very imaginative.  Nix built a terrific supernatural system of magic and the power of the ancient ones.  

There’s a lot of character building as well.  Susan is the main character.  At eighteen, she acts somewhere between a teen and a grownup.  She’s kinda whiny but still interesting and relatable.  She works with two booksellers, a left-handed one and right-handed one.  Merlin, the left-handed one, is the doer, the fighter.  He’s a shapeshifter, but also likes to dress either as a man or a woman.  His sister, Vivien, is the intellectual right-handed one.  Vivien is the more rational one.  She wields spells, puts people to sleep, and confuses them.  Together they navigate London and its outskirts trying to figure out why Susan is special.  

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s excellent fluff.  It may be argued that this might even be categorized as YA, as the Susan is just barely eighteen.  But the story stands on its own as an urban fantasy that all ages can enjoy.  And while it is a standalone novel, it can easily generate other novels in the same world, as the was built with lots of possibilities for other stories.  


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Lifelode

Jo Walton
Completed 10/3/2021, Reviewed 10/3/2021
3 stars

This is the first book by Jo Walton I was less than thrilled by.  It was okay, very ambitious in what it set out to do, but didn’t quite succeed.  According to an article she wrote, Walton noted that her goal in this short novel was to write a sci fi or fantasy story with no adventure in it, as she was tired of the adventure trope.  She says it took her five or six books to learn how to do it.  This seemed like her first attempt.  I’d say it’s a character study, but that’s not even quite accurate.  I’d say it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It has its merits, but it’s not her best.  Nonetheless, she won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009 for it and was nominated for an Otherwise Award. 

First of all, the lifelode is the role of a person’s life, their passion, not just their job.  The story is about four people who live together in a polyamorous relationship.  They have several children between them.  The main character is Taveth.  Her lifelode is the housekeeper of the household.  She cooks, cleans, and is the primary raiser of the children.  She loves what she does.  There’s also Ferrand, the Lord of the village, Appledkirk.  His wife is Chayra, a potter, but he’s also Taveth’s lover.  Ranal is Taveth’s husband and Chayra’s lover.  Her runs the farm at Applekirk.  Then within a few days of each other, two people come into the household.  The first is Jankin, a visiting scholar from the west.  The second is Hanethe, a powerful wielder of yeya (magic), great-grandmother of Ferrand, and former lord of Applekirk.  She’s visiting from the east where time moves much more slowly than in the western areas such as Applekirk.

Hanethe left the east because she crossed the goddess of marriage.  She decided to come back to her home in hope of being far away from the goddess’ influence.  However, a local priest of the goddess tries to call her out as evil and drive her back east to get what’s coming to her.  She secretly enlists Jankin the scholar to help her by destroying the relationships of the household of Applekirk through sex.  What’s left is a fight for the survival the Applekirk household and surrounding village.

We see most of the story through Taveth’s eyes.  Her yeya is that she can see the past and the future of a person, though not their death.  So when she looks at Ferrand for example, she can see him as a boy and as an older man with one arm.  It’s all very interesting, but Walton tells the whole book in present tense.  It makes it difficult to tell when Taveth is seeing the past and the future because it is written in the present.  It takes about thirty to fifty pages to really figure this out.  Once you get it though, you understand the whole perspective.

While there is really no adventure, there is conflict.  Taveth is put off by Hanethe.  The latter takes Taveth’s younger daughter under her wing to mentor her yeya gifts.  Taveth is also Jankin’s first target.  He then pursues Chayra, who is the more beautiful of the two women.  Chayra has already had many lovers outside the primary unit, so this incites jealousy in Taveth who doesn’t have much time for such play.  It sounds soapy, but it doesn’t read melodramatic.  One could say it’s more like domestic drama, several steps up from soap opera.  

The prose is decent, though the whole present tense thing is difficult to get used to.  I think the world-building is decent, but could have been better.  Perhaps if the book was longer, it would might have worked better.  I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a good concept.  I just think the execution was lacking.  And as Walton said herself, this was part of a learning process for her.  


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Come Tumbling Down

Seanan McGuire
Completed 9/28/2021, Reviewed 9/29/2021
3 stars

This fifth book in the Wayward Children series picks up shortly after the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, ended.  It follows Jack as she tries to get her body back from her twin Jill.  Perhaps I’ve read too many of these in a row for I felt less enthused about this story than the others.  Perhaps I didn’t want to revisit Jack and Jill and was looking forward to something a little newer.  The prose is still tremendous.  However, I thought the plot was less interesting.  The world-building also wasn’t quite up to par, as it had already been done in the second book.  Still, this book got a lot of love from the fans, as it was nominated for Hugo this year in the Novella category.

The book begins with Jack coming back to the Home for Wayward Children in a flash of lightning, carried in the arms of her lover Alexis.  She’s returned from her home fantasy world because her twin sister Jill has exchanged bodies with her.  Jill had been killed and resurrected by Jack, making her body no longer able to become immortal as a vampire.  Jack, who has terrible OCD, wants her body back and wants to put an end to Jill’s reign of terror.  She recruits our main characters, Kade, Christopher, Simi, and Cora, to return to her world and help in this quest, despite one of the rules of the home is No Adventures.  Eleanor, the home’s owner and guardian, acquiesces nonetheless.  So they all go back to the world of vampires, werewolves, and other monsters to right this wrong.

The big new item in the world-building is that Jack can come and go between worlds using lightning, rather than waiting for a window to appear.  Jack, as an apprentice mad scientist, has learned to harness lightning for many things, including resurrections.  The other big item is that Cora, who is a mermaid though her scales are under her skin in the regular world, is called to the sea in Jack’s world by the sea monster-gods.  She runs away from group and leaps into the sea unaware of the danger and horrors within.  The sequence where the group must try to reclaim her is quite exciting.

I give this book three stars out of five.  There’s a lot of good action in this book, including the riding of two undead horses, one resurrected and one a skeleton.  The climactic scene where Christopher plays his bone flute to call an army of skeletons is also exciting.  Despite all these exciting parts, this book felt a little meh to me.  The sum of its parts did not produce an exciting whole.  I think I’m going to read a few non-McGuire books before I read the sixth one.  Maybe I’ll be able to come to it in with a fresher perspective.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

In an Absent Dream

Seanan McGuire
Completed 9/26/2021, Reviewed 9/26/2021
4 stars

The fourth book in the Wayward Children series, this book follows Miss Lundy, a teacher and therapist at the Eleanor West’s Home, and her journey into Fae and Fantasy in her childhood.  This world is a little different than the others in that Lundy gets to go back and forth easily between worlds until her eighteenth birthday.  In the other books, the way back into Fantasy after leaving once was not easy.  Once again, it’s great prose and world-building and a Lundy has a great character arc.  I am just loving these stories, even though they are dark and in the case of this one, rather depressing.  Like the others, this was nominated for a Hugo for novella.

Katherine Lundy is the daughter of the school principal.  Her life has been very rigid.  She learns rules and adheres to them.  She has no friends, being the daughter of the principal is not conducive to having friends.  One day, a door appears in a tree.  It has five signs in it, the first being “Be Sure”.  The door leads to the Goblin Market.  There she meets Moon, a young girl who befriends her and teaches her the meaning of the five signs.  She also meets the Archivist, an adult who also tries to teach her about life in the world of the Goblin Market.  It’s not exactly easy there.  The economy is based on bartering and fair value.  If you incur debt, you begin developing characteristics of a bird.  Lundy manages, though, and even helps Moon with her debt.  But when she goes back to her home world, her parents enroll her in an academy that doesn’t permit her any alone time, which is necessary for a doorway back to the Goblin Market to appear.

I feel like I’m becoming a broken record with these reviews.  Gorgeous prose, amazing world-building, and excellent characterization.  Lundy, as Katherine is known in the Goblin Market, existed as a secondary character in Every Heart a Doorway.  Here we get a full backstory and the connection to that first book.  She’s sure of her desire to stay in the Goblin Market world until her younger sister starts to grow up, demanding Lundy be a sister to her.  Guilt gets the better of her and she struggles with her desire to be a good sister and to go to the Market which she now calls home.  I think this is one of the reasons I really liked this book.  The struggle was very well done.  I could empathize with Lundy trying to follow her heart when it is in two places.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It continues McGuire’s hitting streak.  I have one more novella in the series by her and a standalone which I may not get to until next year.  We’ll see.  But I do think she’s a smart, elegant writer with a vivid, diverse imagination.  I’ll continue to acquire books by her as they come up on sale and read them from the library as well.