The Bones Beneath My Skin by TJ Klune

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: March 11 to 15, 2019

I will sum up this book the way it was recommended to me: like an X-Files story on a road trip minus the FBI.

Didn’t know much about either the author or the book itself, but I was intrigued by that pitch and anything inspired by the X-Files was and will always be a point of interest for me.

So I went into this book not knowing much about it, which wasn’t that hard as the blurb barely touches on the actual plot, and that’s the best way to approach it. Go in unaware and let the story slowly reveal itself to you. It’s worth the experience. The characters are endearing and their journey, unforgettable.

This book has everything–well, almost everything. Big government secrets, fugitives on the run, botched cover-ups, road trips, first contact, crazy cults, a love story, and a comet shooting across the sky. None of which makes any sense until you start reading.

This book is so much more than the sum of its parts, so much more than what I initially thought it was. It’s a journey, it’s an experience, it’s a new way of looking at the world and it makes you want to believe.

The thing that will stay with me long after I finish reading is the humor. I didn’t expect such a somber, sobering novel to have so many laugh-out-loud moments embedded within the text.

It took awhile to suck me in, over 30%, but once I was in it, I found myself unable to put it down. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to finish in one sitting because you have to know how it ends, but at the same time, you don’t want it to end.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

So a rough sketch of the premise is:

The year is 1995 and a comet is making its way across the sky, inspiring a bunch of conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials, Roswell, and what the government is keeping from the people.

Nate Cartwright, who just lost his dream job as a journalist for the Washington Post, gets a call from his estranged brother letting him know that their parents, who were also estranged from Nate, have died. His father has left him an old pickup truck and his mother, a cabin in the woods of Oregon.

So Nate, adrift and grieving and angry, leaves his life in DC behind and heads for the cabin in the woods with the intention of taking some time off to gather his thoughts and figure out his next career move. Once there, though, he finds two squatters in the cabin. Alex, a gruff ex-military guy with a huge chip on his shoulder, and with him, Art, a little girl about ten years old and very precocious but not so as to be annoying.

It’s a weird situation and a surreal experience, so weird and surreal that Nate couldn’t help but get pulled into it. He lets them stay in the cabin and slowly become entangled in their lives. Once trouble, in the form of secret government agents, catches up to them, they all go on the run. The journey takes them from the Pacific Northwest all the way to the East Coast; it’s quite delightful, given the circumstances.

On this cross-country road trip, Nate finds out who and what Art really is. Then, he learns of Alex’s connection to her, and Nate’s mind gets sufficiently blown by all these back-to-back revelations. Again, it’s really funny.

“Don’t drive away,” Art said, eyes wide as she stared at Nate. “If you do, there is nowhere you can run where I couldn’t find you.”

Nate gaped at her.

“Knock it off,” Alex said, cuffing the back of her head.

“I was just kidding!”

“Does it he look like he knows that?”

“It’s not my fault Nate’s mind is being expanded in ways he never expected.”

[…]

“What’s that look on your face?” Art asked. “Is that what sheer terror looks like? I mean, yesterday you looked scared because of the guns and the helicopters, but this certainly isn’t that. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone look so white before.”

In the course of the road trip, Nate and Alex also grow closer, like two lost souls recognizing in each other a familiar sense of loneliness. It’s very sweet watching these two get to know each other, and I’m glad they got their happily ever after.

“Does that mean you like me?” Nate wondered aloud, as if Alex wasn’t capable of reaching over and strangling him with one hand. “Because I think that means you like me. At least a little bit.”

“Absolutely not,” Alex retorted. “I don’t like anything about you.”

“Well, that’s certainly not true. You seemed to like how I look in the morning when i drink coffee. Saw that image a couple of times.”

My only quibble with this story is Nate’s reluctance to get on board with the situation he’s found himself in. It takes too long for him to accept the reality that there are [*mumbling spoilers*] out there. I mean, he’s a journalist in DC before this road trip, so he should have been used to uncovering outlandish stories and been quicker on the uptake. But at least he got in the end.

“You make yourselves a home out of nothing. Out of a place where one should not exist. You carried each other until your knees gave out and you stumbled. It’s always impossible to understand. None of us could get that. not until they felt a heart beating in a chest like I have. Not until I felt the bones beneath my skin. We’re not alike. Not really. We’re separated by time and space. And yet, somehow, we’re all made of dust and stars. I think we’d forgotten that. And I don’t know if you ever knew that to begin with. How can you be alone when we’re all the same?”

[…]

And strangely, somehow [Nate] was okay with it. He was okay with all of it. He’d been lonely. He’d been sad. But he’s found a purpose. He’s found a reason. Two, in fact. If he died right here, right now, there was a very real possibility that he’d done something good. That his life had mattered. That he’d loved and been loved in return.

[…]

[Nate] thought they were getting close to an ending, one the precipice of a new beginning. It didn’t matter. Home didn’t always have to be a place. Home could be a person too.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the way in which it took me on a transformative journey along with the characters from start to finish. Like the them, I actually felt like I became a different person by the end of the book.

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Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shinn

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Reading: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: August 29 to September 6, 2018
Location: Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport

Another surprising read of 2018. I expected to like this book, but didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, and it was just what I needed to pull me out of my weird reading slump.

I bought this out-of-print book at a used bookstore because I liked the look of the cover and thought the brief summary on the back was interesting, but I had no idea what was inside. This was the best kind of surprise.

Can’t really say much about the plot or characters without giving too much away; I can only say that both are intertwined in an interestingly layered and nuanced way. In short, this book is about having faith and losing faith and finding your way back to what you lost. The brief summary on the back cover doesn’t do it justice, but I don’t know if there is a way to summarize this story and capture what it’s really about. I’ll work on it.

I had never read anything by Sharon Shinn before, only heard a lot about her over the years since I started reading genre fiction again. Now I look forward to reading everything she’s ever written.

2018: Year in Review

What a year. Feels like 35 years squeezed into one though. And I’m glad it’s almost over. Not confident next year would be any better. But it can’t get any worst, yeah? Hah hah… hah. *screams internally*

Really hard to choose the best read of the year at this point because they’ve all been great in their own way. So I chose to list the most memorable reads, the ones that meant the most to me, many of which deserve second or third read through.

Best of and most memorable reads of 2018 (in order of date read):

Touch
by Claire North
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (BOOM. 5 STARS. RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE.)
review

Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
review

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell #3) *
by Deanna Raybourn
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Taltos (Vlad Taltos #4)
by Steven Brust
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Phoenix (Vlad Taltos #5)
by Steven Brust
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Winter Tide (The Innsmouth Legacy #1)
by Ruthanna Emrys
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)
by Jodi Taylor
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
review

City of Bones by Martha Wells **
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
review
old review

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)
by Tana French
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
review

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives *
edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
short note

Carnival
by Elizabeth Bear
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
review

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Shadowfire (Birthgrave #2)
by Tanith Lee
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
review

In the Lake of the Woods
by Tim O’Brien
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
review

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs #1)
by Richard K. Morgan
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
short note

The Iron Duke (The Iron Seas #1)
by Meljean Brook
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
short note

The Witness **
by Nora Roberts, read by Julia Whelan
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Pride and Prejudice **
by Jane Austen, read by Rosamund Pike
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Night’s Master (Tales of the Flat Earth #1)
by Tanith Lee
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
short note

World of the Lupi
by Eileen Wilks
Tempting Danger ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
short note
Mortal Danger ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Books of the Raksura **
by Martha Wells
The Cloud Roads ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ (review of books 1-3)
The Serpent Sea ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Siren Depths ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stories of the Raksura, Volume 1 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (review)
Stories of the Raksura, Volume 2 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (short note)

Jade City (Green Bone Saga #1)
by Fonda Lee
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
review

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) *
by Martha Wells
★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Iron & Velvet (Kate Kane #1)
by Alexis Hall
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
review

Mnevermind
by Jordan Castillo Price
The Persistence of Memory ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Forget Me Not ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Life is Awesome ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo *
by Jill Twiss
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
short note

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister #0.5)
by Courtney Milan
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
review

The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister #1)
by Courtney Milan
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
review

Obama: An Intimate Portrait
by Pete Souza
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
short note

Wrapt in Crystal
by Sharon Shinn
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
review

The Girl Who Chased the Moon
by Sarah Addison Allen
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
short note

Babette’s Feast **
by Isak Dinesen
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Blackthorn & Grim
by Juliet Marillier
Dreamer’s Pool ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Tower of Thorns ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Den of Wolves ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
old review

Pangs of Love: Stories
by David Wong Louie
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

Circe *
by Madeline Miller
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
short note

In Midnight’s Silence (Los Nefilim #1)
by T. Frohock
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London #7) *
by Ben Aaronovitch
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
short note

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
by K. J. Charles
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Midnight Riot (Rivers of London #1) **
by Ben Aaronovitch
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
old review

Od Magic
by Patricia A. McKillip
★ ★ ★ ★ ½ (Almost 5 stars. A pleasant end to an awful year life-wise.)
short note

*new releases
**rereads

* * * * *

Before last year, I was a serial abandon-er of books that I just wasn’t “feeling” for whatever reason. It didn’t take much for me to do so either because, as I’d figured, I had more books to get through than time to spare, and any book that felt like it was wasting my time got dropped, often as soon as I had finished reading the sample chapter.

But then last year happened and it changed my whole outlook on abandoning books too soon. What really happened was I simply decided to stop abandoning seemingly boring books and instead push through them, and the result was what I’d initially thought of as boring actually turned out to be great and quite enjoyable. Half the year was over before I realized I would have been missing out on all these great reads if I hadn’t given them a chance to grow on me.

Of course, not everything I read last year was great, but a significant number of them were and they’d started out as “meh” or boring or just slow. Just to name a few: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emerys, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, Jade City by Fonda Lee, Shadowfire by Tanith Lee, Circe by Madeline Miller. All turned out to be fairly great reads, and all had slow beginnings.

Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

#1. The Birthgrave
#2. Shadowfire (formerly Vazkor, Son of Vazkor)
#3. Quest for the White Witch

These books are intense. Like, INTENSE. Mind-blowing. Ground-breaking (only sort of a pun). And easily the best sword-and-sorcery series I’ve ever read, which might not mean much coming from me since I’m not a fan of the genre in general, but recently I learned it’s because I haven’t read any good sword-and-sorcery. None that fit my particular taste. Until now.

Tanith Lee’s writing fit the bill. Some people don’t like her prose and say she had a tendency to over-write her stories, that she was too flowery with her words, too elegant or too extravagant at times. I like it though. I know it can be hard to read, might take some time getting used to, but I like it. I find it very enjoyable, especially when it’s at odds with the intensity of the stories she was telling.

This trilogy was originally released with Conan-the-Barbarian-esque cover art, complete with scantily-clad women in awkward poses, to convey the style of fantasy its written in… and appeal to its “target” audience? It’s target audience is actually me… but who could have known that back then, right? Recently the whole trilogy was re-released with darker, slightly gothic-looking covers (see below) that are more in line with the characters and apocalyptic world in which they live, which I prefer. 

I still have the last book to read, so below are not quite reviews, just some brief notes and impressions.

* * * * *

The Birthgrave

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: June 21 to September 2, 2015

A hard book to read and an even harder book to like. And I enjoyed it very much, mostly because I have strange taste in genre fiction and strange books always call out to me, but I think, if the mood is right and you’re looking for something with depth, with flesh, to sink your teeth into, you might want to give this challenging book a try.

The writing is subversive and sublime and unexpectedly hard-hitting, and not what I expected from the Conan the Barbarian throwback cover and description. I simply expected Conan the Barbarian but told from a female perspective, which sort of what this book is. It takes Conan as the foundation for which the story builds on to create a whole new world that’s on the edge of destruction and reincarnation.

And I find every part of it fascinating because it really delves into and takes advantage of all the things that genre adventures often ignore, like the inner life of a confusing character who is, by all accounts, an alien. She is definitely not of the world in which she walks. And in most stories written in this genre, she would’ve been ignored or killed early on. Here, though, she gets to tell her tale.

* * * * *

Shadowfire (Birthgrave #2)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 14 to 18, 2018

Still good but still a hard read like the first book. Unlike the first book though, we’re no longer following the mysterious nameless woman who emerged from a volcano, broke the world into pieces, and set a host of apocalyptic things into motion.

Instead, we move on to her son’s perspective, Vazkor (son of Vazkor). He’s an angry young man who was raised in a society that valued violence, might, and masculinity. He grew up without his mother, only having heard tales of her in a destructive, demeaning light all his life. So when he grows up, he does the expected thing. He sets out to kill her.

I’m not saying he isn’t within his rights, but the reason behind his revenge journey is… weak. His mother would not have approved.

Still an interesting story and still well written, but maybe not as compelling as the nameless woman’s story because it lacks the nuanced, alien feel of her narration. Vazkor is more in line with the series’ old Conan the Barbarian inspired book covers. He’s more human in his wants, needs, and motivations, and therefore not as interesting to me.

These books though… when I see or hear people say “pillars of the genre” and then name the usual names and list the usual books, I always wondered what my pillars of the genre would have been if I had grown up reading sci-fi and fantasy. I think this series would have easily made my list.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: April 26 to 29, 2018

This is a deceptively angry book. It may look normal and unassuming on the outside, even boring, but on the inside, it’s a slow-building, roiling, burning rage, the kind that sucks you in and makes you burn along with it. And I could not stop reading or even look away. Finished it in 36 hours. All I did this weekend was read this book and let it burn.

Beautifully written, bitterly frustrating, angry and wholly unexpected.

Looks real black and white now–very clear–but back then everything came at you in bright colors. No sharp edges. Lots of glare. A nightmare like that, all you want is to forget. None of it ever seemed real in the first place.

[…]

Would it help to announce the problem early on? To plead for understanding? To argue that solutions only demean the grandeur of human ignorance? To point out that absolute knowledge is absolute closure? To issue a reminder that death itself dissolves into uncertainty, and that out of such uncertainty arise great temples and tales of salvation?

[…]

I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence. Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.

[…]

The afternoon had passed to a ghostly gray. She was struck by the immensity of things, so much water and sky and forest, and after a time it occurred to her that she’d lived a life almost entirely indoors. Her memories were indoor memories, fixed by ceilings and plastered white walls. Her whole life had been locked to geometries: suburban rectangles, city squares. First the house she’d grown up in, then dorms and apartments. The open air had been nothing but a medium of transit, a place for rooms to exist.

The theme “you can’t ever go home again” prevails infuriatingly throughout the writing, cementing the fact that, here in this story, you really can’t go home again.

Normally I hate fiction that leaves the reader without closure or an ending. Why read books that imitate real life when there’s already too much real life in your own life? That has always been my reason for staying away from contemporary fiction. But it’s different with this book and its open ending and lack of closure and lack of subtlety, all because it’s Tim O’Brien (better known for his memoir of his experience in the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried). There’s a sharpness to his writing that has always spoken to me. It’s almost as though I get him and what he’s saying. No one writes about memory and pain like Tim O’Brien, and no one writes about being lost in the wilderness of post-traumatic stress quite like he does.

My heart tells me to stop right here, to offer quiet benediction and call it the end. But the truth won’t allow it. Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of us. Who are we? Where do we go? The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating, but this is a love story. There is no tidiness. Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.

This book found me at the right time and in the right state of mind to appreciate its infuriating complexity. In a different mood, at a different time, and I would have no doubt stopped reading somewhere about page 20. But there was something about this past weekend that made this book call out to me. Every word, every line, made sense in a way that contemporary fiction rarely does for me. Maybe it’s Tim O’Brien. Or maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe I just wanted to get lost in the woods or a lake (preferably one that’s accessible only by helicopter).

Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1) by Jodi Taylor

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: February 12 to 24, 2018

RIVETING.

If I didn’t have to work for a living, I would have finished this book in a single night, and then reread it immediately. And then maybe once more in audio because it was that kind of book and exactly what I needed.

I honestly did not expect this book to be so funny, or rather, I didn’t expect it to feature dry British humor so heavily. It had me laughing so hard, so many times, I could not read it in public. And then there were times when it had devastatingly honest commentary that made for some hard reading, but the humor certainly helped to offset the heavier moments.

This book is not without faults or shortcomings by any means. The beginning is slow and longish and very explain-y. You have to wade through a ton of background and set-up info before the action gets going, and the real action doesn’t start until half-way through the book. But it’s got a great cast of characters and snappy dialogue and, once the action started, things happened quickly. Literally, it was just one damned thing after another.

I really like Madeleine Maxwell, simply called Max, as the narrator. She is funny (often without meaning to be),smart quirky, and honest, and I had a great time following her on her journey to the cretaceous period.

Since the quirky characters and their nerdy, haphazard, time-traveling ways are so endearing, I find that I don’t really mind all the other stuff. All the things that normally bother me, things that plague all time-travel books such as plot holes and continuity issues and the method of time-travel itself, don’t really register. Sure, they’re noticeable if you look into them, but I don’t really care (this time). Just gonna enjoy the ride (through time).

Long series are a blessing when you find one that fits. I personally love long series, but rarely do I find one that makes me want to keep reading. This one is one of those rare ones. Good thing there are 8 more books and a couple of short stories already written.

A few memorable moments:

“I certainly wasn’t where I should be and it would be the cautious, the sensible thing to do. But, for God’s sake, I was an historian and cautious and sensible were things that happened to other people.”

[…]

“The Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings was the official body whose task it was to oversee repairs and maintenance to our beloved but battered listed building. We had them on speed-dial. They had us on their black list.”

[…]

“Time is important in our organisation. If you can’t even get to an appointment in your own building on time, they argue, you’re not going to have much luck trying to find the Battle of Hastings.”

[…]

“And finally, I have been asked by Mrs Partridge to raise this issue. As some of you may struggle to remember, next month is your annual appraisal and I’m advised by Mrs Partridge that some of the forms you were asked to complete as a preliminary need… more work.

“Your personal details update form… Mr Sussman; you are not a Jedi Knight. Kindly amend the details in Box 3–Religion. Ditto Mr Markham, Mr Peterson, Miss Maxwell, Mr Dieter and Miss Black.”

 

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: October 9 to 21, 2015
Recommended for: fans of sea monsters and snarky prose

Harrison Squared is perfectly autumn and perfectly Halloween, which is why I’m now putting up a short write-up that I wrote awhile ago. Out of season. In spring. Over 2 years after having first read it.

Anyhow, this is another fun read by Daryl Gregory. I’m convinced he can write anything and I hope he does–write everything, I mean–because he’s got a great way with words, well-timed humor, and a way of turning familiar, tired, old tropes into something new and exciting. They’re still tropes, but he makes them fun to read.

This is my 4th Daryl Gregory book (Afterparty, We Are All Completely Fine, Raising Stony Mayhall), and I still find him exciting. It’s still exciting to see his name on the new release list, and I’m still trying to make room in my reading schedule for his latest, Spoonbenders.

Every autumn, I try to plan a vaguely Halloween-themed reading list, but rarely follow through because I’m a mood reader, forever destined to follow whatever the mood calls for. So I pick up whatever that “feels right.” Some years I get lucky and end up with vaguely autumnal books, and other years I get typical YA paranormals (because people keep recommending them). This year, though, I’ve been lucky in my picks. Almost every book picked up from the beginning of October to now goes quite well with Halloween. They all have that quintessential chilling undertone that I always associate with this time of the year, and this book is among the best of them.

In short, I was thinking about this book today and so just wanted to briefly recommend this book to anyone queuing up their autumn reading list. There’s a good blend of creepiness and humor, and the characters and setting are a lot of fun. If fishy dodgy small towns, open water, Lovecraftian sea creatures, and urban legends are any interest to you, I would highly recommend this book.

She looked up at us. “Who are you?”

“I’m Rosa Harrison,” Mom said.

“This is my son, Harrison.”

“And his first name?” She stared at me with tiny black eyes under fanlike eyelashes.

“Harrison,” I said. Sometimes—like now, for example—I regretted that my father’s family had decided that generations of boys would have that double name. Technically, I was Harrison Harrison the Fifth. H2x5 . But that was more information than I ever wanted to explain.

[…]

Dr. Herbert waved. This gesture was made a bit threatening due to the fact that he was holding a scalpel, and the sleeve of his coat was streaked with blood up to the elbow. His uncovered eye blinked wetly at me. “Have you taken biology?” the doctor asked.

“Freshman year,” I said.

“Oh,” the doctor said. He sounded disappointed. Suddenly he brightened. “Have you taken cryptobiology?”

I grinned. “In my family, cryptobiology isn’t a course, it’s dinner conversation.”

“I like this boy!” Dr. Herbert said.

[…]

This was the problem with a small school in a small town. Not only did the students all look like each other, they’d all developed the same nervous tics. It made me wonder about inbreeding. Take off their shoes, and did they have webbed feet? Was the weird-looking fish boy who’d stolen my book just a relative on the more damaged branch of the family tree?

[…]

Oh no, I thought. Physical Education.

And then I realized it was even more horrible than that. The boys began to pull on swim trunks. This wasn’t just PE; it was swimming.

Some of the boys glanced at me. I stood there, holding my backpack, not moving. I was not about to get naked in front of these ignorami. I waited until one by one they made their way out the far exit. When there were just a handful of boys left in the changing room, I went out to the pool.

[…]

I stood up and stifled a yelp. The pale shape coursed toward the edge of the pool at tremendous speed. At the last moment, the water broke, and the creature threw itself onto the deck. It slid a few feet, then threw out its arms and rose up on its belly like a walrus.

It was a man. A bald man, fat and white as a beluga. He smiled. “Who’s ready for laps?”

[…]

“When the supernatural turns out to be real, it’s not super natural anymore—it’s just nature. Yes, it may be strange, uncanny, or frightening. It’s always scary to find out that the world is bigger and more complex than you thought.”

[…]

They were all sure they’d fulfilled their holy duty and that the destruction of the human world was nigh.

Cults. They always thought the glass was half-doomed.

The Book of Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1-3) by Steven Brust

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Jhereg: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Yendi: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Teckla: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: December 16, 2016 to April 30, 2017

Amazing books. Amazing journey. Very memorable characters. I love Vlad and this world of dragons and dragon people and their layered politics, and I can’t wait to get started on the second omnibus.

I have a thing about reading series in order, and it was with a lot of reluctance and much hand-wringing that I read this series out of chronological order. I had gotten almost the whole series in these omnibus editions that “organized” the books in publication order (i.e. definitely not chronological order), and figuring out where to start or jump in took up too much time. So I just started with the first book of the first omnibus, which was Jhereg, and soon found that the order was not that big a deal for this series, as many people have told me before.

The order in which you read doesn’t affect your enjoyment that much because each book could be read as a standalone–sort of, “technically.” I could explain further now that I’ve read the first three books, set in three different points of Vlad Taltos’ life and career, but the explanation is… gonna get complicated, more complicated.

Suffice it to say I really enjoyed all three books, maybe the third one a little less than the previous two, but that’s only because it contained too many real life implications that mirrored some of my own and reading about those things are never fun.

The writing is great, however, and I never felt it faltering once. This doesn’t mean much unless or until you take into account the series’ complete timeline and you see where each book falls (how years apart they are, how much happens in between). Only Then you would realize the depth and complexity of this world and how writing a series out of order like this is unbelievably difficult. Steven Brust did this all the while maintaining continuity and coherence AND not letting the overarching story line falter, not even once.

It’s amazing, and I’m nothing short of impressed.

Carnival by Elizabeth Bear

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: March 15 to 30, 2018

Between 4 and 5 stars, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

at once familiar and alien, like coming home to a place where you used to live.

It must seem like all I do these days is like or fall in love with every book I read. Not so. I read sample chapters all the time and abandon lots of books. I just don’t record them. The ones I do record are usually the memorable ones, many just happen to be favorites. This book is one of them, and wholly unexpected too. The title and cover just don’t convey what’s actually in the book. I mean, could anyone guess what this book is about based on that?

Anyhow. This book is the most fun I’ve had with a political intrigue space opera that’s written in the style of the novel-of-manners in a while. There are depths and layers and it’s a sort of culmination of all the issues we face today, presented in exact strokes, except the story is set in a distant future on an Earth-like planet. But all the things plaguing our world today is still very much present in the distant future, a future in which we colonize planets yet still have time to persecute queer people and have a stranglehold on reproduction rights. It looks as though we did not learn from the past or reconcile with it, and so these problems rear their heads once more, with force, in the future. I think Elizabeth Bear is trying to say something… I just figure out what exactly…

There’s a lot to unpack here, and this book is very hard to sum up because there are too many moving parts and so many layers, and there are just so many things to talk about. But simply, the beauty of reading this is letting the world (and universe) and all its loaded political predicaments reveal themselves to you gradually as you read.

At the start, we have a pair of male agents from the Coalition (hegemony) entering a foreign planet called New Amazonia. Their official purpose is opening trade talks and placating the planet’s leaders, but their unofficial purpose is finding and stealing the planet’s mysterious, much sought after energy source. Since the Coalition has already tried to take the planet once, although unsuccessfully, the agents expect negotiations to be tense, if not outright hostile from the start.

The agents themselves are controversial figures in this already dicey situation. Old lovers, working for an intensely homophobic organization, separated for over 20 years after their affair was outed; it was a high-profile scandal that strained their careers. One of them was sent back to his planet; the other was put through the equivalent of conversion therapy. Now the agents are reunited once again for this mission, which they are expected not only to fail but to fail spectacularly. To add more layers to an already layered problem, each agent has his own agenda and secret mission to carry out once on the planet, unbeknownst to the other.

New Amazonia is ruled by a matriarchal system, and it’s very much what you might imagine if you were to imagine the exact opposite of a patriarchal system. Saying any more would… spoil the fun, but hopefully some of the choice quotes below will give you a glimpse of the matriarchy at work. In short, there’s a lot of tension here and a lot of planet-side factions reacting to the agents’ presence; some are in support of, while most seem to be against.

Of course, not all is harmonious in New Amazonia. There is dissent among the population in the form of fringe groups, and many of them are men’s rights groups to advocate for men’s rights under the strictly matriarchal leadership. There is literally “a radical male-rights movement called Parity,” pronounced “parody,” and I just… This book was published in 2006. Once again, I think Ms. Bear is trying to tell us something, but I just can’t figure out what…

Every player in this game has hidden agendas, and they all are working against each other. So there’s a lot of sparring, scheming, duplicity, and intrigue. The dialogue is easily my favorite thing about this book. Every scene in which the characters discuss a matter of state or business, usually over a banquet, the interaction is heady and charged with a delicious, electric current. The whole book is politically delicious, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

There are some instances and moments that I think were a bit too exacting, too obvious, with the messages conveyed and I thought they could have benefited from some subtlety, but overall, I like this book. I like what it is and what it’s meant to be.

“Now that we’ve established that we think each other monsters, do you suppose we can get back to business?”

[…]

The Coalition was a typical example of what men did to women when given half an excuse: petty restrictions, self-congratulatory patronization, and a slew of justifications that amounted to men asserting their property rights.

[…]

“Not only will whoever’s on top fight to stay there, but if you reset everyone to equality, whoever wins the scramble for power will design the rules to stay there.”

[…]

“Just because we’ve disavowed Old Earth history doesn’t mean we fail to study it. You can file that one with sense of humor, if you like.”

[…]

“Traditionally, the responsibility for safety falls on the victim. Women are expected to defend themselves from predators. To act like responsible prey. Limit risks, not take chances. Not to go out alone at night. Not talk to strange men. Rely on their own, presumably domesticated men for protection from other feral men—in exchange for granting them property rights over the women in question.”

“And the New Amazonian system is superior in what way?”

“Punishes the potential predator and arms the potential victim. If men cannot control themselves, control will be instituted. Potential predators are caged, regulated.”

[…]

This is what we are when we’re left to our own devices—savage, selfish, short-sighted. […] But free. Any government founded on a political or religious agenda more elaborate than “protect the weak, temper the strong” is doomed to tyranny.

[…]

“So slavery is more moral than engineering out aggression.”

“It’s not chattel slavery.”

“No,” Kusanagi-Jones said. “An extreme sort of second-class citizenship.”

“Not much worse than women in the Coalition.”

“Women in the Coalition can vote, can work—”

“Can be elected to the government.”

“Theoretically.”

“Practically?”

“Doesn’t happen.”

[…]

There were a lot of weird worlds, a lot of political structures based on points of philosophy. Not all the ships of the Diaspora had been faster than light, even; humanity had scrambled off Earth in any rowboat or leaky bucket that might hold them, and dead ships were still found floating between the stars, full of frozen corpses.

Vincent found it alternately creepy and reassuring when he considered that no matter how strange the culture might be, every single world out there, every instance of intelligent life that he had encountered, claimed common descent from Earth.

[…]

Strike two for utopia. The problem with the damned things always comes when you try to introduce actual people into your philosophical constructs.

Another excellent buddy read with Beth.

Touch by Claire North

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: January 2 to 8, 2018

This is my first read of the year, and already it’s starting out with a high. Solid 5 stars through and through.

So brilliant, so beautiful, and absolutely breathtaking. I have no words for what I am feeling right now after having just turned the last page. And now that this book is over, I am utterly lost. Why couldn’t it be longer? Why isn’t there more? And yet it ended on such a perfect note. I haven’t read a plot coming together this succinctly in a while, so I am currently basking in the brilliance of all the pieces falling into place.

An immortal entity called Kepler has the ability to jump from body to body and take over it completely. He becomes that person for a period of time and lives their life–works their job, interacts with their friends and family, drives their car, wears their clothes, spends their money–and then he jumps to another body when he’s done with that life or gets bored. And he’s been doing it for centuries. He’s lived a multitude of lives, as men, as women, old, young, rich, poor, and everything in between.

And then one day, while in a new body and enjoying the novelty of the new body, he is gunned down on the street. Right after he is shot though, he jumps into this killer’s body and takes it over. What follows is an intense, white-knuckle race across Europe to find out who is out to kill him. To do so, he has to work backwards starting with his killer’s identity and working back to his associates and all their tangled connections and then all the way back to the person who hired him. Each leg of the journey reveals something shocking about himself, all the lives he’s lived, all the people he’s known, and the person who’s after him.

Kepler is… hard to define and not a character you could easily root for. He’s also a lot of things, but at the core, he is selfish. He wants to live and continue living, at the expense of the people whose lives he takes over. All his actions and motivations are aimed at this simple truth: he wants to live. This precisely why I find him totally believable as an immortal. He may be selfish, but at least he’s honest about his selfishness and will to live. He makes no excuses because he has this need that drives him to live life to the fullest and experience all that life has to offer, even when it’s someone else’s life and he is just borrowing it for the moment.

Most of the immortals in books I’ve read never achieve this level of selfishness or honesty. They were all too human in their wants and needs. Some even went as far as giving up their immortality for love. (Yes, for love… and that’s totally believable because… reasons?) Kepler though is utterly, single-mindedly a glutton for life, and he lives in such a way that makes you want to life your life to its fullest potential.

Aside from brilliant, this book is also slippery, difficult to grasp and even more difficult hang onto. It took over my every waking moment for the past week and a half and yet it feels like no time has passed at all. It feels like I inhaled a whole new world in one sitting, and now I am slowly returning to mine and feeling as though something is missing, as though there is a hole the exact shape of this book missing from my life and it’s a weighty kind of absence. The remedy for that is to read more Claire North, and I will soon, but not just yet. I’m not ready to move on away from this book yet. This book hangover needs to linger and work itself out before I can move on.

Claire North is a genius, which comes as no surprise to me since I know her from her Kate Griffin days with the brilliant and brilliantly satisfying urban fantasy series Matthew Swift. But this book is something else altogether. Very different, very unexpected, an all-consuming experience I was not ready for. And yet, it has Kate Griffin’s fingerprints in the details. So familiar and welcoming, it’s like coming home again. No one can make cities, lifetimes, and urban magic come alive like she can.

Meticulously written, beautifully executed. Every word, every line has a purpose. No space wasted. No time wasted. I loved everything about this book.

“Nothing is ever quite enough. No matter who you are, there’s always something more to be had, which could be yours if only you were someone else.”

[…]

“Their fear is the fear of the funfair ride where reason tells you the seat belt will keep you safe. True fear is the fear of doubt; it is the mind that will not sleep, the open space at your back where the murderer stands with the axe. It is the gasp of a shadow passed whose cause you cannot see, the laughter of a stranger whose laugh, you know, laughs at you.”

[…]

“It is perhaps the simplicity of his affection, the patience of his understanding and loyalty that makes him too easy to love, for his love is taken for granted by many, who give back nothing in return.”

[…]

“I have no time for boiled sausages, or boiled vegetables of any nature really, and cannot for the life of me comprehend why anyone would still insist on serving dishes whose whole cooking process consisted of exposure to water, to freely invited guests.”

[…]

“How the fuck do I know that my better is anything more than the great big fat lie we tell ourselves to justify the slow fat nothing of our days.”

I’m not surprised Kate Griffin can write a believable immortal. She can write anything and make you believe it. It’s witchcraft.