Two delightful things

Pretty much what it says on the tin: two pieces of entertainment that made me happy.

First, Ms Marvel. I started watching this with an increasing sense of irritation, because I kept thinking “I’ve seen this before. OMG, who did they borrow this from?” before I <headslap> realized, duh, they borrowed it FROM THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by G. Willow Wilson, which I had read. Then I went back and really enjoyed it. I loved the young actress’s enthusiasm for the character. Marvel usually does really well with casting and this show wasn’t an exception. I loved her friend Nakia, trying to make herself heard in the mosque. I even mostly liked Bruno, minus his moping crush on Kamala. But that’s me. I hate that trope. It’s like why can’t they honestly be friends, instead of one oblivious and one pining. Urgh.

There were lots of plot moments, especially toward the end, where I was left scratching my head, going, wait… How/what/why/Huh? but really, it didn’t matter much. This was a show about Kamala finding her place in her family, in the world, and in history. And those elements were all perfect. I really enjoyed it. So far, out of the marvel series on D+, my favorites are WandaVision, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel is pretty formulaic–following the typical disney AND marvel arc–but you know, that didn’t mean it wasn’t really fun to watch.

The second piece of entertainment that I absolutely adored was Emily Henry’s Book Lovers which is a contemporary romance. I can really only talk about it in superlative fragments. The dialogue! The characterization! The humor! The good nature of it all! It’s all the things I love about romance novels, with none of the things I hate about them. There are no forced misunderstandings. There are no moments where the characters lash out and hurt each other for no good reason.

It’s really a clever book, self-aware of all the romance tropes, highlighting them, and inverting them. Sometimes subtly–her sister is NOT her source of support and the one she goes to for advice; sometimes overtly–Nora, the heroine tells the reader straight off that if life were a hallmark movie, she is the obstacle to true love, not the person who deserves it. Readers who like Jennifer Crusie should adore this. And it is so funny! I had the hardest time not reading sections aloud to my roommate. Considering it was her book that I had stolen from her To-Be-Read pile, it seemed like the least I could do. But oh, it was hard. I kept putting it down after chapters and laughing to myself, stretching out the reading.

Just… delightful! Both of these are really recommended.

More January Recommendations

January 2021’s being nice to me or I’ve just hit a lucky streak with enjoyable books. Last time, I talked about two good books; this week I’m going to talk about two even better good books.

So, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Naturally. I was a fan of her writing in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so of course I perked up when I heard she (finally) had a new book coming out. Then I heard the premise: strange amnesiac caught in a house/world/labyrinth and thought eh, maybe not. But I checked it out of the library (LOVE THE LIBRARY!) and started it with some trepidation, expecting to find the narrative voice of Piranesi hard-going.

It’s not. There’s a gazillion capitalized Nouns for Reasons, and tons of seemingly random fantasy descriptions, sure, but I just sort of fell into it. Piranesi’s voice is enjoyable because he’s just so good-hearted, so willing to find the good in the world of the House full of ocean. By the time it becomes clear that this is a book about academicians run amok (love those! Ever since Tartt’s The Secret History.) I was really hooked. I read this straight through.

What I really loved about it is the strange kindness of this book. The theme of being an appreciative part of the world around you. To say more would be moving into serious spoiler territory so I’m stopping here. But it was a delight to read. And it made me revisit Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings of ruined cities again. Beautiful art, which inspired a beautiful book.

My second “excellent” read of the week is all about the execution of the idea. Kate Alice Marshall’s YA novel Rules for Vanishing, has a premise that seems appropriate to any teen scream movie–a lost girl on a ghost road that only appears on certain nights at certain times, and is only traversable if you follow the rules. And even then, there are snares. It’s told as a series of transcripts, journal entries, texts, etc. Again, I can’t talk too much about it without spoilers, but Marshall has just constructed a really well-made horror novel (with a hopeful ending! thank you!).

Lots of nightmarish horror imagery but nothing that really squicked me. The characters are archetypes but still engaging, and the horrific core of the ghost road was really satisfying here. I am looking forward to her next release Our Last Echoes.

As a side note, I am apparently really slow when it comes to certain types of visuals–the face/vase illusion gets me all the time. And it took someone pointing it out to me that the cover of Rules for Vanishing had that type of illusion. Either a road surrounded by trees, or a girl’s figure in the trees. Yeah. Good job cover artist! Sorry it took me so long to appreciate it!

Girl?/Road? Can't be both;brain does not compute
Girl?/Road? Can’t be both;brain does not compute

Both Piranesi and Rules for Vanishing came from my local library, but I’m going to buy copies to add to my already groaning shelves.

January Recommendations

One book to recommend, and one author (and her books) to recommend.

I finally got around to reading Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material, and it is exactly as charming as all the reviews say. But it’s also got protagonists with genuine problems slowly working their way to bettering themselves. Luc is the proverbial train wreck, but he’s a self-aware train wreck which keeps him readable. And Oliver’s issues are slipped into the story so slowly that by the time he reveals how very not all right he actually is with his life, it’s devastating. But overall, it’s just a joy to read, balancing angst with ridiculous good humor. I particularly loved Luc’s co-workers, super-posh Alex Twaddle, and displaced Welshman Rhys. Alex fits right in with Wodehouse’s upper class, and he’s a delight on the page.

I also read Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater, then immediately turned around, bought, and read Ten Thousand Stitches, then pre-ordered Longshadow. (October 2021–so far away, are you kidding me?!?!? Wah!) These are nominally regencies, but in a very fantasy fairy-tale style. They’re romances, but sensible ones in the vein of the Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer Chocolate Pot series. What I particularly loved about them is the kindness and decency at their core. They’re really akin to Terry Pratchett in that way. In one of his books with the witches, Pratchett had a bit that went something like “Sin is treating other people like things.” which really spoke to me. And so far Atwater’s series is built around treating people with kindness and dignity and respect. The first book is a screed against the injustice of the regency era workhouses and the willful blindness of those people more concerned with pretty manners than with justice. It’s also got one of the most gleefully cinematic romantic ballroom scenes I’ve read in ages. The second book is concerned with classism, poverty, and justifiable anger as a virtue. It’s also got a feckless fairy lord who’s trying his best but doesn’t really understand humans at all even as he decides to “help” maid Euphemia Reeves win the heart of her employer’s handsome son.

Monday Miscellany 072919

Mostly a book recap this week because really all I’ve done this week is either write books, critique books, or read books.

Four, count them FOUR!!! Highly recommended books.  It’s been a very good week for reading.

First up: Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter.  Just so much fun.  It’s a Sherlockiana story twisted into full fantasy, where Sherlock is Shaharazad Haas, sorceress, and John Watson is John Wyndham, um, soldier.  Either way, it’s quirky and delightful and fun.  Look for a full review of it on Speculative Chic soon.  If you read it before then, come on over and tell me what you thought!

 

Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage.  I mentioned that I had started this book before and ran out of time, bought it on ebook, and found myself stalling because I wanted it in book form. (If books strike me really positively, I want them in actual paper.)  I checked it out again and zoomed through it.  It’s wonderful. Actually, it’s so wonderful and so much of the type of fantasy that I wish I wrote that I had to take a day or two off writing to sulk about how good this was.  Well, and order the next two in the series.

The other two books didn’t quite reach these heights, but were both fun and engaging reads.

The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson.  Technically shelved in urban fantasy (at my library at any rate), and yeah, there are glimmerings.  But mostly this is an interesting crime novel based around a vanished superhero and the people left in his wake.  If you want the superheroics, this is not the book for you.

 

Andrew Pyper’s The HomecomingAnother book that kind of misleads, but pleasantly.  It starts off as a fairly straightforward family drama with the promise of horror, and ends… in a very strange place.  Very readable.

Recently read, plus library book haul

Of late, my library hauls have been far more aspirational than actually readable, and that gets depressing, returning books without actually having had time to read them.  So for the last haul, I allowed myself only three books, and determined to read them all.  No matter what.*

(*Of course if I’d hated a book or just found it subpar for some reason, I wasn’t going to force myself, because better things to do!)

In the end, I read all three and enjoyed each of them in their own way.

I read Deanna Raybourn’s A Dangerous Collaboration, book 4 in the Veronica Speedwell mysteries.  The previous three have been fun, but every single time I kept thinking, this reminds me so much of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series.  Book 4 of the Veronica Speedwell books broke that curse and I enjoyed it without once thinking wistfully of Elizabeth Peters.  Veronica is a nearly impossible iconoclast in the Victorian Era, but Raybourn gets away with it because a) Veronica is so appealing and b) because she’s careful to show that other Victorian women have their own vibrant internal lives.  Veronica is just overt about hers.  And (small spoiler!) finally Veronica and Stoker get their relationship figured out.

I read Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, which has been recommended to me for years.  And for years, I’ve side-eyed those who recommended it, thinking “really?  I read it and it was AWFUL.”  Oops.  My bad.  I had never read it.  I read a book with a similar title (which was in fact awful).  Once I realized my mistake, I sought out the actual book people were recommending.  Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is really enjoyable. In broad strokes, it’s sort of a haunted house story?  But really, it’s a beautifully written and fascinating character study with a quiet, horror setting.  TW: for eating disorders for anyone who wants to check it out.  I will recommend it to readers in turn.

The final book I read was Jennifer Hillier’s The Butcher, a crime thriller with a gloss of horror.  It’s not the best thing I’ve read in this genre by a long shot, but it was interesting enough that I’ll check out some of her other books. The characters are good though.  The villain is suitably villainous and brazen.  The heroine is suitably heroic.  The greyscale boyfriend is… interesting.  I liked that he wasn’t all good or bad.  It’s definitely not a whodunit, because half the characters know who the villain is in the first chapter or so.  (And the reader knows from the blurb!) So most of the tension is spent in wondering if the heroine will figure it out before she gets killed.  Readable, at any rate.

Since that was successful, I decided to keep the next library haul small as well.

I picked up The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling which I want to read and am also kind of afraid to read.  Caving.  Not my thing.  But space caving with horror? Maybe?  The joy of the library.  I can find out.

Liar’s Paradox by Taylor Stevens.  Picked up on a whim.  No clue whether I’ll like it or not. Again, yay for the library which lets me take these gambles.

Teeth in the Mist by Dawn Kurtagich. A YA horror novel in three time periods.  I read Kurtagich’s Dead House and found it interesting enough that her name stuck with me, so I picked this up.

The final book is a cheat.  I OWN this book, yet I checked it out from the library anyway. Because I haven’t finished it yet, and sometimes ebooks are just not satisfying.  I don’t know.  Some books want to be read on paper.  Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage is one of them.  I actually checked this out once before, got five chapters in, went online and bought an e-copy.  Then failed to keep reading it.  IDEK.  And now it’s buried under the pile of other ebooks.  So, I figured maybe getting the actual book back in my hands will get me to finish it.  I really loved what I read of it.

Book Review: The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

Short take: I loved this novella.

Longer take with some small spoilery bits: Despite a rough, muddled blurb and a weird self-deprecating note from the author where she calls her story “drivel*” I bought this ebook.  You have to love samples for that!  The novella was mentioned as a good one on twitter by an author I like and follow, so I figured it was worth sampling.  By the description of the funeral, I was sold.

This is a quiet, heartfelt story about a soldier returning from a war to an alternate Great Britain.  He’s shell-shocked, full of survivor’s guilt, and stymied rage.  As well as haunted by the ghost of his young, disgraced commanding officer who nearly got them all killed.

I do a lot of critiquing, and there are some things I’ve learned that are super hard to do well.  Or at all.  One of them is having a protagonist who is depressed to the point of numbness and apathy.  After all, I tell people over and over, if your character can’t manage to cope, how can we?  It’s hard to just watch a character endure personal suffering without the agency to end it.

Mohamed does this so well.  So amazingly well.  There’s never a doubt in my head that he’s shut down and not coping, just going with the flow because it’s so much easier than trying to express any of the jumble that is his head.  But at the same time, he is utterly compelling.  Why?  Because although his body and brain seem nearly separate from each other, we can see behind the heavy, smothering curtain of his grief and fear and rage to the incisive, observant brain beneath.  Because he has flickers when he’s nearly the man his friends remember him being.  And because Mohamed piles the small obstacles up and up until Braddock finds a scrap of his agency and uses it.

I love the characterization here.  Everyone rings true for this society.  We get such a wonderful look at Braddock, and an equally good one at his friends–a delightful married couple who are supportive and no-nonsense–and Wickersley’s ghost.  We see a lot of society characters, and they’re almost imaginary people–not because Mohamed doesn’t draw them well and distinctly, but because Braddock’s life and experiences are so far from theirs that they might as well be aliens.

There aren’t a lot of significant surprises here.  It’s fairly evident early on what Braddock’s relationship with Wickersley was, but that doesn’t mean watching the secrets unfold on the page isn’t satisfying.

One of the other things that I’m constantly telling people is “use the right details”.  The awesome Kij Johnson gave us (at the CSSF novel writer’s workshop) a speech about setting that changed the way I looked at writing.  Setting is about the character as much as it is about the world around them.  Different characters see different things, have a different perspective.  And that’s all in the details.  You can describe a room from top to bottom but if your character doesn’t care about wallpaper and furnishings, it’s not going to ring true.  Here, all the details that Braddock notices and conveys to the reader feel exactly like the type of thing he would notice.  It’s elegant.

The ending felt ambiguous to me, because this is one of those fantasy novellas that is light on the actual fantasy.  It’s an alternate England.  And there’s a single ghost that only Braddock sees.  And his friends, when hesitantly questioned on the matter of ghosts, are non-believers.  So it’s a fantasy world without magic.  Which then makes me wonder how real is the ghost and how much of it is Braddock’s mind turning against him.  But it’s a pleasant ambiguity, the kind you can argue over with your friends: is the top spinning still, or falling? Is Dom dreaming still, or waking?

All in all, a really enjoyable novella.

*(Jesus, people, don’t do that, it makes me SO ANGRY.  Seriously, the world is full of enough people who will LEAP to tell you that you suck at anything you do.  Why preemptively do it for them?  If you wrote something that you love, and you publish it, don’t undercut it!  More sputtered swearing follows.)

 

 

Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

VigilanceRJBVigilance
Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor
190 pages

Why I Chose it:
C’mon.  Robert Jackson Bennett is an autoread for me, and this particular book? As writers, a lot of us struggle with terrible public events, feeling like we should be able to put words on the page to expose the awful truth of things. But most of us just flail in that direction. So when I heard that RJB had written a satirical SF novel about America’s obsession with–and enabling of–mass public shootings, I picked it up.

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  Satire is as often bitter as the truths it exposes.

The Premise:
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance is a dark science fiction action parable from an America that has permanently surrendered to gun violence.

The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Discussion:
I’m going to avoid spoilers for most of this review, but really there are no surprises here.

The blurb tells us right away that McDean will suffer the same fate as his “contestants”. There are some fiddly little twists, but overall, this book provides what you expect.

And that was… weirdly disappointing.

The book is compulsively readable.  RJB is great at stringing words together and creating vivid characters, even in the shorter form of the novella.

That said, I expected more somehow.  More of an edge. Something more potent than just the USA turning public shootings into a patriotic-tinged game show, which… I’ve seen before and before and before.  So many story-lines go back to the bread and circuses of the Romans–death for sport. It’s not enough to really make me sit back and think. I’ve seen variations on it in Star Trek and Doctor Who and any show that ever declares “fight club to the DEATH!!!”.  It’s trope is what I’m saying. And kind of a tired one to hinge the entire novella on.

(Now if someone wanted to write a satirical novel about the NFL and CTE, that would be interesting, and RJB touches on it a bit here.)

The big problem for me is that I expect a certain level of horror/shock or appalled laughter from my satires—like I did in reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal or Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.

Or Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, which gave me this:

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

This is giggle-worthy writing, bleakly true, and best of all, relatable.

In Vigilance, I got that sting only once in the entire book.

McDean’s guts flutter unpleasantly. He does not want to piss off Kruse—but he can’t share the man’s blithe confidence when it comes to subjecting his entire audience to a subliminal AI about which he knows fucking nothing at all. He’s heard Kruse’s people conduct tests on prisoners, and the thought horrifies him: prisoners don’t share the same race and economic backgrounds of any of his primary demographics at all. The population’s all wrong! If that’s his sample, then it’s skewed, utterly fucked! This could decimate his TMAs.
p 69

TMA- Target Market Activations, by the way if you, like me, are not up on marketing terms.

This point stung and resonated, twisted the common expectations of McDean’s horror in an effective way.  We’re poised, after the thought horrifies him, for human rights violations, not poor demographic matches.

McDean is our primary voice, though there is a secondary POV from Delyna, the “Regular girl” who (rightfully) loathes Vigilance. But then, she’s not his target audience at all, being neither white, nor male, nor constantly afraid. She’s feels only tangentially there–much like the comforting commercials McDean airs between scenes of Vigilance–to soothe the reader and keep them turning the pages instead of turning away.

But in the end, Bennett uses Delyna’s POV in a wonderful (horrible) way to make his primary point.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

The “Vigilance” TV-watching portion of the USA descends into gun-fueled chaos courtesy of the subliminal AI mentioned above.  Chaos and bloodshed everywhere. Everyone turning on everyone else, guns ablazing like any old Western movie. Not a surprise.  We’ve seen the writing on the wall from page one.

Then there are the customers in Delyna’s bar, and what happens when she dares to turn off the TV in the middle of the episode.

Her patrons don’t fall prey to that subliminal AI because she shut the TV down before the AI started its work; their minds are still their own.   And yet… and yet… they still erupt in violence. Because, as Bennett suggests on every page, once you have a gun in your hand and fear in your heart, there’s no backing down.

So even though Bennett put a third party player on the page, he doesn’t let it absolve the citizens from their murderous, destructive spree.  See, Bennett suggests, they (we) would have erupted eventually anyway.

That’s a powerful statement, and sadly, one that lacks an easy rebuttal.

Overall:
I’m glad I read Vigilance. At the same time, I wish it packed more punch.  Maybe it’s that I keep thinking of Vigilance as a satire, and Bennett wrote it as a parable—a lesson for us to learn from.  Maybe it’s the brevity. There was a lot of world-building glossed over or hand-waved away. Maybe it was just that this was such a White America story and I kept wondering where the other citizens were—just keeping their heads down, like Delyna? Trying to keep a low profile? Or fleeing the country for inexplicable welcomes elsewhere. I felt a lot of absence in this book.

I think, looking at the Jingo quote up above, I know what hampered this book the most for me.  For it to be a satire or even a parable, we have to recognize ourselves in the pages.  We have to say oh god, I’ve thought that, felt that, could I become THAT?!? And I never got that feeling here. McDean is a compelling caricature but he’s not relatable.  I was never in danger of thinking, oh a few missteps and I’d be like him….

There was a tiny moment that zipped by, part of the set-up and explanation for how this game show came to be: ads accidentally get linked to violent footage of a public shooting and… the ad revenue soars because people keep watching and watching.  And watching. That’s relatable.  Our appetite for disasters is marketable.  I believe it. Anyone who reads, watches, or otherwise consumes True Crime stories knows how thin the line is between observing a terrible act and glorifying it.  Between analyzing it and mythologizing it.

I think, in the end, though Vigilance is an enjoyable, thoughtful read, and one I definitely recommend, it isn’t the story I wanted to read. Someone, somewhere has written or is writing something scathing about America’s Gun Problem ™ which holds a mirror up to each and every one of us “regular people”. That’s the one I want to read.