Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: In the Woods [2007]

I've been intrigued by Irish author Tana French's The Likeness ever since I spotted it in reviews several years ago, but never had a good opportunity to pick it up. Then, a few weeks ago, Nancy Pearl said on Twitter: "Wish I could read Tana French's In the Woods again for the first time." In the Woods precedes The Likeness in French's fictional world, and Nancy Pearl's recommendation is more than enough for me, so I immediately requested it from my library on CD and checked out the book as well. This turned out to be a good thing, because I spent the next week listening to the CD in the car and then picking up where I had left off in the book, and vice versa--behavior that I reserve only for books that completely absorb my attention.

In the Woods is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective in Dublin's murder squad. Rob and his partner, Cassie Maddox, are young and confident, and their relationship has a special closeness rarely seen between platonic friends. Cassie is one of the few people who knows that Rob is actually Adam Ryan, one of three children who mysteriously disappeared in the Dublin subdivision of Knocknaree in the 1980s. Adam was the only child to reappear, his memory of events blank and shoes filled with blood that wasn't his own. When the book begins, another murder at Knocknaree brings Rob full circle on a case that involves a dead girl about the same age as he was when he disappeared. The results are devastating for Rob, his relationship with Cassie, and the family of the dead girl.

In the Woods is much more than a police procedural, it is a book steeped in nostalgia, both for Rob and Cassie's intense relationship, and for the more distant past--the friends that Rob has lost, and the experiences that he can never share with them. French evokes an elegant yearning with her prose; her lines are by turns wittily sarcastic (Rob's "voice") and deeply evocative, especially when she speaks of places:
It was like stumbling into the wreck of some great ancient city. The trees swooped higher than cathedral pillars; they wrestled for space, propped up great fallen trunks, leaned with the slope of the hill: oak, beech, ash, others I couldn't name. Long spears of light filtered, dim and sacred, through the arches of green. Swathes of ivy blurred the massive trunks, trailed in waterfalls from the branches, turned stumps into standing stones (272).
While his official presence on the case is a textbook example of conflict of interest, Rob's need to pursue the demons of his past is understandable, if misguided. He has spent the bulk of the time between the incident in the woods and the present distancing himself from the little boy he once was, and the emotional and psychological consequences of that action are unknown, even to him.

Grade: A

I definitely agree with Nancy Pearl: I would really like to read this book again for the first time. It was such a great balance of humor and suspense and nostalgia. I wish all books were as moving and intriguing.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: Pale Demon [2011]

I'm a big fan of Kim Harrison's Hollows series featuring Rachel Morgan, so I jumped on the chance to read an advance copy of the ninth in the series, Pale Demon, through NetGalley. This would be the second time EVER that I have read a book entirely in electronic format (the first was Rampant, so the bar was set extremely high), and it ended up being a great way to read the book at even the smallest opportunity! I found myself reading it on my portable device while walking up the stairs at work, while waiting for traffic so I could cross the street, in line at the grocery store . . . possibly in my car while waiting for the light to change (can't confirm that one).

The premise of Pale Demon is deceptively simple: Rachel has to get from Cincinnati to the west coast to get her shunning by the Coven of Moral and Ethical Standards revoked. She can't take the plane, so she ends up road-tripping as Trent's protector--he has reasons of his own to go that direction--along with Ivy and Jenks. What could possibly go wrong on this bizarre reinterpretation of the classic American family experience? Plenty, as the (spoiler) former St. Louis Gateway Arch could tell you, if its rubble could talk.

Although the road trip offers plenty of excitement, the real fireworks start in San Francisco when Rachel makes her case before the witches' council. Her identity as a witch has come farther into question over the last several books, and Pale Demon goes even farther down that path as she battles a day-walking demon released by Trent and saves Al from an attack by her lover, Pierce. Rachel finds herself more and more in sympathy with (some) demons and using ley-line magic to survive and protect those she loves. This, unfortunately, is also the reason she's been shunned by the witches' council. Will Rachel accept her identity as a demon, or end up cutting all her ties with the ever-after?

Grade: A

I was very pleased about the direction of Pale Demon, its cast of characters, and its ambiguous ending. Harrison doesn't let longtime series fans down with a placeholder novel, but instead crafts a narrative that keeps pushing at the boundaries of Rachel's identity and the world as she knows it. I'm eagerly awaiting an opportunity to read the next book!

Random Thoughts:

As far as digital books go, I wouldn't say that I'm completely sold on the format (insofar as , but as the kind of person who always wants to have a book on her person, I am definitely on board with their portability. I will never have to be without a book again! As long as I have enough battery power . . .

My review of the previous book in the series, Black Magic Sanction.

Dead Mother: No
Book Review Index

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: Dust [2007]

Dust is the first book in Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder trilogy, and the first of her books that I have read. I joined a "Women and Science Fiction" online book club this year because I've been wanting to read more science fiction in general, and SF written by women in particular. This is the first time since I finished grad school that I've had a deadline imposed on my reading, and I'm pleased to say that I very nearly finished the book on time! (The same statement probably applies to a lot of my grad school reading assignments.)

At some point in the distant past, a spaceship was launched from Earth carrying a wealth of genetic information. An accident stranded the ship in the orbit of a pair of dying suns, and over generations, its still-functioning parts became self-contained and estranged from one another. In the kingdom of Rule, at the end of the suns' life, a serving girl by the name of Rien is assigned to look after a genetically-enhanced angel, Perceval, who has been violently stripped of her wings by Rien's employer. Perceval names herself Rien's sister, and persuades the girl to help her escape Rule. Their goal is to return to Perceval's home in Engine to stave off an imminent war within the ship's ruling Conn family, of which they are scions. Unknown to them, their journey is of avid interest to the fragments of artificial intelligence that control what remains of the ship, including the scheming Jacob Dust. The crumbling ship itself is in direst jeopardy from the impending supernova, and they must find a way to reunite its components and escape before everything is destroyed.

Dust was an up-and-down read for me. I had a great deal of difficulty even writing the description above. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and some of the concepts, especially the elements of fantasy in the science fiction setting, but the execution wasn't as fluid as I would have liked. I felt like Bear could have taken a longer time to explore some of the characters' motivations. I do realize that this book is the first in a trilogy, and some of the things that are bothering me could be resolved in Chill or even Grail. However, as some readers pointed out on the discussion boards, Dust really feels self-contained.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

The concept of the "generation ship" (in which the people on a ship at launch give way to their descendants as they cross distances in space) as a trope was unfamiliar to me, but came up quite frequently in the discussion. That common language is definitely the sort of thing that I'm in this Book Club to discover! It's particularly interesting that I read two books in the space of a few weeks that included the generation ship concept (the other was The Knife of Never Letting Go).

The language of the book is often startlingly beautiful, and seems to be filled with double meanings. Those who are not genetically enhanced are called the Mean--both those who are in service, and those who are average. "Rien" means "nothing," in French, and the family name Conn derives from the naval vocabulary of earlier centuries. A person who "has the conn" has the command of a ship. I am certain there are any number of allusions and references, particularly biblical, that I missed in the maze of Bear's words.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Meditation on the Epistolary Novel

Last night, something happened on Twitter which is, in my opinion, just the kind of thing for which the service was created. UffishL mentioned re-reading and enjoying The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a very popular epistolary novel published in 2008. This led to a flood of epistolary novel recommendations from different users, which I will attempt to collect here for the sake of tidiness.

According to my handy OED, "epistolary" means "of or pertaining to letters or letter-writing" and was first used c. 1656. Presumably it has its origins from the much older word "epistle," which harkens back to Latin and Greek. The part of the word's definition that I found most interesting was:
Chiefly (from its use in translations from L. and Gr.) applied to letters written in ancient times, esp. to those which rank as literary productions, or ... to those of a public character, or addressed to a body of persons. In application to ordinary (modern) letters now used only rhetorically or with playful or sarcastic implication [2d ed.].
Clearly, we need to bring back "epistle" into common parlance, as well as celebrating the epistolary novels that have sprung from it. Some of the earliest novels were done in the epistolary style--Clarissa (1748) and Evelina (1778) were both mentioned last night--but they aren't the kind of books that non-English majors are likely to pick up. Slightly more modern epistolary novels such as Jane Austen's Lady Susan (unpublished until 1871) and The Moonstone (1868), by Wilkie Collins, might appeal to Austen fans and mystery buffs, respectively. Someone interested in venturing across the Channel might consider Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. But while the epistolary novel was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's rare to find one published recently.

The format of the epistolary novel presents several challenges to a modern author. The action can't really be immediate, and the plot must be conducted through the medium of letters. Letters are not generally written in haste (or at all, these days), and the characters have to be the sort who would be writing in the first place. In a world where instantaneous communication is more and more common, and it's difficult to imagine having to wait weeks or even months to receive a letter, crafting an epistolary novel can be challenging. Most authors looking for a similar feel would probably opt for the diary or journal format instead. So, what are some more modern epistolary novels that might be worth reading--after finishing up Guernsey, for example?

The book I turn to immediately is not strictly a novel, but it does fit the tone and subject of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society beautifully: Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road. Published in 1970, the book captures an exchange of letters between Hanff and the employees of a London bookstore. The book is short, sweet, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.

Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary novel, as is Richard Wright's Clara Callan (2001). For young adult readers or Regency romance fans, I recommend Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (1988), the first in a series by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede. Other recommendations from Twitter users included:

A Woman of Independent Means (1978), Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
Griffin and Sabine (1991), Nick Bantock
Ella Minnow Pea (2001), Mark Dunn
Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson
Which Brings Me to You (2007), Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott

For more excellent recommendations, visit The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society website, bearing in mind that the definition of "epistolary novel" is a tricky one to establish. If we assume that an epistolary novel consists entirely of letters, then a great book like A.S. Byatt's Possession, in which letters are crucial to the development of the plot, would be left out. The Prestige, by Christopher Priest, also features an epistolary section.

And although it's a bit of a stretch, the Internet Girls novels (Ttyl, Ttfn, and L8r, g8r) by Lauren Myracle do have an epistolary flavor, and could indicate something about the future direction of epistolary works. In 2007, a Finnish novel was published that consisted entirely of text messages between a businessman and his friends and relatives. Twitter itself features an asynchronous and "@" communication that could serve as epistolary shorthand, and there are already various Twitter-based literary projects. If anyone else has more suggestions (or corrections, I haven't read all of the novels listed here, although I did page through the ones on the shelf in my library), please leave them in the comments.

ETA: Richardson's Pamela, because Donna pined for its inclusion in the list. Which means that I should also include Shamela.

Meditation Index

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Review: Towers of Midnight [2010]

Towers of Midnight is the thirteenth and penultimate novel in Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time fantasy series. It is the second volume that has been released since Jordan's untimely death with the assistance of (noted doorstop-writer in his own right) Brandon Sanderson. For more on my thoughts on this "collaboration," see my review of the previous volume, The Gathering Storm. After reading Towers of Midnight, I am a little concerned about whether all of the delicate, intersecting plotlines and niggling questions will be wrapped up to everyone's satisfaction, but maybe that isn't necessary. At this point, having spent twenty years with the series, the idea that it might actually soon be complete (expected publishing date for A Memory of Light is spring 2012) is bizarre. The idea that it might be neatly wrapped up is almost unthinkable. Jordan and Sanderson spend this volume getting us prepared for the Last Battle between the forces of good and evil (also true of The Gathering Storm and probably several books before it). I could spend several paragraphs trying to summarize the plot and introduce the characters, but I won't bother, so what follows will probably be unintelligible to people who haven't read at least some of the books in the series. If that's you, just scroll down for the rant portion of this review.

In this volume, we spent much less time with Rand, a relief since his transformation into messiah is almost complete and that makes him not so interesting. Unfortunately, the price was spending many, many pages with Perrin instead. It's not that I dislike Perrin, exactly, but he's always been one of my lesser favorites among the main characters, and I don't really care as much as I apparently should about his struggle to balance wolf and man and accept his new status as a leader of men. Mat, once again, was relegated primarily to a comic relief role, until the very end when he and Thom went in to the Tower of Ghenjei to rescue Moiraine. For an event featured on the cover, the buildup took almost the entire book, and the rescue itself seemed a bit shortchanged as a result. There were some nice moments with Egwene, a few with Elayne and Nynaeve, and Lan's journey across the Borderlands, unwillingly gathering an army as he goes, was good for a few laughs. Aviendha learned about the depressing future of the Aiel. Stuff happened. Some things, like the near-universal misapprehension that Morgase was dead, were even resolved! I am glad to have Moiraine back as a character after an eight-book absence. After learning of Rand's plan to break the the remaining seals on the Dark One's prison, all of the major players and most of the world's armies are assembled by the end of the novel, and everything is ready to go for the last book.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

The most notable thing that happened around this book was an interaction I had when I was standing in line at a comic book store. Two guys in front of me were talking loudly about the book and saying "I can't believe Perrin--" At this point, I put my hands over my ears and said a quiet LALALALA to myself until they were done, when the guy closest to me turned to ask me why I was acting as if spoilers for Towers of Midnight might bother me. His tone and line of questioning implied that it was difficult for him to believe that I had read any of the books, much less the most recent one. I assume this was because I am female. When I indicated that yes, I had read them all, and also ascertained that I'd read more Sanderson books than he had, he switched to asking me if I could convince his wife to read Jordan. MAJOR EYEROLL. So let me just say it on this blog, in case someone like this guy is googling someday: Women also read epic fantasy. Some of them have even read more of it than you have. Please let your wife read whatever she wants to read.

One other thing that bothered me was the way Mat's character was constantly sizing up women's breasts and other attributes. Yes, Mat has been known a player, and I guess this might have been to counterbalance the seriousness of his injury at the end of the book, but did he really need to evaluate every woman he encountered? The relationships between men and women and the characterization of women in particular has always bothered me in Jordan's books, and this issue didn't really help that.

All right, bring on the last book. I'm ready.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes, I suppose

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go [2008]

I can't pinpoint it exactly, but I'm pretty sure I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go (on audio) because Jen told me to. I am very suggestible these days, so blog posts that praise things I'm already interested in reading have a tendency to spur me into action. It's a very difficult book to write a quick summary of, and I guess there may be spoilers below, depending on your definition of the term.

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in Prentisstown, which, as far as he knows, is the last outpost of a planetary colony in which all the women and most of the men died from a mysterious disease caused by the world's original residents, the Spackle. The remaining men are afflicted with what's called "Noise," essentially broadcasting their thoughts and feelings for all to see. As Todd approaches manhood under the care of his foster parents Ben and Cillian, he copes as best he can with the rage and despair he sees in the Noise around him. When Todd discovers the unthinkable--a girl--at the outskirts of Prentisstown, his life changes immediately and irrevocably. Ben and Cillian send him off toward another settlement with his talking dog, a map and a long-prepared pack, and a book filled with his mother's words. The town's fearsome preacher, Aaron, launches a maniacal pursuit and nearly kills both Todd and the mysterious girl, Viola, who turns out to be the survivor of a crashed scout ship from another wave of colonizers. Viola and Todd have only each other to rely on as they try to make their way--through wilderness and unexpected settlements, through their vast differences and Todd's ignorance and countless close calls just ahead of Aaron's madness--toward some kind of safe haven.

This is the kind of book where so many bad things happen to the characters that the positive developments seem transparent or coincidental by comparison to the driving, merciless chase. It reminds me of The Hunger Games in the brutal, unapologetic way that good people kill and good people are killed. I say "as far as he knows" about Todd above because almost all of the truths that he takes for granted when the book begins are systematically stripped away as he and Viola flee from Aaron and the rest of the Prentisstown men. Todd  grows enormously as a character during the course of the book, and the growing pains are sometimes quite difficult to experience with him.

Grade: A-

I would recommend this book to fans of dystopian fiction, as well as fans of horror movies (I am looking at you, Amanda!) because of the way that Aaron keeps coming after Todd and Viola like a homicidal maniac, even after sustaining incredible damage. It's also a great study of the relationship between two young people, and how it changes under pressure and over time. I do not recommend it for people who don't like violence, especially against innocents; I was crying in the car on several occasions.

Random Thoughts:

In addition to being horrifically fascinating and an intriguing exercise in worldbuilding, I read the book as a sharp commentary on fundamentalism. The colonist group that included Todd's parents and foster parents were religious settlers, leaving in the face of persecution to find a new home where they could make a different way of life. There are settlements where this translates to a surprisingly female-ascendant system of government, and then there's Prentisstown. Todd's home is a place where learning has gradually been eradicated to the point where he doesn't even know how to read, probably because it makes it easier for Mayor Prentiss to perpetuate his version of history. The prevailing view of women, judging by later events, sees them as objects for raping and killing, and Aaron, the book's scariest character, is the Prentisstown man of God.

The book was written in a grinding first-person present tense that really lends itself both to the audio format and the fast pace of the action. Having picked up the print version, I see that I missed out on a few font tricks having to do with Noise, but it was nothing that wasn't capably translated in the audio, which I highly recommend.

I'm currently taking a break before tackling the second book. I actually have it in the car, ready to go, but the first one was so exhausting to read that I've been listening to other things instead. I'd like to continue the series, because it's highly recommended, but it may take me a while to work up to The Ask and The Answer. I need to take a break from books that I want to use the word "brutal" to describe.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes, many

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: Romancing the Zone [2006]

I recently reviewed Kenna White's lesbian romance Braggin Rights and, hoping for something a little better, I also picked up Romancing the Zone. For me, this novel already had a huge advantage over Braggin Rights before I ever started reading, since it's about women's basketball instead of horses.

Sheridan Ross is a rising star of women's college basketball coaching. She's recently been made head coach of the Chilton College team, but her sights are set much higher and her professional zeal is all-consuming. Liz Elliott is a local  restaurant owner and former basketball star who dropped out of Chilton to raise her daughter Becca, who plays for Coach Ross's Lady Stingers. When Becca has to miss the season after seriously injuring her leg and considers dropping out of school altogether, she and Liz make a bargain that has Liz back on campus--completing her degree and her last year of playing eligibility. Coach Ross isn't too enthusiastic about having a forty-year-old point guard added to her squad, especially one that she finds physically attractive. Nevertheless, she and Liz take baby steps toward a romantic understanding. But when Liz's creepy ex-girlfriend from college reappears on the scene and Sheridan interviews for a job in the midwest, their tenuous relationship is in danger of falling apart.

Grade: B-

I enjoyed a lot of things about this book, including the small-town New England setting, the basketball scenes, and the slow development of the relationship between Sheridan and Liz. Unlike series romances, there is a lot more room in a lesbian romance for older protagonists, or women with older kids, and so forth, and Romancing the Zone takes full advantage of that. I wasn't quite sure what to think of the stalker/girlfriend from the past angle, which provided the dramatic tension for the second part of the book. On one hand, it's good to have a portrayal of same-sex domestic abuse, because it absolutely does exist, and Sara is really creepy. On the other, the Sara's existence and the circumstances of Becca's conception provided the "deep dark secret" variety of character motivation (largely hidden from the reader for most of the narrative, apart from dire hints) that I dislike in mainstream romance novels. Because of this, the conclusion to that plotline ended up seeming melodramatic rather than dramatic, and made the resolution of the romantic plot (will Sheridan leave for greener coaching pastures, or stay for love?) rather anticlimactic.

Random Thoughts:

I do love a title with a pun in it, as all readers of the Marc of the Beast blog will be aware. In addition, the cover art is really cute! However, I am completely thrown out of the narrative when I encounter typos, and this book had a distressing number. A few typos are understandable, but there is a line, and it was crossed in Romancing the Zone. I meant to remember the page numbers for some examples, but of course I failed to do so. These things balanced each other out.

This book actually contains scenes in Springfield and Northampton, MA, both of which are very familiar places to me. White's Northampton was pretty much unrecognizable, in a humorous way, although the descriptions of a snowstorm in which no one could drive anywhere until the streets were cleared was depressingly close to real life.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother:Yes

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Reviews: Pretties [2005] and Specials [2006]

While I was finishing up my Leviathan review I remembered once again that I've actually read the rest of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, but never gotten around to reviewing it. I hate leaving things like that unfinished, but bear in mind that it has been a few months and some of the insightful commentary I had planned probably ended up as a throwaway joke on Twitter instead.

When Pretties begins, Tally Youngblood has made the voluntary transformation from rebellious ugly to carefree pretty, theoretically so she could be a test case for the cure to the brain-altering lesions. However, Tally's prettification means that she doesn't really remember much about her love interest David or the Smoke; she's more concerned about going to all the bubbliest parties with her BFF Shay and their new, pretty friends, including the aloof Zane. However, when a face from the past leads Tally and Zane to the cure (which they divide and each take half of, in a completely ill-advised move), it's all they can do to stay bubbly and try to get themselves and the rest of the Crims out of the city and the sinister grip of Special Circumstances. When they get separated, Tally learns that the world beyond her city is even bigger than she had previously imagined.

There's a lot to say about Pretties, mostly because it's jam-packed with action. Westerfeld explores some hefty themes using Tally, Zane, and Shay, including environmentalism, self-injury, resistance to authority, and of course beauty standards and body modification. A few of the things I thought didn't work as well in Pretties were the dream sequences featuring the princess in the tower and the introduction of the "primitive" humans. Although the discovery of this Special Circumstances control group was illuminating, in that the belief that humans are violent as part of their "true nature" provides an important motivating factor that gives some plausibility to Special Circumstances' heretofore seemingly pointless evil, it seemed like a throwaway obstacle between Tally and the New Smoke. Coming as it does almost three-quarters of the way into the book, I feel like I really would have benefited from the opportunity to sit with the ideas a little bit longer. This feeling strengthened for me when I read Specials, where Andrew and the rest of his people are only marginally involved in the action. For example, they are very useful as a group that provides contrast; the fact that the primitives are much more gender-biased than Tally's society makes the reader realize again that there may be advantages to the way the city is organized and run. Tally's home isn't just a black and white place of oppression, despite the way that its citizens are stripped of their free will by the operation. Anyway, it was obviously a thought-provoking read for me.

Grade: B-

Specials picks up after Tally has been caught yet again by Special Circumstances and been surgically transformed into one of the Cutters, a self-injuring clique created by Shay in Pretties to ameliorate the effects of the operation that was later co-opted and special-ized by Dr. Cable. Led by Shay, the Cutters are a wilder band of specials who work to hunt down members of the New Smoke; however, when they come up against a newly militant David and his crew and one of their own is captured, things start to spin of control. Tally enjoys the fantastic powers that come along with her newly special body, but realizes that something isn't quite right as she arranges to get a sick Zane back out of the city in order to convince Dr. Cable that he should be made special as well. However, her plans are swept up in a much larger intrigue as the interplay between Shay, Zane, the New Smoke, Dr. Cable, and the "cured" city of Diego inevitably leads to one of the most frightening Rusty pastimes: war.

Grade: B

Westerfeld did a great job in Specials of expanding the universe he'd created in the first two books. I'm not sure what I expected going in, but it definitely wasn't the introduction of a new city and an inter-city war. It is similar to Uglies and Pretties in that, once again, Tally ends up outside the city, pursuing someone else's agenda, but this time she finally discovers her own agency. Tally has always seemed like a passive character to whom things are done, which makes her rather unlikeable and "why me?" at times, but that changed somewhat by the end of the series. The idea of Tally as a kind of maverick ranger, reminding the newly cured cities not to devour the wilderness as thoughtlessly as the Rusties did, is appealing.

Random Thoughts:

I don't know, am I the only one whose favorite character ended up being Dr. Cable? She was really mean and, I guess, probably evil, but also pretty funny ("Didn't I tell you to lie still? Or must you always destroy everything?") Maybe it was just that, by the end, I wasn't really that invested in Tally or David or Shay. Yeah, I could have done with a whole lot more Dr. Cable. I'm about five steps away from writing "an embittered and friendless Dr. Cable works to unseat the city's new government using only her brilliant, evil mind" fanfic.

Westerfeld has a talent for building slang vocabulary, such as "pretty-making" or "bubbly," and making it stick. I can still hear Carine Montbertrand's voice drawling in my head without too much work, particularly Shay's voice saying "Tally-wa," and I think this was definitely a case where I wouldn't have finished the series if it hadn't been available on audio, or if the narrator had been switched in midstream (which is why I haven't gone any farther than Airborn in Oppel's series, for example). So, kudos to Montbertrand for doing such a great job and making Westerfeld's world come alive for the listener. 

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Review: Leviathan [2009]

The Library of Congress subject headings for Scott Westerfeld's alternate history novel Leviathan (first in a trilogy) are: 1. Science fiction. 2. Imaginary creatures--Fiction. 3. Princes--Fiction. 4. War--Fiction. 5. Genetic engineering--Fiction.These descriptors indicate, more than the general heading of "steampunk" that I think the book is labeled with, how focused the worldmaking actually is on genetically engineered living creatures. For example, the hydrogen-filled airship Leviathan itself is a genetically modified whale populated with symbiotic creatures, all coexisting in a delicate balance. The purpose of this geeky librarian subject heading exercise is to illustrate that Leviathan really wasn't what I expected (an airship adventure along the lines of Airborn, I guess), it was OMG ALAN CUMMING!

Ahem. What was I saying?

Leviathan is set in an alternate 1914, where world powers--the western Darwinists, who have discovered how to create living amalgams, including war machines, and the eastern Clankers, who prize strictly machine-based technology--are on the brink of war. As in our time, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is the crucial event that sparks international conflict, only in this case his death also has enormous repercussions for the Austro-Hungarian succession, in the form of his (secretly legitimized by the Pope) son Alek. There are a lot of people who apparently want to see Alek dead as a result, and his father's trusted retainers abscond with him in the night in a Stormwalker fighting machine. After dodging various forms of death, Alek and his crew intersect unexpectedly with a British airship, the Leviathan, on its way to Constantinople on a secret mission. The Leviathan is home to Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl whose intense desire to join the British Air Service led her to adopt "Dylan," a brash male persona. When Alek rescues Deryn in the aftermath of a German attack, their fates become inextricably linked with the Leviathan and its mysterious cargo as they travel toward the Ottoman Empire.

Although it's not that clear from my synopsis, Alek and Deryn have alternating viewpoints throughout the book. Both are interesting, flawed characters who experience some growth throughout the course of the novel, although they have many miles to go. It almost doesn't matter, because everything is brilliantly, perfectly narrated by Alan Cumming, who should be a professional actor or something! He is THAT GOOD. It also helps to have the Scottish accents read by someone who is actually Scottish, for once.

Grade: A- (for the audio version with ALAN CUMMING, probably a B otherwise)

Random Thoughts:

I would definitely recommend this book to Airborn fans, as well as to Naomi Novik fans for the alternate history of Europe/warfare angle. I really appreciated that Westerfeld included a section in the back about what was really true in the book, because otherwise I would have headed straight to the internet/Encyclopedia to try to figure it out.

Despite losing the ALAN CUMMING factor, if you are forced to read the book on paper, it does have a ton of lovely illustrations. As usual, I recommend experiencing it both ways, if not at the exact same time.

The back of the book says that "Deryn is a girl disguised as a guy in the British Air Service. She must fight for her cause--and protect her secret--at all costs." Really, jacket copy writers, that's the best you could come up with?

When I was searching for Deryn's last name, I ran across Leviathan fanfic. Quite a bit, actually. At least it was only rated K through Teen.

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Dead Mother: Yes