Saturday, July 31, 2010

Gary Blackwood's Shakespeare Stealer trilogy

When I was a kid, I hated books set in historical times. They were so obviously history lessons with a story grafted on, and the story was usually pretty corny or unbelievable too.

Not so Gary Blackwood's trilogy about Widge, the orphan who ends up working for William Shakespeare's acting company. This is no history lesson--although the books are so full of interesting details that I probably learned a lot without realizing it--and they are excellent stories.

In the first book, The Shakespeare Stealer, Widge is apprenticed to Dr. Bright, who teaches him a form of shorthand he calls charactery. Dr. Bright wants Widge to copy sermons from neighboring churches so that he, Dr. Bright, can pass them off as his own. But then a mysterious man who calls himself Falconer offers Dr. Bright an astounding amount of money for Widge. Widge is dragged from his home in Yorkshire to London, where is told to copy Shakespeare's new play Hamlet. Or else.

It's a rolicking adventure, tightly plotted and fast-paced. The two sequels, Shakespeare's Scribe and Shakespeare's Spy, are just as good. In Shakespeare's Scribe, Widge accompanies Shakespeare's acting troupe as they tour outside of London during the height of the summer plague season. In Shakespeare's Spy, someone is stealing from the company and Widge ends up investigating.

Widge is a thoroughly likable character. He lives by his wits but he isn't snarky or spunky or sly (kind of a nice change from so many YA books). He's kind to people because he likes them; he worries when he thinks he's let someone down. He's also struggling with his own journey in life: who he is, who his parents were, what he wants from his future. While the books are funny and adventurous, they realities of life in Elizabethan times give them extra depth. Some of Widge's friends die; others are forced by circumstances to leave the theater or even the country.

Blackwood is such an assured storyteller that nothing seems contrived or false. He weaves historical details into the stories deftly, and makes us care about even minor characters. The third book's ending is a little drawn out, but I didn't mind since Blackwood was tying up loose ends.

The books are full of action--if I tried to list the subplots to even one book, this review would be twice as long--and extremely readable. It looks like the trilogy is available in one volume, incidentally. I've linked to it below. And I'm now off to see what else Gary Blackwood has written.

B&N link

Friday, July 30, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I picked up Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok at the library and enjoyed very much this carefully crafted short novel about a Chinese girl who must work after school in a sweatshop beside her mother to help bring in money.

Jean Kwok knows her subject, having been such a factory worker herself as a young immigrant in New York City. The author, who went on to attend Harvard and Columbia, has told the story of Kimberly and her mother so poignantly and quietly that I found myself blinking back tears more than once.

At the opening of Girl in Translation, Kimberly is eleven and newly arrived in the city with her widowed mother. Aunt Paula, whose husband owns a sewing factory, has paid for her sister and niece's journey to the West and is happy to exploit the naive newcomers in the sweatshop. She finds them a tenement apartment that has no heat but does have cockroaches and mice, and she takes most of their paycheck for herself. The mother, who is being illegally paid by the piece instead of by the hour, is forced to bring Kimberly to the shop after school each day to help finish more pieces for income.

The public school the girl attends by day is mystifying and sometimes brutal. Her teacher is incompetent and prejudiced, and New York accents are hardly decipherable by a girl whose only English is from textbooks, but Kimberly is brilliant and her aptitude for science and mathematics eventually comes to the attention of the principal.

This is not deep writing, although it is well written and satisfying. The characters are well developed, understandable and likable. How Kimberly manages to triumph over incredible odds--she realizes that she must save her mother and herself using her gift for scholarship--makes for a touching and satisfying story.

B&N link

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Heroes Return by Moira J. Moore

Heroes Return is the fifth book in this series, which starts with Resenting the Hero. The books have terrible covers, particularly the first two. Ignore the covers. The books themselves are quite interesting.

Despite the covers' attempts to make the series look like wacky, wacky fairy-tale fantasies, the books are much more SFnal than fantasy, or they were until the last two books when magic starts getting more attention. Briefly, this is a world beset by dangerous natural disasters--earthquakes, typhoons, erupting volcanoes--that are severe enough and common enough that they would destroy civilization if it weren't for Sources and Shields. Sources are people with the ability to channel natural disasters and dissipate them harmlessly, while Shields keep the Sources from being ripped apart in the process. Sources and Shields work best when bonded for life.

It's a fascinating concept, and the main reason why I keep reading. The books follow Shield Dunleavy Mallorough--Lee--and her Source, Shintaro Karish, known as Taro. Lee is the calm one of the duo, while Taro is often fretful and emotional. In fact, since Shields tend to have slightly dulled senses and placid demeanors, Lee makes for an interesting main character. I can never really be sure if her inability to notice bad guys acting blatantly is a result of her character--in which case Moore is a brilliant writer--or if it's just clumsy characterization. I go back and forth on it. It's certainly frustrating. I do long for the day when Lee stops just thinking those snappish thoughts and actually starts speaking her mind--please--or hopefully just hauls off and slugs some irritating character in the face.

A lot of the characters in these books are irritating, abrasive, or just plain hateful. I like Lee and Taro (although so much of their issues could be cleared up if only they'd have a meaningful discussion instead of Lee being silent and Taro jumping to conclusions), but I rarely like anyone else. And yet I snap up the next book as soon as it's available--I snagged this one early and have set up this review to run (hopefully) on July 27 when it's officially released--and drop everything else to read it immediately.

Heroes Return is an excellent addition to the series. Lee and Taro have been posted to Taro's distant boyhood home, home to his poisonous mother, the Dowager Duchess. Taro has renounced his title and passed it on to a cousin, but his mother seems convinced she can make him change his mind. This unsettles Lee, who worries about Taro and who really doesn't want to spend the rest of her life in the middle of nowhere too. Not only that, but the Emperor seems convinced that the townsfolk and farmers of the area are working magic illegally and sends his agents to root out and punish practitioners, someone seems to be trying to kill Lee, and Lee and Taro are having trouble channeling the region's earthquakes properly. Unlike several of the previous books, this one kept me guessing about what was really going on. The relationship between Lee and Taro is as usual both sweet and maddening.

The books can be read out of order, but you'll run across a lot of spoilers that way. I recommend the whole series, though.

B&N link

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reviewed by Sin - HIRAM GRANGE: The Chosen One

Hiram Grange: The Chosen One
By Kevin Lucia
Shroud Publishing

Gore: Not only do I have no complaints, I would recommend the shower of carnage to friends and loved ones!

Sex: Actual humping, no. But rest assured, this book is not for prudish readers.

Angst: One of the most likable things about Hiram is his angst.

Since I haven't read the previous Hiram Grange adventures (each by a different author), I can't comment on this novella in the context of the Hiram spectrum. I can say that he is a great antihero, and more than a bit of a filthy pervert. While Hiram may lack the brute masculinity of say, Wolverine, that only makes him more fun (and more human). Hiram is a social oddity, as much for his physical appearance as his very special profession: kicking supernatural ass. Tall, gangly, and greasy-haired, you won't see Mr. Grange on the cover of any bodice rippers. His nose alone would take up most of the cover. And yet, at this very moment, he could very well be having sex with your mother. Providing, of course, that she can still fit into a naughty school-girl outfit.

Just try not to think about it. I'm sure she's not having sex with Hiram Grange. Probably. In any case, I was relieved that "The Chosen One" stood on its own. Lucia does an expert job of weaving in backstory from previous Hiram novellas, without exaggerating the fact that the "Chosen One" is part of a series. I was especially impressed with the action scenes. They were so smoothly written that I could follow along, without the usual "what the fuck just happened?" feeling every three seconds. I hate having to reread something a hundred times, just to figure out who shot/stabbed/exploded what in the where. It ruins the momentum, as anyone who has read a poorly written action sequence can attest to.

Once you get to the meat of the story, don't expect to get up any time soon. I only meant to read "a little more" before bed, and ended up shot-gunning the rest of the book. I had to. There was no, "Oh this is a nice quiet moment," once the shit really hit the fan. One of the key factors to this is Hiram himself. If an author crafts brilliant scenes without a character worth rooting for, it's all bullshit. I rooted for Hiram. Underneath the ill-fitting suit and self-deprecation, he is a sweet man stuck with a job that would drive most people to madness. His "bad habits" are entirely understandable, and even endearing. This is a testament to Lucia's talent: To know Hiram is to love him, and Lucia bares the man in all his most vulnerable, and at times tragic, glory. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a story that doesn't skimp on the heart or the guts.

And as for your mother, well, the woman has needs.

Shroud Publishing link

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Books in the Mail

Just like the big book bloggers do, here's a 'books received' post. I had to throw in a contributor's copy I received this week to make it more than one book, but it's the thought that counts.

Received July 2010:

The King's Bastard by Rowena Cory Daniells (Solaris)

From the back cover:
Only seven minutes younger than Rolencia's heir, Byren has never hungered for the throne. He laughs when a seer predicts that he will kill his twin. But the royal heir resents Byren's growing popularity. Across the land the untamed magic of the gods wells up out of the earth's heart. It sends exotic creatures to stalk the wintry nights and it twists men's minds, granting them terrible visions. Those so touched are sent to the Abbey to control their gift, or die. At King Rolen's court enemies plot to take his throne, even as secrets within his own household threaten to tear his family apart.

Political intrigue and magic combine in this explosive first book in an exciting new fantasy trilogy.

Time in a Bottle, Volume I, edited by Paul Wittine (Altered Dimensions)

An anthology of stories with a theme of time. Contributors include Jim C. Hines, whose story is about Jig the Goblin as a baby, Lyn McConchie, Jordan Lapp, and, well, K.C. Shaw, who is writing this post.

Books received at Skunk Cat are distributed to the reviewer most likely to read, enjoy, and review the book in question. We can't promise to review every book received, although we try.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Jackie read The Magicians last year and liked it so much she bought me a copy for Christmas. Here's her review.

I finally got around to reading it myself. Jackie's review sums up quite well what I felt about it, for the most part. On balance, I liked it very much: I loved the first part, where Quentin's a student at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which is almost half the book; the second half just devolves into a spiral of depression and philosophy and an extended section that reads like a scripted D&D adventure--probably on purpose, but I wasn't impressed.

The writing is very good throughout, but Grossman seems more interested in exploring his world than in making us care about it. As Jackie pointed out in her review, none of the characters are particularly likable, but I found most of them fascinating in one way or another. I liked Quentin until he graduated and turned into all the shiftless, drunken twenty-something guys I've ever known, and then in the latter sections of the book he just has no personality whatsoever. I should point out that I'm one of those people who cries very easily, especially when I'm reading, even when I'm reading really stupid books that I shouldn't be so emotionally invested in. But I didn't shed a single tear while reading The Magicians.

I'm trying hard to pinpoint my dissatisfaction with the book without making it sound like I was dissatisfied throughout. I can't stress enough how brilliant the first half of the book is. It perfectly captures the feeling of being a bright, unhappy college student without a meaningful future; it even perfectly captures the way bright, unhappy twenty-something guys act after college when their meaningless future turns into a meaningless present. It's when the story turns more definitively to fantasy that it falls apart. I got the impression that Grossman just didn't quite know how to end a book that's basically about how people remain unhappy even when they've got everything they've ever wanted.

It's a bleak book, but it's often very funny. The worldbuilding is excellent. And on a plus side, it probably won't make you cry.

B&N link

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

The author of The Blood of Flowers was given an Iranian rug by her father when she was fourteen, and she began imagining what life might have been like for those who made it. The result is a fascinating novel about early 17th century Persia. The book took nine years to write. During that time, the author says in her notes, "I felt like Ali Baba in The Arabian Nights, who utters the magic words 'Open, sesame!' to reveal a cave illuminated by gold and precious gems."

The heroine of the novel is deliberately unnamed to "honor the anonymous artisans of Iran." She is a village girl of fourteen when the story opens, a nimble and creative rug-maker. Her indulgent parents adore her, but when her father suddenly dies, she and her mother are forced to travel to a great city where their only male relative lives, for in this male-dominated society women are possessions, owned and hidden away by men, and women without the protection of men are quickly reduced to begging or prostitution.

The girl's uncle is a wealthy master rug maker who designs rugs for the Shah's court. Soon after his brother's widow and her daughter are taken into his household, he discovers the girl's talent in rug making and design and allows her to learn his secrets.

The world of ancient Persia is beautifully described in this book. I savored the descriptions of the dazzling minarets, the markets where rugs and spices were sold, the lovely clothing worn by women in their secret courtyards.

Because she has no money for a dowry, the girl is forced by her family into a marriage contract still used in modern Iran today, a renewable three-month contract for a fee. Her hopes for a permanent marriage must be given up for money to support her and her mother.

The story of her misfortunes and fortunes is accompanied by lovely, magical tales of old Persia, and is a fascinating and richly detailed novel about an exotic and fascinating world.

B&N link

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Snoop: What your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling

Well-written nonfiction is a joy. Snoop is a joy. (Incidentally, the cover design has the word SNOOP set at a 90-degree angle over a shape that's supposed to be a keyhole but which looks a bit like a spoon, which is probably why I read the word SNOOP as SPOON every single time.)

This is a fascinating book, full of details and anecdotes. Gosling is a psychologist who studies people's stuff--how they arrange their living spaces, work spaces, etc.--and how the stuff reflects the people who own it. Gosling naturally snoops in people's stuff whenever he gets the chance, and the book encourages the reader to snoop (in a playful way) while also teaching us how to interpret what we see.

It's a guidebook, but it's not a field guide. There's no chapter on "messy rooms," for instance, no list of items and their meanings. Instead, Gosling gives us amusing and interesting anecdotes about people he's known and studies he's conducted to show us how to look at a room as a whole and integrate what you know in order to make educated guesses of what the room's decorator is like. He does include some tables on what kinds of things to look for--for instance, a person who is high in the trait of openness is likely to own a variety of different kinds of books, no matter how many books he or she actually owns.

The book ranges widely, covering personal appearance, musical preferences, websites, and other topics not entirely connected to stuff. It's all interesting, though. Gosling's writing is entertaining, funny, and very readable. It's also likely to make you get up and clean your room.

B&N link

Friday, July 9, 2010

Temping Fate by Esther Friesner

I should have stopped reading this book about a third through, but it's about a high school girl who takes a job as a temp over summer break. I spent many years working as a professional temp, so I had to keep reading.

The book starts out well. Ilana's an unhappy high school kid, fresh back from a three-year trip to Africa where she contracted smallpox. She's allergic to eggs, her older sister is getting married and is driving the entire family insane with tantrums and wedding plans, and only one of her pre-trip friends is still her friend. Her parents won't stop pestering her about college.

Ilana takes the job at D.R. Temps because every other company in her small town has refused to hire her--possibly something to do with the skull she drew on her own face in a moment of boredom, although she didn't realize at the time that she was using indelible ink. It turns out, though, that the D.R. of D.R. Temps stands for Divine Relief--and Ilana's first job is filling in for the Fates of Greek myth.

It's a fun, fast-paced setup, and while Ilana sometimes strays too far across the line from funny to annoying, she's also likable. At least, she is in the first part of the book.

At some point, the book simply falls apart. All the issues raised in the opening--Ilana's relationship with her sister, her father's guilt that he didn't insist Ilana get the smallpox vaccine before their trip, Ilana's loneliness and unhappiness--just get dropped. Subplots pop up and disappear again. The plot wanders around and culminates in a big, confusing, drawn-out fight during the wedding. Nothing makes sense, nothing is resolved. Characters act illogically, abruptly changing emotional gears for no reason; Ilana's interesting quirkiness in the beginning of the book vanishes into the morass of interchangeable quirky characters who all act alike, talk alike, and have the same sassy sense of humor.

A big issue in the middle of the book concerns the Fates giving Ilana a new duty that requires her to check life-spindles and make careful changes to them. Ilana is annoyed at the tone her boss takes with her, and promptly hauls out her sister's life-spindle and saves her from being hit by a truck. She also messes with her own life-spindle, wrecks the office, and basically screws things up. When the Fates find out...well, in any other book, there might have been a moment of tension. In this book, the Fates discuss things for a few paragraphs and decide that, you know, it's all cool. Oh, and they tell Ilana it's okay to interfere with people's lives via the life-spindles, and in fact they show her how and encourage her to do so. Ilana gets revenge on a sleazy boy at school, manipulates people into accommodating her sister's wedding plans, and rewards people she likes. The only caveat is that Ilana should never interfere with more than three lives in a single day or else, but it's okay, because she never does and we never find out what might have happened if she had.

At one point, Ilana has a heartfelt talk with her sister and I really thought the book would get back on track. But after the heartfelt talk, things go right back to where they were before the talk. What the hell? This goes beyond sloppy writing and neglectful editing and straight into 'how was this published at all'? In hardback, for God's sake. By Dutton.

This is a really bad book. I'd go on with more examples of why, but I think I've made my point and I've begun to rant. I'll just add that on top of all the book's other flaws, it's also boring.

B&N link

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reviewed by Sin - MPD Psycho

MPD Psycho - 多重人格探偵サイコ (manga)

written by Eiji Otsuka, illustrated by Shou Takima

I debated whether or not to review this. It's a manga, and I'm not sure how many people who read my reviews are into that. To be perfectly honest, even I only read yaoi, when I read manga at all. At least I used to. For while I dearly love reading about men hump, the yaoi I keep finding is a little too cute and clean for me. I like my fiction to come rolled in blood and dirt. The question was, could I find something to match my tastes on the same shelf as stories about precocious high school kids making smoochy faces at each other? (Keep in mind, I know about as much about manga as I do about nuclear physics). Long story short, Japan makes some delightfully sick shit. MPD PSYCHO is a horror story, no bones about it. And so, without further ado...

Gore: You might want to take a shower afterwards.

Sex: No, but copious nudity. Copious, deeply disturbing, nudity : )

Angst: If you can't feel for these characters, especially Amamiya, you might be dead inside.

First things first: We have all seen/read the dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder) angle done badly. I'm talking "Lifetime: For Women" badly. Mercifully, Otsuka keeps his story from turning into the fodder of soap operas. The basic plot: Yosuke Kobayashi is a detective on the trail of a man who liked to chop the arms and legs off of naked victims. Kobayashi is sweet and down to earth, though a little tense and apologetic at times. He is also thoroughly unprepared to become the focus of a psychopath. When push comes to shove, Kobayashi ceases to be. In his place, two other personalities vie for dominance. One goes rogue, only to cut and run when his actions get him arrested. Kazuhiko Amamiya is left holding the bag, and becomes the chief character in what was once Kobayashi's mind. Otsuka brings shades of "Silence of the Lambs" into the plot at this point: a detective uses Amamiya to help profile serial killers and, after his sentence ends, Amimiya is hired to help track down dangerous criminals. First off: a man who really, really likes flowers.

For me, this is a story of isolation (Amamiya's), coupled with tales of stark brutality. As someone who cannot visualize things well, I was thrilled to have Takima's illustrations. (My husband now thinks I have more issues than before, after watching me grin and giggle like a school girls at Takima's tender illustrations of depravity). The impact of the horrors Otsuka's characters face is burned into your brain, over and over again. They are relieved by moments of gentle humanity, and occasionally levity. Like any good horror story, MPD Psycho creates compelling, three dimensional world. No one is perfect, and the bad guys have elements that you would see in your best friend, or even yourself. By the end of the issue was left feeling stunned, and very inspired. Not to write my own MOD Psycho, but to tap into the same kind of passion Otsuka and Takima have.

Some might think that reading (or reviewing) a manga is cheating. I say if it the story is well done, if it grabbed you and affected your muse, then it's equal to any novel you take off the shelf. The worth of stories is not measures in page numbers. As readers or writers, we owe it to ourselves to find joy, be it covered in blood and guts or rainbows and unicorns, wherever it lives.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

The main character of I'd Tell You I'd Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You (ITYILYBTIHTKY for short) is named Cameron. She goes by Cammie. In an astounding coincidence--I mean, how could her mom have known when she named her new baby?--Cammie is especially good at blending in, as in chameleon or camouflage, both words that shorten to Cammie.

Blending in is a good trick when you're a spy-in-training. Cammie goes to the Gallagher Academy, an elite private school for girl geniuses who want to be spies. Cammie's mom is headmistress. Then one day on a training exercise, Cammie's blending-in abilities fail her and she meets a boy named Josh--a regular boy who lives in town. He's cute and seems to like her, so Cammie's friends use their spy training to learn more about him, and ultimately get the two of them together.

The book is light and shallow, fast-paced, and Cammie herself is a nice enough fifteen-year-old. But I thought this was going to be about spies. I read half the book waiting for the bad guys to move in or for something to happen to Josh. Instead, it's a girl-meets-boy, girl-gets-boy, girl has to choose between her eccentric life with her friends or a normal life with the boy. Not a lot happens that isn't completely predictable.

It's a sweet little story, but the whole spy thing is just a hook. The book would have been precisely the same if Cammie went to a private girl's school for future politicians or scientists or lawyers--with the exception of having a different ending, I hope, since I found this one confusing and unsatisfying.

The book is deftly written and often funny, and Cammie's struggles with her feelings for Josh, her relationship with her mother, and her grief for her dead father all work well. The plot--such as it is--works less well, mostly because it's one cliche after another: wondering if the cute guy actually likes her, asking the snooty rich girl for help with learning about boys, the disastrous first date that turns out wonderful after all, discovering that another girl loves the cute boy, meeting the cute boy's horrible friends and pedestrian parents, and so on and so on.

That's never been my favorite kind of book, even back when I was fifteen myself. And I'm always going to feel cheated that this book about spies did not have spying in it. Stalking a cute boy and going through his garbage does not count as spying.

B&N link