Monday, December 30, 2013

The Month in Review and of Thing to Come

My least favorite time of year is over and that's a good thing.  Holidays aside, December was a rather dull month (and all the activity that the holiday did bring wasn't exactly positive nor exciting).  As you can tell from my blogging activity I haven't been reading a whole bunch.  It's an odd lull I'm in.  I know that I've never done well reading more than one book at a time, yet that is what I'm doing at the present.  Stranger still, I'm really enjoying them both books I'm currently reading: I just don't really feel like reading a bunch at the moment and I don't think forcing myself to do so will yield positive results either.

I received one book--as in one--for Christmas.  This fact throws into the sharpest of relief how poorly the people who claim to know me best know me.  So a great big ole thank you and internet hugs to Maria for Divergent by Veronica Roth.  I'm excited about this book for two reasons: I know nothing about it, and my sister is starting it soon so we can read it together.     

When I get back to How to Read Literature LIke a Professor I don't think I'll be any worse off for the time away, but I can admit I'm doing an injustice to How to Paint a Dead Man.  As I said before, both are very good and in the case of the latter by Sarah Hall I'll certainly be looking into more of her books, reading just ain't a priority right now.  

I saw the second part of The Hobbit and was bored to the point of near constipation.  I saw Ender's Game and was pleasantly surprised.  Movies are all well and good, but it's getting harder and harder for me to justify the money for the theatre experience.  

I had really good intentions last month with outlining my reading goals and expectations for this month but yeah… none of that happened.  No big surprise that I'll pass on making similar statements for January, but I am expecting to read a lot of science fiction in the near future.  That's both exciting and scary.  I'll hope for the best.    

The strangest and best news of the month came a from a friend who I convinced to read the Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore.  She loves it and I knew she would, but she's not reading it, she's listening to it as an audio book!  A writer who has been twice out of print now not only has a third chance at deserved attention but a new generations treatment at that.  

I've said it before: read Wittemore.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Month in Review

The greatest thing that happened in November may have been the greatest thing to happen this year: I found a new used book and it is quite literally right across the street.  I thought Bookmiser went out of business no less than twelve years ago, seems they only moved to a new location and never told me about it.

It's odd for me to go to a used book store and have zero store credit but hopefully that will soon change; it's not as if lack of credit impeded me from buying…  This store is beautiful.  New and used together on the same shelve; immaculate organization, neat, clean, tidy as could be (and if you've ever been in one of 'those other' kind of used bookstores you'll know the value of neat clean and tidy although I'll be the first to admit that 'dust, mildew, and cluttered' certainly has it's charm.)  I bought The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys both by Michael Chabon because he's awesome.  I remembered the title and positive reviews of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner.  Perhaps that goes to show the value of a great title or maybe the benefit of being shortlisted for the Giller Prize.  Either way, the title stuck.

I bought six books in total this month, which is at least six too many considering what I still own and haven't read.

I read all of four books this month: this is a A LOT considering my recent reading fatigue.  I owe The Parrish Lantern and huge thank you for bring Full Blood by John Siddique and Warriors by David Lloyd to my attention.  The Tombs of Atuan by Ursual K Le Guin was perhaps the best and most boring book I've read this year.  Soon, I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman was phenomenal for more reasons than I can recall and launched a new name to my 'immediate read' list.    

December brings the holiday madness… blah…  Hopefully it will go over as well as Thanksgiving did.  In terms of reading, I'm currently in the middle of two books that I'm finding excellent: How To Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas Foster ; only one of those is non-fiction; color me surprised that I like it as much as I do.  For the rest of the month's reading I'm eyeing Thomas Lux's God Particles and, for some reasons, werewolves in London has a certain holiday appeal to me so I'll dive into Martin Millar's Curse of the Wolf Girl since I liked the first book so much.

Can anyone make sense of that last part?  Cause I can't…

In rereading this post, I see that my reading is all over the map!  And I honestly think that's a good thing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Soon, I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

At any given time, I reserve the right to defend Soon, I Will Be Invincible as my single favorite book.

There are superheroes with super powers; a mad scientist, super villains with horribly failed experiments; there's government funding; fairy magic; futuristic tech; secret identities; the undying quest for invincibility and world domination; and what's most important: costumes.

Generally I hate books with two separate narratives.  I hate this mechanic only because I more often than not spend too much time trying to see how and when the two stories will come together.  This is my personal reading quark, if I'm going to get two narratives I like them to be completely divergent.  I was so caught up in reading Soon, I Will Be Invincible, I was so engrossed in enjoying it that I forgot that I hate books with two separate narratives.          

The story and the cast of characters essentially revolves around a core group of prep school kids who won all the yearbook superlatives.  Either by demonic or alien intervention, sheer will and determination, third partied accident, or self inflicted curiosity they all became 'powered' individuals.

The first story thread involves The Champions, the pseudo-defunct, generational superhero squad.  There are lots of superheros but these guys are the elite.  They have a few new members, they are short a few old vanguards, and worst of all they've no reason to come together.

The second story involves Doctor Impossible, the smartest man in the world though that is not his super power.  He's in prison waiting his chance to get out and take over the world.  He's done this before, but mitigating circumstances have always risen.  But his newest plan can't fail due to an odd stroke of luck not even the doctor can put together: the literally invincible CoreFire, Impossible's nemesis, his greatest invention, and the strongest of the Champions, has disappeared.

Watching these powered individuals interact is amazing yet scarce as this is anything but an extroverted action movie type book.  Both narratives are in first person.  We are either in the mind of Doctor Impossible (which isn't as scary as one would think) or Fatale's, the newest champion and a cyborg possibly of Impossible's creation.  Fatale is ever concerned with fitting in, both with people and The Champions and Impossible is angry that he can't be accepted as an evil genius and have his way.

Stereotypes are avoided in surprising ways.  CoreFire is out of the picture which is actually convenient for an invincible superhero and makes the rest of the team actually have to apply themselves.  Impossible may be tougher, stronger, and faster than most but his real superpower is mundane: his mind.  Impossible sees The Champions as politically favored vigilantes who like to pick on him for being smarter than they are.  The Champions see Impossible for what he is: too dangerous to trust with a thought let alone his freedom.  Watching Impossible throw down with The Champions is a wonder.

There were three wild cards that kept me guessing, all of which are related to Impossible: CoreFire and Fatale both of his creation, one invincible the other unknown, and Impossible's ex-girlfriend whose allegiance is unknown.  It all came together beautifully.

We see how an genius becomes evil and how being a superhero becomes trite and perhaps even how invincibility breeds boredom as opposed to the never finished quest for scientific genius.  A lot of superhero troupes are indulged but done so in very contemporary ways.  Grossman never quite mocks fantasy or sci-fi troupes as mercilessly as his brother does in The Magicians, nor does he endlessly subvert the troupes like Michael Swanwick, but Grossman does continually make us see superheros in a very contemporary light.  They get married and divorced, go on SNL, drink too much and become maudlin, or take a hiatus to the moon when the tabloid pressure gets to be too much; they go to maximum security prisons (somehow they protect their secret identities at all times).        

This book is as hysterical as it is literary.  It's not overly dark or gritty but neither are their costumes straight out of the wash.  I can't imagine there ever being a sequel but just as we know Impossible will never be wholly stopped there will always be resistance.  It was so good I may read it again.

Friday, November 15, 2013


I did some spontaneous book buying today which is always fun and I ended up surprising myself quite a bit.

I started in a Barnes and Noble then remembered I'm broke and left rather quickly going down the road to my favorite used book store.  The Books for Less at Mall of Georgia is still my favorite location but the second store in Alpharetta is growing on me.

I didn't have anything in mind to buy but by the time I was done it was rather clear that I wanted comfort food reading material, which for me means fantasy.  I've sucked at picking fantasy literature that I can actually get through and enjoy for about five years now, but that hasn't stopped me from trying.

Melanie Rawn is a name I've read in passing for a while so I saw her name on a shelf and reached for a book at random.  What I pulled down was The Dragon's Touchstone by Irene Radford.  I feel that choice is destined to be serendipitous.  What's more is I read twenty pages and never once cringed; so I'm hoping for good things.  Reaching a second time for Rawn I pulled down Dragon Prince.  Both of these books have covers that are the most awesomely 80's style fantasy art ever.  The Dragon's Touchstone has a bunch of dudes fighting in armor and two wizards hurling green fire-smoke at each other and a dragon.  It's possible that there has never been more testosterone on a book cover than this.  Dragon Prince is no less awesome but a bit more cliched.  There are two dragons standing up have a Godzilla-esque slap fight in the background and in the front is a white dude with a sword that kinda looks like John Tesh.  For reasons unknown to me he doesn't have a shirt on.  He's also got this hot chick draped all over him who is wearing a nighty.  It's a mash-up cover of a bodice ripper/fantasy.  (Which is the embodiment of what everyone whats to read whether they admit it or not.)  With covers like that they have to be good, right?

More happy happenstance lead me to Litany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe; even better, it's the Guild American edition that matches my copy of Epiphany of the Long Sun.  Nothing beats finding a matching set in a used book store.  Now that I have the first two books in the series I can actually--you know...--start reading.

I got Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke because I loved Inkheart so much.  Even if the second book in the series stalled a bit for me I have to read this one.

The only real impulse buy was How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster.  Why?  Because it was on the checkout counter when I was ready to go and it was two dollars...  Aside from the fact that I don't really read non fiction, this sounds like the most boring, killjoy book ever.  Don't be surprised if I never read this one.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some very gripping words

This is a taste, a teaser as to where I've been lately and what I've been reading.

Adultery by John Siddique

Finally I reached across the table
to touch your face, the pads of my fingers
on your forehead first, drawing down near
the inner edge of your ear and under
to hold your chin, lifting your head slightly
as if I'm about to kiss you.

We are burning as if we are adulterers.
The table is between us to keep us apart.
I think if we are going to have to pay for this,
I want to have at least touched your skin.
we do not kiss, don't go home, or make love,
we drink tea--green for you, regular black tea
for me.  I eat, you say you can't.

We are adulterers of talk and desire,
pretending that by not coming together
we are somehow still standing on the good side
of the line.

we sit amongst other lovers, no one know
we are not supposed to be, say my name, you say,
and I say it.  I want to show you so many things,
you say.  It goes right into the place
I have covered up and armoured, to pretend
it no longer existed.  

Memorial Day by John Siddique

Sunday late Spring sun ascends
over section 60 of Arlington Cemetery,
as girl scouts plant small plastic flags
on the rows of graves.

Music of bugles, silence of prayers
learned especially for today.
Drums strike the air,
a beautiful war day across these States.

Sections 1 through 60; there could be
generations of families here,  
great-great-grandfather down to only son,
perhaps a daughter now.

The sun ascends t fall over the years
which march forward in dignified rows,
war by war, and white stone by white stone,
peace by peace, ending by ending.

Now if you really want you're mind blown I'll tell you that Siddique's book of poetry Full Blood contains stuff even better than what I've shared here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Month in Review


This post nearly got away from me.

It would seem that I read all of three books this month which is at least two more than I can remember.  Short story collections by certain authors always hold such a powerful allure over me but it seems no matter when I get around to reading them that they always go by slowly with no regard to quality.  'The Matter of Seggri' from The Birthday of the World and other Stories by Ursula K Le Guin was certainly the best thing I read in October.  Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon and Fevre Dream by George Martin were both very good as well.

How do you like those three for reading variety?

I'm halfway through John Siddique's book of poetry Full Blood but other than that I've no idea what else I'll get through this month.

The National Book of the year award is going to be given out in a few days and while I usually read at least one from the list every read in a vain effort to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary fiction it ain't gonna happen this year.  Tenth of December by George Saunders and Far Far Away by Tom McNeil were the two that caught my eye from the list.  I'll get to them eventually.  Of the others listed I've heard of Two Boys Kissing if only because I'm familiar with David Levithan so I'll probably get to it some time too.

In other 'book prize' news, I may also check out The Testament of Mary if only because it's so short and the premise is unique to say the least.  I've tried Toibin before and he wasn't for me, but I'm willing to give anyone a second shot.

I'm sure there is much more going on but I can't recall it now.  More later.    

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

I really wanted to start this review off by saying, 'The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is all about sex.'  In the broadest sense it's still true to say as much but it is equally inaccurate to say as the word sex can mean so many things.  So… The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is mostly all about sex.  Now, I'll try to clarify and define a word that has such great surface level transparency.    

Many of the stories in this collection read like narrative anthropological studies written by one not from the society being discussed.  The stories involve unique interactions between men and women and are usually observed by a foreigner. 

The strangest concept for me to wrap my head around was 'sedoretu' a marriage involving four people: one pair of men and one of women, where homo and heterosexual relationships are the norm.  The rules that govern these marriages as laid out in 'Unchosen Love' and 'Mountain Ways' were far more difficult to understand than the pairing of men and women.  Ultimately the concept was so well developed as to detract from the stories being told.  Who can have sex with whom and why, when, and why one person of the four will always be left out from having sex with one other weren't as interesting to me as the narrative that could have been told.  Perhaps as the concept is so foreign Le Guin wanted to be sure to establish clarity.  If so she succeeded, only at the expense of the narrative.  At times these two stories felt like reading rules or law more than a story.  

'Coming of Age in Karhide' was about the first sexual experience of a hermaphroditic person or perhaps 'gender neutral' is more accurate seeing as those on Karhide can choose and morph gender.  This story in particular presented it's ideas with no judging or favoritism.  It was fascinating and addicting in a sensual way that was very hard to describe as I can't exactly say what I was attracted to.  

The title story was nothing spectacular or original, but it had all the good familiar elements and was done extremely well.  A very primitive people on a very sheltered planet believe that God is a man and a woman; brother and sister and that only their hereditary line can perpetuate the lineage of God.  Such a belief is fraught with difficulties particularly when generations have passed and God has trouble reproducing.  A new God is crowned when outsiders arrive at the same time a usurper from within claims to be God.  This story was fun to read and very well done but not the highlight of the collection and probably the least in terms of dealing with sex.

'The Matter of Seggri' isn't merely a good story or the primary reason to buy this book; it's the kind of story that gets you thinking, makes you pause in your reading and leads you to ask questions not only about a fictional world and it's rules that Le Guin has created, but it also makes you do the same about our world that we live in.  

There is a complete segregation of the sexes on Seggri and a very large gender imbalance that heavily favors women.  Boys, being so rare, are prized family jewels until the age of eleven when they are sent off to live in the men's only citadels.  There, they further their status as trophies and seek glory in a dangerous and often gory sport, learn to become phenomenal dancers, and most importantly how to take care of bedroom matters.  Concepts as these are what makes men men on Seggri.  Women do everything else: anything that could be construed as work, business, or an enterprise beyond entertainment is solely relegated for women.  Men remain uneducated and ignorant of everything; they are prizes who develop a reputation and are sold nightly to women who have saved long, hard-earned money for a night of pleasure, or to conceive a child.  

Homosexuality is normal on Seggri in large part due to the seclusion of the men.  While it is seen as normal among the women and usually leads to marriage there are factions for and against it among the men even if both sides practice it.  It's the presentation of this story that makes it work as well as it does: the view from multiple outsiders trying to understand a bizarre foreign culture.  There are multiple reports about life on Seggri in this story; each gives enough to develop its' idea and collectively they paint a broad, detailed picture that indulges the imagination in the most realistic of ways.  Le Guin could set many a story or novel on Seggri.  This is not a happy story.  It's brutal, blunt and lacking anything that resembles sentiment.  It's disturbing and that is why it works.  

This collection isn't all about sex.  It's about gender, identity, and what intercourse means to an individual or to a society.  Not all the stories hit the mark (the closing story 'Paradises Lost' felt particularly cumbersome) but there are a few of those rare wonderful stories--of any length--that make you want to run out and tell people about what you're reading.  Those are the ones I've talked about here.  Now go read them for yourself and see why I feel as I do.   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon

I have to admit to being an unabashed fan of Michael Chabon.  Who else could write 'Jews with Swords' or 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union'?  Even with I read 'Summerland,' which was probably my least favorite of his novels that I've come across, there was still a strong feeling that no one else cold have written that particular story.  (And really, how else does one explain to a child the inherent evil of the American League's designated hitter?)  Above all else, Chabon has style all his own.

That sense of style is showcased rarely in Werewolves in their Youth, fleetingly displayed and left undeveloped in some places, and--to shocking affect--forsaken in at least one story.  There are very few stories here that seem obviously written by Chabon.  Apparently he had to develop into the writer he is and not everything comes out to be a stunning masterpiece.  And to be absolutely honest, I didn't know that.  

"I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far."
That is the opening line to the title story: that, is Michael Chabon.  He is funny--no matter how inappropriate or dark--a hallmark that I've long felt marked quality contemporary, literary fiction as done by the likes of Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and others.  At his best, as in the title story, he tends to tell two stories at once.  One in more detail than the other and yet each illuminate and complement the other.  In Werewolves in their Youth we see two school boys, one who wants to be accepted and normal, the other who embraces being different and eagerly anticipates the thought of a special school and riding a different bus than all the other children.  Their story is against parents in the beginning stages of divorce explaining and trying to understand their differences, flirting with reconciliation, and ultimately coming to terms with all that separates them.    
House Hunting is a story about a realtor showing a home to a couple that probably shouldn't be together in the first place.  As we see the couple growing together, all in the course of the day and being shown one house, we also see that the realtor has some very strong personal connections to this particular house and it's current owner.  Chabon's 'tell two stories at once' mechanic works brilliantly and sometimes is so subtle as to go undetected.  
Son of the Wolfman is perhaps the most powerful and unfulfilling.  A ten-year married couple have been actively trying to get pregnant for five years with the assistance of every fertility drug they can afford.  As the wife decides to keep a baby beget by a rapist, she does so at the expense of her husband.  How a story with that premise can fall flat is beyond me.  While there was drive and tension aplenty the ending left me feeling grossly underwhelmed, if not indifferent.    
The collection's final inclusion is also the most interesting.  It's a horror story and a damned fine one at that.  Chabon, forever in love with flirting across genre lines, can drop his love of ornate descriptions and humor to scare you more than a little bit.  In The Black Mill works on all levels but it's inclusion in this particular collection is startling for more reasons than just the scary factor.  It's the only story of it's kind in this collection and it feels a bit lost.  I read it and kept waiting to laugh at something, to smile, or to marvel at his use of language.  By the time I figured out what was happening in the story I was too caught up in the events to want for any of the above, but in no way did this story fit in with the rest of the collection.  
The others are all fine writing if not anything spectacular.  There is nothing here to rival S Angel, nor is the collection as strong as A Model World and Other Stories.  That is to say, even if Chabon should be slightly off his game he is still stylishly amazing and wholly worth reading.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Month in Review

Better late than never.  September was not a very strong reading month for me.  It took me a long time to get through The Last of the Wine, which I had started the previous month, even if I did enjoy it.  September's reading was essentially me picking up what was left over from August.

I finished Renault, and worked further into two short story collections that I'm still working on.  I've been reading a lot, with not a lot to show.  I've also fallen into a blogging lethargy that I hope to remedy by leaving comments for the previously mentioned story collections: they are both really good, one of them has been amazing so far.

Not that my TBR pile is in anyway diminishing but I did do a lot of book buying in September and that is always fun.  I picked up a couple of books I'd already read and wanted to own; three books of poetry, which I'm steadily gaining confidence in both reading, and finding accessible narrative poets that I actually enjoy reading; the next book in the Earthsea series, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny; Fevre Dream by George Martin; Ancient Light for John Banville; How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall; and Fairy Tale, by Alice Thomas Ellis.   .

I'm very excited about all of these but I'm not willing to make any predictions about what is going to get read when.

October also means the end of baseball season, which is sad, but the Braves are still playing (if, seemingly, only for a little while longer).  It's also getting cold and considering we never had a summer, I'm not happy about that.  These two events coinciding should mean more reading, so check back regularly for frequent updates in regards to my awesomeness.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

This bit of commentary has been a long time coming.  The wait is primarily due to the fact that it took me forever and a day to get through the book.  While reading, I was engrossed and truly enjoying every word that went by and whatever story was being told, but when I was finished reading, there was absolutely nothing that compelled me to come back and read more.  In this regard, The Last of the Wine reminded me a lot of the book that led me to it: Among Others.  

The setting is Ancient Greece near the close of the Peloponnesian War and the story follows Alexias from his birth until he achieves the vague outlines that define 'manhood.'  There's eternal fighting, and lots of relationships developed.  Reading The Last of the Wine it's easy to see that the author loved the time period and certainly did her homework in conveying Greece to the reader.

As this is the first book by Renault I've read, I can't say whether or not her writing style was a bit stiff or if it merely felt dated or both.  (The book is 57 years old.)  It's emotionally sterile  and more of historical presentation of fact--which certainly isn't bad--but does make for some very dense reading at more than four-hundred pages.

Renault picked a rich time frame to set her story and as such there are a wealth of names the reader is likely to have some level of familiarity with: Xenophon, Sokcrates, Plato, Phaedo, and Lysander to name a few.  However, for me, there was no greater relationship than Alexias' interaction with his unyieldingly badass, hard-as-nails father.  Second in effect to the father son relationship was Alexias' relationship with Lysis, a slightly older Athenian of an outstanding family who has taken a serious liking to the former.  

Which brings me to the most alluring aspect of the book: Renault researched and wrote a story, she finished and decided her efforts were good, she then dunked it in, if not outright homoeroticism, then certainly a heavy coat sensual sauce. 

Alexias himself encompasses all ambiguity of this issue.  He's a somewhat ugly child who grows into being what can only be considered the hottest thing under the sun: it become clear early on that everyone who isn't family wants a piece of him.  Perhaps it's only my curiosity (but more likely the fact that Alexias' relationships were the only point offered for a reader to make an emotional connection) but I really wanted to know, 'Why does everyone want a piece of Alexias?'  What are they going to do with him?  Are they only interested in dating and holding hands in the park (which essentially happened)?  Are they trying to score a one-nighter or a long term marriage kind of thing?  None of my curiosity was satisfied and rightfully so: we don't know the specifics of pederastic relationships at that time and I thought it in the story's best interest to not make up 'supposed history.'  

My only problem with the book was a lack of overall, unifying plot.  While the story didn't feel like anecdotes it also never felt like it was building to a specific ending.  Thus my previous comment about enjoying it while I was reading but finding it hard to come back to. 

For me The Last of the Wine is a book I read and felt had no great faults: it takes you away and firmly establishes you in a different far off world, and touches on just about all the elements that make a story great.  It's odd, because it's a book I'd readily recommend to anyone, it just wasn't for me.  

For a second opinion of the same book, check out what Maria has to say.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It's all about one word

I like this poem for a host of reasons, but there is all of one word that really makes the whole thing pop; at least for me.  (Actually, there are two but one is greater than the other.)

Can you find it?

At The Far End of a Long Wharf by Thomas Lux

At the far end of a long wharf
a deaf child, while fishing, hauls in
a large eel and -- not
because it is ugly -- she bashes its brains
out of eeldom on the hot
planks -- whamp, whamp, whamp, a sound
she does not hear.  It's the distance
and the heat that abstracts
the image for me.  She also does not hear,
nor do I, the splash the eel makes
when she tosses it in her bucket,
nor do we hear the new bait
pierced by the clean hook, nor
its lowering into the water again.
Nobody could.  I watch her
all afternoon until, catching nothing
else, she walks the wharf toward
me, her cousin, thinking
with a thousand fingers.  Pointing
at our boat she tells me
to drag it to the water.  She wants me to row
her out to the deep lanes of fish.
Poetry is a menial task.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Month in Review

Lots and lots of reading this month, but as you may have noticed, very little reviewing.  I've been lazy in that regard; sorry.  I got through nine books which may be a record.  It could have been more.  I'd read a few short story collections and I have a few waiting to be read that the library will want back sooner than later, but instead of knocking a couple of those out I really wanted something big and meaty and awesome so I started reading The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault a bit earlier than I had planned.  It's big and fat and dense in the best of ways.  I'll have somethings to say on that when it's over and done.  

The list of books read this month which were not my favorite stories committed to paper are Among Others by Jo Walton, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and The Line Between, by Peter S Beagle.  Gaiman and Beagle are amazing, but I don't feel these are anywhere near their best work.  You can check out the full review for my thoughts on Walton.

The Prophet by Kahil Gibran and Social Studies by Fran Lebowitz were an interesting pair of books to read back to back.  Gibran is a pan-genre inspirational, spiritual, self help, prose poetry, awkward narrative kinda thing full of paradoxes and lofty thoughts that may--or may not--be worth thinking about.  And Lebowitz's hysterical social commentary is dated but still relevant.  Add me to the legions that wonder how it is that she hasn't published anything in decades.   

Oh yeah that's right.  I even threw in some non-fiction this month because I'm awesome like that.

The really really good stuff I read this month were Crow by Ted Hughes, The Wizard of Earthsea and Changing Planes by Ursula K Le Guin, and Four Quartets by TS Eliot.  To this I owe a large measure of thanks to Jo Walton as every one of these books or authors came to my attention by way of reading Among Others.  She provided some excellent recommendations and I'm further encouraged to try other books she mentioned in Among Others.  Good thing I took notes!  

I can't say I understood all the poems in Crow, but if that is a style of poetry I need to know what that style is, because I loved each and every one.  Visceral, bloody and immediate would be a some words used to describe that collection.  Eliot contrast nicely with Hughes though it was harder for me to follow.  I'm the last person alive over thirty to read The Wizard of Earthsea so I won't talk about it, but Changing Planes was just plain old cool.  It's a collection of related-ish short stories.  The premise is, while killing time at an airport while waiting for your connecting flight why not visit a new plane of existence, new people, culture, society for a few days and be brought right back to your airport terminal when it's time to board your flight?  There's some real social commentary in this collection, some faux, hypothetical social commentary, and some all around great writing.  In many ways, Changing Planes felt like non-fiction.  This would be the one book I regret not leaving commentary for this month, but oh well…   
That's a lot of reading for me in one month but I honestly think I'm leaving something out.  In August, I had to actively work to not re-read Perfect Escape.    

The Decatur book festival happened this month, and it will happen for two days next month as well.  I go every year as there is always someone I want to hear speak, meet, or hangout with, but I never go to go see and do all the stuff.  I did so this year and capped the day off with a talk by Austin and Lev Grossman.  They are the most down to earth, regular ass guys you could ever expect to meet.  They're funny and approachable, and they like the same books I like; in addition to their own.  To be identical twins it's amazing how after an hour of hearing them talk I don't feel I'd ever get them confused.    

Lev has personally assured me that The Magician's Land will be out early to mid next year…'or something like that'…  'as long as I finish it.'  And while I didn't go to his reading at DragonCon (how is he reading from a book he hasn't finished, you ask) he kinda maybe probably inferred that at least one chapter is done and even being published in some form in the coming months.  Random side notes on Lev Grossman: he had to force himself to read and finish "that book by Tolkien with the rings…" because it was long and boring (we are kindred spirits), he feels Kelly Link is a secret the publishing industry has kept too well for far too long, he's a huge fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (who isn't?) and The Once and Future King (blah to really good…), he's not too hot on Mevryn Peake and has far more praise than I for Jonathan Franzen's fiction.   

I didn't know Austin Grossman existed until the book festival.  He is awesome.  I tried to buy his book but the seller had run out of copies.  (A mammoth oversight in my mind… come on now independent book sellers…)  In addition to needing to track down copies of his currently available You, and Soon I will be Invincible, please please please keep your eyes peeled for his current work in progress which will feature a throw down for the title 'biggest and baddest villain of all time': Cthulhu versus Richard Nixon.  Did I mention Austin is awesome?

Because that is the greatest idea ever.  

I also went to a poetry reading where I had fun laughing at a woman poet from out of town who was invited to read from her new book of poems.  For reasons unknown to herself or anyone else, she wore long corduroy pants and a sweater and looked very nice.  She remarked on the heat was and thought it prudent to only bring shorts and tee shirts should she come back to the festival in the future.  (Some of today's poets earn their rep for 'loopy.')  I also had the pleasure of hearing Thomas Lux read.  He is amazing and I'll shortly be tracking down everything he has published.  I'm not a poetry critic but I know what I like: his work is accessible, disturbing, and poignant.  

I can't say enough how much I wish I had a written copy of the poems they were reading while they were reading.  To me, poetry on the page is especially dead, with it's oft time esoteric or outright unexplainable punctuation and presentation, but when it's read by the author it amazed me how much of a narrative story was being told.  Go check out Lux; now.     

David Levithan, and more Grossman tomorrow in some very interesting panels.  And who knows who else I'll bump into?  Note to self: when rich, move to downtown Decatur.    

Apropos of red shells, I've discovered Knights and Dragons and that is how I waste all my free time.  It shouldn't be as much fun as it is.  It shouldn't be as addictive as it is.  It shouldn't crash as much as it does, but I can't stop playing.  It's like reading Graceling...   You can friend me if you like, or better yet hit me up and I'll send you an invite then you can friend me after the tutorial so can get the extra goodies.  Then we can be best of friends.  Guild coming soon.  If you have a smart phone or ipad, start playing; you'll never have another free five minutes.  XBD-WPF-VYV  Tutorial, then friend me, and you're awesome.  

Finally, the most impressive thing that happened in my life this month was the discovery by Maria and I that I am in fact, a unicorn!  (This has nothing to do with DragonCon going on in town this week either.)  While this may seem chimera (I myself thought that I would be more dragon-ish, cthulhunic, or winged Balrog type menace) it was through rather exhaustive discussion that Maria proved beyond all argument I could care to offer (which was little) that I am in fact, gorgeous, awesome, single (at the time of writing), male, and one who reads slightly more than most.  

Unicorns for the win!     

Monday, August 12, 2013

It Would Be Nice If Something Happened

Apparently, I'm becoming a picky reader in my old age.  Two years ago I was so bold as to ask really good authors to write something that resembled an ending in their works. And here I am now, wanting something to happen in a novel; just a bit of action.

I've said my bit about Among Others, and others seem to agree that nothing happened.  Now, I'm reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and I find myself reading another novel in which nothing is happening.  I'm getting a bit frustrated...

Added to which I've hit my limit for items checked out from the library at one time (Who knew there was a limit!  Why is there a limit?!).  I almost bought everything on my Amazon wish list, which would have ushered me into insolvency, in hopes of there being one book in which stuff happened as I was too worn out to actually 'shop.'  I'm too worn out to shop, people!

Hell, I'm tempted to go pick up my paperback collection of David Gemmell stuff only because I know stuff happens in those books (even if I have them memorized and even if I'm not sure I could bring myself to read again).

Half way through Gormenghast--nothing is happening...
Half way through The Line Between--nothing is happening...
Halfway through The Ocean at the End of the Lane--nothing is happening...

Thank God for Ted Hughes and Crow; cause it's awesome.  (Thanks for the recommendation Jo Walton.)

What ever will I complain about next?  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Among Others by Jo Walton

Morwenna likes to drink water.  Her favorite thing in the world is inter-library loan.  She doesn't like tea, orange juice, and certainly not champagne.  She doesn't like people and prefers the company of fairies and science fiction--both of which seem to be a rather exclusive, if not an esoteric, pursuit.  While there is nothing wrong with these personality traits, I share a few, neither are they interesting enough to justify writing a book about.  After reading Among Others I feel certain Morwenna wouldn't like apple juice, cool-aid, or Armagnac.  Morwenna likes to drink water.  She is willfully the most boring person alive.

But she doesn't have to be.

Walton chose to write a book about science fiction.  She discusses other books and authors in the genre up until 1980.  There is nothing wrong with such a book, and I think it would be welcomed among that community of readers, but why she chose to do so under the guise of fiction is beyond me.  More so than the book discussion--which was genuinely interesting from time to time--is the fact that Walton chose to write a novel out of what should have been a readers guide to SF with absolutely no conflict or tension to speak of.  It's not that the conflict is subtle or heavily cloaked: it ain't there.  This absence of conflict is exacerbated by lovely prose about trite day-to-day occurrences and vague hints in directions of interest that are never developed or explored.

Morwenna can see fairies, but please, don't expect a story out of that.  She was involved in an accident that killed her twin sister, at which point Morweena assumed her sister's name, and she has been left with a ruined leg and a cane; but for some reason we don't need to make a story out of that either.  After meeting her father and feeling indifferent she brushes off a drunken incident where he tries to force himself on her, but let's not introduce anything that could be misconstrued as an interesting launching point at this time in the story.  The accident that claimed her sister and leg was brought on by her allegedly mad mother, who is a witch, but surely that wouldn't be fun to talk about either.

After running away from her crazy mother, she goes to stay with her estranged father and his three sisters, who are also witches and manipulating their brother.  (No story there either...)  She goes to a private school and resolutely resist making friends or socializing in any way, until she 'magically' works her way into a book club.  I don't mean this as a joke, but to those who have read the book: does any of this sound interesting yet?  Am I being faithful in regards to what the book is about?  Everything is so casually mentioned as to not resonate: 'Today I did some lame ass magic,' 'I followed around the ghost of my sister,' 'I went to sleep masturbating about Wim (a horrible diminutive of William).'  (Okay, actually when she said that I was startled--heart skipped two beats; primarily because that part woke me up and I learned Morwenna has a pulse... )  Nothing in Morwenna's life matters to her and in the narrative she conveys it as such.  It sure doesn't matter the reader.

Over the course of about a year she does manage to grow and develop some, first in the friends she resents having, the book club, a boyfriend, and ultimately finding purpose and direction in her life as opposed to joining her deceased sister, but here is nothing in this journey to the end that warrants a novel.

Morwenna is perhaps the hardest part of this book to deal with.  If you love SF from the time period involved you'll probably find much to enjoy or happily reminiscence , if not expect to be excluded from about a hundred pages worth of writing in this book.  About of third of the novel.  Morwenna is also the most condescending, high-and-mighty person ever depicted on the page.  (And to this achievement Walton is to be commended: well done.)  I have three post-its full of quotes to this effect but there was one at the end that summed it all up so nicely.  "I looked at him.  He was rarer than a unicorn, a beautiful boy in a red-checked shirt who read and thought and talked about books."  She is far more shallow than those she aggressively mocks and equally unwelcoming of those who aren't like her.  There isn't much she's not better than.    

The writing is clean, clear, and very pleasing to read.  I only wish there was something remotely resembling a story to go along with it.  The ending doesn't fizzle out because what precedes the ending never built up to anything.  The book could have ended on any page--any page--to the exact same effect.  I feel it pertinent to say: I'm not condemning this book.  It's not bad and I'd never tell someone that it is, merely, I've no idea why one would choose to read it, or what compelled Walton to set out on the surely arduous task of writing it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Month in Review

Oops, I almost forgot to do this.  It's the only regular post I do so it really would have been a shame to leave it out.  July has been busy, and busy, has been good.  I did a lot of reading, and better still, I did a lot of good reading.  Perfect Escape takes the crown for the month but everything I read was really good.

I didn't get around to posting anything for The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet but I liked it as much as I have best books in Perez-Reverte's Alitriste series.  Spain was the main character and I'm amazed each time I read one of these books to see how he deals with time and setting while still telling a story.  Story of a Girl didn't stick as much as I thought it would, but it was awesome while I was reading it.  Bitterblue has ultimately made me want from of everything from Cashore.   Lonely Werewolf girl was such a break from what I normally read that I'm all kinds a eager to get to the follow up.  A Stir of Bones was not what I was expecting but wonderful nonetheless.  I hope to suppress this urge as long as I can or at least until I'm in another reading funk.

I didn't get to reading any more of Gormenghast, which was a goal of mine, but as I have a friend reading Titus Groan I'll put some more effort into it in August.  I also got about half way through The Line Between by Peter Beagle.  It's a short story collection by a phenomenal short story writer, but all in all, I haven't been in love with anything in it thus far.  It's a very small book of very long stories; which I find odd for some reason.  I plan to finish it soon-ish.

I'm currently reading Among Others, which is an awesome birthday gift, and I'll have a couple things to say about that in a few days.  (It's a about quiet, condescending girl who has read everything.)  Also in line for this month is a small haul from the library: Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon, Changing Planes and The Birthday of The World both by Ursala K Le Guin.  Three short story collections in one trip; perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

July is kind of a downer month in terms of reading; one of those that I doubt I'll repeat in terms of quality, but here's to hoping I'm wrong.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown

"This is what it's like living with a mentally ill person: everyone afraid to move.  Everyone afraid to speak.  You don't say certain words like suicide or crazy, and you do everything in your power to keep the good milliseconds lasting as long as they possibly can.  And you don't rush into anything at all, because rushing feels like courting disaster and you don't even know what that disaster is, because it's never the same disaster twice.  A ruined birthday?  A scene at a restaurant?  Police cars in the driveway in the middle of the night?  All of the above?  

And you don't ask for attention.  

And you get used to it when you don't get any. 

And you try really, really hard to forget that not getting attention hurts and that this person--this muttering, shadow-eyes, scabbed patient--was once your hero and best friend in the world.  Back when he was just a "weird kid."

And you try to remember that you still love him, even if some days, you can't exactly pinpoint why."  Page 8

Kendra's older brother, Grayson, has problems.  Not in any sense that most people can readily identify with either.  It's not merely Grayson's extreme OCD but a host of other anxiety issues that attest to his mental health and render his life eternally to the care of someone else.  

For the past few years Kendra has, consciously or not, made a choice about how she treated her brother.  She was never indifferent and she most certainly did care, but she was for the most part hands-off: the direct involvement she left to her parents, Grayson's doctors, and the institutional facilities he regularly checked into.  They have grown apart and due to some rash (i.e. bad) decision making on her part, facilitated by some serious trouble she has gotten herself into, we see how she plans to reestablish her past relationship with Grayson, maintain it, and even make it stronger.

Kendra is running away because she is in trouble at school.  It's not shallow, surface level trouble either, rather she'll probably be expelled, have her scholarships revoked, and not go to college kind of trouble.  Though not part of any grand premeditated plan, she manages to somehow accidentally--believably-- kidnap her brother and they head out to California, from Missouri.  Kendra excels at overreacting.  Here you would think the cliches come in, and here you'd be wrong.

They pickup Rena, a young woman not much older than Kendra, and her infant son.  It is almost immediately that we see that in a car with the leader of a school wide scandal, a single mother without a penny to her name (literally) and a mentally ill kid who is already miles away from his meds that Kendra is perhaps the least 'normal' person in the car.  

Kendra's discovery about so many things concerning Grayson and how they apply to their relationship was wonderful to watch unfold.  They physically get in a fight and she notices how much weight he's lost since he's been away at the most recent treatment facility.  She never looked at him long enough to see this; she had to physically start pushing him around to notice.  Rena points out, more than once, how genuinely nice he is and Kendra is appalled that she never came to see such an obvious truth.  Grayson is good looking and girls find him attractive and Kendra is outright offended at how she has had the opportunity to know him better than most anyone else ever would and yet she was never aware of these things.  She begins to marvel at how self-absorbed she has been in years past not wanting to get involved with Grayson and his problems.  She'd rather escape from all his drama and be normal.  And yet, on this impromptu, under-funded, not thought out beyond 'get in the car and drive' road trip she kinda treats him like shit… 

This, was a masterstroke by Brown.  Grayson has been coddled by his mother ever since the severity of his illness was uncovered even against the recommendations of his doctors that preach exposure therapy.  Kendra is stubborn, never more so than when she owns up to a mistake like taking someone such as Grayson half way across the country without his meds and not truly being capable of caring for him.  She's never directly mean to him, but she does revel in making Grayson uncomfortable, and everything makes Grayson uncomfortable: the car, a restaurant, a hospital, the motel… She's always joking but circumstance have made her jokes serious; Kendra has chosen to make Grayson confront all that makes him sick or suffer one of his epic meltdowns  knowing that there will be no one available for miles that can help him.  Needless to say, this makes for a ridiculous amount of tension on every page of this book.  

Which brings me to the third and greatest character in the book.  California; the cure; Zoe.  Kendra has it in her head that if everyone would stop coddling Grayson and make him deal with life that he would do so and be okay.  (The full extent of which she is wrong make some of the more intense sections of the book.)  She is going to fix her brother.  California, and Zoe her erstwhile best friend and past pseudo girl friend for Grayson represents a panacea for all his ails, or so she thinks.  Before she moved away, Zoe had a calming affect on Grayson that seemingly no other has had.  Rena too fits this mold in a very fleeting manner.  Reuniting with Zoe will be the culmination of all the trials she puts Grayson through in getting to California.  What Kendra is blind to--and never once stops to consider along the way--is that if she wants to be; if she actually applies herself, and works at this unique and extraordinarily difficult relationship, no one has a more calming and positive affect on Grayson's mind than she.  

The lack of overt affection between the two is a great strength of the novel.  Even when she wants to hug him, with full regard of how poorly Grayson responds to that kind of contact, she doesn't.  It's the kind of thing her mom would do that she feels has held him down.  Right or wrong, she's stubborn to a fault.  And her faults are colossal.  A lot of bad things happen in this book and yet Kendra never stopped pushing him.  

Their interaction is brilliant and it's interesting to see how similar they are.  They each feel they've have destroyed the other's life over the course of living their own.  And in no small degree they are both right.  The story, and the story of both their lives, is all about Grayson.  Even though it's told through Kendra's first person there is no distance or objectivity with Grayson.  No one hates that fact more than Grayson.  While his self-loathing is evident from the outset it is never explicitly communicated until a 'full-on freak out' as Kendra would say near the end.  He's almost always completely lucid (and it's usually some manifestation of his genius that pushes him into freak out mode) even if he has to always be counting something, touching something, rubbing something.  He can joke, and recall anecdotes from years past, he can sing along with the radio and bad pop music.  And after being forced into so many awkward situation by his sister he is surprised at the full extent of what he is capable of doing that he didn't know he was capable of doing.  

Kendra's self loathing is jealousy of all that has been taken away from her due to Grayson and a little bit of jealously masquerading as guilt for allowing them to grow apart in the first place. 

"Zoe was able to do something for Grayson that nobody else could: accept him for who he was.  Laugh and have fun with him.  Love him.  Make him relax.  She was able to do what I only wished I could.  She would never try to cure him.  She'd only try to make herself understand him better.  I was his sister.  I was his blood.  Why couldn't I do that?"  page 153

"...the feeling of resentment that I tried to stuff away because when someone can't even walk through his home normally, resenting him somehow feels mean.  Not to mention pointless.  Resenting Grayson wasn't going to cure him."  Page 9

Grayson is aware of how hard he's made his parents life, and Kendra's.  He feels like a hostage himself.  He's sick and not willfully so.  What he needs Kendra to see is that his pills, Zoe, nor this hell-bound road trip will cure him.  

They got in the car because of Kendra's problems; Grayson was an unfortunate casualty of Kendra's impulsive wrath.  They drove to California, 1,800 miles from home, because she thought she could outrun her troubles.  As strong as Kendra is, discovering the true nature of her problems and how to save herself from them took the help of the most broken person she knew; the one she'd been trying to ignore for years.  Understanding how, and why, is the reason you should read Perfect Escape.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How do I write this review?

I'm not sure I'll ever read another book again.  Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown may have destroyed my ability to read for pleasure.  I'm pretty sure that everything I may read for the rest of my life will be awful by comparison.  The bar has been set too high and my bookshelves are now weighted down with fail...

It's a rare feeling upon finishing a book that one can be so wholly satisfied with the experience that the thought of reading something else seems nothing short of absurd.  That is exactly how I feel.  Hopefully, this feeling will fade after a good night's sleep.  My sentiment aside I do feel a bit confused as to how to leave comments for this book.  I generally rip the books I love to shreds.  The ones I don't like I spend time trying to express reasons as to why.  I rarely rant or gush and when I do those are my worst bits of commentary.

I won't be ripping Perfects Escape to shreds and I'm not even going to attempt to temper my gushing.  In thinking about this I've come up with the following three thoughts:

1  The book personally speaks to me in a powerful and favorable way and for whatever reason I can't see it objectively.

2  The book is factually the best bit of fiction ever set to paper.

3  A combination of the above two (which is what I'm currently feeling, hours after finishing it).  

There may be other options, but right now, I admit to being blind to them--willfully or not.  I don't want to talk about this book.  I want to forcibly make my friends read it so I can talk about it with them.  I'll write it up tomorrow or the next day (I'm gonna take at least that long and enjoy basking in the glow of how good this book was).  Once written, I'll hang onto it for a bit longer in hopes of not gushing to the point of losing credibility.

Is objectivity a set goal in writing a review?  If so, I plan on failing that criteria.  

A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

"House has a mind of it's own," said Nathan, "and I don't know what it's thinking right now.  This isn't the way things are supposed to go."

"So what's supposed to happen," Julio asked.  His voice shook.  "Are we all supposed to die?"

"No.  You run away screaming, and tell everyone how scary it is here."

"But we can't."  Deirdre jerked the doorknob.

Susan slipped away from Edmund and went to the kitchen wall.  She placed her hands flat on it.  The house was breathing more rapidly.

She leaned against the wall, wondering at it's warmth.  It felt welcoming.  She sensed a laugh inside it.  She pressed her cheek against it, closed her eyes, breathed deeply in time with the house.

The house was alive, and the boy wasn't.  Page 35

This is the first novel by Hoffman I've read and I may have messed things up from the very start.  A Stir of Bones is a prequel to A Red Heart of Memories which was written four years before.  While reading the books in order of publication may impart some deeper attachment or meaning, I didn't feel short changed in anyway.

While not exactly dense the story is well controlled and the pacing reflects a style that I've encountered before with many of Hoffman's longer short stories.  That alone makes me think that this story about children and a haunted house is for adults, but the novel's sense of magic and wonder are certainly strong enough to appeal to any reader.

Susan, the main character, is perhaps the most boring girl on the planet.  She's endearing in that her lack of personality isn't necessarily her fault, but her fathers.  Her life is so tightly controlled by her father that she never has a chance to develop a personality.  She is Daddy's most prized possession; an angel; a 'princess.'

She is fourteen and learned at an even younger age that acting out, being an individual, a kid, or going against her father in any way, shape, or form, meant that bad things would happen to her mother.  Sometimes her parents had to make late night hospital visits due to Susan's behavior or she may notice her mother carrying herself in an awkward manner the next morning due to bruises easily concealed by clothing.  To escape the pain that Susan could bring about, her mother seeks alcohol.  To escape her abusive father and her mother's drinking--of which she is made to believe are directly related to her behavior--Susan seeks out a haunted house, a dead boy, and paradoxically, that which has been most explicitly forbidden to her by her father: friends.

Julio is an aspiring magician.  Unknowingly, Susan is something akin to a medium.  Alone with some other friends they spend time in a long abandon house with it's lone inhabitant: a long deceased suicide victim, Nathan,  a boy who died when he was their age.  Susan grows.  She develops as a person and finds that life--and even death--have more to offer her than the ridiculously harsh strictures that she lives under with her father.  As she learns the power of friendship and as her friends enable her with her own fey abilities Susan ceases to see the house as an escape, but as a symbol of power she can wield.

It's amazing how quickly we come to understand her father considering the minimal amount of time given to him.  While he is hyper possessive and controlling of Susan there was never a doubt that he loved her in his own way.  Susan can't stand up to him in any literal, physical sense.  Any opposition means horrible things for her mother, but through the house and her friends Susan finds that she does have the power to aid her mother.

It's a dark book but not overtly so.  There is plenty of reading in between the lines to be done and despite the fact that there is magic and children named 'Susan and Edmund' I'm not sure this book should be passed off to the kids.  I'll never know what anxieties and tensions I've missed by not reading these books in order of publication, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy A Stir of Bones and it certainly won't keep me from reading A Red Heart of Memories.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore likes to torment me: this is how I know she loves me back.

Bittleblue takes place ten years after Graceling and even makes ties to Fire, the chronological 'first' book in this series of stand alone novels.  Bitterblue is the Queen (who for infuriating reasons unknown to me was always redundantly called 'Lady Queen' as if this dual honorific helped separate her from all the Mr Queens and Gentlemen Queens that aren't in the book) who inherits the shambles or her father's kingdom.  While her father has passed away, undoing his legacy--the mind job he did on the nation's psyche--is a real and present task.  Sadly, that's it.  That's our conflict; nothing more.  

I didn't think Fire, had that much to go on so how does Cashore fare with equally weak conflict in Bitterblue?  Much, much better, yet she still leaves us wanting.  

Bitterblue is born into a position of extreme power yet refuses to exert herself in anyway for fear of drawing comparisons to her father who abused the obscene amount of power he wielded.  (This has become Cashore's shtick: powerful, rash, young women who want nothing more than to avoid the male family shadow lurking over them.  Katsa didn't want to be her uncle--yet another bad guy king--Fire was afraid of being her father--a really, really bad guy who was advisor to the king--and now Bitterblue whose father is still, in my mind the granddaddy of bad guys.)  The conflict is weak in light of the character's Cashore has created; this is a compliment.  The uniqueness of this problem lies in the character's the author brings back rather than those created in Bitterblue.  

There is not a situation of intrigue that Po, a graceling with an extraordinary ability and a very good friend of the Queen's, can't solve.  In the beginning of Bitterblue Po is not around and I thought that was the only way the novel could work.  He eventually works himself in the story but had to be sick and delusional the entire time or risk ruining any tension created.  (As was evidenced by his only moment of 'health' at the end when he finds Bitterblue's crown with ridiculous ease.)  

The other returning character that makes the story difficult to countenance is a dead guy: Bitterblue's father.  The previous king's grace (i.e. magical power) and subsequent abuse of power is what Bitterblue is self-tasked with eradicating.  Even dead, the past king is still strong enough to warrant top billing as a villain, but it's hard to concretely identify what is being fought against and why, without a tangible figure head.  A lot of powerful people are doing absurd things in an effort absolve themselves of crimes committed under the past king's influence.  It's even harder (and more vague) to resolve such conflict.

The onus of cleaning up the previous king's mess falls to Bitterflue as she is our heroine.  Again, her problems stem more from Graceling than the novel that bears her name.  Her uncle, Po's father and the only good guy king in the entire world, left her in charge at the age of eight.  He's not one for international politics so he gives her a hug and a kiss, 'Holla if you need me,' and I'm out.  At age eight… 

Her top four advisors and indeed everyone in a position of power were retained from her father's rule.  Major fucking oversight considering her dad ruled for thirty-fives years and was the scourge of the world from day one…  So terrified of being called daddy's little girl, (and with good reason) Bitterblue is content to drown in her own ignorance and bad decision making.  As soon as I realized Po wasn't going to be around to solve every issue that arose, I kept waiting for her to exert her power as an absolute monarch.  Even if she made a bad decision I wanted just a little bit of backbone and her to say, 'Look Bitches, I'm the Queen.  This is how shit's gon' be…'  She finds administrators working against her--the same ones more than once--and they don't even get a slap on the wrist.  They are left to their own device, which is undermining Bitterblue, because she never thinks to have someone put away for a bit let alone 'off with his head.'  There is a strong undercurrent of Bitterblue's public perception, which is true for any ruler especially so for her due to her father, but it's not like she's living in the Twitter age and I continually marveled at her lack of a propaganda machine even when she was working with the people who were deceiving her.  Having a near inept character execute a weak story is not only difficult to convey as convincing, but equally difficult to keep interesting.  

So what happens in the book where Bitterblue tries to correct the wrongs of her father and establish a true understanding of her people and her land?  Well; she starts a romance with a commoner, she gets beat up, and she spends a lot of time in her library trying to break codes.  (The latter of which had huge potential and I kept waiting for something to come of it.)  It's not as if from the first day she decided she was tired of being a puppet Queen she starts whooping ass.  One could presumably write a story around that.  Nor is the reconciling of her family history through her mother's encrypted embroidery and her father's journals--encrypted from a language no one else speaks (can't make this up)--connecting to her people's suffering and why people are manipulating her the launching point for the narrative.  The infrastructure for a great story is there, there are many many elements to build on.  Somehow, nothing materialized.  

There is no real ending or resolution as their is no real conflict.  External, internal, or otherwise.  The story just kinda peters out with a resounding, soft, wet, 'splat.'  It's not necessary to give up the endgame stakes on page one, but if you're not building toward that point you do need to find away to keep your finger on the 'high tension anxiety' button at all times.    

There is a great story in-between this novel's covers only I didn't feel it was told very well.  Many of the problems stem the world she's created and past characters.  (Po can't be in a story unless he's a primary character.  It even felt like Cashore knew this as the times he was present he felt a bit 'neutered' from where we left him in Graceling.  My biggest contention with her 'world' is in the connection of The Dells to The Seven Kingdoms and the inexplicable notion of gracelings in one and 'monsters' in the other.)  Cashore humanized Bitterblue's father which was not only a mammoth accomplished but also a missed opportunity for Bitterblue to be active in her own story.  Is the book bad?  Absolutely not; I could talk about it ad nauseum.  Point me in the direction of the correct forum and I'm all over it.  Only Bitterblue isn't very strong either.  I don't need Aslan fighting The White Witch in terms of conflict and resolution, but upon finishing a novel I do need a sense that something was accomplished.  

Kristin Cashore likes to torment me: this is how I know she loves me back.