Friday, June 28, 2013

BEAUTY QUEENS


Review of BEAUTY QUEENS by LIBBA BRAY
(review based on an advance reading copy)

The marketing for this book may have harmed more than helped its sales. Regardless of what we like to think, people do judge books by their covers and most people do not like this cover. I'm constantly trying to recommend BEAUTY QUEENS only to have people turn me down, convinced by the cover alone that it isn't for them. Also, I think a wittier title would have done more justice to the humor in these pages. I only open with this sidetrack in case you're one of those people looking at the cover and noting the title BEAUTY QUEENS and starting to dismiss this book without reading further.

My advice: read the first chapter. (Well, really more like the prologue, called “A Word from Your Sponsor.”) That's all it takes to realize this book isn't what one might initially assume. The provocative opening promises more depth (and hilarity) than any of the packaging suggests and, for that matter, the introduction is a good, quick measure of taste. If you don't like that opening you probably won't like the book, but if you're hooked, intrigued, curious, or falling off your seat from laughing so hard then you'll want to keep reading.

The characters definitely feel like types at the start, although that's fitting for this kind of satiric, tongue-in-cheek mockumentary style, so I’m not complaining. However, I did struggle keeping track of so many characters. There aren’t a full 50 (one for each state) since many die off in the original plane crash, but there are still plenty. Certain characters distinguish themselves distinctly and early on while others I could never keep straight. One in particular stepped forward at the end to play a greater role and I couldn’t remember who on earth she was.

I felt disappointed at first when the boys arrived (the sexy pirates mentioned in the book’s description). I always admire authors who can keep a story going, especially a YA story, without - or with minimal - romance drama. (Note: there still was some of that before the boys make their entrance.) However, Bray used these newest cast additions to work in some additional themes so well-handled that I set aside my initial annoyance.

These girls all harbor secrets. Bray slowly reveals their hidden shames one by one, so that we learn some early on and others much later. I valued the emotional impact far more than the suspense and the staggered revelations made waiting for the ones that hadn’t yet come much easier. Bray tackles some big issues with both insight and wit. These girls all have mental images of the ideal woman, who they’re trying to be, but none of them squeeze perfectly into that box.

Only Mary Lou’s huge secret bothered me. Well, rather how the material’s handled.  The secret itself is a great addition full of possible feminist discussions. I’m going to tell you what the secret is now, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. To be blunt Mary Lou’s private shame is that she’s horny. She wants to have sex. She wants to initiate sex. She wants to be on top and be the more aggressive one. She wants to have casual sexual encounters and many of them. She wants to masturbate and run around naked. Next to none of this is stated so frankly. Mary Lou’s secret is referred to in a metaphorical sense, as a wildness repressed too tight and trying to burst free. My quibble here is that I feel this manner of handling the material distanced by metaphors and pretty phrasings might reinforce the same shame Mary Lou’s fighting. All the other girls’ problems are stated explicitly and talked about in clear terms. Mary Lou has struggled her whole life with being slut-shamed by people for both wanting and taking charge, told again and again that as a woman she must resist acting on certain impulses and should, in fact, stuff those impulses deep away. By discussing her particular secret (lust) in metaphorical terms, I felt like we were still tucking it away. I’m glad Bray included this particular mental burden, but I wished Mary Lou’s sexual desire and shame towards those feelings had been called out directly for what it is a bit more. Anytime people skirt around an issue that only adds to the existing negative connotations. I’m always an advocate of open discussion.

BEAUTY QUEENS’ biggest strength has to be the humor. I cracked up again and again and would have happily read a draft three times as thick if it retained the same quality. Yet the depth took me by surprise, for there is indeed more to this story than pure laughs. While the girls may seem like caricatures at first, designed solely for our own entertainment, they build into real people with their own pasts, problems, and philosophies. The epilogue felt a little too happily-ever-after for me, but it keeps the tone light. I can’t help wishing this were a series simply because I enjoyed it so much.

Monday, June 24, 2013

WEDDING NIGHT


Review of WEDDING NIGHT by SOPHIE KINSELLA
(review based on an advance reading copy)

As always, great voice. Of course, I know by now that I can consistently rely on Kinsella for a natural, entertaining voice. The book hooked me early and easily and the whole thing proved a fun, fast read.

So what’s the amusing premise of Kinsella’s latest hit? Well, Lottie has a tendency to deny, deny, deny when something in her life, especially a romantic relationship, goes wrong. Then that denial finds itself channeled into a rash, regrettable decision. In this case, Lottie’s certain her boyfriend is going to propose to her. When he doesn’t, she’s crushed and immediately breaks up with him. With fate’s horrible timing, an old boyfriend going through his own cycle of impulsive decisions spurred by personal catastrophes shows up out of the blue and does propose to Lottie, who’s still feeling vulnerable and rejected. However, this story isn’t told entirely in Lottie’s perspective. It switches between Lottie and her sister Fliss, who’s determined to shield her younger sibling from herself. Convinced that what Lottie needs is a simple annulment, Fliss goes to extremes to sabotage her sister’s wedding night and prevent a consummation that would prevent an annulment. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.

Lottie’s alarmingly na├»ve and reckless but it’s hard to criticize her character too much, because I fear she’s more believable than I like to admit not to mention that this riotous premise hinges on her spontaneity and poor judgment. She’s lovable nonetheless and triggers all my protective instincts (as she does with her sister Fliss). I more than once wanted to shout at the book (or rather Lottie), “What are you thinking? Don’t do that!” Reading about Lottie is very much like watching a train wreck. Horrible and you wish you could do more, but you can’t look away.

Fliss grounds the novel a bit more, though she’s not without her flaws and those are called out near the end. I related to her much more easily, not only regarding Lottie but also re her overwhelming frustration with her ex-husband and every injustice he brings her way as well as her fears that said frustration will consume her with bitterness.

WEDDING NIGHT’s worth reading for the laughs more than anything else. (Perhaps also as a means to comfort yourself that your terrible decisions aren’t nearly as terrible as those of others, fictional or not.) Even knowing what’s coming from reading the back of the book, Kinsella makes every moment enjoyable. I don’t want to ruin the element of surprise for anyone else, but I’ll say that the butler particularly cracked me up.

The book didn’t conclude quite as cleanly as I expect for a Kinsella novel. The resolution feels a little rushed, some problems aren’t exactly sorted out, and beneath all the laughter lurk some serious psychological issues being brushed under the rug. Nevertheless, the ending satisfies and as far as fun fluff reading goes WEDDING NIGHT is top notch.

Friday, June 21, 2013

TARNISH


Review of TARNISH by KATHERINE LONGSHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy)

A while back I did a post on retold fairy tales. It’s amazing how we can read/hear/watch the same tale over and over again and each time admire the subtle, or not so subtle, differences. The same is true in historical fiction. Not only do many of us already know the history but we often read numerous novels all depicting the same event, period, character(s), etc. Henry VIII, his wives, and Anne Boleyn in particular have been popular historical fiction subjects for a long time now. While I, too, enjoy this niche in historical fiction, I’m always a little wary that my newest selection won’t distinguish itself enough from the other books I’ve read on the same topic.

I already read and reviewed Longshore’s GILT, a look at Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, as seen through the eyes of her friend Katherine Tylney. Longshore certainly makes her characters distinct people who can stand out from a line of fictionalized historical people. In the case of TARNISH, Longshore emphasizes Anne’s youth more so than any other Anne Boleyn novel I’ve read. Of course, she also makes an interesting choice to set the story before Anne catches the king’s eye, so she would be younger than the portrayals of Anne as queen. This story remains about Anne more so than any other such novel I’ve read - not about her affair with or marriage to a king or her later demonization and death. All Anne wants is some control over her own life, which really makes her no different than any other teenager.

The clothes focus went over my head a little. Not only because I’m not particularly invested in fashion in this time period, but I have little knowledge about the terminology for clothing back then. Many outfits are described in great detail, but I couldn’t picture them and often skimmed those passages. Of course, it does add to the sense of where the characters’ priorities lie and emphasizes how breaking from any kind of trend makes someone as easy mark for attention, both positive and negative. 

I started this novel expecting the story would follow Anne’s affair and marriage to the king and then end with her death or an ominous note referencing the inevitable. As I’ve said, though, Longshore chose to set Anne Boleyn’s story pre-Henry, at the point in her life when her future stretches out before her full of different possible outcomes. It’s definitely worth reading Longshore’s own explanation behind this decision and, while it caught me off guard, I have to agree it was a bold and successful move.

Monday, June 17, 2013

BLACK HEART


Review of BLACK HEART by HOLLY BLACK
(third in THE CURSE WORKERS series)

I loved this book so much that this might be a shorter review. As I’m reading I always make mental notes of what to say (compliments and criticisms alike), but BLACK HEART pulled me so intensely into this world that I shut off that part of my brain and just enjoyed a great book.

WHITE CAT jumped right into the story with Cassel waking up to find himself in his boxers on a ledge on the school roof. BLACK HEART has a similarly immediately engaging opening: Cassel and his brother Baron staking out (aka stalking) Lila. It’s a humorous and dramatic scene all at the same time, a tone Black manages with unexpected frequency.

There’s so much going on in this story I don’t quite know where to start in describing it. Cassel has love problems, school problems, family problems, law enforcement problems, mob problems, magic problems. (It started out as a fairly normal list, huh?) While Black doesn’t fall into the trap of tying everything together too neatly, many distinct plot threads intersect in surprising ways, giving the realistic sense that you can’t isolate different parts of your life - as much as you might want to do so.

BLACK HEART contains no small number of fantastic suspense and danger moments. This touches on exactly why I struggled keeping my reviewer brain alert. In some scenes, my mind was already busy working overtime imagining how in the world Cassel will survive this latest dilemma. The highest stakes moment made me, like Cassel, finally understand the full extent of why his particular magical power is so feared and coveted.

Great opening, but also great ending. Cassel can’t have an easy life after everything he’s been through, but there’s hope he’ll have a relatively happy one. Black finds a closing point that satisfies and resolves all the major plot points while still remaining fairly open-ended, a positive ending in itself given that Cassel has felt limited and constrained by tough choices his whole life. He doesn’t have a happily-ever-after and he does have numerous traumatic events in his past that will no doubt haunt him the rest of his life, but Cassel does find the one thing he’s clearly craved since book one: freedom.

Friday, June 14, 2013

GILT


Review of GILT by KATHERINE LONGSHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I enjoy a good historical fiction book now and again (including historical fantasy) and find myself particularly intrigued by Henry VIII and his six wives. (Book sales suggest I’m hardly the only one.) Nevertheless, I always approach Henry VIII novels with some hesitancy. I already know the history and I’ve read numerous stories in the same vein. What’s different about this one?

For anyone wondering that exact question about GILT, let me assure you that it distinguishes itself enough from the plethora of similar historical fiction. For starters, GILT follows Catherine Howard’s rise and fall whereas Anne Boleyn tends to be the most frequently fictionalized of Henry’s wives. Longshore also tells Cat’s story once removed, through the eyes of her friend Kitty (Katherine Tylney). I’m pleased to say that GILT remains very much Kitty’s story; she’s not merely a passive lens through which we watch Cat.

Women’s roles in this time and place take center stage among the book’s themes. Early on, Kitty witnesses a rape, an experience that haunts her ever afterwards. She resents herself for not trying to help the woman, though the reader knows perfectly well that would have amounted to Kitty’s death and/or rape as well. Kitty internalizes that experience as representative of her control as a woman and in almost every subsequent climatic moment in her life I could feel that image hovering over her. (Sidenote: GILT really is a fantastic title.)

Longshore also does a brilliant job emphasizing Kitty and Cat’s youth, something that I feel many such novels gloss over. Catherine was somewhere between 15-19 when she married the almost fifty-year-old Henry VIII and Longshore portrays her as a vivacious but reckless girl who sees immediate gains more than possible consequences. Kitty, among others, serves as Cat’s voice of reason, not that her friend will listen.

Longshore revitalizes an arguably stale historical obsession with wonderful, real characters and a marvelous voice that pulls you right into the story. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next!

Monday, June 10, 2013

A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE


Review of A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE by MADELEINE WICKHAM
(listened to as audiobook, read by KATHERINE KELLGREN)

For those who don't already know, authors Madeleine Wickham and Sophie Kinsella are the same person (real name: Madeleine Sophie Wickham). This discovery amused me since I had already singled out these two authors as my favorites in the chick lit genre years before realizing they’re one and the same. In many ways, Wickham and Kinsella works feel similar with the same voice and style shining through, and yet I understand why she divides her work with these pseudonyms. Her Wickham stuff is always a little grittier than her Kinsella stuff. Note: that's grittier, not to be confused with gritty. Wickham books star significantly more flawed and less likable characters and also contain far more substance use and abuse, swearing, and cheating. In a Sophie Kinsella book the lines of good and bad feel clear or at least clearer, but with Madeleine Wickham we read a tangled story and make our own judgments.

I listened to A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE as an audiobook, read by Katherine Kellgren. It took me a while to get into the narrator's voice and I found the voices Kelgren used for some characters, particularly Marcus and Duncan, rather jarring. (I would much rather a female narrator read men's lines in her own voice than attempt a male voice.) Marcus sounds sleazy - which made it difficult for me to understand this charming appeal that Liz finds so overwhelming - and Duncan sounds whiny; I often wondered how I might have interpreted their characters differently without these voices. I did, however, find Kelgren’s voice for Alice a perfect fit.
A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE is Wickham's second published book and that fact does show a little bit compared to her later works. (For those interested, she primarily published under the Wickham pseudonym and then switched to Kinsella rather than consistently publishing under both.) The story feels rather long-winded at times with much that could have been consolidated. As one example, the first lengthy scene establishes that Liz and her husband Jonathan are having money problems with some repetitive and roundabout conversations drilling home what could have been expressed in a few sentences or paragraphs. There are also some cases of unnecessary inner monologue and thoughts wandering off on pointless - but extensive - tangents.
If forced to choose, I prefer Sophie Kinsella books to Madeleine Wickham, though really they're different beasts. What I do admire more about the Wickham books is that the author feels far more like an observer telling a story about real people. The observer tells us about these people's actions but doesn't tell us what to think about those actions. In contrast, the Kinsella books are more formulaic with clearer-cut good guys and bad guys (or gals), or at the very least good and bad actions.
Money and sex are blatantly entangled in A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE. Liz's opinion of her husband is directly proportional to their financial well-being (so it’s plummeting with each additional monetary strain) and she turns adoring eyes on Marcus when he sweeps in to offer help in the form of money and influence. As the back of the book will tell you, Liz and Marcus wind up having an affair, throughout which money plays a prominent role. This touches on a discussion post I did about liking protagonists. I could never bring myself to like Marcus or Liz, but I found them intriguing, believable characters and liked the book. I did like other characters, though. Duncan in particular acted as an underdog; I dismissed him as a minor character until later in the book when I noted his subtle selflessness and unexpected maturity, especially considering his surrounding cast.

Speaking of Duncan, his character was one of the two things in this novel that distracted me in a negative way since I could never quite reconcile them with my definition of normal. Unless I missed an important detail, Duncan is merely a friend of Ginny and Piers and yet when they decide to relocate he follows and moves in with them, which didn't make much sense to me. In general, he's so clingy that they seem more like a threesome than a couple and I even entertained elaborate predictions that would explain his intense involvement and investment in their lives. Secondly, the interactions between adults and teenagers struck me as pretty bizarre, primarily in regards to strangers and alcohol. Alice’s relationship with Ginny and Piers never seemed…either realistic or appropriate. (I can’t make up my mind whether it’s realistic but inappropriate or appropriate but unrealistic.) Aside from the fact that they’re strangers when she starts spending more time with them than her own parents, they also offer her plenty of alcohol and encourage her getting drunk. While drinking during teenage years isn’t so unusual there’s also a casual attitude regarding young children not only drinking alcohol but lots of it! (This may well be a cultural/generational difference. My mother is British and was encouraged to drink alcohol from the age of five.)
Another key difference between Sophie Kinsella and Madeleine Wickham books is the ending. In Kinsella books, everything ties up neatly with occasionally unrealistically clean resolutions to big problems. With her Wickham books, the story finds a place to end, but plenty remains unresolved. In fact, with A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE I even checked to ensure I wasn’t missing a disk, because the ending felt so abrupt. Little to no resolution. Rather some startling revelations and climatic moments, but then the story cuts off and leaves the reader to imagine what the characters have learned from their experiences, if anything. While many criticize tidy wrap-ups for being too easy and unrealistic not to mention potentially harmful wish-fulfillment fantasizes, at least the well-done ones feel highly satisfying. I didn’t expect or want an orderly wrap-up for A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE, but I did wish for more resolution than I found.

Friday, June 7, 2013

IRREGULARS


Review of IRREGULARS
(based on a review copy, a shared world anthology with four contributing authors: NICOLE KIMBERLING, JOSH LANYON, ASTRID AMARA, and GINN HALE)
I don't read much urban fantasy, so I can't claim any expertise on what's unique in that arena. My disclaimer aside, within paragraphs of starting the first story I found the setup behind these four tales unique and compelling. This anthology includes cop stories with a supernatural twist - following a special department that handles all crimes in which magic/paranormal creatures/alternate realm involvement/etc. might play a role. These stories are also as much romance as fantasy, sometimes walking that debatable line between romance and erotica with how explicitly the sex is described.
In the first story, Nicole Kimberling’s “Cherries Worth Getting,” Agent Keith finds himself working with an ex-lover as they investigate an underground human meat market. I found myself immersed in this story within a few pages, hooked by natural writing, a likable lead character, an intriguing universe, and a twisty crime investigation. At only around 15 pages, it struck me that I would imagine I had read over 100 pages for how much I understood and cared about the characters, world, and conflict. Also, after having read all four stories, I found the gadgets in this first one the coolest and Keith the easiest character to invest in near immediately.

I didn’t find the romance in the second story, Josh Lanyon’s “Green Glass Beads” quite as convincing as the first, but it’s nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable story. No weak links here, even if it’s a temptation with anthologies and collections to compare all the stories against each other. In this one, Archer becomes a person of interest in one of NATO’s investigations, though he wonders if Agent Rake’s interest in him is purely professional.

I mentally cheered during the third story, Astrid Amara’s “No Life But This,” because Amara directly addressed an issue that both the first two stories annoyed me a little by sidestepping. Both the earlier stories acknowledge any difficulties in a multi-racial relationship (and note here that I mean race in terms of humans versus non-humans like goblins, fairies, etc.) and subtly address any prejudice or hardship the lead characters have faced as gay men. However, neither of the first two stories discuss the unprofessionalism and possible consequences of casual sex between co-workers or, even worse, between a cop and a suspect. In “No Life But This” Agent Silas is essentially assigned to babysit Deven, a known other-realm assassin now wanted dead. The story upfront acknowledges how the professional relationship here makes any potential romantic relationship a bit of a minefield, which additionally gives the romance a slower, more satisfying build. The magic in this story impressed me the most out of all four. It’s morbid and gory, but unique and fascinating.

The fourth story, Ginn Hale’s “Things Unseen and Deadly,” builds to the most intense climax with high stakes and a well-plotted, novel-like story arc skillfully compressed into shorter form. I find this one a little trickier to describe without spoiling. It’s a typical “main-character-doesn’t-know-his-own-past” type of fantasy story and Jason’s lack of knowledge about his own background both shelters him and puts him in danger from threats he doesn’t know exist. This one, too, has some absorbing, if unnerving, magic and really resonates emotionally.

Sadly, stories (and, hence, anthologies and collections) don’t receive nearly as much attention as novels. I admit to being a skeptical short story reader myself. A good portion of stories read to me as underdeveloped book ideas. That being said, when someone can pack the perfect punch into a shorter format, I admire them all the more for it. Granted, these stories fall more into novella length, making that “punch” a little easier to achieve than in, say, a 10-20 page story. Regardless, I loved them all.

Monday, June 3, 2013

OBLIQUITY


Review of OBLIQUITY edited by PAUL HANSON

This collection perfectly illustrates the term “speculative fiction.” There’s fantasy, science fiction, and the plain weird, strange, and bizarre.

The first story, “Lodestone” by the editor Paul Hanson (Full disclosure: Paul and I work together.) meshes recognizable tropes and unusual twists on an orphan’s strange, magical journey. The distinct voice implies an older person looking back at youth and the whole story has a tip of the iceberg feeling like there’s still plenty unsaid about these characters and circumstances.

“The Asylum” by Patricia Lewis also made quite an impression on me. Though the core premise isn’t entirely new, the story’s well paced with a nicely timed revelation and the characters flesh out a familiar theme with more depth. I did take issue with a certain subtext, but enjoyed the story nonetheless, especially since it opens doors for discussion.

My favorite story probably has to be “Tabit’s Odyssey” by Christine Wyatt. It’s wonderfully weird. That word “weird” has a negative connotation, but I mean it as the highest of compliments in this case! I admire the author, since “Tabit’s Odyssey” strikes me as the kind of story that would fall to pieces with the smallest slip-up in pacing.

I enjoyed “J” by Bill Branley as well. The magic premise feels familiar but intriguingly odd and mysterious. Branley keeps the story character-focused and builds to a punch of an ending.

“Redo” by Nick Heinlein doesn’t seem terribly special or new until you reach an ending that makes your investment worth your time. In this case, “Redo” hits the reader with a hilarious one-liner (Out of context: “They had been robbed.”) while still retaining understated strands of the emotional, more serious implications.

“Genesis at Raradon” by Lorenz Eber brilliantly exemplifies what I look for in a short story. Both the world and the characters feel well developed and Eber supplies information as needed without under- or over- dosing the reader with details. Climatic events impacted me even though I had met these characters only pages ago and Eber ties it all up with a great twist of an ending. That’s all within about 14 pages, too!

My only complaint applies to a few works here, but really can often be said about short stories in general: some simply feel too short, either underdeveloped or wonderfully developed but stuffed into a cramped word count. I always admire well-executed short stories, but frequently encounter ones that feel like they’re only starting as they come to a close.

All in all, an eclectic collection of stories showcasing the variety of styles, premises, and approaches found within this term “speculative fiction.” The note in the back of the book about the winged salamander of the cover also deserves your attention!