9.17.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
This year, I have indulged my interest in all things bookish by seeking out entertaining book podcasts. Here are three new podcasts I've recently started to follow and recommend to other fans of the book.

Dead Authors Podcast

In this podcast, time-traveling science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells (as played by Paul F. Tompkins) interviews a literary giant from the past (played by comedians and improv players, for the most part). The interviews are uproariously inappropriate, but show good research as "Wells" probes his guests about their early lives or themes. The actors arrive in costume. (Some bring their own drink. A lot of writers were drinkers.) The trick, I imagine, is trying not to break character.

Some of my favorite shows featured Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, and Ayn Rand.

Overdue

Andrew and Craig (whose surnames I do not know) have been catching up on the books they should have read by now since 2013. Every week, one of them reads a book and the other asks questions about it. Inevitably, they crack each other up—which always makes me laugh, because I think it's hilarious when guys giggle. Unlike the other podcasts in this roundup, Overdue is a podcast by and for readers. Andrew and Craig are not professional book critics. Their response to books is honest and unpretentious.

You can hear me (me!) get a shout out at the end of Episode 77.

Tea and Jeopardy

"There's always time for a nice cup of tea and a spot of mild peril..."


I just discovered this one, so I'm still listening to the archive. I found this one because I'm a huge fan of N.K. Jemisin—to the point that I've been stalking following her on Twitter. In Tea and Jeopardy, Emma Newman travels through space in her tea lair and interviews fantasy and science fiction authors. It's silly and wonderful at the same time. (Silliness is underappreciated.) Ms. Newman has interviewed some of my favorite authors, including Mary Robinette Kowal, Lauren Beukes, and Paul Cornell,
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Secrets of Life and Death
Jackdaw Hammond has been living on borrowed time for more than a decade. Now she's trying to help another girl avoid her own untimely fate. In addition to this story, Rebecca Alexander also gives us another tale of Elizabeth Báthory in The Secrets of Life and Death.

The Secrets of Life and Death is narrated by three people. Felix Guichard is an expert in religions. He was called in when a dead girl was discovered with esoteric symbols written all over her. This girl lead him to Jackdaw, a mostly mysterious woman who eventually clues him into what's going on. The symbols on the dead girl can keep people alive after they're supposed to be dead. Together, they learn that "borrowed timers," also called revenants, are being hunted by a terrifying witch and by the Catholic Inquisition. The third narrator is Edward Kelley (making yet another fictional appearance), who tells the story of how he and Doctor John Dee used magic to preserve the life of Elizabeth Báthory in 1585.

Kelley and Dee's part of the story was, to be honest, better than the story Jackdaw and Felix give us. I would have devoured a book that was just Kelley and Dee and Báthory. It's richer in detail. Comparatively, Jackdaw and Felix's story feels too easy and too shallow. Kelley and Dee discover the infernally-inspired life-extension magic; Jackdaw and Felix just copy what they found in Kelley's surviving papers. Jackdaw and Felix's final confrontation with the Big Bad succeeds more by luck than skill. Their part of the book also suffers by being hobbled with a clumsy love story.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 7 October 2014.

9.14.2014

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If you haven't read the first two books in this series, The Last Policeman and Countdown City, I strongly recommend that you don't read this review. It's going to be hard enough for me not to include spoilers as it is without worrying about spoiling the rest of the series for people who, inexplicably, haven't gotten on this wagon yet.

World of Trouble
World of Trouble is a bleak book. Only a few vestiges of civilization remain. Some people are seeing the world out by partying. Others are digging in, literally, to create doomsday bunkers. Most people would rather shoot Palace than help him out. Still, Palace continues his self appointed quest to rescue his sister Nico, there is just a week before a planet-killing asteroid is going to strike Indonesia.

Nico had joined a gang of desperate crusaders in trying to save the world from Maia, the asteroid. But something has gone wrong with their plan and the last Palace knew, she was heading for somewhere in Ohio. Along with his faithful dog, Houdini, and a thief with ulterior motives, Palace bikes west from his safe haven at Police House.

Once he arrives in Rotary, Ohio, Palace comes across a crime scene. There's blood in the sink at the police station and no one around. Cortez, the thief, is ready to pack it in, but Palace is nothing if not dogged. He falls back on his abbreviated police training to run the scene and find out what happened because he just knows that Nico was there. And then the pair find a woman with her throat cut in the woods. Surprisingly, she's not dead, but she's not ready to talk about what happened. On top of this mystery, Palace and Cortez also find evidence that Nico's group has dug into their own bunker and sealed themselves in below a slab of concrete. Before the world ends, Palace just has to find out what happened to Nico and make sure she's safe—one last time.

World of Trouble is a fast read. It was over almost before I'd had a chance to sink in. As I read it, I was terrified that Winters would give us a St. Elsewhere-style ending. And I really didn't want to throw my iPad across the room if that happened. I should have had more faith because Winters is a braver writer than that. The other thought that occurred to me as I read World of Trouble was that Winters has given us science fiction and fantasy folks a logotherapy tale of our own. Palace's life at the world has meaning because he gave it meaning. He's the last policeman, while everyone else abandons their post or their humanity or their hope. This trilogy is unforgettable.

My only regret now is that the book wasn't longer. I wasn't ready to see the last of Henry Palace.

9.13.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
Once again, the British and American editions of a book have radically different covers. And, as usual, the British cover is better. (At least, I think it's better.)

Here is the British cover of HHhH, by Laurent Binet, the one I used in my review of the book:


This cover takes a portrait of Reinhard Heydrich, the subject of the book and the target of Operation Anthropoid, and blurs his face. The cover says to me how impossible it is to clearly see the past. Binet agonizes about getting the story right. We can fill in a lot of details with the historic record, but we can't really know the people behind the history.

The blurring also makes Heydrich just that much more sinister—to me at least. This cover fits the story much better than the American one.

Speaking of, here it is:


This cover removes Heydrich as the focus. The parachutists—no doubt representing the assassins, Gabčik and Kubiš—are tiny figures. The letters of the title are written in what makes me think of Soviet futurism. You have to know what the letters mean in order to catch the meaning. (HHhH stands for "Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich": Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.) The letters made me think of buildings—but not the medieval buildings of Prague, where the novel/not-novel takes place.

I'm probably over thinking this, but I tend to do that about artwork. I blame the fact that I was raised by an art history major.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
John Irving's In One Person is another book I would not have picked up, let alone read, if it weren't for the Nameless Book Group.

In One Person
Can one person ever make us completely happy*? William Abbott, the protagonist of In One Person by John Irving, has a type, but that's as far as he can commit. His problem is that no one else—especially not members of his family—can accept that he's attracted to both men and women. His family disapproves of his lovers. His male lovers don't think he's all that into men. His female lovers think he'll leave him for a man. On top of all this, Bill has an unfortunate habit of saying the worst possible things to his loves at the worst possible moments**.

Bill tells his life story in a recursive fashion. If you read In One Person over the course of three days, like I did, you'll notice that dialog and themes are repeated verbatim. Bill was born in First Sister, Vermont under a cloud. For the longest time, all Bill knew about his disappeared father was that he was caught kissing someone else and that he was a cryptographer during World War II. Bill's family is interesting enough on its own. His grandfather, Harry, is a hoot. Harry's cross-dressing antics on stage in the town's amateur dramatic troupe are a sore spot for the women in the Winthrop-Marshall-Dean-Abbott clan. When Bill is caught wearing his girlfriend's (beard) bra and falls in love with the town's transgender librarian, no one is very happy with him. Bill is sent to the school psychologist, but he is gleefully unrepentant about his sexuality.

Because this is a book club selection, I took copious notes about Bill's psychosexual dramas. It was fun to psychoanalyze Bill from the comfort of my own couch. There's a lot here for the group to talk about. The first two thirds of In One Person are all about Bill. He learns more about his past before charging out into the world. He doesn't change so much as the world around him. What struck me about Bill, in comparison to the not heterosexual characters around him, was that he is always very clear about what he is attracted to. He doesn't struggle nearly as much as the homosexual and transgender characters that populate this book.

In the last third of In One Person, Bill gives way to telling us what happened to the people he met at the all-boys private school he attended. At this point, I wondered what an incredible novel In One Person could have been if Miss Frost, the librarian, or Jacques Kittredge, one of Bill's early crushes, had been the protagonist. Not that this isn't a good book (much better than I was expecting), but I would have loved to read more about Miss Frost.

This leads me to what bothered me about In One Person. What interests Bill about his own life and history is not what interested me. He glosses over his relationships and large parts of his life to stick to the repeated theme of not belonging to either the heterosexual or the homosexual camp. Further, Bill doesn't change much. The characters around him go on incredible journeys, but Irving doesn't let us see those.

___________

* Yes, if that person is Jaime Fraser.

** Relationship Pro Tip: Never compare your girlfriend's vagina to a ballroom, especially when you've just had sex.

9.10.2014

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HHhH
Literary critics will tell you that even nonfiction can be considered a kind of fiction. The author chooses what the share and what to hide. They create a story arc to engage their readers. Laurent Binet’s HHhH* isn’t unusual, considered in that light. Still, any reader of historical nonfiction would be surprised by the extent that Binet embeds himself in the story of Operation Anthropoid and how he agonizes over what to include and exclude.

On May 27, 1942, three men planned to kill the Nazi “protector” of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Valčik served as the lookout. Jozef Gabčik was supposed to kill him with a Sten gun, but it jammed. Jan Kubiš lobbed a bomb at Heydrich's Mercedes, but didn't kill his target outright. Heydrich later died of septicemia from his shrapnel wounds. Anthropoid succeeded, but only by accident. The Nazi reprisals that followed took the lives of thousands of Czech citizens. The entire village of Lidice was razed and its inhabitants murdered simply because a letter was discovered during the chaotic investigation that followed. The letter had nothing to do with Anthropoid.

This is the nutshell synopsis of Binet's book, but HHhH is history as written by Laurence Sterne. Binet wants to be true to history (I should probably write History here) and to the people who gave their lives to kill a man who was as close to a monster as people ever come. At the beginning of the novel/not-novel, Binet writes:
I devour everything I can find, in every possible language…I learn loads of things, some with only a distant connection to Heydrich, but I tell myself that everything can be useful, that I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit—and the thread of knowledge, once you pull at it, continues unraveling on its own…I write two pages for every thousand I read…I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming dangerous—a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing. (17**) 
These bullet pocks were made during
the firefight between the surviving
members of Anthropoid and other operations
A memorial plaque has been placed above.
Binet does not approach history as a historian, but as a teacher of literature. He is fully aware of the inherent flaws of the format. But he also plays with the freedom that this recognition gives him. Near the end of HHhH, Binet as narrator places himself in the crypt of the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, where the members of Anthropoid were cornered by the SS and killed. (He does this in spite of claiming not to be a character in his own book. By appearing in the first person in HHhH, of course Binet becomes a character.)

I have had to tag HHhH as a work of fiction and nonfiction because that's really what it is. It's about history, but also about the act of writing about history. Binet shares his struggle over how to write this incredible story even as he shares it with his readers. He does spend a lot of time on Heydrich's background and personality, to the detriment of the story's heroes: Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš. (I thought so, anyway.) Binet explains this somewhat by pointing out that there is so much information about Heydrich than there is about the members of Anthropoid and Binet (at least his manifestation in the pages of HHhH) is very worried about getting the facts right.

One would think that at book about writing a book would be terribly boring, but I was anything but bored as I read HHhH. Even as Binet confesses his struggles about his self-appointed task, the incredible story he is telling serves as an example of how important it is to get things right. Anthropoid wasn't just about Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš; it also succeeded because of people that you don't hear about. It succeeded because of other members of the Czech Resistance and their families. Further, Anthropoid happened because of everything else that was happening at the time. At the end (rather, the point where Binet chose to end his narrative), the author/narrator writes:
I know that this story will never truly end for me, that I will always be learning new details relating to the extraordinary story of the assassination attempt on Heydrich on May 27, 1942, by Czechoslovak parachutists sent from London. (326)

__________

* The title is an abbreviation of a old joke. Heydrich was such a useful right hand man to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, that "Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich": Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.

** Quotes are from the 2009 hardcover edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Sam Taylor.

9.07.2014

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The Darkest Hour
Since the late 1940s, the phrase "only following orders" has had ominous connotations. And it seemed like Tony Schumacher took this phrase as his inspiration for The Darkest Hour. John Rossett has been following orders for a long time. Then, one day, he snaps and goes rogue. The Darkest Hour is set in just 48, action-packed hours in which Rossett tries to save the life of a Jewish boy in an alternate Britain that was occupied by Germany sometime after the Dunkirk evacuation.

John Rossett was a policeman in London before the war, so it only made sense that he returned to policing after he was released from a prisoner of war camp. He had a fearsome reputation as a soldier. For his actions in France, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and nicknamed the "British Lion." So it's strange that Rossett offers no objections when the SS requisition him and set him to work rounding up London's Jews for transport to Europe. For most of the book, Rossett is shockingly naive about their fate. He believes the news of the concentration camps is just government-in-exile propaganda. His refusal to fight back against the Germans and acquiescence to their orders is, frankly, appalling. I had to push myself to keep reading.

Shortly after the book begins and Rossett has just sent a building full of Jews back to Europe, he discovers young Jacob hiding in a chimney. Rossett finds his lack of conscience shaken and, hours after sending the boy's grandfather to his death, he breaks into the SS prison/police station in order to rescue him. The pair spend the rest of the book running from the Germans, the Resistance, and the Communists. Rossett becomes a super-powered avenging angel. I lost count of the number of people Rossett killed or threatened to kill. It's unbelievable what the former war hero gets up to.

I have to sum this book up by saying it's a thriller dressed up as an alternate history. The premise—if you can stand its repellent implications—is interesting. The action scenes are terrific. But I read most of it with my eyebrows raised in disbelief—and not the kind you want when reading a work of fiction.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 September 2014.

9.06.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
I think I'm getting snobbish about books. I've been spoiled in this last year or so when it comes to great books. My to-read and recently read lists are packed with historical fiction and literary fiction but, up until a few years ago, I read fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels almost exclusively. When I've tried to go back, I've found it harder and harder to ignore clumsy writing and less-than-three-dimensional characters. That sort of thing didn't bother me if the plot was good.

Last night, when I finished Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, I felt obscurely disappointed. This was a book critics had gushed over. And it was a great read, don't get me wrong. But I wanted more depth, I suppose. I've been bothered by my reaction ever since. Then an analogy popped into my head that is helping me make sense of it. 

Reading better and better books is like using hotter and hotter hot sauce. After a while, you just can't taste the more mild varieties. You need something spicier. Then that stops satisfying you. Before you know it, you're seriously considering trying a sauce made with bhut jolokia (or whatever the literary equivalent is). 

While I'm reading "better" books, I regret that can't just enjoy fantasy or science fiction or mystery genre novels unless they break the mold in some way. Sometimes, you just want brain candy. But if you've been spoiled, you can't even taste it.

Having written all that, I do realize that I've just whined about a first world bookworm problem. 

What I really worry about is that this escalating hot sauce cycle is leading me to be harsher than I should in my reviews. 

9.05.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
It's been a long time since I've read a book that was pure fantasy but, since the last book I read was a somewhat depressing work of literary historical fiction and I'm also reading the Dickensian epic that is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, I needed something that was pure action as a palate cleanser.

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood has been a ghul hunter for decades. He's getting too old for this shit. His young assistant, a dervish named Raseed, helps with the fighting but wearies him with his rigid piety. Makhslood would have retired long ago if there were anyone to turn the reins over to, but he's the last honest ghul hunter. Naturally, this is when he stumbles across the biggest evil he's ever encountered. Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fast ride from the very beginning. If Adoulla doesn't have a moment to catch his breath, then neither do you.

It begins with a call for help from the love of Adoulla's life. Then it escalates when Adoulla and Raseed find the sole survivor of a desert tribe looking for revenge. It eventually turns out to be a terrible plot to gain the Khalif's throne. Along the way, there's magic and alkhemists and shapechangers and corruption and virtue and heroism.

The plot of Throne of the Crescent Moon is simple enough to explain, but what made this book such an interesting read for me was the richly described world Ahmed creates. Unlike most fantasy novels, which are grounded firmly in medieval European-like settings, Throne of the Crescent Moon is distinctly influenced by Islam and the Middle East. God has a thousand names and business is only discussed after lots of pleasantries. Not only does Ahmed use this inspiration to create a refreshingly different setting, he uses it to give his characters (especially) Raseed a lot of room to grow as characters. This is an action novel, but it's got some soul, too.

9.01.2014

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The Two Hotel Francforts
Julia Winters does not want to be in Lisbon. But then, in 1940, few of the people who were in Lisbon wanted to be there. After the Nazis invaded Poland, France, Norway, etc., streams of refugees were pouring into the city hoping to catch a ship to America or England. It was always Julia's dream to live in Paris. Her husband, Pete, was more than happy to bring her to Europe. By the time we meet them in David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts, the Winters have just arrived in Lisbon. Julia has been talking about staying in Lisbon rather than leaving on the Manhattan with all the other American ex-patriates. Pete has promised to take her to New York kicking and screaming if he has to. And then one morning, as they have their morning spat and coffee at a local cafe, they meet the Frelengs.

Edward and Iris Freleng have also fled France and are also preparing to travel to New York on the Manhattan. The couples' meet-cute involves a deck of cards and a pair of smashed glasses. Pete and Edward get on well, but Julia is not disposed to make friends. That night, Pete and Edward go out for drinks, have a lot of absinthe, and end up naked on the beach together.

The beginning of The Two Hotel Francforts was remarkably similar to a book I read earlier this year, Ford Madox Ford's novel, The Good Soldier. In that novel, two couples met in Europe. One member of each couple is dependent on the other. One member of each couple has a hidden past. Everyone is lying. The couples' lives tangle together. War is on the horizon. But in The Good Soldier, it was a woman and a man that had an affair. In The Two Hotel Francforts, two men have an affair.

A city full of refugees on a continent at war is a terrible place to conduct an affair. Worse, Edward and Pete have only a week before the Manhattan arrives in Lisbon. In spite of this, Leavitt creates some space for the two lovers to explore their attraction. They have just a little time before their histories and entanglements catch up.

The Two Hotel Francforts is not a true love story. Nor is it, as Modox Ford wrote it in 1915, the saddest story the narrator had ever heard. I have to wonder if Leavitt has read The Good Soldier and, if so, why he didn't acknowledge it in his notes at the end. There are too many similarities to dismiss.

8.31.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
I was curious about how my year of reading added up, so I indulged my nerdy side and put together some charts. This may take a moment to load from infrogram.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
It's that time of year again. It's time to reveal how many books I've read during the past twelve months. Since 1 September 2013, I have completed the following 216 titles (since my new blog theme doesn't show numbers for lists):
  1. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
  2. Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers
  3. The Madman's Daughter, by Megan Shepherd
  4. The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeshke
  5. Others of My Kind, by James Sallis
  6. Never Go Back, by Lee Child
  7. The Windsor Faction, by D.J. Taylor
  8. Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich
  9. The Bat, by Jo Nesbø
  10. Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett
  11. Jar City, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  12. This House is Haunted, by John Boyne
  13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
  14. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
  15. The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane
  16. I Am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits
  17. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
  18. The Heavens Rise, by Christopher Rice
  19. The Kill Room, by Jeffrey Deaver
  20. Homeland, by Cory Doctorow
  21. Niceville, by Carsten Stroud
  22. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
  23. The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis
  24. Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve
  25. Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard
  26. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin
  27. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
  28. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
  29. A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick
  30. The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
  31. Plague, by Lisa Hinsley (novella)
  32. Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, by Daniel Kalla
  33. Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone
  34. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
  35. The Fall of Saints, by Wanjiku wa Ngugi
  36. Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles
  37. Heresy, by S.J. Parris
  38. The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak
  39. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
  40. The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière
  41. Something More Than Night, by Ian Tregillis
  42. The Corpse-Rat King, by Lee Battersly
  43. The Dream Runner, by Kerry Schafer
  44. City of Lost Dreams, by Magnus Flyte
  45. The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan
  46. The World's Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne
  47. Divergent, by Veronica Roth
  48. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth
  49. Police, by Jo Nesbø
  50. Wake, by Anna Hope
  51. Above, by Isla Morley
  52. Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich
  53. Longbourn, by Jo Baker
  54. The Cormorant, by Chuck Wendig
  55. Revolutionary, by Alex Myers
  56. The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal
  57. When It's a Jar, by Tom Holt
  58. A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney
  59. Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson
  60. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  61. The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook
  62. Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins
  63. The Child Thief, by Dan Smith
  64. The Other Tree, by D.K. Mok
  65. Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  66. Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  67. Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  68. Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin
  69. Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye
  70. The Waking Engine, by David Edison
  71. The Woken Gods, by Gwenda Bond
  72. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Chris Nickson
  73. The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones
  74. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
  75. A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub
  76. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  77. The Furies, by Mark Alpert
  78. Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler
  79. Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin (novella)
  80. An Officer and Spy, by Robert Harris
  81. Allegient, by Veronica Roth
  82. Hyde, by Daniel Levine
  83. The Time Tutor, by Bee Ridgway (short story)
  84. Altai, by Wu Ming
  85. The Coming, by Andrej Nikolaidis (novella)
  86. London Under, by Peter Ackroyd 
  87. Cress, by Marissa Meyer
  88. Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  89. The Quick, by Lauren Owen
  90. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier
  91. Dominion, by C.J. Sansom
  92. Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory
  93. Voices, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  94. Sister Wolf, by Ann Arensberg (novella)
  95. Saga, volumes I, II, and III, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
  96. In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker (short stories)
  97. Rivers, by Michael Farris Smith
  98. The Antiquarian, by Gustavo Faveròn Patriau (novella)
  99. Q-23, by Paul Theroux (novella)
  100. Human Solutions, by Avi Silberstein (novella)
  101. In the Courtyard of the Cabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman
  102. The Draining Lake, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  103. Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes
  104. The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Krug Benjamin
  105. The Colonial Hotel, by Jonathan Bennett (novella)
  106. The World Exchange, by Alena Graedon
  107. The Midnight Witch, by Paula Brackston
  108. Irenicon, by Aidan Harte
  109. Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  110. Love and Treasure, by Ayalet Waldman
  111. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
  112. Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
  113. The Weirdness, by Jeremy P. Bushnell
  114. Unwrapped Sky, by Rjurik Davidson
  115. A Highly Unlikely Scenario; Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, by Rachel Cantor
  116. The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegel
  117. MacTeague, by Frank Norris
  118. Luminous Chaos, by Jean-Christophe Valtat
  119. Seven Kinds of Hell, by Dana Cameron
  120. One Night in Winter, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  121. The Kraken King, by Meljean Brook (novella)
  122. The Liminal People, by Ayize Jama-Everett (novella)
  123. Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
  124. A Thing Done, by Tinney S. Heath
  125. The Lewis Man, by Peter May
  126. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
  127. The Raven's Banquet, by Clifford Beal
  128. Marvel 1602, by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
  129. London Falling, by Paul Cornell
  130. The Well of Tears, by Roberta Trahan
  131. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter
  132. Fear, by Gabriel Chevalier
  133. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter (short stories)
  134. Dark Aemilia, by Sally O'Reilly
  135. The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith
  136. Halfskin, by Tony Bertauski
  137. Mortal Fire, by C.F. Dunn
  138. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst
  139. Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  140. A Better World, by Marcus Sakey
  141. Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux
  142. The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore
  143. Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien de Castell
  144. Red Winter, by Dan Smith
  145. Season of the Witch, by Natasha Mostert
  146. Outrage, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  147. The Setting Sun, by Bart Moore-Gilbert
  148. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  149. All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park
  150. In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen
  151. Forty Acres, by Dwayne Alexander Smith
  152. The Midnight Side, by Natasha Mostert
  153. Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
  154. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley
  155. Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll
  156. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Purse, by Alan Bradley
  157. My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning
  158. Sedition, by Katherine Grant
  159. I am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley
  160. Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley
  161. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley
  162. The Bone Church, by Victoria Dougherty
  163. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman
  164. Blood Red, by Mercedes Lackey
  165. In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
  166. Unruly Places, by Alastair Bonnett
  167. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (audiobook)
  168. The Buried Life, by Carrie Patel
  169. You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, by Tom Gauld
  170. The Severed Streets, by Paul Cornell
  171. The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day
  172. Silent Witnesses, by Nigel McCrery
  173. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor
  174. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (novella)
  175. World War Z, by Max Brooks (audiobook)
  176. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Schafer
  177. The Denouncer, by Paul M. Levitt
  178. Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor
  179. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë
  180. Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor
  181. The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton
  182. My Name is Resolute, by Nancy E. Turner
  183. Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
  184. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovic
  185. Top Secret Twenty-One, by Janet Evanovich
  186. Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel
  187. Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark
  188. The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, by Rod Duncan
  189. The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean (novella)
  190. The Book of Life, by Deborah Harness
  191. The Monster's Wife, by Kate Horsley
  192. Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe
  193. The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi (audiobook)
  194. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  195. The Heist, by Daniel Silva
  196. Neverhome, by Laird Hunt
  197. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
  198. Unspeakable Things, by Laurie Penny
  199. When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams
  200. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (reread)
  201. Gutenberg's Apprentice, by Alix Christie
  202. The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis
  203. Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
  204. City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
  205. The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker (novella)
  206. The Day of Atonement, by David Liss
  207. The Cartographer of No Man's Land, by P.S. Duffy
  208. Help for the Haunted, by John Searles
  209. The Resurrectionist, by Matthew Guinn
  210. Written in My Heart's Own Blood, by Diana Gabaldon
  211. The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Morgan
  212. A Little Folly, by Jude Morgan
  213. The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill
  214. A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
  215. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
  216. Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson
Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
Can you really call it foreshadowing anymore when an author, via their narrator, tells you flat out that a death or a betrayal or a twist is coming in so many words? I recently read A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger, and I lost count of the number of times that the narrator mentioned that he would later come to regret some action or his decision to trust a particular character. By the time the betrayal happened, it was no surprise at all. Foreshadowing with subtlety is not easy, granted. It takes a light touch.

The Delphic Sibyl hates spoilers.
Then I read Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson. In Life Goes On, the foreshadowing is no more than a hint, a touch of impeding tragedy. Since the book was originally published in 1932 (albeit in German), I'm going to spoil part of it. Fritz Fiedler has failed at every attempt to make a career. He later commits suicide. Before this, Keilson writes a scene in which the Fiedler family plans Fritz's next move for him. Keilson describes Fritz in this moment:
It was completely dark by then, and when Albrecht turned around again he saw the shape of his friend gently looming up out of the darkness. The tip of his cigarette glowed more brightly as he inhaled, and Albrecht saw his face for a moment; it was pale and waxen, like a dead man's. (186*)
The next time Albrecht sees Fritz is as a corpse in the morgue.

LiteraryDevices.net gave me this definition of foreshadowing:
Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story or a chapter and helps the reader develop expectations about the coming events in a story. There are various ways of creating a foreshadowing...Foreshadowing in fiction creates an atmosphere of suspense in a story so that the readers are interested to know more.
Foreshadowing does take away some of the surprise. It helps later events make sense and keep characters true to their internal logic. If you reread a text with foreshadowing, you will see signs the author left for you.

Seeing foreshadowing done write took my metaphorical breath away. When I see writing done really, really well, I appreciate the author even more; it shows they've mastered their craft,

___________

* From the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Damion Searls.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
"I can't go on, I'll go on."
Samuel Beckett
Life Goes On
How can you pass up a book that was banned by the Nazis? Hans Keilson's rediscovered debut novel, Life Goes On, was published in 1932 (the last title by a Jewish author until the end of World War II) and was banned in 1934. According to the author's note at the end of the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Life Goes On is partially autobiographical. The family at the center of the book, the Seldersens, are not identified as Jewish, but the son, Albrecht, goes to university and makes a sort-of living as a musician as Keilson did before he emigrated to Holland.

As I read Life Goes On, the Beckett line quoted above was a constant refrain in my head. After surviving the first World War and nearly 23 years in business in an unnamed German city, Johann Seldersen is feeling the effects of the ruined economy. He is forced by his landlord to relocate to a smaller shop in the shared building, where he can't stock as much as he used to. Customers stay loyal, but when a local factory and brickworks burn to the ground, the Seldersens' regulars start to purchase things on credit. For the first time, Seldersen falls behind on his bills. He holds out for as long as he can. He even asks his bank for a loan to clear his debts. But with no money coming in, Seldersen borrows more and more just to stay in business. He believes that if he can just hold out long enough, things will turn around. Meanwhile, his son Albrecht is kept sheltered. He only learns how bad things are before he leaves for university and has to start fending for himself.

The deep shame and despair felt by characters like Seldersen senior coupled with their hope that things will eventually get better if they just wait it out is hard to see, especially coupled with the historical reality that followed. At the end of the novel, Albrecht decides to become political. Originally, Albrecht joins the communists but Keilson was required to make the ending at least ambiguous to get it published. Albrecht is the only character to realize that you just can't wait for things to get better on their own; you have to fight for your future. Albrecht's childhood friend, Fritz, ended up a suicide because the old ways weren't working. The company where he apprenticed failed. He couldn't get work in America. His family kept making plans for him, but everything Fritz tried failed.

The word shame is repeated throughout the book. The older generation of characters do everything they can to keep up the appearance of solvency. They're only able to get loans because of their reputations. To be seen sending letters to customers or even asking the bailiffs to collect debts is seen as shameful. The shame of poverty ages Albrecht's parents in just a few years. They had hoped to retire before everything started to go to hell. They worked all their lives and know the shame of failure is breaking them. As I read further, I started to understand just how the average German would have felt. It was an environment ripe for someone like Hitler.

Life Goes On is a reflective novel/memoir; not much happens, plot-wise. For once, I didn't mind this because the book is such a deep, textured psychological study of Weimar bourgeoisie. It's no surprise to me that Keilson later became a psychoanalyst and psychologist after the war. Life Goes On is full of insights that no history or historical fiction can match.

8.30.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : , ,
Broken Monsters
No one, not even seasoned Detroit detective Gabi Versado, could be prepared for the body found in the woods. Half is the remains of a young Black boy. The other half was a faun. They've been joined together by unknown means. But is is far from the strangest thing Versado will encounter in Lauren Beukes' shatteringly wonderful novel, Broken Monsters.

Clayton Broom is just one of many struggling artists in dying, bohemian Detroit. He's just not quite good enough to break out of the pack. He frightens people because he spouts cryptic and disturbing things. He gets worse after he accidentally kills a deer with his car after chasing an ex-girlfriend. After this, as the art dealers would say, he had a breakthrough. As Broken Monsters progresses, we learn just what Clayton—or the thing inside him—are trying to do.

Clayton is the catalyst in Broken Monsters, but he's just one of several main characters. Beukes shows us Versado and her team tracking, then closing in, on Clayton. She shows us Layla, Versado's daughter, as she struggles with the injustices of being a teenager in the age of social media and the Internet. Beukes shows us TK, an advocate for the homeless, as his friends enter Clayton's sphere. And then she gives us Jonno Haim, a freelance writer who is also trying to stand out from all the other ruin porn journalists that have descended on Detroit since the recession. In turns, we see how these disparate characters are drawn into Clayton's strange dream.

Broken Monsters begins much like another mystery novel. Clayton's murders are strange, but no stranger than some of the other elaborate modos* operandi serial killers have come up with in fiction. But then Beukes adds her special touch and the end of the novel becomes much more than a chase for a serial killer. I can't say too much about the last third of the book because everyone should be able to read it with fresh expectations. I will say that the ending is spectacular and that Broken Monsters is an unforgettable ride.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 September 2014.

___________

* This is the plural of modus operandi. I looked it up. Because I'm pedantic** like that.

** Speaking of pedantic, I have to report that Beukes does make a few missteps with American English. I always find Americans using Anglicisms jarring. Americans say "different from," not "different to." The word hospital is almost always preceded by an article. And Americans don't use proper as an adjective.

8.28.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
A Burnable Book
As Bruce Holsinger portrays London, Southwark, and Westminster in A Burnable Book, you can't swing a cat without hitting three plotters. In this novel, the plots begin with a book of prophecies that claim to predict the deaths of all the English kings from William the Conqueror to Richard II. Of course, when Geoffrey Chaucer asks his friend and fellow poet, John Gower, to go looking for this book, Gower has no idea what he's in for.

In the prologue to A Burnable Book, a young woman is murdered by a shadowy man. He questions her in an unknown language, but is unable to find what he's looking for: a book. The book is, unbeknownst to him, in the possession of Agnes Fonteyn, a maudlyn (a prostitute). Agnes runs to her sister's house to hide, but the book doesn't stay hidden for long. As Agnes and her sister and friends elude the mysterious murderer from the prologue, John Gower uses his contacts across the city to try and find the book. Along the way, he finds that the book is at the center of a plot to assassinate the king, Richard II.

The words of the thirteenth prophecy, the one purporting to prophesy Richard's death, go viral—or whatever the medieval equivalent is. Gower finds the words, the rhythm strangely familiar. It's like he has the name of the poet on the tip of his brain. As he digs deeper, he finds out that the prophecies are a forgery—but that someone is trying to make them come true. Gower also finds out that he is a much smaller fish in the London pond than he thought he was. Others are playing a longer and deeper game than he's ever tried to play.

Events go from troubling to Gower to downright alarming when his son, an accused counterfeiter and murderer, returns from Italy. By this time, Agnes and the maudlyns are in danger for their lives. Gower's friend Chaucer appears to be implicated in the treasonous business of the book. A Burnable Book is best read in as few sittings as possible because there is so much going on here. You have multiple narrators, one of whom is transgender. Another narrator turns out to have died before the book starts. Then there are all the plots. It's a lot to keep track of.

Other critics have pointed out that the strength of this book is in the richness of the setting. I have to agree. A Burnable Book is so well researched that you can smell the history. Holsinger shows you the brutality, but also the beauty, of medieval London and Southwark. I don't know that I buy Chaucer's role here, given what I know about his royal patronage and friendships with Prince Edward and Richard II. I wonder why Holsinger chose Gower to be his protagonist. I really liked the parts narrated by Edgar/Eleanor Rykener. She is a wonderful, unusual character and she frequently stole the show from Gower.

8.25.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
Since I can't recommend every book I've read in the past twelvemonth (because I don't think you all have that kind of time), here are the best ones:

  1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin: This is a sweet and moving story of a book store owner who suddenly becomes a father. If you're a reader, this book is for you. 
  2. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak: Words are powerful, even when the world is falling apart. This book is captivating and beautiful.
  3. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline: I adored this modern epic. It's a great ride.
  4. The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon: When words are commercialized, the effects are terrifying.
  5. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow: Even though this book was written during the height of Patriot Act paranoia, it's still chillingly relevant. Plus, it's good, geeky fun.
  6. Longbourn, by Jo Baker: Writing anything new about Pride and Prejudice is next to impossible, but Jo Baker has created something amazing in her tale of the Bennett family's servants.
  7. Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux: This is a delightfully bizarre story of resurrection and writing.
  8. In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen: Holocaust literature will always be unsettling and vexed and unmoving, but this is one of the few that can offer catharsis.
  9. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl: I love ambiguous mysteries; you get more than one story for your money. 
  10. The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter: These are the the best fairy tale retellings I've ever found.

8.22.2014

Posted by Annie Smith | File under :
By Robert Wagt
There is nothing more truly refreshing after a semester of non-stop work and work travel and work and projects and work than a week off to just stay home and read books. I cleared several books off of my to-read queue and my to-review list. (Not nearly enough, of course, but progress is progress.)

In two days, I head back to work at the university library—just in time for the fall semester to begin. In a week, my "book year" comes to an end and I'll be publishing the list of everything I read since the beginning of last September. (So there's still time for me to put a few more books down on on the list.)

A week off with nothing to do but read has been marvelous. I haven't had one of these for a while because I've been taking more traditional vacations. A week is just the right amount of time. I'm ready to reengage with all the projects I've got waiting for me.

Besides, the library is where my copies of Booklist and Publishers' Weekly are waiting for me. I need to replenish my to-read list.
Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
The Beautiful Land
The first rule of time travel should be "Do not fuck with time travel." The same goes for playing around with alternate timelines, quantum wormholes, and anything else that might mess up cause and effect. Unfortunately, no one told Charles Yates and the other owners of the Axon Corporation. Once everything absolutely goes to hell, it's up to explorer Takahiro O'Leary (yeah) and shell-shocked translator, Samira Moheb to save all the timelines in The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill.

Takahiro was a reality TV star who made his living venturing into dangerous places before it all went south. He gets a call from the Axon Corporation at a very opportune moment. They promise that he'll be able to explore places no one has ever been before. So, he says yes. Averill then jumps ahead to show us Samira in a therapy session. In addition to PTSD, she compulsively cleans everything, cracks all of her knuckles when under pressure, and can't sleep except on the subway. These are our two unlucky heros.

When we next see Takahiro, he's just stolen a portable device that lets him jump in and out of other timelines. He's just found out about the Axon Corporation's master plan. They intend to overwrite reality with a version in which they run the entire world. Unbeknownst to them, Yates has his own master plan. That plan, unfortunately, leads to the collapse of all alternate realities and the potential end of our own.

As I read The Beautiful Land, I thought that this would make an incredible movie. Characters race across the globe and across timelines in order to save their home reality. There are monstrous black birds that are killing every living thing they can get their talons on. The baddies are really, really bad. The visuals would be truly spectacular.


Posted by Annie Smith | File under : ,
A Little Folly
Some might say that Louisa and Valentine Carnell have had an easy upbringing: their father told them what to do, think, and say every day of their lives. It's oppressive, but they lead sheltered lives. After Sir Clement gives himself an apoplexy being angry with a groom, Louisa and Valentine hardly know what to do with themselves in Jude Morgan's delightful A Little Folly. Valentine proposes that they live. But first, they have to learn how to live for themselves.

The young Carnells' scheme begins simply enough. They get rid of their father's ugly fire screen. Then they do a little redecorating. Louisa starts speaking her mind to the man her father intended for her, Mr. Lynley, and lets him know that she doesn't like him at all. Then Valentine invites their cousins to stay. Even when they accept the cousins' invitation to stay—indefinitely—with them, there is nothing to reproach them with. Mr. Lynley tries to dissuade them from their friendship with Lady Harriet Eversholt, because she is separated from her husband (a shocking thing in only recently post-Napoleonic Europe). Louisa has had enough of being told what to do and spurns Mr. Lynley's advice in the strongest language she can bring herself to use.

Once the Carnells arrive in London, their lives become much more complicated. Louisa learns more about Mr. Lynley's true nature and meets his intriguing brother. Valentine pursues his attraction to Lady Harriet into her faro-bank and becomes a member of London's dandy scene. Louisa is more sensible, but she can't bring herself to do more than giver her brother advice. Neither of them can bear to be told what to do. Fortunately, Louisa has an ally in an old family friend: Mr. Tresilian.

Morgan has the language and manners of the Regency era down, even to the curious punctuation and roundabout speech. Her characters are hilarious. Mr. Tresilian and Louisa in particular had me laughing out loud at their bons mots and wit. I could quote, but there are too many brilliant bits to quote! There are shades of Austen her. (Austen threw a long shadow over any romance set in this time period.) But Morgan doesn't mimic Austen's plot arcs or characters. A Little Folly has a lot of originality. I had a great time reading it and wouldn't have minded staying a few more chapters.

I do wish Morgan had decided to name the book Influence and Iniquity, or something like that. Probably would have been too on the nose, though.