Friday, August 22, 2014

Glitterland by Alexis Hall

“. . . the world’s most ill-suited Romeo in pursuit of the world’s least convincing Juliet” (16) sums up this romance, and romance here does not necessarily mean fluff.

The story begins as a funny case of opposites attract: introspective, reclusive, sarcastic, clinically-depressed and prone to anxiety attacks author, Ash Winters, finds himself drawn to Darian, a flamboyant, aspiring model ,and “glitter pirate” (as dubbed by Ash) who, despite his obsession with fashion and appearances, possesses a big heart and accepting nature. A one-night stand that turns into something more sounds flimsy, but Hall makes it work with his strong story, solid writing, and well-developed characters.

Hall’s debut provides a well-rounded package while addressing mental illness. There is sharp dialogue, snarkiness, strong chemistry, and plenty of comic moments and wry humor even with the serious parts. The book is distinctly British in tone with phrasing and slang, establishing a sense of place. Darian’s prominent Essex accent especially works (readers have to “hear” the words to understand what he says and to get an idea of what he “sounds” like).

The writing is wonderful and delightful to read. Ash’s first-person voice stands out as he narrates and is fitting for a writer-- full of expressive imagery, eloquent prose, and dry humor, as he captures his experiences, especially that of depression and how it takes over everything. Even the book structure is dictated by Ash’s moment-to-moment existence (“now,” “later,” “some day”), rather than organized by tidy chapters

This novel takes a heartbreaking and thoughtful examination of depression, but it does not take the easy way out with sudden miracles or excusing Ash's bad behavior. Depression remains a huge part of Ash's life, and it will always impact his life and the people who are part of his life.

Look for Glitterland on VBPL’s Overdrive site. For more Hall, try Iron and Velvet. For more gay romance dealing with disabilities, try Heidi Cullinan’s Dirty Laundry. Country Mouse is also an opposites-attract romance featuring another abrasive Brit.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Archetype by M.D. Waters

“Seduce my mind and you can have my body, find my soul, and I’m yours forever”

Archetype gives an interesting twist to the opening line.  Emma wakes in a hospital with no memory of who she is, but Declan claims to be her husband, while a voice in her head makes her question everything, and she dreams of another life, a darker world, violence, and another love. Nothing is what it seems.

This story is well-paced and suspenseful, as Emma pieces together who she is and tries to make sense of conflicting information.  Readers follow the story from Emma’s point of view and are limited by what she knows or uncovers.  She lives in a futuristic world where many women are infertile, and the U.S. has split into East and West over how to handle the issue, so any fertile women become valuable property to the highest payer in the East. 

Archetype is lighter on the science fiction elements and would especially be appealing for someone new to science fiction or finds this genre intimidating.  The focus is more on the characters and their lives and less on the why and how of this world. Waters offers interesting twists on futuristic dystopias, amnesia, the voice in Emma’s head, medical advances, and the story’s love triangle.  There is no easy answer when Emma's current life and her past collide making her realize who she thinks she is and who she really was and what her situation means.  She acknowledges those changes, that she is no longer who she was before her amnesia and the changes in her current life remain a part of her.

Look for Archetype and its sequel, Prototype, in the VBPL Catalog. There is a prequel novella featuring the two male leads, Antitype. Try Frank Herbert's White Plague for another sci-fi read featuring a crisis involving a shortage of women. Try Jo Walton’s My Real Children about a woman who remembers living  two very different lives.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

“If you’re going to make a desperate, hopeless act of defiance you should make it a good one.” (164)

It is intrigue and revenge set in space with AI's, aliens, advanced technology, and galactic politics-- science fiction, anyone?  Ann Leckie does something fresh and deep with her multi-award-winning debut novel.

Set in a futuristic world, the Radch empire (the “true” humans) has been conquering and “civilizing” entire planets and civilizations for generations.  They possess AI’s who control entire ships and many human bodies called ancillaries (humans who were “annexed” from the conquered worlds and reprogrammed for AI use). These ancillaries are not considered human. One ancillary, Breq, has lost her ship and the rest of her “body,” stuck in one body for the past thousand years, and is now on a mission of revenge against the empire.

This novel is more sophisticated and subtle than a revenge or action story. It is a fascinating character study of Breq who is not human but pretends she is to survive and take revenge, as well as a character study of the world under Radch rule.  It seems incongruous one person can take revenge against an empire effectively, yet Leckie makes it work with a carefully structured world and story. 

More than just excellent world building, Leckie excels with a “show, don’t tell” way of capturing this world and what being human means. There are flashbacks to moments that eventually build a picture of the Radch empire, its use of ancillaries, the political atmosphere, and the changes over the years, all inter-connected to Breq’s mission.  Leckie captures how advances in technology have changed lives and perspectives.   One intriguing nuance is the use of gendered pronouns—the “civilized” world uses “she” to describe everyone, and there are some interesting culture clashes when they meet people who are “less” civilized and still used gendered pronouns.  All these together make this story such an intriguing read.

There is a supporting character that balances the story and reveals information about Breq and the Radch world.  Seivarden Vendaii was someone somewhat high ranking and now is practically nobody.  She was in stasis for a thousand years and has been reawakened, getting her own culture shock.  Breq and Seivarden are both insiders and outsiders in this world, and Leckie captures these perspectives well.  

Look for Ancillary Justice and its sequel, Ancillary Sword, in the VBPL Catalog.  For another introspective look at minds with disposable bodies, try Chaz Brenchley’s Rotten Row.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

Phantom prom date.
Girl at the diner.
Hitchhiking ghost.

Any one of those may provide a better clue as to what Sparrow Hill Road is about, but then it would sound like one of those teen horror novels by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, or Lois Duncan.  Seanan McGuire takes it a step further in this fantasy-ghost story combination for adults with her premise of how urban legends and ghost stories exist.

McGuire plays around with the idea of urban legends and establishes this whole paranormal world with its many ghosts and other inhabitants and how it works.  There is a plane of existence called the twilight, a kind of limbo separate from the “real” world and from wherever the dead move on. Sparrow Hill Road is about one particular urban legend and her afterlife. Rose Marshall is a victim of a car crash-murder on her way to prom.  She is a well-developed character, transitioning from an innocent, poor small-town girl who only wanted to get out to a worldly hitchhiking ghost who makes a difference, finding purpose in her twilight existence. She helps other people in accidents move on or tries to prevent their deaths.  She has a lot of spunk and attitude but not like the typical urban fantasy's sassy heroine. McGuire captures well how different Rose is as a ghost from other people and how Rose has matured during her life in limbo.

This story has the feel of telling ghost stories in the dark, though sometimes violent and tragic and rather bittersweet, the focus is not on the blood and gore. There is a distinctly old-time America feel with the road ghosts, hitchhiking, and love for diner food.McGuire's wonderful dialogue is present, with great lines and puns about being dead. It reads like a serial with each chapter providing a complete story and forming a collection of related stories.  Each provides more information about the twilight world with a different ghost or issue that is laid to rest. Some of the supporting characters have their own backstory of their connection to Rose and appear throughout the different stories. The stories build on each other, adding to the overall arc of Rose's eventual decision to stop Bobby Cross, the one who killed her (he made a bargain for eternal life and youth as long as he keeps killing).

Look for Sparrow Hill Road in the VBPL Catalog. Try Indexing for McGuire’s twists on fairy tales (see review).  Another road ghost makes a cameo in Richard Kadrey’s Aloha from Hell. Read Alvin Schwartz's collections for classic ghost stories.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

It's like Watchmen set during WWII with X-Men-like abilities. 

If the catchphrase for Watchmen was "who watches the watchmen?", then The Violent Century's is "what makes a hero?"

Spanning the 1930s to the present, the story follows a handful of British superheroes—mainly the Old Man, Fogg, Oblivion, and others.  They call themselves the changed or Übermenschen (German for “overman” or “superman”). The changed are recruited by their respective governments to serve in war.  The British changed work for a secret agency as spies, agents assigned to unofficial missions, unknown and unappreciated by the general public (they officially do not exist), often called shadow men. It is a marked contrast to the typical American superhero who is bold, colorful, and right in the thick of the action and the media. Told in fragments from multiple accounts and reports spanning decades, an investigation is being conducted on Fogg (who manipulates fog), who wanted and needed more from life than being a shadow man.

Like Watchmen, this is an introspective and dark story, not necessarily an action-packed blockbuster with clearly defined good versus evil.  Including history, alternative reality, sci-fi, a character study of these changed, even a love story, it does not tidily fit a category. The war and militaristic elements make the story more complex, when the characters have done difficult things for the sake of war.  Tidhar has a distinct writing style of short sentences and phrases, giving the sense of being in the moment.  The effect is a very visual story, similar in effect to a comic book scene cutting from one to the next.

The premise is intriguing, and the characters and ideas are fascinating. For all their special abilities, the changed are still very flawed and very human.  Tidhar captures a compelling perspective of these changed, how they do not age yet can still be killed.  Their minds and souls age, grow harder, more cynical, and more corrupt, but they struggle to keep up with the times with fewer changed remaining as time passes, and they always carry their past with them in a way their shorter-lived fellow men do not.   For some geek fun, there are Easter eggs throughout, including a Stan Lee appearance and other superhero references. 

Look for The Violent Century in the VBPL Catalog.  For more alternative history twists, try LavieTidhar’s other works.  For more superhero stories, there is Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, Andrew P. Mayer’s steampunk Falling Machine, V.E. Schwab's dark fantasy Vicious, and Jackie Kessler's chick lit Black and White (see review).

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks

Birdie McAdam is small and fair and sings like her namesake which makes her perfect bait for a child-eating bogle. And being 'prentice to Alfred Bunce the bogler beats most of the other options for a street waif in London in the 1870s. The bogle-exterminating business begins to get complicated when Miss Eames, whose hobby is folklore, wants to come along and watch.

Soon the story has typical elements of a Victorian melodrama, from hiding a kidnap victim in a lunatic asylum to a Fagin-like mistress of orphan pickpockets, plus an assortment of very nasty bogles. Indeed, one bogle was enough to send me around the house turning on lights. Jinks is expert at making the reader feel and smell the story details while maintaining a furious pace through the plot. She has also managed to invent circumstances where a Victorian girl having adventures seems quite reasonable.

The toshers and mudlarks of How to Catch a Bogle reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Dodger in which the author of Oliver Twist is himself a character. Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer shares the Victorian orphan and fantasy elements of Jinks' book. Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer introduces America's best-known orphan fending for himself. And as the book trailer informs us, there will be sequels to How to Catch a Bogle

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer

Finn and Cara, brother and sister, live on a hard-scrabble farm near a bleak Irish coast with their loving parents. Their father builds small boats called curragh, and gives the children one, with instructions to stay clear Fog Island. But they become lost in a sudden fog and the currents carry them to that forbidding shore.

Tomi Ungerer, whom Maurice Sendak called an inspiration, is here less humorous and iconoclastic than in earlier books, focusing more on mood and suspense while staying faithful to Irish culture. The oversize paintings are dark and brooding with hints that range from Jules Verne to Hokusai. The story is perfect for telling to kids who are beginning to think they are too old for storytime, maybe with a haunting Celtic musical accompaniment. And Ungerer's pictures will always repay close examination.

David Wiesner is another picture book author who reminds me of Jules Verne, particularly in Flotsam. In The Wreck of the Zephyr Chris Van Allsburg also tells a story of a small boat swept away to a strange place. 

If you are interested in how an artist creates a picture book like Fog Island, you can watch this interview with Ungerer. He has also written the autobiographical Tomi: a Childhood under the Nazis.