Thursday, July 30, 2015

Harry, A History

Melissa Anelli, webmistress of Harry Potter fan site the Leaky Cauldron, wrote a book about the Harry Potter phenomenon and fandom. Part memoir, part social history, I couldn't not read it once I heard about it, and picked it up from the library before the summer was done so that I could pass it along to husband when I finished and before he moves away for his PhD.

Harry, A History is not a perfect book, and a lot of that has to do with its pacing. She rockets back and forth between memoir and social history, and the two are so different in tone that I don't imagine many readers love both equally. For me, the memoir portions didn't interest me much. On the plus side, reading about someone else's first read of one of the new HP books brought back such fond memories of my own first times. On the other hand, I was made deeply uncomfortable by Anelli's gloating stories of lying to her boss in order to skip work for her Harry Potter hobby. The social history sections were really informative and also spanned a huge range of topics: the ins and outs of the publishing industry, the importance of the internet in creating the huge fandom, legal battles, legal battles, spoilers, Christian fundamentalists' attempts to ban the books, and even wizard rock. Not everyone would be as into the facts and figures, but I loved the data and the way that Anelli used it to tell this story about a book series that impacted so many lives. Like so many others, I literally grew up with the Harry Potter books - the last one came out just after my high school graduation, and I read it while in the throes of worries about moving away to college and starting my adult life.

So I'm left yet again lamenting the fact that there are no more Harry Potter books to be had. And interestingly, I'm also sad about the fact that the Harry Potter books were the only novels I ever looked forward to with so much eagerness and burning desire to uncover their secrets. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I don't ever get to count down the days until a book is released anymore. I suppose I did so with the third season of Sherlock (but then, I was ultimately disappointed). I miss Harry Potter, I miss the first experience of reading each book, but I also miss that anticipation for a book, any book.

At least I can always go back and re-read this beloved series!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Clockwork Heart

I nearly gave up on Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart just a few pages in, because it dumped you straight into a foreign sci-fi world with no guidance as to the vocabulary terms or place names, but then I remembered that Anne Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy did the same thing, and that there, I adored the process of figuring everything out. So I decided to give Clockwork Heart the standard "ten percent or fifty pages" before abandonment, and by thirty pages or so I was hooked. This novel is full of steampunk goodness, and it reminded me very much of the classic sci-fi film Metropolis (which I studied in one of my musicology classes - how great is my field?). Clockwork machinery (the "Great Engine") runs the city of Ondinium, and any problem with this manual computer represents a huge threat to the well-being of all of the people. The book gives us a lighter-than-air mineral ("ondium"), and fabulous metal wings, with their construction and use vividly described for us over the course of the book. These wings are worn by icarii, the messengers of Ondinium who stand outside the rigid class system and are able to traverse the entire city and interact with all castes. At that thirty page mark, I was figuring out how it all worked, and I was so excited to continue learning more about Taya's job as an icarus.

Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to its strong beginning for me, because it devolved into a pair of terrorist plots (one of which I figured out several hundred pages early, and the other of which seemed like a pointless add-on after the main conflict was resolved but the book still had eighty pages left to go) and a love triangle between the charming blonde brother and the acerbic dark brother (The Vampire Diaries, anyone?). Since the caste system and the icarus's role in it were by far the most interesting parts of the book for me, I was actually disappointed when the book moved beyond world-building into plot.

Still, it was an impressive debut novel and it made me realize that as much as I like the steampunk aesthetic, I really haven't read much in the genre! Perhaps I should remedy that - what are the best or most important steampunk books?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Shadows on the Moon

Zoe Marriott's Shadows on the Moon isn't just Cinderella set in Japan, but Cinderella as you've never seen her before. I could say the same thing about Malinda Lo's Ash, and actually, they end in a similar fashion (though Ash's ending is more subversive). It's not the ending, though, that sets Marriott's retelling apart; it's Cinderella's agency.

This Cinderella saw her father and her cousin murdered in front of her. This Cinderella doesn't have a wicked stepmother and a neglectful father, but a mother and a stepfather who are both viciously abusive in very different ways. This Cinderella cuts herself as a means of relieving her emotional pain. This Cinderella doesn't need a fairy godmother because she has magic of her own. This Cinderella takes on more different identities than just "dutiful daughter" and "humiliated servant". Most importantly, this one doesn't attend the ball to win the prince's heart because she needs to be rescued from her family. Suzume/Rinn/Yue has already rescued herself, and become one of the most sought-after courtesans in the city. Her motivations for attending - and enacting a careful plan to seduce the prince - are much darker.

And did I mention the trans woman who becomes like family to Suzume, and is one of the most important secondary characters - and who has an identity beyond just being trans? Or the interracial romance that didn't include a white person? This book had fantastic diversity.

So it's going on my list as a reasonably good fairy-tale retelling (and in the end, I did like it quite a lot more than Ash).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Greenglass House

It begins in the grand old mystery vein. An isolated inn at the top of a mountain, difficult to reach, and not scheduled to have any visitors this Christmas vacation. And yet, unexpectedly, guest after guest arrives: Mr. Vinge, Clem, Georgie, Mrs. Hereward, Dr. Gowervine. They all hold secrets, and each of them is here for something to do with the inn itself, the gorgeous old Greenglass House. And to solve it, the innkeepers' son Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to play a thinly-veiled, real-life version of Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe by taking on the character of a blackjack (rogue), Milo can start solving the mysteries and thefts. And more importantly, maybe by becoming Negret - only for a little while, and only for the game - Milo can work through some of his anxieties and guilt over his feeling of difference. An adopted Chinese boy who looks visibly different than his parents, Milo finds a way in the midst of all the shenanigans at Christmas to realize that wondering about his birth family isn't a betrayal of his family.

I absolutely loved Kate Milford's Greenglass House. The mysteries were engrossing - I didn't figure out any of the secrets in advance - but more importantly, this book has so much heart. I read it at the gym on my Kindle, and for those three days, I did much longer workouts than usual! I highly recommend it, especially in winter when all the evocative imagery of ice and snow, hot chocolate and cakes, candles and Christmas tree lights really resonates.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The City in the Lake

Hmm, another book that somehow, for me, couldn't live up to the hype. Rachel Neumeier's The City in the Lake was supposed to be beautiful and lyrical with fantastic world-building, but I just found it super weird and somewhat estranging. I felt distanced from the characters, and when I tried to give a short summary of the book to my husband, all I managed was a very confused jumble of vague descriptions. There's a plot, I'm sure of it. I did quite like the depictions of the deep forest; it reminded me of Tolkien's Mirkwood Forest and the Dead Marshes both (and reminds me how much I want to have a LOTR film marathon).

Monday, July 20, 2015

High expectations for The Thief

Perhaps this was a case of over-high expectations. Many of the book bloggers I follow have raved about Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series - Ana spoke of subtlety, romance, and political intrigue; Jenny wrote of subtext, character development, and plot twists; and Maureen has countless posts reinforcing her love for these books. It can be a very good thing to go into a book with high anticipations - there's a different sort of satisfaction when you expect to love it versus being surprised by it. But when a book falls short, it can be extremely disappointing.

All this is a lead-up to my saying, regretfully, that I didn't really like The Thief. I read it in a single evening, but would have been even quicker if I didn't constantly have to re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs. I'm not sure what it is about her writing style, but it didn't seem very clear to me (nor was it poetic, which in cases like Margo Lanagan or Franny Billingsley forgives any initial unclarity). In this case, I either couldn't figure out what was going on or just didn't absorb it at all and had to go back as if I'd never read the passage. The twist wasn't that spectacular - I actually thought Jennifer A. Nielsen's The False Prince did it better - and while the thievery in the temple was quite an interesting puzzle, I don't tend to be interested in a party adventuring through the wilderness, which encompassed nearly half the book. I did quite enjoy the mythological tales, though.

Normally, with such a "meh" reaction, I wouldn't bother reading any more. Too many books in the world to waste time on ones I don't love! But with so many rave reviews, I think I'm willing to give this series another go. I'll try one more book, The Queen of Attolia, and hope that in the next one, Whalen Turner really finds her footing.

If you've read The Queen's Thief series and loved it, what have I missed? Is the first book just not the greatest? How should I manage my expectations as I head into the next one?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Among Others, and habits of SF/F reading

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy as if it were the air I breathed. It all came from my dad, of course, who not only read them, but played them, getting me into role-playing and tabletop gaming too. Of course, it helped that the epic, fantastically lush Lord of the Rings movies came out in my impressionable junior high school years. My dad and his friends insisted that I couldn't see them until I read them, so I struggled through (especially the second part of The Two Towers, which is oddly now one of my favorite sections). LOTR wasn't quite my normal diet of SF/F. I didn't read many of the classics, the greats, the hard science; I tended instead to read much more recent fare. R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, and others from the Forgotten Realms universe. Ender's Game and sequels. His Dark Materials. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Rhiannon Lassiter's Hex trilogy. I also tended to re-read, incessantly. I had a full personal bookshelf, stacked two rows deep, and by the time I hit junior high school, wasn't frequenting the library much. (The first time I tried to check out books from my junior high school library, and was crossly told I was only allowed to check out one at a time was quite a traumatic event, but that's another story...)

Anyway, it meant that, like most other readers of Jo Walton's Among Others, I approached her book as an insider, a fellow lover of SF/F, who recalled exactly what it was like to turn to this genre for delight, for learning, as an escape from the tricky teenage years, and out of the sheer joy of discovery. And as someone who almost - and sometimes did - believe in the true magic of the world around her. The difference was merely that my reading habits were different. Mori was far more voracious, far more eager to read everything and anything. She didn't re-read much (and complained about it when she had to) and instead constantly consumed the new. It was kind of amazing, actually, how well she was able to find those new-to-her books considering the lack of internet in the 1970s. I should have had a much easier time learning about new authors and titles, but I didn't take advantage (can you believe it took years for me to learn that there were any sequels to Ender's Game?). I got through about fifty pages of constantly stopping to write down authors' names and book titles before my loving husband looked up a complete list (thanks again, internet!). My library to-read list is already terribly long, but I'm really excited to add some new entries. For one thing, it's appalling that I have never read Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, or Dick, and apparently I also ought to try out Zelazny, Tiptree, and Silverberg too.

Often described as a love letter to science fiction, this book would be pretty inaccessible to anyone else but is sheer joy for us. It's not a perfect novel, but the exclamations it produced anytime a book I did know intimately was mentioned (or better, critiqued in just the same way I do), made it an instant favorite. Jo Walton was able to capture just what it was like.

Favorite quotes:
It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books. (25)
Interlibrary loans are the wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts. (59)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zahrah the Windseeker

Recommended by the Book Smugglers, I put Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker on my to-read list as part of my growing effort to read diversely. I read a lot of women authors - sometimes mostly women authors - but I confess that I haven't put in an equivalent effort to read people of color. White European narratives are comfortable for me. They engage fantasy and sci-fi tropes I'm familiar with, or deal with moments in history that feel like a part of my own past. But I cannot ignore those tropes and moments that aren't as familiar to me, otherwise how will I ever learn? So much of my own and my husband's academic work focuses on listening to voices within communities, especially those voices that haven't often been heard. While I'm by no means good at reading diversely, I'm trying to make a start (and goodness, how I loved my introduction this year to Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin).

As a result, Zahrah the Windseeker posed me with a bit of a dilemma within the first few chapters. I couldn't really connect with it, but was that because of the unfamiliar customs, which I understood as probably giving me a taste of African (African-American?) culture, or because of the narrative voice, which was middle-grade in a way that started to annoy me (too many perky sentences ending in exclamation marks). I had a chat with my husband, in which I tried to parse out whether or not to abandon the novel, and finally decided that since the narration didn't bother me too much, it was worth reading this novel precisely because I couldn't really engage with it - introductions to unfamiliar customs are always bound to feel a little disorienting, but those introductions are necessary if you're ever going to really listen.

The book itself was vibrant with color and movement - much of it is a young girl's solo trek through a dangerous but vivid and spectacular jungle - but there were moments that were poorly written, mostly in regards to hitting certain plot points. I loved its theme of coming to accept your own self, but the climax (she literally learns to fly) felt far too obvious. Its secondary theme in celebration of knowledge (especially scientific) and in condemnation of avoiding the unfamiliar could have hit exactly the right note for me, except that I'm a scholar of early music publishing, and so, I couldn't get behind the idea that this one particular book was necessarily and automatically "the real truth" (all publications have an agenda). A final, open-ended section about the existence of the mythical "Earth" felt annoyingly like setup for a sequel. However, the sheer delight in color, the electrifying solo adventure story of a very capable young girl, made me willing to overlook these faults. I imagine a younger reader would like it quite a lot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Strange and Beautiful letdown

I don’t typically like multi-generational stories. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a single one I actually enjoyed. But only a few chapters into Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I was already confident I’d like this one. Part of it was the delicate prose, the fairy-tale elements. It’s not a fairy-tale retelling, a popular genre at the moment and one I sometimes (though not always) enjoy, but it has the feel of a fairy-tale in much the same way that Franny Billingsley’s writing feels folkloric without actually replicating particular stories. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows is told with a delicate hand that helps mask the underlying violence of its magical realism. One spurned lover turns herself into a canary; an unwed mother carves out her own heart after her child is born; an autistic child receives supernatural warnings from ancestral ghosts. It’s a dark and haunting novel that nonetheless has a deftness and lightness of hand.

Secondly, I think the reason this multi-generational story was working for me is because the novel is not told strictly chronologically. So many multi-generational books are told in order, giving us the tale of one person or family before moving on to their children, and then their children. Usually, the point at which the author thinks any one person’s story is done is just when I’m fully invested in them, so moving on to their offspring feels tremendously disappointing. Why should I care about this new person? Here, in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows, it is Ava herself narrating the stories of her parents and grandparents as a prelude to sharing her own. This framing device really works for me. I know why to care about these different generations of people because I’m already aware, as I read their stories, that some of the purpose for telling them is to begin to piece together their impact on Ava’s life and the family’s tragic relationship with romantic love.

Also, this book has perhaps my new favorite literary bakery. I wanted to eat everything described – I wanted to bake it all! The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows was on track to be one of my favorites for the year.

And then. And then the climax of the novel was a horrifically violent and, I think, thematically unnecessary rape scene. I’m really disappointed, and I won’t be able to recommend it to any of my friends. With such a strong start - and even a strong middle - I felt really let down by the ending, which could have been handled in such a better way.