Tuesday, December 29, 2009

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

Ah, book six and almost unquestionably the end of the series. To anyone who has been following along with Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, the long-delayed deluge of reveals in this sixth volume is likely to trigger a cascade of relieved sighs. Book six is also a slight departure from the first five--but I'll get there in a second. It's probably only fair to touch on the whole series first, seeing as it's done and all.

About two years ago, I didn't like urban fantasy at all--well, more to the point, I firmly and consciously considered myself to be someone who didn't like urban fantasy. I shunned all the UF books on the B&N shelves with a sniff of contempt. On the other hand, I've always enjoyed epic fantasy and like to read long series--so when Jim Butcher (who had something like 8 Dresden books out at the time) started putting out his fantasy-without-urban Codex Alera, I picked it up. That probably makes me the one person on Earth who heard about Butcher in such an unusual order: Codex Alera first, Dresden Files books second, and a Netflixed Dresden Files disc or two third.

I snarfed up the first three Alera books with such zeal that, while waiting for the fourth, I finally decided that if Butcher could write this well then I should try the Dresden series too. And I loved them (but that's a different review). My point is, in my opinion Butcher is simply a very, very good writer: he's able to string the reader along from scene to scene without letting his pace lag even when switching viewpoints frequently, he's definitive in his characters' definitions and he's a phenomenal world builder, making even the these magic-filled inexplicables seem surprisingly plausible.

I'm a sucker for watching a main character develop. (Consider the unrelated book The Still, perhaps the best example I've ever read of such development: the MC was such an ass in the first half that I almost threw the book away, and yet by the end I was rooting for him devotedly.) In the Codex Alera, Butcher has provided a whole host of MCs who all have their terrors to overcome: a mother who is in hiding after her royal husband was murdered, a bear of a man grieving for the loss of his wife, and most of all Tavi: a boy without magic, in a land where everyone else has it--and needs it to survive.

Butcher has stretched that MC development over six long volumes, sticking with the same characters and making them grow and grow as the plot twists and winds around an intricate, continents-wide world with no fewer than four species of humanoids--including some truly nasty baddies. He doles out little steps of character improvement at just a fast enough pace to keep you waiting for the next step: two characters that finally meet there, one who is able to come out of hiding here, another who meets a the right enemy right then so that they can resolve an issue together. The pacing isn't always perfect, but it's better than that of any other author I can remember--and it goes on that way, book after book.

Butcher's choice of world design is unusual. The white hats are the Aleran peoples, and their society and army are modeled strongly after our own Rome--something that bothered me as I read the first book (I didn't want the similarity to our own world!), but which I came to appreciate by the third. Here in the sixth book Butcher drops some very feint hints about how the Alerans came to be here and thereby suggests a tie to our own world; it's subtle but unexpected and I'm still not sure if I think it was necessary.

The Alerans wield magic through the use of Furies: semi-sentient elemental beings that bond with individuals and offer them remarkable powers. It's a neat premise and Butcher plays it out very well, from the living storms in the first book to the walking mountains in the sixth. Magic is pervasive in society, and it's intriguing to see how Butcher has mixed it in: the common-place uses (a little analogous to what we've done with electricity) keep it from being front-and-center in your attention except when he wants to showcase something special.

In this final book, Butcher has turned the action up a step: the plot zings along so quickly that there's never really a pause at all. It almost brings to mind the movie edition of the The Two Towers--you know, the middle of the three that's almost entirely one 180-minute battle at Helm's Deep? This book reads a little like that. I had expected the Big Conflict to appear towards the end, but in truth it starts at the beginning and never really lets up.

That change of pace is what I meant when I said book six is a bit of a departure. After five books of having reveals drop-fed to you, suddenly there's a firehose open and you're gulping them down as fast as you can. Oh, you were behind that plot twist? You were whose father? Butcher feels almost a little desperate to get things wrapped up, which is why I wrote "unquestionably the end of the series" above--and yet in the very last chapter he drops a hint that maybe things aren't over after all, which is why I added "almost" to "unquestionably." One wonders if the "To be continued...?" theme is just a habit he can't break.

Not that I would mind.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dr Shuker's Casebook by Karl P.N. Shuker

I hadn't really intended to review any nonfiction books on Skunk Cat, but I just finished Dr Shuker's Casebook and loved it so much I just have to share.

Karl P.N. Shuker is a zoologist whose interest in undiscovered, misplaced, mythical, and unusual animals led him to a career as a cryptozoologist. I own another of his books, The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals (originally published as The Beasts that Hide from Man), and love it too, so I was thrilled when my mother bought me Dr Shuker's Casebook for Christmas.

In this book, Shuker ranges away from his usual cryptozoological topics, although he does talk about mysterious animals and monsters too. The book is partly made up of updated and expanded articles he's had published in various journals, and is partly new writing. It's pretty clear that anything Shuker found interesting made its way into the text: flying men, merfolk, UFOs and USOs, rains of fish and frogs, ghosts, and all sorts of other topics. It makes for fascinating reading.

What I love most about Shuker's writing is the way he presents possible solutions to mysteries. He doesn't have an axe to grind; he's certainly not a crank. He approaches the data as a scientist first and as an interested person second, which means he looks first for logical explanations and then suggests more fanciful theories--but he doesn't usually endorse any particular solution. He lets the reader draw conclusions. It's nice that he assumes his readers are as intelligent and thoughtful as he seems to be.

I love also that he writes about lesser-known topics. I love well-written, well-researched books about mysterious phenomena, but a lot of the mysteries Shuker writes about are either new to me or ones I've seldom read about.

Shuker's writing reminds me a lot of Willy Ley's cryptozoological essays from the mid-20th century, which is why I've shelved Shuker next to Ley in my library. I never thought I'd find anyone who could capture my imagination and intellect the way Ley does. Thank goodness Shuker has written a lot of books. I'm going to have to collect them all.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan

I'm a real sucker for a good thief book. I was really hoping this book would be a romp--and it is, to some extent--with the main characters, Royce the thief and Hadrian the mercenary, swashbuckling through adventure after adventure. Instead the book turned high fantasy on me and the emphasis turned out to be saving the kingdom from a usurper, with the attendant battles, planning sessions, and meetings. I don't care about all that. Gimme thieving.

Actually, I'm being a little bit harsh. Royce and Hadrian do a lot of swashbuckling. The battles and so forth are important, but the main action focuses on a difficult rescue. Royce picks locks and things like that. Hadrian holds his own against master swordsmen. It's a lot of fun.

I never felt close to any of the characters, though. I liked them, and I was interested to see what they would do next, but if one of them had died I would have been "wait, what?" instead of "OMG NO!" I think that's why it was so easy for me to put the book down partway through after I started it a few months ago. I didn't have much emotional investment in the characters.

It's definitely a plot-driven work. Royce and Hadrian take what they think will be an easy job--steal a special sword on the eve of a duel--for high pay. Instead, they're framed for the king's murder. I would go on and give more details of the plot, but anything I write might give away some of the fun plot twists. I never knew what would happen next, which was awesome.

The Crown Conspiracy was published in 2008 from Aspirations Media, a small press. Like most small press works, this book desperately needed a final editing pass to fix awkward phrasing, misplaced commas, and homophone errors. It wasn't as bad as some, however--nothing that threw me out of the story too much. I'm picky about things like that anyway. [Edit: as you can see if you read the comments, a re-edited second edition of the book is available--or will be available soon--from Ridan Publishing.]

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Terrorists of Irustan by Louise Marley

A few days ago I trudging through The Golden Age by John C. Wright--a book that has been on my to-be-read pile since the day it was released. I'm sure it's a fine work: Wright has taken a huge, Baxter-like leap into the future and the book opens with some characters that are reasonably engaging. But after a day or two of trying to get rolling, I realized I was struggling: the book just wasn't holding my interest. Time for a break.

Two days later I was carrying a different book around with me: reading as I carried laundry up and down the stairs, reading while walking the dog, reading while waiting for the kids to get their shoes. It wouldn't let me go and I just had to keep reading--even though I already knew what was going to happen. After all, I had read this book before. Many times.

The Terrorists of Irustan is probably Louise Marley's best work to date (though I'm pleased to see she has a new one coming out in a few months)--and that's impressive, since she has several other worthy titles to her name. Maquisarde, The Glass Harmonica and the Child Goddess are all definitely worth your time--and her writing is strong enough to let me recommend her Singer books even though they're a little froofy for my tastes. But for my money, the Terrorists of Irustan easily leads the pack.

The colony world of Irustan is a brutal place for women. Here the dominant religion requires men to direct all their energy towards their work, to the explicit exclusion of their health (unless it interferes with their labor) or their families (which they're not allowed to establish until they're retired from the mines). Women and girls are essentially confined to their houses; they have no rights, no opportunities--cannot in fact even speak to men outside their family without a related male there to convey their words. Men are the undisputed rulers of their families, and their crimes against their wives and children are actually not considered crimes at all.

Because men must remain "undiverted" by considerations of the body, men are taught from childhood never to even consider the workings of their bodies: confronted with blood or injuries most men will reflexively shun the wounded. The colony has a small number of medicants to take care of such matters: untrained would-be doctors (women, of course; men can't be bothered with issues of the body) who largely rely on Earth-supplied diagnostic machines to do their jobs for them.

Our protagonist is a medicant--but a skilled, knowledgable one who has studied and become a competent physician in her own right. And throughout the book her professional role forces her to confront the worst inequities in her society, until she finally decides to do something about it.

Marley is at her best when championing the underdog--and that usually means women and children, carefully placed in situations where they're particularly vulnerable and abused. Her emphasis on protect-the-children is particularly pronounced in Maquisarde and The Child Goddess, and it absolutely drives both works. In The Terrorists of Irustan, it's both groups--and Marley plays the theme convincingly.

I've read this book half a dozen times, and even knowing how it ends I find myself watery-eyed at the end of every reading. The only problem I have with the book is that it's too short--and there's no sequel.

B&N link

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre

On the upside, Blue Diablo has no vampires or werewolves. On the downside, it's just not very interesting.

Not that it's exactly bad. It's a solid book with characters that aren't actually repellent, so I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it. It did feel very much like it was setting up the series, though, and when I'm reading a book I want to be reading this book, not setting up for the next book.

Corine Solomon is a woman with a Past. Her mother was a witch who died in a fire set by vengeful townsfolk--no word on if they carried pitchforks, but they probably did. As a result, when Corine uses her own extraordinary gift, that of handling objects and being able to sense what happened to the person who held them last, she ends up with burn scars on her hands. Corine keeps trying to help people with her power but it all ends in misery and fire and people wanting her dead or in jail, so she keeps having to start over fresh.

Last time, she left her lover Chance, a man with the extraordinary ability to attract luck. She runs a little pawn shop in Mexico City now and she likes it there. Then Chance shows up. His mother has disappeared and he needs Corine's help to find her.

The plot is actually pretty thin and Corine doesn't do much. She handles a few objects and gets obscure information that somehow leads to the next clue. Chance does most of the active work. Corine mostly just thinks about her past--all the damn time, huge chunks of flashback dumped into almost every chapter--and broods about how she really feels about Chance.

I think what bothers me most about the book is Corine's and Chance's relationship. It's so high school. For instance, Corine makes sure Chance believes she's going out with the friendly cop even though she's actually just getting the cop's help, because she wants Chance to squirm; but when Chance has to spend a few hours with another woman who's obviously also helping them, Corine immediately assumes they're having hawt sex and is so jealous she goes out and almost gets herself killed. I caught myself wishing repeatedly that they would start acting like adults.

I don't want to seem too down about the book, though. I liked the setting and the characters (despite their contrived relationship troubles), and while there wasn't much action, the book never sagged. I'm quite sure the sequel will be a lot better. After all, this book was just the set-up.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Colony Fleet by Susan R. Matthews

After my last review I went looking through the towering to-be-read stack for something a little less weighty for my next project. And my eye landed on Colony Fleet, a paperback that my mother had found somewhere and mailed to me a few weeks ago.

She sent it because she remembered (bless you!) that I've recommended several books by Matthews in the past. In fact Matthews' debut novel An Exchange of Hostages is one of my favorite books: it's a fascinating premise, a completely immersive world, a searing observation of psychosis in action and best of all (from my point of view anyway) has sequels. Joy!

Colony Fleet is from that same early time period in the timeline of Matthews' works, having been written in 2000. (An Exchange of Hostages came out in 1997, and she produced two other books in that series in between.) And the prose shows it: Colony Fleet maintains the same fast pacing and light-weight tone that is the trademark of her first half-dozen novels--and it's something she hasn't really managed in the last few years.

As with her first series (and with the singleton Avalanche Soldier for that matter), Matthews seems to be not so much writing a book as exploring a character who undergoes a wrenching personality change; the rest of the book is merely a (well selected) backdrop for that particular drama. And if Colony Fleet fails to evoke the same emotional impact as An Exchange of Hostages, it's still a worthwhile story with respectable characterization and solid world-building.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Acacia by David Anthony Durham

I'm just going to jump right in and get this out of the way early since I know you're expecting it anyway: place this book on your shelf right next to George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire and let the best series win.

On the one hand, the comparison is almost inevitable. First consider the high-level view: if you built a graph with Size of Tome on one axis and Particular Variety of Fantasy on the other, both series' markers would be drawn on exactly the same spot. They're both massive works; they both focus heavily on the Swords aspect of swords-and-sorcery and trend into the Sorcery part only as the work progresses; they're both heavy on world- and character-building. Plus both authors demonstrate a propensity for killing off significant characters in almost haphazard fashions. Even the characters and events in the books are remarkably similar: both focus on the destruction of a powerful family and follow the orphaned children as they are left to their various fates in different parts of the world; both involve an unexpected invasion from the ice-covered, uncivilized lands; both wind back and forth between military adventures and political intrigue. So from a sheer construction point of view, the works are remarkably similar.

On the other hand, most fantasy readers would probably agree that Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is a landmark work, sitting head and shoulders above every other sword-and-sorcery series available today. So even after subtracting points from Durham for lack of originality, you have to be impressed that he's managed to produce something that can sit comfortably on the same shelf. Whether Acacia can stand on its own is almost irrelevant: it's standing in the company of giants, so even if it's favoring a gimp leg it's still in the right company.

With all that in mind, I waffled a lot as I tried to decide how to rate this one. Durham offers detail aplenty, taking his time and really trying to seat the reader firmly inside his world. His motion through the plot is excellent: he focuses on key scenes and plays them out well, then advances the plot quickly to the next significant event so that you're spending your time visiting only the important parts. But for all that, Acacia still manages to plod from time to time--as if there were too much detail, or maybe that it's invested in the wrong things. And even that's probably not a fair criticism: several times he returned late in the game to some previous event and made its importance suddenly obvious, even though at the time you might have found yourself skimming sentences because you weren't sure why you should pay attention for the next ten pages.

Durham also has trouble making his work feel as gritty and realistic as Martin's. When Martin describes being caught in a cold snap, with steel becoming brittle and fingers turning black with frostbite, you can almost feel the crunch of ice-crusted snow underfoot. When Durham puts us in a sweltering desert we understand that it's hot, but it's just never as visceral.

Ultimately, after reading this book and pondering my review, I made up my mind about two things. First: yes, I will probably buy the sequel and read it--which is after all the best compliment you can give an author. And second: I need to find A Game of Thrones and re-read it, because Acacia has whetted my appetite for Martin's masterpiece.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Instead of Harry Potter living under a staircase, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking Press, 2009) offers the reader a teenager obsessed with a series of children’s books about Fillory, a magical world.

Quentin, seventeen, is almost ready to go off to college. He is brilliant and bored. He’s smarter than his classmates and knows more than his teachers. He reads his Fillory books and does coin tricks.

Instead of a receiving an owl-dropped note from Hogwarts, Quentin finds his way to Brakebills through an enchanted weedy lot in New York City.

At his interview, he asks incredulously, “Don’t you want to see my SAT scores?”

This is, deliberately, a grown-up version of the Harry Potter series. And it is therefore, perhaps inevitably, more sophisticated and cynical.

What, asks the author of the reader, would you really do if you could do anything—manipulate reality, reverse entropy, travel to the moon in a magical bubble?

Quentin, during his undergraduate Brakebills days, meets two graduates, parents of a gifted young witch, who have sunk into ennui—the father spends his days reshaping their house into varieties of historical architecture. Their dullness is instructive, and depressing, to the boy wizard, who hasn’t a clue to what his life’s purpose is. He hasn’t even found his strongest talent, and none of the teachers can help him.

The most interesting, and most charming, part of The Magicians is Quentin’s school experience. Magical spells in Grossman’s view are more complex than in the Hogwart’s world—one must learn multiple languages and variations to cover all situations. And magic is dangerous.

Not only can one destroy oneself, Quentin learns, by overly emotional spell casting (one then turns into pure blue energy, neither dead nor alive), but one can even bring into the world beings from other realms, dangerous and Interested beings.

Quentin, like other gifted students—but not all—at Brakebills, finds his way at last to graduation and faces the possibility of a bored and cynical existence himself. He and his friends, by chance or fate, instead find a way into Fillory, where they discover at last the usefulness of sorcery and the true meaning of magic.

Grossman’s Quentin is not particularly likable, nor are any of the interesting characters in the novel; rather, the reader is asked to travel along as companion and observer.

Any child yearning to find the way through Platform 9 and three-quarters to the Hogwarts Express might feel less inclined to sorcery after reading The Magicians: it’s a chilling look at the real consequences of manipulating nature.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Witch's House by Charlotte Armstrong

I thought this was going to be a gothic. It was published in 1963 by Fawcett and the cover shows a woman apparently running from a tall man and a dog, with a farmhouse behind them, a crooked black tree, and a full moon. That's gothic. But the book is--well, not exactly a thriller, and thrilless isn't a word. I guess I'll tag it suspense, although there wasn't much suspense either.

It's a peculiar book. There are a lot of mysteries hinted about in a few characters' pasts and I expected these to be tied into the main plot. I was wrong. The hints never materialized into revelations. There's nothing going on in the plot that we aren't shown or told, so there's nothing much to wonder about.

Pat O'Shea, a college math teacher, chases after a colleague who seems to have stolen an expensive item from the biology lab. He intends to force a confrontation, but the colleague is out of his mind, attacks Pat, and leaves him for dead at the end of a dead-end street. A crazy old woman finds him and thinks he's her long-lost son. She takes him home and keeps him a virtual prisoner with her ferocious dog, not to mention that Pat's been badly injured. The rest of the book is mostly everyone looking for Pat.

The plot is supplied by near misses. Pat's wife almost drives down the dead-end street when she's out looking for him, she almost speaks with the boy at the gas station who saw where he went, another character almost gives the police the right information. After the first few almosts, I wanted to throw the book across the room in frustration. The only reason I kept reading was to find out the big revelations at the end--and, as I've said, they never came.

The writing is pretty horrible. Armstrong tells-not-shows constantly, with lines like "The girl's voice was low and it evaded. She was nervous. She was pitiable." That's not writing, it's outlining.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dying Bites by DD Barant

I ordinarily don't read books written in present tense. I can think of only one book (Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman) where it worked for me. In the case of Dying Bites, the book is good in spite of being in present tense, not because of it.

Dying Bites is a richly layered book, just perfect to really dig into. It starts off fast and doesn't flag. Stuff just keeps happening, which I love--and it's not just action scenes that move the plot forward, but the interplay of characters and the slow revealing of background and history of this world. The downside to this is that the main character, Jace Valchek, seems to drop into the story with barely any past of her own.

Jace works for the FBI as a profiler, helping track down psychopaths, but she's pulled into an alternate reality where vampires and werewolves are common. There's a human serial killer murdering vampires and werewolves; since the supernatural species are mostly mentally stable, they don't know how to deal with the killer. Jace has been brought in to help track him down.

That alone would make for a fun urban fantasy, but that's just the surface. Jace has to get used a world in which humans make up only 1% of the population; she's got a golem for a partner, no one knows what guns are (and the bullets don't do much damage to the locals anyway), and as the book progresses, she becomes more and more certain that her new bosses are holding back vital information about what the serial killer is actually up to--and why.

The plot is solid and clever, and I love that Jace is an intelligent character. The writing is good too--despite its being in present tense. The present tense doesn't make the story more immediate, incidentally. It even seems to do the opposite: in several cases, important events take place offscreen. I don't have a problem with cutting away modestly from a sex scene (although I'd have liked at least some buildup so I wasn't so surprised, after the scene break, to find that Jace had indeed done the nasty), but it really feels like a cop-out when important conversations, fights, and explosions are treated the same way.

On the whole, though, the awesomeness of this book far outweighs the few drawbacks, even the present tense. But just think how awesome it would have been if it didn't continually draw attention to the mechanics of the writing.

B&N link

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Hunt by Susan Sizemore

It pains me to say that I'm going to be unkind in this review. I heard Susan Sizemore on a panel at this year's DragonCon and was so impressed by her intelligence and wit that I picked up one of her books. I was not, alas, impressed by the book.

I chose The Hunt because it's the first in her Laws of the Blood series, which is more urban fantasy than paranormal romance. It was published in 1999, and one of my problems with the book is how dated it feels. All those pop culture references are about as current now as the faded Ziggy poster they still have up in my office at work.

I can get past dated pop culture references, although they're distracting. I found it a lot harder to get past that the book seems to be set in our world, even right down to the movies they were watching in 1999, but somehow the whole vampire fad seems to have passed them by--despite even having Buffy! At one point a movie producer tells one character that her screenplay with a vampire protagonist would never sell, because vampires are considered dangerous monsters and no one would find them sexy. Excuse me while I boggle in confusion. Why do Nicholas Cage and Shaq exist in this world but not Anne Rice or even Bram Stoker?

I spent most of the book boggling in confusion, actually. So many names are tossed around, so many subplots surface and disappear like breaching whales, that I found it difficult to figure out what precisely was going on most of the time. All the characters speak alike and Sizemore frequently doesn't tag lines of dialogue, which meant quite often I had to reread passages several times to figure out who was speaking. That most of the characters are psychic and communicating telepathically or having visions doesn't help matters.

I'll try and recap the plot, although I found it really hard to follow. Valentine is a screenwriter and a vampire reclusive of her own kind. She decides that what she really wants to write is a screenplay about vampires the way they really are. To do this, she listens in psychically to Selim the vampire's life. (None of this becomes clear until the book is half over or more, which meant that I kept wondering why Valentine was even in the story.) Selim is the Los Angeles Enforcer, a vampire who makes sure the local vampires don't step out of line. At the beginning of the book, he's arranging for them to have a Hunt; he's the one who orchestrates how many people they can kill and when and where. But Selim and his human-on-her-way-to-becoming-a-vampire-herself companion Siri are having relationship problems. That is, although Selim loves Siri dearly, he's stopped sleeping with her. It's been over a year and she's all hot for him and doesn't understand why he's doing this. (It was almost the end of the book before I understood that he was trying to prolong their companionship, since after she became a vampire they would have to stay apart because vampires aren't supposed to sleep together--although it was never explained why.) There's also an evil vampire named Kamaraju who seems to exist solely to give the book a bad guy--although he doesn't do much--and a baby vampire called a dhampir who becomes vitally important at some point to the plot even though he only gets a mention or two for the first half of the book, and there's an evil stalker who turns out to be a nice vampire, and an evil stalker who turns out to die--and lordy, was that scene confusing, because I hadn't figured out there were two stalkers showing up at once.

I don't know, it's impossible to recount the plot in any coherent form. It feels half-gelled, made up on the fly and not revised, messy and confusing. Worse, none of the characters are appealing. Sizemore seems to have great fondness for the characters, since she keeps referring to various of them with cuddly adjectives--if I never hear that Valentine is a "very small woman" again, I will not have to kill anyone--but none of them are pleasant to spend time with. Selim shows that he's a jerk over and over, but Siri just can't stay mad at him. Since she doesn't do anything herself except have visions, headaches, and arguments (when she's not being hunted or used as a catspaw), she's not my idea of a good main character either. Not that there's really a main character. The book starts out from Valentine's viewpoint in the short but unnecessary prologue, then goes to Selim's viewpoint in the first chapter, then ends up in Siri's viewpoint--and then it's anything goes, and we're headhopping all over the place.

I'd like to say there were parts of this book I liked, but I can't come up with anything. The action scenes are interesting, except that as soon as things finally get moving, Sizemore screeches to a halt and makes us read page after page of dialogue and exposition. It's frustrating. It's disappointing. I stayed up until 2am to finish this book and I want my sleep back.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I haven’t even finished this book, but I want to talk about it now.

I just read page 189, and it made me want to stand up in my living room and shout “Yes!” to Vincent the cat who's sleeping on the sofa.

The book’s hero, Arnold Spirit, is getting ready to go into a basketball game where he must guard his former best friend, now an enemy, for the entire night.

“You can do it,” says the coach.

“I can do it,” says Arnold Spirit.

I don’t know if he does or doesn’t win the game, don’t know if his enemy gives him another concussion and sends him back to the hospital in an ambulance, as he did in their last encounter.

But I can say this: Arnold is a warrior, and his words go right into my heart:

“I can do it.”

Born with multiple birth defects, including hydrocephalus that makes Arnold’s head unnaturally large and vulnerable (he gets called “Orbit” and “Pumpkin boy” by bullies), he's fifteen years old and has a stutter, bad eyes, huge feet, zits, and alcoholic parents. Arnold lives every teenager’s nightmare of being different, an outsider. Moreover, his reservation’s a bleak and hopeless place, white kids hate him just because he’s an Indian, and his "Rez" has such a terrible school that the textbooks are thirty years old.

Arnold has three things going for him: he draws cartoons beautifully, and they help him connect with the world when his stuttering speech shuts him out; his parents, flawed and defeated as they are, love and listen to him, and have hope for him if not for themselves; and he’s very smart—the smartest kid in his awful school.

And being a warrior, Arnold takes a kind teacher’s advice and changes schools. “You’ve got to,” says his teacher.

When he tells his family he’s going to attend the new white kids’ school off the Rez , it’s Arnold’s wise grandmother who first calls him a warrior.

“It was the best thing she could have told me,” he says.

Arnold is more alone than most teenagers can imagine: he’s bullied and shunned at his new school and hated by his former best friend; he’s ostracized by even the grownups on the Rez for going to a white school—they call him an “Apple,” meaning red on the outside but white on the inside.

But Arnold has a warrior’s courage, and he goes up to people who have been cruel to him and he says bluntly, “Look, we have things in common. I want to be friends with you.”

The book’s only 230 pages long, but it’s packed with powerful life lessons for any teenager who wants to know how to fit in, how to be accepted in spite of his flaws and weaknesses.

I wish I’d had this book back when I was in ninth grade and hating my ugly hair and my clumsiness in gym class. I wish I’d had this book when I messed up in an art workshop and got taken to task by the scholarship chairman.

But, all these years later, I can still cheer for and learn from Arnold, who has a stutter and bad eyes, and who is showing me how to be a warrior.

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a National Book Award winner, was published by Little-Brown in 2007.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are classics, but they're also out of print and out of fashion. I'd never read them, but recently I decided it was time to get my hands on the first book and try it.

Swords & Deviltry is really a collection of shorts: one novella about Fafhrd's origins, a short story about the Gray Mouser's origins, and a short story about how the two characters met. Because I knew that Terry Pratchett's earliest Discworld books are partly inspired by the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (I kept recognizing bits of Lankhmar as having been appropriated into Ankh-Morpork, and every time it delighted me), I expected Swords & Deviltry to be light and fun. It is fun, but it's surprisingly dark too.

Most of the darkness is internal--subtle, even, which is surprising in a book that uses the word 'thews'*. Swords & Deviltry is a sort of parody of crappy swords & sorcery books of the 1960s, sort of a "stand back, this is how swords & sorcery should be." The characterizations are deft, the stories clever and interesting.

I can see why the books are neglected now, though. The trappings of oldschool swords & sorcery--the purposely archaic language in particular--are long out of style. Like me recognizing Ankh-Morpork in Lankhmar and not the other way round, most readers today just don't have the reading background to catch Leiber's sly nods to swords & sorcery tropes.

But I enjoyed the book a lot. I'm also really glad I had the foresight to toss the second book in the series into my cart when I ordered the first one.

*Actually, I don't think the word 'thews' is actually in this book, but it would have fit in perfectly well.

[Additional note: my 1970 paperback edition of the book spells Leiber's name "Lieber" on the cover. Apparently it's spelled Leiber. I think I'd be a bit pissed if someone spelled my name wrong on the cover of my own book.]

B&N link

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sabre, the Horse from the Sea by Kathleen Herald

I'm at 20,500 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, just barely ahead of where I should be. Therefore, I offer you a review of another book that I've read many times.

My copy of Kathleen Herald's Sabre, the Horse from the Sea was published in 1963 (reprinted from its original 1947 publication date) by Acorn Books, an imprint of Macmillan, although I'm pretty sure Acorn Books is no more. Five seconds on Google did not enlighten me. Fifteen seconds on Google, though, taught me--to my shock and delight--that Kathleen Herald is the same writer as K.M. Peyton, whose book Who, Sir? Me, Sir? is also one of my favorite horse stories ever.

In fact, I'm so shocked and delighted that I don't know if I can do justice to this review without devolving into fangirl squee and rushing off to see how many of Herald/Peyton's books are still in print so I can order them. Sabre is long out of print, unfortunately, but used copies are available.

Sabre is set in Britain during WWII. Twelve-year-old Liza Greenway is sent from London to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, but she's miserable there. Then she finds a gray Thoroughbred stallion wandering along the edge of the ocean; she captures him and takes him to a local farm until the owners can be found.

Except that Liza wants to keep the horse for herself. As the months pass and the owners don't show, Liza starts to think of the horse as hers. She names him Sabre and teaches herself to ride, and when the owners do finally show up, Liza misleads them into thinking the horse ran off ages ago.

That's just the set-up. The plot takes many surprising twists and is a completely satisfying story just on that level. What I love, though, is the way Liza grows from a sullen, unhappy twelve-year-old to a quietly happy, more open teenager over the course of the book. The change is subtle, elegantly written, and believable. Liza feels like a real person; the other characters all feel like real people too. Best of all, the horse Sabre (and later the filly Scimitar) behave like real horses.

The writing is spare, understated, and very British. It's not a book about WWII--that's just the backdrop--but it taught me more about life in Britain during the war than any other book I've read or any movie I've ever seen. And the race at the end of the first part of the book was a huge influence on my writing when I was a kid. It taught me all I know about action verbs. That Herald/Peyton wrote this book when she was eighteen floors me--I hadn't known that until today. No wonder I love what few of her later books I've been able to find.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nightwalker by Jocelynn Drake

"Here, honey, you left your skank book in the kitchen." The book landed on my desk: crumpled, dismissed, even insulted if that's possible for a book. Skank? Drake's hero Mira isn't a skank! She's the baddest mofo who ever, ever hit the town. In fact, let's together run down the list of just how unspeakably incredible she is.

To start with, she's got a great body: the author goes to great pains to describe her slim frame, red hair, above-average height, revealing black leather clothing and rampant sexuality.

Then there's the vampire part--but not just any vampire but a six hundred year old vampire, which makes her one of the oldest left around.

But, hmmm... there's still something missing. Too many vampires: she's not special enough yet. So she also gets an extra power: she's a natural pyromancer, because fire is good. Are we getting the idea yet?

How about making her fantastically fast and strong: we can't get out of chapter three before she's thrown down with the toughest werewolf anywhere and tried very hard not to break him like a toothpick. Oh, and she's regenerative: at some point she gets her throat torn out, but that's okay because if she can just get a little sleep she'll be fine in the morning.

Oh, and she's fabulously wealthy of course, forgot to mention that: private jet, personal bodyguards (with sex thrown in, naturally), recognition as a high roller in all the clubs.

And did I mention that she has to wear red-tinted sunglasses (vampire, only around at night, remember) because her eyes glow red sometimes? Only the really tough characters get glowing red eyes.

Is anyone else following along in the Mary Sue checklist?

Honestly I'm sure there's a plot in here somewhere, and I suppose the review should probably touch on it--but why bother? It's clear where the author's priorities are, and it's not the storyline. Drake's self-lust for her own character drowns out any possible story with an indecipherably bad signal-to-noise ratio.

I think I'll let the skank-book just sit there for a while; I'm not sure my stomach is up to handling the sequel.

B&N link

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Maybe November was a bad time to start a book review blog. The Skunk Cat reviewers are deep in NaNoWriMo-land and don't have a lot of free time for reading. To keep things going until December, I'll be posting the occasional review of older books.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is one of the books I'd take with me to a desert island if, you know, I had to go to a desert island but could pick what I wanted to take with me (can I take a boat?). It's also not exactly obscure, since it was a 1997 Newbery honor book.

The thief in the story is Gen, who at the beginning of the book is in prison after he tried (and succeeded! But was caught) to steal the king's seal on a dare. When the king's magus needs a thief to steal a legendary stone, he chooses Gen. Gen is taken from prison and dumped on a horse to travel with the magus, his two apprentices, and a soldier.

It sounds like the opening of a tedious epic fantasy, but the book is set in an alternate universe version of ancient Greece and surrounding areas. Not only that, but Turner's writing is clean and brilliant, particularly her characterizations. Gen is not what he seems. A big part of why I love the book is Turner's ability to reveal new pieces of characterization and plot without making the reader suspect information is being held back. When we reach the bigger reveals, they seem natural rather than contrived. It's also delicious to see how the other characters react to Gen as his past and motivations unfold.

Oh, and this trick is handled in first person point of view. Awesome!

I recommend the book without reservations, myself, but I know at least one person who read it and said it dragged in the middle, when the party is traveling to find the stone. That's only part of the book, though, and the action picks up very quickly once they get where they're going. I do typically skip the recountings of the myths that are sprinkled throughout the book; they're interesting the first time, and important to the plot, but they don't hold my interest the way the actual text does. I skip the myths in Watership Down too, for what it's worth.

There are two sequels to the book: The Queen of Atollia, which I've read and hate with a white-hot passion, and The King of Atollia, which I have not read.

B&N link

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Maybe I was too cranky and crabby, too full of Halloween Tootsie Roll Pops and raspberry Twizzlers, to begin reading a story about the end of the world and what it's like to live in a cult and be a reluctant beekeeper, but I must honestly report that when I had finished the 420 pages of Margaret Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood, I felt even crabbier.

The critics all love this book, so I am alone, probably, but I wanted to open a vein when Toby, the rape victim who got rescued by the God's Gardeners cult, decorated her cubicle with a room divider made from plastic twist ties.

At least she didn't have to eat any more hamburgers made out of dead people, being now among vegetarians.

I'm not being fair, because my issues get in the way: For example, when I watched "The Bourne Supremacy" and the hero was being bludgeoned with a gun handle, I kept thinking what a cute apartment he had and what a shame his designer blinds were getting blood-spattered.

In Atwood's bleak new world, there are corrupt police forces, gene-spliced life forms like sheep with human hair, pigs with human brain tissue, and, finally, an engineered virus that pretty much takes out the human population. Atwood switches perspectives from Toby the Beekeeper to Ren the exotic trapeze dancer, who's locked inside a sex club.

The Year of the Flood is creative, beautifully written, and grim. Maybe that's the truth about our human future--no cute houses, ever again.

B&N link

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Isis by Douglas Clegg

I'm not sure what to think about Isis. It's a beautifully written and illustrated novella, strange and dreamy. But it's also uneven. Most of the book is reminiscence leading up to a tragedy, and then the main character Iris does one thing and another character does one thing, and then it ends. With all the build-up, I wanted more to happen. I also wanted more to be resolved.

I can't decide if the fault lies with me for wanting action with a happy ending, or if the book really is too still and open-ended. I suspect it's somewhere in between. Clegg brings up too many issues without explaining them--what was with the drowned bird? what was with the shadowy seed-man?--and I find it frustrating to have ends hanging like that. It feels sloppy.

On the other hand, the story is what it is: a short tale of grief and loss that steeps the reader in atmosphere. It's not exactly plot-driven and shouldn't need to be. I did enjoy it; the writing is lovely. I suspect it'll be one of those stories I reread in the fall when rain is pasting fallen leaves to the sidewalk and I'm feeling melancholy.

B&N link

Reviews start soon!

About a year ago, maybe more, I noticed I was depending more and more on online book review blogs to find new fiction. More recently, I've noticed that many of the review blogs I used to read have either stopped updating or turned into blog-style magazines, with more interviews and contests than actual reviews. I just want the reviews. I'm sure other folks feel the same way, so we'll be pretty much reviews only.

We won't post every day. If we do, it's a coincidence and unlikely to keep happening. Then again, we might post three or four reviews in one day, who knows? We will try to post at least one review a week.

We're just people who like to read, just like you probably are, and our reviews will be closer to homespun than tailor-made--and there's nothing wrong with that. I hope we help you find some awesome new books or authors you might not have found otherwise. Good books make life great.