Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “narfna”

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #59: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

bernadetteWell, let this be a lesson to those who would open their mouths and spew venom into the world. I once wrote very publicly and loudly in a review that I could never love a satire — don’t even remember which book I was reviewing. The point is, this book has made me eat my words. This fucking book, man. I loved it. It’s my cheese, my oreo cookie, my soft blanket on a cold winter’s night, my let’s pack everything up and head out for an adventure because FUCK YEAH WE’RE ALIVE. I’m so glad I randomly picked this book up at my library. Like, last second, I was checking out and there it was, and I just grabbed it. Best last minute decision ever.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a modern day epistolary novel, but not like one of those ones you read as a teenager with like whiny emails and diary entries from lovelorn pimple-faces, it’s like layers and layers of subtle genius. Bee is fifteen and loves her mother, her eccentric and troubled mother, who one day disappears. The book is a meta-compilation supposedly put together by Bee of emails, articles, and other assorted correspondences that tell the story of Bernadette: what made her who she is, and what led up to her disappearance. The first 75% of the book is just a delightful satire, on the wealthy and privileged, on the self-deluded and spiritually empty — but what really makes it are the bits of real emotion that are constantly peeking through. This story genuinely made me feel things, and like I mean that it in all caps, FEEL THINGS. Plus, it’s just wacky. Maria Semple used to work on Arrested Development, if that gives you some idea of what I mean by ‘wacky.’

Now, just to warn you, I’m writing this all high off the ending (which was just fucking lovely), so I might be a bit biased, and you might end up reading it and being like, Ashley, what the fuck? Just keep that in mind. But to put it in frame of reference, I liked this book almost as much as I liked Ready Player One (and I fucking love Ready Player One), but it’s a different kind of love.

I don’t want to say anymore because I just want you to go read the book. I mean it. GO!

Scootsa1000’s #CBR4 Review 47: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Take a little bit of Jasper Fforde, Joss Whedon, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, The X Files, and Sherlock. Now mix them together.  What you get is The Rook, a delightful — and sometimes disgusting — tale of a kick-ass amnesiac named Myfanwy Thomas, a woman who has no memories of her life and who happens to work for a secret branch of the British government that deals with the supernatural.

I first heard about The Rook a few weeks ago, when I read narfna’s entertaining review (thanks, narfna!).  I started reading, and to be honest, well, I wasn’t too impressed.  The story starts out with a bang — a woman suddenly finds herself in a park, in the rain, surrounded by dead bodies all wearing rubber gloves, and has no idea where she is or WHO she is — but I just wasn’t that into it.  I kept putting it aside, reading a page here and there, but not really into it.

And then.  Well, then we meet Gestalt, Myfanwy’s co-worker.  I’m not going to give any spoilers, but MY GOD.  Gestalt is one of the most interesting and original characters I’ve ever come across.  And suddenly, I was hooked.  I seriously could not put this book down and stayed up way past my bedtime for two nights in a row to finish it.

The plot is crazy.  Amnesiac Myfanwy finds a letter in her pocket from old Myfanwy, who knew she was going to lose her memory and prepared her new self for it.  She gives new Myfanwy a choice:  take all of my money and a new identity and move far, far away, but be aware that whoever did this to you could someday come after you and kill you OR take my place, take my job, take my old life, and find out who did this to us and why.

Its no secret to tell you that Myfanwy chooses option two.  She decides to “become” Myfanwy Thomas, and dives headfirst into a world of monsters (both natural and created) and superpowers.

I really enjoyed this story.  O’Malley is a very witty writer, and its always refreshing to read about such a kick-ass heroine.  I gather that a sequel is in the works, and I’m quite OK with that.

Added bonus: Myfanwy’s sister is named Bronwyn, and that happens to be my oldest daughter’s name.

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #58: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling


BEFORE, 9/20/12: Confession time, you guys: I haven’t been that excited for the new Rowling, although you’d think I would be, the way I’ve behaved over her previous novels (hint: like a fuckin’ lunatic, yo). Since I first discovered Harry Potter in October of 1999, I have yet to find any story that touches me the way(s) HP does, for whatever reason. Not that my love of HP has instilled in me ridiculously high expectations or anything, EXCEPT THAT IT TOTALLY HAS.

I would tell you that I’ve re-read those books more times than I can count, except that would be a lie because I HAVE counted, and I’m just not telling you because, frankly, it’s obscene. But no matter how many times I re-read them, they still make my heart beat fast, make me laugh, make me cry, and make me scream obscenities and want to throw things across the room (Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, and specifically Dolores Umbridge, is responsible for the first recorded incidence of Ashley-on-book-violence). They make me feel FEELINGS, and in only the best ways. And every time I pick them up again, they never fail to make feel like I’m discovering magic for the first time all over again — you know, like Madonna in “Like a Virgin,” except with books instead of sex.

The last time a favorite author of mine came out with a new book, I was crushingly disappointed by it. Alice Sebold followed up her ethereal and haunting The Lovely Bones with the absolutely god-awful The Almost Moon. I hated that book as much as I loved her first one, and I loved her first one a lot. So maybe it’s my brain’s way of protecting me against disappointment, this not caring. I pre-ordered The Casual Vacancy like a good fan, like a good little bibliophile, but deep down where it counts, I felt nothing, and it feels awful. I feel dead inside, like someone who is allergic to ice cream or cookies or something equally as awesome.

BEFORE REDUX, 9/24/12: It’s three days before the release date, and I have been trolling the internet for every last scrap of information I can find about this book. This has led me to two conclusions: 1) I still fucking love Jo Rowling — I want to be her BFF, and I’m so happy she’s still putting her words out into the universe; and 2) I have let my fear that I am going to hate this book consume me. I’m absolutely petrified. I have to stop thinking about this now. Read more…

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #57: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

More people need to read Jim C. Hines so he can quit his day job and become a full-time writer. I want this for two reasons: 1) Because it must suck to work a full-time job and write on the side like he does (I think he actually writes on his lunch break), and his writing is good enough that I feel like he deserves it; and 2) Because I want him to write more books for me to read.

Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, a sort of magician who can reach into books and pull things out of them, but if he’s not careful, the books can pull back. Two years before the events of the novel, Isaac was taken out of field duty for pushing himself too far with his magic. Sure, he saved a bunch of people, but he almost lost himself in the process. So he became a librarian, forbidden from using magic himself, who secretly catalogs books for the Porters, a magical organization surrounding the practice of libriomancy that was founded by Johannes Gutenberg six hundred years before. Gutenberg is still alive thanks to his own practice of magic, which is extremely powerful, and he rules over the Porters and the magical world, ostensibly to keep the borders between our world and the magic of the books from breaking down and causing chaos.

But all of that is just backstory. The book opens with Isaac being attacked by vampires in his library (these vampires in particular, Sanguinarius Meyerii, leaked out of the pages of Twilight, and Hines hilariously calls them “sparklers”) because they think the Porters are coming after them and they want information. When a dryad named Lena shows up both to rescue him, bringing bad news about a series of brutal attacks (and the murder of his mentor) by the same unknown and very powerful assailant that’s been attacking the vampires, Isaac is pulled back into the field. Vampires are about to declare war on both Porters and non-magical humans, Porters are being killed by possessed vampires, and Gutenberg is missing, along with the incredibly powerful automatons he uses to enforce his magical laws. Isaac and Lena have to find out who’s behind all of it before his magic begins to consume him once more.

This book was just an amazing amount of fun. I was a bit skeptical during the first chapter, but as the book goes along, Hines builds an impressively detailed and fun world based entirely on the premise that stories really are magic. Isaac (and by extension Hines) knows books backwards and forwards, and he uses his love like a weapon. In fact, Hines’ love of the written word permeates the whole novel. More importantly, his characters are fun to hang around with, and they are (thank God) incredibly non-annoying. I’m not usually into urban fantasy, but there are several authors whose imagination overcomes whatever it is I find so unappealing about the genre (I honestly have no idea why it turns me off so much). Jim C. Hines is one of them. By the end of the book, I was physically incapable of putting it down.

So often in these types of books (you know, the ones were the heroes have to push themselves to the brink because an unimaginable danger is threatening to destroy them and they only have days to save the world — which describes most urban fantasy that I’ve read, actually, so maybe this is the problem that I have with it), the ending is rushed and confusing. But the ending to Libriomancer was darn close to perfect*. It was surprising, and yet as it was happening I could see very clearly how Hines had elegantly built up to it. Hines’ description made the chaotic magical denouement that so happens in these types of situations very clear, even exciting, and he does this thing with the automatons that just made me squeal with glee. Also, did I mention that Isaac owns a fire spider named Smudge who is awesome?

*The only thing about the ending that made me feel weird was how the relationship between Lena and Isaac was resolved, but I don’t want to say anymore as it’s a huge spoiler. I’m just going to say that it kind of freaked me out and leave it at that.

Anyways, this was a super fun way to spend three hours on a Saturday morning. Definitely recommend it to all you yahoos.

[Cross-posted to Goodreads]

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #56: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is simultaneously one of the most complex books I’ve ever read and the simplest. Set in an unnamed middle-eastern security state, Alif is the story of a young hacker who has made it his mission in life to protect the internet freedom of anyone who asks for it, and who can pay. He and his hacker friends are in a constant state of war with the State and its enforcer, an amalgam of both man and software, whom they call The Hand (as in, ‘of God’). But when a broken heart spurs Alif to create a dangerous new program, the Hand comes after him and he’s caught up in a chain of events that lead him to become a fugitive, protecting himself, his childhood friend Dina, and a 1000 plus year old book given to him by the girl who broke his heart. The book is The Thousand and One Days, or the Alf Yeom, and its stories belong to the jinn, something Alif realizes only when his adventures lead him to a real-life jinn who calls himself Vikram the Vampire, and then the shit REALLY hits the fan. The Hand wants the book for his own nefarious purposes, but in Alif’s quest to protect it, his life changes in ways he never could have predicted.

Wilson’s non-stop narrative and beautiful prose is both an examination of Alif’s character and an exploration of all things unseen (I’m not going to elaborate on this, because it’s one of the pleasures of the book seeing how Wilson teases this theme throughout the novel).

I had a hard time getting into the story at first, despite Wilson’s way with words. In theory, this should have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. You bring examination of mysticism or fantastic elements into close range of technology and religion in a story and chances are I will lose my damn mind over it (see: Battlestar Galactica, for example). I think part of my problem with this was that the world Wilson was writing about made me uncomfortable, both because it’s intentionally an uncomfortable world that she’s writing about, and because her main character, Alif, is a little bit of a sheltered douchebag at the beginning of the story, and I didn’t really enjoy reading about him. But in retrospect, that’s the point. At the end of the prologue, after a scribe has just finished forcing a jinn to narrate the last of the Alf Yeom for transcription, the jinn leaves the scribe with a warning. He tells the scribe that once he hears the final story, he will become a different person. Even before I’d read the whole book, that line resonated with me. Even though the jinn in the story is being somewhat literal, every experience that we have as human beings changes us in small ways, shaping our thoughts and personalities, and what are stories if not experiences?

There is no paradigm of comparison that I can easily fit this novel into. I’ve never read anything like it. Whether that’s because it’s the first of its kind or because I need to stretch my horizons, I don’t konw. This is not the Middle-Eastern Harry Potter. This is not “The Golden Compass for the Arab Spring,” as Steven Hall is quoted as saying on the blurb on the back of the book. It’s not even close. I would even go so far as to say they’re diametrically opposed to one another. The Golden Compass is about the death of spirituality and innocence, and Alif the Unseen is about its rebirth. Alif the Unseen is about the re-discovery of things ignored, things not believed in, things that are hidden like treasures. This book is about learning to believe again in things that we have hidden from ourselves. Wilson’s book positiviely screams out her belief that there is power in the unseen, both mystically and religiously, and in terms of the people who are made unseen by the domination and tyranny of others. It’s about an ungrateful, spiritually barren young man learning to discover the wonders in his life that were there all along, but he was just to willful to see them. It’s about learning to accept the spiritual, unquantifiable part of life without feeling shame. As one jinn tells Alif, “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”

Plus, it’s full of beautiful passages like this:

“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. I the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”

This is the type of book you come back to, that you re-read over and over again to delve for meaning, and the kind that makes it possible to do so, giving you a different answer every time you ask the same question. This is a book ripe for literary analysis, for inquiring minds to rip it apart and put it back together. I like it more and more the longer I think about it. And yet, as dense as it is, it’s also light and terrificaly readable. It’s scary and thrilling and has magic and genies and shit, and you can totally ignore the thinky parts if you’re inclined to not, you know, using your brain and stuff. It’s a win-win for everybody, really.

The only people I wouldn’t recommend this book to are racists, and fuck those guys anyways.

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #55: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

I picked this book up because of the cover, checked it out of the library because of the blurb, and stayed glued to my couch for hours because of the opening sentence (“Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.”) I haven’t heard many people talking about The Rook yet, so I figure I should get things started. I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a favorite, but it was unbelievably engaging and creepy, and I became rather attached to all the characters by the end of it. I kind of hope there’s not a sequel, but I’m sure there will be. Authors these days.

The Rook is the story of Myfanwy (Welsh, pronounced Miff-an-ee) Thomas, or rather, the person who is now inhabiting the body of the former Myfanwy Thomas. New-Myfanwy wakes up in a park in London with no memory of who she is, surrounded by dead people wearing rubber gloves. She finds a letter in her coat pocket addressed to “You,” and upon reading it, discovers that Former-Myfanwy had been aware she was going to lose her memory for quite some time and had made extensive preparations. The letter sends new-Myfanway to a bank and gives her a choice: pick this safety deposit box and you can leave London and live a new life, rich and free (with the possibility that someone may try to track you down in the future and kill you); pick that safety deposit box, you find out who I am and how to take over my life. New-Myfanwy chooses the latter and soon finds herself one of the leaders of a top-secret shadowy pseudo-government agency called The Checquy which trains young Britons with superpowers and keeps the world safe from paranormal threats. Oh, and also she has superpowers herself. With help from former-Myfanwy’s letters, Myfanwy must navigate her new life and somehow unravel the mystery of who is trying to have her killed, and why.

Okay, so writing it out like that makes me remember it even more fondly, and I think my opinion of the book just went up even more. I kind of want to retract my previous statement — this book might be on its way to my favorites shelf after all.

There is a shit ton of urban fantasy being written these days, and most of it is not my cup of tea — too urban, too gritty, too formulaic. But The Rook manages to avoid all those things I don’t really like, instead providing heaping spoonfuls of atmosphere (mysterious, creepy, beautiful, elegant, to abuse a few adjectives), characters that felt like real people, and genuinely frightening (and at times horribly disgusting) threats. But really it was the storytelling that got me. The main conceit of the novel — Myfanwy learning about her life through letters her former self had written — was extremely effective. I might even call it charming. It made the book feel like a story, and all the magic that implies. Something else I loved about The Rook is what it did for Myfanwy, who should be added post-haste to every list of badass female characters. I want to say more about this particular line of thought, but I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free. You’re just going to have to take my word for it and go read this book.

Plus, if all of that doesn’t sell you, one of the characters in this book is one person who happens to inhabit four different bodies at the same time. I mean, come on. How cool is that?

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #54: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve read this book, but apparently I still have some things to say. This is going to be long, and I have strong feelings about it, so I apologize in advance on both counts.

First of all, I hate that cover. Hate it hate it hate it. What is it with publishers and putting these nondescript shiny-lipped teenage girls on the cover and then calling it a day? And what the fuck is going on with that flower over that girl’s ear? What, is she like, sticking her head out of flower bush or something? HI, MY NAME IS LENA AND I’LL JUST BE SQUATTING IN THIS BUSH WHILE YOU READ ABOUT ME IN THIS HERE BOOK. DON’T MIND ME. MY SKIN IS GLOWING LIKE AN ALIEN AND I’M NOT BEING CREEPY AT ALL. It’s completely awful in every way and not even relevant to the story or theme of the novel. Fail, YA publishers, FAIL. PLEASE STOP DOING THIS.

The surprising news? I liked the book. I liked it much, much, much, much better than it’s predecessor. Delirium was such a conflicting and frustrating read for me, but nearly everything I had an issue with in Delirium was either answered directly or significantly reduced in Pandemonium. I went into the novel ready to give it a fair shake, even though in the back of my mind I had essentially written the series off, and I was completely surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Pandemonium picks up about six months after Lena’s flight into the Wilds. She has found an ersatz family in her fellow rebels, and has become firmly entrenched in the rebellion. During flashbacks which run through almost the whole book, we watch as Lena transforms from a scared newbie to a battle and loss-hardened rebel. She ends up in New York where, posing as a student, she becomes involved in a kidnapping plot with the wealthy son of a fanatic who is famous for promoting The Cure, even for people too young to handle it. Even for his son, Julian, whom The Cure would most likely kill due to Julian’s previous operations to remove cancerous brain tumors.  The alternating structure of the book keeps it flowing at a lightning fast pace, and the effect is that as we watch Lena growing as a person, in terms of the narrative, she is simultaneously helping Julian to heal and grow as well. And of course they fall in love and have adventures, and there’s a conspiracy and people who live underground, and there were some other details as well, but I don’t remember them right now.

Here are some reasons why I liked Pandemonium so much more than Delirium:

Delirium Complaint #1: Too much flowery language, not enough story.

While Oliver’s style remains consistent from book to book (and thus consistently bothers me), the substance of Pandemonium as a story is dramatically different from Delirium. Because Pandemonium had an actual plot to concern itself with and there were actual things happening on the page, Oliver didn’t have to constantly resort to diving deep into Lena’s psyche, thus necessitating page after page after page of poetic metaphors that are cool at first but then quickly begin to grate once you realize that while it may be a pretty cool trick she’s pulling out of her writer’s handbag, it’s basically the only trick she has. Story is about substance, and metaphor does not constitute substance. In fact, metaphor (or simile) by itself often feels very shallow if it’s not attached to something real and concrete. Pandemonium had concrete shit happening all over the place; it had movement, and thus I was either so busy being caught up in the story that I didn’t notice her overly written poetic imagery as much, or she didn’t use as much of it as filler because she didn’t need to — she had a plot instead.

Delirium Complaint #2: Alex

I know I’m in the minority on this one, but look, I just don’t like Alex all that much as a character, and I was happy he wasn’t in this book. I was holding out hope that he had actually died, but I knew it was a fool’s hope, and not just because I’d been spoiled. It seems YA authors these days just can’t resist the siren lure of a love triangle, lo though it may lead them to their deaths. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of Alex, because I do, or that I think he’s a jerk or something, because I don’t — I just find him useless as a character in this book series. In Delirium, he was nothing but a perfect and deliberately sculpted man-candy for Lena to fall in love with. He was a cypher, a catalyst through which Lena’s change of character was enacted. He was not a character in his own right, and he was much too tragically perfect to read as a real character for me. He was designed to be the perfect lure to make Lena realize how fucked up her life really was, to get her out of Portland and into the Wilds, and he served that purpose admirably. The problem is that he didn’t really do anything for me beyond that purpose.

But Oliver did something really interesting in Pandemonium, which is that she essentially gave Lena Alex’s role. In Delirium, Alex was the rebel, but in book two it was Lena taking the lead, showing new enemy turned boy-toy, Julian, the light. This accomplished two things, both of which I felt were missing in Delirium: 1) It gave Lena a more active trajectory — instead of things happening to her, she makes things happen, and 2) It allowed Julian as the love interest du jour to actually develop some character depth outside of his relationship to Lena. Lena being the new Alex allows us to re-experience the journey through Julian’s eyes, to see how far Lena has come as a person, but more importantly, it finally allows us the chance to see how that change is actually effected internally. Giving Julian a journey like that instantly made him a more interesting, dynamic romantic lead than Alex was because he wasn’t just some perfect dude dropping in from the heavens to get the plot (and Lena’s heart) moving.

I liked Julian. I liked him a lot. I may even love him. I liked reading about his life as the son of someone so entrenched in that world. I liked seeing his assumptions crumble in front of him. I liked seeing him fall in love with Lena and grow as a person. Even if it does turn out to sort of be all orchestrated and even if the Lena/Julian romance is trope heavy as all get out (a couple of problems I had with this book, see below), it was enjoyably so.

Delirium Complaint #3: Predictability

Even though this book was much more enjoyable for me than its predecessor, the underlying problems of the main narrative are still there. And the biggest underlying problem with the story is its predictability. I don’t necessarily have issues with predictable stories as long as its clear they acknowledge they’re being predictable and not like they’re writing this sort of thing for the VERY. FIRST. TIME. EVER. But Oliver is approaching this world like it and all its moving parts is a totally original creation, and that still kind of grates on me. Like we’re supposed to be surprised that Lena falls for Julian, that the whole thing turns out to be orchestrated, that Lena’s mom turns out to be that guard lady, etc. And for that matter, like we’re supposed to be surprised by the whole conceit of the world, which is really just one variation among many, many YA dystopias. And again, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, except that everything about the world Oliver has created feels overly familiar except its central premise. Like you could almost substitute Oliver’s THING (The Cure) with the things from The Selection, Divergent, Everneath, etc. You have to have more than an original central conceit — the whole world has to be fleshed out, and it wouldn’t matter if tropes and predictable things were happening if the world was specific and felt real enough. Pandemonium is a lot better in this regard than Delirium was, but the problem is still there for me.

And on top of all that, Oliver decided it would be a good idea to add in a damn love triangle. It would have been incredibly brave of her to kill off Alex. I mean, can you imagine? That is probably the least predictable thing she could have done. As it is, this all feels like familiar territory, so why are we stomping all over it? I’ve been here before, didn’t really like the view the first time. Show me something new, not something that was done as soon as Twilight wrung it to pieces and then handed those pieces off to The Hunger Games (which is actually one of the better done love triangles because of the way it poses the choice between Gale and Peeta as Katniss choosing between different versions of herself, as opposed to OMG THIS IS TWU WUV). I seem to be in the minority in not really liking Alex here, and I KNOW I’m in the minority in wishing he was actually dead, but I want it to be clear that it’s because he was more of a function than an actual character for me. In contrast, Julian is INCREDIBLY likable precisely because he’s dreamy on top of actually being allowed to grow and change, and we’re also allowed actual glimpses into his psyche. We learn about him and learn to love him as Lena does, and also in contrast to Delirium, I can see exactly why Lena might fall for him. They’re kindred spirits.

Really, this book probably deserves more like 3.5 stars, mostly because of the ending and the predictability, but I was just so taken with my surprise enjoyment of the rest of it that I was clicking 4 stars over on Goodreads before I even knew it. For those of you who liked Delirium, you probably won’t like this one as much (you might even hate it), but for the rest of you, check this one out. If it could surprise me, it might surprise you, too.

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #53: Angelfall by Susan Ee

The world ended six weeks ago when angels from heaven descended to destroy mankind and take Earth for their own. Most people, seventeen year old Penryn included, have no idea why this has happened, but they’re so busy trying to survive that asking why doesn’t seem that important. So when Penryn and her family witness a brutal attack by a gang of angels on an angel in the middle of the road in the middle of the scary, scary night, and the attack ends with the shearing off of the victim Angel’s wings, and the kidnapping of Penryn’s seven year old, wheelchair bound sister, Paige, Penryn reluctantly pairs with the wounded Angel in a desperate attempt to find her missing sister. Penryn and the Angel — who is called Raffe — set off to the Eyrie, the headquarters of the Angels on Earth, in hopes that they can both regain what they have lost (wings, sister, etc, etc.) Trouble ensues.

To say that I am skeptical of indie authors might be a bit of an understatement — I think “wary” might be a better word. On the one hand, I applaud anyone who has the cajones to actually finish a book and then put it out into the world, particularly if said person takes on all the publicity and financial risk of the thing themself, with no one to back them up if things go wrong. And I certainly applaud anyone who does so and manages to get their baby out into the world and read by a respectable amount of people (as has happened with E.L. James, as blechy as I think those books are, and with other indie authors like Amanda Hocking — both of whom eventually partnered with official publishing houses).

On the other hand, we have authors like Christopher Paolini and Colleen Houck, whose homespun success translated into book deals based more upon popularity than actual talent. Granted, Paolini is a certified child prodigy with an outrageous imagination and a terrific work ethic, but after a promising first novel in the derivative but still enjoyable Eragon, his Inheritance Sequence turned into something of an unwieldy mess, like his editors were afraid to mess with his writing for fear of losing whatever untouched magic spun Eragon into a word-of-mouth bestseller. And Ms. Houck — lovely and kind person that she is — has written a book with an intriguing premise in a genre that is just begging for a fresh idea, but is so overwhelmingly unaware of how to write and structure a book, even on the most basic sentence level, that Tiger’s Curse (the first in her book series, and the only book of hers I’ve managed to finish) ends up feeling more like something an intelligent seventh grader would have written as an exercise in wish fulfillment.

So, like, what the hell, Ashley? Isn’t this review supposed to be about Angelfall? Yes, but I felt the context was necessary for you to fully understand where I’m coming from on this one. I’ve read Paolini, Houck, and a good chunk of James out of curiosity, and I eventually plan on checking out Hocking’s work just to see what all the fuss is about, so I had certain expectations going into Angelfall. Even despite the glowing word of mouth reviews I’d heard about the book, all the people whose opinions I respected who had absolutely fallen in love with this book, I was wary — wary that Ee’s prose would be self-indulgent, that her characters would be derivative or that she might Mary Sue herself into the story, that the story would be over the top premise-heavy and that her characters would be neglected. These are not uncommon fears when you’re dealing with un-edited first time authors. But get the fuck out of here, you guys, because this is exactly why people tell you not to judge a book by its cover (although, to be honest, I was more judging it by genre than cover, because that cover is actually kind of awesome).

Dudes. This book was better than a lot of the crap I’ve read that’s been published by actual official publishing companies. Sure, it had a roughness to it that would probably have been missing if Ee had an editor working with her, certain turns of phrase that were awkward or repetitive, some images that were a little over-written* . . . but if I hadn’t known it was an indie book, I never would have guessed. Susan Ee is a hell of a writer. To give you a little more context, apocalypse and post-apocalypse stories scare the ever loving shit out of me so I usually avoid them at all costs. That goes for stories about mental illness as well, and there’s lots of that in Angelfall, what with Penryn’s mother being schizophrenic and off her meds because of the end of the world and all. And if you add on to that my snobbery about paranormal romance as a genre, and angel fiction in particular (I’m a hypocritical asshole sometimes, what can I say? Maybe it would be better if I used “wary” here as well, instead of “snobby,” and would piss off less people — probably), me and this book would have lived our lives, and never the twain shall meet. But we did meet, and I’m very glad it was so. I’m also glad that Ee didn’t have an editor, as I suspect the book would have been cut for content considerably, and most of its more disturbing parts removed or changed entirely (and there were some very disturbing parts in this book, all of them intriguing and scary, but in a good way). I suspect it would have been sanitized to nothingness, or worse, not published at all.

*Speaking of over-written, I’m in the middle of re-reading Delirium at the moment, despite my middling reaction to it the first time around, but I wanted to be prepared for the sequel. Anyway, my point is, Lauren Oliver is a poet at heart and as a result, her book is chock full of lovely poetic imagery. In fact, it’s a little too chock full. She has a tendency to rely on poetic imagery and comparisons, and it’s a technique she goes to just a little too often. In comparison, while some of Ee’s phrases are a little too much, she uses her images and poetry more sparingly, and as a result, when you actually get to one, it’s a gutpunch feeling, rather than “Oh, not this again,” which is how I’ve been feeling with Oliver. Less is more**. Oh my God, shut up, Ashley.

**Ironically, this is the longest, most self-indulgent review in the history of the universe. I told you: hypocrite.

If you have eyes, you will have noted that despite my praise for the book and its author, this is not a five star review, and that’s because the book did have some minor conceptual flaws (flaws which are easily forgiven in the face of the rest of the story, by the way). Ee was perhaps a little too spare with her worldbuilding details. I appreciated the organic nature of the worldbuilding (not a single drop of extraneous exposition to be found), but as a reader enamored of the world she’s created, I wanted more, and I wanted it right away. Penryn was pathological about avoiding direct conflict on this topic in her conversations with Raffe, and while I can buy that she just doesn’t want to get involved, or that she even cares about participating in the eventual resistance movement (although no doubt she will in future books), I don’t buy that she wouldn’t have at least exploited her alone time with Raffe just a little bit, to learn more about the enemy, or hell, even their plan to infiltrate the Eyrie (which she practically goes into blind, by Raffe’s request). I also didn’t think it was believable how soon Penryn was able to admit her attraction to Raffe to herself. The angels destroyed her world and killed billions of people — there should have been much more hatred and fear in her mind, and it should have been much tougher to get over for her than it was. None of this, “Oh, he’s the enemy, but look at how pretty!” Or at least, not as soon as Ee had it happening. It would have been even more fulfilling at the end, then, when she’s finally able to admit that Raffe is her ally, and well . . . I don’t want to spoil the end for you, but just trust me. It would have been better. (P.S. The end of this book is BATSHIT INSANE, just as a warning.)

SO ANYHOODLE. If this review has made you at all curious, just give up already and buy the dang book. Penryn is a badass who keeps knives in her boots, and Ee is a badass for writing her. It’s an incredibly fast read, and it’s only $3 for the ebook. You’ll be supporting a pretty brassy, classy lady, and you’ll be getting a good story in the process. And hey, here’s five free chapters to whet your whistle. The bad part is that when you’re done, you’ll have to wait just like the rest of us for the sequel to be released, and who the heck knows when that’s going to happen. Liking things really sucks sometimes, you know?

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #52: Redshirts by John Scalzi


Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, and I really couldn’t have picked a better book for my #52. Scalzi is now officially on my list of my favorite authors ever, and not because what he writes is necessarily deep or profound or written in the most complex language, but simply because the guy knows how to write a smart, fun book. I know I’ve compared Scalzi’s books to Mexican food before, but really it’s the best comparison. Reading Scalzi, and Redshirts in particular, is the literary equivalent of eating a really good burrito — it’s not the most nutritious food in the universe, but it fills you up, and damn does it taste good going down.

A redshirt, for those of you who don’t know the term (and where have you been living?) is a character type popularized by the Star Trek franchise. A redshirt exists only to die, a cheap and easy way to up the ante in any given situation, and in the original Star Trek series, they almost always wore the red shirt of a Starfleet security officer. Scalzi takes this concept and runs away with it, making a group of redshirts in a Star Trek spoof universe his main heroes. Instead of Captain Kirk, we have Captain Abernathy. Instead of the USS Enterprise, we have the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. The new recruits, led by narrator and protagonist Ensign Andrew Dahl, quickly realize there is something horribly wrong aboard the Intrepid — awful, catastrophic things seem to occur on a regular basis, especially on away missions, and while the five most senior officers on the ship always seem to survive, at least one crew member always, always dies. The entire crew lives in fear that they might be next, and none of them understand why.

Redshirts is a tongue-in-cheek, laugh out loud spoof, but it’s also a loving homage to a subject that Scalzi clearly feels affection for. Even if you aren’t that familiar with Star Trek in any of its incarnations, Star Trek itself has had such a huge impact on popular culture that you’re going to get the jokes in this book, because you’ve seen them other places in the forty-five years since Star Trek first aired. It’s part of the zeitgeist. And even if you don’t get the jokes, Redshirts is still a rip-roaring good yarn with likable characters and a zippy, clever, lightning-fast narrative. Redshirts also comes with three codas, each a sort of epilogue to the main narrative that fills out the Redshirts universe and some hanging plot threads that weren’t crucial to the main narrative. All three are fun little vignettes that I’m glad Scalzi included — I like to see authors getting experimental every once in a while.

If you like science fiction at all, run out and get Redshirts right now. You’ll laugh your asses off, and it will remind you of the many reasons you love the genre in the first place. I guess the rest of you can suck it, because WTF? What is wrong with you. Anyway, you might like it, too.

[Cross-posted to Goodreads]

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #51: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen

I’ve had this tiny little volume on my shelf for quite some time. I’ve been saving it, you see, because it was my last new Austen. Even though I’ve read a good chunk of the classics for both my graduate and undergraduate degrees, Jane Austen’s books remain the only classic literature that I have ever re-read for pleasure. When I read Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion*, I always feel like they were written just for me. It seems monumentally unfair that we should have only six full works by Miss Austen, but wah wah, that’s a battle long over, anyway why don’t I just stop whining and write fanfic like everybody else*. BECAUSE I REFUSE THAT’S WHY. Long after her death, scholars managed to cobble together some of her unpublished writing, and the result is about 211 pages of cruelty — the three surviving fragments in this book end up being more of a tease than anything else.

*I don’t care so much about Emma, Northanger Abbey, or Mansfield Park. Emma herself is kind of a turd even if that whole thing turns out okay anyway, Northanger Abbey is fun but it doesn’t punch my emotional buttons, and Mansfield Park has a weaksauce heroine and is waaay too long.

*To the middle aged ladies who insist on writing dirty novels with all of Jane Austen’s characters, PLEASE STOP. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon are all abandoned or unfinished stories that Jane Austen either never wanted published (in which case, uh, too bad?) or that she never finished (in the case of Sanditon, it was because she died, so that sucks). I wouldn’t recommend reading this book to any but the most hardcore Austen fans or scholars. Lady Susan is the only finished work in the book, and it’s from such an early period in her career that it’s almost unrecognizable as being Austen’s writing. And The Watsons and Sanditon are both unfinished.

The most notable thing about Lady Susan is that it marks a failed experiment on Austen’s part to write in the popular but annoying and much less effective epistolary style of the day. Austen’s cleverness shows through in the first person narration of the letters, but all the subtle witticisms derived from the saucy narration in her other workds are missing, and while there is some fun to be had with the unreliable voices of her characters, the style constricts her more than it helps her. Also notable about Lady Susan is that its main character is actually a villain. The titular Lady Susan is a charming and beautiful widow with high aspirations and an empty soul. While it’s fun to see Austen experimenting with her style, and fun to see her play around with an evil protagonist who ultimately gets her due, the style and story don’t ultimately suit her, which is why I’m sure she never sought to publish the thing. Alas.

The Watsons is much more classic Austen, albeit messy and unfinished. For whatever reason, good old Jane gave up on this story, but I wish she had continued with it. The heroine of The Watsons is Emma Watson (no relation), the youngest daughter of the poor Watson clan, which also includes three older sisters and a brother. Emma is raised away from her family by a wealthy and childless aunt, but when the aunt marries again, Emma is forced to move home and re-acquaint herself with her family and her drooping prospects. But of course this is Austen, so her prospects don’t droop for long. Pretty soon she’s got the rich and handsome Lord Osborne chasing after her, and she couldn’t care less, preferring his less important and rich tutor, Mr. Howard, who acts as if she doesn’t exist. The text of the thing is all over the place in that special way all first drafts have, but I think if she could have gotten over whatever was blocking her and finished it, this could have been great. I would have liked to see Austen do an anti-Cinderella story, the prince courting the peasant.

Of the three fragments, Sanditon is the most well-realized — it was the last thing Austen was working on, even as she was dying. Not coincidentally, a large part of the narrative is devoted to siblings who are hypochondriacs, and the namesake town of Sanditon is a place of healing, even if Austen is poking fun at it the whole time. Her special power of affectionate satire is in full force in Sanditon and the characters are fully formed almost from the get go.

Again, reading this collection was by no means a waste of time, but it’s more of an educational interest sort of reading. You’re not going to get any narrative satisfaction out of it (although apparently many people have tried their hands at finishing The Watsons, which might help you out with the satisfaction thing if you’re so inclined). Ultimately, reading this just made me want to re-read the good stuff all over again.

[Cross-posted to Goodreads]

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