1st Avenue

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

Review: The World in the Evening

The World in the Evening: A Novel - Christopher Isherwood

There's an unsettling quietness in Isherwood's writing and narration that continues to fascinate me. He shares Shirley Jackson's gift for turning mundane every day life events into life-defining moments, minus the chilling effect that settles in afterward.


This story here, like all Isherwood stories, is much more than the sum of its parts, and is particularly difficult to describe without going off on all sorts of tangents. Mostly because it's one of those great-impact novels that touch on so many aspects of life and identity. There's lots of nostalgia and introspection mixed into the writing to give it that unsettling quietness that I can't get over.


The story takes place in Hollywood at a glamorous party in which Stephen Monk attends only to see his wife there with another man. Finally realizing there's nothing left to salvage of his marriage, he descends into a depressive state and takes refuge at a relative's home in the county to get away from it all. While there, he has an accident and injuries himself seriously enough to need bed rest, which gives him what he's afraid of most: time to think and reminisce. It takes him back to his days spent on the Canary Islands shortly before WWII and the affair he had with a younger man. The rest of the story is him reminiscing about this time period. In the end, he comes to an understanding, of himself, of life in America, of his failed marriage. Things don't tie up neatly like that, but Monk seems to have a grasp on his life again.


Isherwood's writing, though not read much outside of literary circles when he had been alive, helped define a new consciousness in an era when people didn't talk about certain things and instead would much rather ignore anything they thought threatened the mainstream consciousness, like homosexuality. Isherwood's voice was one of the first to speak of queerness openly--we don't see such writing until much later, the late 80s at least. He had a way of showing gay relationships as being just another way of living; another facet of life, although a very quiet, hidden life. The subtlety in his prose makes his stories stand out and stand the test of time, I think.



I got this book through a GR giveaway (yes, another one!), and I'd like to thank the people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the book and the cute little attachment. Seriously, that was really cute.

Reblogged from Debbie's Spurts:


"For a non-sports person, this is what it's like to be on the internet today" —posted by The Oatmeal on facebook

Source: http://www.facebook.com/theoatmeal?fref=photo

Review: Genesis

Genesis - Bernard Beckett

What if there's an unstoppable outbreak spreading all across the world, wiping out whole populations, and the only area left unaffected is an island closed off from any contact with the mainland?


This is the state of the world in Genesis.


Guards on the island have been instructed to terminate on site anything they see floating on the water. If they hesitate, they are also terminated. The people on the island construct for themselves a Sparta-like dystopian society and government called The Republic to maintain their way of life and protect themselves from coming into contact with outbreak victims and carriers; hence the "kill on site" order. This goes on for several decades, maybe even a century, until the islanders no longer know of any news from the mainland. The status of the outbreak and survivors are unknown, yet the islanders maintain their kill order until one day Adam Forde, a guard on duty, saves a girl from the ocean. This one event sets off a domino effect that ripples through The Republic and changes the islanders' whole existence. What follows is a story of a revolution told in bits and pieces.


By the time Genesis begins, all of the above is history, The Republic is a distant memory, and Adam Forde has become a legendary cult hero. We are taken to the present time, moments before Anax takes an entrance exam that will determine the course of her young life. Her chosen subject for the exam is Adam Forde, and through the Examiners' questions and her answers, we learn about Forde, the island, The Republic and its destruction.


I think this book is the perfect example of an author writing about what he knows and achieving impressive results. Bernard Beckett is a high school English teacher from New Zealand with a background in genetic research, and these things come through in his writing, especially his portrayal of Anax's internal struggles and final decision.


The story is set up in the format of an interview with short intersecting internal monologues from Anax's POV. The story itself is interesting, but not that unique in dystopian fiction. The way it unfolds and takes shape, however, is quite impressive. It's not easy to make interviews interesting, even when they're necessary to tell the story, but Beckett has done just that by revealing a little bit at a time.


Also, there's a twist you won't see coming. Or maybe you will...


Since it's short and poignant, I would recommend this book to everyone. Give it a try even if you don't like dystopian fiction.


Reviews: Jeaniene Frost's Night Huntress Series (1-3)

Halfway to the Grave - Jeaniene Frost One Foot in the Grave - Jeaniene Frost At Grave's End - Jeaniene Frost

The first book impressed me; the two after it, not so much.


To top it off, it's the main character that made me rage quit reading. That doesn't usually happen because I don't follow a series just for the MC. Whether or not I "like" or "root for" certain characters is an afterthought. So it's a big deal when a book makes me quit the whole series due to character problems.



What to expect:


Heavy plotting, lots of action, lots of sex and innuendos (not witty unfortunately), lots of cardboard side characters, lots of blood, fetishistic descriptions of blood, and high body count. That's just on the surface. Furthermore, there's thin world building, minimal mythology, and unimpressive monster pathology. This last one got to me the most because I read urban fantasy for otherworldly anatomy and physiology, which this series lacks. I kept waiting for more revelations of otherworldly-ness, but they never came. I'd be willing to overlook most shortcomings if there's a unique or new spin on vampirism, but there isn't. If you're familiar with Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, you'll find nothing new here.


That seems odd to say because I did like the first book Halfway to the Grave quite a bit. The story is about a half-vampire, half-human anomaly (Catherine "Call me Cat" Crawfield) hunting vampires on her own by perusing local bars and tempting her marks to their deaths. She's the product of a date rape and was brought up in a very conservative household in a very conservative small town with the knowledge of her mother's attack hanging over her head. So obviously there's a lot of residual guilt on her part over her own existence which motivated her to hunt vampires to avenge her mother. On one of these hunts, she runs into a vampire bounty hunter (Bones) and strikes up a partnership, but not before he kidnaps her to persuade her to hunt alongside him. Together they make a pretty good team. She is the bait and he is the executioner. They develop a friendship that grows into a strong bond. The process is very organic, not like the usual PNR beginning.


But then books #2 and #3 happened, and I still have no idea why. Both are a lot a bit on the crazy side. It's as though the author escalated the whole story just so she could skip fundamental character development and jump right into the thick of things, that being constant peril, making mortal enemies of millenia-old vampires, and, of course, marriage. There's nothing organic about any of these development because they happened too fast due to strenuous plot escalation. That's why I'm baffled by the turn of events and rapid change in the atmosphere and tone of the story.


There's a 4-year time jump between books #1 and #2, and it threw the "chemistry" of the story off balance. It's stated that 4 years had passed, but the main characters don't seem like they've changed or grown from their experiences at all, especially the MC. If anything, she got more obnoxious, brash, and socially inept. In other words, TSTL. She's behaves like a whiny petulant child who's bent on not listening to advice but instead choosing to put her life in danger to "save the day." This would seem like more of a big deal if it didn't happen in every other chapter. It's baffling how she can still hunt vampires while being such a menace on polite society herself.



After finishing the first book, I really thought I'd found something interesting and that this series might be a UF I can fall back on, but it's just not meant to be. This writing has gotten too PNR for me, too high on romance and too low on the paranormal. The more I read on, the more I hated the MC and everything she did. At the end of the third book, I barely remembered why I liked the first book in the first place.


But still the first book was a good read. It reminded me a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the high school years. Cat is a lonelier, withdrawn, more estranged from society version of Buffy, like Buffy during her early days in Sunnydale. And Bones is basically Spike, right down to the accent and hair. Nothing original here, but when it's just the two of them, the writing was pretty good. So maybe it's nostalgia that made me rank this book higher than the others.

Review: The Intern's Handbook

The Intern's Handbook: A Thriller - Shane Kuhn

I got this book through GR's first-read giveaway. What drew me in at first was the cover art (so gimmicky, it's got to be one of my favorites), the whole "assassin posing as an intern" premise, and the promise of humor. So I went into this book expecting a fun read.


It was not a fun read. It's actually a screenplay given a lot of padding to look like a book. Why this story isn't a movie but a book is a mystery to me because it's got all the trappings of a summer flick. Or better yet, a low-brow Bond-inspired action-comedy.


What we have here is an assassin narrator called John Lago on his last mission before retirement, and he's written a secret handbook in hopes of helping rookie assassins avoid getting killed on their first day on the job. How noble of him, no?


This handbook isn't so much a how-to but a tell-all autobiography. Lago writes about his final mission as it's happening, but he only drops a few tricks of the trade now and then to pad the story. Instead he spends a lot of time illustrating what a "suave badass" he is, how he's the best assassin in the trade, how many near-misses he's lived through, how crazy his existence is. So like I said, not so much handbook but autobiography.


Like all autobiographies (fiction and nonfiction alike), Lago as a narrator is full of himself. So much so in fact that he forgets his purpose of writing this "handbook." It certainly isn't to help the poor doomed rookies because all he does is boast about what a living legend he thinks he is.


I got fed up after 20 pages or so of this Lago persona living the hard and fast life, but I decided to push on to see how absurd this whole thing is. And the plot got even more ridiculous the further I read on. How ridiculous? At one point Lago amasses so many injuries on this mission that he should be unconscious in critical condition, but no, he just rests a bit and then powers on through the pain and fatal gaping wounds. All in a day's work.


If this is meant to be satire, then I must've missed the boat because the writing is neither intriguing or compelling or even amusing. It's more like a demonstration in sensationalism to see how far a writer can push a story before it becomes grating and obnoxious, which for me was at the 20 page mark.


This story could have been a platform for some interesting commentary on corporate society acting as a training ground for sociopaths or how the lives of these sociopaths aren't all that different from killers for hire. Then again, anything not directly related to John Lago would go over John Lago's big head and even bigger ego.

Review: Hyperion (The Hyperion Cantos, #1)

Hyperion - Dan Simmons

Everyone going into this book should know it's Part 1 of a 2-part tale, and this part ends abruptly.


If you know a lot of classic or canonical literature, you'd recognize the subtle and not so subtle nods to famous dead authors and artists scattered, not without purpose, throughout this book. And if you're not familiar with the classics, not a problem. You can always Google them afterward. Never having read John Keats or John Muir or the Talmud or know the ethics of ecology by heart wouldn't get in the way of your enjoyment of this book.


The Hyperion pilgrimage/adventure starts out with seven strangers chosen specifically for a mission that's a matter of life and death. These seven individuals are to go to the planet Hyperion and journey deep into its depths in search of the Valley of the Time Tombs[2]. Once there, the group is supposed to petition the Shrike, a terrifying legendary creature responsible for countless deaths, but it isn't as mindless or unreasonable as legends say. It's believed the creature, after listening to each person's story, would grant a wish to just one person and then it would kill the rest. See? Not completely mindless or unreasonable.


Before reaching Hyperion, the group decides to share their tales during the journey to better understand one another or perhaps to know what to expect from one another once they meet the Shrike. This is the point in which the story becomes stories within a story[3]. Each one builds upon the previous, and each containing a unique piece of the Shrike mystery.


One more thing. Among the seven strangers, one is a double agent who might or might not be working for the Shrike. Can you spot him or her before the group reaches the Valley? Also, the tales these character weave are not necessarily based on any truth. They could just be making things up on the fly and none would be the wiser, but readers might figure it out before the big reveal. This is where your knowledge of literary trivia comes into play.



The storytellers are:


Father Lenar Hoyt, a sickly Catholic priest whose story is another story within a story about another priest's experience on Hyperion, basically an homage to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness [4]


Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a former military personnel better known as a merciless slaughterer; from a young age he's been given a unique "gift," a connection to the Shrike


Martin Silenus, an angry bitter poet who, in the tradition of poets before him, lived a turbulent life of excess and few regrets; he too has a special connection to the Shrike


Sol Weintraub, a historian and philosopher desperately seeking answers and/or a cure for a time-related affliction--not unlike Benjamin Button


Brawne Lamia, a hardboiled private detective and somewhat unusual homage to the noir days of Hammett and Chandler


the Consul, a politician burdened by the weight of his lineage and past, who seeks whatever answers that might be found in the Time Tombs


Het Masteen, a Templar and captain of the treeship Yggdrasill; still a mystery in this first half of the Hyperion adventure


And the adventure continues to be fraught with mystery and doubt.



[1] Because it's hilarious.

[2] Which I will never not read as "Time Bombs"

[3] "Frame story" is what this literary technique is called. Famous examples include: One Thousand and One Nights, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Interview with the Vampire, The Princess Bride, Cloud Atlas, and many more

[4] Another famous frame story



A few thoughts and reflections:



The reason I had to reread Silenus' story several times is because it's hilarious and borders on metafiction. Dan Simmons makes many on point comments about writing fiction for oneself vs. writing for the entertainment of the masses (and/or to appease a publisher). Being a writer of "pulp fiction," I imagine Simmons must have struggled against industry people and "standards" early on in his career, and he must've had to conform to them all the while resenting them. Silenus' story must be his big F-U to it all. Even in the 28th Century, assuming technology has advanced so much that books are streamed directly into people's minds at the moment of publication, writers are still subjected to outrageous demands and inquiries from the industry. The characterization of Tyrena Wingreen-Feif must be a composite of all the obnoxious agents, editors, and publishers Simmons has ever met.


Of all the stories, I found Weintraub's most haunting. No other comment necessary. You have to read it for yourself.


The story I haven't quite grasp is the Consul's tale. It's also haunting, but I suppose I find all time-travel tales of love and loss haunting.


Of all the stories, I found Hoyt's account of Paul Dure's story most disturbing. Its similarities to actual colonial accounts written by missionaries intent on demolishing whole continents, cultures and peoples all intact, are disturbing to me. You know, that self-righteous attitude that inspired vows to "bring light to dark continents" and all that other holy savior complex. They're unsettling to me, more so than outright violence. Dure's impressions and interpretations of the Bikura people stayed with me long after I finished the book, but what I found most difficult to digest was not the subjects of Dure's study but his attitudes toward "his subjects" and his treatment of their secret holy shrine. It's somewhat along the line of how dare these primitive people keep such a treasure from me? I must get to it at all cost and expose to the whole universe and make myself famous while saving my own religion and taking credit for all of it, all at the expense of these idiotic people. Oh, what do they know. They're imbeciles. Not that different from actual accounts from colonial missionaries' diaries.


(show spoiler)

Review: The Godfather

The Godfather - Mario Puzo

Everyone loves a good revenge tale. It satisfies a basic wish fulfillment instinct that's in all of us, and there's a sense of instant gratification that hits you when you reach the point where the tables are turned, gradually but permanently, and then all the pieces fall into place and heads start to roll. This alone is why I like revenge literature, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in my appreciation for literary karmic retribution.


There are so many types of revenge literature that would fit anyone's unique taste. There's artful vengeance (anything by Alexandre Dumas), there's poetic vengeance (Les Miserables), there's humorous vengeance (The Princess Bride), there's crazy vengeance (Medea, Moby Dick), there's dirty vengeance (anything by Frank Miller), there's monster vengeance (Frankenstein), there's "let's get on with it" vengeance (The Scarlet Letter), there's "just kill him already" vengeance (Hamlet), there's "wtf did I just read" vengeance (Gone Girl), there's "I don't think this qualifies as vengeance" vengeance (The Thorn Birds), and then there's bloody vengeance, what this book is, literally.


There isn't that much left to say about the Godfather saga that hasn't been said before. So this is not so much a review, more of a series of my impressions and reflections.


Mario Puzo is a product of his time, and it shows in his writing. Early on in the story, I was most surprised by his casual use of the words "Guinea" and "primitive" to describe things that were old-fashioned or from the "old country" (of Sicily). But since he's Italian himself, it's okay? So they say, though I'm not so sure. Also, there are a couple of snide remarks about the "Negro problem" in and around New York. Just a warning for those who might want to avoid "products of their time" authors.


As with all period pieces, this book captures the social tensions and dynamics of post-WWII New York adjusting to new waves of immigrants. There's a feeling of going back in time in these pages. The dialogue is reminiscent of those movies from the '40s, so is the fashion and corrupt law enforcement, and also the misogyny. But...products of their time, remember? Fine, whatever. Just know that it's there, in heaping amounts.


What sets the Corleones' story apart from other first generation Italian immigrant stories is Puzo's focus on the family's Sicilian background, which should never be confused with or grouped into the general Italian diaspora experience. Sicilians are often discriminated against, even amongst Italians, and so they stick together, form their own exclusive communities, and are weary of non-Sicilians, especially law enforcement. Like all peoples who come from lands constantly under siege, Sicilians responded by forming their own support systems and following their own code of conduct, beliefs and directions foreign to non-Sicilians.


Don Vito Corleone is an enforcer of the old-world codes, but to friends and acquaintances, he's a problem solver of the most dire situations, which he calls "favors." All he asks in return is friendship and respect. The person who comes to him for help would not need to pay for services rendered; all that's expected of him is to answer the Don's call when the time comes to return the favor. Puzo easily tucks all of this into the narrative, all the while going on with the story, and yet I could not help feeling a sense of cold dread for every character who asks for a favor. There's a chilling, unsettling atmosphere that descends on a scene when the Don is shown disrespect. You just know things aren't going to end well for that character.


Other notable characters that I didn't care for in the movie became much more sympathetic in the book, such as Sonny, Michael, and Kay. Sonny in the movie is a brash brute, loud, out spoken, and hot tempered; I didn't care for any of that. In the book, he's still all of those things, but he's also a capable underboss, not to be crossed. If not for him holding the fort down, the whole family would have descended into chaos following the Don's attempted assassination. As for Michael, there are more darkness and shades of gray to his personality and actions in the book. His gradual progression from Ivy League grad to acting Don is well drawn out; a very organic process with some foreshadowing, not an overnight change. Kay Adams, on the other hand, is still dull. More sympathetic due to her grieving scenes with Mama Corleone, but still very much all-American plain and dull. I'm still not feeling the supposed chemistry between these two kids. IMHO, there's more chemistry between Clemenza and his garrote.


The only character I like in both book and movie is Tom Hagen, the smartest, most interesting underrated accidental mobster ever written.

Sonny was white-faced with anger. “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your father they killed.”
Hagen said quickly and proudly, “I was as good a son to him as you or Mike, maybe better. I’m giving you a professional opinion. Personally I want to kill all those bastards.”
The emotion in his voice shamed Sonny, who said, “Oh, Christ, Tom, I didn’t mean it that way.” But he had, really. Blood was blood and nothing else was its equal.

If only he were a Sicilian, then the whole empire could have been his. Michael and Kay would be able to live out their dull American dreams happily ever after; knowing Sonny, he'd get gunned down sooner or later; Fredo would still be a dim bulb; so the whole enterprise would belong to Hagen. But would he have the ruthlessness and ferocity to hold onto the family and the family business? That remains to be seen because he was never put to the test or even blooded. I think the story told from his POV would be quite interesting, and that's why I'd like to try Edward Falco's prequel The Family Corleone.


One thing that still bothers me is, if Vito Corleone is such a controlling proactive planner and preemptive striker ready for all kinds of situations, why didn't he move Connie and Carlo Rizzi to Long Island to keep an eye on them? Rizzi is a wife-beater and a loose cannon. It would have made more sense to keep this idiot within reaching distance, if only for Sonny to breathe down his neck. So leaving Connie and Rizzi way out in the city is just tragedy waiting to happen--and tragedy did happen. Also, it's uncharacteristic of Tom Hagen, consigliere extraordinaire, to not suggest or offer to move the couple closer to home. Why didn't anybody think of this, this huge gaping plot hole?


Subplots that I absolutely cannot stand in either book or movie? Johnny Fontaine's (aka Frank Sinatra) dwindling Hollywood fame storyline, and Lucy Mancini's bereaved mistress storyline. Such unnecessary waste of space and the reader's time. I understand the purpose of these two side stories is to show the Don's influence across the US, but the problems presented in said stories do not affect the Corleones directly, and so they cut into the main action and annoy readers a great deal, which I can only assume.

(show spoiler)


All in all, this book was a surprisingly engaging read for me, huge flaws and plot holes and all. I don't usually read crime dramas and I tend to stay away from "products of their time" writers, but there's something about Puzo's easy storytelling style narrative that drew me in.

Review: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives, #1)

The Way of Kings. by Brandon Sanderson (Stormlight Archive) - Brandon Sanderson

Only 3 stars?! BLASPHEMY.


Here's why: This is a 1,000 page prologue. The action, the real action, doesn't start until near the end.


I understand the need for a huge set-up to kick off a huge series, but there's a point when too much set-up is just overkill. And that point is somewhere past page 500.


If not for the audio CDs*, there's no way I'd get through this whole book. No one was more surprised than I about my reaction to this book because I've read a lot of Sanderson and liked most of his work.


As this is Sanderson's most epic of epics (to date), I was expecting epic-ness of epic proportions which the first chapter did deliver, but then the second and subsequent chapters did not. I kept waiting for things to pick up where the first chapter left off, thinking this couldn't be it, could it? This is what everyone's been gushing about? I was also expecting to see what everyone was gushing about--I still don't it see. The story a better than average epic fantasy that promises bigger things to come, and that's all I see for the time being.


The writing is classic Sanderson, but with a heavy-handed tone that I didn't care for. This isn't so much a critique of the story, but more a reflection of how tired I've become of over-blown epic fantasies and Sanderson's style of fantasy in particular. The former is a matter of personal taste; the latter is creeping up on me and threatening to stay. Sanderson's style is becoming heavy and drawn-out so so much that it made reading this book feel more like work. In general, I don't like when I can see the author's hand manipulating the story; it takes the fun out of reading.


However, if you're an aspiring fantasy writer who's in the process of honing your own style, I would recommend taking a look if you haven't already. Even if you don't enjoy it, there are a few pointers you might find useful.


The whole book is easy to dissect and deconstruct, and here's why: the writing, as much as it drags, is precise in description and plotting. Sanderson uses vivid imagery and tactile examples to draw out each scene. I find the action sequences and internal monologues easiest to take a part and examine. Sanderson must've worked painstakingly hard to do write each scene because you can literally feel the time and effort he put into them. He must've worked equally hard to give the tone a slow build-up toward the climax. I would have appreciated the effort and attention to detail more if they didn't result in a heavy-handedness that dragged the story down.


Because of a semi-cliffhanger, I'm tempted to pick up the second book just to see where the chips fall, but that won't be for awhile.



* which I won GR's first-read giveaway (I know, I was just as shocked as you are), and I'd like to thank MacMillan Audio and Samantha Beerman.

Review: Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1)

Snake Agent   - Liz Williams

Not many books have moments that both intrigue and disgust me. At the same time. And not many books present these moments back to back with little respite in between for squeamish readers to settle their stomachs. That is to say this book is not for the faint of heart, especially not for those who can't stand the sight of blood and gore or sickness and decomposition.

On the back cover:

John Constantine meets Chow Yun-Fat in this near-future occult thriller!

I don't usually read the cover's summaries anymore because of gimmicky taglines, but this one is a hilarious, yet strangely accurate description of how I pictured Chen.


Detective Chen Wei works for the Singapore Three police department and oversees supernaturally related investigations; he's also Earth's liaison between Heaven and Hell. Anything weird or out of the ordinary that happens gets sent to Chen's desk, but judging by the amount of weirdness and extraordinary things happening in Singapore Three, it's odd not to see the whole police department trained as supernatural specialists. We don't see or learn much about Heaven in this book, but we do get to go to Hell, several times over (all puns intended?).


"I'm going to need a leave of absence." [Chen said]
"To do what?"
"Go to Hell, sir."
There was a short pregnant pause, then Sung said, "You nicked my line, Detective."


The case is a puzzling one that's much more than it seems. A young girl from a prominent family has died of mysterious circumstances and now her ghost is missing. Her mother comes to Chen for help to send her ghost on its way to Heaven, where she belongs. Chen agrees to look into the matter, but finds almost nothing to go on. Then he finds out there's trouble at the family home and that the family may have questionable ties to Hell. That's when things get weird but in a fun, disturbing way.


The story is set sometime in the near future, and the location of Singapore Three is not mentioned. What is mentioned is the city has a large urban expanse, lively cityscape, coastal region, and a very soggy rain season.


The cast of supporting characters are well developed without seeming too forced or trope-like, and they add a lot of color to the plots and dialogues. Inari, Chen's wife, is a runaway who's literally trying to settle into her new life with Chen. The Badger, her faithful servant, is a grumpy play on the helpful animal sidekick trope. Seneschal Zhu Irzh, an investigator from Hell and Vice (same difference, really), who's on assignment to investigate Hell's side of Chen's missing girl case. Sargent Ma of Singapore Three PD is a squeamish cop who views Chen with suspicion and wants nothing to do with the supernatural, least of all Hell. Lao, the PD's exorcist and Chen's good friend, who's naturally suspicious of all things Hell. And a few more characters too spoilery to mention.


The idea of Heaven and Hell as bureaucracies is amusing to me, and the political struggles of both sides is great. I find the way Liz Williams writes about the denizens of Hell who are stuck in these mind-numbing, paper-pushing thankless bureaucratic jobs just hilarious. Given that Williams' background as an ambassador's underling, it's no wonder she's captured these nuances so perfectly, right down to the disdain for the office and the job at hand. Of course Hell is a public office drowned in tedious paperwork, but Heaven too? I look forward to Williams' version of that.


It seems Williams' take on Chinese mythology and death magic is a point of discussion (derision?) among readers. Personally, I find her portrayals interesting and familiar like an homage to classic East Asian tropes. Some might say they're appropriative though, which I can understand where they're coming from. A few of her descriptions of skin, eyes, and hair seem too forced as though she tries too hard to set a specifically Chinese or East Asian tone in the writing. Her descriptions and metaphors of buildings, streets, offices, and tea, however, paint a nice picture of Chen's adventures.


Williams has done her research for this book and seems familiar with beliefs and practices of death ceremonials; many of the elaborate beliefs are neatly tied into character development and the practices, into plotting. Having these traditions show up at various points in the book help to explain the long-winded processes of death, the afterlife, reincarnation, and the interconnections of Heaven and Hell to otherwise clueless readers. I think Williams did an admirable job incorporating so many intricate pieces of Chinese folktale and mythology together to tell a colorful story.


A point where I think Williams' writing shines the most

It was just past six, and the sun was already sinking down over the port in a smear of fire. Chen boarded the first available tram, and stood in the midst of a packed crowd of commuters, noting the exhaustion that seemed to hang like a miasma over each figure. No wonder people seemed to have so little time these days to devote themselves to considerations of the afterlife, Chen reflected,  and no wonder Hell was getting out of hand. Even twenty years ago it was still common to see the small shrines outside each door, and for old people to speak of the gods as real, living presences. Now, paradoxically, the other worlds were closer than they had been since ancient times; with new technology to speed up all manner of communication, yet people seemed to take less and less interest in spiritual matters. Perhaps it was simply too much to bear, Chen thought; perhaps it was too much to ask of people to concern themselves with something other than the daily grind. Whatever the reason, it did not make his work any easier.


*     *     *     *     *


I'd like to thank Carol for upgrading to the hardcover version and passing on her paperback copy to me.


I now own two copies of this book and am willing to part with the massmarket paperback edition, which is still in pristine condition. If anyone is interested, let me know and I will pass it on, n keeping with traditions. :)

Review: Broken Homes (Peter Grant, #4)

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch

Just pre-ordered the next book (Foxglove Summer), 3 months in advance. No book series has ever motivated me to do that before.


First off, that revelation at the end just as everything was falling to pieces, that was perfect timing. So perfect it left me a little winded tbqh. Well done, Mr. Aaronovitch. You've successfully made me jump out of my seat while waiting at the DMV. That's no easy feat because it was the DMV, the whole place was packed, and I was standing.

This isn't a review so much as just me using this space as a concept board. So onward with it already?


"Perfectly human monsters, everyone of them."

Nightingale to Peter when asked whether or not serial killers were of the magical persuasion*. This line alone sums up the foundation of the book.


Strange things are still happening in and around London, although this time they're stranger than the usual disturbances. The plot sort of picks up where the previous book left off, and familiar characters make brief appearances to help Peter and Lesley as they unravel a mystery that doesn't look all that mysterious on the surface. We see the young and curious Abigail again, this time for extended periods of the plot. Sergeant Kumar of the underground turns up to hand over a crucial piece of the puzzle. The mysterious Zach also drops by to hang out with Peter and Lesley. Beverly Brook, whom I thought had been forgotten, and her River sisters make some appearances only to disappear again.


There's a good amount of self-deprecating humor and outright hilarious moments in this book, but all of it take a back seat to the perfect timing ending mentioned above. It's not quite a cliffhanger, though it does leave a lot up in the air.


Unlike the previous three, I thought the title for this book lacked a sense of poetic mystery. Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground--oddly lyrical titles for urban fantasy mysteries, wouldn't you say? And Foxglove Summer? Sounds sweet, if a bit twee. Even Midnight Riot (the US title for Rivers of London) promises mystery and an adventure. Broken Homes, in contrast, seems sad and straight-forward. Out of character compared to the rest of the series, and then that ending busted out of the rubble and now everything makes sense. I didn't realize how well the title tied everything together until that very moment. And what an explosive ending that was. I'm still brooding over it.



It wouldn't be an Aaronovitch book without quotable moments. Here are some of my favorites:



Door bells are mysterious things

We heard a distant ringing noise that confused everyone until we recognised the Folly's front door bell. We all exchanged looks until it was established that since I wasn't intrinsically supernatural, a chief inspector or required to put on a mask before meeting the public I was nominated door opener in chief.

Peter Grant's deep-seeded cop-ness showing through

It's a police mantra that all members of the public are guilty of something, but some members of the public are more guilty than others.


I know trouble when it's below the age of criminal responsibility, and while my first instinct was to arrest his parents on general principles, I gave him a cheery wave instead. He gave me a blankly suspicious look before whipping his head out of sight.


Everyone consents to the police. It's just the operational priorities they argue about.


"That which does not kill us," I said, "has to get up extra early in the morning if it wants to get us next time."


He must have carefully calculated it against his own weight, but with mine added he feel dangerously fast. I made sure that I was the one right him down--thinking heavy thoughts.

Nightingale, contrary to popular beliefs, does have an exasperation point

"I don't think he takes me as seriously as he should," Nightingale told Dr. Walid. "He still slopes off to conduct illicit experiments whenever he thinks I'm not looking." He looked at me.

"What is your latest interest?"

"I've been looking at how long various materials retain vestigia," I said.

"How do you measure the intensity of the vestigia?" asked Dr. Walid.

"He uses the dog," said Nightingale.

Lesley scores some points in her favor

"They're probably waiting for one of us to get freeze dried," said Lesley, whose attitude towards taser deployment was that people with heart conditions, epilepsy and an aversion to electrocution should not embark upon breaches of the peace in the first place.

The infallible Zach of mysterious origins confirming what we've all suspected at one time or another

"My granddad said he was bonkers," said Zach.

"Sherlock Holmes?" asked Lesley.

"Arthur Conan Doyle," said Zach.

The strip vanished under the door of a garage sealed with a County Gard steel plate and another shiny padlock.

"You want to get this?" I asked Zach. Zach pulled a pick from his jeans pocket and went to work. "Started seeing fairies and ghosts and talking to dead people," he said still going on about Conan Doyle as the padlock came apart in his hands.

"But there are fairies and ghosts," said Lesley. "I met them down the pub--you introduced me."

"Yeah, but he used to see them when they weren't there." said Zach. "Which is practically the definition of bonkers."


(show spoiler)



* Of humans and monsters



I'm surprised in the time Peter spent under Nightingale's tutelage--almost two years now--that the subject of serial killers and their possible connections to magic never came up and that the two of them never had a serious discussion about high-profile murder investigations that might or might not have involved magic or magical beings. These things would have been the first inquiries I'd bring up if I were in Peter's place. I'd also bring up other high-profile unsolved mysteries. I'd want to know which cases were of the magical inclination and which were not, just to have an idea of what to expect in the future.


In Nightingale's defense, high-profile cases that involved magic get buried quickly by the magical division of law enforcement and thus never make it to the media, as he explained early on in the book. In Peter's defense, he's always been a "fly by the seat of his pants" kind of investigator. So it probably never occurred to him to ask for briefings of past controversial investigations. He's the type to figure things out as he goes along, as we see time and again. But for a character who has a background in architecture and extensive knowledge of London's past and present history, it seems odd that Peter never showed any inclinations to dig further into the Folly.


Wizard-in-training extraordinaire


Peter Grant is still very much his snarky, smart-ass self, but there are signs that he's grown up a lot with each book. Previous experiences and exposures to the strangeness of London have changed him; for the better, I think. For one, his control of magic has improved to the point where he can actually control light, fire, water, and force fields without blowing anything or anyone up. For another, his characteristic sense of humor now has a slightly darker undertone. Memories from previous books that affected him deeply make their way into his every day life. I like that they're brought up now and again, instead of being completely brushed aside and forgotten, in that self-assured style of most urban fantasies these days. I have a feeling Peter is headed toward a breaking point, and things are gonna get ugly really fast. Losing either Nightingale or Lesley will push him off the edge. Since it's been established that Peter's a special kind of magical being and his connection to London is only the tip of the iceberg, his breaking point could mean total destruction for London.


Questions about Molly of the Folly


If she doesn't talk, how does she answer the phone or the door? How does she manage Nightingale's other domestic affairs? There have been a few instances where she had to answer the phone or the door, but she does it off scene. Not knowing how she manages these things, for some reason, hadn't bothered me until this book. And these little things tend to bother me quite a bit. It might have bothered me sooner had the previous three books not been so engaging. Aaronovitch has managed to use compelling storytelling skills as misdirection. Once again, well done. But I still like to know how Molly answers the phone or the door in her peculiar way.


Clever foreshadowing or just a red herring?


Lesley lost her whole face--her beautiful face, according to Peter--to magic and only magic can restore it to what it once had been, or so she thinks, as it was promised to her. Her betrayal adds a very interesting dimension to the current narrative. I think it gives her more personality, and strangely enough, I find her characterization much more compelling and sympathetic now that I've had time to think it over from her POV.


Throughout the series, Peter makes repeated references to Lesley's face and how after all these months spent working close together he's only just adjusting to the sight of it, both masked and unmasked. The details in each of his descriptions of Lesley are casual but succinct, enough to remind himself (and the reader) of the trauma from Rivers of London while coaching himself to simply deal with the scars--look at them, acknowledge them, get used to seeing them. These reminders were obvious foreshadowing leading to the taser incident. I should have recognized them for what they are--the foundation for betrayal.


Which brings me to both Nightingale's and Peter's passing hints that Nightingale might not live through a head-on confrontation with the Faceless Creep. Which then brings me back to Peter's breaking point.


(show spoiler)


There's a whole lot of interesting development ahead, and I look forward to all of it.



* * * * *



I'd like to thank Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy to enjoy.

Review: Sabriel (Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)

Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1) - Garth Nix
"Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was."


The first time I read this book I did not like it and had to abandon it at page 25. Now after having finished the whole thing in less than 36 hours, I realized I hardly gave it a fighting chance and that wasn't fair because it's actually good. Garth Nix surprised me in that all the objections I had about Sabriel as a character are remedied later on in the book. I have never been bored enough with a book to abandon it only to like it a lot after a second try. The writing is much better than what we've come to know as YA fantasy. It has depth, vibrancy, and distinct style of narration that doesn't weigh the story down--given the subject matter, you'd expect to be pounded over the head repeatedly with lectures on morality. Moreover, the world of Abhorsen and its characters are dark and ambiguous and violent, usual for YA which only makes it all that more interesting.


The story starts with a night of confusion and urgency, and then it moves on to the "present setting," which I think might be post-WWII English countryside. Sabriel, the only daughter of a powerful mage called Abhorsen, grew up in a boarding school on the South side of the Wall, far away from all the violence and dark magic of her home in the Old Kingdom. She has some basic magical knowledge and is familiar with the ways of the dead, but has had very little training. One day, she receives news of her father in distress, and then later she finds out that he's gone missing somewhere deep within the North, possibly at the center of magical and necromantic unrest. So Sabriel leaves school and makes her way North to her father's house, hoping to retrace his footsteps to track him down.


The journey starts out as a quest, with a little adventure on the side, then soon turns into a mission to save the land from an invasion of death. Zombie apocalypse, you ask? Well... yeah, I suppose. A lot of side characters die and whole populations are wiped out over night. The body count is unusually high for a coming of age story, but then again, necromancy is a force to be reckoned with, so the body count makes sense.


After having lived a sheltered life, Sabriel finds herself drowning as the weight of the world is put on her shoulders. The journey takes her from her childhood home to the heart of the Old Kingdom, from innocent schoolgirl to powerful mage, from an unprepared apprentice to a walker among the dead. But she isn't alone in her mission. She is aided by Mogget, an ancient mysterious being that takes the form of a sardonic white cat, and Touchstone, a not as ancient but equally mysterious displaced young man from the Old Kingdom. Together, they combine forces to search for Sabriel's father and make a last stand against death.


The complex aspects of the world, various sectors of dark magics, and even each individual character are difficult to sum up without giving too much away. The reader learns about these things as Sabriel is made aware of them. Nix does a nice job of revealing story arcs, otherworldly forces, origin mythology, and other necessary information as the story progresses, and as Sabriel gradually becomes who she is meant to be, we see her characterization improve dramatically.


Last words from the Abhorsen

"Let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die."


*     *     *     *     *


The reason for my abandonment of the book has nothing to do with the book's content or the writing. It was because I'd hit my quota of heroic fantasy for the year. At the time, I had just finished Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Triad, a similar coming of age trilogy about dark magic and high fantasy, and while I really liked Flewelling's trilogy, I was tired of adolescence and any story that had to do with finding oneself or finding one's place in the world or both. Time was what I needed to take in this book and appreciate it for what it is--a standout among a sea of generic coming of age fantasies.

Some claim that evolution is just a theory, as if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it's also a soaring spiritual experience.

Neil Degrasse Tyson, making religious folks squirming in their tightly wound creationist seats, as part of his new TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odessy

Reblogged from RedT Reads Randomly:
In Honor of Tuesday
In Honor of Tuesday

Review: Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts

Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts - Ira Levin

A whole lot of fun, an equal amount of creepy, and a pinch of wtf is going on here.


I'd never enjoyed reading a play, after having already seen it, as much as I enjoyed this one, and that's saying something because I don't usually read plays unless they're assigned reading.


Highly recommended for people who like metafiction and mind games, as this is a story within a story pretending to be an imitation of a play for the purpose of carrying out the perfect murder. You'll never guess who dies, who really dies, who's behind it all, or why. Well, unless you've seen the play or read a couple of the reviews on the book page. Seriously, people, there's a spoiler html script for a reason.


So, yeah, give this one a try. Hard copies might be hard to find, but I'm sure your local library has a few that haven't been checked out in years.


*     *    *    *


If you don't mind spoilers and are in the mood for something funny,



check out this Utah patron's complaint of the play's content (source). She had no idea she'd be subjected to such "debauchery." Well... that's what you get for skimming on doing background research...


The subject matter being contested is: the two male leads share a quick intimate scene and maybe a brief kiss, which all depends on the staging and directions of each performance. In this one particular performance, the director chose to include the kiss, but judging by this patron's letter, you might be led to believe that there might have been full frontal nudity on the stage that night.


(show spoiler)

Review: Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

If you happen to find this book in audio, don’t hesitate to listen. It’s hilarious. Bourdain is a man of many talents, and one of them is picking up slangs in different languages quickly and adapting to accents. Like I said, hilarious.


Things I learned from this book:

  1. Never order fish on a Monday
  2. Stay away from “specials” of the day
  3. Avoid rush hours and weekends
  4. Restaurant kitchens are war zones
  5. All you’ll ever need is a chef’s knife–just one, a sharp one
  6. Every time you eat out is an adventure and a risk
  7. 60% of people who go into the restaurant business end up failing
  8. The other 40% survive by sheer luck and good karma
  9. Don’t open a restaurant
  10. Good food = fresh, high quality ingredients + basic cooking skills


That last one is his personal favorite saying. There’s no room for pretension in good food. Well, his exact words are “there’s no room for pretentious assholes in my kitchen“–same difference. His back-to-basic take on food, at the time this book was written, was revolutionary. And it’s coming from an experienced gourmet chef too. The public was just shocked and amazed because this was around the time the “celebrity chef” was born (and how we all cringed while facepalming). So by taking a stand against all that blatant advertising and product placements, Bourdain got the public’s attention and he didn’t disappoint.


If you have ever worked in a restaurant, there isn’t anything in this book you don’t already know. You might recognize a few of the characters due to having worked with or screamed at or wished you could have stabbed at one time or another during your time as part of the kitchen staff. You might even see yourself in the book somewhere. The point is the things in this book are an open secret. The term “restaurant secrets” is an oxymoron. Restaurant people talk a lot because that’s what happens when you share such a high stress environment and tight confining space that’s littered with sharp pointy blades. You talk and overshare to take the edge off. That’s the impression I got from this book, that it’s meant to be a snapshot of life in a restaurant kitchen.


What Bourdain did by writing a tell-all memoir about the life of a chef running a popular restaurant is nothing new. Lots of chefs before him have published similar books with similar contents detailing their childhoods, education, training, first jobs, first restaurants, rise to fame, etc etc, but none had the sense to tell it like it really is. How Bourdain writes is what sets him a part from the rest because he favors laying out the truth over romanticizing suffering. His writing style is subversive and inflammatory, of course, and offensive at times because it’s meant to drag myths surrounding the restaurant business out into the open and flaying them. The most popular myths is one we’re all familiar with, and that’s the idea of opening a restaurant for personal enjoyment.


Many people still carry this romantic notion of running their own restaurant. Some day, they say. Because I just love to entertain, they also say. Besides, it’ll be fun. Like throwing a party every single night. So romantic… until these people realize they have to do inventory, order food, prepare necessary items ahead of time, keep tight schedules in their heads, make sure food and supplies show up on time, make sure staff show up on time, make sure every table in the front is looked after, make sure vendors aren’t ripping them off, make sure the cooks aren’t trying to kill each other. Every single day. Not so much like a party now, is it? This is hard work. Romantics aren’t cut out for such work. If you’re gonna open a restaurant… don’t. Just don’t.


I think what really made this book a big seller were Bourdain’s detailed firsthand revelations of all the failed restaurants he worked in and witnessed in the past. The thing they all have in common? Lost of control. Bourdain’s CV is literally full of failed restaurants; some were once famous attractions, others never had a chance. He hadn’t been able to save any one of them.


His writing, like his presence on his travel shows, is strangely erratically honest. It’s the kind of honesty that you rarely see or hear anymore. It’s the kind of honesty you get from people who’ve been to rock bottom and stayed a while. It’s the kind of honesty you get from an addict, former addict in this case. The prose is bold yet within reason, vile yet heartfelt, punchy yet smooth, and oftentimes uncomfortable yet engaging, but it’s also sincere like the kind of honesty you can trust. It makes you believe he’s telling the absolute truth, that he wouldn’t hold back to save face or feelings. That’s just the kind of guy he is, the book seems to say.


There’s an ugly truth at the end of every one of his stories that make them more than just tales worth reminiscing over a pint. There’s pain, suffering, wisdom, blood, sweat, tears, hard liquor, cocaine, years of insomnia, crunchy aspirins, unemployment, the sights and sounds of reaching rock bottom in all of his stories. That’s as close to the truth as a memoir can get.


This one short sampling is all you need to judge Bourdain for yourself:

     "So who the hell, exactly, are these guys, the boys and girls in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn’t be too far off base. The business, as respected three-star chef Scott Bryan explains it, attracts ‘fringe elements’, people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong. Maybe they didn’t make it through high school, maybe they’re running away from something-be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here."


I feel like this review needs to end on a positive note because this book wraps up with an unexpectedly positive yet realistic perspective that cooks and non-cooks can relate to, but I haven’t a clue what more to say.

Abandoned: Mark Twain Branch of the Detroit Public Library

Reblogged from Ceridwen:

I'm deeply uncomfortable about disaster porn that focuses on Detroit because I'm not so sure about outsiders getting their apoca-rocks off on a place I feel some kinship towards. Especially because so often the documentation of Detroit's decaying landscape is coupled with judgement about whatever perceived sin: they're getting what they deserve. As a child of the Rust Belt and the Midwest, I roundly submit my middle finger to that. But I also can't deny the power of these images of the abandoned Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library. Jesus, what a crying shame. 


Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library

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