Thursday, May 29, 2014

Curtsies and Conspiracies

Curtsies and ConspiraciesI've loved Gail Carriger's books since discovering her Parasol Protectorate Series a couple of years ago. Curtsies and Conspiracies is set in the same world as PP, though a quarter century earlier, with young adult characters. But some favorites from PP make an appearance (I was particularly happy to see Lord Akeldama in this one), and of course, her signature mix of steampunk, supernatural creatures, and Victorian England is always wild fun.

I remember being underwhelmed by the first book in this series (Etiquette and Espionage), so I was surprised and pleased to find myself enjoying Curtsies and Conspiracies. Maybe it was that my expectations weren't set very high: I expected to be entertained, and I was.

Gail Carriger's writing style is delightful: her characters, if shallow, are funny and witty and I love the very Victorianness of the whole thing. The plot tends to be convoluted: after rescuing a top-secret gadget in book I, here Sophronia and her friends are trying to demonstrate their increasing adeptness at spy-stuff and Sophronia stumbles across some kind of plot to kidnap her friend Dimity for unknown reasons. These attempts seem somehow tied to the growing interest in a new kind of air-dirigible and the potential for vampires to travel higher in the aether . . . I have to admit that I'm not entirely clear on the details, but that didn't seem to matter. What really interested me here were the domestic details: how Sophronia sees possible conspiracies in every-day situations, how even tea-time can be a dramatic event, etc. I didn't mind the growing love triangle between Sophronia, her sootie friend Soap, and Lord Felix, because Sophronia generally remained oblivious to both of them.

The ending was a little bizarre, but I'll definitely pick up the next book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Wicked and the Just

J. Anderson Coat's debut novel, The Wicked and the Just, has a lot of elements that I admire in a story: vivid voice, detailed historical setting, castles, a hint of romance. At the same time, however, it tackles a difficult historical period in ways that made me both recoil from the violence but also empathize with characters on both side of the divide.

When the story opens, Cecily is furious with her father for uprooting her from England and moving to Wales where has the chance at a relatively inexpensive holding. But it's so far from everyone and everything Cecily knows and loves, and she's secretly sure they will be murdered in their beds.

The Wicked and the JustHer first encounter with their house servant, Gwenhyfar, is not very reassuring as to the attitudes of the Welsh. If it weren't for the interference of their housekeeper and Cecily's father, Cecily would have the impudent wench out on the streets.

As Cecily struggles to find her place in this new community, she gradually comes to a greater understanding of Gwenhyfar and the Welsh people--but is her new compassion enough to allow her to survive the coming upheaval?

Much as I liked Cecily's voice, Gwenhyfar's is the most striking. Her situation is painfully ironic--after the English conquest ten years earlier, she is now serving in the very house she might once have been mistress of. The English have deprived her of her father--and the strict (and often unjust) laws of the city burghers make it nigh impossible for Gwenhyfar to support her ailing mother and younger brother. She's seen too much pain and starvation among the Welsh to like the English--particularly Cecily.

The story is gorgeously written and the historical research (to my limited perspective) is impressive. It was easy for me to feel that I had been transported to another world. But the prickly relationship between Cecily and Gwenhyfar was hard to read, and the story was often hard to read--not because of any lack of skill on the author's part, but because the deprivations of the Welsh, and then the subsequent violent attacks on the English, were difficult to stomach. Which may, in fact, simply be another tribute to the author's skill.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Paris Cravings

Paris Cravings, by Kimberley Montpetit (aka award-winning children's author Kimberley Griffiths Little), is the perfect kind of summer reading. It reminded me  of Anna and the French Kiss, without all the relationship drama.

Paris CravingsChloe Dillard has enjoyed every moment of her ten-day Paris student trip--the pastries, the sights, and not least, the absence of her pressuring boyfriend. She loves Matthew, but after the Worst Night of Her Life (a mystery that only gradually comes clear in the story), everything seems complicated. Paris is the perfect escape.

But when a last-minute pastry run leads to an injury--and getting left behind by her tour group, Chloe has to rely on the kindness of the pastry shop owner, and the owner's dreamy son, to help her not only survive her last 48 hours in Paris, but thrive. As she learns how to make pastries and tours the city with Jean-Paul, Chloe finds herself rethinking most of what she thought she knew about her life.

The story was charming: Chloe herself is adorable and if Jean-Paul seems a teeny bit too good to be true, I'm not complaining. I was on occasion frustrated with Chloe's inability to see the problems with her boyfriend that seemed only too clear to an adult reader, but I think this is true to life for Chloe's age. I liked, too, that the book didn't end quite as I expected.

A great read for those who like their romances fun, frothy, and clean.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Killing Ruby Rose

Killing Ruby RoseI'm always amazed when I look over the reviews on Goodreads to see the vast difference of opinion on books. This seems to be a polarizing one--lots of one and two star reviews, and lots of four and five star reviews.

For me, I enjoyed the book. Ruby Rose has a lot of personality: a 4.0 student with a closet full of designer shoes and a troubled home life (her father was killed in the line of duty and Ruby doesn't have much to say to her ambitious DA mom).

The plot is fast-paced: after her father's death, Ruby fuels her grief into researching and observing her Filthy Five--rapists and murderers who were let free on technicalities (sometimes in her mother's court). I initially thought the book would be about Ruby's pursuit of vigilante justice.

I was wrong.

Much as Ruby wants to see justice done, she doesn't want that justice to come at her own hands. But someone finds out about Ruby's list and her desire for vigilante justice and manipulates her into situations where she has to choose between the life of an innocent or the life of someone who, Ruby believes, deserves to die. The mystery of who is behind these set-ups drives the book--and was, for me, one of the most compelling parts of the book.

The book does require a certain suspension of disbelief: Ruby's life (and her designer shoes) is beyond that of most teenagers, and most teens wouldn't have access to the information or firearms that Ruby has. But for me, that was part of the fun of the book. The romance between Ruby and Liam wasn't quite as developed as I would have liked, and most of the adults in the story behaved in baffling ways (I'm still not sure why her psychologist, after being her staunchest supporter for so long, starts cancelling her appointments or ending them early). But the story itself is strong and a fun summer read.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Strange Sweet Song

I read this book on my sister's recommendation (she's usually pretty spot-on about what books I will like)--and loved it. The author happens to be an agent-sister of my friend and critique partner, Elaine.

Strange Sweet SongThis YA fantasy was unlike most other books I've read. Not simply because it had an unusually haunting, lyrical writing style, but the story itself felt fresh and new.

Sing da Navelli is the daughter of famous musicians, and no one is surprised by her enrollment at the famous Dunhammond conservatory. Except, perhaps Sing herself, who knows that her music is lacking some quality. As she struggles to find her voice and come out of the shadow of her famous, doomed mother, she also becomes increasingly drawn to the woods surrounding Dunhammond conservatory, where the famous Felix beast of legend (and the inspiration for Dunhammond's famous opera) is rumored to live. At the same time, Sing is also intrigued by the brusque and unlikeable apprentice, Nathan Daysmoor, whose gruff exterior seems to conceal more than it reveals.

I loved the way music was woven into the novel, and the way Sing's struggles with music informed both her internal and external journey. I loved the gothic feel of the novel and Sing's sweet relationship with Nathan. I didn't love the parts of the story that were told from the point of view of the Felix, but those were usually small excerpts and I thought Rule did a masterful job of weaving the Felix into the overall storyline.

Definitely a book I would recommend.

Monday, May 19, 2014

For Darkness Shows the Stars

I always get so hopeful for Jane Austen adaptations and then I am almost inevitably disappointed. And yet, I know that I will still get suckered into reading the next one--because I can't help hoping.

For Darkness Shows the Stars (For Darkness Shows the Stars, #1)Diana Peterfreund's adaptation of Persuasion is better than most: she's created an interesting new post-apocalyptic world that feels like a return to Victorian England (similar strict social hierarchies). In this world, Elliot North and her family own an estate worked by Reductionists (the somewhat simple-minded products of a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong). And as with Anne Elliot, Elliot is almost single-handedly keeping the family estate intact as her father and older sister are more concerned with keeping up appearances than with making sure their workers are fed. Years ago, Elliot fell in love with a post-Reductionist boy on the estate, and though Kai has since disappeared to make his fortune, she still loves him. When he shows up as part of a company who are renting a portion of the estate, Elliot is ecstatic--until she realizes that he hasn't forgiven her apparent rejection of him years earlier.

Persuasion is possibly my favorite Austen novel, and it's hard to recreate the subtlety of that original romance. Peterfreund's romance almost, but not quite, works for me. For one thing, I found Kai too hard to like. Initially, he seems like an outright jerk, and I never quite got over that initial impression.

But the story was still worth reading for the interesting world Peterfreund has created, and I may just have to read the companion to this, Across a Star-swept Sea, as I'm curious to see how she pulls of a Scarlet Pimpernell adaptation in this world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading as a gateway drug

Last week, a friend left a strongly worded note on my Facebook wall, blaming me for her latest book addiction and semi-jokingly demanding an apology.

In the comment exchange that followed her post, other friends chimed in, similarly blaming me for various book addictions. One wrote, "I'm pretty sure Rosalyn is a gateway drug dealer . . ."

And I couldn't have been happier with the charge.

(Although I should probably clarify that she was talking about *books* not *actual drugs*).

As a book addict myself, there are few things that make me happier than proselytizing my favorite books. Because books make me happy, like being wrapped in the best kind of hug. Good books make me joyful.

And really terrific books change me.

But my friend's accusation got me thinking. If books are a gateway drug, what are they a gateway to?

Reading is a gateway to imagination.

Reading exposes us to other worlds, other ways of thinking, and unlike television, books do not provide these worlds fully fleshed out. Reading is interactive--it requires our cooperation to build up and realize these worlds (whether fantasy or aspects of our real world that we're not as familiar with).

Reading is a gateway to empathy.

In a lovely speech to British librarians, Neil Gaiman defends the reading of fiction as a "gateway drug to reading" because anything that gets kids to read will help them, later, read and process other more complicated texts. But he also endorses reading because it helps create empathy.

I currently live in a pretty homogeneous small-town community. In my daily life, I'm not exposed to a lot of different lifestyles or ways of viewing the world. But through books, I can begin to empathize with people who live in different parts of the world, different socio-economic worlds, different time periods, even different worlds entirely.

Reading is a gateway to connection.

The epigraph to E. M. Forster's Howard's End reads "only connect." And I think books allow us to do this. Much like developing empathy, books allow us to find connections with other people who seem to be, on the surface, unlike us. In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis tells a student that we read to know that we're not alone.

But I don't think we have to enumerate the positive effects of reading to find it worthwhile. After all, as Lee Siegel wrote in the New Yorker, there's a danger in trying to justify reading by quantifying its effects in material or social terms.
Fiction’s multifarious nature is why so many people have attributed so many effects to imaginative literature, some of them contradictory: catharsis (Aristotle); dangerous corruption of the spirit (Plato); feverish loosening of morals (Rousseau); redemptive escape from personality (Eliot); empowering creation beyond the boundaries of morality (Joyce). Fiction ruined Don Quixote, young Werther, and Emma Bovary, but it saved Cervantes, Flaubert, and Goethe.

For me, even above the pleasure of connecting with characters and books is the pleasure of connecting with another real life reader over the books we love. Tell me that you love Georgette Heyer, or Dorothy Sayers, or Connie Willis, and I'm sure we will be friends for life.

Mostly, I think I read (and I believe this is true of most readers) because reading takes me out of myself--and because I enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A crooked kind of perfect

A Crooked Kind of PerfectThe title of Linda Urban's debut novel is pretty much perfect: the novel is a charming story about ten-year-old Zoe who yearns to play the piano because it's an elegant, sophisticated instrument--what she gets instead is a Perfectone D-60 organ (a substitution which may well be the perfect metaphor for her life). Though she loves her parents, she wishes that her agoraphobic father might venture out more without getting lost, and that her work-driven mother might be a little more available. She also struggles to fit in, as her former best friend has just elected a new best friend to fill the spot.

There's so much to love about this little book as Zoe comes into her own. Her voice is fabulous--smart, off-beat, funny. Her parents are delightful (her father dances the samba to her organ pieces and fills the wall of their home with degrees from an online university; her mother is a master whiz at math and patterns). Altogether a delightful children's book.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Alif the Unseen

Alif the UnseenG. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen is fantastic--in all sense of the word. It combines so many things that I love: interesting characters, nuanced mythology, religion, a rapid-paced plot, and just a smidgen of romance.

Alif (not his real name) is a computer hacker who spends most of his life hiding behind his screen name, making money by protecting opponents of the state from discovery. He lives in a Middle Eastern world referred to vaguely as the City, and he's fallen in love with an aristocratic woman, Intisar, who jilts him for an arranged marriage with a powerful city prince. In obedience to her request that she never see him again, Alif sets out to create a computer code that will hide his online presence from her, regardless of where she goes in the net. But the resulting creation has unexpected consequences, when it draws the attention of the powerful Hand (the City's online police). At the same time, Intisar sends him an old, odd-smelling book for safe-keeping. When the City sends security to question Alif, he goes into hiding in real life (something he's not well adapted for). A series of leads brings him to seek protection from the oddly-named Vikram the Vampire, who may or may not be a jinn. As Alif seeks to untangle the mess he's made of his life--and of his innocent neighbor Dina, who's drawn into his flight--he begins to realize that the world is both bigger and more complicated than he had ever realized.

I know that not every reader will love this as much as I do. I loved the interplay of mythology (here, jinns, efrits, demons, and more) and ordinary life; but more than that, I loved the sensitive way that religion was approached, the way that Alif confronts the limits of his own faith, and the way that his evolving faith in the unseen (both in the unseen world of hackers and the unseen world of the jinn) ultimately becomes his strongest weapon. The language nerd in me loved the sort of post-modern interplay between the digital world of coding and the world of the jinn: the way Vikram tells Alif that "I believe that with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized."

Another example of this kind of digital and religious interplay comes when Alif is trying to explain quantum computing to an elderly religious leader. The sheikh responds,
Let me rephrase what I think you have said in language from my own field of study: they say that each word in the Quran has seven thousand layers of meaning, each of which, though some might seem contrary or simply unfathomable to us, exist equally at all times without cosmological contradiction.
 And Alif, startled, realizes this is exactly what he meant. This kind of philosophizing might drive some readers away, but it's part of what I loved about the novel. It made me think, even as the plot pulled me through. I should add that there's some language here, for readers who are bothered by that sort of thing.