Sunday, November 27, 2011

Grave Witch, by Kalayna Price

I'd been trying to read one of my library books, but couldn't give it the attention it deserved - it was a fairy tale retelling, and I realized I'm still in the mood for the strong, female, first-person narration of urban fantasy.

The kind that isn't just vampire porn, I mean. Since, as far as I can tell, the genre is overloaded with vampire porn, I've sworn off picking up random urban fantasy books; last night I did a lot of poking around on the Goodreads/LibraryThing/Amazon reviews to hunt up a new book to read. I found four that had really good reviews and sounded interesting, read their samples, and liked Grave Witch's best.

It's an interesting world: no vampires, no werewolves, just fae and witches. Alex Craft is (SURPRISE!) a grave witch: she can raise the shade of the dead, allowing them to speak to the living. She's got a private business, and is hoping to someday work for the police system, if the courts ever resolve to allow the dead's testimony as evidence. I think that concept is pretty cool. The story at hand revolves around some homicide victims whose raising does not go well, and the shitstorm they are a result of.

I liked it; I give it a thumbs up and intend to buy the second one (which is a quicker approval rating than I've given some other series[es?] that I like).

It made me wonder, though: are love triangles an inescapable feature of the genre? Does every heroine have two (or more) hotties she must choose between? Mercy Thompson has Samuel and Adam; October Daye has Tybalt and Connor; Sookie Stackhouse has Bill and Sam; et cetera. I'm not sure I've seen an urban fantasy without this feature. (Not that I have dipped my toes very deeply in the genre, due to the aforementioned wariness of vampire porn.)

Alex Craft has her homicide detective, and Death. Death! Who is kind of awesome actually, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him, but I have to wonder: how much of a real relationship could you have with a dude who is basically your imaginary friend? It's not like you can take him out to dinner, introduce him to your buddies, convince your mother/girlfriends that you really don't need to go looking for a man. Awkward.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The unfinishable War and Peace (In Russian) Project

War and Peace is not the longest novel in the world; it's more like #17. I've never read it, but always meant to. Really.

Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I wanted to read it in the original language, which is going to be much, much harder. I studied Russian in college, but that was ten years ago, and I've lost a lot of it. I can't speak it anymore, but I can read it (slowly, and with a dictionary at hand).

It's been a little tricky finding a format that I'm actually likely to read. Four fat volumes make print awkward (too big!); so did reading a sketchy Kindle edition* on the iPhone, whose limited display area forced me to flip back pages far too often (too small!).

Now I have a real Kindle, with a better screen, and it occurred to me to look for public domain digitizations through WorldCat,, and Google. (I already knew I could get the English from Project Gutenberg; I'd been using it in lieu of a Russian/English dictionary.) Lo! They led me to:
I found .mobi's on, but their conversion process must have gone south on the Cyrillic: there are tons of numbers and letters where there should be letters. It's very sad. So, .pdf's it is, which are unfortunately less customizable in font size etc., but maybe I'll get used to them.

Over on, Leigh Butler has been blogging her first time reading A Song of Ice And Fire;** it seems like a pretty good format on which to base blogging my first time reading War and Peace. What seems particularly useful is that she's thought to write a summary of what she read, so that she can keep track of what's going on; I am very likely to forget what's happened already, especially given the huge cast of characters.

And, er, especially given how very, very likely I am to set it down for long periods of time. I'm not so good on the whole finish what you start thing. But I am telling myself: one is allowed to take a very long time to accomplish an item from one's "Things To Do Before I Die" list. There's only the one deadline, and if you don't make it... well, nobody's going to have opportunity to scold you, are they?

* I'm also not entirely sure that sketchy Kindle copy won't go the way of 1984 - it disappeared from Amazon's listings for a while, and then later reappeared under a slightly different title. Suspicious. (I never finished the sample, so never popped the $2 to examine the entire content - for all I know, it might not even be all four volumes. The product description is virtually nonexistent. It makes me unwilling to shell out any money at all, if I can find an alternative.)

** I had been dying for her to get to that one part near the end of the first book - you know the one I mean if you've read it, and if you haven't, you'll know it when you get there - for MONTHS. I lived to see her reaction. It did not disappoint: it was just like mine.

Dearly, Departed, by Lia Habel

I'm not really into zombies. Less so, the entire concept of zombie romance: zombies, like vampires, are inherently not Nice Guys. Plus: zombies have pieces falling off of them. Gross.

But the entry for this one on Scalzi's The Big Idea series made it sound like Lia Habel was aiming for a more interesting kind of zombie - one that remembered his humanity and tried to hold on to it - so I added it to my Kindle sample spree. (You can also read the first fifty pages of Dearly, Departed here - I think this contains more than the Kindle sample does, actually.)

It turns out: this book is full of win. It's incredibly funny - not slapstick funny, or silly funny, but it's the end of the world and you'd better find something in it to laugh about or else you're going to fall apart funny. It's sweet and sad, and the author hit the target on humanized zombies. I liked them a lot better than your standard moaning rotters.

Nora, the mortal heroine, is badass, without ever trading her pretty dress for pants. Bram, the zombie hero, is a stand-up guy who happens to have some pretty terrible instincts he has to control. OK, so he still has body parts due to fall off, gross, but he's not particularly happy about it either, and shit happens. I forgive him, and I can see why Nora comes to love him - which she does not do instantly. Nora: also creeped out by hanging around decaying, potentially raving cannibals.

It's written in first-person, from multiple perspectives - not just Nora and Bram. I found that a little odd at first, but it wasn't too hard to keep who was narrating straight. I really enjoyed the narration of Pamela, Nora's best friend: she's more inclined to be girly, but becomes badass out of necessity. She doesn't have to like it, but you know, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes to call...

I'm still a little confused on the motivations of the villain, even after his obligatory gloating speech. It seems like his whole plan was to... force somebody to do something he was going to do anyway? But it's not a villain-driven story, where that kind of thing could break it. I'm happy enough to gloss it over as crazy bad guy didn't think this through. Maybe it's the kind of thing that will be more clear on the re-read.

But I also loved that, because Nora and Bram are so very, very star-crossed - like, Bram is already dead star-crossed - I had no idea where the ending was going to go. Happily Ever After? Romeo and Juliet? It could easily have gone either way, and I really, really enjoyed not being able to tell.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vicious Grace, by M. L. N. Hanover

Vicious Grace is my favorite of the three books out so far in this series. You could also phrase this as: each book builds on, and is better than, the last.

Despite my not really liking the first book so much, Vicious Grace was what made me want to re-read it: remember that straightforward Kill The Bad Guy plot? They knew up front that killing the bad guy would dissolve all the bad guy's magical works; that was part of the point. (The other part was to avenge the dead uncle.) Vicious Grace involves one of these magical works: there's a hospital in Chicago doing double duty as a magical prison, and Bad Guy had a hand in some of the wards. Those wards are gone now - have been gone for a year, since Bad Guy's death - and as its inmate loosens its bonds, the hospital's becoming dangerous.

And it's Jayné's fault.

Vicious Grace involves facing hard truths: there are a lot of things that have happened in the three books that, when you put them together, add up to some seriously bad shit. But Jayné hasn't wanted to see the unpleasant truth; it contradicts everything she's always believed, always taken for granted. And because Jayné hasn't wanted to see it, and it's a first-person narrative, the reader only sees it indirectly: you see all the little details too, but you get to choose whether to put them together into realizing what the bad shit is, or whether to believe as Jayné has believed.

At the end of the book, Jayné's eyes are open; the very last line is one of the two major reveals of the story. That one is a truth I sort of saw coming, but Jayné's perspective on the issue wasn't something I'd considered until she opened her mouth and said it out loud - and I realized that if I were actually in her shoes, I would be huddled under a blanket, hyperventilating. I'm really, really looking forward to seeing what she does with the situation over the course of Killing Rites, and I am now a little impatient for it to show up on my doorstep next week.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Darker Angels, by M. L. N. Hanover

"I'm always impressed by how much fighting evil feels like committing crime," Jayné says, in Darker Angels, as they make plans to kidnap a teenage girl to rescue her from being possessed/killed by the demon who is hunting her down.

This is one of the things I like about this series: in Unclean Spirits, taking out the supernatural bad guy goes down like a hit. In all three of the books, the main characters are stuck with the existing system of laws that say you don't get to be vigilantes; there's no exceptions made if your target is a shell of a human possessed by a demon. Nobody's like, Oh, it's okay, he was a vampire! It's not okay; even if it's morally right, it is still legally wrong, and the gang's got to stay under the radar.

In Unclean Spirits, we're told that Jayné's uncle was a demon hunter, and demons - "riders" - are bad shit. You might make pacts with some of them - the lesser of two evils; enemy of my enemy; etc. - but everybody agrees that all riders are bad for the humans they ride. Everybody who worked for Jayné's uncle, anyway; anybody who got their information from him.

But in Darker Angels, we meet some characters who aren't connected to good old Uncle Eric, and they make a pretty good case for certain types of riders being beneficial, not malicious. And if that's the case, then going vigilante on them isn't morally right, either, and now you're not Batman, you're just a bad guy. Framing the whole set of shenanigans as crime is very appropriate; it feels like committing crime because it is.

I like the way the moral clarity of demon-hunting is being pulled out from under Jayné's feet. She inherited superpowers and a vast fortune, but no instruction manual, and in Darker Angels that's really beginning to show. There's too much that Jayné doesn't know, and her ignorance has major consequences. Just having superpowers, and intending to be one of the good guys, doesn't actually make you the good guy. And having actually done evil is harder to recover from than merely failing to do enough good; I like seeing that play out.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich: becoming a movie!

I went to the grocery store yesterday, and I saw One for the Money with a new cover! For a movie! (This is not that cover - this is the cover design pattern you'll see on the entire series.)

I first read these books when I worked for a Waldenbooks, years ago. My co-workers were big fans, and introduced me to it. Since they also recommended it to every customer who walked through the door and asked for a good book, and there were already a lot of books in the series, we sold kind of a lot of Evanovich, and talked about who we would cast. I can only remember Sandra Bullock as Stephanie Plum, and Vin Diesel as Ranger, neither of whom were chosen. Well, it was ten years ago that we picked them, anyway.

I live under a rock as far as Hollywood goes, so I don't recognize any of the cast except Katharine Heigl, who I think should make a pretty good Stephanie Plum. I'd like to go see it in the theater, except I think it'll be coming out too soon after the introduction of a newborn into the house for that to be convenient. Alas!

I highly recommend the whole Stephanie Plum series - they're a comedy/mystery hybrid, in which New Jersey native Stephanie falls into the bail bonds bounty hunter business, and isn't very good at it. The characters are amazing; her Grandma Mazur is hilarious. I think there's 17 or 18 of them now. (I don't own them all myself, yet - 17 or 18 is a lot, so I've been reading them from the library and trying to pick up used copies.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Unclean Spirits, by M. L. N. Hanover

One of the urban fantasy series(es?) I've been following is The Black Sun's Daughter, by M. L. N. Hanover. The fourth book comes out at the end of the month, so I've decided to re-read the first three, to pick up on what I missed the first go round - because as the series progressed, it became clear that shit was not as it first seemed, and I had missed a lot.

To be honest, Unclean Spirits, taken by itself, is not all that awesome. It's a pretty straightforward find bad guy; kill bad guy plot (summary: Jayné's favorite uncle dies and leaves his fortune and his magic tricks to her, with which she pursues vengeance against his supernatural murderers), and it starts off with a bad case of Too Many Dicks On The Dance Floor. If I'd picked up this book randomly from the bookstore, I'm not sure I would have continued the series.

But I didn't pick this book up randomly - I did it because Hanover is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham, who wrote the absolutely stunning Long Price Quartet. I'd read that he had Big Plans that involved starting The Black Sun's Daughter out rather conventionally for the kickass-heroine model, but gradually breaking from the tradition. Beating the shit out of the baddies is not what makes a strong woman, he wrote (and I paraphrase).

So I bought the next two books anyway, on trust. And it turns out that the first book is more complicated than it looks. There's a lot of subtle foreshadowing that at first feels like casual detail, but later turns out to be really important. And major female characters join the cast pretty soon; there's a very interesting friends-with-an-awkward-conflict-of-interest dynamic between Jayné and Kim. Actually, due to reading the three books in quick succession, I'd forgotten when exactly Kim joins up; I thought it was the beginning of the second book, but in fact it's midway through the first. Kim's entrance, that moment where Jayné gains an ally of her own rather than being guided by a bunch of boys who think they know better than her, is where I start enjoying the series.

On the re-read, I can see that Unclean Spirits starts off so patriarchal deliberately, in much the same manner that my two-year-old carefully builds a tower out of his wooden blocks: dude's just looking forward to knocking it down and watching the pieces scatter. Midway through the book, the patriarchal model does start to collapse: Jayné stops following orders and starts giving them instead; she adds women to the team; she starts considering not what her uncle - from whom she inherited this mess, and this group of people - would do, but what she will do. Breaking out of the male-dominated power structure is one of the major points of the book, not something that just happens accidentally.

It doesn't make the first part of the book any more comfortable to read, though; I suspect I will continue to prefer the second and third.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn

I've been using the "if you liked this..." algorithms at Goodreads, LibraryThing, and Amazon to try to find more books. All of them insisted I would love Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn. I take these recommendations with a grain of salt: they also insist Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself is right up my alley, but I can't get past the prologue with the manly barbarian doing his manly barbarian things.

But I've enjoyed Shinn's Samaria books, so this one seemed a likely prospect; it became part of my massive Kindle sample spree. I'm trying to remind myself that the sample spree does accomplish one of its intended purposes - it prevents me buying a book I'm not enamored with, by making "looking at a different book" just as easy as hitting the "buy now" button. However, it's apparently doing nothing to abate the serial purchasing aspect, because when I am intrigued by a sample, I still hit the "Buy now" very quickly.

Well, I should have known. The whole point of getting a Kindle was to make it incredibly easy to access new material. I still have to work on habits to dampen the frequency at which I avail myself of this luxury, though. Alternating ebooks with library books, maybe.

Anyway: Summers at Castle Auburn: awesome. The algorithms did not lie on this one. I was caught before the sample was even half-over; it was a very comfortable first-person narration, very easy to sink into.

The narrator is Corie, a bastard daughter of a high royal house, who spends her summers at the castle, where her half-sister is betrothed to the prince. She's fourteen and naive: she believes her uncle's tale that she's there to claim her place in the family; she adores the handsome but dangerously spoiled prince who's to wed her sister; she's excited to go on an "aliora hunt" with her uncle, the prince, and some other nobles, it never once occurring to her that there might be anything wrong with capturing and enslaving these elf-like creatures as household servants. Since she only spends summers at the castle, and the rest of the year in her village, she isn't at court often enough to see beyond the glamor of it all. She's a very competent apprentice to her grandmother, a herbalist/wise woman/witch, but not so good at the whole political/social realm. For several years, it doesn't even really occur to her that intrigue exists, or that she's a pawn on the board.

I sort of think I was a very naive person for a very long time, so I could identify. I liked how the narration showed things that told the reader what was going on, without Corie really registering them at the time; I liked watching her illusions fall away, and watching how she dealt with having been wrong all this time. I liked watching her stand up for what was right, in the end.

I would've liked to have known Elisandra, her sister, a little better, though. She's very reserved. This is important to her character, and to the story, buuuuut... I was sorry to not see more of her, when she's so important to Corie.

This will probably become one of my comfort-food books: my very first non-print one! I'm sort of thinking about re-reading it soon, actually. It's not clear from the beginning of the book who will wind up the love interest - there are two options, both of whom I approved of - so I'd like to see what the shape of the story is like once you know who the right one is.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Catherynne Valente: Fairyland and other works

I have a suspicion that someday Catherynne Valente will write my favorite book in the world. For all I know, she's written it already and I haven't read it yet, actually.

I just finished The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, which Valente published online - and which won the Andre Norton award from the Nebulas. It was later picked up by a traditional publisher; I checked it out of the library. You can still read the first eight chapters of it online.

It was pretty good. It's a little bit Alice in Wonderland, and a little bit Wizard of Oz. It's not the favorite book that I'm sure exists/will exist someday, but I liked it.

Valente has this beautiful, lyrical voice, and she doesn't shy away from exposing life's suffering. This is a young adult book, and there are places where it addresses some of the difficult issues kids face as they grow up, that I was always surprised to see anybody acknowledge, like: Life isn't fair, or when they told you that the rules apply to powerful people too, they lied, or sometimes it doesn't matter if you're right, you're still going to lose the argument, all of which happen when the little girl, September, tries to retrieve a stolen Spoon from the evil Marquess:

“Where…” September cleared her throat. Her hands shook. “Where I come from, if a person has a Spoon, no one can come and take it just because they’re the governor or something.”

“I think that’s very naive of you, September. Tell me, what does your father do?”

September felt her face flush. “Well, he was a teacher. But now he’s a soldier.”

“Oh! Iago, did you hear that? You mean to say that one day the governor or something came and took your father even though you were quite sure he was yours and yours alone? Well, that is certainly different. A father is nowhere near so valuable as a Spoon! I can see why you prefer your sensible, logical world.”

There are comfort-food books that I go to when I'm having a bad day and just want to escape to a pretty world with beautiful magic. Valente's stories are not this kind of book; they're a different kind of comfort. They're for when you're having a bad day and the world sucks and you want to go have drinks with your sister, and have her tell you that you're not wrong; it's not your imagination; you're not overreacting, no matter what the boys or the grown-ups or whoever might claim. Your pain is not nothing.

I had trouble reading another of her novels, Deathless, in a timely manner, because Marya's love life - or rather, who Marya became because of her first love - was a little too much pain for me to shoulder all at once. But that one's going in my archives, so that I can preserve a paper copy of it into my elder days even if the e-book Singularity occurs. There were a few lines in that book that had me hugging it like a teddy bear given by a sister.

There's a list of her stuff that's free to read on the web here; I particularly like her epic Persephone poem (link leads to part 1 - it's being published serially, seasonally, and it's not complete yet). Also being published serially, and not yet complete, is Silently and Very Fast (part 1)(part 2), which I've been enjoying; I really like the idea of an AI that still thinks of itself as a house.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some things that have not yet come to pass:

Lois McMaster Bujold has a draft of an Ivan story done! Maybe it will be out this time next year. I like Ivan, and look forward to seeing how he adjusts to a one-woman life. I really enjoyed seeing him try to be a good boy and settle down in - was it A Civil Campaign? - and be foiled at every turn.

Unraveled, by Courtney Milan - third in the series that starts with Unveiled and Unclaimed. Out sometime after Thanksgiving? I really like Milan's books; she's always doing something out-of-the-box, and her characters are all very human. There are some dukes and ladies and balls, but there's not the focus on the glitzy glamorous trappings and then sneaking off to a back room to get caught making out, that I've seen in a lot of other romances. And the heroes are nice guys. I am a sucker for nice guys.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Cold Magic was the book I most recently bought for the Kindle, whose sample tempted me too much. I was seduced by the part in which the main characters are caught talking in class, while the other students are "recording the formula V(1)T(2)=V(2)T(1), which was shedding chalk dust on the board...". When the maestra demands to know if they were paying attention, the main character starts babbling the contents of the lecture, finishing with: "Gas expands as its temperature goes up. No wonder the mage Houses hate balloons! If it's true that proximity to a cold mage always decreases the ambient temperature of any object, then wouldn't a cold mage deflate any balloon sack just by standing alongside it?"

I liked that paragraph: holding up the magic system next to existing physical laws, and seeing how they play together. I'm still kicking around in the steampunk genre trying (rather futilely, so far) to find something I like, but that sentence made me look forward to her airships.

Unfortunately, we spend no time on airships in this book. There are other places where science and magic rub up against each other like this, though. But mostly the focus is on the magic.

I liked the world a lot: the world of faerie layered on top of a continued Ice Age in a Europe where the Roman Empire petered out early, and Africa remained powerful. There are a lot of rich, powerful black characters; the cold mages tend to be of mixed African-Celt descent; the main character's family originated from Carthage (which was never razed by Rome, in this history - though there remains significant tension between the two peoples).

The only thing that really bugged me about the book was the "romance". Cat, the main character, is forced to marry Andevai, who is a pompous, overproud ass. In the grand tradition of pompous asses, the sweet-and-true core is revealed over time, but it came too slowly and too late, and wasn't enough to redeem him, in my opinion. I don't care what kind of hovel he was born in or how many lectures on his Proper Place he got, I still want to punch him in the face. Although, I suppose the way the relationship stands at the end of the book - it's first of a trilogy, so it's not a tidy, tied-up-with-a-bow "happy ending" - Cat may still want to punch him in the face, too.

I liked it, but I don't really feel compelled to find out what happens next, at this time. So we'll see if that urge ever arises, before I pick up the sequel.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Gadget lust: Kindle

I broke down and bought myself a Kindle, this past month, despite my reservations about the DRM, the 1984 scandal, the Macmillan scandal, etc. If I were a stronger person, I'd have... I don't know what I'd have done. I'm not a stronger person.

I've been dipping my toes in e-books for a while - I got an iPhone for my birthday in 2009, and promptly installed Stanza. I really like it; it's really nice to have a book in my pocket at all times. But the screen is so small that it's a hassle to flip back to re-read something you missed, and you know, you have to charge it sometime, so it's not that hot for regular reading. Mostly, I read from my iPhone over lunch at work - which is still awesome, mind you.

What finally pushed me over the edge into outright dedicated e-reader lust was my second pregnancy, now in its 8th month. During the first maternity leave, I distinctly remember spending a lot of time in the rocking chair with a baby in one arm, and all the library books I'd stashed up were hardbacks. Maybe some people can read hardbacks one-handed, but I am not one of them. I had to watch a lot of Babylon 5 on Netflix instead, which almost caused marital discord because my husband was a little jealous that I was watching them without him.

I bought the keyboard Kindle. The $79 one was very tempting, but it doesn't do audio; my first pregnancy also gifted me with migraines, so if I'm buying an e-reader, it had damn well better support audiobooks and podcasts too. I also bought the version without ads; I don't trust them to stay unobtrusive/inoffensive, and I seriously suspect that in the long run, Amazon is getting more than $30 per Kindle out of Kindle advertising. I'm not interested in subsidizing that game.

So far, I'm pretty happy with my choice. It's definitely one-hand-able (although I often find myself accidentally turning pages when I pick it up), and it puts me only a few minutes away from a zillion books I haven't read before, which is very nice. But it's also very dangerous: it's incredibly easy to finish up one book and then just immediately go buy a new one. This is bad, both because I could easily spend too much money on books, and because I get really pissed off when I discover I spent money on a book that sucks. As you know, Bob, money does not grow on trees, and I already cannot afford to buy all the good books in the world, so when I realize I spent book-money on a bad one... I sort of throw tantrums.

I started with one rule: Do not buy a Kindle book until the moment you are about to start reading it. I'd heard too many stories from family members who had accumulated massive Kindle stashes they hadn't read yet. When I realized I was falling prey to serial purchasing, I added: Find free books. Which, so far, has included Project Gutenberg, my local public library, and the Vorkosigan series, from the Cryoburn CD. (Putting the Vorkosigan on helped a lot.) I also added: Read the free sample first, but the sneaky little buggers always seem to end the sample at a weird, non-chapter-break place that compels one to click the "Buy this book" link immediately, so that quickly morphed into Read the sample, and then walk away for a while and see if you really want to come back. That's kind of hard to do, too, so I downloaded samples of pretty much every book that I have heard intriguing things about, so that I can hop between samples.

I don't really know if that works yet. I, um, kind of bought the book I had most lately sampled, anyway. It makes me feel better about the contents of my Kindle, though. It looks nice and plump, full of interesting things, instead of like a bare bookshelf begging to be filled.