Guest Post: Rachel Neumeier on Under the Radar books

Hi everyone!  I’d like to introduce Rachel Neumeier, author of the recently released Black Dog (watch this space for a review soon), as well as The House of Shadows, The Griffin Mage trilogy, The Floating Islands, and The City in the Lake.

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I love hearing recommendations from other readers, and today Rachel has a fantastic list of books that might not have gotten the attention they deserve. There’s a few here I’ve not heard of that I have to get my hands on now, and I can tell you she’s not wrong about the books that I have read.


Thanks for inviting me over to Spec Fic Romantic – it’s a pleasure to be here!

I’ve been writing a good many guest posts about Black Dog lately, so this time I’d like to try writing on a topic that’s slightly removed:  I’d like to share with you a handful of my favorite books that should be right at the top of your TBR pile, but that you might not have heard of because they are old, or have been “flying under the radar,” or are simply outside your normal reading range.

These days, I think many of us get most of our book recommendations from blogs and Twitter.  Certainly I do, especially now that I have a Kindle.  One enthusiastic recommendation from a blogger whose taste matches mine, and I may very well just pick the book up immediately.  Naturally, following book-review blogs leads to a huge TBR pile and promotes some excellent books, but I suspect it also leads to a concentration of social-media attention, so that a handful of new releases pick up the lion’s share of notice.  Often those books are great and deserve every bit of the attention they get, but all too often an equally great title languishes because it didn’t happen to get that initial buzz. And, of course, anything published before the social media Phenomenon is simply out of luck.  With all the new, shiny titles hitting the shelves, it’s almost impossible to generate buzz for anything published more than a year ago, much less more than a decade ago.

On the other hand, blogger recommendations can lead you straight to titles or authors you wouldn’t ordinarily try, which is an unmixed blessing.

So, here we go.  I think that anyone whose taste runs toward character-driven stories with beautifully drawn settings ought to consider trying the following titles.

Thursdays Children by Rumer Godden1.  I thought I’d start with the oldest.  How many of you have ever read anything by Rumer Godden?

Godden wrote a whole lot of books from 1936 right up through 1997, an amazing career that ended a trifle in advance of the social media explosion.  In This House of Brede was published in 1969.  It is not fantasy.  It is not adventure.  It is not a romance.  It is a contemporary novel (not actually contemporary anymore, true, but set in our world).

I read mostly fantasy, with some science fiction, mysteries, and historicals thrown in.  I don’t read many contemporary novels.  But this one?  This one is simply one of the best and most powerful novels I’ve ever read, of any genre.

For those who particularly enjoy YA, Godden’s Thursday’s Children is one you should really look up.  Especially if you love dance.  I don’t know anything about ballet, but this perfect little novel had me completely enthralled with the story of a gifted boy who tags along with his sister to ballet class. Read it the first time for pure enjoyment and a second time as a character study, because the depth of characterization is amazing.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson2.  The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is a true contemporary published only a year or so ago.  This one is a good example of a single blogger recommendation leading to an out-of-the-usual purchase for me.  Ana at The Book Smugglers raved about this book, so even though it’s a YA contemporary, I picked it up.  It is a very intense book and you should have a box of kleenix handy when you read it – but you should read it.  And then go back through and read all the scraps of poetry:

At 4:48 pm on a Friday in April / my sister was rehearsing the role of Juliet / and less than one minute later / she was dead. / To my astonishment, time didn’t stop / with her heart.

This is a story about grief and recovery, but it is also a story that celebrates friendship, family, and love.  I think absolutely everyone should have this title right at the top of their TBR pile.

The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand3.  I really don’t read many romances, so this next one, a contemporary romance series set in Paris, represents an even greater departure from my normal reading range.  In fact, this is another example of a series I tried solely because of a blogger’s review.  But, whether romance is your first love or not, you just have to try Laura Florand’s Chocolate mysteries.

The first is The Chocolate Thief, which is light and fun; the series deepens as you go on.  My favorite is the third, but all of them are wonderful.  Florand can make any character sympathetic; it’s amazing.  The poor little rich girl?  Yep, sympathetic.  Anyone could learn plenty about characterization and using backstory to deepen character from this author.  Luckily, she is a fast writer and has brought a good many titles out over just the past couple of years.

Dolly and the Singing Bird by Dorothy Dunnett4.  I do like mysteries and read a fair number of them, but one mystery series that has completely faded from view is the “Dolly” series by Dorothy Dunnett.  You’ll also find them referred to as the “Johnson Johnson” mysteries.  I think a lot more people have read Dunnett’s fat historicals – which I like a lot – than have even heard of her mysteries. Dunnett wrote these in the seventies, but they’ve all been recently republished under different titles.

I discovered this series when I was just starting to think seriously about writing, and I found Dunnett’s technique fascinating.  Every book in this series is told in the first person by a different young woman, but the real protagonist is arguably Johnson Johnson himself – famous painter, owner of the yacht Dolly, and perhaps a bit more than he seems at first glance – whose point of view is never shown to the reader.

Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy5.  RA MacAvoy wrote a good handful of fantasy novels in the eighties, of which one of my favorites is Tea With the Black Dragon.  This is a wonderful little gem of a novel, with just the most subtle fantasy elements laid into what seems on the surface a straight contemporary.  I mean, is Mayland Long really a dragon or isn’t he?  (Personally, I’m positive he is.)

Plus, Tea is one of those vanishingly rare stories where the romance involves middle-aged people.  How often do you see that, right?  I can’t really talk, because most of my protagonists are young, too.  But I really enjoy seeing a great story where one of the central characters is an older woman.

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wellsthe cloud roads by martha wells

6.  While on that topic, anybody who hasn’t read Martha Wells is missing out.  Her standalone fantasy Wheel of the Infinite is a great story, with wonderful worldbuilding – wonderful everything, actually, but Martha Wells just excels at worldbuilding.  This one has a Southeast Asian feel to it.  Plus, the main protagonist in Wheel is an older woman who is at the height of her power and basically doesn’t ever need to be afraid of any ordinary threats.  How often do you see that in a fantasy novel, right?

Wheel has been out for more than a decade, but Wells’ more recent Raksura trilogy, starting with The Cloud Roads, was only completed in 2012.  Again, spectacular worldbuilding, this time of a world that is completely unique among fantasy settings.  You trip over an ancient city built on an immense turning platform, or whatever, everywhere you go.  The nonhuman shapeshifter protagonists are equally unique; these are not just funny-looking humans who sometimes have wings, but a different species with their own body language and ways of thinking.

Plus, people, let me tell you, you really don’t want to miss the giant zombie sea serpent.

Hero by Daniel R. KernsBorder Dispute by Daniel R. Kerns

7.  I wonder how many people know that Jacqueline Lichtenberg wrote two books as Daniel R Kerns?  Hero was first published in 1993 and Border Dispute in 1994, and it’s a crying shame Lichtenberg didn’t go on to write half a dozen more.  I don’t know whether to call these books space opera or military SF, but either way, if nonhuman protagonists appeal to you, these slim little novels will make you stand up and cheer.  It’s not that there aren’t humans in these books, but the protagonist, Indiw, certainly is not human.  His confusion at human behavior is endless, and Commander Falstaff  is certainly equally confused by Ardr behavior.  I don’t know of anyone who has ever done this kind of culture clash better than Lichtenberg.

Valor's Choice by Tanya Huff8.  Speaking of military SF, Tanya Huff’s Valor series is amazing.  If military SF doesn’t normally appeal to you, well, pick up Valor’s Choice and see if that doesn’t change your mind at least for this one series.  Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is a wonderful protagonist, smoothly handling her superior officers so that she can do her best by her mission and her people.  I don’t know what inspired Huff to make the protagonist a sergeant rather than the commander, but it was an excellent choice.  Every book stands pretty well on its own, but there’s also plenty of room in this five-book series for another installment, and I sure hope Huff has one in the works.

The Magic and the Healing by Nick O'Donohoe9.  Nick O’Donohoe wrote a handful of widely disparate books in the eighties and nineties, of which the best, if you ever thought you might like to be a veterinarian, is the Crossroads trilogy.  The first book, and probably the best, is The Magic and the Healing.  If you’d like to know how to repair the horn of a unicorn or diagnose gout in a griffin, this is the series for you.  The veterinary medicine is well done (says my vet, who borrowed these books from me), and the actual story is top notch as well.  I have a soft spot for The Magic and the Healing, which demonstrated to me the difference between an author declaring a character is smart when she is actually stupid as a post; and the author actually writing a smart character.  Obviously, this is book offers an example of the latter.  BJ Vaughn is one of the most perceptive characters I can think of, in her quiet way.

The griffin in this book also directly inspired the griffins in my Griffin Mage trilogy.  Though O’Donohoe’s griffin is actually nothing at all like mine, he made me fall in love with griffins.

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst10.  I don’t usually read self-published books, but enthusiastic reviews from The Book Smugglers and from Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks made me pick up And All the Stars by Andrea Höst.  That one was good enough that I went on to pick up Höst’s Touchstone trilogy.  And that was so good it was my top read of 2013 and led me to pick up the rest of Höst’s backlist.

Lovers of romance should particularly look for her Medair duology and And All the Stars, both of which offer stunning plot twists that will leave you absolutely dumbstruck.  Everyone should read the Touchstone trilogy, which is a wonderful portal SF story that explores issues of technology and privacy while following the battle of, um, psychic space ninjas against extradimensional monsters.  Sort of.  Anyway, Cassandra’s voice is wonderful, the slow-burn romance is wonderful, the setting is wonderful, and this trilogy (plus the Gratuitous Epilogue) belongs right at the top of everyone’s TBR pile.

So there you go, ten excellent authors that might not be the subject of a lot of current buzz, but are well worth a look.  I hope you’ll look up one or two of them no matter how many new titles you have cluttering up your TBR piles.  Enjoy!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rachel Neumeier started writing fiction to relax when she was a graduate student and needed a hobby unrelated to her research. Prior to selling her first fantasy novel, she had published only a few articles in venues such as The American Journal of Botany. However, finding that her interests did not lie in research, Rachel left academia and began to let her hobbies take over her life instead.

She now raises and shows dogs, gardens, cooks, and occasionally finds time to read. She works part-time for a tutoring program, though she tutors far more students in Math and Chemistry than in English Composition.

Bookish Gifts: Jane Austen Edition

I’ve been thinking of doing a bookish gift post that had a specific fan theme, and since it’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice I spent this weekend surfing the web for Jane Austen themed doodads. It should be no surprise, knowing how popular Jane Austen is, that I found a lot of Jane Austen themed objects. This is even with me making sure I wasn’t repeating bookish gifts I had featured here before. Enjoy. (Click pictures for enlarged views).

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1. Jane Austen bandages ($5) 2. Jane Austen Literary Chocolate (set of 6, €25) 3. Pride & Prejudice Hollow book safe ($62) 4. Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice illustrated postcards (set of 5 –  about $10) 5. Replica of Jane Austen’s ring (£130 in gold, £60 in silver) 6. Pride & Prejudice Literary Transport mug (£7.95) 7. Made You Book sweatshirt ($42.99) 8. Pride & Prejudice peacock cuff ($40) 9. Pride & Prejudice book scarf ($42)

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10. Totes Adorbs pillow ($20) 11. Persuasion Book Purse ($55) 12. Jane Austen Bust (£18.00) 13. Austen hand drawn quote bookmarks ($12.51) 14. Jane Austen Book Titles Tote ($23.63) 15. Mr Darcy Literary T-shirt ($24.95) 16. Baby Lit Board books – Pride & Prejudice (counting); Sense & Sensibility (opposites) ($9.99) 17. PBS: The Complete Jane Austen Collection DVD combo ($111.99)

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18. Cozy Classics Board Books (Emma and Pride & Prejudice – $9.95 each) 19. Pemberley Rose Soy Candle ($12) 20. Jane Austen Silhouette necklace (pendant is laser cut in acrylic) ($19.90) 21. Pride and Prejudice pouch ($12) 22. “I Dearly Love a Laugh” quote pendant ($37.39) 23. Jane Austen mini button ($3) 24. Jane Austen library travel tin candle ($8) 25. Jane Austen graphic novels – Marvel classics (retail price between $15-$20 each) 26. Jane Austen stamp set (£5.30) 27. I Heart Darcy tote ($20) 28. From the Desk of Jane Austen – 100 postcard set ($20) 29. Gail Wilson Jane Austen inspired doll ($595 finished, $125 kit, extras from $10)

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30. Penguin Clothbound/Hardcover Classics (about $20 each) 31. Persuasion mug, Pride and Prejudice mug (£8.95) 32. Jane Austen/Mr. Darcy cookie cutter set (about $16) 33. Persuasion book clutch (other Austen covers available! – 60€) 34. Jane Austen and modern day DVDs: Lost in Austen and Clueless ($4-$10) 35. Jane Austen font (free for personal use) 36. Jane Austen and Bollywood DVDs: Bride & Prejudice, Aisha (Emma adapation), and I Have Found It (S&S adaptation) ($6-$15 each) 37. Jane Austen quote pencils (6 NZD)

Hope you liked these! If you’re interested in more of this kind of thing, check out the bookish gifts tag. P.S. There are so many Austen-inspired books I could have put here but I restrained myself. And if they existed, I would have included pre-order links for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Austenland. Next time.

Belated Post About This Blog’s New Header

Yes, I know. It’s been quite a while (a month or two now?) since I changed this blog’s header, and I hadn’t posted about it. I assure you all, I had a perfectly good reason, which was not exactly laziness. I needed to make a couple of tweaks to the design before the official announcement. So even if you have seen the new banner, look again, it’s slightly different!

The artist behind the design is Marion B, aka galaxyspeaking or mevelan. I found her on tumblr because of her Howl’s Moving Castle fanart (yes!) and adored her style and the way she colored her artwork (there’s a watercolor-y dreamy pastel-y thing going on that I dig), so when she was taking commissions I asked her about a header. Marion is the nicest person to work with and she was very open and responsive to my suggestions. The only bump in this process was after Marion got a very demanding full-time job over the summer, which took up all her time (I can relate to this completely)! It slowed things down but she always told me what was going on. Anyway, here’s a peek at the evolution of the banner (greatly summarized):

1) Marion’s first sketch. I wanted something to show the theme of the blog (speculative fiction and romance) but I didn’t have any concrete ideas about a header. She took my vague list of likes (floating islands, Jane Austen, Howl’s Moving Castle, women in space suits) and my request for the blog title to be in there, and what size it had to be, and came up with this. Hello Howl & Sophie, a Jane Austen couple, and space jumper back there!

try2) I was worried this didn’t look enough like these characters were from books, so we traded ideas and Marion added some books and pages floating around these figures and added some shading to boot.

test23) At this point Marion gave me a couple of options on coloring and lines either something with no/few lines and pastel coloring, or darker lines with watercolors. I asked for something in between, which was watercolors but with fewer lines. She did an intermediary test banner:

ban-test4) Then she sent me 4 different colorways:

colorways1Of course it took me FOREVER to choose the coloring I liked best. I finally settled on the second one from the top. I felt like this was the right balance in the end – not too pink or yellow or green, just right.

5) Almost done. I ask Marion to put a space in the “specficromantic” title. That’s the banner people saw on the blog. She did this for all four colorways because she is awesome, but I’m just showing you the result for the colorway I liked best.

banner_21.png6) The FINAL (phew) banner has a hyphen, and also slightly different colors because in the spaced one above, they got inadvertently muted (it’s a very subtle difference).

banner_2v5.pngAnd that’s it. I’m pleased with the finished product. It makes me sigh in appreciation of… the sheer girliness of the romantic warm colors and couples strolling about. In real life I’m not a very pink girl, but the older I get the more OK I am about embracing things that just make me happy, and this does.

House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

House of Shadows
Rachel Neumeier

This is a review of a book provided to me by Orbit books.

The Premise:  In the town of Lonne, in the country of Lirionne, a merchant dies, leaving behind his eight daughters.  The women can’t own their father’s business, and without their father, they’re destitute. The only path is for the oldest to marry so her husband could own the business and let her level-headed sister run it. This way they should make profit in a few years. The only problem is that no marriage can take place without a dowry. To save their sisters, two of the women volunteer to be “sold”.  Karah, the second oldest and everyone’s favorite, secures a remarkable price at Cloisonné House, the best keiso house in the candlelight district. Eccentric Nemienne, the other sacrificing sister, turns her oddness into an asset when she goes the Lane of Shadows to become a mage’s apprentice. Meanwhile, a bard named Taudde is caught in Lonne (in violation of the the treaty of Brenedde) and is forced by his captors to carry out their agenda. As war looms between Lirionne and its neighbor, Karah earns a protector in Leilis (a young woman who is not a servant but also not a keiso) against the jealousy of the other deisa, Nemienne explores the mage’s house and is led to unexpected places, and Taudde struggles to escape the conspiracy he’s been entangled in.

My Thoughts:  House of Shadows is a multi-protagonist story where the point of view cycles between three main characters. The first chapter’s focus is on the sisters and their decision to sell two of their number, the second’s on Leilis of Cloisonné House, and the third’s on Taudde and his difficulties. Because of the rotating points of view, it takes a third of the book (about 100 pages) before a unified plot makes itself known. (This review is going to talk about the threads, but not necessarily explain how they interweave because I try not to give away specific details on plot if it happens after page fifty).

There’s always the danger with multiple protagonists that I’ll end up invested in one character’s storyline and want to skim everything else. At first I was afraid this would happen here because I really liked Karah and Nemienne’s storyline. The death of a merchant father, the eight sisters–each with their own unique ability, and the necessary sacrifice to sell their loveliest and their strangest, infused the story with a fairytale quality I wanted to explore. I saw Beauty and the Beast in the sisters trading themselves in for their loved ones’ comfort. I wanted to dive into a story that revolved around their training to be a keiso and a mage. The shift to Leilis, a servant who is not really a servant was a surprise, but she was still in the same orbit as Karah, and smooths Karah’s transition into the House, so it wasn’t a bad shift. Also, Leilis is mysterious and I wanted to figure out what was behind someone who could be unobtrusive and also navigate the in-house politics of Cloisonné. It was when the the story moves to Taudde in the third chapter that I struggled the most. That’s when I really had to accept that the focus wasn’t just on the two sisters forging new lives. On the other hand, with Taudde, the the scope of the story widened from personal drama to political intrigue. This wasn’t the story of two sisters that I was expecting, but the world building combined with wanting to know what was going on lured me forward.

What I liked about the world building in House of Shadows is that you can feel the influence of other stories on it, but it still remains distinct from them. I’ve already mentioned fairy tales when I talked about the sisters’ story, but there’s also hints of it elsewhere: an unexplained curse, enigmatic animal guides, a man with an iron will. The sense of fairy tale also compliments how the magic of Lirionne is described. Lonne seems to be seeped in magic, yet most of the city is totally unaware, so when it is encountered, it’s strange and secret. I felt like there was a sense of wonder and mystery because here was something complex and unpredictable. The best example of this (and my favorite) is the mage’s “oddly outsized” house built into the mountain, where rooms may move and hallways stretch and bend. I love the “magical buildings that grow at will” trope.

Another influence I could see was Japanese culture — appearing here as the keiso, Neumeier’s version of geisha, with an emphasis she says, on “their roles as artists and high status women”. Beautiful, respected, and independent thanks to their artistry, keiso are sought after and could even marry, becoming “flower wives” to wealthy men (their sons would be acknowledged by their fathers). I liked that this suggests a different kind of world building than the default Western-based one. The cover reflects that, depicting a girl with with Asian features, but in the book, race is actually hazy: Karah has blue eyes, “creamy skin”, and “clouds of twilight hair”, Leilis has “storm-gray eyes” and hair “so dark it was almost black”, while another character has “dark eyes” and “straw-pale brows”, his hair, “a shade lighter”. That this story nods at Japanese culture, but it’s only a facet of the world building, not all of the world building, is good too.

Overall: This was a nice multi-protagonist story and bonus: it’s standalone, which isn’t too common in Fantasy (the ending leaves the door ajar for further adventures, but I haven’t heard any news about a sequel). The one complaint I have is that I wouldn’t have minded getting to know individual characters more, but it didn’t feel like there was room for that and to have the plot threads interweave so neatly and so well-synchronized. Character development is a big part of my personal scoring system, but I loved the world building, so in the end this fit into a middle-ish “liked” category for me.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers –  8 (Excellent)
Bunbury in the Stacks – ” I enjoyed the fairy tale beginning, but it was from halfway through to the end of this book that I was truly glued to the pages and unable to put it down.”

In which I suck at blogging

I don’t think it comes as that great a surprise to anyone that follows this blog that it’s been in a quiet state for the past few months. I had the best intentions at the beginning of the year to balance the blog with the new job, but somehow at the end of the work day I’ve used up all my enthusiasm for things that require brainpower. I want nothing more than surf tumblr and check my TiVo queue. Ah, sweet laziness, I wallow in thee.

Some of this is that I have to focus on the new job and I should be using my grey matter for that, but some of it is just getting into a funk from not posting for a while. Things were better: after BEA and the BEA Blogger Con, I got some of the enthusiasm back, and I was posting again and visiting blogs I like.

Then this summer I was put in a leadership role at work. On one hand: Kick-ass opportunity. On the other hand: I am figuring out the work-life balance all over again now that my role changed. There are so many more meetings, so many more decisions, so much more email, so much more responsibility. And I’m new at this. Sometimes at the end of my day I just think, “I am exhausted!” but I think once I adjust I will find the balance again. I swear, I see land in the horizon! It’s just not something that happens overnight.

I haven’t read that much this year.  Reviews are taking me longer to write than they used to. I feel bad about that. I’m still working on it. I’m pretty stubborn. I like this space of mine online. I am keeping at it. Consider this post a declaration: “I’m still here.”

So if you have any lovely tips on work-life-blog balance, I would love to hear them.🙂 I KNOW I’m not the only one who has had to deal with adjusting to a new job, and I wonder what other people do to get blogging in. Work on the blog super-duper early in the morning? Super late at night? Write up a ton of posts in the weekend and schedule them for weekdays? Write partial posts on your smartphone? I need to learn the ways.

Giveaway: Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong

To celebrate the paperback release of Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong, the final book of the Women of the Otherworld series (available August 6th), Plume has offered a copy for this blog’s readers.

Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong

The gripping, epic finale to the bestselling Otherworld series

A war is brewing and the first battle has already been waged. After rescuing her half brother from supernatural medical testing, Savannah Levine—a young witch of remarkable power and a dangerous pedigree—is battered, but still standing. The Supernatural Liberation Movement took him hostage, and they have a maniacal plan to expose the supernatural world to the unknowing.

Savannah is fighting to save her world as witches, werewolves, necromancers, vampires, half-demons, and all the forces of good and evil—including the genetically modified werewolves known as hell hounds—enter the fray. Uniting Savannah with Adam, Elena, Clay, Paige, Lucas, Jaime, Hope, and other denizens of the Otherworld, Thirteen is a thrilling conclusion to this blockbuster series.

Enter here, easy peasy:

This giveaway has ended

Rules:

  • This giveaway is for U.S./Canada only
  • Contest ends: Sunday, August 4th.
  • One entry per person please!

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant
Ari Marmell

The Premise: Adrienne Satti was an orphan that was adopted into the aristocracy, an unlikely rags-to-riches story that turned sour when she became the sole survivor of a horrific massacre and had to disappear. Now she is a thief called Widdershins that regularly gets in trouble – both with the law and with her own guild. Unfortunately people are still looking for Adrienne Satti, and maybe one day someone will figure out that Widdershins and she are one and the same. Oh, and she is the only worshiper of the god Olgun, and he lives inside her head.

My Thoughts: This is a book that I bought for purely shallow reasons: the cover pleases me. I like the use of the white background, the title placement, and the unexpected figure hanging from a ceiling beam. It does have a bit of a young adult feel (young woman on cover seems to equal YA these days), but I didn’t really realize it was YA until I looked it up on the publisher’s website. Despite just wanting this book because it’s so pretty, I didn’t pounce until I found a nice used copy because of on-the-fence (not really stellar, but not hating it either) reviews from reviewers I trust.

So.  Thieves, guilds, remarkable orphans, and a pantheon of gods that can directly communicate with their worshipers (if they so wish to). These are very well-worn tropes of fantasy and they form the building blocks of the world within Thief’s Covenant. I don’t really find this a bad thing, it’s comfort food if it’s not new-to-you, and fun if it is. What I think this story does differently is that injects an entertainment to everything. What I mean by that is: no matter what grim thing is happening on the page, the prose manages to veer off into humorous territory. You can start a scene where grim Guardsmen are examining the grisly remains of a dozen aristocrats, the floor positively awash in blood, when the focus shifts to the rafters above them where a whisper-conversation is taking place between Adrienne and her god Olgun. They’re both in shock because, well what kind of secret cult keeps written records?!

I liked the humor to a certain extent. When the jokes were gentle elbow-nudges, I was on board, but it could get rather slapstick-y, which is less of my cup of tea.  Either way, there’s enough lightheartedness in here for me to appreciate the entertainment.  One running gag was how basically everyone was after Adrienne/Widdershins but she always manages to one-up them.  The Guardsmen are after Adrienne for one reason, and Widdershins for another. The Finder’s Guild are after Widdershins for her general cheekiness, and there’s a third group that just wants to find Widdershins/Adrienne to kill the survivor of the massacre. The whole book makes me think of a hall of doors chase scene mixed with elements of  ‘Home Alone’.  Whenever Adrienne is caught, I feel like she always turns it around, leaving her captors worse off.

What is surprising is how this type of humor is juxtaposed with violence. That’s where my one real complaint about the story stems from — strangely, more because of how the secondary characters suffered than for the violence itself (although that was also jarring in the midst of what is mostly a caper). I felt like with so many throw-away characters, no chance for something deeper than a set of archetypes as the supporting cast. I would’ve enjoyed delving further and seeing their relationships with Widdershins develop. Maybe the point is to keep Widdershins isolated, or to add grit to the story. I don’t know, all I know is I wound up feeling unfulfilled, and questioning if how things played out was how it had to go. The humor and adventure in the story mostly balances out this ruffled feeling, but didn’t erase it entirely.

I have the second book of this series, False Covenant, on the to-be-read pile. I plan to read it soon.

Overall: The world building is typical fantasy fare and the secondary characters don’t really get the development they could, but the prose and humor evens things out so what you are left with is something that falls squarely on middle ground. I would recommend this as something to try if what you’re looking for is simply entertainment.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – Joint rating was: 6 (Good, recommended with reservations)
Bitching, Books, and Baking – 5 beaters (out of 5): “There are WORDS in them thar pages!  Glorious, well thought-out WORDS!”
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell – “The ever so cool Widdershins made this my fav Marmell book to date”

Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell

This review is based on a finished copy of the book sent to me by SOHO Press.

The Premise: Every year, a time traveler travels to the same time and place: the Boltzmann Hotel, Manhattan, 1st of April, 2071, and celebrates his birthday with different versions of himself. It’s a tradition he started when he was eighteen years old and invented his time travel raft. On his thirty-ninth birthday, the party is different. This time he discovers what the elder versions of himself have been hiding from the younger ones – that there’s been a murder, and the victim is his forty-year old self. Unfortunately, no one over forty can remember exactly what happened, and they are panicked. The time traveler has to solve the murder before he becomes the victim.

My Thoughts: I loved the convoluted mystery implied by the premise of Man in the Empty Suit. With one man the center of everything – the future victim, the investigator, and all the suspects, I thought I was going to experience something very surreal, like an M.C. Escher image where everything loops cleverly back to the beginning. This story starts promisingly down this vein, but doesn’t quite complete the circuit.

This is how it all begins in the first fifty pages: the time traveling narrator enters the hotel and he’s persuaded to go above the third floor (a rule he had previously not broken) with an older version of himself. Then the older him sneaks off by taking the elevator back down and is found dead despite being supposedly alone in the car. Suddenly our narrator is surrounded by the older contingent of his birthday party, the Elders, who are all ‘helpfully’ giving him information about the murder and laying the whole problem in his hands. Our narrator, surrounded by himself has to mentally nickname his future selves based on their distinguishing features: Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy, the Body. They all form a sort of secret club within the party, helping the narrator as he scrambles from the body to the ballroom and up and down the floors, trying to find clues while keeping his younger selves ignorant. This was all very weird, in an awesome way, but then all of a sudden there’s this paradox thrown in. And then a woman.

Somehow, the focus is taken away from the murder, and what I’m reading isn’t really a murder-mystery. This is more like a strange tale that examines this one character, his relationship with himself, a woman, Time, and whether everything he’s doing is predetermined or if he can change his fate. In theory I should be having a great time, but in reality I found myself sort of drifting through the pages. This wasn’t a difficult book to read (I was never confused about what was going on), nor did it drag, but I did feel like there wasn’t really a point to everything and the plot was just muddling along. I think if I was the sort of reader who could be content with what I got, which was personal growth, independent agendas, and time travel strangeness, I would have fared better, but my problem was that I had expectations that weren’t met. That this was a murder-mystery, first of all. If that wasn’t going to happen, I would have settled for some clever Möbius plot. Neither really panned out for me, and this left me discontent. For a long time after I finished Man in the Empty Suit I wondered if I had actually missed some vital piece of information that would have satisfied these expectations, but I have flipped back and forth through the last hundred pages and haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should be satisfied with the quiet and reflective ending instead of wanting a flashier one, but I’m not. To me, the way the story ended revealed that there was no plan. I felt like this story was pants-ed and not plotted, and it bugged me.

If plot is something that doesn’t quite work for me, sometimes the characters make up for it. In this case, our narrator (he never gets a name by the way, which I actually like), isn’t the easiest to relate to.  I mean, who is the type of person to use their time-traveling raft to do nothing really special but study history, not for humanity, but for his own curiosity, and who likes to spend his birthday (for years and years!), with no one but himself? He’s so self-involved, that he wants to be the center of attention at the party where all the attendees are himself:

“Thoroughly frozen now, I rubbed my skin dry with my palms and then pulled my new clothes out of my travel bag: a suit, the Suit. At last my turn to wallow in the shit of self-adoration.
[…]
Every year the entire party — all my selves– paused in respect when the Suit made the Entrance into the ballroom. All my other visits to the party were tainted. I always tried too hard to be the center of attention, even with myself. Especially with myself. But the Suit was beyond that; everyone paid attention to him without any effort on his part at all. A few times I tried to get close to him, to get a sense of when I might be him, but I had never been able to get his attention. It was as if he were attending a party to which no one else was invited.”

This self-absorption is reflected in every character that is him. Granted, the younger members of the party are immature in obvious ways (drunk throughout the party, or openly resentful), but while the Elders are more concerned about the welfare of the group, they are still selfish in their own ways. And does our protagonist grow in this book? Well he’s forced to go through a period of growth and eventually sees his own flaws, but it takes him a long time. So long that I spent most of the book not liking him.

Maybe this review sounds like a rant, but I’m trying to work through what’s not working because there’s something here, something that could be really good, but it’s not enough. I’m really close to having some undefinable list of personal requirements met that would leave me satisfied, but this story and I, we didn’t quite click.

Overall:  My expectations led me astray on this one. I wanted one thing (crime solving, or time travel awesomeness), but I got something else (I’m not sure what to call it). The way this story bucked expectations is a positive, and I don’t think I could say I’ve ever read anything like this, but in the end I’m more of a feeler than a thinker when it comes to my reactions to things, and I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this story.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Book-Off

One of my favorite people in the world (and partial originator of the ‘janicu’ nickname) came to New York City last week over Memorial Day Weekend. Besides our usual (the MoMA: all six floors, and then food), we visited Book-Off, which is at 49 W 45th St, just a a short walk from Grand Central.

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This place is magical. Basically it is a used book store, but it’s a Japanese chain so there are a lot of Japanese books and manga there. There used to be a Book-Off about 10 minutes away from me in Hartsdale, NY but that was a short-lived venture – probably because there were a lot more books in Japanese than English and I don’t think very people really knew it was there. But this Book-Off, the one in NYC? It has plenty of English books. It has rows and rows of used DVDs and CDs in the front, a huge sale section in the back, magazines to one side, and then a floor below with Japanese books and manga, and an upstairs balcony with I think non-fiction (but don’t quote me because I was just glued to the fiction shelves, salivating and petting bindings). Also many books are on sale for $1. MANY MANY books. The books that are not on sale: about $2.50 for a paperback and $5 for a hardcover. It’s not too shabby. I also prefer it over the Strand when it comes to its selection of genre fiction: SF&F and Romance in particular. The Strand does have a bigger YA section and general fiction section, but I think Book-Off beats the Strand’s prices because all the books at Book-Off are used.

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You can open the drawers on the bottom of the shelves and there are more books!

Anyway, if you happen to be in New York City, I’m just saying this place exists.