5.24.2010

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds
Bitter Seeds
Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis, is clearly a set up for more books in the series. But curiously, I didn't mind. I was on tenterhooks for so much of the book that now I'm done, I'm kind of relieved. I don't think I could have taken the tension much longer. So of course I'll pick up the next books in the series. Bitter Seeds was a prologue, a set up. I can tell there's a big story coming and given the creativity and talent in this one, it's probably just going to get better.

Bitter Seeds begins with an ominous scene in Germany in 1920. A trio of orphans are dropped of at an orphanage that pays money for healthy children. Only two of them manage to get in the door. After a pair of brief glimpses of the two other major characters as children, Tregillis takes us swiftly to the end of the Spanish Civil War and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary war story when a defector and potential informant spontaneously combusts in a hotel bar.

The Germans have been up to something. There have been stories and even History Channel specials about the Nazis interest in the occult and the arcane. Tregillis takes this historical fact and runs with it. The doctor from the prologue has been experimenting on children, to try and turn them into Uebermenschen and apparently, he's succeeded. Not only that, but the teenagers those experiments turned into are a vital part of the Nazi war machine.

After Dunkirk, the history starts to derail because one of those teenagers can see the future. Gretel is one of the more terrifying characters in this book. In a Big Idea piece he wrote for John Scalzi's blog, Tregillis writes that he was inspired by the question "I started to wonder… What if, instead of thinking 30 seconds ahead, the precog had been thinking 30 YEARS ahead?  And hey, while we’re at it, what if she were a sociopath, too?  (You know, just for fun.)" As a reader, you never know what Gretel is going to do. Once Tregillis took History off its track, it's impossible to predict what's going to happen, especially once the Red Army shows up early.

With a precognitive, a fire starter, a telekinetic, and others, it started to feel like the Brits were helpless during the Battle of Britain. But the other two children, all grown up and working for the Admiralty, have (sort of) a plan to strike back. Marsh, a hero with violent tendencies when his family is threatened, asks his friend Will, the younger son of a duke, to use the things that his grandfather taught him to defend the realm. On the book jacket and in the reviews, Will and his mates are described as warlocks, but that's not quite accurate. What they do is make deals with Cthuloid creatures that really, really don't like humans. And the only coin they accept is blood and death. Any victory the Brits have quickly becomes a Pyrrhic one.

So, as Eddie Izzard would say, yeah. It's a lot to digest. But it's one of the most imaginative books I've encountered in a while. At least since the last Brandon Sanderson book came out (not the one he co-wrote with the late Robert Jordan, but the one before that). Bitter Seeds is masterfully written. Tense from the first chapter to the last. Unpredictable. And Tregillis treads the fine line between revealing too much and revealing just enough for the reader to understand--which after hanging around for the last season of Lost I really appreciate. This is a great book and it deserves to win some awards when science fiction award season rolls around again.

5.22.2010

61 Hours, by Lee Child

61 Hours
61 Hours
I have to admit that when I finished this book, I swore. Loudly. My neighbors probably think I have Tourette's. If you've seen any of the reviews of Lee Child's 61 Hours, you'll know that the book ends with a cliffhanger and that the next book in the series will be out in October, 2010. I'd read the early reviews, too, but I was still surprised at the kind of cliffhanger the book ends with.

We meet Reacher, ex-MP and white knight, on a bus heading towards Mt. Rushmore in the middle of the winter. The bus crashes into a ditch and strands Reacher and the senior (on a discount bus tour) in a prison town in South Dakota. There are some weird things going on in this town and, reluctantly, Reacher gets involved. Meanwhile, Child ratchets up the tension by counting down the 61 hours of the title--but he never tells you what he's counting down to. Reacher, in his methodical way, pieces together the conspiracy and tries to protect a witness.

Child is a master at dropping clues to what's going on without actually telling you what's doing on and without letting Reacher sound like a Christie detective. First, there are the bikers. They appear to have set up camp at an abandoned military station. No one knows what the post was built for and the local law enforcement worry about what's out there. Then there's Plato, a ruthless Mexican drug lord who's up to something. And then there's the Russian. Each of these criminals is trying to double-cross the other. Violently. A witness--a seventy-ish librarian--saw part of their deal and is now under as much witness protection the local cops can muster. Complicating it all is the prison's emergency plan. If the siren sounds, every officer--no matter what they're doing--have to go to pre-assigned battle stations. To complicate things even more, it's clear that there's a traitor among the local cops.

61 Hours is just as well written and tense as the previous books in the series...apart from the ending.

It's hard to comment on a book that, essentially, has no ending. It's half a book. And the cliffhanger! (Ack!) I can't believe that Child would end a book like that. It's very aggravating. I wish that they'd published both parts as one big book. I have no problem with 600+ page books; I have a problem with books ending on cliffhangers. It was like the season finale of a show.

Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley

Florence of Arabia
Florence of Arabia
Christopher Buckley has some guts. Florence of Arabia seems tailor made to piss off all sorts of people: Arabs, politically correct people, women's rights advocates, etc. etc. Let me back up. Florence of Arabia is a political comedy about one woman's attempt to "become the godmother of the Arab women's movement." And, of course, things go to hell from there.

Florence Farfaletti gets a call late one night from a friend who has run away from her husband. The problem is that this friend and her husband come from a country, Wasabi, (made up) that practices all the worst stereotypes of Muslim culture. After her friend comes to a bad end, Florence hatches a plot to broadcast comedies and talk shows that poke fun at this imaginary country and its version of Islam. Strangely enough, she has some serious baking from a gentleman who won't say who he works for. Things go to hell when the Wasabis arrange a coup in the country where Florence has set up shop. Rather than slowly encouraging women to stand up for themselves, things get much worse for them. After some very tense days, Florence and her partners manage to get international opinion on their side and things (sort of) resolve themselves. At the end of the book, it's a no win game.

You have to have a strong sense of humor to find this book funny. It's amusing enough if you don't think too carefully about what they're making fun of. It's almost Swiftian in that, you can sort of see the point from this side of the socially acceptable line. Buckley has some gumption to have written it. But then, what could I expect from the guy who wrote Thank You For Smoking?

5.17.2010

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith
Fingersmith
Fingersmith is the story of two women and one huge double-cross. Set in Victorian England, the story begins by introducing us to Susan Trinder and her odd family of thieves. Trinder, the daughter of a hanged murderess (as far as she knows), gets a proposal from a confidence man known as Gentleman. Gentleman says he knows of a rich heiress and, with Susan's help, he thinks he can convince the heiress to marry him. After the marriage, they will put her in a madhouse.

Agreeing, Susan becomes the heiress' maid. As soon as she arrives at the house, Briar, it becomes clear that there is something wrong with the house and its owner, Mr. Lilly. The servants are cruel and petty. Mr. Lilly insists on silence and won't let visitors visit a certain part of his library. Susan starts to work on Maud Lilly, the heiress, to further the plan but, over time, starts to fall in love with Maud herself. Since this is 1862, neither Susan nor Maud could admit this. Maud goes ahead with the marriage, and things seem to be falling into place with Gentleman's plan. But when they arrive at the madhouse to leave Maud, Susan is taken in her place. This was, we learn, the plan all along.

You see what I mean about a double-cross?

After switching to Maud's perspective, we learn the other side of the story and learn that the creepiness of the house is much more sinister than we were given to understand. We also learn some shocking facts about who was in on the plot. Since the book has been out for almost a decade, I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers by saying that the novel ends with forgiveness. I don't entirely understand why Susan forgives Maud. If I were her, I would be very, very angry and in no mood to forgive.

Not only is Fingersmith intricately plotted, but it's extremely well written. Sarah Waters captures the sights and sounds and even smells of Victorian London, all without over writing. It's utterly believable, even with all the double-crossing. It was amazing how Waters managed to capture the dialects. You can tell that a lot of research went into this books, but Waters doesn't pepper the text with random facts like some historical fiction writers do.

Because of the realness, some parts of this book were hard to read, especially the scenes in the madhouse. Even today, asylums are not good places. But back then, it was far to easy to get in and almost impossible to get out. And the nurses and doctors had some very strange ideas about how insane people might be cured--plunges, shocks, deprivation and, once they got their hands on it, electricity. 1862 was before modern psychology came about; it's even pre-Freud and talk therapy. There's a wonderful moment near the end when Dr. Christie, the chief doctor at the asylum, realizes that Sue was right all along when she said she was the victim of a case of mistaken identity.

This was a very interesting read. Once I got started last Thursday, I was hooked. I would have finished it earlier, but I was at a library conference until Saturday. I am definitely going to have to track down more of Water's books.

5.11.2010

The God of the Hive, by Laurie R. King

God of the Hive
The God of the Hive
The God of the Hive picks up right where the last book in the series, The Language of Bees, left off. Well, maybe a few minutes after the end of the last book. Immediately, we're through into a dual escape. Things pick up so quickly that some characters go without names for a few chapters and its hard to get ones bearings. Six or so chapters in, I was tempted to re-read The Language of Bees so that I would know what the hell was going on.

If you're not familiar with the series, the main characters are Mary Russell and her husband, the famous Sherlock Holmes. In The God of the Hive, Russell and Holmes are trying to save the lives of Holmes' son, Damien, and his daughter from what they believe to be a religious maniac's plot. As the story continues in The God of the Hive, it becomes clear that the maniac was merely a pawn in a bigger game. Because Russell and Holmes have to split up and make their own escapes, it's almost like reading two books in one. Holmes makes his way to Amsterdam with Damien and a kidnapped Scottish doctor. Russell and the granddaughter fly south towards London, but their plane crashes over Cumbria.

And because they are separated, Russell and Holmes only manage to find parts of the puzzle. Until they meet up and find Holmes' brother Mycroft, it's hard to get a grip on the entire conspiracy. Even then, I confess, I had a hard time understanding what was going on. The enemy was on stage so briefly, and since his plans failed, it was hard to see what the big deal was. Further, the book was a little light on the detection that drew me to the books in the first place.

While this is not the best book the series, I did enjoy my time with Russell and Holmes. There was action and a lot of suspense. I will, of course, keep reading, but I hope that the next books are a bit more satisfying.

Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris

Dead in the family
Dead in the Family
For me, one of the signs of a really good book is that when you get to last page, you want more story. The last several books in Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series have been like that. When I finished, I wanted more. It's a trial to wait an entire year to get the next book, but I'm very glad that Harris is so consistently enjoyable.

In Dead in the Family, we reunite with our heroine only a week after the terrible battle at the end of the previous book. Everyone is still healing and still mourning, especially Sookie. Over the series--if you've been reading--Sookie has grown more real, more fully realized. In this book, I really felt like Sookie was a real person that you might meet on the street. As Sookie heals, Harris starts to gear up for Sookie's next challenges.

I'm constantly amazed at how much plot Harris can cram into a book and still not have it feel overstuffed. There's always a main plot, but there are always subplots going on. In this book, Sookie has an unknown enemy lurking in the woods around her house. Her brother is moving on with a new woman. Eric, her vampire lover, is trying to be a husband and an authority figure who brings even more enemies into the picture. It's a wonder Sookie can still keep her job at the bar with everything that's going on in this book.

Dead in the Family is another outstanding entry in the series. I highly recommend them for fans of vampire fiction. Unlike some other series (*cough*Anita Blake *cough*), it's not all about sex. While there's some brooding, people get on with their lives. There is a minimum of stonewalling conversation. Things move in this book. Harris isn't afraid to wrap up plot lines or kill off major characters. And I really like that about her books. They're anything but predictable.

I recently read Harris' website FAQ, where she states that there will be an end to the series. I was shocked! While I appreciate Harris not wanting to keeping dragging out a series that's past it's time, these books are still lively and interesting and good. What will I read when there's no more Sookie?