Dragonvein – Brian D. Anderson – Derek Perkins

I might have mentioned at some point how deeply bored I get during fight scenes in books. The more the author tries to make them exciting by including lots of detail, marking a battle stroke by stroke and blood droplet by blood droplet, the more utterly bored I get.

There was a lot of fighting in this book.

It’s one of my favorite conceits, the idea of someone being whisked from one world to another where they have to find allies and figure out which side they’re on and so on. I wish this had taken advantage of the idea better.

Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that nobody trusted anybody from the beginning. Everybody tromped through the landscape just completely brassed off with everyone else, making hollow threats and snarky remarks, and nobody told anybody anything for chapters and chapters. “Why are you helping us?” Growl: “I have my reasons.” *sigh*

And the whole book was a trail of question marks, not in terms of unanswered questions (though there are plenty of those as well) but more of “What??” moments. It just didn’t make sense that a boy from 1944 Earth could see a little dragon, as he does on his first morning, and never say anything to anyone for days. It doesn’t make sense that he never talked about the dreams he kept having (to the point that I dreaded every time the author sent him to bed), especially after Jonas told him his mother used to have prophetic dreams. It made no sense that Jonas never asked how much time had passed since he left – and the book never said, as far as I’m aware. (I might have zoned out at some point while listening, but I don’t think so. Wait, there it is at 6 1/2 hours into the audiobook: more than 500 years.) And it took forever for all of them to discuss the brief period before they all went through the portal back to Whatsit. It made no sense that Ethan never protested what Jonas said about his mother – he knew the people who raised him were not his blood parents, but there should have been at least one squawk of “what?!” when it seemed like Jonas knew who his birth mother was – and he never so much as acknowledged it. It didn’t make sense that Ethan also never asked about elves and dwarfs (or did the author use the Tolkien-esque “dwarves”? Probably); granted, in 1944, pre-Tolkien, maybe it wasn’t such a Thing, but Ethan still should have known what they are, and been surprised they were real, and want to know more. It’s silly that Ethan trompled through this fantasy land with a sword on his hip, but though he spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to use a magical ability he might not even have, it never occurred to anyone to teach him the rudiments of how to fight with a blade. Ever. That’s … just dumb. (The only advice given Ethan is a less pithy version of GRRM’s “Stick ’em with the pointy end”. Hmm… The HBO GOT episode aired 6/5/11; Game of Thrones was published 8/1/96. Dragonvein was published in 2015. Gosh. I smell a … coincidence.)

(The first book in the Dragonvein series was only published just over a year ago, and it’s already up to book five? Wow.)

Names like “Cynthia” and “Jonas” in the midst of this setting – Medieval Fantasy™ – were possibly more jarring than the ones people like to make up and fill with apostrophes and random capital letters.

Ethan came from a pre-Tolkien date, but Brian D. Anderson does not, and my boredom turned to annoyance as Ethan’s introduction to the elves strongly echoed a certain scene in Mirkwood. Maybe Ethan grows up to come back to Earth as Tolkien, and that’s why the elves were almost indistinguishable from those of Middle-earth (except for what sounded like comically large ears – seriously, I wouldn’t want to try to depict that. It would be almost impossible to make them look legit). There was even something damned close to the Book of Mazarbul. Honestly, I would think a fantasy author would make a powerful effort to avoid close brushes with Tolkien, out of pride if nothing else.

Even more than of fight scenes, I’m bored by So-Evil-for-the-Sake-of-Evil. Even Nazis, the original enemy Ethan was fighting, were not uniformly evil, and not all evil just because evil was fun; it was (technically) for the Fatherland, for the Fuhrer, for the good of the many in their minds.

And even more than that I’m bored by a plot which consists largely of Our Hero getting himself and his friends into deep trouble, and then having his chestnuts pulled out of the fire by unexpected intervention. After the third, and fourth, and especially the fifth or sixth time, then really there was no more tension to any situation, no suspense of how are they going to get themselves out of this?! – because I learned to rest assured they were not going to get themselves out. They would be gotten out. Danger was irrelevant. The good guys might end up a bit battered, but someone always came rushing up to save the day. My eyes – they roll.

It’s strange that while the author focused obsessively on fights, two of the biggest conflicts – including the most climactic scene toward the end – featured Ethan’s point of view. And Ethan passed out. So everything went dark. And then we got told what happened along with Ethan when he came around again. It was a very odd, rather anticlimactic method of storytelling.

It was repetitive. There were echoes of words throughout, the same phrasing used over and over (and clichés like “a long moment” were used over and over), people kept asking the same questions twice… and the same things happened over and over. People took lots of cleansing breaths (which seems out of place in 1944). Both boring and repetitive is to have people toss off a comment about something non-Earthly, to which Ethan responds “What is/are – – ?” And I became deathly tired of the “Boy Scout” tendencies of Ethan. I mean, they were laudable and all that, but it got old – someone is in trouble, they should leave it alone lest they get in more trouble too, they help someone with everyone but Ethan grumbling, and everything works out for the best as the new waif and/or stray becomes a valuable member of the questing company.

And it was predictable: I figured out where Ethan’s friend Marcus was pretty quickly. And the choice of the king of the dwarfs was telegraphed as clearly as anything Western Union ever sent. And as for that climax … *sigh* Yup. Saw it coming sixteen miles off.

I was not fond of Kat (Cat?), the thirteen-year-old girl who joined the quest; her personality was wildly inconsistent, going from coolly competent thief to petrified child to giggly teen to sultry seductress and cold-blooded killer to the one who saved the day to timid child to unrequited awkward and ineffectual flirt. There’s a Star Trek podcast (Mission Log) which talks about the Gumby-fication (Gumbification?) of certain characters to force them into whatever role was needed for a plot. The story needs someone who’s a smooth operator? Voila. Next episode needs someone who’s a total idiot about women? Voila – same character. And so on. Kat was like that – token female character who was whatever was needed in a given scene. This situation came to a head when she became viciously, stupidly, hatefully jealous to the point that I almost jettisoned the book less than an hour from the end. She needed a good kicking – physical violence seemed to be the only language she really understood, given the frequency with which she punched and slapped other people (especially Ethan).

Ethan, who was supposed to be the chosen one and the one all of this land has been waiting for and so on and so forth, just didn’t seem too bright. He was just a kid, of course – I couldn’t help thinking the book would have been much better if he’d been just a few years older – but he was kind of an idiot. As mentioned, he kept things quiet when he should have been telling someone; he told people things when he should have kept his mouth shut; he passed out about half a dozen times; finally, again in the last half hour of the book, he drank something a complete stranger hands to him. I didn’t care who this person turned out to be, Ethan had just said himself that almost everyone he ran into on this world tried to kill him, and the drink he tried here is a distillation of some kind of mushroom – he should have been twitching and frothing a minute later.

Two-thirds of the way through the book (and boy was I disappointed that it wasn’t closer to the end), Ethan was given a chance to give a rousing speech … I wished he hadn’t been. And not long after someone tells a long and heart-felt story, complete with sniffling, about how when she was young she fell in love with a grown man and he was too honorable to take advantage of her and so left her unrequited – which is very much to the point, until she adds that shortly after she married another man, who was horrible to her and “the day he died was the best moment of my life”, or words to that effect. Which kind of negates the lesson of the story, since if the first guy had “taken advantage” he would have been kind about it, and saved her the agony of the second guy.

One constant annoyance was either a quirk of the writer or of the narrator’s, not sure which: an insistence on possessives of names ending with “S” to be rendered as Marcus’ instead of Marcus’s. Example: “Marcus'” – which sounds like “His room was empty. So was Marcus”. Poor Marcus. It just bugged me throughout – and there were several names ending in “S”, two of them main characters. Oh, and constant use of “laying” instead of “lying” made me want to slap somebody too. (Maybe that’s why Kat was as violent as she was.)

I did like that the portal magic responsible for Ethan’s evacuation and return was not exactly favorably looked upon. I liked that the portal was completely unpredictable, that there was no way to know or find out what it did with Marcus – it was a great idea, with lots of possibilities. It was a bit unfortunate that what actually happened was predictable. I did not like the use the dwarfs were revealed to have made of portals long long ago: there was an elephantine infodump in the dreadful last half hour of the book which made a standard Tolkien rip-off into something sillier.

As happens so often, there were pieces of something good floating around in this stew, some good ideas and interesting sparks which, handled very, very differently, might have made a good book. Unfortunately, as it is, it’s not much better than annoying.

The narration by Derek Perkins is excellent, making as much of a silk purse as possible out of a sow’s ear. He reminds me strongly at times of Simon Vance, with much the same tone and facility for characterization, the same warmth. But the sow’s ear was still very much a porcine auditory organ, however well read.

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We Are All Welcome Here – Elizabeth Berg

The first book I ever read by Elizabeth Berg was something I read in one sitting, and was blown away by. That was Range of Motion, and it was a long time ago, and I don’t think I’ve loved any of her books quite so much since. But she’s still on my List, because even when I don’t love a book of hers I still enjoy her ability, her writing; one of my GR friends used a phrase I want very much to steal, but instead I’ll just say something about the beauty and depth of her use of words. And so there was no question about whether I’d buy this when I had the chance.

But… I have to say I sighed a bit when I realized that the voice of the book is that of Diana Dunn, a precocious, rather amoral, self-centered 13-year-old girl. The basic groundwork for the story is that Diana’s mother, stricken by polio just before giving birth, is a quadriplegic. And since they can’t afford to have someone in to help them full time, they have someone during the day … and, since Diana was very young (VERY young), no one at all at night.

And that messed with my mind in many different directions.

I of all people understand not having the money to manage 24-hour care – and finding that the amount the state considers enough is very much not. I also understand misappropriating some of the funds to use for groceries and whatnot. I do. (I haven’t, but I understand.) But … I’m sorry, Diana’s mother is paralyzed. From the neck down. Requiring full-time electronic assistance to breathe. This isn’t merely “disabled”. This isn’t something that can be surpassed or overcome with willpower or a burst of adrenaline. All of the million what-ifs went through my head – What if, obviously, there was a fire? Would Diana get out, or die with her mother?

What if Diana got sick?

Or fell?

Cut herself badly?

What if someone broke in at night?

I think this was the aspect of the whole thing that bothered me the most. She was a child. Even the most accountable and selfless child can’t fend for herself under every circumstance – this wasn’t an Arthur Ransome novel. And Diana did not strike me as the most accountable, for the most part. I’ll come back to the issue of selflessness. If there was any possibility of a chance that she could have a life approximating that of an average child, she should have had that chance. If there’s any possible alternative, a child should never be forced to shoulder the kind of responsibility described in this book.

I’m quite sure my takeaway from this book was not meant to be that nearly everyone in it was extraordinarily selfish – and that the one person who was consistently selfless was ridden over and taken advantage of and given the fuzzy end of the lollipop every bit as consistently. I’m sure I’m supposed to look at this as a heroic struggle against blahbitty blah. Wait, there’s a quote to prove it: “…valuable lessons about love, honor and the real meaning of family…” I didn’t get any of that. Honor? Really? That’s rather rich. And “the real meaning of family” … I suppose by the end Diana gets it, but it’s kind of too late by then in many ways.

The book just … made me angry. Diana was pretty much introduced in the midst of plotting harm against her mother’s carer, Peacie – which plot she then proceeded to act upon. It wasn’t her fault that she waited too long and wasn’t able to actually do damage – she meant to. From there she proceeded to whine her way through the book, complaining about – oh, everything, from having to put herself out to go get groceries to not being able to buy Lay’s potato chips, and escalating to outright theft and the most heinous piece of spying I’ve come across in a while. I disliked Diana through nearly every line of the book, and in that moment of eavesdropping and peeping-Tomishness I hated her as much as any character I’ve seen in a book in months. Maybe years. (I hated her friend Suralee, too, but in the end not as much, I think, despite everything.) Diana’s selfishness and nastiness was a constant irritant, and pretty much all of the other characters did things that annoyed me deeply as well, leaving me in a fairly continual slow burn against all of them. I mean, you win a nice amount of money, and the first things you decide to buy are a typewriter and a bleeding canopy bed? What about an icebox to replace the ancient and malfunctioning one that took up just about the entirety of one chapter? (Dell turned out to be a horrific piece of work, but I still disliked Diana more.) (I did really like LaRue, at least.) And then the book climaxed with a piece of deus-ex-machina that made me roll my eyes so hard I think I hurt myself. It was terrible.

And, of course, a portion of the anger this book engendered in me was for The System. That’s what makes it impossible for a mother and daughter to afford the coverage of care they need and still manage to buy groceries. But their social worker was portrayed as earnest, honestly trying to help – and the three of them in that house made almost a game out of pulling the wool very thoroughly over her eyes.

Now, the book is based on a true story; a woman wrote to Elizabeth Berg asking her to write her mother’s story. Berg warned her that she would fictionalize it, using only elements of the real story – basically, I think the whole background. Which leaves me with two big questions. Is the woman who sent that letter to Berg happy with how incredibly awful Diana (basically the letter-writer) is in the book? And was that shockingly stupid climax remotely, unbelievably true? I wish Berg had made that clear; if anything like what happened in the book actually happened to the woman who wrote her, my dislike would be at least slightly abated.

I listened to this in CD format, read by the author. I was uncertain about how well it would be read, but hoped that, having written the book, Berg would be 100% accurate with emphasis and intonation – who would know better than Elizabeth Berg how her book should be read? As it turned out, she wasn’t 100% accurate; there were definitely instances of the wrong word being stressed in a sentence, and so on – but it was overall very good.

I think, though, that I might have learned that one amazing book does not necessarily mean I’ll love everything a writer writes.

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Relic – Preston & Child – David Colacci

I feel like I’ve heard amazing things about this series (though I couldn’t tell you where)… But I can’t say I’m impressed. Relic is a thriller, a sort-of mystery in which the murderer isn’t going to be the butler or anyone else remotely as ordinary but something entirely Other. It’s not a genre I ordinarily go in for, but since I’ve picked up an installment of the series here and there in various formats I thought I’d start at the beginning.

It didn’t begin well. It opened with the sort of prologue that usually makes me sigh, this one in a South American jungle with an expedition going sideways and pear-shaped all at once. And then it picked up and dropped down in Manhattan, as bodies began to drop.

One question: How can you get ballistics on blood spatter? Because Preston & Child seemed to think that’s a thing.

Some of the science and technology in the book seemed … kind of adorable. Originally published in 1995, you wouldn’t think it would be quite as outdated as it was – but it really was. The information gained from the DNA analysis seemed pretty far-fetched. Can you really tell from reading the DNA how long a gestation period is, or whether a species’ estrous cycle is suppressed? Or even the average weight of a given creature?

The storytelling was at times very nice. I made a note at one point: “What the hell happened to that guard?” He was placed in apparently imminent danger, and then … not mentioned again for long enough that I honestly started wondering if he’d been forgotten by the authors. And then, “Oh. There he is. Nicely done.” But I have to say I was pretty surprised when what I assumed was the climax of the book came eight hours into a twelve-hour book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that in the midst of all the action there is substantial damage done to the museum and, of course, to a number of exhibits – and that hurt. Artifacts thousands of years old, smashed to bits for no good reason. That always hurts – more, in some cases, than character deaths do.

There’s a fair amount of repetition in the style of writing. There were at least a couple of mentions of how the creature looked just like the little figurine from South America – and then someone who should know better asks “what does it look like?” And if the New York FBI agent had given the same directions to the SWAT team one more time I would have started swearing. The whole plot was a little predictable – although there was at least one death I didn’t expect. At one point Pendergast murmured “not yet” to himself over and over as he waited for his shot … which was absolutely moronic given how often everyone stressed the creature’s enhanced senses. He might as well have been yelling “Hey! Come kill me over here!”

It was such a shame that the old botanist told our heroes about the Mbwun legend, and then a few minutes later (audiobook time) the long-lost journal told almost the exact same story. There was no new revelation, no surprise, despite the fact that it was a first-hand account from someone who seemed to actually have experience of the terrible bargain the Kathoga tribe made. Nothing. The story of a bargain with the devil in which people have to eat their own children should not be boring, but, told for the second time in the space of a handful of chapters, it was.

I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement about the characters; they skirted the borders of cliché at times, with the irascible cop, the high-handed Fed who swanned through doing what he needed to, the scientists so focused on their jobs that they’ve forgotten about life, the journalist who … well, ditto, in his way. Margot not quite but almost escaped being a token Girl. I will say I grew to enjoy FBI agent Smithback, with his Southern gentility and complete disregard for anything trying to get in his way.

I wish the journalist in the group hadn’t chosen to act like an idiot journalist at a really stupid time. It would have made so much more sense for him to be helpful and useful, and then capitalize on that later for a story. And were the mayor’s fine words real, or because he just heard the reporter called out as such? I don’t believe that was ever clarified – in this book, at least.

There was a sort of anti-sexism that surprised me, and kept surprising me – both in its usage and in how it affected how I absorbed the book: the redoubtable Miss Rickman is consistently referred to as just “Rickman”. And almost every time, right up to the end, I kept thinking they were talking about a male character. Women just aren’t often referred to by their last name alone (I think it happens to my brother all the time, but to me only once at one job, because there were two of us with my first name and the other one came first). What particularly made it odd was that Margot Green is consistently referred to as Margot, but Rickman is Rickman.

I know there are plenty of real examples of Evil Bureaucracy putting profit, pride, and publicity before public safety, and so on – but it gets old. They’re never my favorite stories. They’re not unrealistic – and maybe that’s why they’re not my favorites. I don’t understand why, say, the directors of a museum would insist on proceeding with an exhibition opening when doing so might put thousands at grave risk. Or why an FBI agent in uncharted waters would fail to take heed of every concern, no matter who it came from, when thousands of lives were about to be at grave risk.

I think it would have been a lot of fun to have everything going on below the surface – the beast or whatever cornered and captured in the basements, everything fixed and solved by the heroes of the piece while the nasties celebrate uninterrupted above, and then the good guys showing up disheveled and blood-spattered and exhausted, maybe damaged – and triumphant.

The sound effects in the audiobook were incredibly obnoxious: echoes in the basement, a muffled overlay for someone on the phone or walkie, etc. Please. Don’t. It was especially annoying because it was obviously meant to add a touch of realism – but something that could more naturally have added realism and urgency, a simple amping up of intensity in the narrator’s voice in speed and timbre, didn’t happen. Part of the climax was read as calmly and sedately as the places in which emails and computer readouts are read. The delivery of Smithbeck and his accent was enjoyable, though.

After a while, that extended climax began to feel like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure or something, with several discrete groups struggling to survive against a force greater than they are, amounting to a disaster. It just kept going, and going, a difficult situation becoming almost impossible, becoming almost unsurvivable. On the whole, it wasn’t entirely my cuppa. I think I will keep going with the series, though; there was enough there that gave me hope for later stories that no longer involve the plot points of this one and its immediate sequel. Anyhow, I own ’em – I’ll probably get around to ’em.

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Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel (audio)

I read this book (via Netgalley) last year, and seized on the audiobook as soon as possible. And listening to it after November 8 was a very different experience from reading it in early 2016. Ah, I thought, that’s why a certain person wants to block all refugees from Syria – he must have read this book and the suspicion that Syria is working on a nuclear program. (Well, the rumor is he can’t read, so he must have listened to the audiobook.)

But this isn’t going to be a politically-oriented review. The rest of it, I mean.

I loved everything about Sleeping Giants every bit as much this go-round as I did the first time – maybe even a little more, if that’s possible, because the cast was excellent. The funny moments were given that extra little nuance – “Don’t go! I’ll tell you more stories about little Tommy sitting on the stairs!” is probably one of my top-ten favorite lines from the past couple of years – and the unfunny moments were even more wrenching than before. Which is pretty remarkable, considering I knew what was coming. It was still a horrible shock – I still dug in my heels against it and waited for the miraculous reversal of fortune, the “Oh! There! That’s what actually happened, it’s all fine” moment. There wasn’t one, of course. And it hurt. Again.

“Speaking of the president, how is she?”
Sorry. I slipped.

The characters are beautifully well-rounded, through what they say themselves and as seen through others’ eyes. Rose, calm and more together than all of them; Vincent so obnoxious and yet the one who breaks my heart more than anyone (until someone else does); Ryan, who … well, about whom the less said the better. Kara, one of those people who makes for a great fictional character but would be a horrible companion – a nice person to visit but … The Interviewer is enigmatic, with a patina of tragedy that is never explained (here). And the even-more-mysterious-than-the-Interviewer Mr. Burns, who in this audiobook sounds a lot like Peter Falk.

I love the format of the book, told through interviews and journal entries, news items and transcriptions. Neuvel does a wonderful job of building both character and plot in a style which could in other hands be patchwork. The emotional roller-coaster was a total surprise when I read it first, and was every bit as wrenching this time. I can see myself reading this annually.

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The Night Strangers – Chris Bohjalian, Alison Fraser, Mark Bramhall

Lesson learned: don’t read reviews before reading the book. I know this; I just sort of forget sometimes. Don’t do that. There’s a lot of negativity out there about this book – and spoilers.

Totally pointless note to start: I’m a little disappointed; when I kept hearing “carriage bolts” I pictured flat door bolts. In fact, they’re just (“just”) basically screws on steroids.

I wish this had been purely and concentratedly the story of this little traumatized family and the big creepy house they relocated to, and the little door in the basement with the extraordinarily excessive thirty-nine carriage bolts securing it. The little door to, apparently, nowhere.

I wish this had been the story of the voices the family – some of them – hear, and the subtle effect the house has on them. Of the investigation into what happened there, and of the axe and the knife and the crowbar, and the twins who had lived there years ago.

I wish this had not been the story of the “herbalists” of the small Pennsylvania town. It felt in places like a 60’s horror movie, for some reason, with this exclusive, evil club plotting terrible things for a child. It was incredibly creepy that just about everyone in the little town the family has moved to simply know everything about them. Chip or Emily meet someone for the first time, and that person will very casually reveal some piece of information about the family which they not only should have no way of knowing but have no business knowing. It’s also deeply creepy that everyone – especially all of the flower-and-herb-named women – are so fixated on the twins. The prepubescent twin girls. It’s extremely unsettling for everyone to know everything about them, and to engage them the way they did. I do wish, however, that the author didn’t borrow a page from the mystery or fantasy novels that always annoy me by showing the villains’ point of view. Here it is the herbalists who get POV’s, pondering how useful prepubescent, traumatized twin girls would be in whatever creepy things they planned. Of course they don’t perceive themselves as evil; after all, that other child who died wasn’t supposed to die, and really if a child dies isn’t it a fair price for all the benefits so many people derive? If anything, for me it canceled out a lot of the creepiness. I felt it would have been much more effective if point of view had stuck firmly to the family.

And the ending – which I’m not going to talk about, don’t worry – was almost exactly what I would not have chosen to do had I written this.

The narrative used a typical omniscient third person past tense narration for the viewpoints of most of the characters, and a present-tense second person POV for Chip, the pilot. It worked well to emphasize his separation from his family and new neighbors in his grief and confusion and pain – and haunting. In the audiobook, everyone in the third person is read by Alison Fraser, who while not one of my very favorite narrators does a nice job; the little girls’ voices are managed without being annoying, which is a coup. And Chip is read by Mark Bramhall. I was ambivalent about his narration for a while, as his inflections felt off now and then … but as the story developed I appreciated him more and more, and now I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. The transition from affable Chip to the voice of the menacing ghost – a snarling growl that is quite possibly the very last thing I would ever want to hear in the dark – horrifying. Well done.

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The Second Bride – Katharine Swartz

In the present day, a woman (Ellen) having the attic room of his home renovated is handed a piece of paper the builders find: the death certificate of a 22-year-old woman from 1872, Sarah Mills. She sets it aside, intrigued but not enough to investigate it – yet. When her husband’s 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage comes to live with them, bringing with her more emotional than physical baggage, Ellen seizes on the idea of finding out more about this girl who died so very young, involving the teenager in the search as, hopefully, a way of making some kind of connection. The results are mixed.

Sarah’s story alternates with Ellen’s. In 1868, she and her sister are left orphans, and their situation is desperate – until the aunt they never knew they had consents to take them in. Sarah on her own might be able to get by, but her younger sister Lucy is … different. She has never spoken, although Sarah knows this doesn’t mean she’s the “imbecile” everyone assumes she is, and she also has other idiosyncracies which make others uncomfortable. In other words, Lucy is autistic in a time long before that was viewed with any understanding or empathy.

How Sarah ends up dead and with a different name within the four years spanned in the book is a horribly painful story, not least because you read it knowing full well that there were hundreds, thousands of real stories just like it and worse. Alternating it with what are often called the “First World Problems” of Ellen and her stitched-together family is rather jarring; oh, dear, the teenager rolls her eyes and says “Whatever” a lot. This doesn’t look like much compared to the physical and emotional abuse Sarah and Lucy face every day, and the extremely precarious, potentially terminal circumstances over which they walk a tightrope. Even the harsher problems that develop for this modern family seem so entirely trivial beside the life-and-death situations of the 19th century. A two-day suspension from school does not exactly stack up next to the possibility of being put into a workhouse.

And, in the end, it all seems to wrap up so happily. In the 19th century, yes, Sarah dies at 22 – but everyone else seems to have an abrupt upswing in fortune, very nearly happily-ever-after. And in the 21st century, as well, everything tidies up nicely by the end of the book; if it is not a HEA, there still is no real shadow over the ending. Everything’s going to be just fine. And that doesn’t work. There are serious issues in both centuries – none of which can or should be tucked up tidily with no loose ends – and it cheapens the rest of the story that the end comes as it does.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Zombies – Olivier Peru et al

Yup – Zombies.

At this stage in the game, with six and a half years of The Walking Dead’s variable success and all of the apocalypses (is there a different plural for that?) that it’s spawned, it’s almost surprising to me that people still feel they have something new to say in the genre. Some think they do and actually don’t, which is why so many tend to roll their eyes when another z-story (or vampire story, or whatever) comes along. (I admit, I see “vampire” in a book description and my eyes glaze over.)

But now and then someone does have something new to say, or a new way to say similar things to what’s been said elsewhere. And even though I’ve kind of sworn off trying z-poc tales (there are only so many times I can get lucky), I clicked “request” on this one at Netgalley.

I’m very glad I did. There are new and different elements to the story – which I won’t talk about because I don’t want to spoil them. Yes, all the basics are there: somehow something got loose in the world, somehow it spread, and a few weeks later, as the graphic novel begins, the vast majority of the population is shambling and looking for human flesh to eat. Except for the ones who are sprinting after humans to eat their flesh. And of the minority of un-undead who remain, chaos has set in, and anarachy, and all those fun after-effects of an apocalypse, until no one can trust anyone. Not even Sam, the hero of the story, whose only reason for staying alive is that maybe, somehow, somewhere his daughter is still alive. Maybe.

I loved this book. I enjoyed the artwork consistently – and that’s rare; so often either one book/chapter in a series will be well done, and the next will be by a different artist who doesn’t seem to have ever picked up a pencil before – but here there is one writer, one artist. Sophian Cholet (colors by Simon Champelovier). The characters were vivid and believable, and I never found myself thinking “hm, that’s the Daryl of the group”. A lot of the characters were children, and it occurs to me that this was very smart – I mean, yes, they’re going to be at risk from parents and other caretakers who turn, but they’re also going to be the first priority of any adult in the area, related or not, stashed in the safest possible place and protected tooth and nail, and sometimes in groups. I loved the fake-out mind-bleepery prologue; I loved the way information was revealed and surprises were sprung, and new characters introduced and tied in. I loved the paint job for the Pentagon. I loved the character arcs. I loved that unintended consequences were given attention: the thing that saved one group of survivors, the brilliant idea by what was almost their Eugene, was the death of untold other survivors. It was a beautifully told story.

I liked that the creators’ pop culture tastes seemed to be reflected in the t-shirts characters wore.

In fact, I loved this book enough to give it five stars right off the bat … but then I thought about it a little more. And while it was very good, and very enjoyable, there were a handful of things that bothered me a little while I was reading and survived my satisfaction upon finishing. For one thing, as the creators’ names might indicate, the book was originally written in French, and while for the most part the translation gave me no problems every now and then there was something that just didn’t click. The children were the biggest problem, and there were a lot of children in the story; there were quite a few frames in which their dialogue seemed far too old for them. Things like “zombies are too numerous”, talking about psychopaths, and even smaller things like using the word “adult”, just didn’t feel right. (This actually was true in other cases as well, with (ahem) grownups using language that was more formal than called for.)

I was a little annoyed that only rarely did anyone seem to use a weapon other than a gun; on one page someone even warns that gunfire will attract the zombies’ attention, and then in the very next frame someone else is blam-blamming away. There were a few times that people used hammers and whatnot, but I would have loved to have seen some creativity in the weapons. Come the end of the world I for one will be looting museums with medieval collections as early as possible: polearms for the win. And bows of all kinds, cross and not: distance weapons that make much less noise than firearms, and which are much easier to create new ammunition for.

I was also a little annoyed, in retrospect, that there were really no women among the fighters. That doesn’t come from a feminist standpoint – that just comes from a sensible standpoint. (Well, that’s the same thing, quite often.) Every survivor with reasonable physical condition should be trained to use as many weapons as possible in the event of the end of the world. If nothing else, give a girl a gun – a decent pair of eyes and a trigger finger doesn’t depend on gender. Again, this didn’t strike me while I was reading – but afterwards I said “Hey waitaminnit!”

Oh, speaking of women and how they were handled in the book – a group of the good guys comes upon a group of bad guys who keep two women tied to their beds … and I don’t think … Nope, I just went back and checked. The fate of those two women is never mentioned. It would have been nice to have had them being wrapped in blankets and helped away in the background of a scene.

The last thing that bothered me was a Big Reveal at the very end of the story. It was almost well done; there was a teaser earlier on, and then at the end when someone finally puts into words what is being kept from everyone (including the reader) for their own sanity, I … missed it. I had to go back and read it again. It was something that made the first survivor who heard it exclaim in horror – but all it got out of me was a “huh?” “No need to screw with the morale of the group. If this fucking virus did mutate, we’ll never survive a second merry-go-round ride.”… And that’s it for that. But … HOW did it mutate? How does this mean the survivors are going to be endangered again? Are the zombies going to be able to reproduce? Fly? Become resistant to the sonic repellant Clay discovered? It can’t be that one, since the ones bringing the news didn’t know anything about such a thing till they landed in DC. So what on earth is it that is going to happen that the survivors need to give half a damn about? Don’t know. Maybe that was the point – but if I knew, I’d have finished the book with a pang in my heart for these people, instead of just …confused.

Still and all, while it wasn’t after all quite a five-star read, Zombies: A Brief History of Decay (to give it the full title on my copy) was very, very good, and very, very enjoyable.

Just don’t think about it too much after you finish it.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Junior – A Wyrdos Tale – Gwendolyn Druyor

I get a lot of books from publishers and authors which are sent to me free for review. Sometimes the load of obligations becomes a bit heavy, as I slog through mediocre and pretty good and really-not-bad stories, and I find myself wondering why exactly I put myself through this … I mean, for decades of my life I read what I liked when I liked, and enjoyed myself just fine.

But now and then a book comes along which I might never have discovered without this hobby of reviewing, without the nets I have spread to catch advance copies. One of these was an audiobook version of Gwendolyn Druyor’s Geoffrey’s Queen, which I loved dearly – and which led to my receiving more from the author. Last year I listened to Dee: A City Sidhe Story, my introduction to this world of … well, sidhe in the city. It was a tremendous story – and it was really marvelous when the connection between that story and this became suddenly clear. I think I even said “Oh!” out loud when the penny dropped. (It’s been a little while since I listened to “Dee”, so it probably took longer than it should have for that to happen.) It’s so beautifully done. Junior has his own story – but then when it overlaps with Dee’s, there is no sense of “aw, I saw this episode already” – it’s still suspenseful, still tense and engaging to see the events from a different angle.

Junior – son of the boogeyman, living in a constant cloud of fear (his own and everyone else’s) – is a beautiful, damaged character, absorbing rare kindnesses like a plant soaking up water, but never quite trusting that there isn’t a kick behind the caress. He wished he had never been born, you see, and he’s been dealing with the repercussions of that ever since. Periodic invisibility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I hope he comes back in other stories.

I love Gwendolyn Druyor’s writing. There is a framework in this story a little like that in “Dee”, and it’s brilliant. It’s the language that really sets her apart – that clarity of storytelling that appears completely effortless (and I say that with full understanding that it’s probably the complete opposite of effortless). I mean, I read “a statue of a woman in blue robes fronted by a fire hazard”, and laughed, and then said to myself, “Actually, yeah”, and then laughed again. I love it. (I might have mentioned that.)

Also? I have a terrible susceptibility to getting songs stuck in my head. And so when the song that gets stuck is something as wonderful as “Cheek to Cheek” – bonus.

I received a copy of this story from the lovely author for review.

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The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin

It has taken me many years to begin to undo the habits authors like Edmund Crispin set me into. My motto has been for many years that of The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett: never say in one word what you can say in one hundred. I also follow Dead Poets Society’s Mr. Keating’s advice to avoid common phrasing. So when Edmund Crispin trots out words like “steatopygic” or “suilline”, I’m content (even if I have to look them up). And when someone not only explained, but “He explained at great length. He explained with a sense of righteous indignation and frustration of spirit” – well, that’s a kindred spirit, that is. And when Fen uses variations on the White Rabbit’s exclamations, I sigh and know that yes, Crispin is in part to blame for the fact that I don’t speak – or write – like anyone else I know. It takes great concentration to write an email shorter than a thousand words (or in one draft).

Maybe books like this are one reason I didn’t swear for a good portion of my life (at least until I started driving regularly). “‘– you,’ Mr Sharman said viciously.”

Maybe books like this are one reason I love a pretty simile. I love an “open window where the porter leaned, like a princess enchanted within some medieval fortalice”. And “Wordsworth resembled a horse with powerful convictions”.

And I don’t read like anyone else I know, not in “real life” at least. That’s why blogs and book-centric sites are so valuable – I know there are people out there whose standards are – well, Edmund Crispin high and not Stephanie Meyer high.

“‘Sorry. It was a quotation from Pope.’
“‘I don’t care who it was a quotation from. It’s really rather rude to quote when you know I shan’t understand. Like talking about someone in a language they don’t know.'”
– I wonder if that’s a backhanded slap at Dorothy L. Sayers and Lord Peter’s habit of pulling out mass tonnages of quotes, often in random languages. In the only other Crispin I’ve read in recent years, The Case of the Gilded Fly, there was a remark I very definitely took as such. (I wonder if the “speaking disrespectfully of the immortal Jane” was indicative of the author’s real feelings.

It felt very much like the moving toyshop of the title was merely a vehicle (so to speak) for Fen to sail through and show off his effortless brilliance. And for various characters to break the third wall with disconcertingly hilarious references to the author, the publisher, and the fact that they’re not, technically, real persons. (“‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.'” That would have flown about fourteen miles over my head when I originally read this, lo those many years ago.) The flippancy flows fast and glittery – and then when you least expect it come a deeper stretch that achieve deadly seriousness. “Euthanasia, Cadogan thought: they all regard it as that, and not as wilful slaughter, not as the violent cutting-off of an irreplaceable compact of passion and desire and affection and will; not as a thrust into unimagined and illimitable darkness.”

‘Sauve qui peut’, mes amis – save yourself if you can. If you want to sound like everyone else, it’s probably best not to steep yourself in clever, eccentric, carelessly witty British Golden Age mysteries. Oh, my ears and whiskers, it’s not easy fending off the philistine.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Secret People – Mesuline Draco

My interest in this book was two-fold: I’m incubating a book in which a character might need much of this information, and of course simple curiosity in this author’s take on the subject. It’s an utterly practical compilation of recipes and hints that do not require the reader to be a “parish pump witch” or wise woman. All you have to be is someone looking for natural solutions to common problems – looking for common sense and time-worn remedies. There are tidbits pulled from Mrs. Beeton’s book right alongside things that could be found in any decent grimoire.

There is a magical bent much to the information – a holly will balance the magical energies of a rowan or apple tree in your garden, for example – but there’s nothing airy-fairy about this book; advice like that feels more like feng shui. Even the section on divination feels more solid and straightforward than others I’ve seen.

I went into this expecting to harvest bits and pieces I could reference if my fantasy-eighteenth-century physician ever comes more to life. I came out of it with actual useful ideas for cleaning, for treating headaches and sore throats, for repelling pests, for celebrating Twelfth Night, and simply for being more aware of the seasons. “If a girl-friend has been having a run of misfortune, give her a bunch of carnations, or Gillyflowers, and this will turn her luck to good.” Carnations all around, I think …

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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