I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

Immoderately gushing about Megan Whalen Turner

May I begin in justifying myself slightly for the fact that I have not read these books until now although my sister read and recommended them, like, a decade ago?

When I really love a book, I want everyone who I think would like it to read it so that they can love it also.  To this end, I will wheedle and cajole and sometimes manipulatively give the book to them as a gift so they will feel guilty for not reading it.  It’s for their own good.  In short, I cannot rest until the joy has been spread.  I am an evangelist for the books (and films and TV shows) that I love.  I know that marketing principle where you have to remind people a whole bunch of times before you can expect them to take action, and I do it.  Only because I want my loved ones to have the same joyous reading experiences that I have had.

My big sister does not operate quite in the same way.  From what I can observe, she has a more live and let live philosophy.  If she tells me a book is good, and I then don’t read it, it’s possible she may never bring it up again.  If she tells me a book is good, and I start it and don’t like it, she will probably leave it at that.  SO NOT LIKE ME!  I will pester the crap out of people until they give my books another chance.  Her, not so much.  So I can’t always tell from her recommendations the difference between a book that is good and my life is empty without it, and a book that is, you know, fine.

(Or else possibly she and I act the exact same way in regard to books we love madly, and I am making up a lot of self-justifying claptrap because I feel that without a reason for my not having read these books years ago the universe is too bleak and wretched to be bothered with.)

I do not necessarily know that your life is empty without Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.  But mine was.  These books – The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings, which I have not yet read – are set in an ancient-Greece-like (but not ancient Greece) fantasy world with religion and mythology and politics.  They are made up of pure win.  They make me want to stride up and down gesturing energetically and shouting about how good they are.  The politics are twisty and complex and feel realistic but do not bore me to tears.  The characters grow and change, and when they interact with each other, there is all this boilingly tense subtext underneath the actual words that they are saying.

A very true story about me: I love subtext.  I’m mad for subtext.  Considering the epic crush I have on words, I am mighty appreciative of things left unsaid.  Subtext.  The simmery-er, the better.  When I find an author who can make me quiver with tension during a scene where it’s just two people sitting around talking, I’m hers for life.  (Or his, of course!)  I will overlook a lot of flaws in a book that knows how to play its subtext.

Take, for example, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, a very imperfect book, God knows, but I love it quite passionately for its dialogue, every line of which means at least one thing other than the actual words being said.  Or take nearly any scene between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, and you will see it is rife with beautiful, crackling subtext: see in particular the scene by the riverbank in Gaudy Night.  You know that one?  Damn good scene.

Megan Whalen Turner is also very good at this, so I may have been too high on subtext to spot any flaws.  I have seen reviews that found the plots of (some of) the books in this series slow, but I didn’t mind.  I was too busy enjoying the lovely character interactions.  The central character is a person with a tendency towards self-concealment, and many of the twists in the plot arise from your (or other characters’) (or both) not knowing him as well as you think you do.  This is a very cool kind of plot twist – the kind that makes you go back and reevaluate actions and words that you thought you understood the first time around but you really did not.  (Unless you’re me.  If you’re me, you did. I sneakily find out plot twists ahead of time by causing my sister to tell them to me.)

(While I’m gushing, can I get some love for the phrase “plot twist”? I dunno who came up with that, but that’s a brilliant phrase for it!  It makes a wonderful image in my mind!  TWIST.)

I guess since I have gone on and on about them, I should briefly say what these books are about. They are in a series, and since I know other people who are not me dislike spoilers, I don’t want to say too much about any one book and spoil the ones that came before it.  Very vaguely then: The Queen’s Thief books are about a thief called Eugenides (Gen), who lives in a section of the world that is not altogether unlike ancient Greece (before Alexander the Great, this would be).  For one reason and another, Gen finds himself mixed up with people in high places, and political turmoil, of varying scope and consequence throughout the several books, ensues.

I gobbled up The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia this weekend all in one mighty gobble, and then I had to wait and borrow A Conspiracy of Kings from my sister.  I hope the fourth book lives up to the previous ones and does not wrap up everything up tidily but rather leaves many things open for future books that Megan Whalen Turner is going to write swiftly and release promptly.  Thanks to Memory for reading these recently – your reviews tipped me over the edge!

Once again there are too many other reviews of these books for my slow old computer to load and then link to, plus I am tired and want to go to bed early tonight, so if you are yearning to see what the blogosphere thinks of Megan Whalen Turner I refer you to the glorious and oft-consulted-by-me Book Blogs Search Engine.

Because it is rich with mythology and features the gods, I am counting these books towards the Once Upon a Time Challenge, yet another challenge about which I have in no way forgotten.  How could I?  It has such a pretty button!

So how about it, everyone?  Are you a book evangelist?  Once you have made your initial recommendation to your loved ones about a book you adored, do you keep knocking on their doors in suits with copies of the book in your hands, or do you shut up and leave them alone to read whatever they darn well feel like reading?  How good is the phrase “plot twist”?  Are you, too, a subtext junkie?

Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente

I love the word "palimpsest".  I like how it sounds and what it means.  When I read Nymeth’s review of this book, and she was all, It reminded me of MirrorMask!, I knew I had to get it.  Catherynne Valente‘s Palimpsest is about a city called Palimpsest, a sexually transmitted city – people have pieces of a map of Palimpsest, like tattoos, somewhere on their bodies, and when two people with the marks on them sleep together, they go to Palimpsest for the night.  Like a dream, except that it isn’t a dream.  The book is about four people who are bound together by their first visit to Palimpsest – November, Sei, Ludo, and Oleg – who want to leave the real world behind and go to Palimpsest forever.

Palimpsest gets off to a slow start, and the long, rather treacly descriptions of the different places in the city were a bit much.  It did remind me of the world in Mirrormask, or one of the weirder episodes of Doctor Who, but the kind of detailed strangeness that works in a visual medium can be too much when it’s described at great length.  Each of the Palimpsest chapters began with one of these long descriptions.  Some of them were interesting and cool, but some weren’t, and after a while my brain went on overload, and I started skipping them.  I think it would have worked better if these had been more character-centered.  Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludo are stand-ins for us, discovering the city as we do, and I would have liked to see more of their interactions with the city, with characters in the city, and with characters from the real world inside of Palimpsest.

I liked November best because she made lists – not dull lists but interesting lists.  Things which are gone in the morning: sleep, darkness, grief, the moon.  Women.  Dreams – and, Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow.  Light.  Work.  Disease.  Dreams.  I like this.  Things that cannot long be kept secret: death in the family, the loss of a ring, corruption of the spirit, boredom, illicit love.  Sickness.  Addiction.  Pregnancy.  Lovely.  I love making lists.

The story is graceful and gradual and mysterious.  The history of Palimpsest unfolds slowly, with the stories coming to us from many different characters.  I like how it begins to fit together carefully, like puzzle pieces – the city’s past and present, while the four central characters come together to determine its future.  They all four have to find each other in the real world, in order to move to Palimpsest permanently, which is their most desperate desire.  Palimpsest wants them as much as they want it, offering them their heart’s desires in the city.

Actually that is sort of creepy.  It is like that Barbara Michaels book where the house wants to make the people happy, and it makes them be happy using its creepy powers.  Palimpsest shapes things for November and Sei and Ludo and Oleg.  They want to move there, of course, but the book leaves you to wonder whether this is what’s best for them.

Is it just me?  Is it not more creepy for a place to make people happy?  Than to make them miserable or insane like in The Haunting of Hill House?  I don’t know why I find this so creepy!

Other reviews: things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!), BSC Review, Reading the Leaves, Stage and Canvas, Scooter Chronicles, and let me know if I missed yours!

The Thirteenth Child, Patricia C. Wrede

Verdict: Not racist!

(Phew.)

I read somewhere that The Thirteenth Child was racist, and it stressed me out because Patricia C. Wrede was one of my favorite authors when I was coming up, and I didn’t want her to be racist.  Especially because she’s the other author besides Jane Yolen that I wrote to in my youth, and she wrote me back a really nice email telling me to keep on reading and pay close attention to the things my favorite authors were doing, and that’s how I would get to be a better writer myself (which is what I asked her how I could do).

The Thirteenth Child is about an alternate America where mammoths run free and people are magicians.  Our heroine, Eff, is the thirteenth child of her family, and she believes that as a thirteenth child she’s doomed to cause some sort of catastrophe as an adult.  Her twin Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, double-lucky and double-powerful, and this only increases her sense of inadequacy and danger.  Eff is convinced that she will bring disaster on everyone, and so she suppresses her magic, only allowing herself to learn Aphrikan magic with her teacher, Miss Ochiba.

I enjoyed this, but not enormously, to be honest.  Not much happens throughout the book, and Eff’s struggles with her feelings of danger and inadequacy aren’t interesting enough to carry the book completely by themselves.  I would have liked to see more character moments with Lan and William – although they were major characters, I didn’t get a strong sense of who they were.  Plus Eff had all these brothers and sisters, but she doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with any of them, apart from Lan.  I was pleased that Eff got to save the day at the end, and I am interested to see where Patricia C. Wrede is going to go with this in (I assume) future books.  For instance, where are the American Indians?  Do we have those?  Do they play into what Wash calls “Columbian magic” and how it works?  And also, what do steam dragons do exactly, and what are they so frightened of?  Can there be more about William and Lan and Eff and how they all fit together?

Other views: Charlotte’s Library, Reading Rants, Biblauragraphy, Jo Walton, Here, There, and Everywhere, Em Reads

Let me know if I missed yours!

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

I actually wrote this review at the end of May – May 19th, if I recall correctly (as of course I unfailingly do) – but I couldn’t post it because I was planning to send a copy of the book to my good friend tim for her birthday (which was May 15th – yes, I’m a bad friend), and I couldn’t remember whether she read this blog or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I wanted her to be joyously surprised by the arrival of her book.

Um, yeah, Ella Minnow Pea is awesome.  I will just detail for you the ways in which it is awesome.

One: It is epistolary.  I love epistolary novels.

Two: It is set in a fictional country that reveres the creator of the useful sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  This sentence stands written in tiles in the center of town, and when tiles start falling down, the country starts eliminating the fallen letters from their vocabulary.  On the assumption that the creator – Nevin Nollop – is sending a divine message to stop using those letters.

Three: The letter-writers stop using those letters.  Ya heard.  At first it is letters that aren’t awfully useful, like Z and Q, but then it is J (slightly more important) and then it is D (eek! Farewell to past tense!), and K and B and all kinds of things.  I bet that Mark Dunn used his thesaurus A LOT, and also the Search function in Microsoft Word.  Cause holy crap.

Four: Although it is satire about totalitarianism, it is not at all heavy-handed, largely because it is too busy being whimsical.

Five: The residents of the country make a deal with one of the councilmen whereby if they can find a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, and is shorter than Nevin Nollop’s sentence (32 characters altogether), the elimination of fallen letters will cease, and all the banished people can come back home again.

LOVES IT.

This is a good book for me to send to my friend tim, because she and I are the sort of people who do this all the time.  I feel like at one time when we were chatting online, we stopped using the letter S and replaced it with D in all the wordd we uded.  Derioudly, if you have never replaced a letter with another letter you are midding out.  Hilarity endued.  (Hahahaha, that is still funny.  Midding means poop.)  In high school we learned Morse code and sent each other letters in Morse code, and we are both madly obsessed with finding words that are all standards, meaning that no letter goes above or below the line.  You are allowed to use “i” but it’s sort of cheating, so if you really take pride in it you will find words like savanna and occurrence, rather than words like renaissance and communion.  (Finding words with no standards is trickier.  Egypt works, but only because it’s a proper noun and the E has to be capitalized.

Anyway, you can see how this was an excellent present for me to send to tim.  I am convinced that she will love it.  Other views below:

Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness appreciates its wordy awesomeness
Rebecca Reads loved it in spite of limited characterization, something I hadn’t considered because I was too busy concentrating on keeping my brain from exploding with joy at how brilliant and fun this book was
Fyrefly’s Book Blog, creator of the lovely book blog search I now use, enjoyed how the book made you start watching for forbidden letters and thinking of synonyms
Book Nut fears it was too clever for its own good but enjoyed it
Ace and Hoser Blook thought it was silly.  Not in a good way
On My Bookshelf looooved it
Reading, Writing, and Retirement is reminded of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut which is AWESOME
Reading and Ruminations
Maggie Reads
Confessions of a Book Habitue

Tell me if I missed yours!

The Court of the Air, Stephen Hunt

Oh, steampunk, why do you keep breaking my heart?  I want to love you, I do.  What’s not to love about steampunk?  In theory it should be everything good: Victorians, and flying machines, and (usually) fantasy elements too.  How can it be that I have never read a steampunk book and really loved it?

The Court of the Air is about two plucky orphans who are being chased by assassins, and they’re not sure why.  I got bored about 150 pages in and didn’t finish it.  There were several reasons for this.  First of all, there were dangling participles all over the place.  I can’t stand dangling participles.  Someone said “It’s alright,” which is fine in closed captioning on TV, but I feel like an editor should catch it in a book.  Secondly, there were too many made-up words with not enough explanation as to what they meant.  I tried to wait patiently for the explanation that was surely coming, but it didn’t.  Anyway I sort of subscribe to this rule about made-up words in books.  Finally, I didn’t really understand what was going on, and I didn’t really care.

Has anyone read a really good steampunk book?  I want one!  I just don’t know where to turn!

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Well, I was slightly less thrilled with this than the last one.  I know it’s good for Laurence to chill out a little bit because yes, he did in some respects have a stick up his ass, and I appreciate that’s not necessarily an ideal state for a stalwart hero to be in – but I got sad when he started to feel disenchanted with the British government and the Navy and everyone, and how he started thinking sedition mutiny thoughts.  I liked His Majesty’s Dragon because of how proper and British he was, and now he’s all different.  I don’t feel like I know him anymore.  *tear*

Laurence and Temeraire are off to China in Throne of Jade.  It’s all about what a rare and unusual dragon Temeraire is, and the Chinese are very cross that their most rare and unusual dragon, which was meant for an emperor (Napoleon), is being minded by an ordinary guy and being sent off to war.  In order to avoid irritating China so much that they start giving out dragons to France willy-nilly, Britain ships Laurence and Temeraire to China to sort the whole mess out.  It’s a long journey, so most of the book takes place on the ship’s journey to get there.

My main gripe is that there was a massive build-up for not much conclusion.  They spend all this time on the ship fretting about everything, whether Temeraire will be taken from Laurence, whether the Chinese are going to get angry with their wicked British dragon-having ways and kill them all, who’s evil and who’s okay, and then at the very tail end everything gets resolved really, really quickly.  (Except for the problem of dragon liberty, which is obviously meant for future books.)

That issue aside, however, I did enjoy the book.  Not as much as His Majesty’s Dragon, of course, but still quite a fair bit.  I still don’t like Jane Roland, but she wasn’t around much.  Although the book wasn’t fast-paced, it was interesting, all the conflicts that arose on the ship.  Just the kind of thing that would happen in these circumstances – different branches of the armed forces getting in each other’s way and being irritated with each other, the dragon being stubborn, culture conflicts – it was interesting.

Overall, I’d say – second book in a series with all the attendant problems.  Not bad, but not good enough that I feel compelled to read Black Powder War straight away.  It’s in my library bag and all, but I’ll just wait.  I think that will be better.

His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik

Recommended by some book blog somewhere, though damned if I remember where. I’ve been meaning to get this out of the library for ages, and it was very fortunately not checked out last time I went.

Oh, it was such fun to read! I was so pleased by it! It’s all about the Brits during the Napoleonic Wars, only they’ve put in dragons also. Laurence, the main guy, is a captain in the Royal Navy and he’s all got his duty and good manners and his ship captures a dragon’s egg from a French ship, and the egg hatches and he gets stuck with the dragon. But happily for everyone, it’s a lovely dragon with a sweet temper and many nice skills, and furthermore it is the Rarest Kind of Dragon Ever.

The book charmed me. I like reading books where people are being all British and courteous and duty-to-the-crown and “Surely, sir, you are not questioning my loyalty?” It wasn’t one of those books with a thrilling plot and you can’t put it down because you simply must find out what happens, but it was one of those books that’s just totally nice and friendly. His Majesty’s Dragon is like the Ramen noodles of books: not the greatest thing you’ve ever had, but so pleasant and comforting and possessing the capacity of making you feel like everything’s totally fine.

I’m in such a good mood now. I may go outside and skip.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.