Am I a Traitor? Print v. Ebooks

Last September, I bought myself an iPad as a birthday present. I quickly amassed a small library and have only read about a dozen printed books since then. Lately, though, I've started to wonder if that makes me kind of a traitor. I am, after all, a librarian. We take books very seriously. I take books very seriously. (In fact, the recent news about Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Library breaks my heart.) But as I watch the book sale numbers fluctuate, I start to wonder if ebooks really are just the next phase of the book. After all, when I go to the bookstore (print or physical) I don't really think of it as buying books; I'm buying stories.

Before I made the switch, I made all kinds of arguments about why I preferred printed books to ebooks. It was easier to take notes, I'd say. It was okay to read a printed book in the bath without fear of destroying at least a hundred dollars worth of electronics. A lot of the arguments I made were aesthetic. I liked the smell of a freshly printed book. (Still do.) And I liked the weight of a book. But since I've started to read ebooks, I've found that I'm actually more likely to mark up a book, because I can just erase my notes and highlights later. I don't miss the weight or the smell. (Less so lately, since I've had the flu and a cold in the last month and haven't smelled anything properly since before Christmas.) I've found that I can read a lot faster with an ebook than a printed one, for some reason.

I'm still edgy about reading in the bath, though.

But I'm starting to think that a lot of the arguments for printed books over ebooks really just have to do with holding up a sacred cow. To me, the book itself was rarely the important thing. As I said, I'm at the bookstores for stories. Sure, I love to see a well preserved incunabula or a rare edition, but those books stand out from the masses of paperbacks and poorly bound hardbacks*.

The things that keep me from advocating more for ebooks is the cost and the legal issues. I'm lucky enough to be able to afford a device, not everyone is. And because ebooks are digital, their use is regulated by licenses rather than traditional copyright law. It frankly pisses me off that I can't pass my ebooks around like I can my printed books. (I know about LendMe, but that's a poor substitute.) So, while ebooks might be great for me, as a solo reader, they're terrible for libraries and used bookstores.

So, am I a traitor? Maybe, but I'm still a reader.

* When I worked for a public library, it wasn't unusual to see some book spines snap after a couple dozen reads because they were not built to last.


City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte

City of Dark Magic
Magnus Flyte's (a pseudonym) City of Dark Magic is a jumble. I don't mean that it a bad way. I really enjoyed the tangle of spy thriller and supernatural mystery and love story. I genuinely wish that this book was longer. I wanted to stay and learn more about Flyte's Prague. (And yes, I did spend a lot of time on Wikipedia reading up about Prague and the castles and various historical figures mentioned.)

Our heroine in City of Dark Magic is Sarah Weston, a doctoral candidate who specializes in Beethoven. One day, she gets a letter offering her a job in Prague Castle, cataloging musical scores and related documents. It's just too good to pass up. But even before she officially accepts the job, Sarah is pulled into more than one mystery. Someone breaks into her apartment and carves a strange symbol on her ceiling. Of course, she takes the job and falls right into the middle of things. On one side, there's the mystery of her mentor's strange suicide and rumors of drug use. Then there's a senator trying to cover her tracks during the Cold War by recovering letters that reveal an affair with a KGB agent while the senator worked for the CIA.

The team behind Magnus Flyte do an absolutely incredible job of juggling both plots without sacrificing something critical. The characters are very well drawn. Sarah, in particular, is a fantastic character. I don't know if I've ever seen a woman like her in fiction before. She's intelligent and ethical, of course, but she has a healthy attitude towards her sexuality that I enjoyed. It wasn't just that there were racy bits in the book; it was that she recognized that she loved sex and wasn't afraid or ashamed to fulfill that need. Nico is another great character. This mysterious man clearly knows more than what's going on than he's saying, and he knows far more about the minute history of the castle and its former inhabitants than he's willing to say.

I'm hard pressed to say which plot and mystery I enjoyed more. The Cold War plot with the senator and the letters is gripping, revealing the dark past of Communist Prague. This story alone would have kept me on the edge of my seat. But I think that the even more mysterious plot involving a strange drug that allows the user to see the past, Tycho Brahe, Beethoven, and the seventh Prince Lobkowicz was the more interesting of the two. Flyte brings in a wonderful amount of history (though not enough to bog down the narrative) and drops tantalizing hints about the nature of the drug and time. Characters point out, over and over, that atomic matter only makes up about four percent of the universe. The rest is dark matter and unknown. One of the minor characters, early in the book, suggests that magic might be found in the other 96%.

There are hints at the end of the book that this is the start of the series. I sincerely hope so, because I want to see what shenanigans Sarah and her Max get up to in the next book. 

What the Hell Do I Read Next?

Typical haul from the library
I ask myself that question at least once a week. After reading a bad book, I ask it with relief. After reading a great book, I ask it with a bit of desperation. When you read as fast as I do, keeping a healthy stack of books to read is a must. The downside is that I blitz through those books a rapid clip and end up right back at my question again.

One of the great things about my job as a librarian is that I get to read a very wide range of book reviews. When I create my lists of what I want to buy for the library's fiction collection, sometimes it goes "One for you, one for me," etc. But there are still time when I have to trawl Amazon or Barnes and Noble, looking at the also reads for another book I might like.

I've been using GoodReads for a while. Like Pandora, the more you use it, the better the recommendations. I can't really use the recommendations from Amazon, because I've bought so many things from them that my recommendations are such a jumble of genres, styles, and topics that I'm pretty sure their recommendation algorithm just looked at my orders and said, "Fuck it."

Getting good book recommendations is a tricky business. You pretty much have to psychoanalyze people to give good recommendations and, even then, it's still miss as often as hit. Librarians have a whole science/art devoted to figuring out the best way to translate a person's preferences into a recommendation. People like me are a reader adviser's worst nightmare, because I've read all the usual suspects (and their accomplices and their fences and their bagmen).

I'm pretty sure that the only reason I manage to find so many books that I enjoy (more hits than misses) is because I know my reading tastes very well. That, and I've started to make extensive use of Barnes and Noble's free ebook samples. It's hard to tell if you're going to like a book from the first 30 pages or so, but it's a lot easier than trying to figure it out from a paragraph long review from Publishers' Weekly or Library Journal. But I think that might be the trick: know what you like. Once you know what you like, then it's a matter of looking for characters that sound like you might like to know them or descriptions of writing styles that you admire or plots that sound like they'll keep you up too late because you can't put the book down.


Holy Sh*t, by Melissa Mohr

I received a free copy of this book to review by NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

Holy Sh*t
Those who know me know that I have an inordinate fondness of books on linguistics. I have a habit of posting my favorite bits on Twitter and Facebook because I just can't not share. Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing is my new favorite book about language. And, while I very much wanted to post bits of it for my friends to read, I was pretty sure that I'd get hit by a TOS or something. (That and I was reading from an uncorrected proof.) It's a pity, because there are so many quotable bits. Mohr has a knack for jokes and witty turns of phrase. This is the only book by an academic press to make me snort with laughter. I was highly entertained by this book.

I was also highly edified by this book. Aside from learning a great many words I plan to use during the next traffic jam I find myself in, Mohr showed me the evolution of swearing from Roman and Biblical times through the present. As I suspected, the way a culture swears reveals a lot about what they culture values and finds taboo. In the opening chapters, Mohr lays out her thesis that swearing comprises two large categories for English speakers. There's the holy swears: oaths, blasphemies, and profanities in the original sense of the word. Then there's what Mohr calls the shit swears: bodily functions, sex, and other vulgarities. Our culture, from its origins in ancient Rome and the Near East, vacillates between the two extremes. In Rome, swearing mostly involved sex and bodily functions. Among Biblical Jews, it is suspected that swearing was on the holy side of the scale. In the Middle Ages, the truly offensive words and phrases were also from the holy side of things. Words that we would find offensive today (shit, arse, piss, etc.) were used matter-of-factly in medical texts, peppered Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and even appeared in English glosses of Bible verses. The English Renaissance sent swearing from the holy to the shit, to the point that by the Victorian period, elaborate euphemisms were employed to spare listeners and readers from even a hint of obscenity. English speakers have pulled back from the extremities of Victorian times, but we still find words from the shit side of the scale to be more offensive than blasphemies and oaths.

Mohr builds her theory on, I think, carefully considered evidence. When it comes to the Romans and Jews, working out how they swore and what they found offensive took careful detective work. Mohr looked at graffiti and epigrams, lower forms of writing, and compared them to the higher forms such as epics to deduce which words were permissible and which ones most definitely weren't. It's even trickier for the early Hebrews, because there are fewer samples of writing available. Mohr instead dug deeply into the meanings behind the texts, using what is known about Hebrew culture, to work out what they found important and/or profane. The task gets easier as Mohr moves forward through history, because there is much more material to work with.

I appreciated Mohr's bluntness in writing this book. She doesn't use euphemism at all. Instead, examples of the dirty words and how they were used can be found all over the place. (So much so that even this daughter of a sailor found her eyebrows rising in surprise and even, once or twice, shock.) This isn't a book to be read by the squeamish. Mohr actually addresses this in the introduction. She knows she's going to shock, just because of the nature of the subject. She even writes that there were words that were hard for her to research and write about, they were so highly offensive.

In the epilogue, Mohr speculates about what swear words will be like in the future. If I've learned nothing else about language, I've learned that it evolves over time. Mohr pointed out frequent examples of words that became more or less offensive over time. Who knows that words will shock us in the future? Swearing is never going away because it's just so damned useful, after all. It makes us feel better when we hurt ourselves. It helps us express how strongly we feel about things. So, I say to Mohr, bloody well done. 

Hell to Pay, by Matthew Hughes

Hell to Pay
I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 
I've been waiting for Hell to Pay, the continuation of Matthew Hughes' highly comical saga of Chesney Arnstruther, for months now. In the first book, Chesney accidentally summoned a demon. When he refused to actually sell his soul, Chesney kicked off a crisis Upstairs and Down. The upshot of the crisis for Chesney was that he got a demon to help him become a crime fighter called The Actionary. The crisis got even more complicated in the second book. By this book, Chesney's entire universe has become unstable because so many of its fundamental rules have been broken.

Hell to Pay opens with Chesney having run out of crime to fight in his nameless city. His ally on the police force, Captain Denby, has risen to the rank of Chief of police based on the evidence he and Chesney have collected about the illegal activities of the men who run the city. Chesney's girlfriend, Melda, is managing a multimillion dollar empire. Chesney's not happy, though. In the second book, Costume Not Included, Chesney had a brush with Yeshua bar Yusef that cured him of his autism. He no longer sees the world in terms of black, white, and mathematics. For the first time in his life, he starts to see the ramifications of his actions as a crime fighter, the impact on the innocent bystanders, and starts to feel guilty because of it. He embarks on a quest to cure a not-so-innocent bystander that has been driven catatonic. Meanwhile, Chief Denby, continues his own quest to completely bring down the Twenty.

For a long while, these to quests continue in nearly opposite directions. So much so, in fact, that I started to see Denby's plot thread as an unsuccessful offshoot that pulled attention away from Chesney's much more interesting thread. I started to get irritated because Chesney had become embroiled in a conflict with Lucifer's second in command that looked to finally shed some light on what the Big Guy was up to. It became clear in Chesney's thread that his particular universe might be on its way back to the drawing board. Fortunately, Hughes brings the plots back together for a highly interesting conclusion. Denby's story is very much worth putting up with for the ending Hughes gives us.

I love it when an author reveals that there's been a bigger story behind the individual books' plots. Hughes never hid this, but each new book shows new layers and tie them all together. I'm very curious to see what Hughes reveals in the next book. 

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior
It's very hard to balance strong opinions and good storytelling, I've found. Either the characters end up preachy or the plot bends itself into contortions to accommodate the moral. In spite of the risks, I think that Barbara Kingsolver manages the balance very nicely in Flight Behavior. There are a few moments where some of the characters sound as though they're speechifying a little, but on the whole, Flight Behavior is an intriguing mix of rural journey of self-discovery and environmental crusade. This book is amazing, for so many reasons.

Contemplating adultery, Dellarobbia Turnbow stumbles into a massive flock of monarch butterflies that have redirected their migration to Appalachia rather than southern Mexico. Her family, especially her father-in-law, had planned on using the stand of pines the butterflies have roosted in to help save their sheep ranch by selling the trees to a lumber company. But after Dellarobbia's husband announces her discovery in church, giving it supernatural overtones, the butterflies become a collision point between the in-laws and the lumber company, tourists, and environmentalists. On top of all this is Dellarobbia's dissatisfaction with her life. Her husband is cowed by his parents and isn't an intellectual match for Dellarobbia. Dellarobbia feels unappreciated and suffers from the same sort of malaise that I recognize from Betty Friedan.

All of these conflicts twine around each other over the course of the books. The environmentalists and scientists make it known that the butterflies' relocation is not just a thing of beauty, but is yet another sign that climate change is deranging the ecosystem's normal patterns. There's a chance that the butterflies will freeze to death in the cold Appalachian winter before they can breed the next generation. The Turnbows are behind on their mortgage payments and loans and they're already poor as it is. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the books illustrates just how little these groups understand each other. Dellarobbia encounters a man distributing pamphlets on how to decrease one's carbon footprint. As he goes down the list of suggestions, Dellarobbia checks off the many she's already doing: using thrift shops, repairing instead of discarding, not eating out, handing down clothing, not buying bottled water, etc.

Kingsolver brought it all to a conclusion that I found very satisfying. I won't going into the details, because a readers needs to stay on tenterhooks about whether the butterflies survive or not and whether the family loses the farm or not. The ending wasn't forced or crushed under a moral. Neither was the ending overly happy. I've always noticed this about Kingsolver's books. The stories always seem as though they could have happened in life, to people you might actually know. The characters are faced with dilemmas real people actually face and are often forced to compromise in the face of untenable positions. I suspect that, because of this, Kingsolver is one of the few contemporary writers that will actually be read in fifty or more years.

On Self-Publishing

One of the book sites I follow, GalleyCat, regularly publishes a listing of the top bestsellers among self-published works. And when I browse for new fodder for my kindle account, Amazon recommends almost as many self-published books as books published by traditional publishing houses. I haven't taken the plunge yet. I'm afraid that when I think of self-published books, I imagine the authors like this:
I'm not proud of my prejudice. I know there are writers out there who self-publish who produce entertaining and well-written books. But the reviews I've seen on Amazon for many of them point out that they would have enjoyed the books were it not for the lack of editing. And some of the plot descriptions I've read turn me off completely, either because they sound absolutely mental (and not in a good way) or boring and unoriginal. 

But I've also heard the opinion from other book bloggers and publishing watchers that point out that self-publishing might be the wave of the future. Publishing houses are consolidating. We no longer have even a big six anymore, now that Penguin and Random House have merged. Few outlets mean fewer resources for new talent. I would hope that by having such large power bases would mean that they'd take more risks. But if Hollywood doesn't take risks, then publishers sure as hell won't take risks. Maybe in a few years, self-publishing sites might be the only place to find original and exciting writing. 

One thing in favor of the publishing houses--a big thing in their favor, to my way of thinking--is that they offer quality control. They have professional editors, for one. I hate coming across typos and misspellings and the rest, because they change me from engaged reader into a grammar harpy. But because the big publishers seem to be following the safe route, for the most part, I might have to work on controlling that part of myself and chuck out my red pens. 

Until that happens, though, I'm sure I'll stick with edited books.


Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
After reading The Last Policeman, I needed something light and fluffy to read. So I chose a book that's been on my list for a while, Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, the opening book in a series that combines Austen's tales of love and society with magic. This book takes so much from Austen, in fact, that I rather enjoyed myself playing spot the character. I say, if you'll forgive the pun, shades of Elizabeth Bennett and Eleanor Dashwood, Mr. Darcy, Marianne Dashwood, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. By adding magic, Kowal adds another layer to a story of romance and husband-hunting and scandal that makes this book just that much more fun to read.

The heroine of the story is Jane Ellsworth, a girl who many call plain but who is gifted with glamour--this world's version of magic. She can create beautiful things with the ephemeral glamour, but she refuses to use her talents to snare a husband. She is very much like the sensible Eleanor Dashwood in her care of propriety. This is a very good thing because she has a very silly mother and a traditionally beautiful sister who lets her emotions carry her away. Jane has resigned herself to spinsterhood when several eligible men drop into the neighborhood. There's the dashing Captain Livingstone. Then there's the somewhat more reserved, but very kind and proper, Mr. Dunkirk. There's also the mysterious Mr. Vincent, a glamourist with an artistic temperament. Jane doesn't really expect to win any hearts, but she does become a good friend to Mr. Dunkirk. She's intrigued by Mr. Vincent, who can do beautiful things with the magic.

As the story develops, the relationships start to get tangled together. Attachments start to form, but small scandals keep the course of love from running smooth. Kowal peppers the conversations with plenty of snark and sting, further reminding me of Austen's writing. I had a great time reading this book. Then ending was just the icing on the cake for me. It was even more spectacular than I could have hoped. It was so good, in fact, that I immediately bought the sequel just so that I could keep reading Jane's story.

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman
Ben H. Winters' The Last Policeman is a book that is going to haunt me for a while. From the description, it sounds like the sort of hypothetical situation you'd ponder in philosophy class. If there was an asteroid heading for Earth, and you knew it was going to cause mass extinctions and probably kill you, how would you spend the last months of your life? What if you were a policeman? Would you carry on with your duties? Would you take the so-called "Bucket List" option? Are there some things still worth fighting for, even though death--for billions--is immanent?

For Hank Palace, there really is no question. He's a born policeman, and has been a detective for just over three months. When he gets called in to investigate the death of Peter Zell. It appears, on the surface, to be a suicide, which is very common in Palace's world. Everyone else, from the assistant district attorney down to the patrolmen, agree. But there are just enough that is off about the scene to make Palace's spidey senses tingle. He presses for permission to investigate Zell's death as a murder. Since no one cares enough to make a fuss, Palace gets it--though he doesn't get much help. Zell doesn't have much family. He didn't have a wife or children. So there's an unspoken question, who is Palace trying to get justice for? Zell's dead and won't know one way or another. Is Palace after justice for itself, as an abstract concept that's worth doing battle for?

As Palace asks questions and makes notes and tries to puzzle out Zell's death, he shows us the effects of the asteroid on society. Maia, the asteroid, has already destroyed big parts of the social contract. Many people have chosen to go out on their own terms. Others have chosen to spend their savings traveling, drinking, and doing all the things on their bucket lists before time runs out. A few, mostly those who can't afford it, stay put and carry on with at least a version of their lives.

This is a very melancholy read. Winters doesn't show you much of the noble side of humanity. Cynics and realists would point out that Winters might very well have the right of things if this really were to happen. Palace is one of the few that doesn't give in to depression or desperation or selfishness. This book forces you to think about whether there are some abstract concepts that matter. In this situation, there won't be many left that will know if you stood up for principles or how you died. If no one will know, and you'll be dead, does justice really matter? It's an angle I'd never thought of before I read The Last Policeman. It's an angle that I'm pretty sure the philosophy professors never brought up in class because it's just too depressing to ponder for very long.

Winters does a brilliant job laying out his story. There's the mystery plot, which twists and turns in a very satisfactory way. We chase down blind alleys right along with Palace and it's hard to stay even one step ahead of him, so the resolution isn't ruined by figuring it out early. And there's the larger plot, about humanity. Winters is skilled in doling out the bits and pieces without belaboring the point that there's an asteroid on it's way. Maia is always there, but in the unspoken background. So I suppose, if Winters were the type to hit a reader over the head with things, this could have been an even more depressing book than it was. I feel now that I've said that this book is depressing too many times, but to describe the book in just one word really sells it short. This is a profoundly affecting read.

Three Graves Full, by Jamie Mason

 I received a free copy of this book to review by Netgalley, on behalf of the publisher.

Three Graves Full
I don't know if you can properly call Jamie Mason's Three Graves Full a mystery, since you know within a couple of chapters who the murderers are. At times, this novel is like a blackly comedic farce and then at others, it's a portrait of a man falling part from anxiety and stress.

The book opens with Jason Getty worrying about the body he buried in the back of his yard. The details of what he did and why come out over the course of the book. Jason is not the sort of person you'd expect to be violent. He's soft and inoffensive most of the time, worried about what others think and terrified of his former father-in-law. Jason is the textbook definition of a beta male. (Though the more I read of him, the more I wanted to classify him as a gamma male.) So, at the beginning of the book, Jason is worried. But because he worried that the neighbors might complain if he completely lets the yard go, he hires landscapers to mow and mulch. (He can't bear to do it himself. See? Gamma male.) But once the landscapers go to work, they find a body...just not the body that Jason buried. The police arrive and another body turns up, but this one still isn't the one that Jason buried. He lives in fear that the police will find that one.

A few more chapters pass, and we learn that the two other bodies were the victims of the previous occupant of Jason's house--a violent and gifted liar who caught his wife in bed with another man. We also meet the fiance of that other man, Leah. The police track down the wife-murderer, Boyd, who runs after telling the police a convincing story about a twin and suicide. For many more chapters, these three characters orbit around each other, without coming into contact. Jason frets and worries. Boyd conceives of a desire for revenge before blowing town for good. Leah comes to terms with her fiance's cheating ways and struggles toward closure. After a great beginning, this part is a bit of a slog. Mostly, I wanted to reach through the pages and give Jason some Prozac or something--at least the number of a therapist.

Mason redeems the novel in the last third, when the main character's orbits finally collide. And then, the book changes from a mystery/thriller, into dark farce. Jason decides to move the body of his victim the same night that Boyd arrives for his revenge and that Leah decides to visit the place where her fiance was buried. As anyone would expect, things quickly go to hell. Everything goes wrong. Everyone gets beaten up. I won't say who makes it out and who doesn't, because that would ruin it entirely. I will say that it's very entertaining to watch it all play out.


Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen starts as a thriller about an eponymous computer hacker who specializes in hiding dissidents from the digital eyes of the State's security apparatus. But then things get more than a little weird after Alif received a book from his former girlfriend. The book is very old, and tells the story of The Thousand and One Days--the jinn version of The Thousand and One Nights. The original author, and many others since, think that the book contains hidden knowledge and unbelievable power. Mostly, the book just makes Alif's life a misery.

The City--never named--lies on the Persian Gulf. Like many of the real emirates on the Gulf, the City was forced to jump from the pre-industrial world to the modern world in a hurry. It has a lot of oil, which has made the royals and aristocrats very wealthy (but no one else). There are migrant workers from south Asia and poor natives who make up the rest of the population. There are communists and Islamicists and free speech activists constantly protesting online about the death grip State security has on the Internet in the City, and about the secret prisons and brutal methods used by the security people. Alif isn't a dissident himself, instead he makes his money by hiding actual dissidents. His small life is moving along pleasantly enough until his girlfriend, the rich Intisar, breaks up with him and announces that her father has made a match for her. She asks him, somewhat hyperbolicly, to hide himself from her online as will as in real life. Alif, being a talented coder, actually tries to create a code that will recognize Intisar online and cloak his presence. He succeeds in creating a program that works, even though everything he knows about computers tells him that it shouldn't work. And then, Alif gets hacked by a member of State security known only as the Hand of God and Intisar sends him her copy of The Thousand and One Days, the Alf Yeom.

This is were the book starts to get really good, because the story changes from a thriller to something like you might see in the Thousand and One Nights. Alif, and his neighbor Dina (who really is just in the wrong place at the wrong time), go on the run from State security. The only one who might be willing to help them is a mysterious character known as Vikram the Vampire. Once they meet him, its clear that's something very strange about Vikram. Alif and Dina have their entire view of the world rearranged, pretty much over night, as Vikram gives them a crash course in the unseen world of the jinn. After a spectacular fight at the mosque and an even more spectacular online duel, Alif is arrested and Dina escapes with Vikram into the Empty Quarter and the land of the jinn. It becomes apparent that the Alf Yeom is a tool that Alif can use to do quantum coding--though it might be more that it puts him in the right frame of mind rather than contains the secret itself in its stories.

This is far from the end of the book, because you have to know that Alif is going to find a way to get his revenge on the Hand of God. And the book has to be protected. And Alif has to be reunited with Dina, his true love. But I'm not going to talk about how it all works out because it would ruin the story. Alif the Unseen is worth all the hype its received. Wilson is amazing in the way she blends Arabic mythology and technology. There are parts in this book that are absolutely incandescent. I highly recommend it.

Broken Elements, by Mia Marshall

I received a free copy of this book to review by Netgalley, on behalf of the publishers.

Broken Elements
Mia Marshall's Broken Elements is the opening novel in a series about people able to control elements like water, fire, ice, and so on. Our protagonist is young Aidan Brook, who is surprised when an old college friend tracks her down and tells her that the murders they thought they had stopped a decade before have started up again. Ten years before the novel opens, Aiden and Sera thought they had killed the killer by burning down a building around him. After that, Aidan had retreated to a remote house in Oregon and lived as a hermit. Sera drags a reluctant Aidan back into the hunt when Sera's boyfriend is murdered. Sera also assembles a team of other alumni and supernatural beings to investigate, as the killer is using magical means to dispatch his victims. Sera knows that the regular authorities will never figure it out, so it's up to them to find out if, perhaps, the killer escaped or if another person is a copycat.

Marshall throws in some useful exposition about Aidan's world and magic, without bogging down the story, and introduces a love interest for the former hermit. What does bog down the story is Aidan worrying, for little reason, about her mental state. It's not clear to me why she thinks she's going crazy. To my way of thinking, Aidan is suffering from some justifiable post-traumatic stress and depression--nothing some therapy wouldn't help with. It's only later in the story that this whole going crazy thing starts to make sense, but that only happens after Marshall starts to throw in some major twists. Aidan's worries, in that light, actually read more like retrofitted plot than anything else.

Other than this somewhat major quibble, Broken Elements was an interesting read and reasonably entertaining. I don't know if I'll follow the series though. Aidan is a hard character to bond with, as we're so often told what she's feeling rather than shown. Without that bond, only simple curiosity got me through the book.

Pure, by Andrew Miller

I have to wonder if Andrew Miller actually set out to write a work of historical nonfiction when he wrote Pure and just got carried away with adding characters and dialogue while trying to dress it up, because the plot is pretty flat actually. The characters are interesting, but I enjoyed the history that I learned more than anything else about this book. This is not to say that I hated everything else, it's just that I think this story would have worked better as narrative nonfiction.

If you look at Pure as a work of fiction, it's the story of an engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a Norman who really wants to build bridges but will take anything at the moment. If you look at this as a work of creative nonfiction, it's the story of the emptying of the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents that started in 1786. Saints-Innocents was located near the market of les Halles and had been in use since the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it was overfull and apparently the stench of it was so bad that even eighteenth century Parisians noticed it over all the other stinks.

We met Jean-Baptiste as he accepts (reluctantly) his commission in 1786. He takes lodgings with a family that live near Saints-Innocents. The daughter of the house seems to have an odd connection with the cemetery, and objects to Jean-Baptiste's work--along with a half-demented priest who has lived in the church of Saints-Innocents far too long. But aside from a general reluctance, there isn't a lot of objection to moving the remains from Saints-Innocents to a new set of catacombs on the outskirts of the city and the work carries on, rain or shine, fair or fowl, until the last body is dug up the next year. I think I was more worried for the workers than they were, since some of the people buried there had been plague victims. But things actually go pretty smoothly, considering how much back-breaking labor was involved.

Given the timing of the story, I was more than a little surprised that Miller didn't take advantage of the unrest that must have been brewing at the time. After all, this takes place only a few years before the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror. This story is curiously stripped of politics. Miller does slip in a romance for Jean-Baptiste, but even that falls a little flat, actually. To be honest, I spent almost as much time on Wikipedia learning more about Saints-Innocents, les Halles, etc. and finding out which of the characters actually existed as I did reading the book. So, even though this book won the Costa Prize in 2011 with this book, I wouldn't say this is a great read. It's a good read, though, and worth it for the history.