Blowing through writing up a few more Discworld re-reads before turning to other tasks. Speaking of skippable books, as I just was with regard to Soul Music, I allowed myself to skip Interesting Times on the re-read because, seriously, a whole book of "what this empire needs is a honky"? No thank you.
So next up is Maskerade, which despite being another parody story, this time of Phantom of the Opera, feels much more accessible to me than Soul Music. It could just be that I like the witches better, of course. From a gender perspective (I'm speeding up the re-read now because I'm tentatively slated to moderate a WisCon panel on Discworld & gender), this book is interesting because it is much more scathing about society's conventions when it comes to attractiveness than at least one later book (Unseen Academicals, which is oddly noncritical about the nascent fashion industry, as I recall). Though I'm not sure the series overall doesn't somewhat fall prey to what it criticizes; see Becca's spoilery post for what I mean.
Then there's Feet of Clay, which I do like for its riffs on the mystery genre (though I don't understand how the political stuff doesn't founder on, or even care about, the fact that out-of-wedlock children do not normally inherit titles . . . ). For future-panel purposes, this is the start of the book's examination of gender and Tolkien-esque dwarves (whose sexes are visually indistinguishable), which gets problematic later but which works well here.
Last for this entry is Hogfather, which is very hard to read when it's spring. Otherwise the only additional thing I have to say about it is something that never occurred to me to wonder: who is ruling Sto Helit? Susan was 16 when we first met her, so obviously she's not old enough; possibly that might be true even here, where she's a governess, but still she's acknowledged to be Duchess of Sto Helit, something that will drop out completely by the time she's teaching in Thief of Time, when surely she must be of age. (In the book before that, someone refers to a Duke of Sto Helit, but that might just be an error.)
Back to the Discworld re-read with a book that didn't have its own entry yet: Soul Music. I'd remembered this one as not working very well for me because it's a very specific parody of something I don't have strong feelings about, early rock & roll.
This may be why it seems to have no momentum whatsoever to me. It also seems to be lacking a protagonist: Buddy is a blank, there's not enough Susan, and Death buggers off for most of it. But, basically, I can't make myself care except anything except trying to figure out when Susan was orphaned (the way the book describes it is very nonspecific; people on the Internet seem to have concluded that it was right before the plot starts, but it doesn't feel like that to me, though it might be I was reading inattentively because of my overall failure to give a damn).
I think the most telling thing I can say is that I read this in the last three months and in that short time I've already forgotten how the plot resolves. It has minimal impact on later Discworld continuity, so unless early rock & roll is your thing, I'd say it's very skippable.
We are now roughly at the point in the Discworld re-read where I paused for the most recent Discworld book, Snuff. I'd wanted to save this for the end, but I was on a panel at Arisia this January on Discworld at 30 (years) and so thought I should really skip ahead. I listened to about half of this as an audiobook (read by the ever-excellent Stephen Briggs) because I didn't have time to read it, and then skimmed the last half.
This is a bad book. I switched to skimming when I hit my last straw of things making me furious, to keep myself from actually grabbing my iPod and flinging it at the car's windshield. And I had a very long list of things that were bad: internally inconsistent, out of character, offensive, cheap. But then I realized that under any other circumstances I would characterize the book's fundamental sin as laziness of thought, and then I remembered what the actual circumstances were, and then I was just sad.
Don't read this book. I wish I hadn't.
Lumping together some more Discworld re-reads that already have their own entries.
Small Gods: I still love it. It's true that Brutha is inconsistently stupid and that the tone wobbles, but man, I love it. (But it is very weird that Brutha is not brown. He is explicitly pink on at least one occasion.)
Lords and Ladies: it took me a weirdly long time to get into this re-read, perhaps because I last read it relatively recently? But I just kept inching my up way to the invasion a few page-equivalents at a time. The Midsummer Night's Dream stuff has never done much for me, and I found the Margart scenes just excruciating this time through, because I kept wanting to yell at her WHY ARE YOU BEING STUPID. But once the invasion comes, they each get such great scenes.
Men at Arms: many good things, but there is the fundamental problem that Becca identifies in a post full of spoilers, and it still overdoes the gun thing (so much so that I almost wonder if it doesn't undercut its own satire).
Catching up on the Discworld re-read, starting with Witches Abroad as a solo entry because it doesn't have its own yet.
This is the one where the Lancre witches go traveling through the Discworld and through fairy tales. The Witches subseries is now firmly established and, though Granny and Nanny are indeed pretty awful travelers, I like this one a lot. Oddly, it is the first time I really had that "fuck, yeah!" fantasy of political agency reaction to the ending of one of the Discworld books, which I would have thought would have happened sooner.
Finally, I did not see anything egregiously awful in the handling of the black faux-New Orleans characters, but I cannot guarantee that problems did not escape my attention due to overfamiliarity with this text and underfamiliarity with the applicable stereotypes.
I had a serious case of "don't wanna" for the book I "should" have been reading, so I took a short excursion into historical romance with two novellas and a novel in Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series.
I'd previously read the prequel novella, "The Governess Affair," because I'd heard friends talking about this author, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Serena wants a Duke to compensate her for getting her fired, and is prepared to make quite a fuss to get what she ways; Hugo is the Duke's problem-solver who needs her to go away, not out of loyalty to the Duke, but because it's part of his path to financial independence. Sparks, naturally, fly--I particularly liked their note-passing. I liked them, I liked their dilemmas, and I liked the way the story was focused on issues of sexual consent.
The first novel, The Duchess War, is set a generation later. This is kind of a mixed bag. I read it quickly in a haze of sleep deprivation, and the banter and the angst was fine for that. But while I can see that it attempts to do something substantive with its class issues--it's set in 1863 England and union organizing is nominally the springboard for its plot--even in my fuzzy state I could tell that it wasn't engaging with those issues in a very sensible way. (There is more, with spoilers, over at Dear Author; I'm in agreement with the general sense if not all the details.) I liked what it did with some of the character relationships, I liked that the main sex scene was awkward and then got better after actual, you know, communication, but a good deal of it feels like it doesn't bear much thinking about.
The side novella "A Kiss for Midwinter" is kind of a mess, unfortunately, even when read in the same haze of sleep deprivation. It's about Minnie's best friend Lydia and a local doctor, who she dislikes because he knows she'd been pregnant out of wedlock (she miscarried). But the characters don't particularly click individually or together, and the not-very-subtext ends up undercutting the explicitly feminist message. More detail, again with spoilers, from coffeeandink.
At any rate, I do really like "The Governess Affair," and I appreciate what the other stories set out to do even if I don't think they always fully succeed. I look forward to seeing how Milan continues to attempt to integrate broader social issues now that she's self-published, as well as going back to her prior books.
I have been blocked on writing up Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series for ages, which is ridiculous because they are the books I have most recommended in conversation. So today I am ditching the laborious attempts sitting around from literally years ago and just going with my feelings about these books, let me show them to you.
Right. So far there are three books: Midnight Riot (US)/Rivers of London (UK), Moon Over Soho, and Whispers Under Ground. These are police procedurals with magic in present-day London, told in First Person Smartass, and I love them to pieces.
Our narrator is Peter Grant, who when the series opens is just ending his probationary period with the Metropolitan Police. He's expecting to be assigned to deskwork of some kind and is very glum about it, and then he comes across a witness to a very improbable murder . . . who is a ghost. From there he discovers that the Met has a branch devoted to magic--well, what was a branch and is now just one guy. Peter gets assigned to this branch and starts learning magic.
Here are some of the things I love about the books brought to mind just by this opening scenario: that magic's existence is quietly acknowledged and so we're in a police procedural context. That Peter is not as good a street cop as his best friend, Leslie, and they both know it. That Peter--who is biracial, his mother is a black immigrant from West Africa and his dad is a white UK native--hears that upon being apprenticed, he is traditionally supposed to call his teacher "Master" and, because it keeps coming out "Massa" in his head, negotiates calling his teacher "Inspector" instead. That Peter immediately starts trying to figure out the rules and logic and any possible scientific basis for magic, and is gravely disappointed at the state of knowledge about it:
The sons of Musa ibn Shakir were bright and bold and if they hadn't been Muslims would have probably gone on to be the patron saints of techno-geeks. They're famous for their ninth-century Baghdad bestseller, a compendium of ingenious mechanical devices that they imaginatively titled Kitab al-Hiyal—The Book of Ingenious Devices. In it they describe what is possibly the first practical device for measuring differential pressure, and that's where the problem really starts. . . . At this very moment astronomers are detecting planets around distant stars by measuring how much their orbits wobble and the clever people at CERN are smashing particles together in the hope that Doctor Who will turn up and tell them to stop. The story of how we measure the physical universe is the history of science itself.
And what do Nightingale and I have to measure vestigia [the imprint that magic leaves on physical objects] with? Sod all, and it's not even as if we know what we're trying to measure in the first place. No wonder the heirs of Isaac Newton kept magic safely under their periwigs. I had jokingly developed my own scale for vestigia based on the amount of noise [the dog] Toby made when he interacted with any residual magic. I called it a yap, one yap being enough vestigia to be apparent even when I wasn't looking for it.
(The magic so far hasn't reduced down to anything mechanical and probably isn't going to, and there's some nice sense-of-wonder stuff going on with it, especially the Rivers, who are anthropomorphic personifications--Father Thames packed up and left London during the Great Stink of 1858, and so the lower Thames is now personified by Mama Thames--formerly an African immigrant who was going to throw herself into the river, which offered her an alternative--and her many daughters. I have no idea how this sounds put baldly but it works really well in the story, and I love all the family interactions that result.)
And I just like Peter, and Leslie, and Nightingale, and pretty much all the characters. Peter's voice is delightful, more Pratchett than hardboiled, and it's wonderful seeing London through his eyes.
The books are not at all perfect and so far all have plot problems of varying degrees. The first book has two plot threads that Peter seems to think comes together at one point, but heck if I can figure out how (I kept waiting for the traditional "let me explain the plot to everyone" wrapping-up conversation and did not get it). The second has an idiot plot, that is, depends on Peter being an idiot (for understandable reasons, but still). And the third has a plot but I could not even keep what it was in mind from page to page--my brain kept skating off it and wandering off to think about worldbuilding and characters and so forth.
So if you really need solid plots, these are not for you. If you want to spend time in a magical London with lovely people and cool (sometimes surprisingly creepy) magic, in an urban fantasy that's not My Awesome Werewolf Significant Other, then these are for you. One of the many things I like that I haven't gotten around to saying yet is that Peter and Leslie are genuinely good friends and, while he finds her physically attractive, I get absolutely zero sense that he's interested in her sexually or romantically or that the series is going to go in that direction. Anyway, these are a lot of fun, I look forward to seeing where the bigger arc of the series goes, and they just make me happy. Go read them.
Let me pick a random thing from the never-to-be-cleared backlog: Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles, consisting of The Red Pyramid, The Throne of Fire, and The Serpent's Shadow. I was a big fan of his Percy Jackson books, but didn't want to start the sequel series until it was complete. (Well, also, I tried the first book at least twice and found that I missed Percy's voice a lot, so clearly some distance is a good thing all around.)
The Kane Chronicles are about the ancient gods of Egypt; they technically take place in the same world as the Percy Jackson books, but you'd only notice the reference if you'd read them. I was inclined to like them from the start, because the central two characters are biracial siblings, a girl who looks more like their white mom and a boy who looks more like their black dad, and they both have sharp things to say about people's racial prejudices as applied to their family. And I like that it sets up a general belief that the ancient gods of Egypt are dangerous and uncontrollable and then demonstrates that no, no more so than the ancient Greek gods.
But in the end, I didn't think this series was nearly as good as the Percy Jackson books. Maybe I've gotten wise to Riordan's plotting, but there was nothing that surprised me. Between books two and three, I actually said, "Could X be as simple as Y?" (spoilers, obviously). And alas, it was. More, the costs were surprisingly low, which combined with the predictability made me feel that it was all just too easy.
Finally, these books anchor their first-person POV to a specific device—voice recordings that the siblings are making for others to listen to—which is a mistake, because every time one of them mentions that, I lose my suspension of disbelief, because there is no way that these are narrated out loud. If you're not going to commit hard to the form of a first-person narration, leave it free-floating and unspecified (see this journal post for a bit more discussion).
Short version: if what you liked about the Percy Jackson books was their tension and high stakes, these are not likely to be satisfactory substitutes.
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is the most recent Vorkosigan book by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's set between Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn, it alternates between Ivan POV's and a new character, and it is very, very fluffy.
I wanted to like this, I did, and mostly it was pleasant. There's a great late set-piece, and some terrific Simon stuff, and Ivan is enjoyable company. But twice I was mentally tapping my fingers, waiting for the plot to happen, for much longer than was optimal, and once I said, "Uh, we're going to be happy and fluffy about this?" I also continue to side-eye the way that same-sex relationships apparently only exist on Athos in this universe, a pattern that becomes particularly conspicuous in this book. And in the end, it felt like Ivan changed and grew more in A Civil Campaign, where he was one viewpoint character of five, than here, which is nominally "his book."
I don't know what Bujold's plans for this universe are (I don't know if she knows). But this feels very much like a deliberate wrapping-up—there is, no kidding, an epilogue where the characters read each other letters from all their family members—and I confess to very mixed feelings about this. As I said with regard to Cryoburn, and also in a journal post about my issues with the later Vorkosigan books, Bujold and I are clearly no longer interested in the same things in this universe. And of course that's her right as an author and my right as a reader, and no blame is implied or should be inferred. But I don't know what to wish for, that our Vorkosigan-related interests come back into alignment or that she leaves the series as it stands to let me imagine things going more to my taste.
Anyway. If you don't mind a fluffy leisurely Ivan-centric story, then Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is probably worth a read. If you were hoping for more than that, you'll probably be disappointed.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein, is hands-down the most talked about book among my social circle this year. It's an epistolary novel set in WWII: a young British woman has been caught as a spy in France, and after torture has agreed to write down all she knows about the British war effort. She uses the paper and temporary reprieve to tell the story of how she came to be in France, particularly her friendship with the pilot (also a young woman) who flew her there.
Lots of people have said "don't find out anything else about the book before you read it, no spoilers!" And some people have said that this emphasis gave them an unfortunate reading experience, because—somewhat perversely, though understandably—it led them to expect something different than what they got. So: this is not a Big Shocking Twist book, that's not why people are saying "no spoilers!" It is an extremely emotionally tense and suspenseful book, and it's the resolutions of what's-going-to-happen?!?!! that would be a shame to spoil, because the tension is so beautifully built and released.
The things I can say: it's an excellent book and I highly recommend it if you like spies, suspense, flying, historical novels, WWII, first-person narration, and/or awesome women. It's got lovely complex characterization, down to the minor characters. Its focus on female friendship is sadly rare but all the more welcome for it. It makes excellent use of its chosen narrative device. Though it is obviously about some tough subjects (Nazis and interrogation and torture, oh my!), it is not particularly graphic and manages to not be soul-crushingly depressing—indeed, is often witty along the way (I love the proposition that the unnamed British intelligence officer is Peter Wimsey, by Becca in a post with spoilers for everything).
Seriously: if you regularly read this booklog, our tastes almost certainly overlap enough for you to like this book. Go read it. (If you are buying a paper copy in a bookstore, you'll have to look in YA.)
(If you buy an ebook: the first half of my U.S. edition contains some underlined text, which is indeed supposed to be underlined. The second half contains some underlined text, which is alas supposed to be struck through (this is reasonably clear from context, but I was glad to confirm it from someone with a paper copy). Also for some reason most if not all of its upper-case "U"s are lower-case. Unfortunate, but still readable.)