Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: The Broken Teaglass [2009]

I was very keen to read The Broken Teaglass when I first heard about it. After all, it has a lot of elements that I find appealing: lexicography, mystery, and local interest--the author currently lives in nearby Shelburne Falls and worked at Merriam-Webster, right up the street from the central library in Springfield. Despite the fact that first-person narrator Billy, a recent college graduate with a secret in his past, is male, a lot of the narrative details seem drawn from Emily Arsenault's own experience. The details of lexicographical work at the "Samuelson Company" certainly do not disappoint, and in many ways the public service aspect (Billy and a co-worker field calls and letters from inquiring dictionary users for definitions and clarifications) reminded my of my own job as a reference librarian. However, I have some lingering uncertainty as to the lasting power of the "mystery" itself. Billy and his co-worker Mona fall into a friendship as they pursue the curious citations from a non-existent novel called The Broken Teaglass, which seems to be about some former Samuelson employee's deadly encounter. As they learn more about each other, and work to uncover what happened in 1985, it becomes clear that the novel is less about the mystery itself than about Billy's struggle to find a place for himself in the post-college world. I have certainly read my share of twentysomething angst books disguised as genre fiction (The Magicians comes to mind as a recent example), and that wasn't really what I was looking for here. However, I have already used at least one quote in conversation:
"Oh, Billy," she said, opening her door. "Don't hate words. Hate the people who misuse them."
Overall, I found the book engaging and its premise fascinating, despite the fact that the narrative sometimes seemed to be backtracking.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts: What happened to the character of Tommy? He seemed so present and mysterious in the first half of the book, and then appeared only briefly in the second act as an ex machina character to move the plot along.

Why didn't Billy and Mona ever pursue the question of where Mary Anne went after she left Samuelson?

I doubt I will ever open a dictionary and not think of this book.


I haven't posted in a while, since I've been reading one particular book for some time, so why not a little meme action to fill up the time? I picked a random one and edited out the lamest questions.

1. What is the color of your toothbrush?
What a weird question. It varies. My upstairs toothbrush is one color (maybe orange) and my downstairs toothbrush is probably green or something. Plus there's my fancy Sonicare toothbrush (much neglected of late), which is a boring white.

2. Name one person who made you smile today.
George, when he smiled at me despite being congested and cranky.

3. What were you doing at 8 am this morning?
Sleeping, thankfully.

4. What were you doing 45 minutes ago?
Answering chat reference questions from around the country.

5. What is your favorite candy bar?
Today, Snickers. Tomorrow, something else. A Butterfinger sounds good about now.

6. Have you ever been to a strip club?

7. What is the last thing you said aloud?
"And it's only common sense."

8. What is your favorite ice cream?

9. What was the last thing you had to drink?
Orange Vitamin Water.

10. Do you like your wallet?
Yes, of course. It's black leather.

11. What was the last thing you ate?
A Tootsie Roll.

12. Have you bought any new clothing items this week?
Sadly, no. I think there's probably still a clothing-buying embargo on me.

13. The last sporting event you watched?
Yesterday's Pats game. At least they won this one.

14. What is your favorite flavor of popcorn?
Caramel, despite the fact that it once caused me to lose a tooth.

15. Ever go camping?
Of course. But not enough and not recently.

16. Do you take vitamins daily?
It's a goal. A not very often realized goal.

17. Do you go to church every Sunday?
I'm an atheist. So, no.

18. Do you prefer Chinese food over pizza?
It's a close call, depending on my mood. Right now I prefer either to cooking anything at home.

19. What are you doing tomorrow?
Going to work. Cleaning. Playing with a baby.

20. Favorite color?
Blue or green.

21. Look to your left; what do you see?
A pile of junk on my desk.

22. What do you think of when you hear “Australia”?

23. Would you strip for money?
No, because I'm sure I wouldn't make that much.

24. What is your favorite number?

25. In how many states have you lived?
Five. And three countries.

26. Biggest annoyance right now?
Inability to finish current book.

27. Last song listened to?
Touching the Ground, Brandi Carlile.

28. Favorite pair of shoes you wear all the time?
LL Bean comfort mocs.

29. Are you jealous of anyone?
Of course.

30. Is anyone jealous of you?
I'd like to think that people are jealous of my beautiful hair, my charming smile, and my obvious intelligence, but I strongly doubt it.

31. What do you usually do during the day?
Answer people's questions and help them print things.

32. Do you hate anyone that you know right now?
Hate is a strong word. I don't currently know anyone that's worth that much negative energy.

33. Do you use the word hello daily?
Yes. Again, what a weird question.

34. What color is your car?
Green. Or black. Depends on the car.

35. What size wedding ring do you wear?
Um, 6 1/2? 6 1/4? Apparently I don't know my ring size.

36. Have you ever been to Six Flags?
No, but I have a fear of roller coasters that would probably make it a money-waster anyway.

37. How did you get your worst scar?
I ran through a door. And that should be "scars" plural. There are a lot of other candidates, but I think those are probably the worst.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: The Gathering Storm [2009]

Publication of The Gathering Storm, the 12th book in Robert Jordan's epic (in many senses of the word) fantasy series The Wheel of Time, was long overdue. The last volume, Knife of Dreams, was published all the way back in 2005, before the author's untimely death in 2007. I have to take a moment to reflect on the series, because since the first book was published (1990), my investment has slowly moved from "hey, this is a neat story, let's see where it goes" to "DAMMIT, I read all the others, I have to see this through to the end! Please promise me there will someday be an end?" A fantasy-reading endurance test, if you will. I am happy to report that The Gathering Storm is an improvement over some of the later installments of the series, particularly in terms of pacing and action. I do believe that Brandon Sanderson is absolutely the right author to continue and conclude the series (based on what is reputedly a large body of unfinished work left by Jordan). Sanderson's skill at big-picture plotting is vital to the task of bringing a giant mess of characters, motivations, and events to some kind of coherent endpoint. And if he can actually do it in the next two years/two volumes, well, I salute him.

The Gathering Storm, as its name suggests, sets the stage for the Last Battle between Rand al'Thor (the Dragon Reborn) and the Dark One. Despite being rather heavy on the storm imagery, and omitting or reducing some viewpoints (Elayne, for example) that have been prominent in previous installments, the action moves along quickly and several large plot points are resolved. Mat is relegated to a comic relief role, Perrin hardly appears, and, PS, The Last Battle is coming! I don't have the energy to summarize the details here, but the reader spends a lot of time with Egwene, who is trying to restore the White Tower to unity, and Rand, who is (as usual) struggling with his sanity and becoming more and more of a pain in the ass à la Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix. There is a lot of moping and staring people down. As is customary after I take a multi-year break from this series, if I had a nickel for every minor character I had to look up (particularly various Aes Sedai), I'd have at least $2.00 right now. However, there's no way that I'm going back and re-reading every freakin' book again, because this is my Year of Not Re-Reading. Also it would take forever. I was satisfied with the character development and plot movement in this volume, although the urge to smack Rand upside the head was often very strong, and the ending seemed appropriate to the trajectory of the plotlines, leaving me optimistic about the next (and penultimate) volume. Bring it on!

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts:

Look, if you've read the others, you might as well read this one. Just do it.

I always struggle with Jordan's representation of women. On the one hand, there are some great, complex female characters, and we get to spend a lot of time with them. On the other hand, they almost universally seem to think that men are "wool-headed" idiots. Then there's the question of homosexuality. In a fictional world as huge as The Wheel of Time, it seems a bit odd that none of the viewpoint characters are gay. I read an interesting article at the Thirteenth Depository about "pillow-friends" (same-sex attraction and sexual activity among the Aes Sedai and others), but I'm convinced that the world could benefit from additional viewpoints beyond the men-are-stubborn-but-noble and women-love-those-ornery-men dichotomy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review: Soulless [2009]

When I was ordering paperbacks a months ago, I immediately added Soulless by Gail Carriger to my cart, because I knew from its description alone that it would be completely awesome. And of course, I was right. Soulless is utterly charming. I am charmed. If it didn't have multiple holds on it, I would keep it to read again instead of releasing it back into the library system. However, I am generally kind and don't want to prevent other patrons from enjoying it. I am, however, considering buying my own copies and forcing them on various friends, if this review doesn't immediately make them want to read the book. Which it should, because I have impeccable taste.

Alexia Tarabotti is regrettably (in the eyes of her family and the London ton) a half-Italian spinster who combines bluestocking tendencies with the unnerving habit of speaking her mind. She is also lacking a soul, a fact known only to those in the supernatural community, including the ill-mannered (but strangely appealing) Lord Maccon, alpha werewolf and head of the government's Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR). Being soulless, or preturnatural, grants her the ability to negate other supernatural powers. After an unfortunate incident that ends in the staking (with the help of her wooden hair stick and trusty weighted parasol) of an unregistered vampire, Alexia and Lord Maccon's paths cross and re-cross as the BUR attempts to get to the bottom of a series of disappearances in the supernatural community. Populated by endearing secondary characters, plenty of electricity between the leads, a fully-realized and enchanting alt-Victorian London, and abundant descriptions of couture, comestibles, and steampunk gadgetry, Soulless is a feast for the senses and, so far, my favorite book of 2009.

Grade: A (obviously)

Random Thoughts:

This was much more like a romance novel than I initially thought it would be. For me, this was excellent, as I love a good romance--however, anyone looking for hard urban fantasy should be prepared more for an Amanda-Quick-ish supernatural.

I was reading this book while walking around the house carrying a fretful baby. Carriger's turns of phrase often made me grin like a madwoman. I can't wait for the sequel to come out, and you can bet that I'll be ordering it for the library.

I don't generally ever choose the werewolf in any situation where such a choice is possible. For example, Edward beats Jacob (although--what a choice . . .), and for me Jean-Claude is always preferable to Richard. However, suddenly Lord Maccon has appeared and provided some weight to tip the scales toward the furry side. Here is a werewolf whom one could embrace wholeheartedly, if one were of an appropriately soulless state. Not to say that I wouldn't embrace Lord Akeldama--he is adorable, and one of the few fully realized gay characters who (spoiler alert) does not get killed that I can remember existing. I just adore his army of foppish, yet secretly capable, minions.

The author's website.

Book Review: Rosemary and Rue [2009]

I'm a fan of urban fantasy, thought I haven't read a lot of it lately, and decided to pick this one up while doing my paperback order. Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire, is the first of a series of books featuring the changeling character October "Toby" Daye. As the product of human and Faerie blood, changelings are not entirely welcome in either world, and although Toby once forged a place in Faerie as a knight for the Duke of Shadowed Hills, she has since repudiated all connections to that world. In fact, Toby apparently lived quite an event-filled life before the book even begins: she was engaged to and had a daughter with a human man before her "private investigator" status in Faerie landed her in a fourteen-year imprisonment in a koi pond. As the action begins, she works as a grocery clerk, is unable to speak to her daughter, and exists in a voluntary state of friendlessness. The setting may be fantastic but the action is a straight-up mystery, revolving around the death of one of Toby's old allies, Countess Evening Winterrose. The Countess has cursed Toby with discovering the truth of her murder with cold iron, and the task becomes a race against time as well as Toby's forceful reintroduction into the world of Faerie. Although there is a lot of (necessary) exposition and explanation of the laws of Faerie, etc., this is a solid series opener with some intriguing characters that left me hopeful that some of the many threads left hanging will be picked up in the next volume.

Grade: B

The author's website.

Book Review: Ash [2009]

I have read and enjoyed Malinda Lo's work on AfterEllen for many years now, so it was with great pleasure that I heard of the imminent publication of her first young adult novel, Ash. A reworking of the Cinderella story, Ash draws heavily on fairy tale tropes but colors them with a darker, almost gothic flavor.

Aisling ("Ash") is young when her mother dies unexpectedly, and somewhat puzzled when her father remarries and brings a City lady and her two daughters to live in their quiet village. After her father's startling death and their subsequent removal to her stepmother's house, she finds comfort in tales of the fairies, who are said to thrive in the adjacent Wood. These stories emphasize that, when dealing with those of the other world, a price must always be paid. Moved at first by her absolute certainty that her mother must still be alive, Ash delves deeper and deeper into the Wood, eventually becoming acquainted with the mysterious Sidhean, a fairy with an unknown agenda. Although she is drawn to him and finds their odd friendship the only remedy for an increasingly abusive relationship with her stepmother, she also becomes intrigued by the King's Huntress, Kaisa. She is torn between her certain knowledge that Sidhean can take her away from all earthly struggles, and the golden glow of her interactions with Kaisa. However, in order to enter the world of the Huntress, she strikes bargains with Sidhean that could put her newfound life in jeopardy. Though the plot sometimes moves at an agonizingly slow pace, this is one fairy-tale reimagining that is definitely worth a thoughtful read.

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts:

Lo also develops an interesting tension between the "old ways" (primarily female and earth-oriented, represented by the greenwitches) and the book learning of the "philosophers," who tend to be men.

After thinking about it, I would say that agency is one of the most important themes of the book. Ash spends a good deal of the narrative having things done to her, and must learn to make her own decisions and deal with the consequences of her actions.

Interview with Malinda Lo on AfterEllen.

The author's website.