1st Avenue

"There's always money in the banana stand."

Review: City of Bones (no, not that one)

City of Bones - Martha Wells

Not the book everyone thinks of when they hear "City of Bones," unfortunately. I have no idea what that one is about, but this one is actually about bones. Cities and wastelands littered with bones and sand and an ancient mystery tied to bones (among other things) and a lot of mysticism revolving around the usage of bones, hence the relevant title.

 

I think most readers would give this book a 3- to 4-star rating, but for me it's nearly 5 stars. I rarely reread a book right away after finishing it the first time around--this book made me to that. I rarely wish books were longer--this book made me do that too. After finishing this book a second time, I wished it was part of a series. There's still so much left that can span a continuous series. The easy pacing, engaging characterization, interesting plotting, and overall atmosphere of the story made it an very enjoyable read.

 

Without further ado, this is a post-apocalyptic semi-steampunk desert fantasy, which means it's mostly fantasy with some interesting sci-fi parts.

 

As depicted on the front cover, this story takes place in a barren setting overrun by deserts and wastelands. The few cities left alive following a long-ago apocalypse are struggling to survive under a lot of strain--socially, economically, religiously, spiritually, morally, etc. It's not clear when or how the apocalypse came about due to all records being destroyed, but it was probably some centuries ago.

 

The main story takes place in Charisat, the largest and wealthiest surviving city surrounded by the Waste, former oceans that have been turned into vast fiery desert pits. What's special about Charisat is that it's a multi-level (Tier) city and its citizens' socio-economic statuses are tied to where they live on these Tiers, with the highest Tiers set aside for royalty, politicians, and religious figures; the middle Tiers are for merchants; and the lowest Tiers are for the poor, non-citizens, and other outcasts. More about Charisat below*.

 

Half of the adventure/mystery in this story is focused on digging into the past, discovering pieces of relics--ancient artifacts--and figuring out their actual functions. The belief is that all of these relics are small pieces of a huge system of some kind that the Ancients--people living before the apocalypse--made and used somehow. The only people believed to know how to use these machines were the Survivors--those who survived the apocalypse--but for some reason, these people did not pass on the knowledge to their descendants. They only left cryptic textbooks, strange notes, and weird drawings behind, as crazy ancestors tend to do. Hunting down these relics and bartering for them, or in some cases stealing them outright, is the other half of the adventure/mystery. And what's an adventure without political and religious intrigue and a crazy cult chasing after the relic hunters? Of course time is as limited as water once everyone realizes that by piecing the relics together they begin to unravel the mystery of the apocalypse.

 

The relic hunters are: Khat, a not quite human non-citizen hiding in Charisat from a mysterious past; Sagai, also a non-citizen, relic scholar, and Khat's partner in crime; and Elen, a young determined scholar mage ("Warder") from the upper Tiers on a secret mission. Due to their extensive knowledge of history and valuable relics, Khat and Sagai are hired on (read: forced) to help Elen in her search. They don't have much choice in the matter since they're lower-Tiered immigrants who don't want to offend the authorities or get kicked out of the city by refusing to help. Don't worry, there's no love triangle here, but things do become more tense as these three come closer to unraveling the mystery.

 

The setting is both fantastical and realistic. It's a feat of imagination, but at the same time, the depictions borrow from familiar cultures and customs of the Middle East, such as veils and preservation of identity as a social status. The terrains and climates are distinctly that of a desert world, and details pertinent to both city and society (of Charisat) are casually slipped into narration and conversations to reinforce the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place that feels vaguely familiar. Dry heat, searing sand, scorching sun, burning paved roads, gleaming rooftops, billowing dust clouds--all minor details that add to the overall atmosphere of the story.

 

What I really like about this story is that within the confines of the story Martha Wells is able to make a series of quick socially relevant commentary without weighing the story down or taking time away from the plot to get her point across. Some of the topics she brings up are immigration, citizenship, race, poverty, and these social problems are connected. Wells doesn't burden the reader with confrontations of abject oppression. Instead, she shows it by casually slipping it into plot and characterization, like in Khat's situation. He knows enough to stay away from the authorities, but when he's hired to help them, he can't refuse or he'd risk his life and safety. By helping them, he's also risking his life and safety, but he's guaranteed commission in return. That's just one of the burden of being a non-citizen.

 

While Sagai may be a foreigner, he's a human foreigner and therefore subjected to less discrimination than Khat, who is also a foreigner but not of human origins, but Khat still manages to live with these "short comings" by conducting his business according to his social parameters. His adaptation to life in Charisat is only a glimpse of the lower-Tiered experience, and his survival and hard-earned place on the Sixth Tier in the city are a testament to all the things he's had to overcome to hang on to the Sixth Tier.

(show spoiler)

 

* More on the social order of Charisat:

 

 

Citizens must fight to stay on their Tiers or risk being push down a Tier--and another Tier and so on. Those on the Seventh and Eight Tiers fear losing their places the most because, if or once they fall, they would be cast out of the city and forced to fend for themselves out in the Waste, where pirates and strange carnivorous creatures roam. As for non-citizens, they are relegated to the lower Tiers and only permitted to work, but not live, on upper Tiers.

 

There's a great shortage of water and vegetation, and like all societies dependent on limited (precious) resources, water is sacred, but can also be used as commodity. Citizens' socio-economic statuses also tie to their access to clean water, once again with the people on the higher Tiers receiving the cleanest water and the people on the lower Tiers having limited access to poor quality water.

 

The story starts out on the Fifth Tier, where everyday life is all right, not great but not terribly lacking either. Citizens on this Tier are stable and satisfied with their lots. Then the story moves to the Sixth Tier where Khat and Sagai live, and differences between the two Tiers are noticeable. The Sixth Tier is cramped, dusty, loud, stuffy, and hot, all signs of a slum, but as the story moves to the lower Tiers, we see that the Sixth Tier isn't so bad because the Seventh and Eighth Tiers are actual slums in comparison. Everything smells of the sewers, living quarters are terrible, the water quality is even worse, and citizens and non-citizens face violence on an hourly basis. It is actually survival of the fittest--smartest, fastest, strongest, most ruthless, etc.

 

In contrast, Khat gets the chance visit the upper Tiers during daytime, he's astonished at how clear the atmosphere is, how clean the streets are, how there's no stench wafting in the air and no trash clogging the gutters, and most importantly, how crystal clear the water is. The people on the upper Tiers have access to so much clean water, they don't know what to do with it, so they build fountains in front of every building and clear, odorless water runs free. And there are no authorities around to guard it or charge for the use of it and no gangs or mobs fighting over control of it. Precious clean water is used as decorations and frivolous interior designs, and these upper Tier people don't even give it much thought.

 

The economics of the relic trade market, as well as the illegal Silent (black) Market, in Charisat, which both Sagai and Khat are frequent visitors, is an interesting series of commentary on immigrant restrictions. Along that line, Khat's family and homeland, the Enclave out in the Waste, are another interesting series of commentary. (Will have to return to these two things for a third reading.)

 

(show spoiler)

 

Some quotable moments:

 

 

Personal spaces

     The Warder watched Khat's fumbling attempts to wind the veil, then said grudgingly, "Let me do that."

     Khat hesitated. There were only a few people that he didn't mind coming that close to him, and all of them lived in Netta's house down on the Sixth Tier.

 

Power in play

     In a way she did own Khat and everyone else in Charisat, or she would when she was Elector, since having absolute power over something was equal to ownership. But usually there were buffers between someone in Khat's lowly position and that ownership; powerful Patricians, Trade Inspectors, even Warders, all had to be gotten over or around or through before to word of command actually got down to noncitizen krismen relic dealers on the Sixth Tier. Hearing it so plainly now, so personally, was like feeling the tug of a leash.

 

The privilege of power

     Even Sagai at his most persuasive was only allowed to take out one volume at a time; he called trips to the booksellers tests of humility, and said it was the only place in the city where one paid for the privilege of being reminded that one was a foreigner and a resident of a lower tier, instead of getting it for free from strangers on the street.

 

Duty and snark

     "Just tell him what I said; he'll known you're speaking the truth. Please," [Elen] added more softly. "I can't do this with a clear conscience unless I know you'll tell the Master Warder what happened."

     "Why is a clear conscience necessary?" Sagai asked, not helpfully. "All it takes is a confused sense of duty and a disregard for personal survival."

 

Water for execution

     The water was unexpectedly cold, as if it came straight from Charisat's artesian spring and was never warmed by passing through miles of pipes and cisterns. Some Patricians would pay any amount of minted gold for water this cool, and the Heir was wasting it by drowning people in it.

 

Worth saving?

     Khat wondered what could possibly be going through his mind: after spending a thousand years in self-imposed exile, to suddenly be released into a world that must bear little resemblance to the one he had left behind. Khat cleared his throat and said, "Well, was it worth saving?"

     Sevan turned, his face shadowed by the sun's glare and said, "It has its own beauty, in a strange fashion. Perhaps it was worth it."

 

(show spoiler)

 

Lastly, I always wanted to use this meme, but never had the chance until now.

 

 

(show spoiler)

Warp Speed Scroll

Reblogged from Nostalgia Reader:

Pretty scroll-bait journey through the solar system.

 

Review: Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay, #1)

Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay 1) - Chris Wooding

I think Peter F. Hamilton summed it up best:

     "A fast, exhilarating read [...] the kind of old-fashioned adventure I didn't think we were allowed to write anymore, of freebooting privateers making their haphazard way in a wondrous retro-future world."

 

So, yeah, a lot of fun. That's the best way I can describe the experience of reading this book. It's fast-paced, high-octaned, unpredictable, and fun. The last ten chapters are un-put-down-able.

 

The Ketty Jay is a beloved cargo fighter craft belonging to an extremely unfortunate part-time pirate captain, Darian Frey. The story starts off on the wrong foot for Frey as he is captured and held at gunpoint due to a "small misunderstanding." Unfortunately, things don't get any better for Frey or his ragtag crew as the story progresses. They literally fly from one disaster to another, just barely skirting bullets and explosives enough to save themselves and the Ketty Jay.

 

As a captain, part-time pirate and full-time freelancer, Frey is terribly unfortunate. He's being sought after by the authorities (Century Knights), various scorned thugs (that's why he has to avoid certain cities and ports), and a relentless mercenary to whom he may or may not have personal ties. As much as Frey and his crew try to stay out of trouble and fly under the radar, trouble and the people looking for them always find them just in time. It's a mess, but a fun mess.

 

On top of all of this, Frey and Co. are hired for a risky job only to be framed afterward. And so they go on the run. Again. Just when things couldn't possibly get any worse they stumble on a conspiracy plot. Pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place, and the reason they were framed start making sense. It's only when they set out to clear their names once and for all do they have luck and good timing on their side.

 

I still can't believe this book isn't on TV yet. It's got all the elements of a rollicking drama: adventure, conspiracy, piracy, dodgy aircraft, dogfights, alchemy, necromancy, tortured characters, sly historical references, a whole world that still needs exploring, and of course, weird technology that comply with weird physics. On second thought, I'm glad it's not on TV. The last time something like this was on TV it was canceled almost immediately.

 

A lot of reviewers compare Retribution Falls to Joss Whedon's famously canceled TV show Firefly, and I can see how they made that connection because both are similar in tone, setting, and genre, but that's where the similarities end because Retribution Falls is a balanced mix of science fiction and fantasy. The magical elements aren't explored as much as the technological elements in this book, but they're featured enough to show that both do exist, in their various forms and factions, in the world of the Ketty Jay. I don't remember this world having a specific name, so I will refer to it as "the world of the Ketty Jay" since most of the action happens in and around the spacecraft.

 

Not exactly steampunk, although it's very similar in tone. The machines and weapons described are too intricate and advanced to be steampunk, and so far nothing in this book runs on steam. So there's that. I think the supposed time period is best described as a Victorian version of a far off future. Victorian space opera, perhaps?

 

Chris Wooding is a surprisingly good prose writer. I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment. I mean I'm genuinely surprised by his skills--again, not meant to be backhanded. He's good in a subtle kind of way that sneaks up on you when you find yourself invested in the story. Not many genre authors and even fewer steampunk authors are known for their prose prowess. Crafty plotters, cunning character writers, and technologically competent describers aren't usually skilled prose writers. Not saying these authors don't exist; just saying it's not often you come across one when reading genre fiction. Wooding is an exception though. I went into this book expecting a fun action-packed story. What I got is exactly that and a lot more on the side.

 

(show spoiler)

 

Some quotes:

 

 

The moment I knew I'd like this book

     "You just hypnotized a man with your tooth, Crake. Don't talk to me about impossible."

 

At least Frey is honest with himself

     There was a wildness here that he found frightening. It was a jostling, stinking pandemonium of rotted teeth and leering faces. Danger surrounded them. He found he actually missed the specter of the militia. He liked his illegal doings to be conducted within the safety of an orderly civilization. Total lawlessness meant survival based on strength and cunning, and Frey didn't have too much of either.

 

Pieces falling into place

     But a craft was nothing without a crew to operate her and pilots to defend her. A craft was made up of people. The Ketty Jay was staffed with drunkards and drifters, all of them running from something--whether it be memories or enemies or the drudgery of a land-bound life--but since Yortland, they'd been running in the same direction. United by that common purpose, they'd begun to turn into something resembling a crew. And Frey had begun to turn into someone resembling a captain.

 

Goodbyes

     He was tired. Tired of struggling against the grief and shame. Tired of living under the weight of one arrogant mistake, to think that he might summon one of the monsters of the aether and come away unscathed. Tired of trying to understand that awful twist of fortune that had led his niece to his sanctum on that particular night, instead of any other.

     Leave her here, amid the ash and dust. If he didn't wake her up no one ever would. Let her sleep, and perhaps she'd dream of better things.

 

(show spoiler)

Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea - Dina Nayeri

A moving journey about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and coming face to face with drastic cultural and social changes. Told through weaving prose and a believable voice, the narrative is similar to that of other fictional texts written about immigrant struggles, identity, and life. So not unlike the works of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

The story is about young twin girls Saba and Mahtab Hafezi growing up in a fictional farming village in Iran. The girls have a special hobby which is forbidden under the new regime: they love to collect American pop culture and basically everything American. They clip magazine articles about life in America, secretly watch American sit-coms and movies, listen to rock music, and make up stories about how great it would be if they lived in America, instead of where they are now. They dream of a life in which they don't have to live in hiding, the life they had before the revolution. In reality, under the new regime, life is difficult for everyone, but especially for women and girls.

 

One day, Saba and Mahtab, along with their mother, are separated. Saba stays behind with their father. She doesn't remember much about that day or what happened afterward, and so she assumes her mother and sister must have gone to America and that she and her father will join them at a later time. During the separation, to escape from her day to day life, Saba imagines Mahtab living the life they'd always dreamed of somewhere in Middle America and doing normal average American things, like have friends, hang out with her friends, go to school, etc. Basically all the things Saba could not do in Iran. These daydreams and wishes keep her going, she believes, until the day she and Mahtab are reunited.

 

We've all read one too many of these fictional semi-autobiographical narratives to know that these stories, what with an oppressive regime looming in the background, don't end well. So I will only say that Saba does get to go to America later on in the story, and she comes face to face with the reality of an America she never expected. To say any more would spoil the later parts of the book.

 

The focus on America and Americana might turn some people away from this story. Saba and Mahtab put everything American on a pedestal, and their obsession does become grating after a while. But due to their current circumstances, it's understandable that they would put America, as shown on the media, in place of their escapism. Fictional America is a shining beacon of assumed freedom compared to the Khomeini government, whose intent was/is to crack down on Western influence and return Iran to an extremely conservative way of life.

 

A reader who's having a hard time with this book should keep in mind that America, or the ideal image of America, seen through the eyes of an immigrant is vastly different from the America as seen by the people who live here.

 

Those turned off by Americana might want to tune back in because every day life in Iran, both before and after the revolution, is written beautifully and described in specific tangible details. The author Dina Nayeri is an Iranian immigrant, and much of content of this book is taken from her own life and experiences. She is influenced by both American and Persian music, so both are featured a lot throughout the story. It's a good balance, and I find the music enhances the events in the story. It's like having an author-selected soundtrack to go along with the journey. Speak of which, an author-selected list of songs can be found here.

 

(There are a couple of quotes I'd like to add, which I will as soon as I get the book back from a friend, assuming she isn't going to keep it or lend it to another friend.)

 

— — — — —

 

I'd like to thank Heather Kirkpatrick of Riverhead Books and Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy.

Interesting?

I saw a friend adding a new book on my Goodreads feed and thought it looked interesting, so I checked it out. The description is very convincing...

 

(book page)

SPOILER ALERT!

Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

This book is one of the few that works better as an audiobook because it's got lovely flowing sentences that sound great when spoken aloud, and there are all these fantastical sensory details that suck you right into the dreamy magical world of the night circus. The downside, however, is a book that's a chore to read on your own, as I found out (more below the spoilers). I started out reading and I really enjoyed the first few chapters, but then the story dragged on for too long and I lost interest somewhere in the middle and ended up finishing it via Jim Dale on audio. He's amazing. Anyone who's interested in this book should try it on audio first.

 

Now for the hard part. I'll try easing into it.

 

Once in a while you come across a book that you may or may not enjoy, but the experience of reading it teaches you something new about yourself. This book taught me that the older I get, the less patience I have for flowery prose and meandering story arcs (that take too long to lead nowhere...interesting). I think I outgrew purple prose when I realized, too often, they're used as a diversion, rather than a device, to pan the reader's attention away from a weak story or revelation or, in this case,

a lack of a magical battle to the death by two "worthy" opponents who are "madly" in love with each other. The battle to the death is a big deal at the beginning of the story, so for it not to end this way was a huge disappointment for me. The book simply did not deliver. What also disappointed me was that Morgenstern took resorted to a deus ex machina to resolve the "battle to the death" for the purpose of unite the two love birds. So all the build up to this huge confrontation is just all for show.

 

Frankly speaking, I feel cheated, but also glad that I decided get this book from the library instead of purchasing my own copy.

 

(show spoiler)

 

I don't mean that in a terribly negative way. Nice prose is great. Nice prose is necessary (sometimes). Nice prose is always welcomed...as long as it doesn't take up the whole story and/or isn't used as a substitute for plot or character development (because that's a cop out and I'd want my time, effort, and money back).

 

This is my round-about way of saying I didn't like this book as much as I could have, if that makes any sense. I certainly don't hate it. I just hate feeling cheated out of a potentially great story.

 

On the other hand, I feel as though I should like this book more because it's got all the qualifications of a book I would like. And that's why, even though I find the execution of the story unsatisfying, I still can't critique it directly...because it's a lovely book. Also, if you look at its background, you'd be impressed that it started as a nanowrimo draft. From that to what it is now--what it has achieved now--is impressive. Extra credits for that, I suppose?

 

It's a nice book though. Great as an autumn read.

 

Morgentern does have a way with language and a way to make you experience the story, rather than just reading it. Her descriptions of tactile sensations are just lovely. Everything is just lovely actually, from the writing to the world of the night circus to the mystery of magic to the effervescent chill in the air.

 

Unfortunately, that's my problem with it, that everything is too lovely and serves no other purpose than just being lovely. Things started to become grating when I realized the story was going nowhere due to a lack of further plot and character development. Even the intrigue of slight-of-hand and magic established earlier in the story lost their novelty.

 

 

The lovely things in the Night Circus kept building on each other and growing in loveliness, but the rest of the story couldn't keep up. Actually, it stayed stagnant until the end. That annoyed me the most, the repetitiveness of how lovely and meandering the writing became without the depth of a fulfilling story. There was so much that could have been delved into, like Marco's and Celia's awful father figures and terrible childhoods. Morgenstern could have built a whole world around both characters' traumatic pasts, but she didn't. She chose to over look that part of their characterization. Oh, well.

 

(show spoiler)

 

This story could have been much more than what it is. It could have been much more than just lovely. It had a solid foundation to support a much richer, deeper, darker fantasy in the style of Neil Gaiman or Alice Hoffman.

 

Which got me thinking. Maybe it would have been better as a short story.

Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (eBook Original) - Neil Gaiman

This short story is exactly what the title says it's about: talking to girls at a party. What sets it apart from other how-to-pick-up-girls guides is it doesn't show how to pick up girls because it's actually a story, and the girls are not like other girls. And by that, I don't mean they're not like other girls (click for further explanation).

 

As far as Gaiman short stories go, I like this one about as much as the others. It's funny, smart, and unusual, like its forerunners. What's different here is its purposefully stumbling awkward humor.

 

The year is 1970-something and the place is somewhere in the UK. Vic and Enn are two teenage boys experiencing a teenage rite of passage; they're invited to a party and they're determined to interact with girls. However, Enn is inexperienced and has no idea what to expect. So naturally he comes off as awkward and self-conscious (and hilarious but in that secondhand embarrassment kind of way). Vic, on the other hand, is a bit more of a smooth operator.

 

The girls are portrayed as exchange students, and the boys don't doubt that for a minute because, like it's been established, they're inexperienced, but we, as more experienced worldly readers, know better. We pick up on the nuances and various moments between Enn and Vic and the girls that don't seem quite right because they're more awkward than the usual teenage awkwardness.

 

Half of the fun of this story is in the boys trying to figure out how to talk to these girls all the while figuring out they're not like other girls. Literally.

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

"The book is 1,079 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart, and though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, it's deeply felt and incredibly moving. That it was written in three years by a writer under thirty-five is very painful to think about. So let's not think about that. The point is that it's for all these reasons--acclaimed, daunting, not-lazy, drum-tight, very funny (we didn't mention that yet but yes)--that you picked up this book. Now the question is this: Will you read it?"

 

--Dave Eggars, in an essay about why you should read Infinite Jest. The essay later became a foreword, one of several.

 

This paragraph right here is a better review of the book than any I've read and of course better than I could ever sum up because this book defies reviews, summaries, explanations, etc.

 

 

(what is up with Booklikes' quote scripts??)

SPOILER ALERT!

Review: Whispers Under Ground (Peter Grant, #3)

Whispers Under Ground - Ben Aaronovitch

It doesn’t normally take me this long to get through urban fantasy. The book just got away from me. Literally. I lost it, along with the rest of the series, to relatives visiting over Christmas break and didn’t get around to getting another copy until last week. So I’m just making sure to say the dates read have no bearings on how much I like this book.

 

This is another great installment by Ben Aaronovitch and the series definitely improves with each book. All the praises I had for the previous two books also apply here. Not that it should matter, but I feel as though I’m being repetitive when I say how much I like this series and Aaronovitch’s writing.

 

The premise is an American international student is found dead in a subway tunnel. The cause of death is murder, of course, and quite possibly murder by magic, which is why Peter Grant is called to the scene. Now that Leslie May is made apprentice, she also joins in on the investigative work. This case introduces Peter and Leslie to a whole new world of magic, very different from what’s he’s encountered up to now, and the trail takes him under ground into the tunnels, sewers, and more rivers of London. This new world of magic is literally a whole world, a different way of living, under ground.

 

Once again, Aaronovitch has found interesting ways to incorporate London’s history into London’s present time and then work both into the murder mystery and magic of the week. Like the previous two books, this story is another journey into the heart of London, this time literally, and what I really like about that is you learn new things with each chapter. I spent a good part of a weekend looking up London’s messed up sewer systems, and I didn’t mind at all. Another thing I like about these mysteries is that they’re smart and smartly plotted. They’re usually one step ahead of my calculations and that’s just how I like murder mysteries.

 

Some highlights from the book:

 

How the police actually handle your personal information:

     In the old days every police station used to have a collator–an officer whose job it was to maintain boxes of card files full of information of local criminals, old cases, gossip and anything else that might allow the blue-uniformed champions of justice to kick down the right door. Or at least a door in the right neighbourhood.

 

Introducing Sergeant Kumar of the tunnels:

     “If you have to walk the tracks with the juice on, then you stay off the sleepers. They’re slippery. You slip, you fall, you put your hands out and zap.”

     “Zap,” I said. “That’s the technical term for it, is it? What do you call someone who’s been zapped?”

     “Mr. Crispy,” said Kumar.

     “That’s the best you guys can come up with?”

     Kumar shrugged. “It’s not like it’s a major priority.”

 

Introducing DCs Guleed and Carey of the family relations unit:

     The metal was painfully cold under my hands but it took me less than five seconds to get my foot on the top bar, swing myself over and jump down. My shoes skidded on the cobbles but I managed to recover without falling over.

     “What do you think,” asked Carey. “Nine point five?”

     “Nine point two,” said Guleed. “He lost points for the dismount.”

 

[...]

 

     Given that all three of us were Londoners, we paused a moment to carry out the ritual of the “valuation of the property.” I guessed that, given the area, it was at least a million and change.

     “Million and a half easy,” said Carey.

     “More,” said Guleed. “If it’s freehold.”

 

Introducing Molly to the guest:

     “This is Molly,” I said. “Molly–this is Zach who will be staying overnight. Can he use the room next to mine?”

     Molly gave me a long stare and then inclined her head at me, exactly the way Ziggy the dog had, before gliding off towards the stairs. Possibly to put fresh linen on the guest bed or possibly to sharpen her meat cleavers–it’s hard to tell with Molly.

 

Adventures in the sewers:

     “Stop,” I yelled. “Police.” I hoped they would, because I was getting knackered.

     Our fugitive tried to pick up their pace, but my height gave me the advantage.

     “Stop,” I yelled. “Or I’ll do something unpleasant.” I thought about where we were for a moment. “Even more unpleasant than what we’re doing now.”

 

[...]

 

     “Oh, great,” I screamed. “Now we’re a bobsleigh team.”

     “It’s the luge,” yelled Kumar. “It’s only a bobsleigh if you’ve got a bobsleigh.”

     “You two are insane,” shouted Reynolds. “There’s no such thing as a triple luge.”

     Between duckings I glimpsed a patch of grey. I opened my mouth to yell “Daylight” and then really wished I hadn’t when I got a mouthful of diluted sewage.

     It was another intersection. I saw an alcove with a ladder and lunged–only to be swept past, with my fingers centimeters from the metal. My foot hit something underwater hard enough to pitch me over and the world’s first-ever Anglo-American Olympic sewer luge team broke up.

 

The scenes in the sewer had me laughing for a good hour. There plenty more hilarious moments like these, but they edge into spoilers territory so I will refrain from listing all of my favorites.

 

(what is up with Booklikes' quote scripts??)

 

— — — — —

 

A few things I thought were interesting:

 

References to familiar sewer mythology (trolls), under ground urban legends (alligators, cannibals), and cult favorites (raves) scattered throughout the narration are hilarious and cleverly embedded into the narration. I often find myself laughing when something catches me off-guard. What I like about Peter Grant as a narrator is his unabashed sense of duty (“Oi! Stop! Police!”) and his easily distracted mind when on duty (Doctor Who, Harry Potter, LotR, snow, rain, shiny things, etc.). Without magic, there’s a chance he wouldn’t be able to survive on the job for long. Or he’d be relegated to a desk job, as the first book suggested.

 

I rather like the additions to Peter, Nightingale, and Dr. Walid’s Scooby gang: the matter-of-fact Sergeant Kumar of the tunnels, the sarcastic and lecherous Zach of mysterious origins, and young and curious Abigail the hopeful apprentice. Not much love for Leslie May, I’m afraid, muddled explanations below*. I have high hopes for each of these new characters, with the exception of Leslie, and I hope that we’ll get to see Agent Reynolds again in the near future. This might be a stretch though because she’s from across the pond, and it would be quite a stretch to feature her in future mysteries. But she’s in on it (magic) now, so it’d be a waste if this is where the road ends for her.

 

Peter is special, more special than previously suggested. He’s deeply connected to the city somehow and we’ve only just scratched the surface of these connections. He’s able to tap into the heart of London not once but twice now. Well, two and a half times, if you count that one telling moment with Simone near the end of the last book. It’s unclear whether this is a skill all practitioners of magic have or just Peter.

 

* I’m just not feeling the characterization of Leslie May. And Peter’s “more than friends” attraction to her? Not feeling that either. Beverly Brook, on the other hand, I definitely felt the chemistry between Peter and her, but that’s another thing entirely. Back to Leslie. What I do feel is that Leslie is a capable cop and a pretty face, which should relegate her to secondary character status like the rest of the characters in the book who aren’t Peter. This is probably just my knee-jerk response due to Leslie not being featured much in the series up until now, or maybe I just don’t like the characterization because connection between Leslie and Peter seems forced. At best, there’s some attraction there (albeit one-sided and unrequited); at most, it’s just a friendship and strong bond over magic. Aaronovitch could do a lot better than interjecting her into the story by giving her magical inclinations, and by “he could do better,” I mean not forcing her presence into the story. Both Molly and Toby have more presence than Leslie, and Molly doesn’t even talk and Toby is a dog, though an enigmatic one.

 

Maybe bring back Beverly Brook?

(show spoiler)

— — — — —

 

In case it hadn’t been mentioned enough by other reviewers, this series should be a TV series. I hope something is in the works because this series has the makings of a rollicking procedural. Ben Aaronovitch should be involved behind the scenes somehow, and this guy (Alfie Enoch) should definitely play Peter Grant. Seriously. He’s got the looks, attitude, and presence to own the character. Harry Potter fans might know him as Dean Thomas from the movies and Sherlock fans might remember him from that one episode.

SPOILER ALERT!

HuffPo: Saddle Up Your Magical, Winged Space Horse, Let's Answer Some Questions About 'Winter's Tale'

Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin

Q: Is “Winter’s Tale” a story about love?

A: Yes.

 

Q: As all good love stories do, does “Winter’s Tale” feature a magical, winged space horse?

A: Yes.

 

Q: What is the magical, winged space horse’s name?

A: Athansor.

 

Q: Is “Winter’s Tale” the dumbest movie that you've seen in the last year?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Why is “Winter’s Tale” so dumb?

A: Well, first of all, this is a movie that takes itself so seriously, even though the main character, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), flies around on a magical, winged space horse.

 

[...]

 

Q: Does the magical, winged space horse actually fly Peter into space at some point during this movie?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Is it weird that now I want to see this movie?

A: Yes.

 

 

They had me at "magical, winged space horse."

 

Sometimes you find yourself in the mood for a book with depth and challenging commentary, and sometimes you just want a flying horse in fantasy New York. Excuse me, winged space horse.

Review: Go the F--k to Sleep

Go the Fuck to Sleep - Adam Mansbach, Ricardo Cort├ęs

I know I'm way behind, but this is quite possibly the best children's book I've read in the last decade.

 

I didn't think it'd be possible, but the audiobook, read by Samuel L. Jackson, is even better than the book.

 

Highly recommended for sleep-deprived people who have difficult fussy children.

 

Not recommended for the difficult fussy children themselves. Not for the reasons you might think though, like the word fuck on every page in the book. That's not it at all. I just don't think children would enjoy the art work or satirical commentary as much as their parents. The message and lighthearted humor would be lost on them. That's all.

 

Perfect~ birthday gift for every parent you know, especially your own if you just so happen to be a former difficult fussy child. :)

A note from GR

I know I said I will never mention Goodreads again, but this is kind of interesting since it's a take-down notice concerning my review of Uncaged by Joe Gazzam, which violates GR's vague and ambiguous reviewing policies.

 

Joe Gazzam is the creepy-ass author who steals photos of underage teen models to use in his fake accounts to promote his book (Shelby has all the details). Pointing out something like this in the GR review space is not OK, according to GR, because review space is for reviewing books only, not about an author's behavior... no matter how problematic it is?

 

Here's the note itself

 

But lo and behold. GR is doing something about this author. GR is looking into his account. Just his account though, even though he has a legion of fake profiles still updating their fake statuses and recommending his book to everyone they come across.

 

— — — — —

  

[02/08/2014] 38 Calibre Reviews received a strange note from Joe Gazzam trying to "explain" that it was his 12 year old "niece" who was responsible for all the spam and sock puppet accounts and also for stealing photos of underaged teenagers to use in "her" various profiles.

 

[02/10/2014] So who is Joe Gazzam? darkwriter76 attempts to find out, with little luck. It seems Gazzam is a new talented screenwriter, apparently, when he's not pretending to be 12 year old girls on the internet.

 

[02/10/2014] Goodreads has deleted my review, which they said they would if the content stayed the same after 2 days, but it took them 5 days to get around to it. 5 days is actually record time, just ask anyone on GR.

 

Original review:

[2/16/2014] If you thought that's all to it, then you are wrong. Gazzam has since been kicked off GR, but before that, he left a trail of crazy in his wake, as documented here by shelby and tinanicole.

 

[2/22/2014] Turns out Joe Gazzam is still around, even after attempting to go offline by deleting his main twitter account, a few fake accounts, and a couple GR sock puppets. Shelby once again has the latest. Not only is Gazzam still around, he's shown himself to be a homophobe.

Review: Immortal in Death (In Death, #3)

Immortal in Death - J.D. Robb

If you like the previous two books and the way J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts writes, you’ll like this one and the rest of the In Death series too, I’m assuming. The main focus of this installment is on characterization, building up and fleshing out secondary characters, and of course Eve Dallas’ dark past, which resurfaces throughout the book. The revelations of it are very dark, which surprised me because I didn’t think Roberts would take it that far.

 

Eve Dallas is an interesting solid main character with a violent past that she can’t shake and, worse, can’t recall clearly. She’s strong enough to carry this series. Eve’s love interest and her friends and acquaintances are also interesting in their own rights. They add interesting contrasts to her characterization and the murder mysteries. For most of the book, the writing is fine. A bit blunt at times and somewhat confusing due to shifting POVs, sometimes within the same paragraph, while two or more characters are discussing evidence and possible suspects. But the overall story is fine, sort of repetitive though since it’s similar in tone to the previous two books.

 

The thing that keeps me from liking this series is Nora Roberts’ distinctive writing style. She leans too much on the love lives of both main and secondary characters, which is expected since Roberts comes from a romance writing background. What’s not expected is how she seems to go out of her way to make the murder mysteries, Eve’s past, and the general world of In Death as violent and as gruesome as she can. It’s almost as if she’s over compromising with the violence because of her romance writing background…? Personally speaking, I think the focus on the romance angles is at odds with the dark nature of the murder mysteries. I find the contrast between them awkward and sometimes unsettling.

 

After finishing this book, I remembered why I don’t usually read serial mysteries or, when/if I do, I don’t follow a series any further than the third or fourth book because every book after this point is predictable. More often than not, the series locks itself into a pattern that puts it at a risk of becoming dull and/or formulaic if there aren’t any strong characters to carry the story. This happens to be the case for In Death. I think it has found its stride and is settling into a formulaic pattern. Which is unfortunate for me since I was sort of looking forward to this series improving with every book, but now I don’t know if I should read any further.

Review: Charles Dickens' Five Novels

Charles Dickens: Five Novels - Charles Dickens

This leather-bound Dickens collection is a must-have for any Dickens fan and any fan of Victorian England. It looks great on the shelf, especially next to those other leather-bound classics, if you have any. The stories included are: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist.

 

Every time I reread Dickens, the experience is not so much like reading, but being lectured by a stuffy English prof. on the inner workings of Victorian England. Of course the extensive details and social commentary are necessary. I just don’t think there’s room for them in a novel. Essays? Yes. Letters? Sure. Biographies? Absolutely. But a novel? Maybe in the introduction section, just maybe.

 

It was while reading Great Expectations in high school when I realized I didn’t like Dickens’ particular style of writing; there were too many words per every point made. While I liked his stories overall (still do like them), I didn’t (still don’t) like his way of telling a story. It’s too blunt, too on the nose. It makes his motives too obvious to the reader. I prefer subtly in storytelling and stories that aren’t so adamant in “teaching society a lesson.” But I gotta hand it to Dickens though. No classic lit. author could tell a story of street smarts, excess wealth, hardship, and destitution quite like he did.

SPOILER ALERT!

Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans: A Novel - M.L. Stedman

This is a book for book clubs, which is fine since it's advertised as such and even got a stamp from Oprah herself. What I like about that is it doesn't lead you to believe it's anything other than a book written to be discussed in book clubs. I like to call them "book club bait" because book clubs just love 'em.

 

The story is about a WWI veteran, his wife, a lighthouse, an infant, and some moral complications following the couple's decision to keep the child and raise her as their own. The veteran, Tom, marries a young woman, Isabel, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, on the tip of Antarctica, south of Australia. The scenery and life on the island are described in lovely flowing language that takes on a sweeping effect that's so often found in turbulent historical fiction romances. The only thing steering this story away from becoming another sweeping romance is infertility. Tom and Isabel have trouble conceiving and suffer through many miscarriages which leave them childless. The truly crushing thing here is they are on an island in the middle of the ocean with only each other for comfort. What follows is lovely flowing language about isolation, desolation, melancholia, and ultimately hopelessness. Isabel spends much of this period weeping, and Tom spends all of it trying to console her.

 

Just when all hope seems lost, a "miracle" happens in the form of a boat washing up on the beach carrying a dead man and a living child. They name the infant Lucy, and together they become a family. Every few years, the couple return to the mainland to visit friends and family and gather news of the world. This time they bring Lucy along only to find out that she has a mother, stricken with grief and madness, who still searches for her and her dead father. And issues of debatable morality ensue.

 

I liked the story up to this point  and thought I'd like the rest of it too, but the "issues of morality" that ensued got in the way, and the story unraveled from then on.

 

The characterization of Tom and Isabel stopped making sense when the couple ran into the age-old problem of whether or not to return the child to her biological mother, who is a distant relative of theirs, even though she wasn't mentally well (due to having lost both husband and child). While I understand the moral complications on both sides of the problem, I don't sympathize with Tom and Isabel's actions or the consequences they faced (and also avoided) following their decision to keep Lucy, then return her, only to take her back. Like I said, this story unraveled at this point.

 

And it was also around this point that the story lost that sweeping, melancholic, lovely-descriptive-language atmosphere of Janus Rock that Stedman so skillfully set up earlier. The spell broke, for me, when Tom and Isabel reluctantly decided to return Lucy, reasoning that the child would be better off in their care. Reality and consequences are often jarring, and the changes in tone and atmosphere of the story to reflect just that are well done, but what's left of the story more or less falls apart as this saga turns into melodrama.

 

The time was post-WWI, and the world had never had a "shortage" of orphans, especially not after big wars. If Isabel wanted to be a mother that badly, she and Tom could have visited orphanages on any one of their trips to the mainland. But here's my biggest problem with this story. Legal adoption isn't even considered an option between the spouses. Then again, there's no reason to bring it up in the story when you could have your main character, and supposedly most sympathetic POV, spend most of her time weeping, rejecting the reality of her life, and feeling sorry for herself. And also, why even consider anything else when a "miracle" child, along with her conveniently dead father, washes up on the beach. Why even bother finding the child's mother--she must also be conveniently dead, like the father, anyway--when you could make the best of such tragic circumstances by keeping her. Also convenient for Tom and Isabel? Paperwork, such as birth certificates, weren't such a hassle back then in the 1920s.

 

Originally I had plans for a longer critique of why this book and others like it don't do anything other than manipulate readers' emotions. I still have a copy of that longer review somewhere, but decided not to post it. Here's why: I am not a parent and I have no plans to become one, and because of that "perspective," I see the two main characters in the book, a childless couple who desperately want to become parents, as reckless and full of self-pity. Even after discussing this book with book clubbers (some are parents, many aren't), I still don't understand the motivation behind Stedman's characterization choices. I understand what she was aiming and her decision to tell this story. I just don't understand why the story had to be told in this particular this way.

 

It's obvious this book was written for the purpose of book club discussions. "Issues of morality" tend to liven things up when ideologies clash and people's true "fundamentalist values" surface, and usually what follows is a colorful exchange of words. I don't show up to book club meetings unless a book I like is chosen, but I always show up when "bait" books are chosen because they make for very interesting discussions. And this book did not disappoint.

 

Recommended for anyone who's always wanted to live in a lighthouse or in the middle of the ocean or both, but isn't sure if such a life would suit him or her. This book might help you make that decision.

(show spoiler)
SPOILER ALERT!

Review: American Gods

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

This was my first full-length Gaiman novel, and it was OK. Well, it started out OK, then became interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying near the end. I think I was expecting a... better ending, something that's more in line with Gaiman's short stories but on a grander scale.

 

With all the hype surrounding this book, I originally thought there was something in it that's widely appealing, other than Gaiman's prose and fantastical yarns. I really thought I'd be blown away by this book because his short stories were so well done. Maybe I set the standards too high and became disappointed when the story turned out to be just OK overall. Maybe a little better than OK, maybe 's all right. I'm glad for the experience now that I know what a Gaiman novel is like, but still... I don't see what all the fuss is about.

 

The hook is certainly interesting and reels you into the story, a mythological yarn set in contemporary times, but it suffers from having an aimless main character at the center of all this fantastical chaos. Shadow Moon (yes, you read that correctly) floats aimlessly along, unattached to various unsettling things happening around him. For a guy who just learned that mythical gods exist, he took it pretty well. Then again, he just finished a stint in prison. Then again, if only he's a little bit sharper, a little more alert, he might have sensed something not quite right or worse

that he's a pawn in a cosmic con

(show spoiler)

. If only. I fail to see the point of setting up a powerful story with a desensitized main character. He not only slowed things down, but made most of the resolution pointless in the end. But perhaps that's the point of it all?

 

The prose is impressive though. Gaiman definitely knows how to keep the narration from becoming dull or slowing down. The thing is Gaiman can write great prose--there's no denying that. But does he pull the story together at the end? I don't think so, this time. I enjoyed the read all the way up until

the tables were turned and the final confrontation was set on a carousel

(show spoiler)

. It was as if Gaiman hacked off whatever original plans he had for the ending and replaced it with a family-friendly version suitable for readers of all ages. Everything in the story was fine until the end; a familiar theme in most Gaiman books, as I've come to learn.

Currently reading

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by Oliver Bowden
Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace