8.31.2013

The List, 2012-2013

And so another book year* comes to a close. I'm currently reading Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, but I'm only halfway through this 800 page opus (and have been for a few days). I've read an absurd number of books this year, shattering all previous records. I have no idea if I'll be able to read this many books in a twelvemonth again.
  1. The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
  2. Cat Daddy, by Jackson Galaxy and Joel Derfner
  3. The Fairy Godmother, by Mercedes Lackey
  4. One Good Knight, by Mercedes Lackey
  5. The Black Isle, by Sandi Tan
  6. The Sleeping Beauty, by Mercedes Lackey
  7. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  8. Kitty Steals the Show, by Carrie Vaughn
  9. Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey
  10. The Witches, by Roald Dahl (reread)
  11. The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi
  12. How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
  13. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith
  14. The Gods of Gotham, by Lindsay Faye
  15. Redshirts, by John Scalzi
  16. The Twelfth Enchantment, by David Liss
  17. The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan
  18. Countdown, by Mira Grant
  19. A Wanted Man, by Lee Child
  20. Territory, by Emma Bull
  21. Devil Said Bang, by Richard Kadrey
  22. John Dies at the End, by David Wong
  23. Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  24. Domino Men, by Jonathan Barnes
  25. What Language Is, by John McWhorter
  26. Tallula Rising, by Glen Duncan
  27. The Coldest Winter, by Ian Tregillis
  28. The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley
  29. The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin
  30. Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines
  31. The Shadowed Sun, by N.K. Jemisin
  32. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (reread)
  33. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  34. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (novella)
  35. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
  36. Cooking Dirty, by Jason Sheehan (reread)
  37. The Woman Who Died a Lot, by Jasper Fforde
  38. The Walking Dead, Book 8, by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn
  39. 'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King
  40. Firmin, by Sam Savage
  41. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris (reread)
  42. Hannibal, by Thomas Harris (reread)
  43. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  44. Ironskin, by Tina Connolly
  45. The Twelve, by Justin Cronin
  46. Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich
  47. Albert of Adelaide, by Howard L. Anderson
  48. 11/22/63, by Stephen King
  49. The Damnation Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow
  50. Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad
  51. The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens
  52. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
  53. Pure, by Andrew Miller
  54. Phantom, by Jo Nesbø
  55. Broken Elements, by Mia Marshall
  56. Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky
  57. Phoenix and Ashes, by Mercedes Lackey (reread)
  58. Unnatural Issue, by Mercedes Lackey (reread)
  59. Home From the Sea, by Mercedes Lackey
  60. Alif, the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
  61. Three Graves Full, by Jamie Mason
  62. The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
  63. Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  64. Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  65. Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  66. Hell to Pay, by Matthew Hughes
  67. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr
  68. City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte
  69. Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
  70. Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown
  71. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
  72. The Blackhouse, by Peter May
  73. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (reread)
  74. The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgway
  75. Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer
  76. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
  77. Quintessence, by David Walton
  78. Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë
  79. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
  80. Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
  81. The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
  82. Gillespie and I, by Joan Harris
  83. Graveminder, by Melissa Marr
  84. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
  85. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
  86. Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy
  87. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
  88. The Age of Ice, by J.M. Sidorova
  89. Chocolat, by Joanne Harris (reread)
  90. Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
  91. The Andalucian Friend, by Alexander Söderberg
  92. Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
  93. Kitty Rocks the House, by Carrie Vaughn
  94. Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  95. Doughnut, by Tom Holt
  96. Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente (novella)
  97. Eyes to See, by Joseph Nassise
  98. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
  99. The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope (novella)
  100. Blood's Pride, by Evie Manieri
  101. Amity and Sorrow, by Peggy Riley
  102. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
  103. Cobweb Bride, by Vera Nazarian
  104. Seduction, by M.J. Rose
  105. Quarantine, by John Smolens
  106. King of the Dead, by Joseph Nassise
  107. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris
  108. The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
  109. The Asylum, by John Harwood
  110. Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis
  111. Dead Ever After, by Charlaine Harris
  112. Graveyard Child, by M.L.N. Hanover
  113. The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  114. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  115. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
  116. The Boy Who Could See Demons, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
  117. Lexicon, by Max Barry
  118. She Rises, by Kate Worsley
  119. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent
  120. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, by Alison Bechdel
  121. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
  122. The Humans, by Matt Haig
  123. Restoration, by Rose Tremain
  124. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin
  125. Milltown, by Jimmy Higgins
  126. What Comes Next, by John Katzenbach
  127. Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, by William Sutton
  128. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (novella)
  129. The Corpse Reader, by Antonio Garrido
  130. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
  131. A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore (reread)
  132. The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon
  133. The Outcasts, by Kathleen Kent
  134. Grave Mercy, by Robin LeFevers
  135. The Translator, by Nina Schuyler
  136. The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann
  137. Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (novella)
  138. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (reread)
  139. In the Kingdom of Men, by Kim Barnes
  140. The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White
  141. Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, by Ben Schott
  142. The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
  143. Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen
  144. Dinner and Deviant's Palace, by Tim Powers
  145. The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
  146. Steadfast, by Mercedes Lackey
  147. Delia's Shadow, by Jaime Lee Moyer
  148. The Cleaner of Chartres, by Salley Vickers
  149. The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett
  150. The Unholy, by Paul deBlassie III
  151. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt
  152. Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters
  153. Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield
  154. Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
  155. A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash
  156. Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey
  157. Kitty in the Underworld, by Carrie Vaughn
  158. The Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell
  159. Affinity, by Sarah Waters
  160. Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley
  161. The Ludwig Conspiracy, by Oliver Pötzsch
  162. The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi, by Mark Hodder
  163. Codex Born, by Jim C. HInes
  164. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, by Elizabeth Silver
  165. The Darkness of Shadows, by Chris Little
  166. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield (reread)
  167. Kill City Blues, by Richard Kadrey
  168. Havisham, by Ronald Frame
  169. Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley
___________

* I began this blog at the end of August, so my "book year" starts in September. 

8.28.2013

Looking for a scapegoat

Personally, I always blame the goat.
Yesterday, Nigel Duara of The Christian Science Monitor reported on the death of a young man in Oregon. This young man was suicidal, but the article reports that he may have been inspired by the actions of Chris McCandless as depicted in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.

I'm not going to write about Jonathan Croom. I'm going to write about the scapegoating of books.

After John Lennon was killed and Ronald Reagan was shot, reporters and other theorized that the killer and attempted assassin were both inspired by The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Duara's article reminds me of those same efforts to find an explanation for something that probably can't be understood by a logical mind.

I might describe a book as having "blown my mind" or "gutted me" when I've been extremely moved by a book. But unlike a lot of devoted readers, I don't say books changed my life. (I tend to doubt the truth of that statement anyway. I suspect other readesr mean the book sparked an epiphany, otherwise we would have a lot more active social crusaders or pro bono advocates or Peace Corps volunteers. It's cynical, but there you go.) Readers gravitate to books that suit their state of mind. In the case of Jonathan Croom or Mark Chapman or John Hinckley, if they hadn't picked up Into the Wild or The Catcher in the Rye we'd be talking about different books. Blaming the book is no different than blaming video games or hardcore metal music when teenagers commit violent crimes.

8.24.2013

Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley

When our culture and government and so much else is ripe for satire, why aren't there more writers like Christopher Buckley around?

Boomsday
Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley, begins like many of his other books: with an actual, real-life problem that seems insoluble. In this case, America is experience stagflation at a time when a significant portion of its citizens--the Boomer Generation--are set to retire. Social Security won't last, and someone needs to pay for retirement benefits. But then Buckley takes things further. The protagonist, Cassandra Devine, argues on her blog for unspecified actions when Congress proposes an increase to the payroll taxes of Americas below 30. The next thing anyone knows, young people are attacking gated communities and golf courses.

The book really kicks off when Cass is arrested for "inciting violence." She becomes the voice of her generation, blogging away about how unfair the whole situation is. Then, she has a crazy idea. Taking a cue from Jonathan Swift, Cass drafts her own "Modest Proposal"--calling for retirees to voluntarily commit suicide at age 70 to spare their descendants the cost of funding their retirement. It's not meant to be taken seriously. Cass' proposal is just supposed to put the issue on the table for serious discussion. Of course, in Buckley's slightly warped version of America, most people are seriously satire- and sarcasm-impaired. Cass' proposal starts to develop actual legs when an old acquaintance, a senator, decides to push the bill as though it was a real solution to the Social Security crisis.

Things rapidly get out of hand. (As if they weren't already.) The president's office starts paying dirty pool in trying to make Cass shut up and go away. The senator decides he might want to parlay his new found notoriety into a presidential run. A pro-life senator and head of the hilariously named pro-life lobby SPERM (Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule) gets involved to oppose Cass before deciding that he wants to run for president, too. It's a tangled, tangled web, full of highly sarcastic political speechifying using remixed rhetoric, bons mots, and pithy wit.

I think its fair, in this book's case, to talk about the ending. If you don't want to know. Stop here before I spoil things for you. Otherwise, this is the end of the post for you. If you want to stick around, there's just one more paragraph.





Still here? Good. The truth is that this book doesn't really have an ending. Boomsday doesn't have a cliffhanger either. Buckley has written himself into corners before, but in his other books, he writes himself back out again. In this book, he doesn't do that. The book ends with the status quo being somewhat reestablished. It's as though everyone has gotten their anger off their chests and is ready to (maybe) buckle down and do some real work. We all knew, characters and readers alike, that the proposal wouldn't ever actually happen. But the end feels like a cop out when Buckley stops his satire train so far away from the metaphorical cliff.

8.23.2013

Havisham, by Ronald Frame

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 1 November 2013.

Havisham
Such chutzpah to take on one of Charles Dickens' most memorable characters and write her backstory! Ronald Frame's novel Havisham is an attempt to give Dickens fans a story they have always wondered about. What happened when Miss Havisham was jilted? Why did it cause her to live the rest of her days in a decaying wedding dress and use her adopted daughter to revenge herself on men? I've wanted to know since I finished Great Expectations a few years ago.

Frame takes us back decades before Great Expectations opens with the famous encounter between Pip and the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, to show us a woman who was raised to be prideful, polished, but curiously sheltered from the world. Here, Catherine is the only child of a brewery owner who wants his daughter to rise above her family's humble origins and become a gentlewoman. Frame tells her story in bits and snatches and short vignettes, almost the complete opposite of Dickens' usual torrent of highly descriptive exposition. (It's a safer choice, not to try and imitate the original.) But as you read more about Catherine's upbringing and her first meetings with Charles Compeyson, it's hard not to read into everything. It all seems like foreshadowing. This isn't a bad thing, but it analogous to reading a book with all the text highlighted.

Catherine Havisham is not a likable person. She's prideful and given to temper. Unfortunately, this armor masks a personality that reacts badly to betrayal. She's terribly hurt when she learns that her highly placed friends were paid by her father to put the finishing touches on her training. Further, she never seems to pick up on several impeding betrayals. Clearly, my shouting at her through the pages didn't work. But then, Compeyson is a skilled conman. He managed to get Catherine to most of the wooing and soothing and coaxing along in their relationship.

Havisham and Great Expectations eventually collide, as they must, when Catherine receives a letter from Compeyson telling her that he can't marry her. From there, the plot shows Miss Havisham's perspective of the events of Great Expectations. Frame did his homework and surprised me by using the first ending to Expectations. Dickens revised it based on feedback from a colleague to be more ambiguous. It's a brilliant choice. Even those who know the story will be surprised by this alternate ending, one that works much better for Frame's Greek Fury-inspired Catherine Havisham.

8.22.2013

Can't they take a joke?

From one of my favorite Tumblr
blogs, Better Book Titles.
I've read two and a half books (I'm in the middle of a third) that make extensive use of previous literature to tell their stories. The first was Jim Hines' Codex Born*, then there was Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and now it's Ronald Frame's Havisham. I love these kinds of books for so many reasons. I love the cameos by my favorite characters from classic literature. I really, really love the literary in jokes**.

Whenever I finish a meta book, I lament the fact that there aren't more of them. But I can understand that, apart from trying to be funny in print, negotiating the permissions must be a nightmare. Jim Hines manages to use more recent books for cameos and jokes and plot points, but I suspect it's because he's friends with or acquainted with so many science fiction and fantasy authors that he can just call them up and ask. (He cites them at the end of Libriomancer and Codex Born, with an asterisk point out which novels he made up.)

But the other books I've read in this category have to rely on out of print novels when they go meta. Jasper Fforde mines Charles Dickens. Setterfield took Jane Eyre. It's a shame that authors are restrained from doing the same things with twentieth and twenty-first century stories. Last year, Rebecca Rosen wrote a piece for The Atlantic about how copyright protection and its attendant problems is making it hard to release out of print books from the mid-twentieth century in digital format. I'd argue that it's also stifling creativity. And it's squandering an opportunity to resurrect books from obscurity. There are several classics that I read just because Jasper Fforde made a joke about them in his Thursday Next series***. Hell, I read Great Expectations because of Fforde.

I talk about chaining in my research classes, a technique of following a trail of references in articles back and forth through time as scholars discuss an idea. Meta novels are a much more fun version of that. Following the references to characters and settings and plots leads you to new stories better than book reviews can.

__________

* The Libriomancer series should be required reading for all book nerds, literature wonks, and other assorted word geeks.

** One of my favorite jokes comes from Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. A character builds a bomb out of copies of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. The conflicting ideologies create an explosion.

*** This series should also be required reading.

8.18.2013

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I read this book when it first came out, but I've had a yen to reread Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale for a while now. I even wrote a blog post on it, a short skimpy one. Since I did such a half-assed (quarter-assed?) job the first time, here's a proper review of The Thirteenth Tale.

The Thirteenth Tale
There are numerous literary allusions and references in The Thirteenth Tale. And by the end, I started to see the story as an inverted version of Jane Eyre. But let me back up before I talk about my theory. Our first narrator is Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer who works in her father's antiquarian bookshop. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from a famous author requesting that Margaret write a definitive biography. This author, Vida Winter, is a well-known fabulist who regularly spins wild tales to the journalists sent to interview her. As far as anyone knows, she's never told the truth about her life. Margaret is reticent because all her interests and knowledge are in nineteenth century, not current, fiction. But she takes the bate Vida sets out for her because she is just too curious to let the opportunity pass.

So Margaret travels to Yorkshire, to Vida's elaborate and eerie mansion on the moors. Time is running out for Vida, our second, framed narrator. She's dying and wants to finally reveal the truths that have been haunting her all her life. Vida says she used to be called Adeline March, twin to Emmeline. They grew up neglected in a dilapidated family pile called Angelfield. The house is strange and rumored to be haunted. The servants have all left because the master of the house, Charlie Angelfield, is violent and probably insane, and the twin's mother, Isabelle, is reclusive and unmaternal. The only people left are the aged housekeeper and the master gardener. The girls grow up wild and undisciplined. After an incident involving a baby and a pram, a governess is summoned to take the girls in hand and the mother is taken away to an insane asylum. Charlie locks himself in a few old rooms and is pretty much never seen again.

The first Jane Eyre inversion I saw was that the child, the governess' charge, is the narrator. The governess probably would have been wonderful for any other children but the March twins. They prefer to speak their own invented language. They don't have normal emotional responses to things. Adeline is violent. Emmeline is indolent. There is also someone haunting the house, moving the governess' books, opening and closing windows, moving furniture. There is no relationship between the governess and the master of the house, but the governess does get close to the local doctor.

After attempting to separate the twins and getting caught kissing the doctor, the governess is sent away. The house--and its inhabitants--fall further into decay and neglect. When the housekeeper dies in her sleep of old age, young Vida steps up to take charge of the house. At this point, it seems more likely that the uneducated and untutored child could grow up and turn into a world famous novelist that would give the Bible a run for its money as the bestselling book of all time.

Margaret notices as Vida tells her story that Vida is slippery when it comes to pronouns. Sometimes she says we, sometimes I. Sometimes she even refers to the twins as they. This is the secret that the story revolves around, which comes to a climax when old bones are found in the ruins of Angelfield. Setterfield writes an amazing novel around this secret. Everything is up in the air until Vida hands over the governess' ancient diary.

I must have missed a lot the first time I read this book. In my other blog post back in October, 2006, I wrote that I read it in two days. This time, I read The Thirteenth Tale in less than a day. This time, I noticed a wealth of allusions to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Lady Audley's Secret among other books. Maybe I just didn't bother to go into detail in that post, but I didn't remember much when I picked the book up again. That's my usual habit for rereading. I have to wait until I've forgotten everything about the story except that I liked it. I get the feeling, though, that I had a better time with the book this time around.

8.17.2013

The Darkness of Shadows, by Chris Little

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

The Darkness of Shadows
Chris Little's The Darkness of Shadows is an inventive, if skimpy, introduction to a scary story of magic and abuse and family. Natalie Gannon has tried to put her past behind her. But as the book opens, Natalie decides to take matters into her own hands when her father resurfaces. Her plan to lure him to Florida and kill him is ruined when her father gets the jump on her and puts her in the hospital.

Natalie's story would have been heartbreaking enough even without the magical touches Little adds to her story. Not only is Natalie's father a complete psychopath, he's also a necromancer with plans to blow past the boundaries of his abilities and resurrect Natalie's mother. Natalie's only allies are her childhood friend, Valerie Guerrero, and Val's mother, Rita. Rita and Val took Natalie in when her mother was murdered and her father disappeared. Unfortunately, Natalie's attempts to end her father are hamstrung by the fact that Rita kept her magical inheritance from her.

William Gannon is a terrifying villain. Natalie and Val's battles with him a nail bitingly tense. Even though the main protagonists accept their new abilities with a minimum of skepticism, the characterization in this book is pretty sharp for all that Little uses as few words as she can get away with when drawing them. The story is original and unique in that there's no love story larded into the main narrative like so many other books in this crowded genre.

The Darkness of Shadows flew past and I finished it in about four hours. It's a good sign that I could just dive into the book, but I was able to get through it so quickly because Little uses the bare minimum of dialog, description, and plot to get you from A to B. This isn't a bad thing; most authors go too far the other direction and smother their story with too many words. It was refreshing, even though I would have liked to see Natalie's world more developed.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of
Noa P. Singleton
When I started Elizabeth Silver's The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, I was surprised by the tone. It was brisk, sharp, and a bit callous. It's not the elegiac anti-death penalty appeal masquerading as a novel that I was kind of expecting. (That's not what I was looking for, by the way. I was looking for an exploration of a character who may or may not deserve to be on death row.) What I found was a fascinating examination of retribution and atonement.

The novel opens six months before "X-day," Noa's execution day. Noa has been on death row for about 10 years, convicted of the murder of Sarah Dixon and Sarah's unborn child. Noa admits that she shot Sarah and faked an intruder break in, but she consistently refuses to say way. More than that, Noa refuses to defend herself. It's puzzling. Anyone would expect Noa to be fighting for any chance of a stay, commutation, or being found not guilty. But she doesn't. Noa is strangely at peace. So when a new lawyer and the mother of her victim show up at the prison telling her that they're working on commuting her sentence to life in prison, they're baffled by her passivity.

Silver's novel contains an alternating trio of perspectives. First, there is Noa reflecting on her current state. She doesn't lament the fact that she's been sentenced to die. Instead, she meditates on the absurd rituals of death row, her fellow inmates, and the motivations of her visitors. Then, Silver shows us Noa's life, from her mother covering up an accident involving Noa's fall down the stairs at 10 months old, to Noa's strangely aborted life, her trial and, finally, to what happened on New Year's Day when Sarah died.

It's masterful the way Silver hides then reveals the missing, crucial pieces of Noa's life. The novel may baffle you at the beginning as much as it baffles Noa's visitors, but Silver eventually reveals why Noa is so at peace with her immanent death. As Silver and Noa tell the story, I pondered the death penalty, but this isn't a book that will change anyone's mind no matter which stance they take. And I'm glad of that. I've read too many books in the past where the message overrides the story. Any rhetorician will tell you that it's far more effective to let the message serve the story anyway.

Like Noa, as I read this book, I was struck by the theatricality of the entire process. In the quest for justice, I think we let emotion carry us away. Noa thinks back to her jury's selection in one of the most profound passages in the book. She recalls the answers the possible jurors gave about whether they would consider the death penalty and what they see their role as. Some vehemently declare that they believe in the death penalty in the same language the pious use to affirm their religion's tenets. Others argue against "an eye for an eye," again using religious language. I'd never noticed that before. Noa also writes about how the jurors judge her for her appearance and attitude as much as they consider the evidence and the prosecutor's portrayal of events. After reading this book, I really hope I never have to be in the same position as Noa's jurors. By the end, it seemed like the jury served the same role as a firing squad. There's only one live bullet, but responsibility and blame and guilt for the execution are shared.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an incredible book. Noa is masterfully and realistically written. She's prickly and hard to know. But she's also captivating. She pulls you into her story even though you suspect that she doesn't care what you think. Noa has already judged herself.

8.16.2013

Sometimes it's hard to write a woman

This morning, I ran across Sophia McDougall's rant on The New Statesman entitled "I hate Strong Female Characters." Contrary to what you might think just from the title of her article, it's a great piece about how female characters in media are pigeonholed--even the otherwise admirable heroines. McDougall writes about the lack of diversity in female heroines that sparked off a number of associations for me. I thought back to the Claire Messud mini-scandal earlier in the year when a clueless interviewer brought up the issue of likeablity as though it was a central issue in The Woman Upstairs. I thought about George R.R. Martin's quip about how he considers women to be people, too. But most of all, I thought about something Joss Whedon said:


A little while ago, I finished reading Jim Hines' Codex Born, which seems to be a perfect book to think about this problem in genre fiction. One of the characters, Lena Greenwood, was written in part to explore how women are portrayed. (Jim Hines talks about Lena Greenwood in John Scalzi's "The Big Idea" series.) Lena is one of those "strong female characters" and I like her a lot. One of the things I enjoyed about Codex Born where the glimpses into her past as Lena grows (no pun intended*) and changes in response to what other characters around her think she should be.

But McDougall would rightly point out that if Lena had been male, we wouldn't be asking these questions or even describing the character as strong. We'd be talking about other things, like the character's abilities and motivations--not whether she's a symbol or whether she's portrayed in an appropriate way. I'm about as feminist as they come, but it bothers me that this symbol-hood is such a big issue. I'm a reader, too, and whether or not the character is well-written, interesting, and original is more important. I want great characters.

McDougall makes a great point with Sherlock Holmes. Does anyone talk about his strength? No, they describe him thus:
He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. (McDougall)
That's how we should be talking about female characters: in detail, without trying to put them up on a pedestal as a "strong female character." The character's gender shouldn't be one of the character's adjectives.

__________

* If you've read the series, you'll get it.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi, by Mark Hodder

I don't know how to express my deep love and admiration of Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series adequately. Unlike most series, where the most you can hope for is that that they won't get worse, this series gets better. I am astounded and floored by this series and I heartily enjoyed this fourth entry. People, I really, really loved this book.

The Secret of
Abdu El Yezdi
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is not a book you can just dive into. You need to read the first three books in order to hit the ground running. (You should read them anyway, because they are amazing.) Abdu El Yezdi opens late in the summer of 1859, as Richard Francis Burton is returning from Africa after discovering the source of the Nile. This isn't what happened in our history, however. The history in Hodder's series is deeply fubared due to the meddling, in the previous entries, of Rasputin, sentient lizards, and an insane time travelling genius. By my count, we're in a third timeline. All that history, all those paradoxes, set the stage for this book.

As soon as Burton arrives in England, he is drafted by King George V (in this version of reality, Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840 again) to investigate the disappearance of the leading minds of England: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, and others. More importantly, the king wants Burton to find out what happened to England's guiding spirit, Abdu El Yezdi. El Yezdi has been giving advice since 1840 and is the architect of an Anglo-German alliance that will avert (fingers crossed) the bloodshed of World War I. But since the strange disturbance of the Carrington Event, El Yezdi has gone silent and England is flying blind for the first time in two decades.

After defeating Rasputin and the sentient lizards in the last couple of books, Burton has to face down a new enemy. This enemy (who gives himself away to savvy readers at one point by quoting himself) is present in this timeline as a nosferatu, but a very powerful one. Hodder takes things right down to the wire as Burton and his allies attempt to stop their nemesis' plan to disrupt the alliance with Germany. Along the way, Hodder makes highly entertaining references to Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Frankenstein. There were so many literary allusions in this book I felt the urge to reread the first books in the series to hunt for more literature jokes that I missed the first time through.

Reading The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is a challenge. It's brilliantly written, of course, but the plot will do your head in--in the best way, of course. There are multiple versions of history. There are multiple versions of the same characters. I recognized names from the previous books, but many of them wore different guises in this leg of what Terry Pratchett would call the Trousers of Time (which would only fit an octopus in Hodder's worlds). But that's what I enjoyed most about this book. I adore books that play around with time this way. Not only did I get to ponder "What if?" but I got to ponder "What if?" with the added bonus of spirits, nosferatu, steampunk anachronisms, and Richard Francis Burton.

8.14.2013

The Ludwig Conspiracy, by Oliver Pötzsch

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 3 September 2013.

The Ludwig Conspiracy
Ludwig II of Bavaria has always been a fascinating character, a historical figure who seems more fictional than real. Ludwig nearly bankrupted his kingdom building the castles of Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee, and Neuschwanstein. Then he died under mysterious circumstances after being declared insane. Oliver Pötzsch takes that history and runs with it in The Ludwig Conspiracy. In this novel, a mild-mannered antiquarian bookseller gets caught up in a mad quest to reclaim Ludwig's legacy.

In the prologue, we meet a king who is determined to get a book from a professor--so determined that the king orders the poor professor's torture and murder. But the professor left the book in a bookshop in Munich owned by Steven Lukas. Shortly after, a man visits Lukas and asks for the book. Before long, people are breaking into Lukas' shop and framing him for not one, but two murders. Lukas' only ally is an abrasive but entertaining art detective, Sara Lengfeld. The only way to clear Lukas' name, Lengfeld says, to solve the mystery of the book. The book is written by the assistant to Ludwig II's personal physician in shorthand, with even more cryptic (pun intended) notations scattered throughout.

Gratuitous picture of Schloß Neuschwanstein
As Lukas works his way through the diary, he and Sara race from one of Ludwig's castles to another, following clues laid down 125 years previously by a doctor who was bound and determined to keep his king's secrets. This might sound like The Da Vinci Code. I was reminded of that book more than once as I read The Ludwig Conspiracy. But Pötzsch is a much better writer than Dan Brown. He has a knack for giving the reader exposition and important background information without bogging down the pace or making all the characters sound like pedants. (There is one pedantic character, but he's ridiculous enough that I didn't mind. He was hugely entertaining.)

Meanwhile, Lukas and Lengfeld are chased by the mad king, the mad king's agents, a secret society, and a green Bentley that doesn't seem to belong to anyone. I marveled at the way Pötzsch kept all those plot threads from snarling. His characters aren't the usual suspects in a mystery/thriller like The Ludwig Conspiracy. The protagonist, Lukas, is a bit hapless in spite of his expertise. His ally Sara is a pain in the ass a lot of the time. (But she's a fun pain in the ass.) The villain is not just a stock casting choice. I've always though that some of the best villains were the ones that were convinced they're right. The villain in this book is certainly convinced of the rightness of their actions, with the added bonus of being totally bonkers to keep you from predicting their next move.

The historical fiction elements of this book were just icing on the cake for me. The passages from the doctor's journal were very well written, detailed and--more importantly--believable. Even though I knew a bit about Ludwig's history (as would anyone with access to Wikipedia and two minutes to spare), but I still felt suspense about the doctor's attempts to save his king from being deposed. Pötzsch doesn't go so far as to completely rewrite history, but there are elements on the historical side of this novel that you won't find in Wikipedia.

8.13.2013

Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers.

Mazzeri
Peter Crawley's Mazzeri is a novel that demands patience. A lot of patience. Even though it begins with a suspenseful opening sequence involving a kidnapping, Crawley slows the pace back down for a good half of the book while he puts all his pawns into place for the finale.

Our protagonist, former Royal Marine Ric Ross, is on an extended holiday/attempt to escape his past on Corsica when he ends up getting involved with a beautiful local woman and the tangle politics of the land. Ross is a curiously passive hero. He lets everyone take the lead, reacting to situations they put him in. He's not a bad character, per se. But reading about him made me wonder if the real story was happening somewhere else. I wonder what this story would have been like if Crawley had written this story from Manou Pietri's perspective, instead of from the perspective of her somewhat hapless boyfriend.

Crawley's book is full of short chapters, which makes the book feel like it's flying by. But the pacing of the plot itself is very slow until the second half. In the first half, Ric meets the dramatis personae. He meets a creepily charming Armenian who calls himself Kamo Petrossian, then is warned away from his new acquaintance by a corpulent policeman. Meanwhile, Ric appears to be suffering from what might be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or a Corsican version of magic. Crawley infuses the entire book with local character and flavor. This infusion was one of the reasons I stayed with the book through its doldrums.

In the second half, all the pawns are in position and Crawley starts to bring them together from their disparate locations. The young book Ric found wandering in the woods is Manou's son. The Armenian is after Manou's successful camping business. Ric wants to be a hero for her, but she pushes him away. Even if she hadn't been raised by men who prefer to take matters into their own hands, Manou has a strong will; she doesn't want to be rescued. By the end of the book, I had to wonder if she wouldn't have managed just fine on her own.

This is not a great book. It's overwritten. There's a lot of detail that could had been slashed, especially in the first half. A lot of the expositional dialog should have been ripped out. But I enjoyed Mazzeri's originality. There are few other books I know of--outside of biographies of Napoleon--that talk about Corsica. The island has a fascinating blending of its various invaders in the religion, culture, and food. Ric was a nice enough bloke. Manou was the real stand out of this book. If you have the patience to see Mazzeri through to the end, the finale is fairly engrossing with all its crosses and double crosses.

The year of reading dangerously

A reader in her natural habitat.
According to my list, I've read a stupidly large number of books since last September. (I'll publish the full list in a few weeks when my book year ends.) I didn't know when I bought an iPad last year and switched to ebooks that I would be able to read so much more in a twelvemonth. I've been joking that turning pages in a physical book was wasting valuable reading time, but I had no idea how true it was until I updated my last last night. I've managed to cram in an extra thirty books over my yearly average.

While I've been able to read more, ebooks have changed my reading habits in ways that I'm not altogether sure are positive. I've hard to start taking notes on what I read for the first time since graduate school. This might be a good thing in that I'm not just slapping a review together when I finish a book. On the other hand, I'm taking frakking notes, people. I'm not able to remember plots as well as I used to. (No Alzheimer's jokes, please.) I can remember reading books. I can remember what I liked and disliked, for the most part. But when I talk books with people now, I have to refer back to the blog a lot more to remember why I liked and disliked it in the first place because I've probably read a couple dozen books since then.

Am I going to slow down? Hells, no! I'm not sure I could slow down. The subjective experience of reading for me is still as immersive and rich as always. Nothing else compares to it. I think my reviews have gotten better. I just worry that I might end up like my bookworm of a niece who reads so fast that she can't remember what she just read. Hence, notes.

I worried when I started taking notes that it would take away some of the pleasure of reading. So far, it hasn't. I think it's been keeping me reading deeply rather than just speeding through to see what happens next. Because I'm taking notes, I feel like I need to think up something worth the effort of breaking my reading stride and committing it to paper. So, I question what I'm reading, the authors' motives, the symbolism of the text, and on and on. I think it made me enjoy Sean Ferrell's The Man in the Empty Suit more than I might have if I hadn't been so determined to find and understand the subtext.

I wonder what my next book year is going to be like. I might pass from reading a stupidly large number of books to a truly terrifying number of books. Maybe I'll just tell people how many feet of book I read instead of giving them the number.

8.12.2013

Affinity, by Sarah Waters

Affinity
In Affinity, Sarah Waters has captured some of the same Gothic tone of dread and unreality that I associate with Wilkie Collins. As I read it, I had almost as hard a time as the protagonist did figuring out what was real, what was supernatural, and what was skillful con.

Affinity opens with what appears to be a diary entry written by a spiritualist of some kind in 1871. At a seance, something goes wrong. It's unclear from the text whether it's the spiritualist, an actual ghost, or a mundane accomplice that nearly smothers an impressionable girl and causes a fatal heart attack in a witness. Waters then jumps ahead by about a year and switches perspectives to our primary narrator, Margaret Prior, as she enters Millbank Prison to serve as a Lady Visitor. The idea behind the scheme is that Prior will serve as a good example to the female prisoners and perhaps cut down on the rampant recidivism of the inmates. On her visit, she sees the spiritualist from the opening scene--but doesn't get to speak to the woman until her next visit.

The spiritualist, Selina Dawes, has been accused of fraud and assault. Whenever anyone asks, she blames her "spirit-control," Peter Quick. A few years ago, I read Fingersmith, Waters' other Victorian novel, and as I read Affinity I couldn't help but wonder if there was something similar in play here. No matter how much Margaret wants to see Selina as the genuine article, as a reader you can't really help wondering if Selina is just a gifted cold reader and actress-even if you hadn't been warned by reading something like Fingersmith. Selina also has something else in her favor. Margaret is gay, though this is never explicitly stated in the book other than referencing a few kisses Margaret exchanged with a friend before that friend married Margaret's brother.

Margaret is a perfect victim. She just lost her father. Her mother is a bit of a harpy who drugs her with chloral hydrate to combat her insomnia and depression. Her sister is oblivious to anyone else's problems. Her friend is happily married. All Margaret wants is someone who can understand her desire to be a scholar, and not trapped by everyone else's expectations of her. But the way the Waters spins the story out, there are events and phenomena that challenge anyone who doesn't debunk for a living to rationally explain away. In Selina's diary, she never references any plans for deception or evinces any scorn for the people who flock to her seances. She appears to manifest a spirit that can interact with her audience. She knows things that she shouldn't now. And, perhaps the best evidence in her favor: Margaret receives gifts from Selina in her own home. It's hard to explain how flowers and a velvet collar appear in Margaret's room while Selina is constantly watched in prison.

Affinity is set against the mid-Victorian craze for spiritualism. Few people were as immediately skeptical as a modern person would be. The book is set inside a run down, cold, leaky prison in the early 1870s. Prisoner rehabilitation was as much about the prisoner's immortal soul as it was about getting them to reform. The mentally ill were as likely to be tossed into jail as they were into an asylum. Given our protagonist's predisposition when she starts visiting, it's little wonder that Margaret falls under Selina's spell.

This is a cleverly written book. I don't want to give away the ending. So I'll say that until the very end of the book, I was equally convinced that Selina was a con or that she was actually a medium. I'm not going to say anything more except to say that you'll have to read the book to figure out which is true.

8.11.2013

The Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell

The Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell's The Man in the Empty Suit is a curious blend of science fiction and literary fiction. It has the premise of a science fiction novel: a nameless narrator invents time travel and uses the technology to meet up with himself for his birthday every year, among other things. But it also has the styling of a literary novel. Not much is explained on the science side. There's no world ending crisis. Instead, there's a mystery that's as existential as it is criminal.

Every 2071, on his birthday, the nameless time traveling narrator arrives at an abandoned hotel in a curiously broken New York. His younger self has set up the party. Other younger selves tend the bar. Older version of himself stand off in their corners, being annoyed by the antics of the younger self. But the 39-year-old version, our narrator, arrives at the party to realize that the 40-year-old version of himself is murdered. None of the older versions know exactly what happened. So it's up to him, the 39-year-old version, to figured out what happened. This is the kind of book that makes you want to have some graphing paper to help work out all the time lines. All the version of the narrator have their own nicknames, which goes a long way to helping keep track of who is when--but that seems to be the only bone the author is willing to throw.

The 39-year-old version, who has dubbed himself the Suit at some point in his history, has no choice but to figure out not only who killed/will kill him, but also how he managed to survive in order to grow older and come back to the party year after year. In The Man in the Empty Suit, Ferrell has taken the idea of the time travel paradox and run so far with it that I'm not sure which of the many multiverses this story is in. If it's in a multiverse at all.

As the Suit gets closer to his death or non-death, he starts to wonder about the rules he's set up and the way he's living his life. His older selves are doomed to making sure everything plays out the way it's always played out. His younger selves are doomed to keep making the same mistakes. Every version of himself worries what will happen to the future if even the smallest thing changes. So the Suit grows terrified when he realizes that on top of his immanent death/escape, he's become untethered from his past and present. For the first time since he was 18, our narrator has no idea what's going to happen.

A lot of other readers appeared to be disappointed with this book, judging by the rankings and reviews on GoodReads. But I wasn't at all disappointed in this book. The premise leads you to think that this book is a science fiction thriller. That's no how I read this book. I read The Man in the Empty Suit as an existentialist meditation--with mind-bending paradoxes and fiendish chases--on fate and how, even though all the versions of the narrator should be on the same side, every "I" is looking out for himself.

This book will make your head hurt, but in a good way.

8.09.2013

Next

Except Twilight. I regret that.
Between the semesters, I take a week off. When I tell people this, they always ask where I'm going and what I'm planning on doing. It's like they don't know me at all. People, I will be reading for a week solid. Maybe I should start telling them I'm going on a tour of Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogwarts, etc. Of course, that's not really true. The truth is I have no idea what I'm going to read next. I have no idea from one book to another what I'm going to read.

It all depends on what mood I'm in, you see.

It's weird how interested people are in what I'm planning on reading. I have a pile of books by my bed side and about 140+ books marked as "to read" on GoodReads. It's not that I lack things to read, it's that I believe that you shouldn't have to read something just because of the order you noticed it. (Although, that would make for a really interesting reading list, given the number of book reviews I read. I'd be jumping genres like Frogger.) I wonder if it's a holdover from my undergraduate days. I dislike being told what to read. I like to make my own choices.

The bed side book pile. With obligatory cat.

The impetus behind this post was a list of books a coworker handed to me the day after I announced my reading vacation plans. Since this coworker out ranks me, it feels like getting a syllabus in a way. The books on the list are interesting. I'd already read a couple of them. But, and here I'm thinking in my whiny voice, I already have so many books to read!

I suspect part of the problem is that when someone gives me a list of books that I ought to read, the part of my brain that was conditioned to life as an English major tells me that I'll have to do a book report. Then there's the ever present chance that I won't like the recommended books. It's so hard, so awkward, to tell someone you didn't like some of their favorite books.

The situation is so fraught for me that I feel like that guy who tweets about social faux pas that only the English experience. Did Emily Post ever write about what to do here?

You know what? Screw it. I'm going to read the books I picked.

(I'll get around to the list eventually.)

8.06.2013

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance
About thirty years before Marcus Sakey's Brilliance opens, about 1% of children born started to show amazing mental abilities. These children were leaps and bounds ahead of their peers in terms of pattern recognition, understanding body language and numbers, and other gifts. Dubbed brilliants, twists, or abnorms, these children become a feared part of American society after a few of them gamed Wall Street so hard that it destroyed the world's economy.

By the time we meet our protagonist, abnorm Nick Cooper, a government agency has been created to hunt down and "terminate" potentially criminal abnormals. Cooper is gifted at reading peoples' intentions in their body language, which makes him a great hunter for the agency. After he fails to prevent a massive abnorm terrorist attack in New York, Cooper hatches a plan to become a double agent and track down the man responsible. As he slides deeper and deeper in to the twist underground, he starts to question his loyalties and his conscience.

Brilliance is a highly entertaining thriller. Not only are there gunfights and explosions and chases, but Sakey also gives you an exploration of the tension between being a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Depending on the perspective of whoever you ask, the abnorms in this book are either one or the other. To the American government, abnorms are people that need to be controlled. All children are tested at age eight and, if they test high enough on the brilliant scale, they're sent to academies--chilling psychological experiments in action. If an abnorm commits a crime, they can be killed on sight. But then, they also destroyed the economy and occasionally blow things up. On the other hand, in Sakey's version of America, the government passed a measure to implant tracking devices in the necks of all abnormal citizens. Both sides have their points.

It's not hard to read this book as a not-so-subtle metaphor of terrorism in general. But Sakey doesn't belabor the point, which I really appreciate. Even though its clear who you're supposed to root for, Sakey leaves the questions and dilemmas in the background most of the time.

I'm glad that Sakey didn't leave everything hanging at the end of this book. Unlike most series openers, Brilliance has a satisfying ending all on its own. There's a brief coda the sets up the conflict for the next book in the series, of course. I have been successfully hooked on this series.

8.04.2013

The price of a story


I've been pondering the recent decision in the Apple price fixing case for a few days now. While I don't pretend to understand all of the ramifications of the decision, I don't know that much is going to change for anyone in the near future. Then I saw an article about Overstock.com and Amazon trying to undercut each other on book prices and I figured out what was bothering me about all of this. I think the unintended consequence of these pricing negotiations is to devalue books in consumer--and reader--minds.

In economics, pricing is a blend of art and science. Psychology has taught business a lot about how to manipulate people into paying what the business wants them to pay. The x factor always seems to be what people perceive as the correct cost of something. No matter how much you fiddle with costs, there is a point beyond which people won't go.

I wonder that, as the various booksellers tinker with prices, readers will get used to the lower prices and stop buying hardcovers and trade paperbacks altogether. Showrooming is already a problem. The way I've been thinking about this is that books should cost a certain amount. Not only are you supporting the author that wrote it, but the editor that polished the text, the marketing that told you about the book in the first place, the agent that found the writer way back when, and all the rest of the industry.

Even though though I don't pay for a lot of the books I read thanks to my local libraries and NetGalley, I still make trips to the bookstore to by hardcover and trade paperback copies of authors I really like. I can't finish my switch to ebooks--much as I enjoy them--completely until I know that the royalties have been adjusted in the authors' favor. To me, the price of a good story is still pretty high because I know that that money I spend is not just a wage for the author and publishers' work. The price is a down payment on the next story.

A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash

A Land More
Kind Than Home
There should be a category in the mystery genre when you have a good idea what happened and who's responsible and where the mystery is in how things are going to play out. Wiley Cash's A Land More Kind Than Home belongs in that category. Within the first chapters, you know why the victim died and you're pretty sure how it happened who holds the blame. But because novel is set in a small, small town in North Carolina, the mystery is whether the local law is going to punish the guilty or rough local justice is going to get there first.

At the center of this book is a preacher with a bad past. As you learn more about him, it's hard to believe that he's managed to shed any of his dubious past. Carson Chambliss keeps secrets and he forces the members of his church to keep those secrets. Chambliss' church believes in speaking in tongues, handling snakes, and laying on of hands. But Chambliss keeps the windows of the church covered so that no one can see in. The impression I got of Chambliss is that, in spite of what he preaches, he still thinks that what he's doing is wrong.

Cash has three narrators piece the whole tale together in turns. First there's Adelaide Lyle, a midwife and backwoods healer. I think she might have been my favorite character because of her strong common sense. I like female characters who just do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, Adelaide is so afraid of Chambliss--especially after he threatens her with a loaded rattlesnake--that she can't be much help to another narrator, local sheriff Clem Barefield. Because Chambliss has been allowed to instill his followers with strict secrecy and fearful loyalty, Clem has a hard time getting anyone to tell him what happened on the night Christopher Hall died.

The third narrator is Jess Hall, who has most of the piece of the puzzle. He and his brother came home early from a salamander catching trip to find their mother with Chambliss. Chambliss only manages to see Christopher. The boy, called Stump by everyone else, is mute and probably a bit autistic. He's never spoken in a word in his life. But Chambliss is clearly afraid that the boy will figure out a way to tell everyone and starts to pressure the mother into letting him try to "heal" Stump. That's when things go wrong. Cash leaves it unstated that Chambliss was trying to kill Stump, but I think that's what happened.

A Land More Kind Than Home is more complicated than I may have indicated here. As the narrators told their stories, I got the impression that everyone carried a little bit of the blame for what happened. Of course most of the blame lies with Chambliss and Stump's mother, but it's not that simple. Jess carries some because he doesn't tell anyone what he saw after his brother died. Adelaide carries some because she knew what Chambliss was capable off and didn't tell anyone. Clem carries some because he let Chambliss' church be for so long without finding out what was going on.

This book is hypnotic. As I read it, I would stop to check the page numbers every now and then and would be surprised to find that I was 30, 50, 70 or more pages from the last point I checked. Cash captured the voices of three rural North Carolinians so completely that I could hear the characters speaking as I read their words. I almost didn't have time to ponder the questions this story kicked up. What do you do when religious beliefs endanger lives? What should you do when you know something the police need to know but you're afraid of what might happen to you if you tell? Should you let local justice take care of something the law doesn't quite cover?

A Land More Kind Than Home is a stunning tragedy, beautifully written.

8.03.2013

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 5 November 2013.

Death of a Nightingale
Death of a Nightingale is the third book in Kaaberbøl and Friis' Nina Borg series. Nina works as a nurse at a refugee center near Copenhagen, Denmark and has a bad habit of bringing her work home with her. In the first book in the series, Nina found a boy who was intended to be an unwilling organ donor. In the second, she helped a pair of Roma boys who attracted attention from the wrong people. In this book, Nina gets caught in between a mother desperate to protect her child, old secrets that people are willing to kill to protect, and her own counties police who are trying to figure out just what's going on. Nina calls herself the crisis queen, but by trying to keep a child safe she is pushed to her limits.

The book opens with an old woman telling her son and grandchild a chilling fable about a princess who pays a dreadful price by trying to best her sister. Then Kaaberbøl and Friis show us another woman's perspective. Natasha was the sheltered wife of a journalist who accepted money to reveal or hide other people's secrets. Her husband's dealings led to his death and almost his wife and child's, too. Natasha flees with her daughter to Denmark. But her bad luck continues and she ends up serving a prison sentence for attacking her boyfriend, who had pedophilic leanings. She cannot catch a break. She escapes from police custody rather than risk being deported, but she has to get her daughter first.

Kaaberbøl and Friis then shift the story to Nina Borg and her friend, Søren Kirkegard (not the philosopher--that's spelled differently, anyway). Søren tries to help Nina when Nina figures out that the people Natasha is running from want to kill Natasha's daughter. It might seem like a tangled web from my description, but Kaaberbøl and Friis make it all work out. The story unfolds over a short couple of days. There are chases and gunplay and, above all, secrets.

It becomes clear that the fable at the beginning is the old woman's shorthand for her own life experiences during the Holodomor and the Great Purge in the Ukraine. We get this story in between chapters from Nina, Natasha, and Søren's perspectives. The woman, Olga, was just a girl that Stalin's government and her own family forced into an untenable position. The story might seem out of place, but Kaaberbøl and Friis bring all the plots together at the end of the book.

By the end of the book, I felt that this book was more about the Natasha and Olga than about Nina. Nina has her own personal epiphanies, but the stories of the Ukrainian women were much more interesting to me because of the history behind them. It was thrilling to see Natasha grow from an ignorant girl willing to let others take care of her into a fierce, ursine mother. Even though she wasn't making the wisest choices, it was hard not to cheer for her.

The end of Nina's story leaves the future of the series ambiguous. I'm not sure if there will be more. If there are more, Kaaberbøl and Friis are going to have to explore some new territory for their character. This isn't a bad thing. I've noticed with other series that, after a while, authors become reluctant to change their formula. Sure, the formula sells, but it gets boring after a while. Whatever's in store for Nina definitely won't be formulaic or boring.

Education of a young reader

"The Bookworm," by Fiona Marchbank
My niece is a reader. Her mother had to tell her, repeatedly, for years, to stop reading and go to sleep. She'd read until 11:00 at night, which is big deal when you're younger than ten. I couldn't help but be proud of her though. She's carrying on the grand family tradition of reading until the wee hours, then being grouchy all morning. Lately, I've been emailing my niece as she tries to stave off mortal boredom until school starts again. Mostly, she's been reading. But I've found while talking to her this way that talking about books is an acquired skill.

Not only does my niece read so quickly that she doesn't remember a lot of what she just read, she has a hard time telling me about what she likes and doesn't like in books. I can't remember not being able to talk about books, but I'm sure I must have learned at some point. English classes helped. They gave me a vocabulary to talk about different kinds of characters. They taught me how to recognize genres. Reading a lot helped, too. By reading widely, I could discover what gets my little reader heart a-thumping.

This difficulty of hers got me thinking about the social side of reading. The act itself is solitary, but readers love talking to other readers. Hell, I'll talk about books to anyone as long as they show a speck of interest until their eyes glaze over or the post-its run out from writing down titles and authors. Readers are always in search of the next great read. Not only that, but readers--those who really, deeply love books--believe in the importance of story and reading. It's vital to learn how to talk about books to share that joy.

I'm going to help my niece learn to talk about books, even if I develop terminal frustration. Or my niece tells me to shut up. Whichever.

8.02.2013

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 5 November 2013.

Bellman & Black
In Norse mythology, Odin had two ravens: Huginn and Muninn. The ravens represented thought and memory and reported back to Odin everything they saw as they flew around Midgard. In Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black, it seems that the corvids have become free agents. As I read this book, I thought about luck as much as I did about fate and retribution. Because in this book, the birds really do come home to roost.

After a short prologue, Setterfield takes us back to when our protagonist was ten and showing off to his friends by killing a young rook with a slingshot. William Bellman is filled with a terrible regret about his actions, but he learns to move onward and upward. Bellman seems to have a knack for business. Everything he touches, for decades, turns to gold. He has an incredible run of luck at his family's mill. He finds a wonderful girl who loves him, and they raise a bustling little family. Almost halfway through the book, Bellman's luck turns. A fever comes to his village and kills his wife and three of his children. His oldest daughter is near death when Bellman snaps, gets roaring drunk, and visits his wife's grave.

At the graveside, Bellman meets a man he's seen before at other funerals but never had a chance to speak to. This mysterious man, dubbed Black, offers Bellman a deal. Black will, somehow, save Bellman's daughter. When Bellman has to do in return remains a mystery for most of the rest of the book. He's under the impression that he has to create a new business, selling mourning clothes and goods, and split the profits with Black. Bellman's golden touch hasn't deserted him and the business thrives. He dutifully sets aside Black's share, but the man doesn't show up for ten years.

During those ten years, Bellman drives himself nearly out of his mind trying to remember the terms of the deal he made with Black. He's always been a thinker, but by the end of that decade, Bellman can hardly sleep or eat for thinking. His colleagues worry about him. His doctor worries about him. But Bellman can't turn his brain off most of the time. All this builds to a final confrontation between Bellman and Black, and you learn what exactly it was that Bellman gave up.

Throughout the book, Setterfield strikes notes of dread. Black birds are everywhere. Bellman's constantly churning mind reminded me of some of Edgar Allan Poe's narrators. I kept waiting for the thumping sound of a heart under a floor as Bellman wracked his brain trying to figure out how to appease Black. Bellman grows obsessed with time, yet curiously he loses track of time, too. All this together makes Setterfield's story a chilling read. It's uncomfortable in the best way because, as Bellman's mind ticks over, your's is, too, as you trying and figure out what everything is counting down to.

Bellman & Black reads like a fable much of the time. There's something not quite real about it and mythology is everywhere. The ending is well worth the wait while Bellman's too-good luck runs its course.