11.30.2014

The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just City
Plato was the first dystopic writer. I didn't realize it when I read The Republic in college. But when Jo Walton decides to use Plato's thought experiment about what it would take to build a truly "just city," it seems that all Plato was missing was a plucky heroine or two short of a young adult novel. Plato's thought experiment posited that if a population of 10-year-olds were taught by wise guardians, under a prescribed regimen of exercise and education, they could grow to be their "best selves." Some of them could become philosopher kings.

The Just City opens with Apollo questioning Artemis about why she turned a nymph he was chasing into a laurel tree. Still unsatisfied, Apollo asks Athena why a nymph would rather be a tree than mate with him. He ultimately decides that he needs to spend some time as a mortal learning about "volition and equal significance." Athena tells him she has just the place. She's long wanted to see if Plato's Republic could actually work, so she's recruiting Platonists from all through history to try it out on an island that will eventually be destroyed with a volcano—so as not to mess up the historical timeline.

Even if you're not familiar with Plato, this may sound like a very dry premise for a novel. Fortunately for us, Walton has three very compelling narrators tell us the story of the nascent Just City. Maia is one of the scholars drafted by Athena to be one of the first generation of teachers, Maia was born in Victorian England and always chaffed at the restrictions society placed on her gender. Simmea was born in Coptic Alexandria and sold as a slave after her village was raided by a group of teachers who are recruiting (purchasing) 10-year-olds to be the City's first generation. As she grows, she becomes a loyal member of the City and considers herself lucky that she was chosen to live there—considering what her life probably would have been like back in the world. Apollo, in his guise as Pytheas, is also a narrator. By living as a human, Apollo has learned to temper his arrogance and privilege.

The first teachers—the Masters—are mostly philosophers, with a few translators and natural philosophers thrown in to keep things interesting. Few of them come from the twentieth century. I remember thinking as I read the book that if there had been any psychologists or sociologists or historians in the group, they would have known that the City was doomed from the start. The Republic was a thought experiment; it wasn't meant to be a blueprint for an actual living city. There were too many gaps. Not only that, but Plato wasn't really a student of human nature. People are complicated things. No matter how much you try to level the playing field and make everyone's experiences the same, you can't predict how people will turn out.

One of my favorite characters in The Just City is Sokrates (though I love Maia and Simmea). Just as he is portrayed by Plato in the dialogues, Sokrates is a questioner and a troublemaker. He still has a ravenous hunger for knowledge and information. When Sokrates shows up in the City, his questions soon cause the small cracks in the community to grow into big, ugly, glaring problems.

All dystopias are thought experiments. The Just City wears its inspiration more obviously than other examples of the genre. Every dystopic setting I've ever read about started with an attempt to make people better. They're always wildly optimistic. And, just like The Republic, they're always doomed to fail because they never take human psychology and unpredictability into account. Walton gives us the opportunity to really explore this idea as her characters build and inhabit Plato's Just City. More than that, she makes philosophy come to life in The Just City.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 13 January 2015.

11.26.2014

Near Enemy, by Adam Sternbergh

Near Enemy
Until recently, Spademan's life was uncomplicated. He was a garbageman turned hit man. He didn't ask questions. He didn't investigate. He just took care of things other people paid to disappear. Then Grace Harrow happened (see Shovel Ready) and Spademan started to ask questions. Adam Sternbergh's Near Enemy starts with one of Spademan's usual calls. A woman's voice says a name and Spademan takes his box-cutter and tracks the man down. But when the man wakes up from his trip into the limn (immersive virtual reality) screaming about something impossible, Spademan's newly awakened curiosity gets the better of him.

Lesser is one of the new generations of hackers in Spademan's post-dirty bomb New York City. Lesser hops from limn-trip to limn-trip, spying on people's darkest fantasies and blackmailing him. Small wonder someone wants him dead. But then when Lesser comes out of his latest trip and says that he just saw someone murdered in the limn (which is supposed to be impossible), Spademan decides to leave Lesser alone to find out if the hacker is telling the truth. Meanwhile, Spademan also has to protect Grace Harrow—now calling herself Persephone—from the fallout from Shovel Ready. (I lost count of the number of assassination attempts in Near Enemy, to be honest.)

Sternbergh's protagonist Spademan lives with a strange morality. Because he is always an outsider, always an observer, he just doesn't buy into other people's arguments about terrorism or sin or the greater good. When the Lesser case blows up ('scuze the pun) into a huge terrorist conspiracy, Spademan is caught in between corrupt cops and reformed hackers and his own code of ethics. It's enthralling.

As Spademan tries to figure out what the hell is going on, Sternbergh does some subtle world building. We learn more about the origins of the limn and what happened the day the bomb went off in Times Square. We learn more about the Wakers, who want people to return to real life instead of wasting away in the limn. Spademan's world is a gritty one, but it's one that doesn't seem too far-fetched as a possible future just a few decades away.

Near Enemy is written in what is becoming Sternbergh's signature noir poetry style. Much of the text actually consists of one sentence paragraphs—something that normally bothers the hell out of me. Sternbergh makes it work. His style gives an Impressionistic sense of the once-great New York and Spademan's unique perspective. In other hands, the one sentence paragraph is a punchline for an action-packed narrative. But in Sternbergh's hands, it transcends that I once called "the bastard child of poetry."

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 January 2015.

11.23.2014

Horns, by Joe Hill

Horns
Ig Perrish has been going through hell in the year since his girlfriend was murdered. And then, he wakes up with horns growing out of his head and the ability to hear and encourage people's sinfulness. Hell gets literal in Joe Hill's Horns.

The day that Ig sprouts his horns is a long and disturbing one for the mourning, self-destructing Perrish. He can't quite remember what he did when he got drunk the night before. When he stumbles out of the bedroom, his new girlfriend tells him she wants to do something so disgusting he will leave her—then asks permission to eat an entire box of expired doughnuts. The two cops that pull Ig over later that day admit that they think he killed his former girlfriend, Merrin Williams, and that they're waiting for him to make a mistake. Ig's doctor offers him Oxycontin before the young man heads to his parents house, thinking that at least they will believe that he didn't kill Merrin. No such luck, unfortunately. But Ig's brother, Terry, lets a secret slip that puts Ig on the trail of the man who really killed Merrin—Ig's lifelong friend, Lee Tourneau.

All this happens in the first blistering chapters of Horns. I can only describe Horns as a blend of magic realism and horror. After a day, Ig settles into his horns and newly found diabolical abilities remarkably well. No one else remembers the horns after a bit, let alone that they asked Ig if they could indulge in their dark little sins and yell at a screaming toddler or tell Ig that they wish he would kill himself. Curiously, only Lee Tourneau seems immune to Ig's abilities. There's something not right about him, too, which Hill takes his time revealing to us. Even though Ig is sporting devil's horns, it's clear that Lee is much more terrifying and dangerous than Ig. This book shares an acceptance of the supernatural that I've only seen in magic realism. Lee's evil and Ig's horns just are.

After Terry tells Ig what he remembers of the night Merrin was killed, Ig decides that he must avenge her by murdering Lee. This is easier said than done, because Lee is uninhibited when it comes to violence. Ig just doesn't have it in him. Things get even stranger after Lee sets Ig's car on fire, locks him inside, and tries to drown the would-be avenger.

Through flashbacks and the glimpses of the past Ig gets when he touches someone, we learn how Lee killed Merrin and why. Lee is a sociopath who has managed to escape detection so long because he models his behavior on Ig's. Ig is a wreck when we meet him at the beginning of Horns, but he was a truly good person. He was a believer about to take a job with Amnesty International, for crying out loud. But Lee, well, Lee is always out for himself. And he's always wanted Merrin. Because he is incapable of believing that Ig and Merrin don't have ulterior motives, Lee misinterprets everything they say and do—all of it leading to the terrible night Merrin dies.

Horns is a chilling book. Without the horror and magic realism elements, I could see this story playing out anywhere. With them, the story becomes an incredible meditation on good and evil, revenge, and love.

11.20.2014

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
I was worried at the end of the last Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, that we had seen the end of the young chemist who keeps tripping over corpses. Sending her off to school in Canada was a natural ending. Then I learned the Bradley was writing a new chapter in his feisty heroine's story with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I am not disappointed.

Poor Flavia is heartbroken as she sails away from England and her beloved Buckshaw, Even though no one understood her there except her Aunt Felicity, it was home. Now she's sailing to Canada to attend the same school her mother did, years before. She's not too fond of the people who are escorting her either. The Rainsmiths insist on treating her like a child, for pity's sake! On the bright side, the same night Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, a body falls out of the chimney in Flavia's room. Flavia can't resist the opportunity to investigate, no matter if she has to break every school rule to do it.

Miss Bodycote's is no ordinary school. Since the turn of the Twentieth century, Miss Bodycote's has been training young women to serve as undercover agents in a mysterious agency called the Nide. Everything is a secret and Flavia is constantly frustrated when no one will tell her anything. She truly is on her own. Of course, this doesn't stop our intrepid amateur detective as she follows the clues to find out who was in her chimney and who put the poor woman there and why.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is a wonderful new entry in the Flavia de Luce series.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.

King of the Cracksmen, by Dennis O'Flaherty

King of the Cracksmen
Liam McCool is caught between a rock and a hard man. When we first meet him in Dennis O'Flaherty's rollicking King of the Cracksmen, he is helping a pair of Molly Magees to blow up the a hated company man's house. After the house goes sky high, he returns to his boarding house to discover that his sweetheart has been murdered. To top it all off, his boss back in New York wants him to report back on the double now that his job spying on the Mollies is over. All McCool wants to do is get revenge for his sweetheart, but everyone else is pushing him towards a big role in the Great Game.

There isn't much room to catch your metaphorical breath in King of the Cracksmen. The plot steams ahead like one of the Acme robotic police that are patrolling O'Flaherty's alternate United States. In McCool's world, John Wilkes Booth's assassination attempt failed and Andrew Jackson sold the Louisiana Purchase to the Russians to balance the budget. O'Flaherty takes you from the coal fields of Pennsylvania to New York to Washington, D.C., to New Petersburg (formerly Minneapolis) and back to New York for an exciting showdown.

Along the way, as McCool is set to tracking down revolutionaries, demented heads of Public Safety, overly ambitious policemen, and New York gangsters, he starts to fall in love with crusading reporter Becky Fox—who turns out to be an agent of an organization that is determined to return the United States back into the nation it was before the Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, O'Flaherty shows us the marvels of a steampunk alternate Gilded Age. There's almost too much in this novel and no time for deep introspection. But then, King of the Cracksmen is billed as "A Steampunk Entertainment."

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.

11.16.2014

Ostland, by David Thomas

Ostland
There is one question about World War II that will never be satisfactorily answered. That is: how did good people turn into the kind of monsters that could perpetrate the Holocaust and all its related inhumane crimes? The kind of evil that it took to murder all those millions after stealing every scrap of dignity and hope from them should have been impossible. David Thomas' Ostland is one of the best explorations of this question I've seen yet. This is a hard book to read. It's upsetting in a number of different ways. But it is a very good book, based on the very real life of George Heuser (link to German Wikipedia page for Heuser).

Thomas begins Ostland with Georg Heuser's ignoble arrest from a spa in 1959. Max Kraus and Paula Siebert, the investigator and lawyer who work for the ZSL (German Wikipedia), have been piecing together a case against Heuser. During the war, Heuser was posted with the SS to Minsk as part of Einsatzgruppen A. (The Einsatzgruppen were tasked with murdering Jews, partisans, and whoever else the Reich decided while the Wehrmacht duked it out with the Red Army.) But Thomas conceals this from us for the first half of the book. After a few chapters from Paula's perspective, delivered in the third person, Thomas lets Heuser tell his story*.

Heuser's defining characteristic is his ambition. At university, he studied law and entered the police academy where he graduated at the top of his class. He wrangled a coveted post under one of the most highly regarded men in the Berlin police. He got to work on the career-making S-Bahn Murders case. The higher-ups in the SS "rewarded" Heuser's work by posting him to Minsk. As Heuser tells it, he was unaware of what the Einsatzgruppen were actually doing until he was ordered to take part in mass murders of Jews who had been rounded up from all over the conquered territories.

In the first half of Ostland, Heuser wonders at what kind of monster could murder all those women. Where did Paul Ogorzow (German Wikipedia) come from? What made him? In the second half, Heuser starts to compare himself to Ogorzow. What would the murderer say, now that Heuser has killed more people than the S-Bahn Murderer? Only two things make it possible for Heuser to live with himself. He tells himself, over and over, that all he can do is his duty and follow orders. The morality of what he's doing rests with the people giving the orders, not him. The second thing that makes it possible for Heuser to carry on is lots and lots of vodka. (Thomas found a statistic that the SS went through a bottle of vodka for every person they killed as a part of a "special action.") The men that Heuser works with drink and talk about everything they're doing in painful, dehumanizing euphemisms. The second half of Ostland is absolutely brutal.

Thomas jumps from 1941-1943 to the early 1960s as Heuser's war criminal trial progresses. Siebert grows gloomy as Heuser's lawyer manages to have charge after charge dismissed. The case appears to be crumbling even though Siebert and Kraus know he's guilty of terrible things. The last part of the book is a long meditation on the "following orders" defense and the mind-set of SS and Wehrmacht members during the war. Ostland is a very nuanced book, more balanced than anything I've yet read. This is not to say that Thomas is an apologist. He is very clear that Heuser and men like him bear a measure of the guilt and blame for the Holocaust. Men like Heuser will ask, "What else could I have done?" But if only more people had questioned their orders...

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.

___________

* In the Author's Note at the beginning of Ostland and the acknowledgements at the end, Thomas describes his thorough research into Heuser's life and trial. Ostland is more fictionalized non-fiction than a straight work of historical fiction.

11.15.2014

Judgment standards; Or, one yardstick to rule them all?

"You can't evaluate a work outside the context of its time."
"You can if it's good."

Daria, "Is it Fall Yet?"
As I was reading The Amber Keeper and The Barefoot Queen, I wondered if I was being too harsh—even before I finished them and wrote my reviews. Every time one of the eighteenth century gypsies asked someone if they were "OK" in The Barefoot Queen or yet another pair of characters would have a meet-cute in The Amber Keeper, I had a hard time controlling my eye rolls. And yet, these books are rated fairly highly on GoodReads.

I probably shouldn't review books when I'm feeling sarcastic.
In the last few years, I have a read a lot of very good books. Plus, I re-read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book group. I've been spoiled lately. It's hard not to hold everything I read to the same standard. It's not fair. I have no problem judging a book based on the merits of its genre. I have different standards for plot and characterization when it comes to speculative fiction and mysteries and literary fiction and historical fiction.

I suppose I do have one yardstick when it comes to basic writing competency. A story can be bad when the basic premise is flawed or the writer doesn't have a big enough vocabulary or the structure is so poorly constructed that it ruins whatever effect the author was going for. Besides, I would hate to think that I was actually lowering my standards to give a book a good review when it was just so-so and I know that others will like it just fine. It's just that reading really good books spoils me until I can recalibrate.

I'm probably overthinking this.

The Amber Keeper, by Freda Lightfoot

I have always been fascinated by tales of the Russian Revolution. An entire nation, caught between east and west, jumps several stages of development to try and create a workers' paradise only to erupt in terrifying violence. How did anyone survive the bloodshed and the starvation and disease and the cold? Whenever I see the Revolution mentioned in a book's description, I jump at the chance to read it, more often than not. Unfortunately for me, this doesn't always work out and in the case of Freda Lightfoot's The Amber Keeper, the Revolution was used as a more-exciting-than-usual setting for a fairly prosaic family drama/romance.

The Amber Keeper
The Amber Keeper is narrated by Abbie Myers, who returns to the Lake District of England after the surprising suicide of her mother. Abbie was in disgrace for years, having run off with a Frenchman and having a child out of wedlock—a big deal in 1963. As no one else in her family will talk to her without starting a row, Abbie questions her grandmother, Millie, about her mother. Millie is reluctant to say more than that she adopted Kate from an orphanage in London in 1920. Abbie is persistent and we soon get to learn about Millie's experiences as a governess for the Belinsky family in St. Petersburg from 1911 to 1917.

Millie's story is periodically interrupted as Lightfoot tells us more about what's going on with Abbie as she and her daughter try to settle in at the family house. Abbie resurrects her mother's jewelry story and fends off her brother's attempts to sell it and her new competition. Millie's story is much more interesting. It was always a relief to head back to Russia, even though Abbie is a better than average protagonist. But how can her story compete with Millie's? Not only is Millie a stranger in a strange land, she also has to deal with an utterly diabolical mistress, Countess Olga Belinsky. (Though it should be Belinskaya, in proper Russian, right?)

Olga is a pathological liar, greedy and lustful. (In fact, she embodies several of the Seven Deadlies.) For the sake of the children, Millie stays on, even though Olga tries to steal the love of Millie's life and actually lands the poor woman in a Bolshevik prison later in the novel. Once Millie finally tells the family where Kate came from, it's clear just why she stayed in St. Petersburg far longer than she should have. Olga is a much more electrifying character than this book deserves, to be honest. A novel from her perspective would have been amazing—assuming a reader could stay in her head long enough without getting thoroughly fed up with the woman. But then, readers stay with Scarlet O'Hara for the length of Gone With the Wind, so maybe it could work.

I muddled through The Amber Keeper fairly well, but I did not like the tacked on ending at all. It felt like Lightfoot was trying to end things with a bang, rather than letting this story be a quiet one of family reconciliation.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 December 2014.

11.13.2014

The Barefoot Queen, by Ildefonso Falcones

The Barefoot Queen
Caridad, Melchor Vega, Ana Vega, and Milagros Carmona all seem to have nothing but bad luck. That or author Falcones likes nothing better than to create characters and then torture them for almost 700 pages. As The Barefoot Queen rolls along, there is poverty, injustice, imprisonment, slavery, rape, and murder. It's a wonder that anyone survives what Falcones puts his characters through.

The Barefoot Queen opens in 1748 as Caridad arrives in Seville after the man who owned her died on the sea voyage from Cuba. Everyone tells her she's free, but what's freedom to Caridad when she has no money and no one will help her find her way? After a few false starts with uncharitable Christian organizations, Caridad meets Melchor Vega as she's about to give up and starve to death. Melchor is enchanted with her mournful singing and takes her home to his family. Melchor Vega has always been the embodiment of a gypsy. He's known to wander. When he wanders away after delivering Caridad to his daughter, Ana, and granddaughter, Milagros, Caridad is once again left to fend for herself. Her knowledge of tobacco and cigar-making come in handy and help her make a meager living.

Life bumbles along for the quartet until a decree comes down from the king that all gypsies are to be rounded up and imprisoned. Milagros, Melchor, and Caridad escape, but are separated. Ana is captured and sent to Málaga with thousands of other gypsy women. Over the next several years, she suffers hunger and humiliation and torture. Meanwhile, Caridad runs afoul of the law and is also imprisoned for two years. Melchor travels the length and breadth of Spain to seek revenge on a man who assaulted Caridad and stole from him before launching an ill-starred quest to free his daughter. Milagros does get to marry the man she thinks she loves before learning just how much of a villain his is and suffering terrible exploitation.

As Falcones spins his tale, he treats us  to short essays about why the gypsies were rounded up, Spanish court manners, the tobacco industry of mid-eighteenth century Spain, and other topics. It does make for dry reading and lengthens an already long book. There is no over-arching plot to The Barefoot Queen. I would have described the book as picaresque if anything funny had happened. (It does not.) If there is a tragic version of picaresque, I would use that word instead. Bad things just keep happening to our quartet of protagonists, truly awful things. There are themes that keep this book tied together. Falcones uses his characters to explore what freedom means, what a person can live with and what they can't, how the law can be deformed by money and religion, and forgiveness. Still, The Barefoot Queen is an arduous read.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 25 November 2014. 

11.07.2014

Why I dumped Henry James

I knew when I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady, that Henry James probably wasn't right for me. There was no spark, no chemistry in that first chapter. But then, I love Thomas Hardy. I like E.M. Forster. I devoured Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence and House of Mirth. Why didn't I like James? I decided to give him one more chance when I started reading The Turn of the Screw as my Halloween read this past month. I'd heard that it was a thrillingly creepy story and if I didn't like his human drama, perhaps I could learn to like his horror novella.

I was wrong.

Or, my first impression of James was correct after all. Henry James is not for me. I can't stand his grammar, that's what it is. I even tried to read the text aloud to get a feel for his style, but that didn't help either. Here are the first two sentences from The Turn of the Screw:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
In these two sentences there are 15 comas, one em dash, one semi-colon, and two periods. Fifteen commas! Even for a Victorian that's excessive. I just couldn't get past the prose. That hasn't happened to me for a long time.

What is the trick to reading Henry James? Why do people (and by people I mean critics) like him so much? Any suggestions are welcome.

11.04.2014

Bloggus interruptus

I think I'm a grown up now. Last week, I closed on a lovely house that is twice the size of my apartment. There's even a room that I can use as a dedicated library—something I've always wanted. I've already painted it the color of good Morocco leather and it's going to look even more amazing when I get the bookshelves in.

All this goes to explain why I have to slow down on reading and posting over the next few weeks. There's more painting to be done and the arduous task of schlepping all my books over to the new house. I have few books to move this time around, having weeded out books that sounded good in the bookstore but disappointed when I read them. And for two years now, I've been buying more ebooks than print books. I still have about 675+ books to move, though. (I lost count a while ago.)

I should be able to get back to my usual blistering rate of reading and reviewing by the first week of December. Right now, I'm working my way through Ildefonso Falcones' massive The Barefoot Queen and re-reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book group. I'm still reading, I just don't have hours and hours to devote to it at the moment.