Vampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

Book cover: Vampires in the Lemon GroveMy wonderful friend Lori sent me this just because she thought I’d like it and it arrived in the mail in the middle of my Atlas Shrugged doldrums, and it was such a mood lifter, just having it on my to-read shelf. The cover is just so bright and graphic!

I had heard of the author, Karen Russell, through a brief review of her previous book Swamplandia!, which I had assumed was a comic narrative of Florida craziness á la Elmore Leonard. If it is anything like this book, though, (and I believe it is, according to the blurbs on the back cover) my assumptions are way off. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the strangest book! It is a collection of short stories, and when I described the premise of each story to Rebecca, they just sounded kind of absurd:

“All silkworms in the Western hemisphere have died, so China is now the sole proprietor of silk, and in order to meet the now increased demand, they have discovered a way to turn women into more efficient silk worms.”

Rebecca said, “hmm.”

But, this story and the others are just beautifully written and poetic, even. Russell emphasizes the senses in her writing, describing not just the sights, but also the sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the worlds she builds. In the titular lemon groves, she describes the sun on the fluttering leaves, the feel of the wind that blows through the grove, the smell of lemon that pervades, and the sweet tartness of the lemons and lemonade.

The silkworm story took a bizarre and, quite frankly, almost silly premise and created layers upon layers of symbolism. The disenfranchised, used for production and others’ profit, find hope in self-identity and transformation. Each story was like this; reading them felt like scuba diving or spelunking, moving deeper and deeper through layers of alien landscapes. The stories themselves, too, seemed to each move a little deeper into the human psyche, getting darker and darker, until the last two broke my heart. So, take that as a caution: don’t avoid reading the book, by any means, but just be emotionally prepared.

It wasn’t a quick read because I wanted to savor each story for several days after reading it and before reading the next one. The only criticism I have is that each story ended too soon, almost abruptly, and each time I was left sort of blinking my way out of the story’s world and wanting to know far, far more about the characters.

Three word review: “otherworldly, emotionally devastating”*

*I’m not promising to always follow Kinsey’s lead with the three word reviews (though I love her addition), but I found these in the NPR review, and they just seem spot-on.

—Anna

Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

Frost_burnedFrost Burned
by Patricia Briggs
2013

There are a lot of girl-vampire-werewolf series out there, with a wide range regarding quality. Frost Burned is the most recent book in one of those series, that started out excellent, backslide into generic, but has managed to recover.

This is the tenth* book set in this particular universe, the seventh that follows the character Mercy Thompson, and I was impressed. The first few books in this series (Moon Called, Blood Bound, and Iron Kissed) are the best ones, while some of the most recent ones (Bone Crossed and River Marked) have felt rather bland, like Briggs was forced to write them in order to fulfill a contract, without having any particular plan or goal with them. In Frost Burned, Briggs is back with energy and interest.

I’m guessing it’s due to the major happening that concluded her most recent book set in this universe, but following a different set of characters. The Alpha and Omega series only has three books so far (Cry Wolf, Hunting Ground, and Fair Game) and these keep on getting better. The end of Fair Game was so spectacular, in fact, it drew me back into reading the Mercy Thompson series, just so that I could see what happens next in this universe.

And, without giving any spoilers: there is definitely a lot of fall-out.

I’m very excited about Briggs revamping (hee: re-VAMPing!) this universe, and think it was probably pretty important that she started alternating which series she was writing, so she could approach the characters with excitement rather than getting bored with them. However, I’m not entirely sure how readable any of her books are, at this point, without going back and reading the earlier ones.

Frost Burned did a pretty good job of filling in the blanks for what happened before, but it was enough that I think I need to go back and read the earlier Mercy Thompson book that I skipped entirely (Silver Borne).

Although, if you want to jump into this universe without having read any of the previous books, I would start out with Fair Game, just because it was a good book, delightful characters, the climax/epilog is really spectacular, and it sets up a whole new situation that is going to continue percolating through any future books in this universe.

* Or eleventh, if you count a novella in an anthology. Or fourteen, if you count short stories in anthologies.

Sunshine

By Robin McKinley

Book cover: SunshineYou know those Eat This, Not That books? This is a Read This, Not That book review. During the height of the Twilight craze, whenever I saw someone reading or talking about the Twilight books, I wanted to grab them and shout, “Go read Sunshine!”

It is definitively the best spunky-young-heroine-and-vampire novel I’ve yet read, and that is saying a lot considering both how saturated that market is and how many of them I’ve read. McKinley has a long history of writing strong female leads (The Blue Sword was one of my favorites growing up), but lately she’s been sort of dicking around with dragons and pegasus, when she must know perfectly well that her fans all want a sequel to Sunshine.

The heroine, nicknamed “Sunshine,” is just out of high school and working as a baker in her family’s cafe (there are lots of extraneous but delightful descriptions of pastries) in a post-magic-war world where various magical creatures are an acknowledged reality but avoided if possible. The world-building is solid and interesting, and the action begins fairly quickly when she gets randomly kidnapped by a gang of vampires.

Avoiding spoilers, but attempting to describe what makes this book so much better than the Twilight series, especially for teen female readers: Sunshine acts almost entirely on her own recognizance at all times, relying on her own intelligence and summoning up unexpected personal strengths when the situations call for it. The particular vampire she aligns with is both frightening and intelligent, and their alliance is born out of need and not romantic in any sense (at least not right off the bat).

Sunshine actually takes three-dimensional characters, puts them in fraught situations, and then fleshes out how that changes and matures them. It is seriously the anti-Twilight, and everyone should read it (although perhaps not young kids, because it does have sex and violence).

—Anna

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers

Twilight
By Stephanie Meyers
2005

In honor of the last of the Twilight movies coming out, Biblio-therapy is going to be posting two reviews: one positive and one negative. I’m posting the negative review. I read it when the series was only just becoming a phenomenon. Someone told me that I’d love because I like young adult fiction and I like vampire books.

Alas, I did not like it, but I also wasn’t horribly offended by it.

There were a few good scenes, a few interesting premises, but overall the characters and plot didn’t hold together for me. The only character I actually felt any empathy for was the main character’s poor beleaguered father. I took this as a sign that I was, perhaps, finally aging out of my YA fiction reading days, and got on with my life.

It’s not that it’s a bad book, per se, because, let’s face it, I have read and enjoyed many quite bad books. The problem is that it’s bad in ways that I can’t wave away with a thoroughly suspended disbelief or a good faith effort to believe some character is not an idiotic milksop in need of a spine.

I am perfectly capable of overlooking all of the weird and outdated sexual advice presented in metaphor that has offended so many readers. At least the advice is presented metaphorically and in regards to vampires rather than outright (I’m looking at you, Barbara Cartland).

Belle is something of an idiot, making peculiar and random decisions, trusting strangers too much and her family too little. I found her mostly confusing. Why does she do the things she does? Is it just the “she’s a teenager” excuse that lets her get away with random acts of idiocy? I have apparently become an old woman, shaking her head at “kids these days.”

Edward is an unfortunately standard paradox of a stoic individual, putting great effort into showing how stoic he is so that everyone else can look at him and see that he’s really hurting inside and is a soft woobie. Also, as any strong guy (vampire or not) should know, that excuse of “I can’t help myself” is not a valid excuse for anything. If you have the strength to hurt someone then you had damn well better have the control to refrain from doing so.

Some of the basic premises of the story are even more problematic than having characters that I simply didn’t care for.

Bella enters school as a new student, having been nothing special before, and is suddenly the most popular and desirable person there. This is completely random. There’s no reason for it, either internal to the high school social structure (why did the kids like her?) or external to the plot arc (what did it bring to the plot?).

Despite first appearances, the trope of instantaneous and unexpected popularity is not inherently terrible; it can be done well. In fact, Meg Cabot has a few books that deal with exactly that issue and do it well: How popularity occurs and/or is manipulated, and what some of the related issues are. Stephanie Meyers, in contrast, avoids all of the real complexities and looks at the issue of popularity very much from the perspective of an unpopular student: I want to be popular but I don’t want to be like those popular girls*, and if I were suddenly popular I would show a becoming amount of humility and talk about how I really didn’t want it, so there.

Then we come to the sparkly vampires. This is possibly the best thing ever since the Care Bears and/or My Little Ponies. I’m not even joking. Here are Vampires that can’t go out into the sun because they Sparkle! How is that not awesome?

However, it does raise the question: why can’t they go out into the sun and share their sparkly magnificence with the world? They have none of the traditional vampire weaknesses:
• They don’t fall dead during the day.
• They can’t be staked.
• They’re too fast to be snuck up on.
• They’re too strong for it to matter if they are snuck up on.
• They have family and community ties.
• They aren’t creating enemies by eating anyone.

So why are they hiding?

If you answer: “Edward is a teenage boy (no matter how long he’s been that way) and doesn’t want to let anyone know that he naturally looks like he’s covered in glitter,” I would definitely agree with you. That would be an awesome answer. Unfortunately, it’s not Stephanie Meyer’s answer.

She doesn’t give an answer. Vampires hide because they’re vampires and hiding is what they do.

Admittedly there are bad vampires, too, who do go out and make enemies by killing people and fail to make allies by, you know, killing people. However, they still have all the other strengths of these Meyer Vampires. So why are they hiding out in the wilderness rather than simply living in a house and eating anyone who tries anything?

The vampire culture, such as it is, is a hold over from the traditional vampire cultures of other books, all about angst and dark secrecy. The problem is that Meyer has changed the vampire mythos so much already that it’s disappointing that she didn’t follow through on the repercussions of those changes.

So, to sum up, it was a story about stupid people making random decisions in a world that didn’t make sense. This was not, alas, the worst book I have ever read, or even real competition for the title, but it was still pretty bad.

However, one good thing about this book (and movie) is:

It’s very popular and has gotten a lot of creative people talking about it (positive and negative) and a lot of those responses are quite hilarious.

* I must have been really lucky in my high school because the popular girls that I knew (not very many of them, admittedly) were all very nice. They were popular because they were nice and outgoing and people wanted to be their friends. That’s what made them popular.

Fair Game

By Patricia Briggs

Book Cover: Fair GameA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the first two Alpha & Omega books, and mentioned that the third one was out in hardcover. Fortunately for me, my new local library had it, so I was able to read it without paying a hardcover price. My expectations were moderate since Briggs has a tendency to lose steam with her ongoing series, but I was satisfied with Fair Game. It wasn’t as well-crafted as Cry Wolf, the first book, but I thought it stood on par with the second book, Hunting Ground, but in a different direction.

Cry Wolf had a really good balance of fantasy and mystery, while Hunting Ground tipped more toward the fantasy, pushing the mystery into the background a little bit and focusing more on the dynamics of the werewolves and vampires. Fair Game goes in the opposite direction, being a pretty surprisingly straightforward murder mystery with the fantasy elements just adding a bit here and there. Now, I really like murder mysteries, so this was a-ok with me, and if given my preference would almost always chose for the mystery to come first and the fantasy second.

I wish I’d thought to mention this in my previous post, but Briggs does this so well that while I really appreciate it, I don’t always notice it, if that makes sense. Her Alpha & Omega books are all written from multiple points of views, changing the narrating voice by chapter, or occasionally within different sections of chapters. It reads a lot more naturally than you’d think it would, with different characters stepping in when they have information that the reader needs. In the previous two books, the narrators have all been werewolves; in Fair Game, for the first time, one of the narrators is a human investigator, which is a refreshing outside perspective and emphasizes the mystery aspect of the story.

Spoiler-y, but not really: the very end does something very, very interesting with the world Briggs is building in the these books, so I’m actually now super-excited for the next books in both this series and the Mercedes Thompson series, which both take place in the same world, since there are going to be some dramatic changes.

— Anna

Alpha & Omega Series

By Patricia Briggs

Sigh.

Sorry about the recent lack of posts. At the beginning of the month, I moved halfway across the country from Boulder, Colorado to the Washington, D.C. area. I was all prepared with three prewritten posts to get me through the chaos of the actual move itself. What I hadn’t predicted is that I would get so overwhelmed with everything being new and different that I would immediately retreat into simply rereading my trashy comfort books, which is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks at a furious pace.

I’ve reread all five of Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels books, which Rebecca has already written about, and both of Patricia Briggs’ Alpha & Omega books, which I figured I’d introduce here, since it could be a little while since I read anything new.

Briggs is better known for her Mercy Thompson series, featuring a female mechanic who shape-changes into a coyote, but was raised by a pack of werewolves. It is your typical werewolf/vampire genre series, but just done far better than most. Whenever I run into Charlaine Harris fans, I always make a point of recommending Patricia Briggs, since Mercy Thompson is everything Sookie Stackhouse isn’t: smart, independent, funny, etc. The first two books are immensely entertaining (I might read them next), and the third one is equally good but delves into some unexpectedly difficult-to-read territory (I am not going to read that next). After that, Briggs seemed to lose interest a little bit, and the subsequent books do not have the same quality of writing and plotting.

However, Briggs then turned her attention to a new series, the Alpha & Omega series, currently with two books in paperback and one in hardcover, which I haven’t read yet because I’m very much against hardcover books. This new series is great! It features peripheral characters from the Mercy Thompson books who are a little darker and tortured, which I always appreciate, and is set smack in the middle of the werewolf pack, instead of on the fringe.

The series actually kicks off with a short story/novella in the book On the Prowl, which is often shelved in the romance section and has a cover that will embarrass you to be seen carrying around. On Rebecca’s advice, I haven’t read any of the other stories in the book, but the Alpha & Omega story is actually good enough to be worth the full cost of the book, in my opinion. (Although, on a side note, the story is available on its own for the Kindle through amazon.com, which is one of the best arguments for a kindle that I’ve heard so far.) The story does set the entire series up to the point that the reader would be missing serious background information if they started with the first full novel.

Book Cover: Cry WolfThe first full novel is Cry Wolf, and just really delves into the characters and their relationships with each other, all within the confines of a very well structured and paced narrative. The second novel, Hunting Ground, doesn’t have quite the same tight plot structure, but is still very entertaining. I’m somewhat afraid I’m seeing a bit of a pattern with Patricia Briggs, so I’m mentally preparing myself for the third book being a potential disappointment, but I’m still very much looking forward to reading it. Right at this moment, I’m more into comforting fluff books than quality, so I’m sure it will live up to that.

— Anna

Short Story Glut

I really like collections of short stories – I think they are a great way to get introduced to new authors and to see a lot of different authors’ perspectives on a shared topic. However, I’ve started to get irritated with these collections recently published that all feature a subset of the same best-selling authors the fantasy genre. It seems like such a blatant money-grab.

I love Patricia Briggs but do not care for Charlaine Harris, so instead of just publishing a book of Briggs’ stories, there is always one of hers in a collection that also includes Harris and other authors I have no interest in. And, I’m sure fans of the other authors feel that way about Briggs. So, this seems like a very calculated ploy on the part of the publisher to try to make us all buy books in which we are only interested in about a quarter or even less of the content (especially disappointing if that quarter turns out to be not all that great, either).

I fell for it and bought two such collections, but wizened up this time and went to the library, and am very glad I did. I originally intended to gather all of Patricia Brigg’s short stories that I hadn’t already read, but an Ilona Andrews story slipped in, too.

Book Cover: Naked City1) Naked City, with the tagline “Tales of Urban Fantasy,” has a nice theme of each story being set in a recognizable city that the author gives some attention to describing. Of the five stories I read (out of the 20 in the book), four of them featured plots that were very specifically tied to a feature of the city, which was very interesting. Oddly, though, the fifth, Melissa Marr’s “Guns for the Dead,” was actually my favorite, taking place in an Old West type environment that is kept somewhat generic purposefully for the plot reveal.

Patricia Briggs’ “Fairy Gifts,” was my second favorite, of course, with new characters for her and set in Butte, Montana, which is just so interesting to read about given the complete lack of romanticism around that city. Briggs clearly loves the area, though, and writing about immortal beings such as vampires and fairies allows her to delve into the history of the place.

Book Cover: Home Improvement2) Home Improvement: Undead Edition, with the tagline “All-new Tales of Haunted Home Repair and Surreal Estates,” also features Patricia Briggs and Melissa Marr, and theirs were the only stories I read out of the twelve. This theme didn’t work as well – perhaps it was too specific? Again, Marr’s story edged out Briggs’.

Marr’s “The Strength Inside” features a protagonist of a supernatural kind that I didn’t recognize from any of the normal Western mythologies. I’m not sure whether she was dipping into a more esoteric mythos or whether she invented it herself, but it was interesting either way. And, it is about battling Home Owners’ Associations, which is always entertaining, even if a little clichéd.

Brigg’s “Gray” features a vampire, though not one of her regular characters, buying and renovating an old condo. It has some very sympathetic characters, but isn’t anything original.

Book Cover: Angels of Darkness3) Angels of Darkness features Ilona Andrews, and was the most worrisome to me when checking it out. The cover looks more like paranormal romance than fantasy, and I knew that Andrews’ books walk that line more than my other favorite authors. And, I was absolutely right to be worried, though it was even worse than I feared.

You know how people criticize the story “The Beauty and the Beast” for basically being a romaticization of Stockholm Syndrome? Imagine Ilona Andrews tried to take that idea, make it super overt, but still try to keep it romantic. It is even more appalling than you are imagining right now.

At 124 pages, her “Alpha: Origins” story is more of a novella than a short story, and is set in a different universe than either her Kate Daniels series or her Edge series. It took me almost a week to finish it because I kept having to put it down because it made me feel kind of dirty, reading about this level of subjugation in a clearly romantic plot.

It reminded me of a call for submissions of fantasy romance books by a publisher that Rebecca told me about. They specified that the story had to feature an older or in some other way societally superior hero and the heroine had to be somehow in his power. It made me gag a little bit.

Book Cover: Down These Strange Streets4) Down These Strange Streets was my favorite collection, leaning toward the noir side of urban fantasy and mystery. There were some really terrific stories, and some not-so-terrific stories, but the great thing about a collection of short stories is that after a couple of uninspired pages, I can just move on to the next story.

It did bring home the point that a good noir mystery is harder to write than people think; the author has to somehow steep the entire story in a casual grimness. A surface gloss of darkness doesn’t cut it, and is quickly recognizable when reading a series of stories by different authors all in a row.

Once again, though, Briggs’ story took second place, this time to a really engrossing story by Laurie R. King, who I had previously known only as a mystery writer. Her fantasy mystery, “Hellbender,” was subtle, realistic, and unfolded with perfect plotting, and I would love to read a full book of the same characters and universe.

Briggs’ story, “In Red, with Pearls,” was my favorite of hers that I read in this glut, and featured one of her regular but peripheral werewolf characters, Warren, and his boyfriend Kyle. The short story structure didn’t give her as much time to explore characters and relationships as I would have liked, but was still a very entertaining mystery.

* * * * * * * * * *

Kinsey’s very acute analysis of her preference in memoirs made me revisit my short story collection preferences, and I think it is very similar. The more collections I read, the more I respect the editors. It seems like they need to tread a very fine line, where collections should have a common theme that tie all the stories together, but not such a narrow theme that the stories seem repetitive. “Urban fantasy” is too generic; “house renovations” is much too narrow.

—Anna

Jane Slayre

By Charlotte Brontë and Sherri Browning Erwin

Book Cover: Jane SlayreI read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a few years ago and was not impressed. It felt like a very awkward mash-up, like just reading Pride and Prejudice, and then BOOM, ZOMBIES, and then back to Pride and Prejudice. It was very disjointed, with the inserted zombie scenes feeling unrelated and jarring in the rest of the text. Once I finished, I just wanted to read Pride and Prejudice without zombies.

Happily, Jane Slayre is significantly better. There are a number of possible reasons for this, and I can’t quite tell which ones actually apply and whether it is due to the author or myself as the reader:

  1. Sherri Browning Erwin understands Bronte’s voice better than Seth Grahame-Smith understands Jane Austen’s.
  2. Jane Eyre already has a gothic sentiment that lends itself better to the addition of vampires/werewolves/zombies than Jane Austen’s comedy of manners.
  3. I don’t actually remember Jane Eyre all that well, so it was harder for me to recognize when deviating scenes started.
  4. I also didn’t enjoy reading Jane Eyre as much as Pride and Prejudice, so wasn’t as disturbed by the added scenes, and didn’t have any inclination to reread the original.

I will say this, though: especially with the added vampires, Jane Eyre/Slayre comes across as the Twilight of 19th century with a fairly Mary-Sue-ish young woman (she isn’t traditionally beautiful, but everyone who sees her compares her to a fairy or some other elven creature) teaching an older and extremely rude but wealthy man how to love again.

However, the Slayre part (so clearly borrowed from Joss Whedon that it could possibly be grounds for a lawsuit if he were so inclined) gives Jane some added spunk and value as a character, and makes the admiration of all around her make more sense. Erwin weaves the vampires (and zombies and werewolves) throughout Jane’s entire story, so it does become an established part of her character.

I even thought several times that the additions Erwin made were interesting enough that they could have been the basis for a quite interesting original book, if she had only taken Jane Eyre as a inspiration and hadn’t had to stay so close to the original.

—Anna