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What are you reading Wednesday

Snagged from igrockspock. Looks like a good time to catch up on my book reviews.

WindeyeImmediately upon finishing Windeye, I added three or four more of this author's books to my to-read list. That should tell you something.

A collection of did-that-happen-or-didn't-it? and what-just-happened? stories, the tales in this book range from the odd and eerie to the downright horrifying. The author's command of language and range of styles are remarkable, from fairy tale to classic monster/demon to magical realism to the completely surreal, and there's a nice sprinkling of unreliable narrators which are always fun.

In the title story we're not sure whether or not the narrator had a sister, and in a later one a man may or may not have a brother; there's a classically sinister monster tale and a very peculiar piece about what I thought was a spacesuit, but on googling it found out it's actually an old diving suit ("The Sladen Suit", whose nickname apparently was "Clammy Death"!!). There's an fairy tale about a young man whose inheritance of a fabulous horse turns out to be not quite what he expects, and a short-short about bees. All are very different in tone, style, setting, and narrative voice, but all are equally high quality. I highly recommend it.

The Children's HospitalI'm not sure what to say about The Children's Hospital. It's...extremely odd, a combination of surrealism, post-apocalypse, religious rapture, and a really really long, boring boat ride. It was published by McSweeney's, which should tell you something right there. There are so many things about this book that should have turned me off: it's overloaded with medical jargon, the main character is annoyingly passive and her fear that anyone she loves will die is completely irrational, every single thing about the apocalypse is completely opaque, most of the characters are one-dimensional and wholly unlikable, and weirdest of all everyone in the floating hospital seems to just Keep Calm and Carry One despite the seven miles of water and the loss of the ENTIRE PLANET...

And yet, and yet....

I was sucked in. I felt Jemma's brother's pain, even though I didn't comprehend it. I cared about these people, even while I didn't like them very much and was not infrequently irritated by them. And I cried at the end, surprising even myself. (N.B. According to the Washington Post, the author is a pediatrician studying at Harvard Divinity School. That explains a lot.)

The Necromancer's HouseAh, The Necromancer's House. Been waiting for this for MONTHS. I got hold of an advance reading copy of this, so was lucky enough to read it before it was officially released. Well, actually Mr Psmith got the ARC and I had to wait until he was done with it before I could get my greedy little hands on it. Longest two weeks of my life.

Given that the author's previous two books were "period pieces" -- although from wildly different periods -- I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, a very contemporary story complete with classic cars, AA, chat rooms, and the interwebz. Happily, I was not disappointed. The main character, Andrew, is a complicated man with a strong sense of integrity but, one quickly suspects, certain secrets in his past that are coming back to haunt him. This turns out to be true, but in more ways than are at first obvious.

I do love non-obvious.

There was quite a bit of non-obvious in this book which meant that I was frequently surprised -- and for somebody who reads as much as I do, that's not easy to do. The surprises were not so much in the broad arc of the story, which is a classic (and I mean that in a good way) tale of redemption, as in the details and the execution, and in what one might call the inflections of the ending, the way it’s shaped and carried out.

Two things I particularly liked about the book's treatment of magic. First, magic isn't free. One doesn't simply shout some garbled Latin and wave a wand -- this magic takes some serious effort, both mental and physical, to learn, to control, to use (safely), in some cases simply to understand. And there's no question that magic is potentially very dangerous stuff in this world; it can blow up in your face if you're not careful. Second, the story didn't get bogged down in the mechanics of the magic -- recipes, spells, how you do it, how it works. There's just the right amount of detail, and nicely modernized (Andrew’s particular skill is with cars and film footage, for example, while chicagohoney85’s are with computers), that the flavor permeates the story without overwhelming it.

Which is good because, despite the fact that magic is wound thoroughly about this tale, in the end it’s all about the people. And I like these people, Andrew and Anneke (and Chancho and Michael and even chicagohoney85), enough that I want to know more about all of them. (Here’s where I admit that I’m hoping for a sequel, or maybe Michael’s backstory...shhhhh...) They aren’t perfect, but like most of us they’re good people doing their best to muddle through, and deal with their past mistakes in a stand-up way without compromising what they believe.

Oh, and he made my cry over Salvador. Thanks, buddy.

Buehlman’s novels have all been billed as horror, but clearly they aren’t horror for horror’s sake. It’s not about a high body count or creative methods of killing people off (although he’s good at that, and Between Two Fires had a lot of them!). It's about applying horror to characters -- putting them in horrifying situations -- to see how they respond, the way an engineer applies heat or pressure to a substance to see if it will break. "Test to destruction" is how you learn what something is really made of, and this seems to be a recurrent theme, first with Frank Nichols in Those Across the River, then Thomas in Between Two Fires, and now Andrew and Anneke.

I'm looking forward to his next test.

Regina's SongAlas, everything about Regina's Song annoyed me, and I do mean everything. The dialog is flat and artificial, crammed with cliches and bad/outdated slang, despite the fact that the narrator is supposed to be a PhD in English [1]. The characters are one-dimensional and uninteresting, and the male characters consistently demonstrate a condescending 1950s-era attitude towards women (and others) [2]. The plot is full of holes and irrelevancies [3], and a fairly appalling lack of any sort of moral or ethical sense is exhibited across the board [4]. Examples hidden to prevent spoilerage. Although really I'm sure it wouldn't matter to anyone.

[Spoiler (click to open)][1] "It's not as if we're going to rat him off...He knows that he can trust us to keep our mouths shut. I'm not all that interested in cop-shop secrets when you get right down to it. But we need to know what Burpee's up to. Bob's cut him off at the pass on this case and Burpee's probably eating his own liver by now. Let's face it guys, Bob stuck his neck way out with that protective custody scam, and Burpee's most likely trying to blindside my big brother. If we want to keep Bob on our side, we're going to have to help cover his buns."

That's eight, count 'em, EIGHT, in one speech. And that's fairly typical. If I never read the phrase "hit the bricks" again it will be too soon.

[2] male characters (the good guys, whom we are supposed to like) call female characters "babe" and "sweet-cakes" and "Mama Trish" to their faces. And the girls don't object. Also the girls aren't allowed in on the investigation and do all the cooking while the menfolk do the home and auto repair and come up with good ideas and hunt down killers. Oh, and the one Japanese character is referred to as "an oriental gentleman." Please.

[3] the license plate, the curare, the dogs/wolves (wtf?), a vast plethora of legal irregularities, and the presentation of DNA as a Big New Technology -- in 2002. Srsly? Also, there is no villain. Or mystery. Or song, which made even the title of the book annoying.

[4] The fact that the residents of the boarding house collude to protect a psychotic killer is a little unnerving, but when a priest hears about a murder and actually cheers the killer, you know something is seriously amiss.

Most vexing of all is that all of this derailed an excellent premise that had a lot of potential. The first few pages, with the backstory between the narrator and the twins, is pretty gripping. But it deteriorates pretty fast from then on.

I also read The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, which was excellent but I haven't written a review for it yet, so maybe next week. And yay, I will at last be able to use my "fox sex" tag again!! (It's the little things that can make your day...)


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Oct. 17th, 2013 03:34 am (UTC)
I enjoyed reading this post. I never seem to have time to read "real" books these days. This was like a little snack of literature for me. :) I was particularly interested to read your review of the Eddings book. I haven't read it, but David Eddings was like my introduction to fantasy. The Belgariad Series and the sequel series were two of the first that my husband and I read together (literally, sitting together and reading the same book at the same time or me reading to him) when we first got married (28 years ago). At the time I loved it dearly, and still have a soft spot for it. But the first blush didn't last for exactly the same issue with the male characters vs the female characters that you mention. Very chauvinistic. The women seem to all be either bitchy or manipulators. Polgara is such a wonderful character - but even she is presented as a mega-bitch capable of grudge-holding of epic proportions. Anyway. Eddings wife was not given co-author credit in those first series. But in later books where she was, the female characters (and the attitudes of the males - 'women, what can you do?') didn't seem to improve. So, yeah. I'm not really surprised to hear of the characterizations in their latest.
Thanks again for such an interesting post. Hope life is being good to you.
Oct. 18th, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
I thought it was odd too, that his wife co-authored it and yet the female characters are still so one-dimensional. He was born in the 1930s, which means he grew up during a very traditional male/female era, so perhaps that shaped his thinking.

Wikipedia says this: "Upon seeing a copy of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, in a bookshop, he allegedly muttered, "Is this old turkey still floating around?" and was shocked to learn that it was in its seventy-eighth printing. Eddings realized that the world of fantasy might hold some promise for his talents..."

This does not improve my opinion of him lol
Oct. 17th, 2013 06:27 am (UTC)
I liked eddings fantasy when I read them ooh ten years ago but I can't read them any more because of grammar issues. Hee fandom has sort of corrupted me like that
Oct. 18th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
It's a sad comment on modern literature that the quality of fandom has surpassed what you can buy commercially :)
Oct. 17th, 2013 11:30 am (UTC)
I recently read and enjoyed The Necromancer's House. I loved that Andrew was so flawed, yet managed to make me like him. And I gotta love a main male character who has LONG hair, LOL! And yes, Salvatore tugged on my heartstrings every time he made an appearance. Glad that it ended the way it did, though the body count was very high....
Oct. 18th, 2013 09:49 pm (UTC)
I'm torn between hoping they make a movie of it because I'd love to see it, and hoping they don't so that nobody messes with my mental image of Andrew :)
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