Monday, August 10, 2015

PHXCC 2015: Ann Leckie Spotlight Panel

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At last, some of my coverage from Phoenix Comicon 2015 appears on the blog! It was great fun this year, with lots of amazing author panels and signings, and some time left over for people watching and exploring the dealer’s hall. I was super, super psyched to go to Ann Leckie’s spotlight panel, as I had recently started her Imperial Radch series. I hadn’t yet finished the first book, Ancillary Justice, at the time, but it was a calculated risk between going there and possibly perhaps maybe getting a little spoiled, and going there and learning all kinds of neat things about the books and her writing. In the end (as if there had ever been any question!), the chance to hear all the cool stuff she had to say won out. We were a fairly small group at the panel, which made it nice and cozy, and pretty much everyone who wanted to ask a question had a chance to do so (even me!). As usual, I did my best with transcription of the audio, and hope you enjoy this taste of what went down at the panel!

A random smattering of interesting topics, tidbits, and happenings during the panel:

  • A story (that no one could state with certainty was true) that C.J. Cherryh’s publishers made her put an “h” on the end of her name because they thought no one would buy a sci-fi novel from a woman named Cherry
  • Lots of interesting information about what a rodman does on a surveying crew, which was a previous job of Ms. Leckie’s
  • The lesson that one should make sure they’re not holding a machete in the hand that they’re using to swat a horsefly that has landed on their body
  • Discussion of Breq as an unreliable narrator when it comes to herself
  • Jack Vance as a writer of gorgeous visual stuff—Ms. Leckie read a lot of Vance because she wanted to learn how to create good visuals in her work
  • Historical smuggling of tea out of China
  • Learning that it took her almost 10 years to write Ancillary Justice

And now for some of the questions she fielded during the panel that I found particularly interesting (and spoiler-free, for anyone who hasn’t read the books yet!).

Audience Member: Can you talk about the origins of the Ancillary series?

Ann Leckie: Basically, it was me putting shiny stuff together. I was one of those people who always wanted to be a writer from when I was quite young, but I never felt like any of my ideas were any good, or any of what I was doing was any good. Shortly after college I actually sold a story to True Confessions—which does not give you a byline, so that doesn’t count—not because I liked True Confessions—and this was an important lesson. I said, “Well, I want to write, but I don’t know what to write,” so I went to the drugstore and I got six dozen—the company had like 40 million different versions—there was True Love, and True Romance, and True Confessions, and True This and True That. I bought armfuls of these, and I read them until my eyes bled. And just whatever I flopped down on the paper was the story and I sent it in and they bought it. And I said, “Oh my gosh, I can actually do this. So, now write another one.” And I was like, “…no. It would not be worth it.” Even if they bought it. Because I really hated doing that. I hated reading them. I hated writing it. I’m never going to do that again. So then I didn’t write anything for a very long time.

Then in about 2002, I had smallish kids and I was home, because I had discovered very quickly after having kids that with the low paying jobs I was working—rodmen do not make a lot of money—I would be paying to go to work, what with childcare. So I was home, but I was just incredibly bored. I love my kids, they’re marvelous, and I would not trade them for anything. When they were one and a half they were not very intellectually stimulating. And so I said I need to do something. I’d heard about NaNoWriMo, and I said, “I’ll do NaNoWriMo, and I’ve got all these shiny things!” Because that’s what you do when you don’t have much else to think about—you put these shiny things together. So I sat down, and by then I already had the basic idea for Ancillary Justice, but I didn’t think I could write it because writing from the point of view of that particular character seemed impossible. I didn’t think I could do it. So, I wrote around the edges of that novel. I finished it and I said, “Well, this isn’t half bad. I’m going to revise it and send it out.” I sent it around to a number of different places, sent it around to some agents, and of course nobody took it. I am now eternally grateful that nobody bought it. Looking back on it now, it really wasn’t very good, which was another important lesson. I wrote a sequel to that novel just because next year’s NaNoWriMo came around. And then I said no, I’m going to do short fiction. So I did short fiction for 7, 8 years, I think. Then finally, I said okay, I’m going to sit down and I’m going to try and write the point of view from this particular character and just see what happens. What’s the worst that could happen? I waste the time and it goes in the drawer with the other two novels. That didn’t kill me. So that’s pretty much where that came from.


Audience Member: What was it like to win the Hugo?

Ann Leckie: Really surreal. Very strange. I strongly suspect that most science fiction and fantasy writers have a secret grandiose fantasy of winning the Hugo, and I suspect that most of us then say to ourselves, “Yeah, right. Now back to work.” Because, no. Lightning will strike first, right? So you always have that—you’re all alone, fantasizing being up on the stage giving a speech or whatever, and then you’re like, no. It’s not going to happen. So when it actually happened, I was lucky not to faint on the way up to the stage. I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen, in fact. I was pretty sure Wheel of Time was going to win. […] It still seems weird. But I can look at my mantle at home and there they are, so they must’ve really happened!


Audience Member: There was something in Ancillary Justice that I really enjoyed, and I was wondering if it was influenced by some of the Golden Age science fiction. In the beginning there’s a lot of mind wipe that was often used extensively within the Golden Age of science fiction to indicate that someone had their mind taken away, but they were still alive, still a person. I liked how in Ancillary Justice that you dealt with the overlay—what it does to what was there before, and the fact that even though physically they look the same, basically it’s a death of the personality.

Ann Leckie: Once I had the thought of the character with multiple bodies, then I said, “Well, what are the implications of that? What is there to play with there?” I started to look into the neurological basis of identity, which is really creepy when you read too much about it. If you have the right kind of brain damage, you will think you do not exist. If you have the right kind of brain damage, you can think you’re dead. Walking around—no, I’m dead, I’m not actually here. There was—I don’t remember her name, but she wrote a book, and she had what was probably a stroke. She died fairly young of a stroke, probably a series of strokes I suspect—where first she suddenly one day felt that she had been displaced out of her body and was following herself around. Eventually that came to a point where she believed she did not exist. She was like, “I know this body’s walking around, but there is no ‘me’ inside here. I’m talking to you, but there’s no ‘I.’” It was really distressing to her, and eventually she came to a settlement with herself about it by framing it as the sort of enlightenment of Buddhism, where the goal is to lose yourself. She felt more comfortable with the situation she was in after that.

That was really an interesting thing to read. It was pretty clear that she was having some neurological things and having to deal with them, and I’m like—you know, we kind of feel like “I’m me” is common sense, like I stop at my body and I am who I am. But it’s so fragile. It’s so subject to these tiny little physical changes that maybe we don’t have any control over. We don’t have any control over whether we’re going to have a stroke, or a particular kind of head injury.

The other one that I already sort of knew about, but read some more about was the two hemispheres of the brain. Most of the communication between them is handled by the corpus callosum between the two halves. In people who have really severe epilepsy, sometimes the only thing you can do to keep that from killing them is to actually sever that connection between the two hemispheres of the brain. Most of the time they do pretty well afterwards and it saves their lives. But if you do a thing where you put headphones on them and, say, goggles, and you show a picture to one eye and say something in the one ear, and then say, “Pick up whatever I’m showing you,” each hand will do a different thing, depending. And it’s very clear that the two halves of the brain aren’t communicating with each other and are responding to different things. It’s almost as though you’re talking to two different people. But if you talk to the person, they don’t experience themself as two different people. And so the more I looked into these things, the more kind of creepy it was, the idea that we know who we are, but do we really know who we are, or is that just a function of how our brains are working, and how fragile all of that is? So that was a lot of what I was thinking about when I was thinking, you know you kill that person—it’s actually very easy to do that, if you hit the right spot in somebody’s brain.


Audience Member: Can you talk about how you came up with the treatment of gender in the Radch? It felt very unique, something I hadn’t seen before.

Ann Leckie: That was something that, very naively, very early on, I said to myself, “I want to write a society that really does not care about gender. Genuinely does not.” And in that first novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo I tried to do that. I assigned genders to people and I used the pronouns that seemed appropriate for those genders, and was really unhappy with the result because what I could see happening was that I was slotting people into particular kinds of roles based on gender. And I was like, “This is not really getting across the idea of not caring about gender.” There was a short story I wrote that thankfully has never sold, where I used “he” for everybody, and I was really unhappy with the result of that. And so I kind of began to poke around at ways to do that.

At this point I had not read The Left Hand of Darkness, which I probably should have read earlier in my science fiction career, but I did know that Le Guin had used “he” for everybody in that book, and that later on, years later, she had kind of regretted that. Although I suspect, as is often the case, in hindsight you think you could’ve made another choice, but I don’t doubt that she made what was the best choice possible at the time. That she genuinely felt at the time that that was the way to go. And so I said, what if I use “she?” I briefly considered using “they,” but when you’ve got characters who have thousands of bodies, using “they” introduces an ambiguity—normally, there’s nothing wrong with singular they, right? But we only have one body each and there’s no question about the plural thing. I also considered a number of the newer genderless pronouns, which are really cool and I really kind of hope that some of them get used more often because I think there is really a need for that. I felt like that was not going to work for the project, that it would be even more distancing than playing with the pronouns to begin with. Whether that was the best choice possible I don’t know. I made the choice that seemed most appropriate to me. So I said, well, what if I just use “she,” and what if I treat it like it’s being translated out of this language with no gendered pronouns? The confusing thing for some folks is then when they’re speaking another language, to use the gendered pronouns. So it was really just a matter of trying to get that first idea, and then playing around with ways to get it.

Same Audience Member: And then treating the characters—they don’t care about gender, not giving them attributes or forcing them into certain roles.

Ann Leckie: Yeah, and that was tricky. In fact, in the first draft of the first chapters of Ancillary Justice, I did assign genders to some of the characters. And then I found when I went back and just overlaid “she,” that it had a really interesting effect because it did kind of change the way that I was looking at those characters. So I thought that was really kind of interesting.


Audience Member: Can you speak about the religious system [in the Radch books]?

Ann Leckie: I am an atheist myself, but I find religion really fascinating as a human activity. I am not one of the folks who—occasionally I’ll run across somebody who’ll say, “Of course, once we’re all sufficiently educated, we’ll evolve beyond religion.” I don’t think that’s happening. I don’t think it’s going to happen. So I wanted to treat religion seriously, and I wanted it to have a place in the cultures I was making up. But I also didn’t want for whatever I was designing to be basically thinly-veiled Christianity, which happens very frequently. There are reasons why that happens, and that’s perfectly promulent. That’s cool. But I didn’t want that. And I said, well, it would be interesting to have a polytheistic, multi-god situation going on. I think because Christianity and Judaism and Islam, which are all very closely related religions, are so popular and so dominant in this country and in our culture, we tend to think of religion as working the way that particular kind of monotheism works. But in fact the actual variety of existing religions, existing now and historically, is much wider.

Well, okay, what if I look seriously at polytheism—how would that maybe work? And that’s one of the areas actually where I did pretty explicitly look at the Romans. Who, not alone in this, were in the habit of saying, “Oh, this is your local god, well obviously—because we know our gods are real, so obviously this is just Minerva in another guise. This is obviously Jove with a different name.” And so I said, “Well, that could kind of work.” And it worked well for the Romans, politically as well as religiously. I was also kind of interested in the contracts between [people and their gods]. We tend to think of religion as something that’s about faith, that’s about “you believe a particular fixed doctrine.” With the Romans…not so much. Some things were just obviously true, and if you behaved properly, then the gods would behave properly in their turn. If you did the right thing…if you didn’t do the right thing, you were in trouble, and then you would try and figure out what you’d done that was wrong. Some of that religious stuff was very contractual—it was kind of interesting, saying, “Well, if I give you exactly this thing, then you will give me this thing back, right? That’s our deal, right?” And so I was sort of intrigued by that. I was modeling it on that style of polytheism. And I said, well, realistically also, it worked for a large empire. It worked very well for a large empire for quite a long time. So yeah, that was kind of what I was thinking about with that. I was trying to take that idea seriously.

Same Audience Member: But it seems like the main character is not a believer.

Ann Leckie: No, she’s not. She isn’t. And not everybody is. Sometimes I get frustrated with the way that we often sort of reflexively talk about, in particular Greek and Roman religion, as though it was obviously just superstition and meaningless, and Christianity came in and obviously superseded it because it was so much better. It wasn’t “superstition, and now religious people have real faith and a real god”—no, that system meant a lot to the people who lived it. It was deeply important to them. Serious thinkers thought seriously about what the implications of the beliefs were. There were of course people who were superstitious, and there are people who are superstitious now. There had to have been, because people are people, as wide a variety of attitudes towards religion 2000 years ago as there is now. So you’re going to get people who are like, yeah, I don’t really believe any of it, but I’m not going to say anything because otherwise I’ll really get in trouble. You’re going to have people who fervently have mystical experiences and feel like they have some kind of personal relationship with God or with gods, and everything in between. You’re going to have that because people are people.



Awesome, right? Those were some of the panel questions that I found to be really interesting, and all in all it was a very thought-provoking panel! I also got my copy of Ancillary Justice signed by Ms. Leckie during the con, yay! She was so kind when I was talking to her, and gave me a fantastic Awn Elming pin! I love things like that that bring the fictional reality into our reality. I took the opportunity to ask her if she was a big language/linguistics nerd, because I’d gotten that impression from the book (for the record, she said she was more of a dabbler!). Lots of fun, and I found myself finishing Ancillary Justice a couple days later. Now on to Ancillary Sword!

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: Alive, by Scott Sigler

Title: Alive
Author: Scott Sigler
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Read: June 2015
Where It Came From: ARC from author at PHXCC
Genre: YA-speculative-fiction
Rating: 3.75 Coffin-Cradles

How, oh how, to review this book without giving away any of its secrets? As the author stated on a panel at Phoenix Comicon last month, the book is pretty much secrets from page one. Those secrets drive the story, and I will try my darnedest to preserve them! (Also, I like a challenge like that.) So. Here goes.

Our narrator wakes up in a strange place with little idea of who she is, or how she got there. After fighting her way to freedom from the adverse situation she finds herself in immediately upon waking, she finds others like her. They are somewhere, in a place with many rooms. Also, many skeletons. Weird carvings on the walls that seem reminiscent of the ancient world, but also evidence of technology not of the ancient world. Where are the adults? Where are other people? The need for water and food drives them to explore and try to find a way out of there, wherever there is, as they try to unravel the mystery of their existence and the situation they find themselves in.

I’ve heard good things about Scott Sigler’s books, but this is actually the first book of his that I’ve read. My friend saw him signing ARCs at the Del Rey booth at Phoenix Comicon, and kindly grabbed one for me (I think I was probably at a panel at the time). She told me that he had said to read the first 20 pages that night, and so, dutiful recipient of free books that I am, I did so. Bad idea!!! I was hooked from the get go, and let me tell you—wandering around a convention while your brain is fixated on reading a new book is not the way to go. It was an absorbing, quick read that I tore through once the convention was over.

Now, I hesitate to say this because I really, really despise the publishing trend of describing new books as “Book A meets Book B!”, because I find the comparisons are rarely apt and mostly lead to disappointment (Harry Potter meets Men in Black! Game of Thrones for teens! Batman meets Rainbow Rowell!). But I think this book appeals to the same part of me that the TV show Lost did. Not in plot, not in voice or style or anything like that, but more in the level of mystery surrounding, well, pretty much everything. The mysteries and strangeness at every turn engage the reader (or watcher) in the story, and before you know it you’re formulating theories about what’s really going on and forging ahead for more.

One of the really cool things about this book is that the way it’s structured and told allows the reader to fill the shoes of Em, our protagonist. The first-person present narration (consider yourself warned, Susan) of course plays a big part in that, but also the fact that as soon as Em wakes up, we know just as much as she does (i.e., very little), and only learn new information when she does, as we try to understand the many mysteries along with her.

If I had any quibbles, it would be that not all of the characters truly came alive for me in this book. Part of me thinks this makes sense, though, since the characters themselves are still trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into what’s going on. I didn’t grow terribly attached to any of them, with the exception being Gaston—he was great! (And provided comic relief.) He reminded me a bit of Sevro from Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, in all the best ways. The other quibble would be that the way 12-year-olds are characterized in the story actually felt quite a bit younger than that, to me. (Apologies for vagueness, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you read it!)

At any rate, by the end of the book, some mysteries have been solved but plenty remain, which makes sense now that I know it’s the first book in a trilogy. Overall, an intriguing premise and a fast-paced read, and I look forward to seeing how the characters continue to learn about and define themselves in future books!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

**I think that might be the ARC cover, and that the actual finished book might have a different one? This one is very cool, though.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Coming soon: BEA and PHXCC!!!

Well, it’s that time of year again! The sun is starting to beat down in earnest in my fair city, and soon S will be heading off to Book Expo America in New York, and I to Phoenix Comicon. So much excitement on the horizon!

I’ve perused the programming for PHXCC this year and I’ve made my tentative list of panels to see. I’ve pored over the convention center maps. I’ve dug out the books I want to get signed by attending authors. I am READY! Let’s have a look at some of the fun stuff scheduled to go down this year…

While there don’t look to be as many traditional fantasy authors as there were last year, there are still many authors I love whom I’m excited to see, and plenty more I’ve heard of but haven’t yet read their books. Richard Kadrey, who writes the Sandman Slim novels, Max Brooks of World War Z fame, Michael A. Stackpole, prolific author whom I most often associate with Star Wars books…the list goes on, with many familiar faces from years past, as well as new-to-PHXCC authors joining the fun. Here’s a smattering of some I’m really looking forward to seeing on panels/getting my books signed by them…


  • Ann Leckie!!! Hugo and Nebula award-winning Ann Leckie!!! I’m reading Ancillary Justice right now, and it is sooooo good. It’s not the kind of book I’m tearing through, but I’m taking my time and savoring it (and, to be honest, trying to make sure I keep everything straight in my head). So excited to meet this lady!


  • Max Gladstone!! I haven’t picked up any of his books yet, but people really, really love him. I’ve been trying something new this year, where I download a Kindle sample of books from all the authors at the con I’m interested in but mostly unfamiliar with, to get a feel for their writing and try to decide if I should pick up a copy of their book at the con to get signed, or just wait and check it out at the library. Last night I read a sample of Three Parts Dead, and I liked it—it felt fresh and complex, and even though the sample wasn’t really long enough for me to get a full grasp of the world, it was enough to make me want to read more. Very intrigued!


  • So, Cherie Priest—I already know I like her writing, right? So why haven’t I already bought and read Maplecroft?!? Good question. This is another one I decided to read a sample of to aid me in my purchasing decisions, and those were the questions I was asking myself when I’d finished. I remember her talking about this Lizzie-Borden-fights-Cthulhu-with-an-ax story the first time I saw her at PHXCC in 2013, but I never got around to picking it up when it came out last fall. The sample, however, hooked me—it ended and I wanted moooore! Will probably be picking this one up.


  • Naomi Novik! I have a pile of her Temeraire books at home that friends have recommended to me but I just haven’t started yet. Last year at PHXCC, though, I was given a sample of her forthcoming standalone novel, Uprooted. Fast forward to now—here’s what the back of the book looks like:
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    ALL OF THE BEST PEOPLE HAVE GREAT THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THIS BOOK. Seriously, the only endorsements that could’ve bumped it up even higher on my insta-buy list are Holly Black, Megan Whalen Turner, and Elizabeth C. Bunce. So…I bought it. Of course, right? Can’t wait to dive it!


  • Pierce Brown! He was at PHXCC last year, but I hadn’t yet read Red Rising. Quite soon after the con, I dove into the free copy of it that I got at the Del Rey booth, and though I wasn’t that into it for the first 150 pages, the rest of the book was so good that I loved it even with the beginning that had been blah for me. And then when Golden Son came out this year…man, that was a phenomenal book. None of the things that I hadn’t liked about the first book were present in this book, and everything that I loved about it was there and made even more awesome! It was relentlessly paced (so much so that I couldn’t allow myself to read it on nights when I had to be at work early the next day), and just plain riveting. It’s sci-fi, but in my head it’s more like historical-fantasy-sci-fi…I love all the Rome-ish stuff, and the political maneuverings are reminiscent of some of my favorite historical fantasies. Would it be too much to hope for a sneak peek of Morning Star at PHXCC…?

That’s just a smattering of the authors I’m most excited to see on panels, but there are sooo many more! As for the panels themselves, there aren’t as many on my absolute-must-list as there were last year, so I’d been hoping my schedule might be a little less jam-packed this year, but as I look over it again, I’m realizing there will be more than enough to see and do, and a few tough decisions when panels conflict. Here are my top 5 panels I’m looking forward to as of now (not counting author spotlight panels), with the descriptions from the PHXCC website. Any of them sound intriguing to you?

  1. Historical and Fantastical and Maybe a Little Magical (featuring Cherie Priest, Django Wexler, Joseph Nassise, Michael Martinez, and Viola Carr). “What happens to history when reality is breached by more than just a person or 2 that never really existed? How does it stand up when strange, mystical, and/or magical occurrences take hold? Spice up history, make it more enjoyable with un-reality.”

    Yay for historical fantasy! Or at least, fantasy taking place in a time in history…?

  2. Here on Earth (featuring Ann Leckie, Chuck Wendig, Jason Hough, Jay Posey, Myke Cole, and Pierce Brown). “Science Fiction doesn't always have to take place in unknown space on unknown worlds. This panel celebrates Science Fiction on our planet Earth. Discussions and comparisons on how Earth-centric Science Fictions compare to the typical space opera.”

    I like Science Fiction. I like Earth. I like Science Fictions involving Earth. I’m not sure how I feel about this capitalization. Should “science fiction” really be “Science Fiction?” I’m not sure, and now I’m way off topic.

  3. Author Batsu with Sam Sykes (featuring Cherie Priest, Delilah S. Dawson, Myke Cole, Peter V. Brett, Pierce Brown, Scott Sigler, and Sam Sykes). “Our hapless authors join Sam Sykes for another batsu game! (Batsu: the Japanese word for 'punishment,') Each panelist is charged with performing a task under pressure. If they fail, they will be subjected to a 'horrible' punishment. Sounds fun! Right?”

    Who doesn’t like a little schadenfreude? (Yeah, try to tackle that one, spell check!) The Sam Sykes panels are always amusing.

  4. Unashamed Full Frontal Nerdity (featuring Django Wexler, Jason Hough, Michael Martinez, and Naomi Novik). “A panel for authors to gush about the facets of their research that surprised and delighted them.”

    I love supernerding, and especially supernerding about research!!

  5. Del Rey Superfight (featuring Jason Hough, Naomi Novik, Peter V. Brett, Pierce Brown, and Scott Sigler). “Who would win: Starlord with machine guns as legs or an ocelot that's really really emotional? How about Iron Man who hasn't slept in three days or Godzilla with an endless supply of trampolines? The Del Rey authors battle it out in a game of Superfight.”

    Um, what? This sounds amazing. And hilarious. Count me in.


And that’s it from me tonight! Any authors not on my shortlist that you’re super-psyched about? Any awesome panels you think I should check out and report back on? Hit up the comments and let me know! Only a few more days to go…

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: Revenge of the Witch

Title: The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch
Author: Joseph Delaney
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Year: 2005
Read: March 2015
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Middle-grade-to-YA-historical-fantasy-horror
Rating: 4 Boggart Pits

I can trace my interest in these books back many years, based almost entirely on the eye-catching art. The covers for this series are creepy, atmospheric, and striking (and, as I discovered when I read this one, the art continues on the inside, too!). When I saw that it was being made into a movie with the awesome Ben Barnes (a.k.a. Prince Caspian, a.k.a. Dunstan Thorn), I finally decided I had better read the book, since the general chatter I’ve heard about the books didn’t seem to quite match up with the almost goofy quest-fantasy look of the movie trailer. I mean, I’ve heard these books are SCARY, and the movie looks anything but.

The story begins with our narrator, twelve-year-old Thomas Ward, getting sent off to try out to be the apprentice to the local Spook, or the person who roams about the countryside taking care of unwanted supernatural phenomena and creatures, such as boggarts, witches, ghouls, and the like. Thomas is the seventh son of a seventh son, making him uniquely qualified for this job. His Mam believes he is in fact even more uniquely qualified than that, but never quite explains why, which is a strong thread of mystery running through the story. The story follows Tom through his trial period (spoiler alert: he gets the job), and through the early days of his apprenticeship with the Spook. He meets a pointy-shoed local girl named Alice, and eventually ends up inadvertently releasing a big, bad witch called Mother Malkin into the world. He then tries to counteract the bad she does and has to figure out a way to recapture her to save both himself and his family.

The story is very well-written. It is a quick read, but there is a lot of complexity beneath the surface. Tom’s voice shines brightly—he is an honest, straightforward narrator. He is a good person to his core, but we see his struggles as he tries to make the right decisions, and, when he doesn’t, try to fix things. All of the main characters are similarly complex. The Spook, for instance, has a fraught relationship with his brother, a past occupation that comes to light, and qualms about burning witches (too cruel, he says), that show he is more than his gruff, beastie-hunting exterior. Tom’s Mam, too, is wonderfully complex and mysterious—she loves her son, but not in a soft way, and I look forward to finding out more about her in future books. And then there is Alice—torn between her family and wanting to maybe not be like them. She is a particularly compelling character because of her seeming powerlessness in her situation, and her struggle to make choices to gain power in her own life. I was initially a little turned off by the number of “evil” women in the story (the witches), but complex and layered characters like Alice and Mam mitigated that.

As for the creepy factor, this was another book where I found myself thinking, okay, this is a little creepy, but not actually frightening! as I was reading, but then my phone would buzz or someone would come in my room to talk to me and I’d jump about 5 feet in the air. So…not nightmare-inducing, but a little scarier than I initially gave it credit for!

I enjoyed this one, and look forward to reading the rest of the series and delving deeper into these characters. Also, I forgot to mention that there is a passive-aggressive boggart housekeeper—what could be better than that? (Also also, I hemmed and hawed and then included “historical” in the genre tags, because it could easily be a fantasy world, but there was mention of people reading Greek and Latin. So I guess it must be this world, or a version of it, after all?)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Lost in Translation

Title: Lost in Translation
Author: Ella Frances Sanders
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: September 2014
Read: March 2015
Where It Came From: eARC via NetGalley* + purchased copy
Genre: Non-fiction-language-culture-coffee-table
Rating: 4 Tsundoku Book Piles

What a fun little book! This “illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world” (as it calls itself) is a delight, gathering up words from languages the world over that have no equivalent in English, but that put a name to feelings and ideas we know and understand, but perhaps had difficulty describing before (like jayus, from Indonesian—a joke so bad you can’t help laughing at it), or ones that give insight to aspects of other cultures and places (like fika, from Swedish—getting together to sip coffee, eat snacks, and relax together).

Each word gets a two-page spread, with the name of the language it’s from and some additional explanation on the left side, and the word, definition, and a watercolor illustration on the right. The art is lovely, but then again, I am a sucker for watercolors! I will note that in my digital ARC, I thought the watercolor looked a little better than it does in the finished book—I don’t know if it’s the way it was printed or what, but it’s especially noticeable in the cursive handwritten definition for each word, which looks a little fuzzy.

I am a huge language nerd, and I love that this book celebrates how culture and language are inextricably intertwined, and how language shapes the way we think. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself particularly language-nerdy, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with this book, like with pisan zapra (from Malay—the time it takes to eat a banana) or kummerspeck (from German—literally “grief-bacon,” or weight gain from eating one’s feelings). I was a little unsatisfied by their definition of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, but I learned a new Japanese word, too! Komorebi--sunlight filtering through tree leaves above you. This is something I photographed often when I was in Japan, and always noticed and enjoyed during my many walks through city, countryside, temple, and shrine. How lovely to learn that there is a word I could have used to talk about it!

A couple other favorites: Trepverter, from Yiddish, meaning that witty comeback that you think of only after the time to use it has passed. (I seem to remember that this one exists in French, too--l’esprit d’escalier, or the spirit of the stairs. Coming up with that zinger right when you’re leaving!) And this one, particularly apt for this blog: Tsundoku, from Japanese, referring to the act of buying a book and then not reading it, usually piling it up with other books bought and as yet unread.

Fun book. It would make a great gift or be a nice addition to your coffee table, providing fodder for conversation, some laughs, and thinking.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Graphic Novelty: Through the Woods

Title: Through the Woods
Author: Emily Carroll
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication Date: July 2014
Read: February 2015
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Graphic-novel-horror
Rating: 4.5 Cold Hands

Let me just say: This. Was. AWESOME. I’d heard from various sources whose opinions I respect that this was an amazing and damn scary graphic novel with beautiful art, and I finally got around to checking it out from the library earlier this year. (To save money/space/irritation about having bought books that turned out to be shitty upon reading, I’m trying this new thing where I check a book out from the library instead of running out and buying it right away, and then afterwards deciding if I liked it enough to buy a copy for my personal library.) It sat in my library book tower until I went to renew it online one day and saw that—GASP!—someone else had placed a hold on it and I had to return it in two days. And that meant: Kick into high reading gear! So I curled up on a bright, sunny day-off afternoon to dive in.

The book consists of five short stories (they get increasingly longer as the book goes on), and a short intro and outro. They are seemingly unrelated, except for the common thread running through them, as hinted in the title—the woods are always involved, and strange things come from the woods. Each story is deliciously creepy…not horror in a gory, in-your-face way, but more insidiously unsettling. Spine-tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up kind of scary. The closest comparison in tone I can make is to those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books that were probably the first experience many of us had with horror. The nerd in me absolutely loved the almost fairytale/folkloric slant to these stories—especially as related to the woods, that symbol of fear and the unknown from time immemorial. They’re stories that will probably leave you with questions. There are no easy answers or resolutions to be found here, which is absolutely fitting. The storytelling is deft, atmospheric—leaving you a little off-kilter, both anticipating and apprehensive of what will happen next. And the art! Beautiful. Graphic, bold, and seamlessly integrated with the text for an immersive story experience.

As I mentioned, I was reading this in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, with people home. As I made my way through the book, I thought the stories were creepy in that quiet, crawling, tingly creepy-pasta way, but I found myself thinking, “Well, perhaps I’d be as freaked out by them as everyone else if I was alone. Or it was night. Or something.” But then my dad suddenly appeared at my door to ask in his baritone if I wanted pancakes, and I jumped about 5 feet in the air. So…I guess I was subconsciously a little more freaked out than I thought. And then, when I went to bed hours after I’d finished the book, the images came creeping back and I suddenly felt very alone in the dark, wondering what might be lurking under my bed or outside my window…

Great read, and a quick one, too. You might tear through it really quickly, but I guarantee this is one that will stick with you. And that little coda at the end…so effing perfect. Love love LOVE. Highly recommended. And it definitely passed the test—I will certainly be buying a copy for my personal library.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: This Shattered World

Title: This Shattered World
Author: Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: December 23rd, 2014
Read: January 2015
Where It Came From: BEA Galley + Purchased Copy
Genre: YA-sci-fi-space-opera
Rating: Averages out to 2.5 stars. (Which we can’t see anyway, because they’re hidden by clouds, of course.)

Alas, seduced by a pretty cover again! You’d think I would have learned my lesson with the first book in this series, which had an equally gorgeous cover that the story living beneath didn’t quite live up to. Last year, rave reviews were popping up all over the place for These Broken Stars, even from reviewers whose tastes I find often parallel my own, and all I could think was, “…really? Am I missing something here?” I found it simply…okay.

That bit of background out of the way, I can tell you that I actually enjoyed the first one more than This Shattered World. Here’s a quick plot rundown of this latest installment: Jubilee Chase is a soldier extraordinaire stationed on the planet Avon (what the military is there for in the first place was never really clear to me). The problem with Avon is that it’s not terraforming into a habitable planet at the usual rate, so it’s a cloudy swampland otherwise inhabited only by the colonists-who-are-also-considered-natives-of-the-planet. There is a sect of rebellious colonists who live out in the swamps, wanting to take the terraforming corporations to task for not fulfilling the promises of a better life and a livable planet that they used to lure the colonists to Avon. Flynn Cormac, though hoping for a peaceful resolution to Avon’s woes, is one of these rebels. Now, Jubilee hates rebels (do I smell a BACKSTORY?), and Flynn has reasons to dislike the military presence (yet MORE backstory??), but the two find themselves pushed together as they discover the conspiracy underlying Avon’s very existence.

So, same world, different protagonists, different planet in this latest outing in the Starbound trilogy. It probably didn’t help that I remembered next to nothing from These Broken Stars, and as bits and pieces of the first installment began to trickle back into my memory, I found myself thinking, “Oh! That thing that happened earlier would’ve been much more intriguing/made more sense if I had remembered plot point thus-and-such from book one!” Still, I think my issues with this one cannot simply be attributed to my own poor recall abilities regarding the previous installment.

Problems I Had With It

  1. S L O W pacing. And I mean grass-growing, paint-drying, other-clich├ęs-of-slowness slow. The first half of the book (which was nearly 200 pages, mind you!) could probably be boiled down to just three plot points. In fact, I think at one point Jubilee lists to herself the important things that have happened to her since the first scene, and I was like yes, only three! In this many pages, only three! The opening scenes involving a kidnapping at a bar and a subsequent vision of a disappearing research facility were promising, but everything came to a screeching all-but-halt after that. So many times I kept thinking to myself, why can’t we revisit that disappearing building thing that I know is coming back later? Why can’t it come back NOW? In the second half of the book the action picked up, aided in part by the arrival of characters from the first book (yay!). It was a lot quicker reading and a lot more interesting, but it still wasn’t enough to salvage the story for me.
  2. Lack of chemistry. Flynn and Jubilee…I just didn’t feel it. Zero chemistry between these two. There were constant references to the fact that Flynn is all charming rogue-y, but being in his head for half the chapters and seeing him through Jubilee’s POV in most of the other chapters, his actions and thoughts show him to be pretty much a straightforward, sweet, boy-next-door type. Rogue level of next-to-zero. I mean, he’s a pacifist, for the love of pete! Which is fine—I quite liked Flynn, but he is not the smooth operator I felt like I was supposed to be convinced he was. Between that and the trying-to-convince-me-there’s-chemistry-between-our-leads-when-there-is-none just made me keep internally shouting STOP TRYING TO MAKE FETCH HAPPEN! I will note, however, that this was another thing that improved in the second half of the book. I’d still say I’m not fully feeling the Flynn-Jubilee love connection, but I’m more inclined to live and let live now.
  3. Vague worldbuilding. Things I am learning about myself: I value worldbuilding. A lot. My opinions of books live and die by worldbuilding. Now, to be clear, good worldbuilding does not necessarily mean a ton of background information and history and culture dropped into the text. If writing is good, it can let you know the world of the story is fully conceived, with internal logic and a depth and life like that of our own world, without having to sit and explain every single aspect of it to you. Heck, even if a ton of background information and history and culture is worked into the text, it should still feel like you’re only scratching the surface of that world, and that there are infinite depths beyond what you can see. …That is not what happened here. Vague can work in some stories, but not this one. Two books in, and I still don’t have a clear picture of the greater shape of this world. What’s the association between the planets in this overall system—what’s the government like? How have people spread across the galaxy/universe/whatever? Whose military is this, who controls them? Why the hell are all the Avon colonists still so strongly Irish this long after humanity has spread to the stars? If you want me to be invested in a story, you’ve got to make it real, and I wonder how much more I would enjoy these books if they were a little more fully fleshed out.

Overall, the first half of the book was a struggle (2 stars), but in the second half things became a little more interesting (3 stars). Though the worldbuilding is often annoyingly vague (when not outright deficient), bringing in some of the plot threads from the first book made me a little more invested in the story. I wouldn’t say Jubilee and Flynn won me over by the end, but they were tolerable. And maybe that was the problem with this one for me—it never made me do more than simply tolerate it. It was passable sci-fi—I’ve read worse, but I’ve also certainly read better. When the third volume comes out at the end of this year, I’m sure the cover will be beautiful again, so there might need to be an intervention to keep me from buying it. You know what they say—fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and thrice…well, you know how it goes.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is based on the finished book rather than the galley, and at any rate is uninfluenced by its source.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Happy January!

Hello all, and happy 2015! It has been much too long, dear bookworms and moths! Susan and I have both been immersed in the responsibilities of new jobs for the past few months, thus our diminished online presence since autumn—but we have missed you fiercely, and are looking forward to getting back on the blog train in this year two thousand and fifteen. We hope it has been treating you well so far (the new year, not the blog train), and that you have been snacking on delicious foods and reading wonderful books during our absence! If you follow us on Twitter, you may have caught a glimpse of some of our readings and eatings over the past few months. Graphic novels, SFF, Thai shrimp soup…yums across the board! So, in the spirit of the “Best Of” lists that have come before, I thought I would share a short listing of some of my own 2014 bests. If the books I read last year all went to high school together, this is what the superlative pages in their yearbook would look like…

Alyssa’s Notable Books of 2014

Best New-to-Me Authors

Oh, Elizabeth C. Bunce and Scott Lynch, what was my life before I read your books? Where, oh where have you BEEN my entire life?! Well, sitting patiently on my shelf, apparently. I remember purchasing A Curse Dark As Gold when it first came out in 2009, but didn’t get around to reading it until 2014. And what a treat it was! Brilliant writing, brilliant detail, brilliant insight into people, and perfectly atmospheric. In fact, those words could be used to describe my experience with Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, as well. The adoration I bear for Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora is an ardent one, and I’m eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. On that note, it hurts my heart a little bit (okay, a lot a bit) that Arthur A. Levine Books doesn’t appear to be publishing the third volume in Elizabeth Bunce’s Thief Errant series. WHY?!? Anyway, I love books with worlds so rich you could just crawl inside them and live there, and the writings of these two authors both fit that bill perfectly.

Best Picture Book

I find myself reading a whole lot of picture books to children these days, and this by far has been the biggest hit (though It’s a Tiger! and Press Here are also contenders). Teachers have told me a month later that the kids are still playing Shark in the Park on the playground at recess. Four months later they’ll come up to me and ask if I brought the shark book today. And what does that tell me? That tells me it’s an awesome, awesome book. So why is it out of print? I don’t know, but I really want to buy a copy for myself on eBay…

Best Graphic Novel (Serial)

This fantasy-tinged sci-fi space opera is really kind of stunning. It is fearlessly imaginative, and creative, and hilarious, and action-packed, and yet still so very real. Our wry narrator guides us through the story, and an extensive cast of weird and wonderful characters inhabiting a weird and wonderful universe grab on to you and don’t let go. Again, this is one of those rich fictional worlds so fully realized that you just want to crawl inside. I just read volume four of the trade paperbacks, and can’t wait for the next installment.

Best Graphic Novel (Standalone)

I’ve talked about this one many times before, and my love for it has only grown stronger with time. Its beautiful art, clever, funny writing, and demonstrated deep understanding of stories and their power make this one irresistible to me. A little odd in the way that all the best things are, and all kinds of awesome.

Best Series I Devoured Whole at a Most Unladylike Speed

I had never read anything by Seanan McGuire before (or anything published under her horror-writing pseudonym, Mira Grant), but she was on my radar as an author that authors I love, love. (Did that make sense…?) I picked up the first October Daye book, and it was all over. These books speak to and nourish the same part of me that Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series does (favorites of mine since high school)—stories of a world both close to, and eons away from, our own. Atmospheric, beautiful, but a little dark, too. Watch out for those teeth. So of course I read the entire series in less than three weeks. More, please!

Book Most Likely to Affect My Enjoyment of a TV Series

Mr Selfridge on PBS is one of my favorite TV shows (sometimes I think I like it more than the recent seasons of Downton Abbey!), so I thought it would be fun to read the book that inspired the show. I’m not a big reader of nonfiction, but this book was quite fascinating. It allows you to see where the show had to fill in information, and where they found some of their inspiration, and it sheds light on a time and a topic (the advent of advertising and merchandising) that I hadn’t thought much about before. And yet, this was kind of the spoiler of all spoilers—knowing what happens to beloved characters and the way things ended up in real life was often quite sad, and now it’s sometimes hard to watch the show and separate it from what I know of the real life people and events it’s based on. I usually get over it pretty quickly, though—the show’s ability to dive into each character in a way not really possible in a book that can’t fabricate where there is nothing in the historical record reminds me that this lovely series is fiction, and a pleasant one at that.

Other Great Books I Read That Haven’t Got a Category Yet

After hearing about the brilliance of The Name of the Wind for so long, I finally took the advice of many friends and read it. I enjoyed it, too, and hurried on to the second installment. Now, don’t get me wrong, they were fabulous books that I recommend to people all the time. But for me…they didn’t have the certain je ne sais quoi that made them into oh-my-gosh-holy-crap-all-time-favorites. However. As they’ve sat in my mind in the months since reading them, I find that they continue to grow in my estimation and to become more powerful. Reading the Bast short story in the Rogues anthology really slammed that home for me. These books are magical, powerful—with complex characters and a rich world (yes, one you can crawl into) that you find yourself personally involved in. And to segue…my first Terry Pratchett experience also introduced me to complex characters I cared deeply about and a world, maybe not so complex on the surface, but certainly complex underneath. Both authors are grandmasters, and both ones whose words and worlds I feel quite privileged to be acquainted with.

So what were some of your top reads of 2014? What superlatives would there be in YOUR 2014 books’ yearbook? What would you like to see from Read This / Eat That this year? Hit the comments and let us know!

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