The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.

Penric & Desdemona by Bujold (more stories!)

I wrote a review of the first three stories in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series back in November 2016 and then Anna wrote a review of the fourth one in July 2017, but I am here to tell you that the fifth and sixth ones have both come out and they are both awesome!

PenricFoxPenric’s Fox (story #5) is essentially a sequel to Penric and the Shaman (story #3). Although it’s set some years later, it’s the same cast of characters and is set decidedly before the events of story #4. One of the things I really enjoy about Bujold is that she plays around with her genres even in the same series and thus this is a detective story, with a discovered corpse and police investigation and all. It was also kind of heart-wrenching and made me tear up a bit but just so very good.

 

prisonerlimnosPrisoner of Limnos (story #6) is a direct sequel to Mira’s Last Dance (story #4) with barely a few weeks having passed for the characters between the two books and dealing directly with some of the uncertainty left at the end of #4. I was also all geared up for some raciness to it, too, but Anna can be reassured that events stay relatively chaste (even as my mind is in the gutter giving me occasional wink-wink nudge-nudges.) This is something of a heist storyline and also introduces a whole swathe of new secondary characters that seem very interesting and open up all sorts of possibilities for future story lines. While this one doesn’t end in quite the almost-cliff-hanger (emotionally at least) of #4, it does leave me just craving more. I just really need to know more about those new characters and their stories and what they do next. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Bujold continues to write these stories at the amazing pace she’s had so far.

 

Strange Practice

61KZB80mVgLAnyone who spends ten minutes reading this blog would be able to tell pretty quickly that Strange Practice was going to be right up my alley. This initial entry in a series of magical mystery stories by Vivian Shaw follows Greta Helsing (yes, yes, her family dropped the van some time ago), a London physician dedicated to treating the city’s magical inhabitants. Mummies with feet problems? Vampire anemia? Ghouls who need psychiatric assistance? She herself may be human, but she has a calling to provide health care for mystical creatures likely to have issues accessing the NHS. There is an actual mystery here (crazy monks are murdering people, there’s a sort of nameless power from the dawn of time, etc.) but the real draw of this book is the assortment of characters that end up surrounding Greta. Some of the magical creatures she knows fit better into the modern world than others, but they all have to work together to save London and protect the secrets of its less-well known inhabitants.

This is Shaw’s first novel and the writing isn’t always effortless–there were definitely times when it felt like she was trying too hard to be clever and was getting in her own way. And I found that the point of view switched around too much for me to ever really feel settled into the story. Greta is nominally the main character and she is definitely the reader’s entry point into this world, but other characters (vampires, humans, demons, the villains of the story) also get so many chapters told from their perspectives that the ratio felt off to me. I’m hopeful that Shaw was trying to cram as many cool ideas and cool characters as she could into this first book, but that as she goes along she’ll start letting things breathe a little more.

But despite those quibbles about some elements of execution, I really enjoyed the book. The overall world created here was fascinating and very specific. I was left with the impression that this version of London has many more creatures with complex lives ad backstories that need Greta’s help, and that the group of vampires, demons, and humans that circles around her is well on the way to be becoming an odd little family. My Kindle version of this book included a teaser for the next one in the series, so it looks like I’ll have the chance to see what Greta and her team are up to next.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy

You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.

Mira’s Last Dance

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Miras_Last_DanceRebecca is a much bigger fan of Lois McMaster Bujold than I am, and she already raved about the first three entries in this series last year, but I’ve jumped in to review the fourth because…whoo, boy.

Before we started this blog together, I don’t think any of us realized how much more prudish I am than either the other reviewers. I get easily embarrassed by reading pretty much anything more explicit than a kiss on the lips, and I very much appreciate just the literary version of a ‘fade to black.’

Which this story actually does! However, the situations that are set up before the polite drawing of the curtain where almost too much for my poor weak sensibilities. This is really a novella with an estimated reading time of a little over an hour, but it took me a full week, with all the breaks I had to take to repose myself.

Now, I’m sure this all sounds very titillating, but before you jump right in, it is not at all a stand-alone book. The four Penric & Desdemona novellas feel more like a single, serialized novel than sequels, and this one picks up from the moment the last one ends. Each one also builds in intrigue (and scandalousness), so the first couple are fun but comparatively decorous.

More Disappointments from BookBub

Fear the Drowning Deep

By Sarah Glenn Marsh

Fear_the_Drowning_DeepThe most difficult books to review are those that aren’t really good or really bad – just all those mediocre books.

It seemed so promising! Set on the Isle of Man at the very beginning of the 20th century, it could have explored a fairly unique place and time for YA novels. Unfortunately, Fear the Drowning Deep is just really silly.

Sixteen-year-old Bridey spends the entire book careening between crises, making very little distinction between being teased by her sisters, forced to get a job by her parents, and witnessing the disappearances of various friends and neighbors. Her most consistent character trait is that she hates and fears the ocean, which is more than a little inconvenient on a small island where fishing is the main economy.* Of course everything comes back to that, and she must face her fears to save the day.

It became such a hodgepodge of fantasy elements and mundane details that I couldn’t get a good sense of whether the fantasy was rooted in actual myths from the time and place, and the book did not inspire me to do any additional research. Adding to the disconnect was the mundane details were often given far more drama than the fantastical—a sea serpent must just be dealt with, , but a nosy and judgmental neighbor can warp your entire life, apparently.

*This lead to an extra level of unbelievability for me, which was not the author’s fault. I just love the ocean so much that I can’t even conceive anyone feeling otherwise. If I could live where I could see and smell the ocean all the time, I would be in heaven!

Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name

By Bonnie M Hennessy

TwistedTwisted, on the other hand, is not silly or mediocre — it is confusingly both very good and very bad, so I was never sure if I was enjoying it or not (up until the big climax, when I was most certainly not). It is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, which is a big part of the problem, since that story is awful. The central woman in the original story has almost no personal agency, and is tossed from man to man: her father to the king, to Rumpelstiltskin, and then back to the king, who becomes her husband.

By trying to flesh out the story and give more depth to each character, the author took on a really challenging task, but unfortunately it just highlights how awful all of the men are and how terribly they treat the heroine. Early on I told Rebecca that I couldn’t tell whether the book was chauvinist or misandrist, which is a very odd spot to be in. Set sort of indeterminately in an England-type place in an 18th-19th century-type time, the king is now a duke in this version, with neighboring lands to heroine Aiofe’s previously wealthy but now struggling family. Mild spoiler: early on in their relationship, he clumsily tries to engage with her, crowding her space and touching her without permission (very bad! men are the worst!), at which point Aiofe panics and prepares to attack with an ax she has on hand (oh…uh…I’m not sure that was a capital offense, actually).

The entire book continues this way in a very unsettling manner. Is Aiofe a competent woman who faces potential threats squarely, or an unbalanced child who brings trouble onto herself with her assumptions and over-reactions?  Is the Duke an entitled nobleman trying to break from his upbringing in order to make honest human connections, or is he a sociopath who values other people only in how they can serve him? Is Rumpelstiltskin a damaged spirit looking for acceptance and understanding, or a sulky godling who demands complete devotion? These would all seem to be pretty stark opposites and yet they somehow seemed to exist simultaneously, which made for a very unsettling read, and not in a good way.

Honestly, I felt like this book was somehow gaslighting me, which fits in with the characters pretty well, actually. By the end, the extreme amount of emotional labor that the various female characters all had to do for the various male characters really soured me on the whole thing.

Six of Crows

Six of crowsIf I told you that a book was like a YA Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, would I even need to say anything else?

I haven’t been reading a lot lately–due to a combination of work and personal events, I’ve been so busy and distracted and stressed that I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to read much beyond Twitter. Which is unusual for me, but it does mean than when a book manages to break through the fog, it’s something to note. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is actually the first in a set of two books (and it’s basically just one big story, so you might as well go ahead and get Crooked Kingdom at the same time, because you’re going to need to start it right away) that I just thought were terrific. Tense and dark and sweet and magical and twisty–the kind of story that drags you completely out of your world and into a new one.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, this story has an ensemble cast with a crafty leader who is always one step ahead of everyone else. In this case, the ringleader of the group is Kaz Brekker, an up-and-coming gang boss in a city that reads like an alternate universe Amsterdam where magic is real. When he gets offered a can’t-say-no job breaking into an impenetrable ice palace, he has to assemble a group of other disreputable underworld teenagers with the skills–including sharpshooting, demolitions, and magic–needed to pull off the heist. But this is not a simple theft, and the gang gets swept into disputes both international and interpersonal. Reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was like a roller coaster–I would get more and more tense as things went wrong and situations got dire, and then there would be this rush of glee as all the double-crosses and plans were revealed.

Now, this isn’t a comedy. As appears to be the thing in YA books now, there is violence and death and things do get very dark. I should also note that this story is set in the same universe as another trilogy of books, starting with Shadow and Bone. I haven’t read those yet (they’re all waiting on my Kindle) but they happen some time before Six of Crows. So if you’re very intent on reading things chronologically and not getting any hint of other story lines, you might want to start there.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Gritty, magical caper

You might also like: We’ve already raved here about Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, but I really think that if you liked one of these, you’d like the other. Kaz and Gen have an awful lot in common. And this is great opportunity to tell you that Turner just came out with a new book in her series (technically, a stand-alone story in the same universe) called Thick as Thieves. Quick like a fox, go check it out!

online comics / graphic novels

I never quite know what term to use for comic strips or comic books or graphic novels now that the medium has expanded so wildly beyond what those terms originally referred to. But I’ve got two online comic strips that I highly recommend because they’re charming and delightful and I just love the characters and the stories and the artwork.

First up:

WildelifeWilde Life
by Pascalle Lepas
2014 – ongoing

The plot is: “A graphic novel about a writer who rents a haunted house from Craigslist and makes not-friends with a werewolf.”

It’s essentially a series of short stories set in a rural town around the main guy who’s rented a house for a while to just get away from his previous life that’s mostly not mentioned. The illustrations are excellent (and just keep getting better) but the characters are where this really shines. Every character is so very much themselves and so very delightful. (And don’t forget to check for roll-over text comments from the author on later pages because they’re pretty darn funny too.)

The author has just finished the sixth chapter / plot arc, and it’s so incredibly delightful and I really hope she does another kickstarter so I can order hardcopy versions. In the meantime, you, gentle reader, should immediately go check this out: http://www.wildelifecomic.com/comic/1

Second up:

powerballadPower Ballad
by Molly Brooks
2017 – ongoing

This only has eight issues out so far but it’s scheduled to be updated weekly and those eight issues are an utter delight!

Meera is the personal assistant to international pop star / masked vigilante Carina. So while Carina does music videos and fights crime batman-style, Meera tries to make sure appointments are made and kept. And they both have adorable pining crushes on each other but neither have said anything (yet!) and it’s just too cute for words.

Also, the illustrations are amazing and doing some really interesting things, because first they’re working with the online medium by displaying each issue as a single page down which the reader scrolls rather than trying to mimic a hardcopy comic book (at some point I think it would be really interesting to see if hardcopy comics can be made on scrolls to mimic websites), and second, they’re illustrated with just a couple of colors in a handful of shades, which gives it a sort of quick-sketch first impression while still being amazingly effective and detailed.

So check it out here: http://www.webtoons.com/en/drama/power-ballad/list?title_no=987