Books with pages folded in a heart

#Bookrace2015: Reading Roundup, Jan-Apr

Books with pages folded in a heart

Steampunk & Paranormal Romance
Gail Carriger, Soulless
Meljean Brook, Here There Be Monsters
Meljean Brook, Tethered
Kay Hooper, Stealing Shadows

*

People had been raving about Gail Carriger’s books for years by the time I got around to reading Soulless. I’d started it several times and put it down, just not particularly interested in the characters. I decided to give it another try after reading Meljean Brooks’s Iron Seas steampunk (two of them this year, some last). Kay Hooper’s Stealing Shadows fell into my lap when a friend started talking about a character from the series.

Of the 2015 crop of these so far, Here There Be Monsters is my favorite. The world-building is unique and outstanding, thorough, and interesting. Ivy’s a dynamic character, so much more than the spunky heroine, and definitely one who doesn’t give up her interests or independence when she falls in love. That’s characteristic of Brooks’s characters, in particular Yasmeen, the airship pilot. So, too, is the diversity, the presence of mixed race characters, and multiple world views.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Hooper’s book or Carriger’s. I’ll keep reading both series, but when I want something to sink my teeth into and not just my heart, I’ll go back for more of Meljean Brooks.

Speculative Fiction
Marcus Sakey, Brilliance
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Retrieval Artist
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Falls

*

Unlike the pararoms & steampunks, my science fiction crop so far this year has been phenomenal. Effinger is, to quote friend Michael Burnham-Fink, is “a hidden gem of cyberpunk.” His series, The Budayeen Cycle, has a Muslim setting and is deeply imbued with Islamic culture; on top of having extraordinary worldbuilding, the characterization is brilliant and I especially love the transsexual romance, which is handled with grace and comfort.

Rusch is a natural-born storyteller. I’d forgotten I read a few Retrieval Artist books years ago, and having begun again, I can’t imagine why I never finished the series. I can’t wait to go back to her world of identity alteration, aliens, and damned good detective stories. It’s sci-fi noir with a wonderfully human sensibility.

I just finished the Sakey yesterday and immediately bought the next book in the series. The idea of the Brilliants, people with exceptional abilities, isn’t new. Marvel’s been doing it for years, and they’re hardly the only ones. What Sakey did, though, that was new. He dug deep to look at how people with those abilities might affect society–beyond the war between norms and abnorms, to breaking the stock exchange, creating entirely new culture, new music, new architecture, new technology. Add to that updating the context to take on domestic terrorism, government conspiracy theories, doing the wrong things for the right reasons and the right things for the wrong ones and you have one extraordinary story. Interestingly, this series is licensed for Kindle Worlds. I like fan fiction. I’m tempted to try The Abnorm Chronicles.

Mystery
Val McDermid, The Last Temptation

*

Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series is the comfort food of serial killer fiction. I first met these characters in an accidental viewing of Wire in the Blood. Once I found out there were novels, I started reading them. They’re not my favorites, even though they’re really good and I love the characters. The serial killers are fascinating, brilliantly evil, and terrifying. The books are great reads. They’re just like watching my favorite procedurals when I run out of really stunning new things to see.

 

Fairy Tale & Folkore
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless
Daniel Thomsen & Corinne Bechko, Once Upon a Time: Shadow of the Queen
Kalinda Vasquez & Corinne Bechko, Once Upon a Time: Out of the Past
Hans Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling
Howard Schwartz, Elijah’s Violin

*

Everyone’s read The Ugly Duckling. At least they think they have. Since I’ve been thinking a lot about Ugly Duckling Syndrome, and Once Upon a Time‘s Emma Swan, I went back to read it again. It’s actually a more subtle story than I remembered. Particularly the portion when the duckling lives with the old woman, her cat and her hen and they tease him. When he finally decides he’d rather be killed by the beautiful birds than live the life he’s been living, as sad as that is, he’s facing his fears and growing into his adulthood, accepting who he is. We all know the story, but I think I’ll be re-reading it every year for awhile.

The two Once Upon a Time graphic novels were patchy. While I appreciated the backstory, I didn’t love them. Out of the Past was disjointed, four separate stories only united by ghosts and regrets. Hook’s story touches on the loss of his brother Liam. He sees him again when his ship is endangered by the magical Leviathan. Although his first mate doesn’t believe it is Liam, Killian’s sure and is forced, finally, to leave his brother behind to die (again). Jefferson’s story tells how he met his wife and how he lost her again, all through the use of his magic hat to steal–from the March Hare. Belle takes in a wounded old friend only for him to turn on Rumpelstiltskin. He wants to save her by killing the Dark One. Instead of helping him, she shuts him out, leaving him to Rumple’s mercy. Regina encounters Daniel’s brother who wants revenge on her for Daniel’s death. She defends herself and accidentally kills him. Individually, they work, but the tragic shadow overhanging the collection makes it a less than pleasant read.

Shadow of the Queen is a single story told in chapters. Despite the time jumps, it’s a coherent tale. As much as Regina’s a dominant figure of the story, it’s really Graham’s story. While we’re lead to see Red and Graham as another True Love pairing like Snow and Charming, Red’s only real characterization in the story is “heroic” and “self-sacrificing”. Snow’s even more one-note. There’s a totem introduced that can force people to change to animalish forms and Lake Onondaga. While there’s definitely some legendary background for shapeshifters in that area, the totem is a significant portion of several of the stories in The Hollows series by Kim Harrison. There doesn’t appear to be any reason for Lake Onondaga to exist in the Enchanted Forest (unless the implication is that the characters of The Hollows series also exist in the Enchanted Forest universe although there’s no other support for that that I can find).

In spite of all of that, what the story does do very well is sketch the relationship between Regina and Graham; he has a measure of free will, even with her in possession of his heart, and he saves her several times. It’s meant to show that Graham’s willing sacrifice saved his true love’s life and her best friend. It solidifies the readers’ sense of Graham as a guy who does what he believes is right, regardless. But for this reader, it also suggests why Regina ultimately killed him. He was hers. He gave himself to her. Willingly and forever. He was the closest thing she had to a friend and her only intimate. When everyone turned against her, he protected her in the Enchanted Forest, but even he fell under the Savior’s charms. She was pissed off, but the heart that wanted to believe was also just plain devastated.

Wow. Tangent. Sorry. I love the show and Regina and Emma. I’m always interested in the ways they’re each others’ coin flip opposites.

Emma and Regina from Once Upon a Time

The Savior and the Evil Queen; Emma and Regina

Back to the reading roundup, Deathless by Catherynne Valente. I’m not even sure where to start with this. Yes, it’s a reworking of a Russian folktale. That’s something I’ve been reading a lot of lately and thinking a lot about. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a story in its own right about the Russian revolutions, the World War, the interactions between the mystical world and the “real”, and the way that war kills faith and magic along with lives, the destruction of the Russian culture, etc. I’m not even sure I’m reading it all right. It’s rich and magical and even though I don’t have any real interest in the period or the story, I couldn’t put it down until I was done. Because it was also a love story, I think. I’m not even sure I liked it, but I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Elijah’s Violin is a collection of Jewish folklore and fairy tales. Since I’ve been reading a lot of both Jewish related material and fairy tales, I was delighted to discover Jewish fairy tales existed. This volume fascinated me from start to finish with tantalizing hints of familiar stories like Cinderella and Snow White, as well as introductions to the uniquely delightful shaggy dog stories of clever Jews earning the respect of the Christian and Muslim kings around them, the world of Jewish demons and magic, and the consistent themes of knowledge and faith. Everything about this was wonderful; just ask Lily. I told her almost every story after I read it.

 

Jewish History
Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews
Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words
Rachel Elior, Dybbuks and Jewish Women

*

Jews and Words is a short but wonderful excursus on the ways that Jewishness is defined by a particular relationship to words and text. Duh, the title says as much, right? It’s full of wonderful stories of the Talmud scholars and Biblical figures arguing with each other and with God. I found myself smiling as I turned the pages, recognizing my family in the arguments and the explication. It was the first time I read something that I identified as Jewish my way. About the culture and the stories, not the religion or the politics. I doubt it was supposed to be as much fun as it was, but then again finding words and wordplay fun is about as Jewish as it gets.

Dybbuks and Jewish Women doesn’t have the same scope. It’s a study of a particular phenomenon, the rise of Dybbuk possessions, in social history, mysticism and folklore. Elior does a good job exploring the connection between Dybbuks and the absence of freedom of choice, particularly as it comes to arranged marriages. The take away for me on this book was largely the idea that someone might claim to be possessed if they were gay, transsexual, asexual, celibate, or might have a dybbuk possession ascribed to them if their behavior wasn’t within the realms of social acceptability or their ideas were too revolutionary. From there, too, the idea that choosing to claim dybbuk possession might be an act of agency and empowerment.

The Story of the Jews beggars the imagination with how much research had to have gone into it, how much writing and rewriting, how much time and love. I’m in awe of the selection of characters (real people all of them, but so much larger than life) to open up that nebulous turf we call “history” into something easier to grasp. The affairs (business and personal, political and strategic) of individual persons–and not the famous ones that we all know, but instead merchants and physicians, tunnel-workers, and school children, women, mercenaries and rabbis. It’s not possible to say how much I love this literary rendition of the BBC series, how much I laughed over Schama’s asides or the lightness of his touch, how many lives I feel like, in reading it, I’ve touched, or how much better I know myself because of it. It’s a hard story, but a damned good one.

 

Jewish Fiction
Michael Chabon, Summerland
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

*

Look, if you haven’t read Michael Chabon, I’m not sure I can help you. The man has an extraordinary gift. I resisted his stories for a long time, because they were too popular, and how could literary fiction encompass the technicolor insanity of comics, and I don’t have to read Jewish fiction to be Jewish, and WWII, how depressing! Man, do I feel stupid.

Summerland is the charming story of a young (Jewish) boy, his (Native American) maybe-girlfriend, their peculiar (Changeling) friend, and how baseball saves their world. If I try to explain all the characters, their agendas, their individual journeys, it’s going to sound insane. There’s just no way to do it justice. Suffice to say it’s both fairy tale and Faerie tale, an epic for the ages about the power of friendship, faith, and baseball.

Pretty sure everyone knows Kavalier and Clay. I didn’t want to read it because I was sure it was going to be horribly depressing. NGL, there are themes and passages that are so far beyond dark they’re soul-rending. But it doesn’t dwell on what’s lost so much as dip its karpas in salt water and celebrate Josef being passed over. The Escapist is the ultimate symbol of survival, a superhero who uses his Houdini-like powers to free others in chains. He’s the embodiment of tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to heal the world. He certainly healed something in my heart, as did his creators, and I found myself wishing, desperately, for the chance to read Joe’s graphic novels of the Golem. Honestly one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Writing Related
K. Hudson, The Virgin’s Promise

*

The Virgin’s Promise describes an archetypal journey for women along the same lines as The Hero’s JourneyWhile I find some of the terms problematic and the essentializing of masculine and feminine are troubling, there are useful concepts in this book for coming of age stories, change of life and such. The core notion is that while the hero/prince travels outward, the virgin/princess fulfills her destiny within the community. She may do this by reconciling old and new values within herself and providing a template for change, among others. The book is loaded with examples of female & male virgin stories that aim to show despite the terminology, the applications aren’t gendered; the point’s made, but it’s not all together convincing.