Monday, January 28, 2013

CBR V Review #7: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

“Some day, Locke Lamora,” he said, “some day, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comets with glee. And I just hope that I’m still around to see it.”

After the last review, I'm thrilled to be able to write about this book.  The Lies of Locke Lamora is the polar opposite of my last review - I adored every last moment of this book and look forward to reading other volumes in the Gentleman Bastard series (for the record, this isn't the type of series where you HAVE to read more books to know what happens - this wraps up it's primary story, so if you wanted to stop here, you could).  This book has everything good fantasy should - magic, mayhem, fabulous characters, a well developed world that is explained to you, heightened stakes, intrigues - everything.

Lies tells the story of the thieving orphan Locke Lamora, and his specially selected "family" of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards - Chains, Jean, the Salvaras, Sabetha (who we never meet), and Bug.  The primary story is that of the "present," where Locke has developed his skills so thoroughly as to be known as the Thorn of Camorr (Camorr being the city in which they live).  Locke is planning a big scam with his boys; in the meanwhile, a menace known as the Gray King is picking off people important to Capa Barsavi, the man who essentially runs the underworld of Camorr and all it's thieves and disreputable types.  Locke is unwillingly pulled into his plans, and chaos ensues.  This story is interrupted at regular intervals to tell stories of Locke's upbringing, and to give pieces of history that are relevant to the next part of the story.

I love everyone in this story, even the people I love to hate.  The characters here are richly three dimensional, with fascinating motivations and brilliant dialogue.  These are guys I want to hang out with, regardless of their choice of occupation.  Part of their thievery appeals to me as an actor.  Father Chains, the blind priest who is neither blind, nor a real priest, gathers the boys together and teaches them how to be a much more advanced sort of thief.  They learn accents and languages, different cultural symbols, advanced math, crazy fighting skills - everything to make them capable of pretending to be anyone at all.  The goal in all of this is to elevate them from common thieves to an almost Robin Hood status - the only people they rob from with their games are the nobility.  They don't give that money to the poor, so that analogy is only really partially accurate.  The elaborate lengths they go to in order to accomplish their cons are just beautiful.  It's so much fun to watch them work.

The heavy end of the spectrum is everything that happens regarding the Gray King.  I can't delve into plot here - the twists are many, and even when you think you know what's coming, it's worth seeing it develop instead of knowing ahead of time.  But there's some brilliant dramatic tension along with the comedy, fitting together in a lovely balance that keeps you coming back for more.

For the more easily offended readers out there, foul language and violence abound.  I don't find either to be used gratuitously, but your mileage may vary.

I loved this book so very much, and I was sad to see it end.  I'll definitely be picking up at least one more book in the series to see how Lynch does with keeping up to the high bar he's set with this piece.  A must read.

CBR V Review #6: The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“You have a college degree? You can barely talk.”

Admission - I love cheesy romance novels and chick flicks.  Sometimes it's wonderful to escape into a story where two likeable characters follow a fairly predictable path towards romance, and after some obstacle, true love conquers all.  I have fairly little shame about loving the genre, when it's good.

This book was not.  Not at all.  I didn't even finish it.  See, part of the key to a successful romance novel is that your two main characters, the ones that fall in love?  They have to be likeable.  You need to want at *least* one of them to have their happily ever after in order for the contrivances of the genre to work.  I hated both Lucy and Panda (seriously?  PANDA?) and wanted them to fail.  I hated Bree and Mike and wanted them to fail.  I hated Temple.  It's hard to hate Toby, but he got on my nerves, too.  It's like Phillips designed a book to showcase the least likeable group of characters possible and just threw them all onto an island together.

 Lucy is one of the most insanely unrelatable characters I have ever seen on a page.  And I read fantasy lit - you can literally create completely foreign entities in cultures that make no sense to a normal person and have them be more relatable than Lucy.  She is a selfish brat, with the maturity of a houseplant.  We're supposed to believe she's this brilliant social worker/lobbyist First Daughter, and I just don't.  The first misstep was not having the slightest idea that Panda (again - PANDA??) was a goddamn bodyguard.  Biker dude comes to your rescue, the President's daughter, a woman who has had protection most of her life, after you run out on your wedding and is willing to take you away, Chasing Liberty style, and you don't for a *moment* think he might be a hired guard?  EVER?  And I can't even with the Viper, arrested development, Goth styled bullshit.  YOU ARE THIRTY ONE YEARS OLD.  This is insanity.

Ugh I can't even get into all the things that are wrong with this.  I thought the book was about to end when Panda (GODDAMN PANDA) dropped her off at the airport and she finally realized he was paid to watch her.  I assumed she'd go after him, they'd have a big moment, and it would be done.  And then realized that I was only on part 2 of TWELVE in my audiobook.  I suffered through to the end of part 7, and then my recording stopped.  Apparently the rest didn't upload to my iPod.  Since that was more than halfway, which makes it CBR eligible for me to review, I took this as a sign from God that I should stop and move on to something that didn't suck.  

Seriously, skip this. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

CBR V Review #5: The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

The Woodcutter, a book I got free from the Kindle Lending Library, is a story filled with other stories.  Set in a land that mixes and matches fairy tales, it chronicles the journey of the titular Woodcutter, a character created to maintain the peace between the mortal and the fae.  Borrowing heavily from pretty much every fairy tale (and some mythology, and some Shakespeare) you've ever heard, it follows the Woodcutter as he attempts to figure out what kind of evil is menacing the 12 Kingdoms so that he can put a stop to it.

I wanted to love this book.  I adore good manipulations of fairy tales, and I'm down with mixing them together. I watch Once Upon a Time, I own volumes of new takes on old stories, love the Fable comics.  Hell, I did a multi media project on the Grimm brothers in middle school.  I wanted this to be successful.  And it's not bad, but it left me a little cold.

This book suffers from trying way too hard.  Danley wanted to cram in literally every reference and character she could, and I think that's a bit to the book's detriment.  It felt less like "hey, awesome, this character I  know is in here to advance the story!" and a little more like "oh, ok, I guess you wanted to make sure you didn't miss that one."  I feel like the tie together is a great idea, with the Woodcutter being the link between everyone, and I love the idea of a menace that challenges all the fairy tale characters.  But it's just not executed very well.  I was never afraid of the villains, and never got to the point of caring for anyone other than the Woodcutter and his wife (the latter of which is barely in it at all, but referred to frequently).  I got lost frequently as to where our protagonist was and which set of characters he was helping.  And the addition of Norse mythology and Shakespeare just felt like a distraction rather than an addition.

I wish Danley had focused a little more.  It's like a kitchen sink stew - she threw in every ingredient she could find and hoped it would make something tasty.  It left me craving something more substantial, with a little more flavor and sophistication.  It's a pleasant enough diversion, but nothing you are going to think about again after you've put it down.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An interlude to guide you to other books

It occurred to me that I don't have the link anywhere on here for our main hub of reviews at CBR.  I am one of many who participates.  For this year, Cannonball Read 5, please check out the link below.

There you will find reviews of hundreds of books, by a variety of people of every age, race, creed, etc.  They are all fabulous, and may help point you towards even more wonderful literature.  It's a fantastic resource for deciding what to read next, and I recommend spending some time wandering around and getting to know different Cannonballers and their interests.  Maybe someone over there has taste that matches yours better than mine does - I want you to find them and explore!

CBR V Review #4: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

“You have to be the bravest person in the world to go out every day, being yourself when no one likes who you are.” 

This was another of my audiobook endeavors, and a fairly successful one in terms of that.  The gentleman doing the reading does a nice job, and the end of the book is sufficiently fast paced that I sat in my driveway to hear the last 15 minutes.  That being said, I feel very lukewarm about the book in general.

Memoirs is the story of Max Delaney, but really it's the story of his imaginary friend, Budo.  Budo narrates the tale, and Dicks does a nice job of capturing the voice of a child, but altered with the experience of an imaginary friend that can learn more than his human pal can.  Budo is one of the oldest imaginary friends there is - he's been with Max for 4 years.  Max is a special needs kid, though the exact nature of that is left vague.  Because he's a little bit different, he's needed Budo for longer than most kids keep their imaginary friends around, and as such, Budo has come to really value his existence in the world, and fears the day when Max stops believing in him and he ceases to exist.  However, something in Max's world, a world occupied by a boy terrified of any small changes, is about to change monumentally, and Budo is the only one who can help.

I don't want to delve too much into plot here, as I feel it spoils the story in this case.  However, outside of the actual plotline, there's a lot of material.  Unfortunately, I think there's *too much* extra material.  The story sets up nicely, with Budo giving you a really great understanding not just of how imaginary friends work, but of the boy we're meant to care for as much as Budo does.  There are a number of stories of how Max goes about his day, and the way his parents are, both with and without him around.  Budo is a special kind of imaginary friend, because he has the freedom to walk around and see things Max can't.  He also doesn't sleep, so he tends to wander at night to the gas station or the hospital to entertain himself.  We get to see what it's like to travel around without Max, as Budo does.  We interact with characters like the bully Tommy Swindon, even as Budo stands helplessly by, as he cannot touch anything in the human world.  We learn to love Mrs. Gosk like Max and Budo do.

However, there's a really great, compelling story in there, and it gets buried by a lot of rambling storytelling.  As my mother would say, Dicks "wanders down a few too many bunny trails" for my liking.  When the story jumps around before the essence of the central plot takes place, I'm down with that.  It's important to establish the characters and the world we're in, and most importantly, its rules.  But Budo tends to travel down these winding paths of storytelling even when we have something more interesting to focus on, and those diversions get annoying rather than interesting.  There's a subplot involving the gas station, for example, that exists only to set up the completely unnecessary and ridiculous epilogue - I could have done without both.

It's a good book, and if you are an educator, or a parent with of a kid with special needs, I'd be interested to see your take on this story.  And as I mentioned before, the climax is so effective that I refused to get out of my car so I could hear the end without waiting.  But I don't think it's one I'll go out of my way to recommend, despite the parts of it I truly enjoyed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

CBR V Review #3: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“Everybody has a story. It's like families. You might not know who they are, might have lost them, but they exist all the same. You might drift apart or you might turn your back on them, but you can't say you haven't got them. Same goes for stories.” 

As those of you know who read this blog on the regular (are there such people?  I hope so), I am a huge Kate Morton fan.  Part of this is due to my intense love of historical fictions that are set in the English countryside.  It doesn't matter when, or precisely where - if your book is set in the UK, in the past?  I'm going to be into it.  The degree will vary based on the story being told, the depth of the characters, and the style of the writing.  Still, I am always compelled to read books that throw me into English countryside, with it's pastorals and intrigues.  This is probably also why I'm so drawn to Downton Abbey, but I digress.  Kate Morton is a particular favorite because she also successfully bounces between the past and the present, with her protagonist either unearthing a secret about someone else, or discovering one about him or herself. 

Setterfield employs this technique as well.  In the present, book antiquities specialist and part time amateur biographer Margaret Lea is pulled into the life of famous novelist Vida Winter.  Ms. Winter approaches her out of the blue, requesting her skills to take down her true story, which she has never shared any part of in previous interviews.  She is gravely ill and running out of time, so she says, and it is time for the story to be told.  Margaret is hesitant to accept the offer - she has never read any of Ms. Winter's many successful novels, and is hardly an accomplished biographer - but after devouring most of her catalog, Margaret can't help but take the trip to see what Ms. Winter has to say.  From there, we begin our time jumps, hearing the story Ms. Winter tells as Margaret stays at her rather eccentric estate.  The book travels between Margaret's troubled experiences in the present and Ms. Winter's colorful past.

This is a solid book, if not one that I'm likely to find myself picking up a second time.  Margaret is a hard character to connect to, which is very much intentional, but makes it hard to want to listen to her as a narrator.  I've never had siblings, so the fact that much of this book revolves around the unique relationship between twins lost a little in translation for me.  The bonds of sisterhood, twin or otherwise, are something foreign to me, despite how close I am with many of my friends.  This left me a bit in the cold when it came to really becoming invested with the story.

I also felt this had a really slow burn.  It took quite awhile for me to be drawn in, and once I was, it wasn't the type of book I had a problem putting back down again, at least not till the last 25% of it or so (I read it on my e-reader, so page numbers are something I can't really reference).  There is a lot to set up for things to make sense, and it feels like it meanders a bit.  I honestly didn't care all that much for Margaret's subplot.  I get why it was there, in order to connect her to Ms. Winter and the story, but it didn't resonate for me.

I did, however, very much enjoy the way they talked about literature and its impact.  Both women are characters deeply drawn to the written word, and their ruminations on books and their value are wonderful.  There is a particularly fascinating challenge issued later in the book that I won't spoil - a game of sorts, that Ms. Winter plays with Margaret regarding books vs people, that I absolutely loved.

It's a well written piece of fiction, and the story of Ms. Winter's past is an interesting one.  It's a book I would recommend, but not something I'd drop everything to pick up.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

CBR V Review #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff

“Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor. ” 

I've been big on the audiobook thing of late.  My commute isn't long, but the monotony of the same drive every day wears on me, and in order to stay awake, I need something that takes my focus.  Music lets my mind wander - a book, especially a good one, will grab me and sharpen my thinking so that sleep is a faraway thing.  A book like this is *perfect* for this purpose, as it grabs you and never lets go.  The only uncomfortable thing is when things get emotional, and you are sitting there in the driver's seat hoping none of your fellow commuters look over to watch you laughing at this character, sickened by this one, or saddened by another.  Though honestly, you only have time to think about this after the fact - you are too busy enjoying whatever you are feeling to notice other people in the moment.

City of Thieves is set in Russia during WWII, with most of the action happening in and around Leningrad.  The story takes places over the course of a week during the siege of Leningrad (essentially - there is some time filled in both before and after the bulk of the action) and follows the journey of two unlikely comrades (pun intended), Lev and Kolya.  Lev, a teenaged Jew, and Kolya, a 20 something soldier/writer/lothario, are thrown together early in the book, given a reprieve from the punishment due to them for looting and desertion, respectively.  Instead of a bullet in the brainpan, they are given a rather ridiculous  mission by an important colonel - find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake, and live.  In a city under seige, this is no easy task, and the search creates a very interesting story, part war story, part coming of age, part road trip buddy comedy.

This book relies entirely on how much you care about Lev and Kolya.  There are supplemental characters, a few of which are important, but really, if you are committed to these two boys, you're in for the long haul.  They are a delight as a pair - mismatched in the best kind of ways.  Lev is shy and awkward, wanting to keep his head down and do this thing, but lacking the courage to really get things accomplished.  Kolya...he's a dynamo.  He's a brilliant manipulator, and I mean that in the best way.  He has that natural talent some are born with of making anyone like you and listen to what you have to say, even if it's a pile of bullshit.  Charismatic seems an inadequate descriptor.  The two make a dynamic and interesting pair, one you'd follow anywhere just to hear more stories.

This is saying something, as some of the parts of this story are incredibly brutal.  Seige ridden and war torn, Leningrad and its surrounding areas offer a lot of darkness for the reader to endure on Lev & Kolya's journey, but it's never bleak enough to make you want to give up.  This is a real credit to Benioff, as in other hands, some portions of this tale would turn people off and make them give it up.  Despite anything and everything the boys endured, I literally could not turn this off.  I was excited to get in my car and hear the next bit, and put off listening to the end because then I knew it would be over.  That's a hell of an accomplishment.

It's also important to note the narration here, as this is an audiobook, and therefore important.  The book is read by Ron Perlman, Hellboy himself, and he is one of the best narrators I have ever heard.  He manages to differentiate between characters without doing voices, so you are never lost, but you aren't thrown by "this is a man being a woman" or anything like that.  His pronunciation of the Russian is gorgeous.  He has such a great sense of mood and timing, playing each scene for the right beats, and letting chapters, or even just big moments, end with the grace of a fade to black.  I'm actually seeking out more books read by him, whether I like the subject matter or not - he was *that* good.

This book is absolutely not to be missed.  If you have a problem with violence, or any graphic descriptions of death and/or torture, this might be one you need to skip, but it would be a damned shame.  It's worth it, every moment.  If you love good literature and well developed leading characters, pick this up immediately.