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.


Saturday, September 25, 2021

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Seanan McGuire
Completed 9/24/2021, Reviewed 9/24/2021
4 stars

This is the third in the “Wayward Children” series.  It’s another terrific novella, this time following the improbable story of a young girl from a different fantasy world coming to the Home for Wayward Children to look for her mother.  The fantasy world is called Confection and it is comprised of sweet treats, like gingerbread houses, graham cracker sand, and candy corn stalks.  The ocean is strawberry rhubarb soda.  It sounds kidified, but it is as dark as the previous two novellas.  The prose and world-building are once again tremendous.  The character development is also strong as it fills in some gaps of the main characters from the first book.  This is another multiple award nominee in the novella category.

The majority of this book is told from Cora’s point of view.  She’s a new student at Eleanor West’s Home.  Her journey to a fantasy world was as a mermaid.  In our world, she struggles with peer acceptance and bullying because of her weight.  At the school, she actually makes a friend, Nadya, another student who visited a water-based world.  While playing around at Turtle Pond, a young girl appears out of nowhere and falls into the pond.  Her name is Rini.  They bring her back to Eleanor where they find out that her mother is Simi, who was killed in the first book.  Rini is trying to find her mother to prevent herself from fading out of existence and save the world of Confection.  So Kade, Christopher, Cora and Nadya accompany Rini and Simi’s skeleton back to Confection to try to bring Simi back to life and correct the twisted timeline.

I was pretty happy to go back to Miss West’s Home because it gave me a chance to get to know the main characters from the first book a little better.  While the POV is mostly from Cora, it tells more backstory on Kade, Christopher, and Nadya.  We also get to visit Nancy in her own Fae world.  I liked the characters much more on this second visit to the Home.  They are all a little broken and strong at the same time.  Even though I didn’t connect with them well in the first book, they were like old friends in this one.    

The world of Confection is simply marvelous.  It’s a Nonsense world, so logic doesn’t hold too well within it.  Everything is made of candy or baked goods, including armor and clothing, and no one dies from vitamin or nutrient deficiencies.  The world was created by a god who came to the world and began baking it into existence.  Our little fellowship must find the Baker and ask for help in restoring Simi to life so that Rini doesn’t fade away and the Queen of Cakes can be overthrown.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to see what McGuire reveals to us in this massive universe of fae and fantasy.


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Seanan McGuire
Completed 9/22/2021, Reviewed 9/23/2021
4 stars

I enjoyed this book much more than the first, Every Heart a Doorway.  This one was very different than Doorway, telling the tale of how two of the first’s characters grew up, found, and then were expelled from their Faerie world.  The world-building was terrific, the prose gorgeous, and the character development much more complete.  Overall, it was much more focused, yet didn’t skimp on details.  I got this and the next three novellas in the series free from Tor publishing.  I’m so glad I did because now I’m hooked.  This book was nominated for a Hugo novella award in 2018, among others.  

Jacqueline and Jillian are twins, born to a prosperous couple who didn’t want children until everyone else in their social circle started to have them.  Their father wanted a son and their mother wanted a daughter, so Jacqueline was raised as a girly-girl and Jillian was raised as a tomboy.  Their roles were very tightly controlled by their parents.  Their only respite was their grandmother who lived with and helped raise them for five years.  When they were twelve, they found their doorway to another world, one of vampires, werewolves, and a scientist who brings people back to life a la Dr. Frankenstein.  There, Jillian gets “adopted” by the Master, a vampire who controls the nearby village.  He molds the tomboy into a young lady, complete with frilly dresses, in hopes that one day she will become a vampire and heir to the Master.  Jacqueline becomes the tomboy, apprenticing to the mad scientist, and falling in love with a local girl.  But as they grow older, things begin to unravel as Jillian becomes jealous of Jacqueline and misreads the Master’s wishes.  

That may sound like a lot of plot, but we already know some of the outcome already from Doorway.  So the ending is no surprise.  The joy of this book is in the storytelling.  There’s a good amount of tension between the two sisters throughout the story.  And the world-building is wonderful: a land of moors, a frightened village, a scary castle, and an isolated windmill.  The village lives under constant fear of the Master, but also benefits from his protection from the other horrors of the moors.  It seems like a strange world for the Fae, but it turns out that everyone who opens a door opens it to a world for which they’re suited and longing for.  

The twins (and yes, they are eventually called Jack and Jill) are an interesting pair.  McGuire really gets you into their heads, seeing not just how, but why they turn out the way they do, and why they end up as they do in their secret world.  The parents are very interesting as well.  They are over-achieving yuppies who are not good, attentive parents.  They try to shape the children into images they want, rather than letting them be who they are.  They completely miss the point of having children, unlike the grandmother who understands what it means to have children.  

The Master and the scientist, Dr. Bleak, are intriguing adversaries.  They have a deal that as children come in through doorways, they alternate who gets them.  And there are others who have come before, namely Mary, the maid of the Master’s castle.  It is said their rivalries have escalated in the past and one wonders if they are going to escalate again.  

I give this novella four stars out of five.  I was much more engaged with it than with the first book.  However, I believe that McGuire must have been doing a lot of writing for the rest of the series because the first book is beginning to make more sense, now that we have Jack and Jill’s back story revealed.  I’ve already started the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and it confirms my theory that McGuire had a detailed outline of all the characters and their different worlds.


Monday, September 20, 2021

Every Heart a Doorway

Seanan McGuire
Completed 9/19/2021, Reviewed 9/20/2021
3 stars

This is the first novella of the Wayward Children series.  It’s about a home for children who have returned from Faerie to unbelieving parents and heavy despair.  It’s not the typical magic school trope.  Rather, it’s a fresher take on it.  Still I wasn’t able to quite get into it.  Being a novella and only about 170 pages, I think its quick dive into the plot left me unable to really sink my teeth in the characters and immerse myself in the eventual murder mystery plot.  I found myself not really caring that much about anyone.  Nonetheless, this book won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella a few years back, among others.  

The book begins with the arrival of Nancy at the facility.  She’s just come back from the land of the dead, and like every other child who has found a doorway into the realm of Faerie and returned, she longs to go back.  No one understands her now.  She doesn’t even consider it home anymore.  As a last resort, her parents bring her to Eleanor West’s facility in hopes of getting their old daughter back.  The reality is the facility doesn’t exactly change the children.  It helps them accept that they might not go back.  Shortly after her arrival, her roommate is murdered.  Everyone initially blames her because as the newest student, she’s the obvious suspect.  But then another child is murdered and accusations fly all over the place.  Nancy bands with a few other students to try to figure out who the murderer is.  

The group of students Nancy meets are quite unique in their experiences of the realm of Faerie.  There’s Kade, a girl who returned as a boy; Jack and Jill, twin sisters who went through a doorway together; and Simi, Nancy’s roommate who is quite nonsensical.  The children range in ages, with Nancy and a few others being around 16 or 17-years-old, and they are all angsty because they want to go back to Faerie and believe they can.  They are the type of characters I should have at least been able to empathize with.  But instead, I found myself keeping my distance from them.  Perhaps it’s because Nancy, as the main character, was keeping her distance as well.  Nancy herself is asexual, though not necessarily aromantic.  She actually falls for Kade who is trans.  But in general, she does not really open up to the other students, nor does she let them get too close to her.

The world-building however is quite excellent.  I found it interesting that McGuire chose to have each student discover and return from their own experiences of Faerie.  Some realms are logical, some nonsensical, some dark, some dangerous.  Of course time in Faerie doesn’t match time in the real world, some of the students had been gone for years, but came back six months later by our time.  The one common theme is that they all want to go back, and believe that they can if they can just find the doorway again.  They’ve all been changed by their experiences and no one believes where they’ve been.

The murder mystery aspect of the book is interesting in that it does a lot to flesh out the characters revealing more about them and the what they experienced in their realms.  And I was surprised when the murderer is revealed.  That may be because I found myself disassociated with the characters so I didn’t see it coming.  Nonetheless, I thought it wasn’t badly done.  

I give this book three stars out of five, which is a good in my book.  I was just expecting something better.  I like McGuire’s prose, and it’s actually quite beautiful.  It’s the lack of empathy for the characters that dragged this book down from a four-star rating.  I’ve already started the next book in the series, and find it leaps and bounds better than this one.  We’ll see how it holds up.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Circe

Madeline Miller
Completed 9/16/2021, Reviewed 9/16/2021
4 stars

I read a kid-ified version of the Odyssey around 4th or 5th grade and I became hooked on mythology.  I don’t remember if I ever read the Odyssey itself, but I did remember Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs.  This book is a retelling of the Odyssey through Circe’s eyes, from her birth to the Titan Helios, to her development as a witch, to her exile on the island that Odysseus visits on his ill-fated journey.  Like Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, it’s a terrific book.  There’s so much more than the basic story of Odysseus, drawing from other sources for Circe and building on that with wonderful prose and world-building.  This book won The Kitchies: Red Tentacle Award for 2018 and was nominated for several others.  

The story is told in first person by Circe.  She begins with her childhood, where she’s made fun of by her parents and siblings for being ugly, having a terrible voice, and being basically an embarrassment to divinity.  Her self-esteem is terrible, needless to say, and she’s very naïve.  Eventually, she discovers that she can perform magic.  She uses it when she is challenged by another naiad for her love interest.  After turning her into a hideous monster, Zeus exiles her to a remote island.  While continuing to work on her magic abilities, her path crosses with Hermes, the Minotaur, Jason of the Argonauts fame, and Odysseus.

Circe is a multi-dimensional character who despite being the child of a Titan, has little understanding of how to act as a goddess.  She’s makes naïve and generally well-intentioned choices which backfire with terrible consequences.  It was frustrating to watch her develop from awkward child to awkward teen to lonely exile.  It wasn’t until she started turning men into pigs that she started to take care of herself, and even then, she has a tough time coming into her own personhood.  Things become more interesting when Odysseus shows up.  He relates the stories of the Trojan War and his travels afterwards, though not all at once in a big info dump.  It comes out as their relationship develops.  It was good to see Circe finally have something nice in her life even though we know from the source material that it must end.

Probably the most interesting thing about the book is how the Titans and Olympian gods are all basically very shallow and petty.  We normally think of them as being great and powerful, which they are, but they are worse than humans in their jealousies and rages.  I guess I hadn’t really thought about them for quite a while, but it makes sense thinking back on all the mythology I’ve been exposed to.  Thinking about this now, it makes me very interested in Stephen Fry’s mythology duology which I picked up cheap but have not read yet.  That will probably come later this year.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, despite Circe being bullied and abused by her kin.  She does experience some self-actualization at the end in a surprising way, making for a very satisfying conclusion.  How she gets there is very dramatic and worth the read.  


Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Completed 9/11/2021, Reviewed 9/12/2021
4 stars

Another good conclusion of a trilogy whose second book I didn’t care for as much.  I really liked the first book, Welcome to Night Vale.  The second was It Devours.  This volume mostly took place outside of Night Vale.  It had a more ordinary story telling style, giving the life history of the featured ghost from Night Vale when she lived in Europe and then told how she became a ghost and attached to the family she haunted.  It’s a story of innocence and its loss, followed by a lifelong obsession of revenge.  I found it intriguing and enjoyable, though it is a very dark tale.

The bracketing story follows the Faceless Old Woman who haunts Craig in Night Vale.  She watched over him as a child and nudges him from being directionless to having some meaning in his life.  Between these episodes, the woman tells of the major episodes of her own life which began as a motherless girl living with her father somewhere on the Mediterranean.  She lives a life of innocence, loving her dad, but not understanding what he does.  She eventually finds out he’s a smuggler.  His business partner is Edmond, his complicit accountant who she considers an uncle.  One day the treacherous Order of the Labyrinth burns down their house and kills her father.  Devastated, she plans her revenge on everyone involved.  The episodes continue through her being a thief and assassin, followed by a swashbuckling life on the sea, all the while seeking to satisfy her need for revenge for her father’s death.

The world building was really good.  A good part of the action dealt with a fictional small country in Europe, and only a few actual cities were named throughout the book.  It was all very believable, taking place in the 1800’s.  The characterization was pretty good.  It wasn’t outstanding, with the Woman being only two-dimensional with her revenge obsession.  Still, I felt empathy for her and her little ragtag group of criminal allies.  I think it was the prose that kept me going, infusing life into the characters by the descriptions of the action.  It was their well-described adventures, including their successes and failures, which made me appreciate them.

I thought the ending was quite remarkable.  It was a huge twist that revealed truths to the Woman which she had not seen her whole life.  I didn’t see it coming either.  It was very well done and then segues into how she finally ends up in Night Vale haunting Craig.  The narrative of her swashbuckling life was exciting, but the ending was phenomenal.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s billed as a horror story, as the other volumes were, but there’s not much typical horror.  Instead it’s a rousing story of revenge and destruction and finally pathos.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Rosewater Redemption

Tade Thompson
Completed 9/6/2021, Reviewed 9/6/2021
4 stars

Hooray!  I liked this conclusion to the Wormwood Trilogy.  I was worried because I did not like The Rosewater Insurrection at all.  This book made a lot more sense, having only two narratives, one being first person narration by Bicycle Girl from the first book, Rosewater, and one being a third person, relatively straight-forward narration by her of the main plot.  Yes, perspective bounced among the main characters, but for the most part, everything followed linearly.  It was not nearly as messy as the second book.  There was also a lot less politicking and more directed action.

This book takes place after the insurrection of the second book.  The mayor, Jack Jacques, seems to be losing control of the new city-state government of Rosewood.  He is still under many threats from the Nigerian government and internally.  Koriko, formerly Alyssa and the present avatar of Wormwood, has attained a god-like status among the Rosewater residents as she resurrects the dead.  However, it comes to be known that the walking dead are really the aliens being incarnated in human bodies.  There is a moon full of their dormant minds stored as data waiting to be placed in dead humans.  Koriko wants to accelerate the takeover of human bodies, as opposed to the former avatar, Anthony, who was gaining the trust of humankind and approaching the takeover slowly.  Bicycle Girl, whose real name is Oyin Da goes time-traveling to figure out how to defeat the aliens.  She also navigates the xenosphere as does Kaaro, the sensitive from the first book.  It’s pretty clear now that the aliens are dangerous and all efforts are now geared to killing them or at least getting them off of Earth.

There isn’t much character development in this book, as the characters were pretty well described by the second book.  Everyone acts as expected.  I still liked Lora, though she doesn’t have as large as a role in this book.  Kaaro had a larger role and I got into his character about as well as in the first book.  Layi, the fire guy from the first book makes a major comeback in this book, coming out as gay and wanting to march in the first Rosewater Pride march.  Consisting of only twelve people, it’s more symbolic as the names of all the queer people who have been imprisoned or been executed at the hands of the Nigerian government are going to read over a loudspeaker during the parade.  They plan this parade even while the city of Rosewater is falling apart around them.  It’s one of the few positive things that happens amidst the chaos of the battle against the aliens.

I don’t have too much more to say about the book, besides praise for it being so much less messy than Insurrection.  The writing felt a little tighter, probably because the world is pretty much built and the characters developed at this point.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It was exciting and paced well.  The end was a little derivative of a lame trope, but it had a twist that made it believable.  Overall, I’d give the trilogy three and half stars.


Monday, September 6, 2021

The New Moon’s Arms

Nalo Hopkinson
Completed 9/4/2021, Reviewed 9/6/2021
5 stars

Another terrific book by Hopkinson.   This one combines the Caribbean myth of sea people with magical realism of a woman named Calamity entering menopause.  Not only does she experience physical changes, but is forced to confront and adapt to changes all around her.  It’s about change and self-discovery narrated by Calamity herself as she experiences the strange things around and within her.  It’s an imaginative story, a little less traditional than the average story in that if features a more mature woman as a main character.  It was nominated for multiple awards, winning Canada’s Aurora Award for 2008, which I believe is equivalent to the Nebula Award here in the states.

The book begins with Calamity at the funeral of her father whom she cared for in the last few years of his life.  She had been estranged from him because she got pregnant at fifteen.  Calamity’s mother died under suspicious circumstances when she was about eight.  Calamity begins finding objects from her past, which eventually seem to be connected to when she gets hot flashes.  Then, after a drunken and stormy night on the beach, she finds a strange boy with a broken leg caught in a large clump of seaweed.  She gets the right to temporarily care for the boy until a foster family is found.  But the boy does not appear to be human, seeming more like the mythical sea people that supposedly live around the island.  Through the experience of caring for the boy, she must deal with her estranged daughter, Ifeoma, Ife’s father Michael who’s gay, and a few potential romantic partners.

Calamity, whose birth name was Chastity, is a very well-developed character.  She’s unusual in that I don’t think there are very many stories of women undergoing menopause in Sci Fi and Fantasy.  So we get a character with mood swings and hot flashes who must reevaluate her life and the relationships around her.  Her relationship with her daughter is strained.  She’s also very homophobic.  This probably comes from the fact that she loved Michael, Ife’s father, when they were teenagers.  He was already aware that he might be gay and she convinces him to have sex with her to figure it out.  When it confirms he is gay, she’s resentful and angry.  As an adult, she a full-blown homophobe.   Despite these problems with her current relationships, she cares for the boy she found on the beach with amazing openness, being the only one to really believe he might a sea person.  

As with all of her novels, the prose is tremendous, with the right amount of smart word choices, rich descriptions and convincing dialogue.  I was really astounded by the inventiveness of the finding of things during hot flashes being a reawakening of her ability to find lost things as a child.  But in adulthood, it is more extreme.  First she finds a pin that was lost or possibly stolen from her when she was young.  Then the items lost escalate until the cashew orchard from the island where she grew up appears on the island she lives on now.

There are also substories distributed through the main text, including flashbacks like meeting a little sea people girl when she young.  There’s also a story that gives the mythological origin of the sea people.  In this book the sea people are sort of a human-seal hybrid.  It’s reminiscent of River Solomon and Daveed Diggs’ The Deep, which is a very recent book.  It makes me wonder if Solomon and Diggs had read this book, or if they came up with their slave escape myth on their own.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It’s another powerful and original novel by Hopkinson.  Even though Calamity is not a very likeable character, she’s strong and smart and has her own metanoia at the end.  She learns the hard way about herself and her character defects.  She’s still not perfect at the end, but better than she was.  It’s perhaps more realistic than a perfect Hollywood ending.  


Saturday, September 4, 2021

The Light Fantastic

Terry Pratchett
Completed 9/3/2021, Reviewed 9/3/2021
4 stars

I really needed this book.  I was in a pretty bummed out space after the last book I read; it was so depressing.  This book was silly and just what I needed.  I thought it was much better than the first book, The Color of Magic.  Even though I read Color five years ago and it ended on a cliffhanger which I don’t remember, I was able to pick this book up with no problem.  It spends a little time catching the reader up on Discworld and then drops you into the crazy plot.  

The plot is pretty simple.  There is a star that’s on a collision course with Discworld.  To avert disaster, eight spells must be said at the same time by eight different wizards.  The eighth spell isn’t in the Octavo, the book of spells.  It has been transferred and seared into the mind of our main character Rincewind, the failed wizard.  He doesn’t know why he has the spell, but he knows he’s being pursued rather violently by the other one of the other wizards, Trymon.  All Rincewind wants to do is get home.  He’s still accompanied by Twoflower, who’s a tourist, and a piece of luggage known as Luggage which has a mind of its own and runs on hundreds of little legs.  They keep getting into deadly scrapes as Rincewind discovers the purpose of the spell and figures out what he has to do with it.

Even though it’s been five years, I picked up on the personalities of the characters pretty quickly.  Rincewind is a sarcastic guy, tired of all the dangerous situations they keep getting into since he met Twoflower.   Twoflower is oblivious to sarcasm and has his own rose-colored view of every situation they get into.  Much of the humor is derived from their relationship and interactions.  Along the way, they pick up Cohen the Barbarian, who is very old and not the big, muscular hero he once was.  They also meet Bethan, a seventeen-year-old virgin who was about to be sacrificed by the Druids.  Both add comedy to the already amusing situation.

The prose is pretty good.  It’s filled with simple jokes, bad jokes, complex jokes.  I know I missed some of them, but in general, I think I caught most of them.  You can see why Pratchett is revered alongside the likes of Douglas Adams and Carl Hiaasen.  I think the humor is little less British than Adams and can be appreciated by a wider audience.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was the right book at the right time.  It kept me smiling and even made me chuckle out loud a couple of times.  This isn’t great literature, but it’s a great time.  I look forward to the other six Discworld books I’ve gotten over the past few years.  


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Mockingbird

Walter Tevis
Completed 9/1/2021, Reviewed 9/2/2021
5 stars

This book is kind of a cross between Brave New World and “Fahrenheit 451”.  It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel where reading is outlawed and what remains of the human population lives in a constant drugged, illiterate, sterile, television-obsessed society “served” by robots.  This book got under my skin and kept me in a state of despair.  I was profoundly moved by the decay of civilization depicted.   Tevis is the author of many famous books, including “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”, and “The Queen’s Gambit.  Yet, I had never heard of him.  In this book, his prose and world-building are excellent.  Reading it is intense as he vividly depicts the end of human life at the hands of a narcissistic robot.

Robert Spofforth is a Make 9, the most advanced robot ever made.  The Make 9s’ brains were cloned from one individual and then modified to have all personal memories removed.  Of course, that never works out perfectly.  He’s one of the last of the Make 9s and basically controls North America through control of the lesser robots.  He is the dean of NYU and has a human faculty member, Paul.  Through the discovery of a film of a children’s reading class as well as some beginner readers, Paul learns to read.  He also discovers a dictionary and chess manuals and his reading ability and comprehension soon escalates.  At the Bronx Zoo, Paul meets Mary Lou who is living off the grid.  She doesn’t take sopor, a drug laced with a fertility inhibitor, or smoke pot.  They fall in love, Paul stops taking the drugs as well, and he teacher her to read.  Spofforth becomes jealous, has Paul arrested for teaching reading and breach of privacy and sends him to prison.  He takes Mary Lou as his wife, though he has no sex organs.  Mary Lou learns Spofforth’s secret plans as Paul tries to find a way out of prison.

North America of this future time is easily an extrapolation of where society is now.  Reading is actually outlawed.  Individuality and privacy were so cherished that when taken to the extreme, community and thus society breaks down.  Robots, originally made to serve humans, keep them enslaved.  Population is maintained by a computer that determines if more or fewer children should be born, spiking the common drug sopor with a fertility inhibitor.  However, there are no children to be seen, except robots.  Television is ultra-violent.  The mantras taught in school are (something like) “Don’t ask, relax!” and “Quick sex is best!”  Even the university teaches nothing but propaganda, without the use of books.  It’s very, very depressing because I see this happening today as Tevis saw this when he wrote the book in 1980.

There are only three characters, Spofforth, Paul, and Mary Lou.  I thought it was interesting that Spofforth is black.  As far as he knows, he’s the only black Make 9 and doesn’t know why he was made as such.  He’s a narcissist.  He controls New York and pretty much all of North America through his advanced intelligence and personality.  He also has some human emotions and remembers dreams from the brain from which he was created.  It’s because of these that does what he does.  He’s trying to recreate something that haunts him.  

Paul gets the most page time.  We learn his story as he records a journal, then as he learns to read and write, writes a journal, so his narration is in first person.  He’s a professor from Ohio temporarily at NYU.  His process of learning is extremely detailed, as one would imagine someone learning something new would experience.  As his learning progresses, so does the complexity of his journal.  And as he comes off the pot and sopor, his emotions become more complex as well.  

Mary Lou probably gets the least amount of book time although she has just as big a part in the story as the other two.  She begins the story free of pot and sopor because they make her sick.  She has learned that the robots were made to serve humans, so she survives by bossing the lesser models around.  This is how she gets food and keeps from being arrested.  She provides the little bit of humor found in the book.  

The writing is excellent.  The book has the feel of a 50’s pulp novel, but none of its flaws.  The prose is mature and intense.  The world-building is also amazing.  I thought the New York of this future was very believable.  Usually in books like this set in the future, everything has already collapsed.  Here, Tevis describes everything in the process of collapsing.  I thought it was extremely well done.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was profoundly moved by it, so much so that at times I had to put the book down regularly just to get out of the funk it sucked me into.  Even now, writing this review the day after finishing the book and starting a comical fantasy novel, I am reexperiencing the feelings I had reading it.  This doesn’t happen too often.  Like “Fahrenheit 451” and “Brave New World”, I don’t recommend going into this book unless you are in the mood for something pretty heavy.  It’s an excellent book and very readable, but can put you in quite a bummer state.


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Susanna Clarke
Completed 8/29/2021, Reviewed 8/29/2021
4 stars

This is a glorious collection of short stories, mostly from the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  It is comprised of eight stories of the Fae and magic, mostly with women either wielding the magic, or are somehow involved with it.  The stories are relatively short, compared to the massive JS&MN, though one is full of footnotes like its predecessor.  I really enjoyed them, reveling in Clarke’s amazing prose.  My only complaint is that there really isn’t anything new here, except that it features women.  This book is intended for those who want more of JS&MN, or for those who want a taste of Clarke’s writing before diving into the that massive tome.  But it’s still very enjoyable.  The book was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award in 2007.

All eight stories are wonderful but I’ll point out a few I really liked:

Mrs. Mabb – a play on Queen Mab of the Fae.  A young woman named Venetia is about to be betrothed to Mr. Fox.  A letter comes requesting her help a sick woman.  Against everyone’s urging, she goes.  Three months later, the sick woman has died and Venetia returns to find that Mr. Fox was invited to a card game with Mrs. Mabb and has never returned.  She then tries to find out what happened to him and to win him back.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – Mr. Simonelli is a man with no prospects of marriage or inheritance.  He takes a job as a cleric at small parish in a small town called Allhope.  On the way, he stops at a house where he helps a woman deliver a baby, as he has some training in medicine.  The woman dies in childbirth but the baby survives.  He comes to find that the father is a faerie who calls him cousin, insisting they are related.  Simonelli goes to Allhope where he finds that a young woman has disappeared.  He continues to meet with the Fae until he discovers his nefarious plans.

Tom Brightwood or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby – David is a Jewish doctor.  Tom is a Fae prince.  Tom has many children and grandchildren who are quite unruly.  Tom accompanies David to Lincoln to see a patient who may be dying.  On the way, they come across a town with access across the river by ferry.  Before they leave the town, they must pay a toll.  Tom resents this and they meet with the man who owns the ferry.  Turns out the man and his wife are childless and they beg Tom and David to fund the building of a bridge to help with commerce.

All the stories are beautifully written.  Even if you don’t have experience with Clarke’s JS&MN universe, you will easily fall into it.  The stories together give you most of the tactics of the Fae in England around the beginning of the 19th century.  One even features Jonathan Strange and another features the Raven King.  But as I said above, the stories all ring familiar because the Fae’s tactics are all very reminiscent of JS&MN.  

Another thing I was disappointed in was that all but one of the stories features a male main character.  Yes, the women feature largely in the stories, but only one, which features Mary, Queen of Scots, has a woman as the main character.  I guess it keeps with the feel of the 19th century English experience where women are rarely in the forefront.  And the women do feature heavily.  Still, I felt a little cheated considering the introduction (by a fictitious professor) indicates that this features women and magic the way JS&MN does not.  

Despite these issues, I give the book four stars out of five.  It is just so pleasing to read these stories because of the prose and the content.  I think I would have probably enjoyed it more if I read it soon after its predecessor, as I was wishing that gigantic tome wouldn’t end.  This is like eight little desserts after the main course.  Or conversely, like eight appetizers if you hadn’t read it JS&MN yet.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

It Devours

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Completed 8/28/2021, Reviewed 8/28/2021
3 stars

This is the second book in the Welcome to Night Vale trilogy.  It’s not quite as good as the first book.  It’s still amusing and full of the crazy inhabitants of Night Vale, but it just doesn’t have the same spark as the first.  It has a tighter plot with less asides, but it’s all those asides that made the first one so special.  This one features a giant centipede and the church that worships it.  It felt like a ‘50s B-movie with a contemporary sensibility with a twist ending that isn’t all that amazing.  

The story follows Nilanjana, a recent newcomer to Night Vale.  She’s only been there about four years, but of course, time is weird in Night Vale.  She’s a scientist working for the extremely handsome Carlos, whose husband Cecil is the DJ for the local radio station.  While working on a pesticide’s effects on bacteria, the ground starts to get hot, shake, and a local man’s house and yard plummet into a giant hole in the ground.  Carlos thinks it’s related to the house that’s not there, which seems to be a portal to another dimension.  He assigns Nilanjana to investigate.  She uncovers a strange link between the giant holes and the cultish church known as the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God.  While investigating, she falls for one of their most esteemed members, Darryl.  Is there a link?  Can she trust Darryl to help her?  Is there really a giant centipede that’s devouring the town?  Can she get any work done at all with crazy Pamela from the city or the black helicopters always following her?

The world building isn’t quite as good as in the first book.  It assumes you read it and know all about the diner waitress with tree branches growing out of her, Josh the shapeshifter, Jackie the perpetual nineteen-year-old who is now twenty-five, the not so covert surveillance of all citizens, and the invisible pie.  But it doesn’t really build that much besides that.  There’s the portal to another dimension through the house that isn’t there, but that doesn’t get much discussion until the info dump near the end, and then it’s kind of a slog.  The church is well thought out though, right down to hokey hymns and the intense pastor.  

The character development is good.  The authors really excel at personal details.  Nilanjana is quite well done, particularly in her conflict between what constitutes real science in Night Vale and the outside world.  It makes her pretty sympathetic as she tries to navigate the weirdness of the town.  Darryl is also well done, with his naivete and his fondness for Nilanjana.  We also get to know Carlos better, another non-native who has bought into the weirdness of the town much more thoroughly than Nilanjana.

I give this book three out of five stars.  The novelty of the first book had worn off by about the middle of this book.  It’s a fun read, but not as fun as the first.  And the big info dump of the other dimension at the end seemed a bit forced.  I’ll still be reading the third book in the trilogy after a little break.  It’s the back story to a ghost from the first book and spans several centuries, so it may have a little more oomph.  We’ll see.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Lent

Jo Walton
Completed 8/24/2021, Reviewed 8/24/2021
4 stars

This book is a tough one to review.  The first half of the book is an interesting but dry account of a strange Dominican priest in the late 1400s.  Then the second half plays on the trope of “Groundhog Day”.  But to say much more gives away the genius that is Jo Walton.  I didn’t think I’d rate this book this high as I was reading on it, but reflecting on it, I have to say this book is smart, well thought-out, and well-executed.  It’s just getting through the first half that’s difficult.  This book was nominated for a 2020 Mythopoeic Award (the winner has not yet been announced as of this writing).

Girolamo lives in a monastery in Florence.  He sees and casts out demons.  He sees the future.  His sermons are powerful, drawing the multitudes to his Masses.  He has sway over kings, and gets in trouble with Popes.  He’s almost too good to be true.   But Girolamo is not who he thinks he is.  And once he discovers this, he tries to reconcile the fact over and over through the replays of his life.

The character of Girolamo is based on an actual person from the 1400s.  He supposedly did all the things Walton writes about; it is documented in histories and art.  And that’s what the first half of this book is, the recounting of the last six years of his life.  There isn’t much fantasy in it, except for ability to see demons. It just reads like a historical novel.  I have to admit, it was a bit of a slog, not knowing where the book was going, not getting much of the fantastical, and feeling like I was getting a history lesson.  Then you get to the end of his life, you turn the page, and the whole story turns upside down. 
 
The writing of this book really good.  Despite my disparaging comments about the first half, I will say that the character development is excellent.  I just didn’t find anyone that interesting.  There are some Medicis and Borgias and a plethora of other historical figures, none of whom I felt any connection to.  Then during the second half, it all comes together and I found myself empathizing with Girolamo, Pico, Isabella, and several others.

Last night, I actually emailed a friend that the book was not one of Walton’s best.  But here, I’m retracting that.  It really is quite astonishing how she put the alternative into alternative history.  You just have to get through the first half of the book for it to pick up, and when it does, it’s amazing.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I’d say the first half of the book is three stars and the second half is five stars, so four stars is the average.  Walton continues to be one of my favorite authors.  I’ve probably awarded her more five-star ratings than any other author I’ve read, including Among Others, Farthing, and Tooth and Claw.  I still have another book of hers on my immediate TBR list and will hopefully get through her complete works in the next few years.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Rosewater Insurrection

Tade Thompson
Completed 8/18/2021, Reviewed 8/18/2021
2 stars

I really liked Rosewater, but I read it almost two years ago and didn’t remember much of it.  I was looking forward to this second book in the Wormwood trilogy because what I did remember liking was the interesting plot, the great prose, and the Afro-futurist setting.  Unfortunately, this book felt like one big mess.  It was told from mostly four character’s points of view, with a sprinkling of chapters from other characters POV.  There were multiple plot lines with multiple voices that all sounded pretty similar and it left me confused and uninterested.  By the time I got to the end, I didn’t care what was going on.  This book has gotten a lot of love from the different book review sites I keep up with, so I know my opinion won’t be popular.  So take this review with a grain of salt if you’re one of the lovers.

Alyssa is a white Nigerian living in Rosewater who wakes up one day not knowing anything about her past, including her husband and child.  She leaves home only to be tracked by Aminat, the lover of the Kaaro, the main character from the first book.  Aminat works for the same agency S45, which believes Alyssa is the key to the survival of the human race amidst the alien invasion.  However, interfering with Aminat is the political dealings of the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, who is trying to declare Rosewater a city-state, independent of Nigeria. 

There were too many main characters in this book for me to get any sense of good character development.  There’s Alyssa, Aminat, Jack Jacques, and Anthony, the alien/human hybrid that is the avatar of Wormwood.  There was also Kaaro, Eric, Hannah, Lora and a few other secondary characters.  Out of all these, the only character I really liked and followed well was Lora the AI assistant of the mayor.  She had no real sense of humor and took everything literally. 

I found the world building to be decent but also confusing.  Having read the first book two years ago, I didn’t remember much about Rosewater or the domed Wormwood.  Getting recaps helped, but the ganglia and the spikes kinda lost me.  I understood there was a symbiotic relationship between the city and the dome, but I couldn’t picture the details.  The prose was also decent in this book, but as I said, everyone’s voice sounded the same. 

One chapter I liked was from the point of view of Will, a famous author drafted by the mayor to document the war for independence.  Will’s narrative was a lot of exposition and info dumping about the history of the development of Rosewater, but it helped me remember things I had forgotten from the first book.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I felt like it’s form and style were too complex, at least for me.  My understanding is that the form of the third book is again different, so I’m hoping I like it better.  I’ll read a few other books to give myself a break, then attempt the third.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Last Emperox

John Scalzi
Completed 8/14/2021, Reviewed 8/14/2021
4 stars

This was a very satisfying ending to the Interdependency trilogy.  It’s a very exciting space opera, which for me is quite a compliment.  It follows the same basic format, with most of the chapters being of the voice of the three main characters, Cardenia, Marce, and Kiva.  The book has a lot more long explanations of what’s happening, but I found it reasonable and informative.  Some people might find it to be too much exposition, but it’s Scalzi, so even the exposition is filled with tongue-in-cheek dark humor.  I’ve become quite a fan of his over the years, and look forward to the other books I have of his in my TBR pile.  

The format is pretty much the same as in the previous two books, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire.  Cardenia, the emperox, is trying to save humanity from the collapsing interdependency, the massive hyperspace links between the worlds and space stations that humanity lives upon.  The problem is that only one of these worlds, known as End, can support human life without outside and artificial support.  The nobles believe in the collapse now that it has actually begun, but rather than saving humanity, they want to save themselves by getting to End and leaving the rest of humanity to die out.  Cardenia is focused on saving all humanity.  For this, she becomes the target of another assassination and coup plan.  Her constant nemesis, Nadashe is once again behind it all, but it looks like this time, she wants to claim the throne for herself.  Marce, who is now Cardenia’s lover, is trying to help her with the physics, and Kiva works with her to outsmart Nadashe.  In typical space opera style, nothing works out easily and the last third of the book is filled with crazy twists and turns.

The character development is all pretty solid at this point.  I was pretty invested in the heroic trio and was loving how much I hated Nadashe.  The world building is also pretty well set by this point too.  What really got me about the book was how well Scalzi was able to concoct yet another coup and assassination attempt.  At one point, I did think, “Hmmm, just another coup”, but I really enjoyed the plotting by the bad guys.  

Not much else to say about this book, because it would be filled with spoilers.  It concludes the series in very much the same style as the first two books, though maybe a little heavier on the exposition.  But as I said, I enjoyed the descriptions and the snark that Scalzi is so famous for.  I give this book and the series as a whole four stars out of five.


Thursday, August 12, 2021

Welcome to Night Vale

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Completed 8/12/2021, Reviewed 8/12/2021
4 stars

This was one strange book.  Surreal.  Kafkaesque.  And wildly entertaining.  It’s based on a podcast about a desert town with very strange residents and happenings.  I’ve never listened to it. This book was recommended by a friend (thanks Will!).  There are two more books in the trilogy which I picked up cheap.  It was nominated for a British Fantasy Award in the Horror category, though it’s only mildly horror in that there’s at least one ghost.  It’s going to be hard to talk about this book because it is so weird, but I’ll give a go.

Night Vale is a town in the desert southwest.  There are all sorts of strange beings, like the faceless woman, angels named Erika, lights in the sky above Arby’s, Lovecraftian monster librarians, microphones in every home, not-so-secret police, and government agents on surveillance of basically everybody.  One resident, Jackie, has been nineteen for a very long time, perhaps decades.  She runs a pawn shop where she gives everyone eleven dollars for what they pawn.  One day, a man in a tan suit with a deer skin suitcase comes in and gives her a slip of paper with the words “King City” on it.  She can’t remember the name of the man, nor what he looks like.  The slip of paper is always returns to her hand no matter what she does with it.  She becomes obsessed with finding the tan suit man and slowly, her life unravels.

Another resident, Diane, has a son named Josh who is a shapeshifter.  He can turn into anything.  Diane starts to see Josh’s father around town after fifteen years away.  She tries to confront him, but he always runs away.  In the meantime, one of her coworkers, Eric, has disappeared and he seems to be linked with the tan suit man.  Diane becomes obsessed with finding Eric and her son’s father who seems to be linked to King City.  Soon she is on a collision course with the gruff Jackie, their only resolution being working together to find King City.

The plot, the crazy details of Night Vale, and the prose are what make this book so good.  I found myself driven to reading this just to see how every detail was going to be described, like the crow that’s maybe a dog but is really a crow that’s a dog.  Or the diner waitress with branches growing out of her.  Or Josh, who one day has tentacles, the next day wings.  It’s just wacky.  I didn’t find it necessarily ha-ha funny, but it’s very amusing and entertaining.  And the novelty of the weirdness lasts the whole book.  I didn’t become tired of it because I always wanted to see what came next.  Suffice it to say, the world-building is pretty phenomenal.

There’s actually decent characterization as well.  Diane is a struggling single mom who tries, not always successfully, to connect with her son.  When she begins seeing her son’s father around town, always doing different jobs, her life slowly unravels.  It doesn’t help that she’s also obsessed with the disappearance of Eric at work, who no one else in the office seems to remember.  And Jackie is also well developed.  Perpetually nineteen, she struggles with having her childhood friends growing old around her.  She has a wonderfully uncomfortable meeting with her mom in a house she can’t remember growing up in, not even remembering that the silverware drawer is really the hot milk drawer.

The relationship between the Jackie and Diane develops complexly, with both being irritated at each other for getting in each other’s way with their similar obsessions.  But very slowly and deliberately, they come together to try to find a way to the mysterious King City.

It will be interesting to see how the world of Night Vale holds up in subsequent books.  The novelty may wear off as time goes on.  However, I think the fact that this podcast has been going on for a long time means that the authors have continued to come up with a lot of creative ideas, so I’m hoping the next two books are just as good.  I give this one four stars out of five.  


Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Consuming Fire

John Scalzi
Completed 8/8/2021, Reviewed 8/8/2021
4 stars

I was surprised I enjoyed this second in the Interdependency trilogy.  It had a lot more exposition and was more space opera-ish than The Collapsing Empire, two things that usually bother me.  It had a lot of court intrigue which at first, I found off-putting, but I was quickly sucked into it and actually enjoyed it.  The exposition I actually didn’t mind because Scalzi recounted his world building with it, and since it’s been three years since I read Empire, it was quite welcome.  I did find it a little less impressive than the first book, as is often the case in the second book of a trilogy, but overall, I’d say Scalzi hit another home run with this installment.

The Flow is continuing to collapse, but there are people in high places who either don’t believe it or want to use it for political gain.  Cardenia, the Emperox, has announced that she has had visions, like the first Emperox did, making the need to deal with the collapse a religious issue as much as socio-political issue.  There are rumors that she is going to declare martial law and basically destroy the power and fortunes of the various ruling houses.  One house in particular begins devising a coup, after unsuccessfully trying to assassinate Cardenia in the previous book.  In the meantime, Marce, the scientist who told the Cardenia about the Flow’s collapse, finds a fellow scientist who has discovered that Flow might be actually try to rebuild itself in a process she calls evanescence.  Of course, it will take a long time for this to happen, requiring the Cardenia do something to protect her people in the meantime from the collapsing Flow and the political chaos that also seems imminent.  

Yeah, I had a tough time coming up with a plot summary, as you can probably tell from the previous paragraph.  It’s because the book is almost all political intrigue, something I have a tough time wrapping my head around.  There are so many threads to it that it’s very easy to get confused by.  There are a lot of characters and I initially had a tough time keeping them straight in my head.  Fortunately, after about a third of the way through the book, I was gripped by the intrigue and was able to follow it better.  It helped that a few of the characters I couldn’t keep track of got knocked off in the course of the book. 

What also helped me was that the main characters in this book are the same as in Empire.  Cardenia, Marce, and Kiva.  Kiva now manages the accounts of the house that tried to assassinate Cardenia, and she uncovers a whole lot of corruption, information that the Emperox can use to her advantage.  Kiva is still brash and over the top and she’s literally sleeping with the enemy’s lawyer.  Once again, she’s fun and adds a lot of humor to the book.

The book is told mostly from four third-person points of view this time, those of the three main characters and a fourth, omniscient narrator.  That’s where most of the exposition comes in.  It goes through a lot of history of the empire and background of secondary characters.  As I said above, I didn’t mind it because it filled in a lot of memory gaps.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but it’s not simply a three-star book either.  It’s an intense political space opera that takes a while to become fun to read.  But I assure you, it does become fun and the end has quite a zinger.  Being this is a trilogy, there’s one more book to go, so there are still some plot points hanging.  I will read it, probably after a different book just to cleanse my palate a bit.