Between Two Thorns

By Emma Newman

Between_Two_ThornsThis book was described as Jane Austen meets magic, which sounded pretty good. And it is pretty good! It just isn’t…that. Lately any book set in a regency-type society is compared to Jane Austen, completely disregarding that it is the characters, not the setting, that makes her so popular. Austen imbues her characters with such wit and charm that it is a delight to read about them even in the most mundane setting or plot. Between Two Thorns doesn’t have any of that charm, really, but instead it has some very good world building.

Three worlds, actually. The mundane, which is our normal reality and set in modern times. The Ether is the faery world, which is very pastoral and hyper-saturated, and no apparent link to time or other laws of physics. The Nether is the land between the two, where the fae-touched live. They are human families that serve the fae in return for longevity and some various magical boons. What I thought was particularly clever is that the Nether, time-wise, is sort of caught between the timelessness of the Ether and the progression of the Mundane, and so progresses, but at a much slower rate. At the time of the novel, it is in a Victoria-like age, with extremely strict rules for society and hierarchy.

The main protagonist, Cathy, is the oldest daughter of a fae-touched family, and desperate to escape the confines of the Nether society. At the book’s beginning, she has escaped to the Mundane where she has been living for a year, going to university in Manchester. It’s a long book, but one of the things that makes it pass so quickly is that there are actually three storylines with three different protagonists.

In addition to Cathy, there is a completely mundane man who accidentally witnesses a crime committed by one fae-touched against another, and is now pursued by both those that were behind the crime and those that are investigating it. He starts sort of shlubby but grows on you.

One of the investigators is my favorite character, or rather ‘characters’. Those that investigate the fae must be sundered from their souls, so that they cannot be magically influenced. It is a whole process; however, our investigator’s soul accidentally gets absorbed into a gargoyle, who is then animated by that soul. So, you’ve got a very hard-boiled detective, because he lacks the ability to truly feel anything, and a very emotional gargoyle, because it now feels everything the detective does not. I love both of them, but perhaps the gargoyle a little better.

Between the three characters and plotlines that eventually converge, there’s a lot of action, which initially distracted me from the book’s pretty significant plot flaw. (spoiler alert)  Continue reading

Meet Cute

By various authors

Meet_CuteI’ve been having a bit of a reading crisis lately. I’ve started three different books and can’t seem to get past around the midway point. It’s not the books’ fault – I mean they aren’t stellar or anything, but there wasn’t any clear reason for my lack of interest. My best explanation is just that the news has been so inundating and depressing lately, and I can’t seem to stay off twitter, and I’m just all worn out.

So, I figured I’d recharge with a fluffy collection of short stories! Just a bunch of cute first romantic meetings sounds comforting, right? Well, I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for. They for-sure cover the meet part, but most of the authors seem to have forgotten the cute part. About half (okay, only a quarter of them, but it felt like half) the stories feature someone in mourning for a dead loved one, like only through grief are they vulnerable enough to accept love, and it is a real bummer.

On the plus side, they mixed it up with good diversity, in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so that’s something at least. Here’s some cold, hard data:

  • Short stories included in anthology: 14
  • Stories involving grief over the death of a loved one: 4
  • Stories featuring high-school bullying: 3
  • Stories with a main character older than 25: 0
  • Stories that my cranky old self actually thought were cute: 3.5*
    (none of the death or bullying ones)

*3 stories were straight-up super cute, and one had a very interesting premise, but the characters themselves weren’t super engaging.

Christmas stories

Hot Toy
by Jennifer Crusie
2015

This made me giggle wildly to myself while reading it on a plane. It’s ludicrous and hilarious and I just love the way Crusie writes her characters. The story is about Trudy’s search for the hot new toy that her nephew asked for from Santa (a soldier toy named Major MacGuffin. Hahahaha!) but that is, of course, impossible to find on Christmas Eve. Then there are the spies and the smuggling and the insane banter.

I’ve enjoyed books by this author before and the main character here, Trudy, reminds me a lot of the main character in her book Bet Me, Min, in the way she’s determined, quick witted, and has a massive chip on her shoulder that she is absolutely going to take out on the guy who can either take it or go away. It makes me happy.

I described it to Anna as similar to a Connie Willis story in the general ludicrous insanity of the plot and the banter, and she pointed out that there’s a fabulous Connie Willis Christmas story that I still hadn’t read yet:

Just Like The Ones We Used To Know
by Connie Willis
2003

This felt very much like the movie Love Actually, except good. It’s funny and sweet and skips around through a vast cast of characters who are each dealing with their own issues, but also dealing with the main premise of this story which is that it’s snowing on Christmas Eve. It’s snowing on Christmas Eve *everywhere*: Minnesota and New York is normal, Florida and Hawaii is not normal at all. But in this story, *everyone* is having a white Christmas Eve and it is wrecking havoc. And mostly that havoc is excellent and results in improved situations for everyone we like.

I’ve never read anything by this author that I disliked but I’m also careful with what I read from her because she ranges from side-splittingly hilarious to heart-breakingly depressing. This story is definitely on the funny side, but I don’t guarantee any of the other stories in an anthology.

J.J. McAvoy

BlackRainbowMcAvoyBlack Rainbow
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

ThatThingMcAvoyThat Thing Between Eli and Gwen
by J.J. McAvoy
2016

SugarBabyMcAvoySugar Baby Beautiful
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

 

So I wavered on writing these books up because they’re in a genre I don’t generally admit to reading: the short, extremely self-indulgent, quite graphic, romance novel. It’s a genre that pretty much defines the guilty pleasure book for a lot of women (it’s a money-maker genre in the publishing industry.) They’re not, generally speaking, good books, but they can be intensely satisfying and relaxing brain candy.

J.J. McAvoy might have managed to break the mold for this genre, though, because I think her books might be genuinely good. They are certainly significantly better than any other books in this genre that I’ve ever read. The issues the characters deal with are relatively believable and sympathetic, but more importantly her characters are all smart and witty and just a bit mean without ever being cruel.

Reading these books really highlighted for me how my favorite characters are all at least a tiny bit mean. I don’t like cruelty, but neither do I like a milksop. These characters, they talk and they bicker and they’re in their partner’s weight-class as far as those fights go, and they genuinely apologize on the rare occasions they go too far or hit an exposed nerve. The books transcend the self-indulgent fantasy by being about characters who are enjoyable in their own right.

And then McAvoy modified the standard plot arc in a way that I’m really impressed with. I’m going to put that beneath a spoiler cut, although there won’t be any specific spoilers.

I won’t recommend the books to everyone, because you do have to enjoy the genre first, but if you do, then you should absolutely try these.

Plot arch spoilers:

Continue reading

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Sorcerer to the Crown

By Zen Cho

This has been a trying couple of weeks – I’ve been obsessively reading twitter and facebook until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I read fiction until I can’t stand being away from social media. Zen Cho, however, has been a real comfort during these times, though.

jade-yeoThe novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features a Malaysian woman trying to make a living as a journalist in Victorian-era England. It is short and funny and touching, all told through her journal entries. It just felt very much like a story by a woman for other women.* The male characters, both good and bad, are only given context in relation to Jade, and the story focuses primarily on her growth as a young adult trying to establish her sense of self. So, this was extremely comforting in these worrisome times.

sorcerer-to-the-crownSorcerer to the Crown, the full-length novel, starts slowly and in very high-fantasy fashion, set in a magical version of Regency-era England. It reminded me almost immediately of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but luckily it picks up the pace much more quickly. Zacharias Wythe, as a very young boy, proves his extraordinary magical ability in front of a large panel of sorcerers, who promptly all lose their shit. This is not because Zacharias shows such promise so early, but rather because he is a freed African slave. The lead sorcerer adopts him and trains him to be his successor as Sorcerer Royal, the position he holds at the time the book.

A large contingent of white sorcerers actively work against him, even against their own self-interest, solely in order to oust him from his position by spreading outrageous rumors and innuendos. As the story revolves around an extremely thoughtful and conscientious black man trying to navigate the world of magic through difficult times, while surrounded by white men who are actively rooting for his failure, it became much less of an escapist fantasy.

Zacharias then runs across a young woman who shows strong magical abilities, and decides to train her, in the face of all traditional lore saying that magic is beyond women’s understanding. Reading about this black man conquering his enemies and silencing his naysayers, while working with a woman to do the same with hers, just about broke my heart. We didn’t get the ending we deserved, but at least this fictional world did.

the_dressmaker*If I can be excused a diversion for an additional recommendation – a few months ago I saw “The Dressmaker,” and I absolutely loved it! It is an Australian film that didn’t get a lot of showings, even though it stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The preview looked amazing to me – a haute couture dressmaker has to move back to her very rural Australian town in order to take care of her elderly mother – but the reviews were mixed. The negative reviews all tended to revolve around uneven storytelling and shifting mood, and I started to formulate a theory that this movie might be telling a story in a more traditionally female way, one that focuses on relationships and character growth, rather than a single-trajectory action sequence. Seeing the movie absolutely confirmed that for me, and it felt amazing to see a movie that was so clearly by women about women and for women.

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2016

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.