starlady: (xmas penguins)
For today, [personal profile] seekingferret asked about my favorite toe. I have webbed feet, so my second and third toes are literally tied for my favorite toe(s). Interestingly, it's only on the right foot that the webbing goes up high enough to prevent me from wearing five-toed shoes.

Yesterday, [personal profile] rachelmanija asked me about five books I didn't enjoy, or enjoyed for the wrong reasons. This is actually a hard question! One of my achievements of the last few years has been ruthlessly cutting out books that I don't enjoy from my reading habits, mostly through pre-screening my choices. I didn't enjoy Guadalupe Garcia McCall's Summer of the Mariposas for the reasons enumerated at the post. I also didn't enjoy Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch (Viking, 2011) anywhere near as much as I wanted to, for many of the same reasons that Rachel noted in her review. The pacing was wonky and, as much as I liked Sunny, the stakes of the backdrop and the dimensions of her actual experience of being a Leopard Person were very mismatched. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the sequel, which I understand is coming out next year. Okorafor is still one of the most interesting writers I know, but I think The Shadow Speaker is still my favorite of her books (and at this point I've read almost all of them). And while reading volume 8 of Ôoku I inadvertently realized that the manga has straightwashed multiple notable historical figures, including Tsunayoshi, which has definitely colored my opinions about the manga henceforth.

ETA: I also didn't particularly enjoy Georgette Heyer's Sylvester, which I read earlier this year. I'm not well-versed in romance novels in general, and I know enough about the Regency period that the Regency slang felt layered on with a trowel. I also prefer Jane Austen's approach to the Regency period, which (being contemporary) was eminently sensible: most aristocrats are fools. I have False Colours on my shelf and I will probably read Cotillion at some point because it's the one everyone loves, but there it is. That said, I'd welcome recs for people's favorite Heyers that I should read instead.
starlady: a circular well of books (well of books)
Today [personal profile] rachelmanija asked me to talk about five books I enjoyed and why. There are still spots available on the meme!

I'm going to talk about five books I read and enjoyed since my last book post, which was…August 20 of this year. Welp. Thanks, grad school.

Kristin Cashore, Graceling (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) - I'm very much late to the Kristin Cashore party, but I devoured this book in about one sitting and I thought it was fantastic. As most people by now probably know, the book follows Katsa, whose Grace in a land where people with particular gifts are known as Gracelings is very specific: killing people. Katsa's perceptions about herself are upended when she takes steps beyond the reach of her uncle, a rather morally ambiguous monarch of the seven kingdoms comprising the known world. I'm not describing it well, but Katsa's emotions and her story are ridiculously intense, and I could barely put the book down. I loved the portrayal of Katsa as someone who is comfortable with violence but who nonetheless hates what violence does to her, as well as to those around her, and the denouement of the plot. (There is a bit of magical disability at the end, which Cashore has pledged to avoid in future.) It was so good. Seriously, so good.

Rae Carson, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom (Greenwillow, 2011, 2012, 2013) - This was another excellent book with an excellent female protagonist, Elisa, a younger princess who is married off to a neighboring kingdom quite suddenly as the book opens and who must find the strength within herself to protect her adopted realm and herself when she is kidnapped across a vast desert. I really loved this book because of Elisa, who is smart and stronger than she knows, and because it is unabashedly pro-princess in a way that I like. I think Carson found a way to make a princess's role not only interesting but vital, and the book is really great and very hard to put down. I also liked that Elisa is portrayed positively despite the fact that she is overweight, which makes for a nice change. One of the things I liked about Elisa's story was that each book encapsulated a different set of challenges and that she does grow into herself and her role over the course of the narrative; I also liked that the eventual love story was somewhat unconventional, though to say more would be to give away too many spoilers for the first book. Suffice it to say that Elisa is awesome, her world is very real, and I appreciated the great number and diversity of female characters who play important roles in her story. These books are great and you should read them. Along with Kristin Cashore, these books made me glad and certain that there are worthy heirs to Tamora Pierce beginning their careers now.

Franny Bllingsley, Chime (Penguin, 2011) - This is another excellent book with a wonderful, knotty female protagonist. Briony lives in a village at the edge of a swamp in an alternate Victorian England. She knows she's a witch and a murderer, and she hates herself accordingly (she's more than a bit like Katsa in that regard, actually), and it's only when a clever outsider comes to town that she begins to question whether the story she knows about herself is actually true. This is another intense book, very atmospheric and very hard to put down, and I loved the portrayal of Briony and the damage she's inflicted on herself, and the beginning of her journey out of it. I've not read any other of Billingsley's books, but now I very much want to.

Frances Hardinge, Gullstruck Island | The Lost Conspiracy (various, 2009) - Hardinge is one of my favorite writers alive and this book is really amazingly good. I said on Twitter that Hardinge's books prove that middle grade books can be literature, and I would put her in the same class as Megan Whalen Turner in that respect. Gullstruck Island is the story of Hathin, a worrywart girl from a tribe that still clings to the old ways on an island that was colonized by the mainland centuries ago, and how she finds herself holding the entire island's future in her hands, beginning with her older sister. There is a ton of stuff going on in the book--and it's not precisely light; there are massacres and concentration camps, among other things--but compared to the sheer abandon of Hardinge's first book, Fly By Night, it felt a little more controlled, and somewhat more serious. I can't recommend her books highly enough, though I have to say that in my opinion the U.S. covers and titles are mostly terrible.

Hiromi Goto, Darkest Light (Razorbill, 2012) - I bought this book especially in Canada, because it's not available in the States, which is a shame because it's really good. It's the half-sequel to Half World, which I also read and loved, and is just as grotesque (in the aesthetic, not the moral sense) as the first one, but longer and more involved and also…more intense. It's also the rare YA book I've read with a male protagonist, namely Gee, whose identity will be clear to those who've read the first book but who is a mystery to himself and whose depression and anger and vividly and claustrophobically portrayed. To be clear, the book needs a trigger warning for the depiction of a successful suicide, but at the end, I definitely felt, if not entirely optimistic, at peace with the narrative and with Gee's journey. I said at one point earlier that it reminded me somewhat of A Christmas Carol, which is actually one of my favorite books in some senses, in that Gee learns, late but in time like Scrooge, that it's never to late to change your life. Again, highly recommended.

starlady: the philosopher's garden (obligatory china icon)
Bodard, Aliette de. On a Red Station, Drifting. London: Immersion Press, 2012.

It wasn't until after I'd received my copy of this book in the mail that I realized that Aliette de Bodard had sent me a copy of the manuscript along with the copy of Master of the House of Darts. I've written before about how I really enjoy de Bodard's writing, and this novella was no exception.

I wish I'd read A Dream of the Red Chamber before I'd read this book, because I know that it is drawing on that classic for inspiration, but even without that extra background knowledge, I really enjoyed the novella. It's certainly a well-deserved Hugo nomination, and very deserving of a Hugo vote.

The story is the story of a subtle conflict between two strong-willed women, Linh and Quyen, both distantly of the same family but of very different status. Linh flees to the family hold, Prosper Station, after having submitted an arguably treasonous memorial to the Emperor of the Dai Viet Empire and the planet she governed, as a licentiate of the imperial examination system, having been overrun by the rebels. Quyen is acting Station Mistress in the war-driven absence of all the station's best and brightest, called to serve the empire. The third woman in their triangle is not human at all, but the Honored Ancestress, the AI who runs the station…and who is, slowly but surely, losing her grip on her own processes, and the station itself.

De Bodard is Franco-Vietnamese, and I really liked the world building in this novella--if I'm not mistaken, it seems to possibly be set in the far future of her Xuya verse, but either way, it was really interesting to read a space opera in which the human diaspora isn't dominated by white people, to be quite frank. I also thought it was super cool to see a plausible non-sexist Confucianism! For any and all of these things, you should totally check the novella out. Although the paper copies are all gone, you can still buy the ebook.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Jemisin, N.K. The Broken Kingdoms. New York: Orbit Books, 2010.

It would be misleading to describe this book as a "sequel" because it is clearly intended to stand alone, but it is unquestionably a follow-up to Jemisin's debut The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I quite liked. Taking place ten years after the events of that book, The Broken Kingdoms follows the travails of Oree Shoth, a blind artist who makes her living in the city at the roots of the sky-tree. Oree has her own peculiar kind of magic, and she also has an undying surly mortal dude who she brings into her house after finding him on the trash heap. Needless to say, Things Happen.

It took me two years to finish this book because I skimmed to the end in a desperate frenzy when I first got it and then I…put it down for two years. It is compulsively readable, and on the whole I enjoyed it a lot. I really enjoy the way that Jemisin wears her anime influences on her sleeve (I can't express how anime the idea of a city in tree roots is, and Jemisin actually mentions the anime she got the image from in the back), in things like character design and setting and also…some quality of the worldbuilding. I was less into Oree qua Oree than Yeine, though I appreciated the flipped perspective of someone whose people ancestrally worshipped Itempas willingly, partly also because the magical blindness thing was the kind of thing I side-eyed. (I also sort of gave the side-eye to the ending, but then, there's multiple reasons that I don't read romance novels.) I did like that the events from the prior book continue to reverberate, and that several characters from last time had small but important parts to play.

All in all, it's no surprise to me that Jemisin's star only keeps rising in the field, because her books are pretty awesome--inventive, gripping reads with female POC characters and lots of interesting worldbuilding. I'm looking forward to the rest of her books!
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013.

This is one of, if not the, best books I will have read this year. It's beautiful, amazing, wonderful--a triumph.

The Summer Prince is the story of June, the waka daughter of a very politically powerful couple in the city of Palmares Tres, the jewel of postapocalyptic Brazil. It is the story of Gil, June's best friend, who falls in love with the Summer King of Palmares Tres, Enki, whose one-year reign is preordained to end in his death, and his selection of the city's ruling Queen.

Palmares Tres is uneasily divided in many ways, class and age being the most obvious. The ciy's aged but technologically youthful grandes are wary of the energy and rebelliousness of the young waka, and the election of Summer Kings is an acceptable outlet for dissatisfactions. At the beginning of the story, June doesn't much care about any of this; she cares about making art, and after meeting Enki, she cares about making great, confrontational public art with Enki, showing the grandes what they would rather not see.

There aren't words for how much I loved this book. It's so amazing on so many levels--on the level of worldbuilding, as the history and society and culture of Palmares Tres feels so believably complicated and tangible, on the level of character, as June's struggles and eventual hard-won wisdom are sympathetic and engrossing, and on the level of story, which is never predictable and which I couldn't put down. There are so many things to talk about--the culture, the food, the dancing, the absolutely unremarked status of bisexuality as a norm, the difficult subplot involving June's father's death and her mother's decision to remarry one of the city's highest-placed Aunties. It's also a really compelling portrait of the process and attraction of creating art, and also an interesting retelling of the story of Gilgamesh, in which the titular hero of that poem is devalued in favor of the much more interesting points of the triangle. Although Enki arcs into her life like a comet, this is June's story, and it's utterly amazing. Read this book.
starlady: (through the trapdoor)
Brennan, Sarah Rees. Unspoken. New York: Random House, 2012.

I think I liked this book best of all Sarah Rees Brennan's that I've read so far. Our hero is Kami Glass, the part-Japanese intrepid girl reporter of her sleepy Cotswolds town, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Sorry-in-the-Vale is distinguished by the Lynburn manor that looms over the town, but the Lynburns have been gone for the past few years--for most of Kami's life, actually. Of course, when the Lynburns return, and Kami learns that her imaginary friend is not all that imaginary, things start to happen.

I enjoyed this book--I enjoyed Kami, who has a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful fashion sense. I also enjoyed the diametrically opposite take on the "soul bonds" trope than is normal in fandom, and I enjoyed the modern update on Gothic novels. I also liked the secondary characters, and spoilery things that happen with them (I mean, here, Angela and Holly). I even enjoyed the mild melodrama and pathetic fallacies of the whole thing. Brennan carries it all off very well.

I do want to say, though, that even saying the fact that Kami and her brothers' names were chosen by their English mother does not really lampshade the fact that they are nothing like actual Japanese names. Brennan also biffs the way Kami refers to her grandmother (I don't think I've ever heard anyone use the word "sobo" in conversation--I had to look it up to figure out what she meant). So, with these caveats aside, this was a fun read with a plucky, brave female protagonist and a dramatic plot that I look forward to hearing more about, particularly after the ending. If you've liked Sarah Rees Brennan's other work, or if plucky girl reporters solving mysteries sound like your thing, I suspect you'll like this book.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Lord, Karen. Redemption in Indigo. New York: Small Beer Press, 2010.

I won a copy of this book and of Karen Lord's newest novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, from her British publisher on Twitter last month. Thanks, Jo Fletcher Books!

Redemption in Indigo is the story of Paama, a woman whose decision to leave her gluttonous husband (partly because he doesn't appreciate her cooking--the problem is not his appetite, but the size of his soul) forms the beginning of a saga that eventually involves the Indigo Lord, a djombi whose control over the Chaos Stick has been revoked due to his penchant for not appreciating it. Along the way, Paama's sister, parents, a hunter, the Trickster, and assorted other djombi and mortals make their appearances--it's a novel that never quite gives away where it's going, which I very much appreciated.

Partly I suspect this unpredictability derives from the novel's being inspired by a Senegalese folk-tale that I don't know (things I know about Senegal: terribly few), and partly because the story is framed as the performance of an oral storyteller, a griot as they are called in some cultures, and the oral quality allows the characterization and the story to expand and contract, to flatten and thin out, as the rhythm of the narrative demands. Although it isn't quite as "thick" as a more conventional novel, there is plenty to sink one's teeth into in terms of themes and in particular the voice of the narrator, which is by turns humorous, sly, and eventually, when the fantastical elements of the plot get to be too much, resigned to unreality.

I've never been a big fan of fairy tales, but I certainly enjoyed this book, and I would definitely recommend it to people who like retold tales, particularly retold tales that aren't Euro-American. I'm very much looking forward to The Best of All Possible Worlds.

More reviews: oyceter's
rachelmanija's
rushthatspeaks'
Interview with Karen Lord by [personal profile] shveta_writes 
starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)
Half my review posts are impelled by people saying things on Twitter these days. Well, there's nothing wrong with that.


Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. 2012.

This is the second e-book I've ever read. Yes, I've joined the third millennium at last.

I got this e-book when it was briefly offered for free a few months back, since I've read and loved many of Zen Cho's stories and had heard nothing but good things about this novella. My only complaint was that it was too short, although since I don't read romance I have absolutely no sense of what genre conventions Cho may or may not be subverting here. Jade Yeo is completely enjoyable just as a story, period, about a young Malaysian Chinese writer living in 1920s London on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group and having some believable and believably difficult challenges navigating her life and her relationships. I've made it sound boring, I fear, and it is anything but! Jade and her POV are a treat; I would read her diary endlessly, as much for her observations about others around her as for herself. There are more than a few pointed observations hidden in the confections of Jade's wit, and you should totally read her story for yourself.

The e-book is available here, and you can read more of Zen Cho's short fiction online.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Johnson, Alaya Dawn. Racing the Dark. Chicago: Agate Bolden, 2008.

I got this book while it was available for free on Amazon.com (it's actually the first e-book I've ever read) because Johnson is one of the guests of honor at this year's Sirens conference. You should join us! It's been an awesome time for the three years I've gone, and I fully expect for it to be an awesome time again.

Racing the Dark, the first book in an unfinished trilogy, tells the story of Lana, who when the book opens is initiated into the sisterhood of divers on her island, who provide the community's main source of wealth via harvesting organic jewels from the mouths of fish. The jewels Lana finds on her first solo dive mark her out as having a great spiritual power, but she conceals this sign of her destiny and soon is forced to leave her island with her parents in light of the environmental upheaval that has turned the freshwater seas around her island brackish. Lana's father goes ahead of them to the capital to try to establish himself as an instrument maker, and she and her mother remain behind in the closest large port city trying to make a living as a barmaid and a laundry-girl, respectively. It was when Lana's mother turns to prostituting herself for money to buy medicine for Lana that I realized I wasn't reading a YA book (though, when Lana gets drunk and smokes weed with no consequences within the first few pages, I started to have my suspicions).

Despite the way it seems initially, this isn't a YA book. But it doesn't quite feel like an adult novel either, despite the fact that it quickly develops into a very epic epic fantasy that spans years, characters, and continents. It quickly becomes clear that the environment is profoundly out of whack: the spirits of the elements that were bound millennia ago are restless in their bindings, and they want to be free. I said on Twitter that the book's setting feels like the midpoint between FF: VII and FF: X-2, which is a reference to the fact that in one of the bonus scenes in FF: X-2 child pilot Shinra talks about possibly tapping the planet's geothermal energy and in FF: VII the geothermal power processing has nearly destroyed the planet. Environmental precariousness is a major theme in the book, as is the theme of humans being out of whack with their environment.

There are a lot of characters in here, some of whom die annoyingly early and others who linger too long (I personally loathed Kotaku from the very first time we got his POV), and I have to agree with [personal profile] oyceter's remark that Lana, for most of the book, seems rather passive. But in all honesty the narrative propels along fast enough that I honestly didn't notice, in part because the setting and the characters are pretty original: the language and the setting feel Pacific Island mostly, although much of the language and cultural details seem Asian (mochi are specifically referenced at one point). (On that note: characters aren't pictographs, KTHNXBAI.) All the characters in the book are people of color, which I also appreciated.

The structure was also, as I've implied, kind of whacked out--I continue to think that this book is more YA than not, except for how I don't know that it could ever be marketed as YA. Anecdotal evidence seems to be that the book got next to no marketing, or if it did, it was the wrong marketing, which is a crying shame. This is a really interesting world with a fascinating and varied cast of characters, and I will very much be seeking out the sequel, The Burning City, as well as the rest of Johnson's works.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Dolamore, Jaclyn. Magic Under Stone. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

I very much enjoyed the first book in this two-book set, Magic Under Glass (subject, as some people may recall, to a successful campaign against its whitewashed cover), and I was sad that in some ways this book didn't live up to its predecessor. But despite its flaws there were some parts that I liked better than the first book, and if you liked the first one I would not dissuade you from reading the sequel.

Magic Under Stone finds Erris and Nimira seeking out a sorcerer whom they are told can help them in their predicament. It also finds a sensitive jinn being commanded by the current elf-king to do various unpleasant things to Erris and the only other surviving member of his family, the half-human, very spoiled and unpleasant Violet.

I liked that there were even more female characters in this book, in a variety of different roles and with different strengths, and I continued to really love Nimira and her perspective as a young brown woman in a predominantly white country, as well as the fact that she is incorrigibly proactive and, in her own way, pretty badass. I couldn't stand Violet, though I understood the reasons she was the way she was; I wanted about 200x more Annalie. I was annoyed that my suspicion about the two male sorcerers Karstor and Garven being in love was confirmed, but only after one of them was dead. I found it even harder not to read the elves as Native Americans this time around, except for how what we see of the Faerie country has taverns? What?

A good chunk of the book's problems can be laid at the feet of the fact that Dolamore was (I'm told) forced to put the developments of two books into one, with the unfortunate consequence that the Faerie part at the end is more or less totally shoehorned in. It more or less totally unbalances the narrative, and I was sorry to see publishing concerns so fundamentally alter, for the worse, what could have been a really excellent trilogy. As it is, I would still recommend this book, but it could have been so much better.
starlady: (but it does move)
Rutkoski, Marie. The Jewel of the Kalderash. New York: Farrar Strauss & Girroux, 2011.

I borrowed this, the final volume in the Kronos Chronicles, from [personal profile] shveta_writes as usual. This final volume sends Petra, Neel and Tomik to the Roma homeland in India (and then, eventually, back again to Europe), and mostly resolves a number of plot threads along the way. I would happily read more books about Petra, but it seems clear from the denouement of this book that this is the end. I really enjoyed the previous books in the series, and if you're looking for alternate Renaissance historical fantasy with clockwork spiders, scheming sorcerers, and intrigue galore, I recommend these books highly.

I share Shveta's complaint that, for all that a good chunk of the book takes place in India, there's very little of India about the setting, though this lampshaded in text by the Roma living on an island. I thoroughly enjoyed Petra, Astrophil, Neel, Tomik and their friends and enemies (there are a number of great characters, both male and female, introduced in this volume), and I liked the ending to their stories too, and the fact that the gains made are not without cost. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Rutkoski's books.
starlady: (abhorsen key)
Larbalestier, Justine and Sarah Rees Brennan. Team Human. New York: HarperTeen, 2012.

I've enjoyed previous books I've read by Larbalestier and Brennan, and I've wanted to read this book since I heard them talk about it at Sirens 2011, when they said, "We wanted to write a book about the best friend in Twilight" and we all said, "What best friend in Twilight?"

The book follows Mel, a teenager in the vampire city of New Whitby, Maine, whose best friend falls in love with Victorian-era vampire Francis. Mel, needless to say, believes that friends don't let friends date vampires, and is determined to thwart this course of events; by the end of the book, everyone has been forced to examine their preconceptions, as well as who gets to make choices for whom.

I enjoyed Mel, who is Chinese-American and not afraid to tell people that they are racist (bonus: unambiguously non-whitewashed cover!), and I enjoyed Larbalestier and Brennan's hilarious writing, which is laid on particularly thick in the first part of the book, which is basically a straight-up, and very welcome, satire of Twilight. Eventually the book modulates to something more serious, but I didn't have a problem with the transition, and I enjoyed the story all the way through. It's not the deepest vampire romance ever, but it does very obviously subvert some of that subgenre's tropes in a very funny way, and it was a very enjoyable read.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

This is a really, really excellent book, clearly the exception that proves the rule that the Pulitzer Prize often goes to the totally undeserving.

Probably everyone knows by now that this book is about the eponymous overweight Dominican nerd from New Jersey of the title. Let me tell you, if you haven't read this book--particularly if you're in a position to get the genre, and particularly Tolkien, references--you really, really should. As the late [personal profile] skywardprodigal pointed out, Oscar's very existence is a rebuke to a lot of the nastier myths about (the lack of) SFF fans of color, and if only for that reason, it's worth reading. But there's a lot more going on here than that, and I don't want to overlook any of it.

The book tells the story of Oscar from the perspective of his one friend, Yunior, but Oscar's story isn't just his own--it's the story of his sister Lola, of his mother Beli, of his grandmother La Inca, of their family, of Trujillo, of the Dominican Republic itself. Unlike many other readers, I did get about a microsecond of Dominican history through reading Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, whose protagonists the Maribal sisters are also frequently name-checked in the footnotes.[1] Díaz goes deeper and much more explicitly into all the ways that Dominican history is fucked up, and it was interesting getting a comparative perspective on the Trujillo era, to say the least. More to the point, words fail at the sheer verve and pleasure of Díaz's writing, even when he's describing some of the most horrific practices of a horrific regime, and a horrific history. (Sidenote: I don't suppose it surprises anyone that Oscar's New Jersey and mine are almost totally different, but let me assure you, this is New Jersey, and Oscar and his sister are indisputably of New Jersey, and I could recognize New Jersey in their lives and even some of the places they spend those lives, and I really enjoyed that.)

Having skimmed most of the enthusiastic blurbs on the covers and endpapers, I actually suspect that most mainstream literary critics didn't get the real point of this book. No, I don't think riffing on Kurtz means the world has been saved. )
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Summer of the Mariposas. New York: Tu Books, 2012.

McCall is one of the Guests of Honor at Sirens 2013, which is going to be awesome--you should come!--so when I saw this book at the Strand I snapped it right up. I enjoyed it, but I also had some quibbles.

The book is billed as a Mexican-American fantasy retelling of the Odyssey, and in this case, the marketing didn't lie. The book follows Odilia and her four sisters in their quest to return a body they find in the Rio Grande to the man's family in Mexico and then to their grandmother's house and back again; along the way they are guided by La Llorona and face down a parlianment of lechuzas and the chupacabras, among others. The book was a page-turner, and I enjoyed the sisterhood among the characters very much. The book is definitely a gripping read--I was tearing through it even as my internal complaints accumulated, and I really did enjoy the portrait McCall drew of a family that straddles cultures and borders, and the way McCall fearlessly combined the elements of her stories into a new thing that is all its own.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. )
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. New York: Warner Books, 2000.

Dedicated to the memory of Pete Hudson.

Nalo Hopkinson was the Guest of Honor at two cons I attended last year; I read this book after Sirens. I liked it better than the other book of hers that I've read, The Chaos, though this novel, Hopkinson's second, is way heavier and much darker.

Midnight Robber tells the story of Tan Tan, whose father Antonio abducts her to an alternate prison-world (dimension?) after he commits a crime that Granny Nanny, the AI web into which almost everyone is linked and which helps govern society, cannot abide. Tan Tan grows up quickly on the criminal world, and at the age of sixteen she commits a crime her settlement can't forgive and runs off into the bush, where she lives in trees with the planet's native dominant species and begins to remake herself to match the legend of the Robber Queen.

Spoilers contain discussions of sexual abuse, rape, and incest ) But Tan Tan's journey from self-loathing to self-confidence is unforgettable, as is the setting, and Hopkinson's language, which is wondrous. Both planets are Afro-Caribbean, and the telling of the SF story in another English--Caribbean Creole--using that to describe and map futuristic concepts, is really cool, as are the interpolated folk tales about Tan Tan as the Robber Queen. In a way, the book is a rebuke and a reminder to mainstream SFF that (and here I'm quoting a Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman novel) there are other worlds out there, and other suns.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Diverse Energies. Ed. Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti. New York: Tu Books, 2012.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Thanks!

I'd heard good things about this anthology, and though the premise isn't something that I am 100% always a fan of--"YA dystopia" is a marketing category that needs to be exploded as far as I am concerned, and as [personal profile] rachelmanija notes, the books in it "are generally about naïve privileged white girls slowly coming to realize that their “the government controls everything” society actually sucks, while navigating a love triangle"--I genuinely enjoyed almost all of the stories in this anthology, and there were even a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. When I finally write that magical urban revolution story, I am putting a coelacanth in it as the symbol of rebellion, let me just say. Another thing I genuinely enjoyed is that almost all of the protagonists in these stories are not white, and many of the authors are people of color. These are both things that I can get behind.

individual notes )

Overall, I didn't find this collection as depressing as some people have--I suspect this has as much to do with temperament as with anything else, but there are at least two components to my reaction that I can identify. The first is the uncomfortable knowledge that some of these futures, or near carbon copies of them, almost certainly already exist in our present for those who are less privileged than I am and we are. The second is the fact that very few of the stories end in a truly hopeless place, for the world as a whole if not the protagonists, as far as I can tell. Again, it may be temperament that inspires this interpretation in me, but it may also be the fact that creation can and does come out of destruction, as the writers in this anthology prove.
starlady: (sora)
Originally published February 25, 2005.

In a meteoric career, David Mitchell has established himself as one of the most ingenious fiction writers of recent times. His third novel, the Booker Prize-shortlisted Cloud Atlas, effortlessly meets the expectations engendered by its predecessors Ghostwritten and number9dream. Mitchell is no stranger to such literary heights: number9dream was also shortlisted for the Booker in 2001.

As I'’ve toted Cloud Atlas around campus, people have asked, “What’'s it about?” Simple question. Tough answer. Cloud Atlas tells six apparently unrelated stories: that of Adam Ewing, a scrivener voyaging home to San Francisco from the South Pacific in 1850; of Robert Frobisher, a bisexual, indigent composer working as an amanuensis in Belgium between the wars; reporter Luisa Rey, who uncovers a conspiracy in 1970s California; of Timothy Cavendish, a near-future London publisher conned by his brother; of Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” in a hypercapitalist 22nd century Korea dreaming of equal rights; and of Zachry, a tribesman in post-apocalyptic Hawaii whose life is changed by a woman from another society.

Sound complicated? For any other novelist, this would be enough material for six novels, but Mitchell’s narrative fireworks aren'’t finished. Each story breaks off at a crucial point and jumps to the next character’s tale until the final story, at which point the characters’ lives begin to cascade into each other and the novel boomerangs back to where and when it began. “"Revolutionary or gimmicky?”" Frobisher wonders about his latest opus, in a phrase which applies equally well to Mitchell'’s novel. "“Shan'’t know until it’'s finished, and by then it’'ll be too late.”"

Cloud Atlas is a definite improvement over Ghostwritten, which employed a similar leap-frogging structure, in that Mitchell has honed his laser-sharp characterizations even further and now uses both first and third person narratives. Whereas Ghostwritten'’s protagonists sounded much the same, the novel’s new narrators each have their own distinctive voices. Adam Ewing writes his journal in pitch-perfect Victorian English, while Sonmi-451'’s corpocratic’ dialect sounds like nothing you'’ve ever read before, –not even Zachry'’s post-apocalyptic patois.

The daisy-chain structure in Cloud Atlas is indeed “dazzling,” as its back-cover blurbs enthuse, and Mitchell juggles his stories brilliantly. Through the course of the novel, it becomes clear that these narratives, seemingly so disparate, are deeply connected, and these connections seem like the most natural things in the world; Mitchell easily avoids the postmodernist pitfall wherein artifice for its own sake trumps art.

Indeed, Mitchell may be a genius. Though he shares postmodernism’'s concern with form for form’'s sake ("“As if Art were the What, not the How!"” Frobisher remarks dismissively), he isn'’t above poking a little metafictional fun at his own endeavor.

A Brit by birth, Mitchell lived for eight years in Japan, and all his novels take place at least in part on the Pacific Rim or in London. Aspects of Buddhism (particularly reincarnation and non-violence) are central to his philosophy, and as each character confronts issues of power, justice, tyranny and human nature, Mitchell'’s belief in humanity'’s positive and negative potential is made searingly manifest.

Cloud Atlas unflinchingly exposes the darkest side of human nature and its ruinous consequences; after the Fall, most of the Earth is “dead-zoned” and all cities are in ruins, leaving troglodytes and neo-barbarians to struggle against each other among the paltry remains of the “Civ’lize.” I suspect that Mitchell employed the interlocking narrative structure to avoid ending the novel on the dark notes of many character's’ tales; Ewing'’s concludes with an espousal of cautious optimism. "“One fine day,”" he muses, "“a purely predatory world shall consume itself. ... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”" I don'’t think Mitchell'’s writing has ever been more passionate, although he never resorts to melodrama (Frobisher’'s story is particularly wrenching), and by the end of Cloud Atlas, the reader agrees with Ewing wholeheartedly.

Still, some doubts linger. In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell brings the apocalyptic undercurrents of his previous novels to the forefront, and the novel remains darkly equivocal about humanity’s ability and willingness to better itself. Given that Ghostwritten features a narrowly averted apocalypse caused by good intentions, and that the denouement in number9dream involves a catastrophic earthquake, one has to wonder whether Mitchell believes in the possibilities he preaches, or whether he'’s trying to convince himself as well as his audience.
starlady: (abhorsen key)
Bodard, Aliette de. Master of the House of Darts. London: Angry Robot, 2011.

I actually won a copy of this book from the author (with this delicious "Aztec gold" brownie recipe), who is one of my internet acquaintances whom I most hope to meet some day. I have really enjoyed her other books, and I cannot recommend highly enough her short fiction.

The final volume of her Aztec mysteries is set a few months after the end of Harbinger of the Storm, and largely deals with the ramifications of the denouement of that story. It's not a major spoiler to say that the new Revered Speaker's coronation war was more or less a total bust, and the consequent dearth of captives has real political and indeed, existential consequences for Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, and the rest of the imperial elite - particularly in light of the Revered Speaker's accelerating instability and the unmistakable signs of a renewed conspiracy targeting the highest echelons of imperial politics.

I was struck by how much, even as the trilogy does follow some of the genre conventions of trilogies, the overall politics of this final volume are much more ambiguous and decidedly non-triumphalist. There are no easy answers for any of the characters, and several major characters end with their interrelationships significantly strained. All the same, one gets the feeling that the book ends the only place it could have ended, and de Bodard's depiction of Aztec society and the nuances of its history, politics, and religion remains strong and sensitive throughout. I also continued to enjoy the characters' growth and interactions with each other - comparing where the major players stand in this book with where they stood at the beginning is instructive - and I continue to like Acatl and his sister Mihmatini and the way they've proven themselves.

Really, I'm sad the books are over, and I hope Bodard writes more novels soon. Until then, her wonderful short fiction should be more than enough to keep me satisfied, and for those looking for an "urban fantasy" that is pretty far outside the realm of the usual in the genre, this should fit the bill.
starlady: (lemons)
Black, Holly. Red Glove. New York: McElderry Books, 2011.
---------. Black Heart. New York: McElderry Books, 2012.

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] swan_tower for borrowing these to me.

Premise description, from my previous post: In brief, a certain segment of the population is born with the ability to work curses on others via their hands--but each worker can only work one type of curse, and each curse creates blowback directly in the worker, so that death-workers, for example, are always liable to lose fingers. To make things even more complicated, Prohibition outlawed curse-working in the States, and of course, to deal with that, workers have formed organized crime families.

I enjoyed White Cat, and though the latter two books aren't quite as shockingly twisty as the first one, I liked them a lot too. They are compulsively readable, and as always, Holly Black is really good at capturing the atmosphere of New Jersey and also the character of New Jersey people. I also really appreciated the very believable New Jersey-style politics and violence of the overarching plot - there's a scene in the third book that is basically straight-up pasticheing Jim McGreevy, the former governor who resigned over a gay affair. Spoilers realize they never should have left New Jersey )

I'm on the fence about whether to tag this post as "chromatic protagonist" or not. The end of Red Glove finally confirms that Cassel is brown-skinned (it was ambiguous but suggested in the first book), but…Black doesn't really do anything with it. (To be fair, Cassel doesn't know his own family history because he lives in a family of con men.) I don't know. That was one of the few sour notes for me, but overall, having read all of Black's YA novels, I think these are her best yet.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Elliott, Kate. Cold Fire. New York: Orbit Books, 2011.

After I finished Cold Magic I tore right into this book, which follows Cat and Bee as they struggle to stay one step ahead of the Cold Mages trying to possess them and, even worse, the Wild Hunt, which comes for people like Bee and dismembers them and leaves their heads in a well. Their journey takes them among radicals and trolls across the sea to the city of Expedition, which corresponds to the city of Santo Domingo in our Dominican Republic, much as Cat and Bee's beloved Adurnam corresponds to our Southampton. The correspondence is almost entirely irrelevant, however, since all of the intervening history is different.

Expedition is a free city founded by refugees from the Malian Empire and exists by treaty with and sufferance of the Taino Kingdom, which claims most of what we know as the Antilles. I've done a teeny bit of the research on this, too, and from what I can tell Elliott does a good job of inventing plausible alternate futures. (I'd like to ask her about the haplogenetic issue, just out of curiosity.) Expedition society is smartly and vividly painted - the food descriptions kept making me hungry - and the polyglot culture is fascinating. Cat washes ashore there with little more than the clothes on her back and her determination to save Bee from the Wild Hunt, having learned who her biological father is. No sooner does she walk ashore does she encounter her erstwhile husband Andevai, the cold mage, working as a carpenter.

La forza del destino )

The unstable element in all of this is the spirit world, of course, and Cat's sire (and what he does at the end of the book, OMG), and her awesome brother Rory, and what Bee is becoming. I can't wait for Cold Steel.

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