1.31.2014

A book that is more than a book

Books are "uniquely portable magic," as Stephen King says. Carl Sagan calls them magical, too. Studies show that stories can help us become more empathetic. Books can be art. I shouldn't be surprised that books can be monuments, too. Teacher Phil Chernofsky has created the first such monument book (that I've heard of): And Every Single One was Some One.

And Every Single One was Some One, by Phil Chernofsky
This book is comprised of only one word, repeated six million times. It is page after page of the word, "Jew." There are no names, just that one word. Even the picture of the book above had an impact on me. Can you imagine, turning those pages, with the title reminding you that every single repetition represents a person that was taken away by the Holocaust?

There are innumerable monuments to the memory of the Holocaust's victims, but they've all struggled with the task of conveying the immensity of the event. It might be that, because I'm a book person, this one hits me where I live.

1.30.2014

Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik
No one has ever described Russia so well as Winston Churchill: "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." I thought I was beginning to understand it after reading Russka, by Edward Rutherfurd, but Vladimir Sorokin's Day of the Oprichnik has sent me right back into uneasy befuddlement. How can a culture be capable of so much beauty and so much violence?

Sorokin sets his satire 14 years from now, in a Russia that has only ever seen turmoil. That much doesn't change. Everything else is not so much different as it is a return to how Russia was run before the Bolshevik Revolution. Our protagonist (not to say hero), Andrey Daniilovich Kamiaga, is one of the new oprichnina. An oprichnik is a police officer with nearly limitless power to enforce the laws and policies of the czar. Within the first few hours of Kamiaga's day, he oversees the arrest of a disgraced nobleman, rapes the nobleman's wife, and burns his house down. Then Kamiaga is sent to oversee a new performance piece to make sure that it's not seditious. The music and lyrics move him to tears, they're so beautiful.

As Kamiaga's long day rolls along, we see him righteously committing acts of corruption and violence. Everything thing he does is wrapped in the trappings of the Russian monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Well, to be more honest, the monarchy and church are exaggerated recreations of what those institutions were like before 1917. Nostalgia is always a skewed version of what was. I wish I could say that about how Sorokin portrayed the oprichnina; they're not much different that how Ivan Grozny set them up.

The title and structure of this novella harks back to the classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is almost an inversion of Ivan Denisovich. By the end of Solzhenitsyn's novella, you ache with sympathy and quiver with indignation on Ivan Denisovich's behalf as he is crushed beneath the insane will of his country's government. By the end of Day of the Oprichnik, your stomach will turn at how someone can abuse his fellow citizens with impunity, believing that he's doing the right thing. This is a hard book to read. But then, the best satires always are.

Off the Shelf, Episode 5

In which I explain why you should read Jo Baker's Longbourn.

1.27.2014

Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 4 February 2014. 

Three Princes
The critics, as far as I've seen, have not been kind to Ramona Wheeler's Three Princes. But then, I rarely take my cue from them. I had a fun time reading about this version of earth in which the Egyptian and Roman empires joined up to conquer Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia. This is by no means a serious book. Rather, it reminded me of some king and country steampunk novels that have been published lately—though the author doesn't try to replicate the racism and sexism of the original king and country novels of the nineteenth century.

Three Princes takes us on a whirl around a reimagined fin de siècle, opening in Novgorod and closing in the Cuzco. Lord Scott Oken is the fourth son of a British king, but works as an agent for pharaoh and his queen instead. As in our own nineteenth century, the Great Game is being played at full tilt. Victoria and Albert are scheming in Germany with Otto von Bismark. Incans and Mayas in the New World are protecting their trade secrets. Slavers snatch people off the streets to be sold in southeast Asia. There's a lot going on just in the first few chapters. Wheeler does tend to overdescribe the scenery, I'll admit. I can hardly blame her as the scenery is a fascinating blend of European and African architecture and culture.

As soon as Oken returns from his mission in Novgorod, he is sent to South America with his mentor, Prince Mikal Mabruke to investigate a plan to send a rocket to the moon. The pair are nearly assassinated and kidnapped several times on their journey and when they arrive, they land smack in the middle of a coup planned by the unhinged son of the Incan emperor. It's all chases and escapes and derring do. As long as you don't try to work out how Egypt and Rome managed to halt their terminal declines, you'll have a great time.

1.26.2014

The Furies, by Mark Alpert

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 22 April 2014.

The Furies
In the author's note at the end of The Furies, Mark Alpert writes that he was inspired to write this tale after researching the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials and the Burning Times. The fact that most of the victims of these attacks were women resonated with him. He wondered what caused the fear and prejudice. But from that background and that question, Alpert creates a strange thriller involving a family with a genetic mutation that causes the women to live much, much longer than men. The women in the Fury family use their long lives to try and make the world a better place, but they've frequently fallen afoul of churches, governments, and their neighbors.

The Furies begins with a prologue, in which a Fury woman and her daughter flee their home in 1646, just ahead of torch-wielding villagers. Alpert then jumps almost 400 years to present day New York. John Rogers is getting a drink in a bar after striking out at a job fair. Across the room, he sees a redheaded woman with great legs. He's surprised when she seems just as interested in him. John thinks its his lucky day when she invites him back to her hotel room in a run down part of Bushwick. Before they can do much more than get naked, John and Ariel are attacked. They manage to escape, but Ariel's bodyguards are killed and Ariel is wounded.

Though he's a former gang member, John fills the role of hero perfectly as he escorts Ariel on a race back to her home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Ariel tries to keep her secrets, but more and more of her family's strange history and abilities leak out. We also learn more about the men chasing Ariel. It seems there was a schism in the family. Ariel's half-brother, Sullivan, wants the women's secret to immortality and is willing to use violence, the FBI, and bombs to get what he wants.

The Furies is not so much a science fiction novel as it is a thriller. There are science fiction elements—genetic mutations, drones, caverns filled with laboratories, secret protein formulae, etc.—there are many more thriller elements and tropes here. There are chases (one involving a ferry), numerous gunfights, the aforementioned bombs, and FARC guerrillas. The Furies is an interesting blend of the two genres. I'm not sure I buy the genetic mutations parts of the plot, but that's only because it's on the far-fetched side of science fiction for me. Alpert travels far from his original inspiration to deliver a  fast, entertaining read.

Reading ahead

I hate spoilers. Really, really hate them. I've been known to walk away from people at the merest threat of hearing a spoiler. Which is why it's weird that I read summaries of classic books on Wikipedia (up to the last paragraph) and book jackets. It's not so much that I want to know what's going to happen, plot point by plot point. I really just want to know what to expect.

"Self Portrait With Books," by Priscilla Warren Roberts.
Though this could almost be a portrait of me.
I was thinking this over as I was reading Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. I had planned to read the book without dipping into Wikipedia. I broke down a few chapters in. Though my English history is pretty good, 1855 was such a strange place. I had very little idea what was going on in the country at the time. So I hopped over to Wikipedia, just for the background, you see—nothing more than that. Then I went back to North and South. A couple more chapters went by before I was back in Wikipedia learning which characters to pay attention to, etc.

The back and forth between book and Wikipedia made me realize just how often I do this. So, as I was pondering North and South and Gaskell's portrayal of the plight of the working class in the dark counties, I thought about why I find it so vital to know what to expect from a book. I've come to the conclusion that it's because I'm primarily a genre reader. I expect one thing from science fiction and something completely different from historical fiction. Which makes sense. These and all the other genres tend to stay within their boundaries. Really good fiction, classic fiction can transcend the boundaries. Brave writers break the rules all the time. But these are the exceptions.

Reading partial summaries and book jackets also helps me make sense of what authors are up to, as well. I've read a few books that opened with bewildering details and actions that made absolutely no sense until I learned that the the author was writing a thriller or a New Weird* story.

So, there it is. I cheat a bit. But I do my best to not spoil the ending for myself. The ending of a book is often a magical moment for me. I've had my mind blown by spectacular endings and warped endings and twisty endings. I've had my heart broken by tragic endings or overjoyed by happy endings. It just wouldn't have been the same if I'd known what was coming. If you try to tell me how something is going to end, I will probably wander off with my hands over my ears, singing, "La la la la!"

__________

* Yes, it's a real genre. Books in the New Weird genre should come with a cheat sheet or drugs, just to help the reader along.

1.25.2014

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South
As Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South opens, Margaret Hale appears to be a girl who is waiting for her life to start. She follows all the rules set for her and lives up to the expectations everyone has for her. Her silly cousin, Edith, is getting married and the house is a whirl. Margaret patiently helps, getting no thanks for her pains. You'd think it would be a relief when she returns home to Helstone to her parents. But Margaret has to help her parents as much as she had to help her silly cousin and aunt in London. She is relieved to be home, at least until her father reveals that he is giving up his living to move the family to a mill town and a man she doesn't love proposes to her all on one very bad day. 

Margaret tries to put a good face on life in Milton, but her mother's health begins to fail because of the pollution and their reduced living conditions. It's a wonder that Margaret doesn't explode with anger at her father for uprooting them this way. I certainly would have. People as good as Margaret only exist in fiction, because instead of being justifiably furious with her father, she sets about doing good and being helpful. The only thing she can't do is be nice to her father's new pupil, Mr. John Thornton. Thornton is a self-made man who now owns a mill. Every time the two meet, Margaret and John strike sparks. Thornton believes in the absolute right of mill owners to run their mills the way they see fit. Margaret argues that the living conditions of the workers are a disgrace. As I read their arguments, I was struck by the fact that American society is still having this very argument--almost down to the original wording. 

It isn't long before tensions in Milton reach a boiling point. The mill workers go on strike for a pay raise. Thornton hired Irish workers to take their place. Infuriated, the workers riot. Margaret needles Thornton into trying to face down the mob. She knows the men in that crowd and she is convinced that they won't hurt anyone. When she realizes how very, very wrong she is, Margaret rushes out to protect Thornton. He is so moved by her action that he proposes to her the next day. This does not go well. Margaret and Thornton go back to sparing as Margaret's life shrinks around her. Her mother dies. Her friend, Bessy Higgins, dies. John Boucher of the mob dies. Her father dies. Then her benefactor dies. All this happens within two short years. 

Margaret does her best to bear up under the repeated deaths. Her luck does turn, just as Thornton's luck goes bad. By the time they meet again, both are wiser. Margaret has learned to temper her ideals with reality. Thornton has learned there's more to life than making money. North and South then ends on a note of hilarity, as Margaret and Thornton's engagement brings them back to life enough to joke. 

When I set myself the task of reading a classic novel every month, I wasn't entirely sure what I would read first. I thought I had chosen badly with North and South. Even though the book has been on my radar for a while, Gaskell has a strange turn of phrase when she's writing exposition that made it hard to get into the story. I was hooked a few chapters later, though, when Gaskell gave up some of her rhetorical flourishes to focus on her characters. Some of the characters remain fairly flat, but Margaret, Thornton, the Higgins family, and other main characters are complex and flawed people. 

Great characters would have been enough for me to enjoy North and South, but Gaskell also uses Margaret's story to highlight the unjustices of the early Industrial Revolution. The early 1850s were a volatile time in England as workers began to organize, Parliament passed laws about pollution, and mill owners made contradictory arguments about independence for everyone except their workers. It's a testament to Gaskell that North and South is just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1855. This is what I was looking for when I made my resolution to read more classics. 

1.21.2014

A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub

A Dark Matter
In 1966, something terrible happened on the agronomy field at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The survivors never revealed the truth to the police. One of them spent the next thirty some odd years in a mental institution. Another became a professional thief. A third become a senators wife and a fourth became an advocate for the blind. The fifth and sixth traveled across the country for years, spinning out ancient, occult knowledge for the price of a meal and a couch to sleep on. When his current novel dissolves, Lee Harwell--husband to one of the survivors--decides to finally piece together what happened all those years ago. Thus begins Peter Straub's A Dark Matter.

Lee Harwell was a member of a tight group of friends in early 1960s Madison, Wisconsin. By chance, his friends met a guru's attractive assistant astrologer one afternoon in their favorite coffee joint. She convinces them to talk with the guru because their astrological signs are right. Lee is skeptical and doesn't go. For this, he is cut off from his friends as they fall further and further under the charismatic guru's spell. The group's occult explorations end in a violent episode in a campus field (sorry, Latin scholars, about that redundancy) that leaves one of their number dead and another disappeared. Lee's wife, also named Lee but better known as Eel, and other friends will not speak of what happened. Even nearly forty years later, whatever happened haunts them.

As Lee Harwell investigates, Straub slowly reveals more of what happened. At first, a reader might be able to dismiss their stories as hallucinations. Soon, however, there are too many similarities in their stories to explain away with science. The group saw a Bear King and a Roaring Queen, and a terrible, unspeakable monster that ate one of their number. This might be enough to create a novel, but Straub keeps right on peeling away more layers, showing more nuances.

Lee's interest was originally sparked by a series of murders in Milwaukee and these murders form a second theme in A Dark Matter. Lee comes across a manuscript written by a former detective who believed that he had found the serial killer, but could never find any concrete evidence because the killer was just too careful. That man turned out to be the uncle of the frat boy killed in the agronomy field. This frat boy, Keith Hayward, disturbs nearly everyone he meets. Other characters say again and again that there's something wrong with him, though they don't quite know what. Eel and her other friends try to get him excluded from their group, but their guru, Spenser Mallon, assures them that it will all be taken care of. Mallon never reveals what he intended to do in the field. In fact, he never gets the chance to speak for himself in this book. But Keith Hayward doesn't walk away from the experience.

Straub will leave you pondering at the end of A Dark Matter. Was Keith supposed to die? Who are the mysterious dog men who follow Mallon and Lee and Mallon's group and warn them away from an action? What was Mallon, inept as he was, really trying to do? Was it all real or just mass hallucination? But these questions are not as frustrating as you might think. The ending (rather, endings) don't come across as unfinished. We might not be getting answers because the characters themselves haven't worked it all out yet either. A Dark Matter will definitely take you on a trip, no matter what you end up deciding about its meaning.

1.19.2014

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

The Coldest Girl
in Coldtown
Yes, another young adult vampire novel. But this one is very different from its recent predecessors (no pun intended). It's almost as if Holly Black made a list of everything that was wrong about the Twilight and Vampire Academy series and the myriad others and banned those cliches from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Thank goodness she did. It was about damn time. For years, vampires in literature have been sexy immortals that just happen to drink blood. Some of them are bad, but never all that bad. They're a long way from the vampires of Stoker, F. W. Murnau, and Dr. Polidori. The vampires in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown are monsters, throwbacks to the vampires of more than a century ago, right down to the red eyes.

In our protagonist's world, a pandemic of vampirism lead to the creation of Coldtowns. Vampires and infected humans on their way to becoming vampires are confined there with a mix of stranded humans and death seekers. Just one bite will start you on the road to being a vampire. Partway through the novel, one of the vampire characters claims that being one strips you down to your "truest self." The upshot of this is that vampires do no one any favors, take advantage of silly humans every chance they get, and seek every vice and perversion to ward off boredom and ennui.

Tana, our heroine, is trust into this bloody world when she wakes up in an upstairs bathtub after a party only to learn that almost all of the other party goers have been massacred by vampires. Her former boyfriend survived, but was bitten. Tana finds him in a bedroom with a chained vampire. She helps the pair escape when the vampires in the basement wake up and hits the road for the nearest Coldtown, the only place they can go.

On the trip, Tana learns more about Gavriel, the vampire she rescued, though she doesn't learn why the others of his kind were torturing him back at the massacre site until much later. He's more than a little crazy, even more than other vampires. Yet he and Tana connect. At this point, Black could have followed the genre convention and have the pair fall hopelessly in True Love with each other. Instead, she holds off and lets things develop organically between the two. Once at Coldtown, Tana takes her former boyfriend, Gavriel, and the two hitchhikers they picked up over the border and into a place that's only barely functioning due to a stalemate between the vampires and the humans. Both parties need each other, but anything could upset the balance--and it's not long before the balance is tipped.

There are no prophecies. There are no magical solutions. There's only a crazy plan for revenge and survival. Tana is one of the most decent people in Coldtown, where everyone is out for themselves. She tries, repeatedly, to save people who don't really want to be saved. She's a much better person than I would be, because I would have left the former boyfriend to his fate on a heartbeat (or whatever the vampire equivalent is). Tana is the narrator for most of the book, though Black does show us how Gavriel came to be what he is and Tana's sister's idiotic decision to join her sister in Coldtown. Even though most of the cast is vampire, I was struck again and again by how fallible and human everyone was. Everyone is flawed in some way and it made the book seem just that much more realistic.

I daresay that vampire stories will be with us for a while. Personally, I don't understand the attraction to eternal, blood-drinking life. That's why I loved Black's little insertions of what that kind of life would do to a person instead of glamorizing everything. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the best vampire novel I've read for a long time.

1.18.2014

The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones

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

The String Diaries
Stephen Lloyd Jones hurls you straight into the action in The String Diaries. Hannah Wilde, her husband Nate, and daughter Leah, are racing through Wales late at night. Nate is slowly bleeding to death. Someone, we don't know who, is after them. When they arrive at Hannah's bolthole in Snowdonia, Hannah is so paranoid that she nearly shoots the caretaker when he comes to see what's going on at the rarely inhabited house.

Before we learn what's made Hannah and Nate so fearful, Lloyd Jones takes us back to 1979, when Hannah's father meets her mother at Balliol College's library. After a disastrous car chase, Hannah's mother starts to share the family secret, something that they've been running from since 1879. At first, Charles doesn't believe Nicole about the hosszú életek. After all, long lived Hungarian shape-shifters are just too weird to be believed, aren't they? Then Lloyd Jones jumps back in time again, to 1873 Budapest, to show us how the whole story really started.

Balázs Lukács--Lukács--is not like the other hosszú életek. He can't change himself as easily as the others. At his first society appearance, he is shunned by his own kind and ends up drinking with a young Budapest couple. Lukács has been dealing with rejection his whole life. So when yet another woman rejects his advances, Lukács looses whatever hold the rules and restrictions of society held him in check before. He does manage to find love for a while, but when he loses Erna Novák, he spends the rest of his long life trying to find her again. He chases her descendants across Europe, killing anyone who stands in his way. The targets of his obsession often look like their ancestress. When Lukács finds out about them, it's only a matter of time before there's a deadly confrontation.

From the first chapter to the last, I was completely hooked by The String Diaries. Nothing was ever simple. Whenever I thought I knew what would have to happen next, Lloyd Jones would introduce a new complication to Hannah's and Lukács' story. As an added bonus, the premise is refreshingly original. The ending to the book is perfect and far different from anything I predicted. This was a terrific read.

A reader resolves

A reader with goals. (Artist unknown.)
I was never good about making New Year's resolutions. I can understand the impulse, of course, but after the indulgences of the Christmas holiday it's hard to muster any kind of willpower. This is the second lazy weekend of January I've started off doing nothing but reading and putting off chores. However, I may have stumbled onto the kind of resolution I can keep: reading resolutions.

Normally, my only reading goal is to read more books than I did the previous year. That's it. I read what I feel like at the moment, sometimes making an effort to change genres to make sure I'm reading the books I get from NetGalley and libraries in a timely manner. I constantly add books to my to-read list on Goodreads and then let them languish while I read other things.

Peter Damien's post for GoodReads about "repairing his reading habits" has spurred me to scrounge up some willpower and make some resolutions. Damien has resolved to read more genre fiction, resume working on his reading journal, and has created a to-read pile that he's going to stick to. As with other resolutions, they're small and manageable--and more likely to work because of it.

Here are my resolutions:
  1. I will read one classic novel per month. I'm defining classes as critically acclaimed works from before 1950. Anything after that is too new to be considered a classic, I think.
  2. I will start using my own reading journal again. I feel my reviews and posts have gotten sloppy lately. 
  3. I will read at least two novels from my to-read list on GoodReads per month and try to whittle it down a bit. 
  4. And, of course, I will read more novels than I did last year. 
I hope I succeed at keeping these. 

1.17.2014

Fair and Tender Ladies, by Chris Nickson

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

Fair and Tender Ladies
In Chris Nickson's Fair and Tender Ladies, three members of the Leeds constabulary try to find a murderer in 1734. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. The structure was messy as the narrative got passed back and forth between Richard Nottingham, Rob Lister, and John Sedgwick so rapidly that you have to pay careful attention to the next bit of dialog to figure out who the narrator is. The exposition and descriptions are sketchy to non-existent. The plot is thin. The characters are unfocused. The ending is rushed. And there are historical errors that annoyed me.

The book opens with the accidental death of a visitor to Leeds. Then a man shows up looking for his sister and also ends up dead. Then the sister appears to drown herself in the River Aire. Meanwhile, someone is harassing Nottingham's daughter at the school she runs for the poor girls in the neighborhood. Fortunately for Constable Nottingham and his men, there were witnesses that just need to be mildly threatened to give up their secrets. Because this is 1734, there are no rules governing police conduct and Nottingham can do a lot of underhanded things and do a bit of his own harassing.

I was a little interested by the pre-police police presented here, but the historic details didn't add up for me. The earliest organized police force that I know about in England was Henry and John Fielding's Bow Street Runners. I know there were constables and sheriffs and beadles before Peel's Metropolitan Police, but I doubt they were as organized as Nickson presents. There were other details that hit me wrong, but it's not worth enumerating them.

I don't enjoy writing bad book reviews, but I honestly didn't like this book.

1.14.2014

The Woken Gods, by Gwenda Bond

The Woken Gods
I was hugely entertained by Gwenda Bond's young adult tale of Washington, D.C. overrun by gods from the Egyptian, Sumerian, Norse, Aztec, Voodoo, and Greek pantheons. In The Woken Gods, something happened five years before the book begins to awaken, apparently, all the gods from the ancient world. The Society of the Sun does it's best to protect humanity from these all powerful beings, but someone is working to destroy the status quo.

The only thing the gods fear in Kyra Locke's world is death. The Society of the Sun holds that threat over them to keep them in line. Unfortunately, Kyra's father--who works for the Society--has stolen an Egyptian relic that could render that threat moot. And then he goes missing. Kyra sets out to find him, along with her friends. She has to contend with agents of the Society and her grandfather and a host of gods from various pantheons.

Complicating matters even more, most of the gods that have a stake in this game are trickster gods. Anyone would be well advised to take everything thing they say with as much salt was they could get their mortal hands on. Legba informs Kyra that if she doesn't save her father, it will spark an apocalypse. So, no pressure, as the Voodoo god says.

The conspiracy is easy to work out, as I would expect from a young adult novel. But that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book at all. There's much less of the teenage angst and moodiness that I've come to expect from lead characters in this genre, for one. For another thing, the scenes between the humans and the gods are richly described. Kyra and her friends have an incredible experience with Enki and the Sumerian gods, in which she meets her appointed guardian Anzu, a lion-headed eagle. In another scene, gods duke it out in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress*.

Even though Kyra managed to avert a prophesied disaster, it was just a small victory in a renewed war. She is going to have her work cut out for her in the sequel(s).

__________

* As far as I know, no books were harmed in the making of this novel.

1.13.2014

The Waking Engine, by David Edison

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be released 11 February 2014. 

The Waking Engine
What if this life wasn't the only life you go? What if you woke up, after you died, on another world and got to go around again? David Edison builds a mind-bending story around that very question in The Waking Engine. Cooper wakes up in a strange city, with two people (as far as he knows) standing over him. They seem disappointed for some reason, but Asher and Sesstri take him in and explain the facts of lives to him.

The Waking Engine covers a very confusing week in Cooper's second life. On the first day, he learns that everyone gets more than one life. We keep going until we get tired enough to want a real death. Pilgrims come from all over the worlds, from all kinds of universes, to the City Unspoken because it's the only place they can get that. At least, they used to be able to get that. In the last few years, something has gone wrong with the system. No one's sure how to fix it, but Asher and Sesstri got a tip off that Cooper might be able to fix it. Unfortunately, Cooper's still getting his second-life legs and has no clue what's going on for most of the novel.

This would be interesting enough, I think, but Edison complicates things even more for Cooper and his minders. All around these three, plots are being woven. There's a young noble woman trying to get out of the palace after being trapped with the other members of the aristocracy for the past five years. There's a faerie queen's daughter who wants to help her mother take over the whole kit and kaboodle. There are lich lords who have created their own cults in the City Unspoken and allied themselves with a certain reincarnated Egyptian queen. (On a side note, I admire Edison's restraint at not adding more cameos. There were just enough to entertain you without getting overly clever about it.)

And, amazingly, it all works. It all works better than Cooper himself, actually. Cooper spends most of the book being clueless. I stuck with this book through his flailing because of everything else that was going on. I'm glad I did. The ending was absolutely spectacular as all the plots collide. And the twists at the end were perfect.

1.11.2014

Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye

Seven for a Secret
There are some parts of American history that are shameful to learn about. There's the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. There's the Indian Wars. And there's the big one: slavery. Lyndsay Faye takes us to one of the more shameful chapters in American slavery in Seven for a Secret. Before the Civil War, African Americans were regularly kidnapped and returned or sold into slavery. As early as 1819, Faye notes in her Afterword, African Americans created Committees of Vigilance to protect themselves from being snatched off the streets of northern cities and sent south. Seven for a Secret is a mystery set against this brutal and unjust background.

After recovering (somewhat) from the events of The Gods of Gotham, copper Timothy Wilde and his colleague Jakob Piest are surprised when a black woman bursts into their office to tell them that her family has been taken by slave catchers. Lucy Adams, her son Jonas, and her sister, Delia Wright, all have their free papers, but that doesn't matter to the kidnappers. According to the laws in 1846, helping escaped slaves is illegal and African Americans can't give testimony in court. Even coppers like Wilde and Piest aren't supposed to get involved. Wilde's innate sense of justice rebels at this and, as usual, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He and Piest, along with Valentine Wilde, join one of New York's Committees of Vigilance to rescue Lucy's family. Timothy rescues Delia and Jonas, but that's only the start of a tangled, deadly mystery.

Only a day after Wilde and his colleagues rescued Lucy's family, Lucy is found dead in Valentine's apartment. Wilde is pressured to stop interfering with the slave catching by his boss, who is in turn getting orders from the local Democratic Party political machine. Of course Wilde refuses to follow orders. I won't say he uncovers a vast conspiracy; instead he uncovers a bunch of people looking out for their own interests who have far too much power. And, at the center of this deadly web, is a woman that Timothy and his brother have battled before: brothel madam Silkie Marsh.

As each wrinkle in the case unfolds, Wilde learns more about the unconscionable system of slavery. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from period news and slave narratives like Twelve Years a Slave to remind you that the story is not entirely the product of Faye's imagination. Events such as the one described in Seven for a Secret actually happened, only there was no Wilde to stop them. All Americans learn about slavery in their history classes, but much of the detail is left out. Faye brings these details into stark focus in this book, though she doesn't hit you over the head with them so much as to make you cringe with each new chapter.

In addition to giving you a thrilling mystery and a wrenching series of dilemmas, Faye sets you down smack in the middle of 1846 New York. The city comes to vivid life in Seven for a Secret, in all its glory and danger. Faye's first book, The Gods of Gotham was terrific. Seven for a Secret just might be even better. I'm not sure if I can handle what she cooks up for Timothy Wilde in her next book.

1.09.2014

Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 14 January 2014.

Saints of the Shadow Bible
What happens when the leads of two different mystery series meet in one novel? Ian Rankin, hailed as the master of Edinburgh mystery, shows us in Saints of the Shadow Bible. Rankin made his name with the Inspector John Rebus series about a Scottish detective who doesn't always play by the rules. In his second series launch, Rankin created a detective who does nothing but play by the rules, Internal Affairs officer Malcolm Fox.

Rebus is an old school detective who couldn't adapt to retirement. He took a demotion in order to get back on the force. He's barely begun to annoy his new boss before Malcolm Fox is put on the trail of the cops that trained Rebus back in the early 1980s. His former boss, retired-DI Gilmour is implicated in fudging evidence to get an informant off of a murder charge. Meanwhile, Rebus and his partner are called to investigate the strange car accident of a businessman's daughter. The facts don't add up and Rebus can't let it alone no matter how much the Traymors try to put him off.

I loved the way Rankin lets the cases unspool in this book. So many mysteries follow the same standard plot arcs that Saints of the Shadow Bible felt incredibly organic and realistic. Suspects let things slip. Old police records jog memories. Connections form slowly enough that you can play detective along with Rebus and Fox without feeling like the author is spoon-feeding you the mystery.

The best thing about this book was the interplay between Rebus and Fox. Rebus doesn't care about chains of command or procedure. He asks questions and pesters people until he figures out what happened and who's to blame. Fox is incredibly careful and correct when it comes to the rules. They not quite opposites, but you can't help but ask who's way of policing is best. Rankin also contrasts modern policing with rough 1980s justice. At one point, Rebus says that the BBC series Life on Mars might as well have been a documentary of his first years as a cop.

I wonder if Saints of the Shadow Bible is the first of a series about this duo.

1.05.2014

The Other Tree, by D.K. Mok

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


The Other Tree
Imagine if The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons had been written by an author with a sense of humor. That's The Other Tree, by Australian writer D.K. Mok. Mok weaves together religious history, geology, botany, and art history with a healthy (more than healthy) dose of sarcasm and wit to create this highly entertaining quest for that other tree mentioned in the Book of Genesis: the Tree of Life.

Chris Arlin is working as a struggling cryptobotanist in a struggling university. Her father is dying of lung cancer and her mother died while on an expedition funded by SinaCorp to find the Tree of Life. The CEO of SinaCorp is on a quest to find immortality at any cost and when a representative of the company approaches Chris about joining another expedition, Chris tells them to drop dead. With the help of a priest who's losing his faith, Chris races to find the Garden of Eden before SinaCorp does. The trip takes them to Italy, Romania, Australia, and deep into the Iraqi desert. As Chris and Luke (the priest) piece together the millennia old clues that lead to the Garden, they have to contend with attacks from SinaCorp and a mysterious third party that doesn't want anyone to find the Garden.

I realize that this summary of The Other Tree makes the story sound just like those religious thrillers. That's what the book would be if it weren't for the fact that Mok doesn't take anything seriously. There are snarky similes and absurd allusions all over the place to keep the tone light for all but the very end of the book, when the race between Chris and SinaCorp comes to its final confrontation. There is no chance of taking things seriously in this book. There are times when you actually want Mok to ease off the witticisms a bit because they are everywhere. Mok doesn't have the (seemingly) effortless humor of Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, but she's not too far off the mark.

I had a great time reading The Other Tree. It reminded me a lot of Christopher Moore's more comic novels. Those books and The Other Tree have strong characters and a strong enough plot to support a lot of hilarity.

My big, fat American novel post

Note that the book doesn't have a title.
Other nationalities and ethnicities have their epics. The United States has a curious genre called the Great American Novel instead. Unlike other genres, the books in this category are contested. The Oxford Dictionaries give the following definition:
"[Any] novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America."
My own definition is stricter. I think a Great American Novel is also:
  1. Written by an American or someone who has lived in this country for a very long time. American novels written from an insider perspective make my second criteria possible.
  2. About a significant aspect of the American character, not just an "important time...or...tells a story that is typical of America," that explores the tensions between our national ideals and our flaws. 
  3. Written in such a way that it remains relevant even after its publication date. It cannot be just a book of its time; it should be a novel of all times. 
I've had this discussion (and I daresay I will have it again). I suspect the reason these discussions keep happening because American society was originally man-made. We have documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to aspire to. They include lofty goals and enshrine lofty values that anyone would struggle to meet and embody. That's the story of America, to me.

The reason I narrow my definition of the genre so much is because I think the more open definitions miss the mark. Wikipedia's list of novels* that have been acclaimed as Great American Novels could have been written about characters of other nationalities. Moby-Dick, for example, is a tale of hubris akin to tales from Greek literature. Infinite Jest is a postmodern exercise that could have been set in any developed nation. The Great Gatsby is a tragedy that could have featured another nouveau riche man in any country. My own list of Great American Novels is shorter**:
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This novel is about, among other things, the tension between our national espousal of equality for all citizens and racial prejudice. Try as we might to be a people that does not discriminate based on race, our historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow linger through the generations. To Kill a Mockingbird is also about fighting for our ideals in the face of social pressure.  
  2. The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar. This book is so new that I haven't seen it added to any lists of Great American Novels, perhaps just because not enough has time as passed to see if it remains as relevant as I think it will. The Barbarian Nurseries illustrates the struggle between our origins as a nation of immigrants and our long national debate about how to regulate and treat new immigrants. Even though we have Emma Lazarus' poem engraved on the tablet at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, American governments have passed laws limiting how many and place of origin based on prejudices. 
  3. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. According to New York Times writer, Jennifer Schuessler, Holden Caulfield is starting to lose his timeless appeal. But I think this novel (even though I personally didn't like it) is a great illustration of how each generation of Americans resents the prior generation and seeks to reinvent itself as a reaction to the values and practices of that previous generation. Every decade or so, our society changes itself to the point where we started labeling them Gen X, Gen Y, the Boomers, etc. 
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn is a struggle between the individual versus civilization. Individualism has been an important part of American character (and it's so valued that I think things have gotten out of control when it comes to expressing one's individualism, but that's a post for another blog entirely). There has always been room in America to escape civilization and live unpressured in the wilderness. (One such family is currently featured on the Discovery channel.) When things grow too stifling, one can always "light out for the territories."
I expect that my list will grow as I read more and more. And I know other readers will have nominations that would fit my definitions, but please know that they're not listed probably because I haven't gotten to them yet. 

__________

* The novels on the list are so described by literary critics and other scholars.
** It's shorter, in part, because I haven't read all the books others have put in this category. I read a lot, but I can't read everything. I have to go to work and sleep at some point.

1.04.2014

The Child Thief, by Dan Smith

The Child Thief
Unlike most people who think about time travel, I don't make lists of places and times I would go. I make lists of places and times that would be the most dangerous to visit. The early 1930s in Ukraine is near the top of that list, shortly behind 1348 Europe. Dan Smith's The Child Thief shows us a Ukrainian village in the midst of the Soviet collectivization drive. Red Army soldiers are combing the countryside looking for kulaks and "counter-revolutionaries." They have the power to arrest or execute anyone. There's barely enough food to feed everyone. People are watching each other with suspicion, not knowing who is an informer or collaborator. Outsiders are to be feared.

The village of Vyriv has been overlooked by the Red Army so far, but everyone is dreading the moment when they are found. One day, in the middle of winter, an emaciated man pulling a sled with two dead children on it arrives. The man is so ill and exhausted that he doesn't have a chance to defend himself against accusations that he killed the two children. Before our protagonist, Luka Sidorov, can stop his fellow villagers, they have hanged the man from the tree in the middle of the village. That night, Luka's niece is kidnapped by the real child killer.

The Child Thief heaps tragedy after tragedy on Luka and his sons as they track the killer across their corner of the Ukraine. They have to fight the elements. The have to dodge roving Army patrols. On top of it all, they have to outsmart a killer that's hunting them. Just when you think things can't get any worse for Luka, they do.

The writing isn't perfect. There is just enough repetition to be noticeable. Luka's history is frequently recapped. His thought process is summed up much more often than it needs to be. Fortunately, the high tension plot redeems The Child Thief.

1.01.2014

Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins

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

Wolfhound Century
In Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins has created a strange version of Russia. (Though it's called the Vlast, there are Russian names and Russian folk creatures.) Three hundred years before the book begins, the moon split into two parts and an angel crashed to Earth. The angel's arrival sparked a technological revolution. Angel skin lead to the creation of mudjhiks, golem-like creatures, among other things. Three hundred years before the book opens, a man who seems a lot like an analog of Peter the Great, founds the city of Mirgorod (possibly an analog of St. Petersburg) and launched an empire. Unfortunately, technology, art, and literature--and politics in particular--seem to have stalled shortly thereafter. Apart from the angels and rusalki and giants and other creatures, Mirgorod and Vlast seem a lot like turn of the twentieth century Russia.

Vissarion Lom is a police inspector in a provincial city when he is summoned to Mirgorod. The summons is a surprise as Lom is in some kind of obscure disgrace, but he's been waiting for his chance for years. When he arrives, Lom is tasked with tracking down a terrorist named Josef Kantor. Lom soon finds that Kantor is no ordinary terrorist. He's been protected by members of the Vlast militia far above Lom's pay grade. To make matters even more complicated, it appears that Kantor is being manipulated by a living angel that is trapped somewhere out in the endless forest that covers most of the Vlast.

Wolfhound Century begins with a conflict between state and people that looks a lot like pre-Bolshevik Russia. But before long, it becomes a conflict between the old world and the angel, with Lom caught in the middle. Lom is not the only one caught. Maroussia Shaumian came to Mirgorod to find her father. After she is rejected by the man she thought was her father, Maroussia is targeted for assassination by the angel's minions.

There's a long part one before the brief part two begins. Given the pace of part two, I wonder if Wolfhound Century is just part of a longer work that got published in sections. There is an ending of sorts, but it's not the big ending part one promised. I was a little disappointed at the ending here. I was so intrigued by the world Higgins created. Higgins does not explain or define his setting, leaving readers to pick things up from context. Some readers will be frustrated by this, but I love the ambiguity of Wolfhound Century.