Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

I don't read a lot of crime novels. I've picked up the occasional mystery, and I did get into the Girl With a Dragon Tattoo books (also known as the Millenium Trilogy, but apparently no one else knows that) when they were popular. I usually find them enjoyable, but they aren't the bread and butter of my reading. But when I found out JK Rowling had penned a book (soon to be series) in this genre, I had to check it out. Not urgently, obviously, but it's been floating on my to-read list, and I finally found a paperback copy.

Not being an expert in the genre, I guess I can't really talk about how it stacks up against other crime and mystery novels. But I found it very enjoyable. The mystery was well-paced, and the clues scattered throughout. There were plenty of reasonable suspects, which kept me on my toes. And I came very close to figuring it out, but hadn't quite put all of the pieces together before Strike's big monologue reveal. (I may have if I hadn't accidentally added an hour to my commute by getting on the wrong train, resulting in me finishing the book a day before I'd planned to.)

The detective, Cormoran Strike, is a pretty great protagonist. He's got his problems, he's got an interesting background. He's also incredibly methodical, which I appreciate and don't always see. His army background made him diligent and thorough, which are great traits for a detective. He's not necessarily smarter than everyone around him (like Sherlock), but it's believable that he would put together pieces that everyone else overlooked.

His secretary, Robin, is an absolute delight, and I hope to see a lot more of her in future books. She's romantic, while still being ruthlessly efficient. She's got tact to spare, isn't shy about taking the initiative, and is super smart to boot. Every time the book swung around to her point of view I was happy to spend a bit more time in her head.

The point of view does change somewhat randomly. At first it seems like it will be a chapter thing, but then it happens a page into a new chapter, and I got thrown. Once I knew what to expect, it became a lot easier to navigate. And Rowling's language is, as always, pretty flowery and occasionally over the top. It's a distinctive style that I think people are more comfortable with in children's fantasy than serious adult books, but it's never bothered me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susanna Clark's debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is a big, unwieldy book. It's slow, character driven is the term. The plot takes forever to show up, and once it does it still seems barely there. There are 200 hundred footnotes, used to contain exposition or go off on tangents. There characters are selfish and prickly. And I loved it.

I loved this book so much, I took several breaks from it so that I wouldn't finish it too soon. Which isn't an experience you often have with a 1000+ page book. It was amazing how short it felt, how long I spent with it and how quickly I ended up reading it, despite myself.

The book mostly deals with the relationship of two magicians in the early 1800s, their attempts to bring magic back to England, their dealings with the government and the Napoleonic Wars, and their ultimate falling out and its consequences. Around the edges of this we get the story of the woman Norrell sacrificed to further is career, of Strange's wife who he doesn't appreciate nearly enough, of a black servant so overlooked that people hardly notice when he vanishes.

The people in the background make up the real story. For all of Norrell and Strange's ambition and power they hardly notice who they're stepping on. They cause all the problems in the book and find none of the solutions, even though they do get all the credit. It's a fantastic look at gender and race and class and the strict lines between these that existed at this point in history.

As much as I loved this book, it's almost hard to recommend it. It's certainly not for everyone. The language is old-fashioned, pulled from Dickens or Austen or some other stuff historical-text. The spelling is equally old-fashioned and occasionally inconsistent. The humor is subtle and the characters are difficult to come to terms with. But it's such a wonderfully researched, complete world filled with horrible people who either learn their lessons or get their comeuppance, even if it takes a while. It's about power and who wants it and who actually has it.

And it's about faeries and magic. I'm starting to think that every piece of historical fiction should include faeries. It makes it easier to spot the truth and the lies.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review: Snuff

Commander Vimes didn't like the phrase 'The innocent have nothing to fear', believing the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like 'The innocent have nothing to fear'
Snuff has been sitting on my shelf for a while. It's towards the end of the Discworld series (only one, possibly two more after this), and I was waiting for the right time to pick it up. I'd even started re-reading the series already and was debating digging into this one around the time I got to Guards, Guards! so I could contrast Vimes at the beginning and end of his arc. But then the world went to shit, or maybe it's always been shit, but at any rate shit went down in Ferguson, MO, and I spent a lot of time reading tweets and first-hand accounts and critiques and criticisms and falling into a deep sadness. And one of the things I saw being circulated on the fringes was that quote up above. So I decided it was time to read this book, to see if it might help heal my soul a little. Discworld tends to be good for that kind of thing. It shines a light in the dark places of society but manages to remind you that all hope is not lost.
What is normal? Normal is yesterday and last week and last month taken together 
The book follows Sam Vimes as he, somewhat reluctantly, takes a vacation with his wife and son to their country estate. He immediately bristles at the strict class divides between master and servant, landowner and tenant. They exist in the city, of course, but Vimes has spent his whole career trying to change that and the feeling of stepping back in time is disconcerting for him. Of course it isn't long before he uncovers a smuggling ring, complete with a trade in slave labor and capped by a murder meant to frame him and get him out of the way before he sees too much. But Vimes is smarter than that, and, thankfully more mature.
I tell you, commander, it's true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they're doing it for the best, especially if there is some god involved.
He, of course, finds the murderer, busts apart the smuggling ring, and stops the slave trade, proving that goblins are people too. The ending is aggressively optimistic, with everything tied up with a neat little bow. And while that's nice, and part of what I read fiction for, it made it hurt that much more to come back in the real world. On the Disc, a species can prove that they have souls when a single member performs beautiful music. A single performance can change the world and the law. But I couldn't help thinking back to Never Let Me Go, where the artwork of dozens, possibly hundreds, of clones failed to prove to anyone that they were anything more than organ donors. The real world doesn't change that quickly.
And now, because of a song, Vimes, a simple piece of music, Vimes, soft as a breath, stronger than a mountain, some very powerful states have agreed to work together to heal the problems of another autonomous state and, almost as collateral, turn some animals into people at a stroke.
There's also the matter of Vimes, who is thankfully one of the good guys. He's truly good, with a strict moral compass and a need to help the little guy. So it's okay that he bends the law, stretches it, invents it as he goes along. We're rooting for Vimes, and we know he'll make the right choice. He has the power and he chooses to do good with it. He also has the backing of his incredibly rich wife and the all-powerful Patrician. He can, essentially, do whatever he wants. And I couldn't help but think of all the people in his situation who aren't anywhere near as good as him.
… you were so worried about legal and illegal that you never stopped to think about whether it was right or wrong.
The optimism that made this book such a great escape also made it frustrating at times. Some of this is addressed, very briefly, at the end. But it wasn't quite enough for me. Though I suppose that's why this is classed as fantasy. Not because there are werewolves and trolls on the police force. But because the people in power always make the right decisions and are constantly making the world a better place.
What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term [civilian] these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians, the only other thing they could be was soldiers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Treat Yo Self

Last week was rough. But the upcoming weekend was a bright spot on the horizon. Kevin was planning to go to the beach with some coworkers, which meant I'd have the house all to myself. I decided to make the most of my weekend of freedom and treat myself, a la Tom and Donna in Parks and Rec.

On Friday I made a big pan of risotto (quickly becoming my new comfort food, plus I can throw in a bunch of spinach and pretend it's healthy) and caught up on all the shows that I hadn't been able to watch the previous weekend when we had company.

The plan for Saturday was to go tubing for Jen's birthday in the morning, then head to Tyson's for a shopping spree and finally make a spicy pasta for dinner that I wasn't sure Kevin would like. But plans must be malleable. And though the day didn't go entirely according to plan, it was still fun and relaxing and ultimately a very good day.

Because I live way out in the suburbs, I managed to avoid the carpool, which meant I was able to drive myself. Most people will tell you that I'm an anxious or bad driver, and that's because I tend to be when there are other people in the car. I get lost, I get distracted by conversations, it's just not great. But by myself on small mountain roads with a proper buffer built in? That's my happy place. I scheduled an extra half hour to get to the tubing place, got lost several times, cranked my music up loud, and generally enjoyed the scenery. As expected, I got lost more than once. But I had time to get lost, so it wasn't a big deal.

Of course it's difficult to wrangle a large group of people, so tubing itself got a little delayed. I'd been expecting to be done by 12:30, 1 at the latest. But we didn't get on the river until after noon. Such is life. The float down was a lot of fun. Tubing is a great social activity for introverts, because there's a good mix of socializing and hanging out by yourself on the river. I did get dunked once, which wasn't fun, but it was mostly a nice, relaxing way to spend a few hours.

I think the rest of the group went down the river again, but I decided to leave once we got back to shore. Another perk of skipping out on the carpool: I wasn't beholden to anyone else.

I took the highway back and made it to the mall just before 5. At this point my contact was seriously bugging me (it got ruined when I went under the river) and I had a slight headache from dehydration. So I slashed shopping list and just picked up a bath bomb from Lush. Then I decided to eat out instead of cooking and enjoyed some excellent gorgonzola encrusted beef medallions.

After dinner I was feeling good enough to wander through the bookstore (though I'm rarely not feeling good enough for that), and I picked up a bunch of books. Now my to-read stack is a little unwieldy again, but these were mostly shorter books rather than the long epics I stocked up on at the beginning of summer. I should go through them a bit quicker.

I fit in my long-anticipated bath when I got home, complete with a glass of wine and a book. But the tubing earlier had left me so exhausted that I fell asleep shortly after 9. The next morning I went out in search of new slippers and gym shoes, then curled up on the couch with a book for most of the rest of the day. Kevin got home earlier than I expected, and I subjected him to the spicy pasta I'd been looking forward to. He enjoyed it, though I imagine that I'll be eating most of the leftovers.

It was so nice to have a weekend all to myself, and I really felt relaxed and rejuvenated at the end of it. But then I woke up Monday morning and checked the news and all that stress and sadness came rushing right back. At least I managed a couple of days of peace.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: Mort

With the fourth Discworld book, we're really getting into the Discworld I recognize. Death is hanging out, trying to figure out humanity. The characters make epic mistakes out of ignorance and do their best to fix them. There are a ton of puns, some sadness that hits you right in the gut, and a few great observations about how the world and stories work.

What's weird is that this isn't quite the Death I recognize. It's a little strange to think that Death has a character arc. He seems so unchangeable and final all of the time. But he definitely becomes more empathetic towards humanity over the course of the series. I think a lot of that happens in his next book Reaper Man, but you can see the beginnings of it here. He's curious and he's lonely and he turns to humans to help with this. Unfortunately that leaves an opening for his apprentice to royally screw things up. But then, fixing that is what reminds him of who he is.

All in all this was a pleasant little book, perhaps lacking the weight of some later installments. But it's early yet, and it's nice to be enjoying these books so much.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: Sin City 6: Booze, Broads, and Bullets

Unlike the other volumes in the Sin City series, the sixth one, Booze, Broads, and Bullets, is a collection of one-offs rather than a single arc. Each story is about 20 pages long, and this made it a lot easier to get through than most of the other books.

There were a few stories in here that I actually really liked. There was an awesome female assassin who appeared in two, first becoming initiated and then going on a job. There was an actual story about the Old Town Ladies seeking revenge that didn't have a single man in it, except the creep they were killing. There were a couple of great stories starring Marv, who has strangely found a place in my heart. I like Marv. He might be my favorite character in this entire mess of a series.

There were other stories that were less interesting, but at least they were over fast.

Next up, the final volume in the series. It's been sitting on my shelf for years, but I've never worked up to actually reading it. That changes this weekend.

And after all this, I probably won't end up seeing the new Sin City movie after all. Knowing what I do now I can't justify spending the money. I'll catch it when it hits Netflix.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: Sin City 5: Family Values

I was surprised by how much I liked this installment of Sin City, which concerns the ladies of Old Town as they seek revenge on the mob for killing one of their own, likely sparking a mob war in the process. The premise was good, and it's nice to see acknowledgement that this is a chosen family, with ties as strong as any other family. Something of a haven for girls and women who have it much harder than the men of Sin City.

That said, it'd be even better if the entire thing weren't framed as Dwight's story. It's not his story and he really has no place narrating it or driving the action. He says he's doing it as a favor to Gail (of course), but it would have been so much better if Gail had been leading the charge. If Miho had ever gotten a line of dialogue, or if she'd managed to kill all the mob goons without her breasts constantly falling out of her shirt. The entire fight scene was like a game of "spot the nipple".

But like I said, I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Of course, my expectations for this series have absolutely plummeted since I started re-reading it.