Bayou Moon by Ilona Andrews

Bayou Moon

Read April 2016
Recommended for fans of dark UF with a romance twist
★     ★     ★    1/2

Ilona Andrews books are the work of a solid writing team, and though I tend to avoid most paranormal romance, I thought it was time to give their Edge series a try. On the Edge (review) went well, though it seemed a bit Kate Daniels Lite–milk chocolate version. Bayou Moon, on the other hand, is Kate Daniels Special Dark–dark chocolate version.

It begins with William, the wolf-shape changer from On the Edge. It’s a couple years later and he’s hanging in the Broken, working flooring jobs and drinking beer. A noble from the Weird comes to see him and enlist him in the cause to bring down the lead spymaster for the opposing team. William’s unable to resist the offer, as he’s been on William’s personal to-kill list for years. At the same time, Cerise is working to keep her family’s fiances together when her parents disappear. They live in a multi-generation household in The Mire, an Edge area known for extensive swamps and a very insular lifestyle. Apparently the family’s arch-enemies have decided to re-open the feud by laying claim to her grandparent’s old house. She needs to journey to the Broken to retrieve some documents. Her return trip and William’s entry into the Mire coincide. They work together to navigate the Mire, and on their respective missions, dancing around their attraction for each other.

Narrative flows fairly smoothly, largely with alternating viewpoints between William and Cerise, with occasional intrusions by the Spymaster. Plot moves fairly fast and is generally straightforward, with heavy emphasis on action scenes. There is a significant amount of physical fighting in this book with particular techniques described.

The setting is clearly modeled on the marshy, changeable waterways of deep swamps and is always atmospheric. Both William and Cerise have a connection to the natural world, although for different reasons, and their likes and dislikes of the area help bring it alive. The world-building is generally solid with more focus on the weird creatures than on personal magic or spells. However, there’s some mutation-type magic employed by the Spymaster and his country that adds a fearsome, freaky angle to the story. There’s some mildly confusing Weird politics between the two countries and their spy agencies, the Hand and the Mirror, that play into the reasons for hunting the Spymaster. It’s awkwardly integrated largely because William and Cerise are generally apolitical and insular, although for different reasons.

As always with Andrews, characterization and characters stand out. William’s dual nature is given a realistic feel as he continually works to understand human cues and maintain ‘normal’ responses (much like many introverted people, I might add). Cerise’s extended family is very idiosyncratic with enough development to make the reader unsure of allegiance, and even those with brief appearances provide interest. Unlike the Kate Daniels series, body count of both friend and foe is high–these are life-and-death matters, so there’s an appropriate cost. It might be a shock to those fans of Daniels who rarely encounter a death of characters on the side of ‘good.’

For me, it was a solid diversion. I wanted an immersive read in an interesting world without intellectual or emotional commitment. For fans of romance, I’m not entirely sure it would satisfy; because both Cerise and William are who they are, it takes a long time for them to acknowledge their mutual attraction. On the other hand, as a non-romance reader, I appreciated the relatively uncomplicated romance structure. It also has almost equal emphasis on action/fighting. Overall, enjoyable and slightly more intriguing than On the Edge.

 
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The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak. No reservations needed.

The Goblin Reservation

Read April 2016
Recommended for fans of Pratchett, Thursday Next, Doorways in the Sand
 ★     ★    ★    ★

Some days, I need silly and yesterday, The Goblin Reservation fit the bill perfectly.

Familiar with Simak through the beautifully pastoral Way Station, when I saw this for a mere dollar, I snapped it up. A madcap adventure set in a vibrant university setting, it echoed the feel of Doorways in the Sand. While it is set on a future Earth with alien races, aircars, moving sidewalks, and the like, it is also an Earth that is home to small populations of The Fae.

Peter Maxwell, a professor in the College of Supernatural Phenomena, has just returned from an interplanetary journey where he was unexpectedly diverted to a mysterious planet. Charged with brokering their knowledge banks, he returns to the Earth checkpoint only to discover he had already returned and died in an unfortunate accident. When he finally reaches his apartment, he discovers his belongings destroyed and his apartment rented by an unknown attractive woman and her pet sabertooth tiger. They head to the local watering hole for a drink and meet up with Maxwell’s friends, Alley Oop (only slightly dated by his inclusion) and Ghost. It gets progressively odder from there as Bill attempts to discover why he was doubled, to find a job and to convince the University that they should buy the alien knowledge. Oh, and help out his friend Goblin O’Toole with his troll problem and some excess October ale. However, the campus is in an uproar over the upcoming time-traveling visit by William Shakespeare, so Maxwell has a challenge trying to get official attention.

Nominated for a Hugo in 1969, it is a quick, fun read that remains close to timeless. Highly recommended for fans of Pratchett, or fans of Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand. I will be re-reading this one.

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On the Edge by Ilona Andrews

On the Edge

Read April 2016
Recommended for PNR fans, dedicated Andrews fans
 ★     ★    ★

I’m a fan of the Kate Daniels series, so it was a natural that I would try their other stories. On the Edge is the first book in a series of four books set around the Edge, an area that intersects the worlds of The Broken, our current world, and the world of the Weird, the magical. While it has many of the wonderful trademarks of the Andrew’s writing talent, including fascinating world-building, humor, and interesting creatures, it also has a number of romance tropes. Enjoyment will depend on tolerance.

In this first book, Rose is living a hand-to-mouth existence taking care of her two younger brothers after everyone but their grandmother has died or disappeared. She’s working as a maid in the Broken, trying to earn enough money to keep them fed, with gas for the car and new shoes for school. One day, a handsome noble from the Weird appears at the edge of her property. They make a bargain that if he successfully completes three tasks, Rose will come with him as a bride. Meanwhile, evil creatures are appearing in the Edge, attacking magic users. There’s a new man in town who wants to date Rose and her past is continuing to haunt her.

My objections had nothing to do with the world, and everything to do with the standard romance frame of Rose as a prickly, independent and hard-headed woman with a troubled past (through no fault of her own), and the arrogant, handsome and talented man who intrudes on her life. True to romance tradition, Andrews wastes far too much word-count on his chiseled shoulders, narrow waist and aristocratic demeanor. She attempts to drive him away by being rude, he protects her family, she realizes she was making assumptions, she wins his admiration and respect with her skills and drive, vice versa, sexual entendre, twue love. It’s sweetly done but the staple twist–just as she is coming to trust him–only reinforces the predictability. As a result, the characters of Rose and the romantic interest are fairly standard, although the repartee elevates it a bit. (view spoiler)

That said, other characters seemed well developed. The Big Evil was standard crazy but still menacing. Rose’s younger brothers George and Jack were fascinating, and even better, sounded like young boys. The complicated relationship dynamics of the Edgers seemed believable. In many ways, it echoes all the things I enjoy about Kate Daniels, though it lacked the fullness developed in that series over multiple books. Those who have read that series first may find that this version is essentially Kate Daniels Lite. The HEA was predictable, but generally sweet.

Ultimately, not a bad way to spend an hour or two.

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The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson.

The Diamond Age

Read March to April 2016
Recommended for hard core Stephenson fans
 ★     ★

Initially, I wasn’t tempted by The Diamond Age, but the subtitle drew me in. A book advising young women? Interesting. However, given a choice between this book and the classic young women’s thinly veiled moralistic story, Little Women, I think I’ll go with Little Women. At least none of the girls are raped.

The Diamond Age, Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was an interesting, convoluted, frustrating book packed with ideas, characters and too little plot. I suspect Stephenson of being in love with his ideas and would suggest a firmer hand on the editorial wheel. Far too many details on nanobots, too few details on characters. Hard to put down when I was reading, and equally hard to pick up later. It was eligible for a re-read–or at least a re-listen, as I’m told the narrated version is enjoyable–until the rape and the narrative mish-mash at the end.

The story revolves around Nell, a young girl living with an older brother, her mother and her mother’s series of boyfriends, and John  Percival Hackworth, creator of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. There’s a story-within-a-story plot of Nell reading the interactive Primer and experiencing the fairy-tale like story within. A host of other characters are involved, including a minor thug who briefly dates Nell’s mom; her brother Harv; Hackworth’s patron, Lord Finkle-McGraw; Miranda, the actress who reads the Primer; Constable Moore, war veteran and her guardian of sorts; Dr. X, a mysterious character who wants the Primer for unknown reasons; Miranda’s boss, Carl Hollywood; Hackworth’s daughter and a few others. It’s also worth noting that despite being A Young Lady’s Primer, it almost completely fails the Bechdel test. Because, you know. It’s not really about the Young Lady; it is also about the creator of the book and Stephenson’s technology.

When it comes to characters, Stephenson quickly creates a feeling of depth. One of my favorites was Judge Fang, with his New York accent, his adherence to Confucian principles, and his willingness to follow the path of ethics over the path of law. It reminded me very strongly of Master Li in Bridge of Birds. Sadly, we lose track of the Judge. Likewise, while the Miranda story was engaging and we get a glimpse of her emotions at a particular time of life, she disappears for the last third of the book. While both characters tied in quite nicely with the story of the Primer and Nell, the story of other parts of the Primer took precedence.

Spoilers below, naturally, because how else can I talk about this mess?

Narrative. Sigh, what can I say? The story-within-story technique is interesting and often enjoyable for me. In this case, it gives insight into just how special this book is and how it interacts with the child and the environment to shape response. However, as Nell ages, it could have done a better job with parallels to her real life, particularly in the last half when it was teaching her about the ’12 keys,’ which I think meant learning coding techniques. I found myself raising an eyebrow once or twice. Would a Victorian primer really have encouraged a child to stab someone? Sure, it may have been a sign of the book not quite working–or it may have been a sign of Stephenson taking the story where he needed it to go. I’m betting the latter.

It was a relatively coherent story up until about page 250 when the plot loses any sense of caring about characterization and moves characters around to get to where Stephenson needs them to make his ultimate thematic point. Hackforth ends up in a Drummer society, where much like entering Fairyland, he has aged ten years by the time he emerges around page 293… and then things really turn bizarre and dreamlike. Miranda decides to look for Nell and disappears from the narrative after accepting an engagement with two shady characters. Hackforth’s daughter appears for a bizarre live-action ractive performed on a ship. Nell suddenly decides to leave the Victorian society and set off for China, although we aren’t sure why, and ends up in a sado-maochism brothel. It was a mess and only sheer stubbornness kept me reading. When Nell is captured and raped by the Fists of Righteous Harmony it catapulted me out of bored confusion into rage. What. The. Hell. Unacceptable, but thanks, Stephenson, for making sure the A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer reinforces women as rape targets, because we wouldn’t want to think we’ve moved beyond it as a plot device. Oh–and then he provided a capstone with a potential rape, saved for the last two pages.

I have an entire ranty post about the use of rape in stories and believe it was completely unnecessary here. To then call this book “A Young Lady’s Primer” is insulting and makes any empowerment themes hollow. You know what else I realized? Nell has very few interactions with women in this book. With the exception of Nell, women are pawns or dependents. Except for  the Vicky classroom, there no scenes of females interacting with females. Because apparently the message of “A Young Lady’s Primer” is it’s a man’s world and women get to live in it.

You know what this book most reminded me of? That mildly drunk guy at a party who seems kind of interesting and charismatic, even though he can’t keep his chain of thought straight, but who turns out to be a total asshole as he gets drunker and realizes he’s not getting laid.

Three and a half stars for the first 250 pages, two stars for the rest and negative forty stars for the end. Stick with Little Women.

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Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen.

Adulthood is a myth

Read March 2016
Recommended for bookworms, introverts
 ★     ★     ★    ★

Judging by the reviews, many, many readers see themselves in Sarah’s work. I completely understand, because I do too.

Introvert nightmare

After seeing a friend’s glowing review (thanks, Amy[Other Amy]!), I had to give this a try. As a lifelong bookworm and introvert, I recognized many of my experiences put into cute visuals.

Habits of bookwormI was well-known among high school friends for my mispronunciations of words I had only read, although I never managed the ability to walk while reading without tripping over myself.

The artistic style is similar to that of Allie Brosch, creator of Hyperbole and A Half (review), a very clean line style of drawing that has its focus on the character with environment or props only if they are germane to the story. Nothing is extraneous. The semi-stick figure shapes have giant eyes with dilating pupils to demonstrate extreme emotion.

The observations are familiar to those of us who read, who worry about being a dork in public, and who endlessly replay awkward moments wishing they could go back and change. Many of the observations seem twenty-something-ish; the first time holding hands with a new boyfriend, the embarrassment of tampons falling out of one’s purse at inconvenient moments, short versus long haircuts, running into people from high school. Still, I enjoyed them and their sense of gentle camaraderie, although some of the moments felt a little farther away in my past. For instance, I no longer do this–or at least as often.

Spending money on books

However, some things remain relevant, particularly those days I don’t want to Adult.

Have to adult

An entertaining volume albeit somewhat lightweight, both physically and emotionally. While it made me smile and chuckle, it lacked the emotional punch of Brosh’s work to push it to my 5 star level. Still, highly recommended for the bookworm in your life.

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Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

Read March 2016
Recommended for apocalypse fans, historians
 ★     ★     ★    ★

 

Alas, Babylon was one of the more perplexing literary experiences I’ve had this year. Written by Pat Frank, it’s the story of Randy Bragg and a small Florida town, Fort Repose, after America and the Soviet Union declare war in the late 1950s.

Randy’s doing nothing much in the family house in Fort Repose, Florida except drinking and charming local women–with the exception of his neighbor Florence, who suspects him of being a Peeping Tom–when his brother sends a cable with their code phrase, Alas, Babylon.

“As the minutes and hours eroded away, and no word came from Moscow, he became more and more certain that a massive strike had been ordered. He diagnosed this negative intelligence as more ominous than almost anything that could’ve happened.”

Randy begins grocery shopping while Mark packs up his family in Omaha to send them to Randy’s house and together with the neighbors, they navigate survival after a missile strike.

“The sight of war’s roseate birthmark on the sky choked back their words.”

A Review in Three Parts

The Time Traveler’s Version: five stars

Most likely, the ideal way to experience this book published in 1959 was to be born in 1935-1945. Much of the story has a strong philosophical tone best contextualized by the time period. I found it fascinating that Frank is partly aware of the influence of cultural epoch: “The incident was important only because it was self-revelatory. Randy knew he would have to play by the old rules. He could not shuck his code, or sneak out of his era.” However, there’s so much contained that is commentary on the conflicts of the era: the tiniest beginnings of Civil Rights and Equal Rights reflected in Randy’s relationships with women and the black family living next door remain strongly influenced by his chivalry and paternalism. Then there’s the general confidence people have that there is an ‘after,’ as in ‘after the government comes and restores everything,” and the hope that nuclear strikes are survivable. In the decades since, our confidence in systems has diminished while belief in the survival of the strong has grown.

Nonetheless, it was an influential book during its time, and one of the few early apocalyptic that have the feel of reality as people then understood it. Frank was a career journalist who worked in New York and Washington and as a war correspondent during WWII and during the Korean War, and I felt like Mark’s experiences at the command post sounded real.

The Audio Version: five stars

The second best way–to those lacking access to Kemper’s time-mower–is to listen to the Audible version read by Will Patton. It won a well-deserved Audie in 2012 and was even more enjoyable than my reading. Patton is a fabulous voice actor and brought each word to life. Although it is mostly from Randy’s point of view, there are other view points, along with specific and general dialogue. Patton nailed almost every one, with the only exception being a “Boston Radcliffe” accent. The southern inflections sounded genuine and even a ten year-old girl was done well, but my favorite were his variations on the radio. From the verbal swagger of a radio jockey to the clipped tones of a Civil Defense broadcast, I too felt like I was listening to a broadcast. When Patton voiced Randy’s thought, “squashed his face like a potato,” I laughed out loud at a line I hadn’t noticed when reading. Clearly, a superior reader who won me as a fan.

The Modern Version: three and 1/2 stars

I tend to skim a lot, particularly toward the end of a book. It’s been a lifelong habit and likely one of the reasons I enjoy re-reading books. My first read through was done at my normal pace and I finished the book feeling satisfied. I started over with the audio, listening to Will Patton reading. I loved his voice acting–but started to hear the words more clearly. Frank is clearly ambivalent about equality of many kinds, and it is demonstrated in Randy’s philosophical musings, in privileged interaction with others, and with authorial choices in plotting. Let’s just say that in 2016, you wouldn’t give the black kid a spear and the white kid a gun, or have so many discussions about “going back to our Neolithic days.” While women get a whiff of equality in Randy’s girlfriend, Liz, half-proposing and a woman being left in control of the United States, there’s one of Randy’s former lovers, Rita, who is basically characterized as an “exotic” “man-collector.” Then there’s the bizarre episode where Mark’s wife Helen has a ‘mental break’ and is psychoanalyzed by Liz and the Doctor.

I do believe none of the characterization is ill-intentioned, but as a modern reader, its the same-ol’ ‘-isms, and just because they seem benevolent doesn’t mean they aren’t tiresome. Further, we are now an audience that is fairly well educated on disasters, so some of the mistakes we witness Randy and the community make seem laughable.

My suggestion is to read it, but it’ll work best if you borrow a time-mower (keys hanging on a hook in the shed) or listen to Will Patton.

Many, many thanks to the people who suggested it when I was looking for an apocalypse, and a thousand thanks to Naomi who shared her audio copy.

 
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Join me

A few of us—perhaps a very few–are going to group read Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny. Feel free to join in! Almost-winner of a Nebula and a Hugo, it is sci-fi wrapped in a mystery. https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/185207

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Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple. Maybe a drop or two.

Drawing Blood

Read March 2016
Recommended for autobiographies, NYC art scene
 ★     ★     ★    

I never know how to rate autobiographies because I feel as if I’m passing judgement on the person. Is that why people read them? I don’t know. For myself, I was attracted to this book by the interesting connection between drawing and journalism, as well as the idea of an illustrated autobiography. I was strongly reminded me of a dear friend who is an artist and writer, and the letters and chapbooks filled with beauty in images and words.

“Unlike photography, though, visual art has no pretense of objectivity. It is joyfully, defiantly subjective. It’s truth is individual.”molly crabapple 2

The summary: The book description talks about “the time period between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street” which is grossly, but not specifically accurate, in that it makes as it sound as though the time period was framed by activism and not just numbers. And that isn’t quite true either: beginning with late childhood, it mentions her parents and divorce, her challenges in high school, her first love. Frustrations with being young and rebellious. After graduation, looking for adventure, she heads to France and the Middle East. She returns at eighteen to begin art classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Having a hard time making ends meet, she takes Craiglist jobs for nude modeling for Men With Cameras. From there, it is her exploration into the world of burlesque as she tries to manage classes and find housing. This lasts some time, punctuated by a trip or two to Europe and the Middle East where she begins to understand her vulnerability as a single female traveler and meets men who help her. Eventually she meets a man, grows increasingly frustrated with school, and expands her work with burlesque into running shows. She has an abortion. 9/11 is just a couple of pages; likewise Hurricane Sandy. She networks her way into an exclusive nightclub and into galleries. We meet her friends. She travels to London. In her late twenties, she starts to become politicized and stops by Occupy Wall Street. She joins a journalist and becomes more political in her art.

molly crabapple 4“So much of my life was spent chasing money. It shaped my friendships, distorted my thinking.”

The analysis: I loved the illustrations that accompanied the text. Although there was limited color–red, orange, yellow; quite appropriate for a firecracker personality–I loved the detail and the skill. I enjoyed reading her stories and then seeing a drawing that illustrated the image, whether thought, building or portrait.

“In their complexity, I wanted the paintings to resemble the bits of dreams that cling to your eyelids when you wake.”molly crabapple 3

Alas, Crabapple has a way to perfect writing skill. Much like my summary, much of the book reads like “I did this and then I did that with so-and-so.” Her personality is kept locked away, with very little information about her thinking process or the intimacies of her experience. And I don’t mean sex; Crabapple has mastered the art of displaying what seems private without sharing intimacy. Her passion comes through when talking about drawing, which sadly, is not often enough. As she becomes more politicized, she talks more about composition and what it represents to her. But I wish she had shared more of her artistic explorations. At one point early on, she refers to her style in a derogatory way, which kind of surprised me–I didn’t really feel I had been given a foundation for it, and there is evident skill in her style. In another, she mentions in an offhand manner how she can’t draw a straight line. She doesn’t need to, but again, I wanted to know where those thoughts came from. I would have liked to hear more about her process, about how her style worked–or not–with F.I.T.’s program, and what she actually learned from Fred, the lover who taught her so much. Still, mention of art and imagery twines through the book, and those were always the parts that shone:

“We live in the most image saturated age in history, and a thousand cell phone pics mark the occasion whenever a cop cracks a protester ‘s skull, but I wanted to prove that artists had a reason to leave the studio–to show that illustration had something to say.” molly crabapple 1

Despite the hype, her politicizing happens quite late in the book. Although she falls into nude modeling for quick cash and mentions safety issues, it doesn’t seem to impact behavior or consciousness. Eventually, there’s a sort of burgeoning feminism out of a website Suicide Girls (an “adult lifestyle brand”), but it is more about money-making and again, less about connections. She mentions other girls’ names but admit she didn’t know any of them well. In fact, throughout her recollections, it’s evident that there’s a lot of jealously and emulation of more ‘successful’ women, which is kind of the antithesis of feminist consciousness. Work at The Box, an exclusive nightclub, begins a time period of more class consciousness, but not enough to eschew $900 shoes when she gets first commission, so take it for what its worth. Occupy first becomes something to participate in and somewhat support. A change in economic status becomes casually dropped into conversation, as in “”That night I was in London, watching Twitter for the inevitable police attack,” so it’s hard to view her as a hardcore member of the movement. And in fairness, she never claims she was–although again the book blurb certainly seems to paint her as such (from the Rolling Stone, no less).

Honestly, I wouldn’t call it a waste of time, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to most people. Her writing lacks more than surface insight. For instance: “by 22, I was disillusioned with modeling and exhausted from the late nights at burlesque clubs.” Fair enough, but she’s quite recast her MWC work from what she termed it earlier–easy money–into something to be ‘disillusioned’ with, and the burlesque work was done for love of the act. It’s most pronounced during Occupy, such as when she criticizes “Even the liberal media figures many protesters had loved during the 2008 election turned against us.” Occupy was extremely problematic by the end, so it’s hard to cast anyone who criticized it as “turning against us.”   It’s a theme that echoes, and maybe it’s one we all engage in: events are re-cast in a thoughtful glow, instead of a self-promotional one. When she discusses lay-offs at The Box during the Wall Street Crash: “And it was embodied in this empty night club. After the crash, what would happen to the human luxury goods who worked here, we sparklers illuminating the face of the destroyer?” This is from a place where performers shot fireworks out of their asses and farted Beethoven, so I’ll just assume she meant ‘sparkler’ literally. I’m not saying such work isn’t counter-cultural, but just how much activism in your art are you claiming here? There is often a narrow line between being shocking to be noticed or create a persona, and being shocking to make a statement that causes a jolt in thinking, but that’s a discussion that is sadly missing.

She has a talent for self-promotion, and there’s a ton of name-dropping, although I’m not sure who it is for as much is NYC based. Interestingly, there’s a scarcity of information about those that she remains close to–her family and her lovers. If you want to know more about -isms and art, almost any issue/article of Bitch will give more insight with stronger analysis. However, her art is remarkable, so if it captivates, it might be worth checking out her other work. The first two chapters are available on-line and provide a taste of how it reads.

Another book that fusses the rating system: 3 1/2 stars for the art, 3 stars for the writing, 2 1/2 stars for the insight.

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A Plain-Dealing Villain by Craig Schaefer

A Plain Dealing Villain

Read February 2016
Recommended for fans of capers, demons
 ★     ★     ★     ★  

Sometimes after swim team, my lane mates and I go to a local pub and have a drink. Since we just spent an hour and a half swimming, it means salty snacks to go with the drink. Then we usually order All the Appetizers, which once included chili-oil beer battered fries, homemade chips with chunks of bacon, onion and blue cheese on top, Wisconsin deep-fried cheese curds and a giant soft baked pretzel with three kinds of mustard. Oh, an another drink, to wash down the salt. And by the time I’m back in my house, I’m wondering what on earth I was thinking, eating so much late at night? But you know I’ll just do it again.

Ditto for A Plain-Dealing Villain.

At any rate, the story:

“When Harmony Black and her task force came to town, my girlfriend promised she’d find the best lawyer around. That was Perkins. He was so slick he didn’t have fingerprints–literally.” It’s decided to be in Faust’s best interest to lie low, so he takes an out of town job, though the audition is quite the almost-killer. After almost-sidetracking in the airport, he ends up with a team in Chicago, quite the contrast to home. “Vegas would steal every penny in your pocket, but it’d make sure you had a great time on your way to the gutter. Chicago didn’t have time to play games. It was a machine for printing money, moving at the speed of industry, and it only offered two choices: keep up or be left behind.”

Faust needs to steal an artifact from a suspiciously connected jeweler, and the theft in turn leads to a card tournament at the Bast Club. I enjoyed every scene there, particularly the scene-stealing Fredrika the fashion designer. “This is the Cool Kids’ Table. I am the Queen of the Cool Kids and I hereby use my magic chalice of office to banish you into the hinterlands of boredom.’ Freddie waved her martini glass at him. ‘Go suck somewhere else.'”

It’s a zero sum game, of course. All the elements I enjoy are here: the rich city description, a fast-moving action, nice characterization and the feeling Schaefer has the one up the sleeve. Faust continues to work as part of a team, which I appreciate, as I’m awfully tired of the solo hero working against the odds. The somewhat sarcastic voice remains. The demons are even more devilish and sadistic, for those who feel like Hell hasn’t been doing a good job representing. The ending, however, left me more than a bit uncomfortable. Was that really a good idea?

“All the danger, none of the reward. Or as I like to call it, Tuesday.”

But, you know. Only until next time.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree

Read March 2016
Recommended for fans of Victorians, lies
 ★   ★    1/2

Let me be frank–

Shawn: As long as I can be Dean and Gus can be Sammy.

Gus: Why do I always have to be Sammy?

Shawn: Fine, he’s Sammy. That makes you Joey Bishop. Is that what you really want? You want to be Joey Bishop?

Let’s start over.

Let me be honest–

The Lie Tree is a perfect example of why I stopped auto-buying authors. I loved Fly by Night (review), sought out the hardcover and added it to my library. The Lie Tree shares many of the same roots–but grows them in a very different way, emerging a prickling specimen, all nettle leaves and nothing I want to bring home.

Faith Sunderly and her family have suddenly left England for Vane Island on the pretext of a fossil dig in some unusual caves. Along with Faith is her father, the Reverend Erasmus, her mother Myrtle, her younger brother Howard, and Uncle Miles. Although the reasoning seems solid as the Reverend has quite the international reputation for fossils, Faith has been sensing something disastrous lurking at the edges. When they arrive at the island, they and the Reverend’s specimen collection are installed in a small house. In their short time, the Reverend and Myrtle manage to alienate many of the island residents, and when the truth of their exile emerges, things go from bad to worse. Faith finds herself trying to understand the adult situation and discover who is behind their troubles.

Plotting is extremely slow; it wasn’t until chapter 15 that events really started to cascade. While a slow build was present in Fly by Night, the beginning had a daffy, playful and imaginary setting that kept me intrigued. The island fails to stand out for me; mostly wild, dismal moor; long, ill-kept roads, random caves and wild cliffs. The Reverend acting irrationally. Myrtle seeking normalcy. Howard wanting reassurance. Once I reached the particular event(s), it became easier to stay interested. Alas; it never obtained the heights of ‘must finish,’ except in the obligatory sense, as in “I must finish reading that ARC for NetGalley.”

Writing is solid. Hardinge is an excellent writer, and this is a solid example of her work, but at the risk of sounding redundant, I preferred her flights of fancy in Fly by Night. Much of the strength is saved for descriptions of the science and for musing on Faith’s budding feminism. “There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.” Still, I felt a few of her metaphors were forced, awkwardly reflected from Faith’s thoughts: “The long journey had left them all depleted, like paintbrushes drawn across a broad stretch of canvas.

The characterization is well done for Faith, but not particularly likable. Faith has the astonishing self-centeredness of many twelve year-olds, and while she is exquisitely attuned to her father and Howard’s moods, she echoes the prejudices of her upbringing and is largely oblivious to the lives of the servants and women. “Now she was humbled, desperate to be permitted any part in interesting conversations. Even so, each time she pretended ignorance, she hated herself and her own desperation.” She’s working hard to understand her family, understand the dynamics of her father’s world, so it’s easy to root for her until one realizes how misaligned both cause and methods are. Many of the other characters are single note, I suspect partly because of Faith’s point of view. However, she does show a depth of understanding of Howard, which is sweet, and eventually comes to understand an island boy. Insight on the lives of older Victorian women is forced upon her by a couple of conversations in the wrap-up.

The fantastical angle to the story come from a plant her father was hiding from everyone, although Faith managed to find out the secret. The tree grows in absolute darkness, seemingly fed on lies. Hardinge loses a bit of her tale here, building too many metaphors; is this a tree from the Garden of Eden that confirms Biblical history? Is it an observable, measurable quantity that confirms Darwinism? Do lies give truth, or breed more lies? Does it matter if you can make money off it? Considering what Faith learns later, isn’t everyone kind of lying most of the time, so why aren’t these trees everywhere?

The ending sort of satisfied, until I thought more about the implications. I’m not sure Faith learned the right lessons at the end; perhaps what Hardinge wrote was the Victorian equivalent of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Which may, after all, be Hardinge’s point, but frankly, I’m going to resist learning her lesson.

Just call me Frank.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Abrams for the ARC.

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