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A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel

3/5. There are four Londons in four worlds, and only a few can travel between. One of those who can takes the opportunity to smuggle, and gets caught up in a complicated magical scheme.

Overhyped. This was entertaining enough, but you know I'm kind of bored when one of the main characters is a cross-dressing lady pickpocket who dreams of being a ship captain, and I find it overbaked and kind of tiresome. Points for later establishing that she likes menswear just for the sake of wearing a good suit, though, rather than the usual fantasy bait-and-switch where the lady cross-dresses but in the end just wants to be "herself" again or whatever.

Lots of people thought the hype was called for, so maybe I'm just cranky. Or maybe this is, at its heart, just bland.
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Children of Morrow and Treasures of Morrow by H.M. Hoover

3/5. Vintage (so vintage it's not even on Kindle) post-apocalyptic YA. Two pre-teens living in a repressive paternalistic micro-society run away, guided by the voices of other survivors they can hear in their heads.

So I think Children of Morrow might well be the first science fiction I ever read as a child. It's certainly the first that mattered. And it made a hell of an impression on me -- I've been looking for this book again for about twenty years. And here it is, with a sequel!

So anyway, this informed a lot of my narrative inclinations, I think. Probably filled the niche that Mercedes Lackey did for a lot of my peers in that this, too, is about the very special children who are isolated by their specialness and go on an arduous journey to find their true home.

I will say that, as a child, I didn't grasp the true creepiness of this world. It doesn't lie in the post destruction Northern California landscape, as I thought, or in the violence inherent in the society the protagonists flee. No, the creepiness is solidly in the home they flee to, which is cozily nonviolent . . . oh and also deeply and quietly oppressive. I honestly can't tell what Hoover thought she was doing here; much is made of Morrow's superiority in intelligence which, it is implied, explains its lack of gendered power structures. And which also underlies its, um, restrictive breeding program. Awk-ward. I honestly can't tell what is irony and what is genuine enthusiasm for a "better world." A lot less irony going around than I would like, is where I came down.

It's also amazing what you don't remember. I had zero recollection of the rather casual mention of a prior abduction and forced impregnation, I imagine because I didn't understand it at all (see also: Morrow is totally morally superior you guys, ahahahahah. Ha. Ha). The WTF faces I made when that came up were quite epic.

Points for nostalgia. And for the landscape, which pried open bits of my pre-teen brain that had never seen light before. And for young children of power. But yikes.
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The Merlin Conspiracy (Magids)

2/5. Standalone sequel to her Deep Secret, which I loved. More alternate universe-hopping magical shenanigans.

I am at a loss here. Deep Secret is charming and sweet and complicatedly kind. This book is – I don't even know what this book is, aside from a mess. It's a splattery mash of magic and personalities; it is perhaps appropriate that a literal elephant walks through this book, randomly trompling things. The plot is, eh, whatever, things happen, it more or less hangs together. But the few parts of this book I can comprehend on a meta level strike me as confused at best, wrongheaded at worst. This book is sort of about influence – magical, familial, political – in relationships, which is a way tidier explanation than anything in the actual pages, and to the extent it is a thinking creature at all, this book has no comprehension of consent or why it's important.

What the hell, DWJ?
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The Cure for Dreaming

3/5. Portland, 1900. Olivia's anti-women's-suffrage father hires a mesmerist to hypnotize her rebelliousness out of her. Except the mesmerist tells her that she will "see the world as it truly is," and when she wakes up, she does. The world is full of monsters.

Snagged off last year's Tiptree longlist. The concept made me hopeful that this would be a watered down Frances Hardinge. (And I don't even mean that disparagingly, it's just no one who isn't Frances Hardinge can do her thing like she does it).

Unfortunately for this book, it is not that. It's a perfectly lovely 'introduction to feminism 101 for teenagers' type book! But I was not in the market for one of those, so, y'know. This book is just so incredibly on the nose; at one point Olivia's ability to speak her mind when she is angry is removed and – the book carefully explains to us on at least three occasions – this is just like being disenfranchised. Do you get it? Do you? Do you?

Anyway, ignore my crankiness. It's a good book, and it's got things to say. Just, those things are written on the sides of anvils. And since you can't fit much on the side of an anvil, they're also very 101 level things, with all that implies. But 101 level books are important, too; I'm sure there are lots of teenagers who would be surprised or enlightened by this book.

Content note: One scene of attempted sexual assault. Trust me, you'll spot it coming a mile off, and it's easily skipped.
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Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass series Book 1)

3/5. YA fantasy. Infamous assassin is removed from prison death camp to compete to be the king's champion; also magic is banned and stuff.

So the front matter of this book proudly proclaims that the author began posting it at the age of sixteen on Remember fictionpress? That would be the original fiction spin-off of, for those who don't.

And I was like you go, girl. So many authors try to hide their internet origins; even those who claim not to be ashamed sure don't act like it. This author lays it right out there, and thanks her fans and commenters from the site. It's like she realizes these people helped to get her published! And like she's genuinely grateful! And like she really doesn't care who knows how she got her start! Imagine.

So major kudos. Unfortunately, the book itself, despite several edits I can only assume, is incredibly sixteen. I mean, our assassin's name is Celaena; she is an orphan with a tragic past and – it is not revealed in this book but seems inevitable – royal parentage, and she is involved in a brewing love triangle with a crown prince and a captain of the guard, and her eyes might not really be purple, but I'm sure they are in Sarah J. Maas's soul. I wish her well of them; her and the thousands and thousands of girls and women who really dig this series. But it's not for me.

Note: If it might be for you, this book is super cheap on Kindle right now -- $2.24 as of linking.
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Dealing with Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) and Searching for Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles Book 2)

3/5. A princess runs away and volunteers to be the "captive" of a dragon, and foils various wizardly plots.

Cute! If your definition of cute involves making a girl cool by cutting down every other girl in the world. They're all so vapid, you know, and girly, ugh.

Anyway, this is middle grade fantasy, and it will do, if that's what you want. But like her other series I have tried, this one starts out with a sweet and poised first book and then goes rapidly downhill into obnoxiousness. I see the writing on the wall here, so I'm bailing early. You can't fool me, Patricia C. Wrede, I'm never reading whatever the hell that third Sorcery and Cecilia book was called again.
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Fangirl: A Novel

3/5. The story of Cath's first year of college. She has an anxiety disorder, and her twin isn't talking to her, and she has lots of work to do on her slashy fanfic magnum opus, oh and there's this boy….

Aw man, this book was so hard to read because reading about anxious people makes me super anxious. But don't let my issues stop anybody else, because this is awesomesauce. Actually, more accurately, this is so fucking truefax. Cath's struggles with writing original fiction, the intensity of her feelings for her fanfic, the beautiful way this book creates intimacy between people by having them share fanfic read aloud . . . yeah. Been there.

I love the way this book is about slash. It's just part of who Cath is, and some people get that and some people don't. And if the reader doesn't, well, whatever, basically. There are excerpts sprinkled throughout from Cath's WIP and her older work, and from her canon book, and they made me facepalm and chortle in turn. Cath's writing is that awkward but compelling stuff that an eighteen-year-old with genuine talent will turn out . . . and that will horrify her a decade later. Yes, also been there, thanks.

My only objections are (1) that I was utterly uninterested in the romance here. Just . . . nothing; and (2) Cath's fannishness is oddly isolated. She doesn't seem to have real online friends, just fans, which is a little weird.

But if it's a young adult book that normalizes and validates fannish behavior you want, then here you go, this is a good one.
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Carry On

4/5. Simon Snow is in his last year at British magic boarding school. He has a prophecy about him, and more power than any ten mages, and a mortal enemy to fight, and also the lesser enemy of his roommate. Who at some point he starts inadvisably making out with.

So everyone keeps saying that this is the book that Cath in Fangirl writes fic about; that is totally not true, as this book does not match in style or content the excerpts we get in Fangirl. In truth, this is a grownup version of the fanfic story Cath writes; grownup because this is clearly tighter and more mature than Cath's eighteen-year-old style.

So really, this book is the AU version of the slash fanfic that a character in another book writes about a different fantasy series that doesn't exist. Got that? Great.

I liked this. People are being predictably obnoxious about the Harry Potter analogs, because it is 2015 and we are still not over denigrating transformative works, not even close. And yeah, this book owes a lot to Harry/Draco fanfic. This book owes a lot to Harry Potter fandom at large. That’s the thing about it – this book isn't really about Harry Potter. It's about Harry Potter fandom, which is an entirely different and more extraordinary beast. This book is about those esthetics, emotional and stylistic. About my esthetics, I realized halfway through, because I grew up in Harry Potter fandom, and in a fundamental way, reading a book about the hero of the magical world falling in love with another boy is like coming home.

Also, it's a young adult novel that is getting marketed as much for its fantasy elements as for its queer romance (and by "marketed for queer romance" I mean shoved in the queer romance ghetto, obviously). So there.
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Cuckoo Song

4/5. 1922. The thirteen-year-old daughter of wealthy parents wakes up after a near-drowning. With gaps in her memory; and a bottomless, terrifying hunger; and hair that turns into leaves overnight; and dolls that try to flee her; and a sister who calls her a "thing" and hates her guts.

I talk about what I'm reading a lot with my nearest and dearest. Seriously, my poor wife gets the disorganized and incoherent thought soup that I yank these reviews out of. You know, my sparklingly coherent and organized reviews. You know.

But anyway, I keep saying "Frances Hardinge" to people, and they keep saying "Who?" And that. I do not understand that.

So hear ye, hear ye.

Frances Hardinge. Frances motherfucking Hardinge.

She writes young adult…ish. Fantasy….ish. Her brain is a magical tree that bears strange fruit, and I want to eat every single one, even when I know there are teeth on the inside. And people do not know who she is, which is incomprehensible to me, because she's written more than a half dozen books by now, and they only get better.

As a first Hardinge, I recommend Fly By Night, which beings with our young lady protagonist starting a fire and gets more madcap and wonderful from there, or Gullstruck Island which is the best young adult about colonialism I have ever read. Both of those books will give you a sense for Hardinge's powers, the way she yanks stories off their tracks and drops them into new ones, and where she puts the bite (spoiler: everywhere), and how no one can stop her writing amazing young women relating complexly to each other.

This one is kinda advanced level Hardinge. The first quarter is a slow motion, claustrophobic interpersonal car accident, and it kind of fucked me up. And then the accident happens, and the book leaps right off the road, and we have sisters, and jazz, and spells to trap the dead, and magic by architecture, and a motorcycle with a sidecar, and a woman chased by perpetual winter, and other kinds of sisters. It's a wonderfully prickly, complicated book that made me brace, on every page, for pain. And then surprised me, at the end, with a drop of mercy. Not her most accomplished, on a technical level, but there is something . . . unrestrained about the horror at the center of this book that really got to me.

Frances Hardinge, you guys.
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The Westing Game (Puffin Modern Classics)

4/5. Seventies YA, from before we called it YA. Sixteen tenants of a new apartment building are drawn into an elaborate scavenger hunt for a vast inheritance.

You guys, I had not reread this since my early teens, when I read it many . . . many . . . many times.

I think Turtle Wexler is my patronus.

This is so great. It is a mystery, but not really the sort you are supposed to solve. And it's a story of eight pairs of disparate people coming together. As the book might say, one of them is a thief, one of them is a bomber, one of them is a bookie, and one of them is Turtle. The book pauses to ask them, in a couple of places, who they are. They have to sign for receipt of various inheritance documents, and each time they must name their profession. And each naming is different. Who are you? the book keeps asking, and the answers start out funny, and then get more and more truthful, and in some cases more and more raw. "Person," Angela signs at one point. Ouch.

Anyway, if you want a #diversityin YA book, here's one for you. This sucker is barely sixty thousand words, at a guess, and yet it juggles sixteen main characters, and passes lightly but directly over transgenerational immigrant issues, and disability from about seven different angles, and the intersectionality of blackness and womanness, and immigrant families again, and class-climbing, and class-transgressing, and and and. I mean, I didn't always like every little gesture it made, but it caught me flat-footed at least once thinking I had spotted its ablism when nope, I really hadn't, it knew all along what it was doing, and that was something I hadn't spotted at all.

Also, Turtle. Who is twelve and neglected and smart, and who plays the stock market, and isn't scared until she is, and who can and will kick you if you get in her way.
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Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars

3/5. Star Wars expanded universe, spanning about fifteen years before, during, and after the original trilogy. The best of friends grow up together, fly together, go to the imperial academy together. And then Alderaan happens, and they start asking questions. But the answers they arrive at are very different, and take one through defection to the alliance, and the other up the imperial command chain.

So, confession: Star Wars was my first fandom. Like 'make up dreamy nonsensical fanfic playlets in my head while my second grade teacher droned on and on about things I already knew' fandom.

I suspect this is Claudia Gray's fanfic. Except hers is way way way better than mine. Hers is thoughtful and humane. The two main characters love each other deeply, and agree on most basic points of philosophy and ethics. But that takes them in opposite directions for utterly plausible reasons. They argue, and get mad, and get hurt, and they don't understand each other, except how they still do, to the very end. The catchphrase of this book is look through my eyes, which says a lot.

And, I mean, there's only so much depth and sympathy you can add to the imperial cause when they actually named the thing the Death Star. Because, uh, like, what did anyone think it was for? But Gray does a damn sight better than anyone else I've ever read.

That was nice.
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The Shepherd's Crown (Tiffany Aching)

3/5. The last Discworld book.

Well, that's that, then.

It's not a particularly inspired book, but nor is it the dire mess of some of the recent offerings. Not too surprising, I guess – it's basically the same book he'd written four or five times previously, so clearly the steps were familiar: threat from outside, faeries, how the progress of technology and particularly the railroad changes the face of the world, coming into power as a function of coming into self-knowledge.

No, all that, *handwave*. Been there, done that, and much better than this version.

No, this book is made by the first quarter, which is all about the death of a witch. And as constant Discworld readers will know, a witch is aware of her impending death, and is able – required, even – to prepare for it. Dig her own grave, do the final washing up, scrub the place until it shines. And then lie down and wait.

The first quarter of this, the last Discworld book, is about that. And, um. Ouch.
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Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School Series Book 2) And Waistcoats & Weaponry (Finishing School Series Book 3)

3/5. A couple more titles in that young adult alt Victorian urban fantasy finishing spy school series.

There is something not quite right about this series. The adult titles maintain this airy soap bubble of frothy charm, and they make it look effortless. But there's some internal wobble in the young adult set that I can sort of put my finger on, but also sort of can't. Like, okay, in one of these books, our heroine is thinking about someone on the opposite side of a conflict from her, and notes that he's not bad, he's just evil. "Not that there was anything wrong with that." Which typifies this universe, and this series more specifically; it's not about good and evil having any particular valence, because good and evil are really just words that have a lot more to do with how people dress than anything.

That's the charming part.

But – here's where I get a bit hazy about it – but the racism. This is an AU where servants have been replaced largely with mechanized laborers, and yet – it is carelessly implied – there is still an African slave trade, and all that flows from that fact. It is still a scandal for a young lady to fall in love with a black laborer, specifically because of his race more than his class. And I just. Idk.

I guess I just really don't want to be reading a book whose charm is that evil is an esthetic choice, but oh also racism, ha ha. I'm not drawing this connection very clearly, but yeah. No. This series isn't right.
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The Girl of Fire and Thorns

2/5. Young adult fantasy about the sixteen-year-old princess married off to a neighboring kingdom, at least before her destiny catches up with her.

A solid meh. I try not to judge young adult too harshly because I'm very bad at knowing what is age appropriate and what isn't (and I frequently question the validity of the concept in the first place), so I try not to condemn a book for younger readers on the basis that it's boring as wallpaper. It might be that boring to me, but what do I know, to an eleven-year-old, this might be revelatory.

Unfortunately, if I had charge of an eleven-year-old, I wouldn't want her receiving these revelations. About a fat heroine with an eating disorder, whose fatness and disorder are treated as the same thing, and who – of course – becomes thin as part of her journey to power. I mean, I don't always have a good eye for fatphobia, as a congenitally skinny person, but come on.

However, the holy navel piercing is pretty funny. Like, for real. We know the heroine is chosen of the gods because they give her a special godly stone in her bellybutton. I could not make that up.
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BLACK UNICORN (Ibooks Fantasy Classics)

3/5. Young adult fantasy back from when the genre as we understand it today didn't exist.

Read for the obvious reason. This made me think about Diana Wynne Jones, and Narnia, and, weirdly, Fullmetal Alchemist. It's not exactly like any of those, that's just the context in which I was reading it. The DWJ because this is quite a young book, but the writing has that flickering, fast-moving quality where it can deliver an improbable plot twist or a painfully precise observation in less than five words and keep right on going like nothing just happened. Narnia because of a fuckin' weird direction this book goes in the last quarter that makes no damn sense to me at all. And Fullmetal Alchemist because children in deserts building life out of dead things, and monsters and doorways.

I should have read this in the nineties. Tanith Lee would have been one of the seminal authors of my childhood, and that would not have been a bad thing. It's too late now, though.
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3/5. Sequel to the wonderful True Meaning of Smekday. Tip and J.Lo go on an interstellar adventure. By car. Like you do.

Is this the weird and wonderful and touching Smekday? Nope. Is it the story I wanted? Well, it's not about J.Lo taking the place of J.Lo as a judge on American Idol, so no (seriously, Yuletide, why have you not made this happen? I am disappointed in you).

This is a silly cute adventure that is far less subtle and far more shallow than Smekday, but it has a heart and a sense of fun. And I am just never going to be one of those people who thinks a really awesome thing is ruined by a less awesome thing also existing. Like . . . what? Can someone who believes in this theory of art explain it to me? Because no lo comprendo. But you hear this all the damn time – from people who read a lot of fanfic, no less! About how the sequel ruined it by existing and, like, not being as good. I mean, I'm all for – whatsit – intertextual readings and of course no piece of art exists in a vacuum, but how does it ruin something beautiful?
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The Pinhoe Egg (Chronicles of Chrestomanci Book 6)

3/5. Another Chrestomanci book, this time about an egg hidden in an attic and an old witch clan feud.

Yeah yeah, I'm reading these out of order, whatever.

This is . . . interesting. The weird underpinnings of this world show through more here: part of the point of this book, for one, is Chrestomanci paternalisming all the fuck over everyone, deciding who's been naughty and nice, and handing out "justice" with all the integrity of Dumbledore awarding the house cup to Gryffindor.

DWJ almost knows this. The book is about parenting of many sorts, and family loyalty in a larger sense. It's familial pairs from start to finish: one of our main characters hatches and raises a griffin, the other has complex parental and grandparental relations, etc. And DWJ is almost pushing at the weird edges of the world she created by talking about the power inherent in these relationships, and showing us many occasions where it is abused. And then she just . . . stops.

So it's cute, and there's a whole sequence early on with a rogue magicked table running away down the street that is clearly intended to be rendered in animation. But there isn't the right there here.
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3/5. Cheerful little boarding school story set in a world where witches are still burned alive as a matter of national security. One class receives a note saying that one among them is a witch: shenanigans ensue.

I entertained myself greatly playing the [insert queerness here] game with this book. You know, where you take the shameful, dangerous secret everyone suspects of each other and replace every use of the word "magic" with the word "queer." It generally works eerily well, as it does here. It's fun in this iteration, where the author was not deliberately coding the text this way. It's way, way less fun in the case of, say, X-Men, where certain authors are deliberately attempting to use mutation as a metaphor for queerness, which is all well and good until you start wondering . . . um . . . if they're so interested in talking about queerness . . . why don't they put in any queer characters or, gosh I don't know, actually talk about queerness without the metaphor.

But DWJ wasn't playing that metaphor game. Other metaphor games, yeah, but not that one. So it's fun to read 'secret frightening exhilarating power' as queerness because, well, it's actually a bit more interesting than what DWJ was doing with this book: things out of balance, trying to do it right and getting it wrong every time anyway, kids being kids. Nothing wrong with it, I mean, just not as interesting as the story of secretly queer kids and their teachers.
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3/5. Later written but chronologically long ago prequel to the Old Kingdom books. So the usual – a teenager flung into magic and court politics.

This book fooled me nearly to the end. I assumed I had it figured out from page 1. Our protagonist was immature and self-centered, willfully disinterested in the justice or injustice of the struggle she is dropped into. But she'd grow up quick enough and take up the responsibilities thrust upon her, and blah blah blah, I thought. And then I was kind of bored, because she wasn't doing that, and she wasn't doing that, and the whole book was sort of shallow and blinkered and angry, and not what I've come to expect from Nix. Did he lose his form, I wondered?

And then around the 85% mark I sat up and said oh quite loudly, because I'd suddenly realized what book I was actually reading. And that book uses its shallowness to fool you – under the surface, it is sad and frightening. And – not compassionate. But kind, in a clinical 'this, too, shall be told' kind of way.

Not the story I thought it was at all. Did I enjoy it? Sort of. But I wasn't supposed to, not exactly. Or my unthinking enjoyment was supposed to have the rug yanked out from under it in favor of something much more complicated.
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More Than ThisMore Than This by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book opens with our teenaged protagonist drowning. And then he wakes up a continent away, apparently alone in an abandoned British town.

Ugh, you guys, this book is so good -- Patrick Ness is such a crazy beautiful motherfucker – I can't cope. I also can't say much about this, because you've just got to go on the journey, but here are some things.

This is a young adult book about nihilism, and it is so smart; this book scared me so badly at one point that I actually eeped; this is a little bit slipstream and a little bit metafictional and a lot about that moment when you look up from the bottom of a very deep well of pain and you're, you know, still a baby yourself so you don't know how to survive; this book played with me and jerked me around and mindfucked me at least twice, and I said please and thank you.

Oof, so good. And frustrating. And inconclusive – but necessarily so. And just – some of my Goodreads friends are totally wright about young adult, it really is doing things that adult fiction just can't touch.

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