Dead in Time
on Aug. 17, 2011
I really hesitate before giving five stars to a book. The ones that are unquestionably five stars create a benchmark that isn't easy to hit - Tolkien, and Austen, and Chesterton and Sayers and the complete works of Guy Gavriel Kay. I especially didn't expect to ever give five stars to a book I can't hold in my hands, which I downloaded by sheer chance from Smashwords.com. But one nice thing about Smashwords is that you can read a substantial sample before committing to buy a book, and I fell in love very quickly with Dead in Time by Anna Reith. Happily, the download was available as a pdf - not ideal, but accessible.
So, late one night Ellis is working on her thesis, when an album starts playing on her stereo which shouldn't be playing on her stereo. It's an old favorite of her mother's by a band called Brother Rush, and not one she remembered putting in queue.
“Not bad for a man with a dodgy perm and lurex trousers,” I murmured, taking off my glasses to rub eyes bees-winged enough to be buzzing.
“Well, that’s charming,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
When she looks up she is more than startled to find her window seat occupied by the lead singer for Brother Rush, Damon Brent. Which would be, in itself, startling enough if he hadn't been dead for thirty years.
And with that her life is changed.
It was on August 28, 1976 (I wonder if Anna Reith has the same sort of reason to hate that date as I do), as we see in flashback segments and hear from Damon himself, that he held one last huge party at his country house, awash with booze and drugs. The latter were blamed for the … accident that took his life; he was found naked in a pool of blood, tangled in the shower curtain; obviously, he slipped, bashed his head on the sink, tried to get up, and hit his head again, and lay bleeding to death alone as the party ebbed in the house below. But, he tells Ellis, he knows that's not what happened.
It's a straightforward idea – a ghost prodding the living to resolve the manner of his death. But this – this is unique, and beautiful, and so well written. The characters are wonderfully drawn – I don't remember enjoying characterizations so much, not in a long time. The writing is filled with sharp observations and humor, a solid knowledge of music and a kind of alarming depth of knowledge of glam rock. I loved Damon Brent (even though I kept picturing Russell Brand for some reason, despite the fact that Day is blond); his band-mates and wife, and Ellis and her family and friends, were three-dimensional. It's so frustrating to read this, so real that I should be able to go to iTunes and download Brother Rush. I want to.
In the meantime, what I can do is refer this book to everyone I can think of, and read everything Anna Reith has written. And I will.
Let the Dragon Wake
on Feb. 26, 2012
Welcome to a world where flowers are grown for the lower classes and made for the wealthy, by magic, along with birds and sunlight and blades of grass; where a soldier is, literally, married to his blade; where Fate is king and almost all-powerful. The first thing I thought on firing up the Kindle was that the writing was sheerly gorgeous, thickly embroidered with metaphor and simile like nothing else I've read … and I wondered whether it would pall after a while.
It didn't. There were one or two similes that landed with a thud, but for the most part it succeeded at a grace as light and playful and attractive as the cats that populate the story.
… the first room was a workshop with a counter and display-shelves, and what it sold was obviously dust…
… something painted by a madman on parchment of human ears….
Wyrdrake, driven by a deep need he can barely put words to, goes to King Fate to request a bride. I'm not sure if his freedom to do so is because of his position, or because the land is more egalitarian than most. It is known abroad that not only can Fate and his people create such things as birds and butterflies, he can also create a bride upon demand – and in fact has done, although that lady upon facing her impending marriage determined that she wanted Fate, not her intended husband. The bride can be made – the love cannot. And Fate's apprentice, Marr, wants more than he has. And thereby hangs a tale.
The city where this story is set took some getting used to. "Sondolattis, city of marvels, whose people lived with heaven in plain sight. With mundane magic, and commonplace wonders. They lived so long that they mastered their daily work, and then went beyond mastery and became miracle-workers." It's not only that there is magic there – it is magic. It is built largely of dragon bone, and rests on the back of another enormous dragon, sleeping in the lulled peace of having been married to King Fate long ago. This is the key to keeping the dragon docile and still: she has been given husband after husband through the long years … and that is definitely one of the things that took getting used to. There are, in Sondolattis, two sorts of marriage: the familiar kind between a man and a woman, and this kind, the second marriage, in which a person is bound in devotion and loyalty to … something. It could be a soldier married to his sword, or a guard married to the gate which is his post, or a scholar in a clock tower married to Time.
Somewhere along the way, though, the strangeness fell away, and the city made its way under my skin, and it all seemed perfectly right and natural. Let the Dragon Wake is a novel (or novella)-length fairy tale. It makes no attempt to explain logic away its improbabilities and impossibilities, but lets them glimmer and shine in their setting of dragon bone. It is beautiful and unexpected and harsh and sweet. It's a gem.
on Oct. 06, 2012
This is a very unusual book. I won it through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaway in exchange for a review; otherwise I’m not sure I would have finished it. Yet in the end I’m glad I did finish it.
The title is just what it appears to be, a play on “whore” and “horticulture”. (I’m sure there’s a word for that; conflation?) For the first part: The lives of four young women of antebellum America are highlighted, and through them the expectations and limitations of women in the time period. Four young women begin as innocents, with their own ideas of what life will be like; four young women wind up with their innocence shattered, their expectations crumpled. Life acts on these girls – rarely do any of them have the chance to take action to change their own circumstances, and when they do make the attempt it tends not to work out well for them. This is not a book of erotica, much less a romance novel – there are some scenes which border on the graphic but nothing to compare to most of what’s out there. It is more than anything a sociological study of the circumstances leading up to different forms of prostitution – by its legal definition as well as circumstantial – through four (five, in a way) separate but intersecting stories. The young bride solidly and terribly under her husband’s thumb and the young woman attempting to build a business and maintain an illicit love affair are not much better off than the actual prostitutes – “owned”, in a way, by their madams. This is one of those books which scours away all the little wishful 21st century fantasies of a simpler life in a simpler time; this is one of those books which leaves all the Happily-Ever-After endings looking kind of silly and impossible
For the second part of the title: Throughout the book is woven the language of flowers, and language relating to flowers and plants. This was obviously done very deliberately, but the intention was not so obtrusive as to be annoying.
In some ways it is not an easy read. It’s set in the present tense, which can be off-putting. And the subject matter is difficult. I don’t think it will ruin anyone’s reading experience (and might serve as fair warning) to say that the closest thing to a happy ending in this book is not very happy at all. No one is entirely good in these stories, and no one is entirely happy, even at their happiest – misery runs thick and heavy for these women. Innocence is largely a matter of ignorance, and the ignorance is massive, though short-lived. It’s fascinating to see how these girls’ lives spiral downward, and disheartening. There is a spirit and a sense of humor to the points of view which both makes it easier and makes it harder to watch. This is a book after which I didn’t much like anyone, but particularly men, and after which I probably should have reached for Winnie-the-Pooh or something equally antidotal.
Golden Feathers Falling
on Oct. 06, 2012
This LTMG fell through the cracks; the format I had to download it in at the time I won it some months ago, PDF, meant I would have to read it on the screen of my laptop which, while very doable, can be awkward, especially as I haven’t figured out how to bookmark in Adobe (if you can -?). (Excuses, excuses.) So my read of this book and the subsequent review have been a long time coming. But now I have a Kindle, and the galley took very nicely to conversion.
So did I, and so, hopefully, this review will make up for the delay. I love this book. Not only because it brings back happy memories of The History of Western Art in art school with the Assyrian winged man-headed bulls – which I now know are called shedu.
It’s as alien a world, in some ways, as can be found in any fantasy novel. While there are horses and beer and all sorts of familiar trappings, the sun is not the sun, nor the stars the stars, and the character names are very different. I love the main character’s name Alit, and may steal it. Or just rename my Kindle, because it’s kind of ideal. The sun, by the way, is Anki’s Chariot, and the stars his Ashuras. But the alienness is counterbalanced by the fluid, colloquial dialogue. The tablet house Alit and her brother run (writing letters for a largely illiterate society) is presented no differently from any more familiar business, the introductions to its purpose and doings made seamlessly. There is no pretension here, no “behold all the research I did which I here demonstrate in odd subject and verb placement”, or calling wine by the word people in that time and place would have used. That is generally a sure way of creating distance between the characters and setting of a book and its readers, of constantly reminding readers that this is a book and these are not real people. The wonderful characters in these pages are aggressively, vividly alive, and they speak as they speak without a care under Anki’s Chariot for what historians might think of the style of it. The research is obvious in the simple veracity of the setting – and the writing has an authority which lets the characters curse and gossip in perfectly ordinary English without raising hackles.
Funnily, for no good reason the writing has been making me think of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (which I read a very long time ago, and may not have borne any resemblance to GFF at all) – and the Amazon description reads thusly: “inspired by Mesopotamia under Persian rule and the sword-and-sorcery pulps”. Well there you go.
A discussion about all the things wrong with fantasy (on limyaael’s journals) delved into setting once upon a time, and derided the tendency to set fantasy in the same settings over and over. There are, it must be admitted, more Celtic fantasies than are strictly required by quota – and I say this as a complete and utter sucker for a good Celtic fantasy. But with the whole wide world at your feet and all of time to choose from, it is perhaps remarkable that writers keep going back to the familiar, the well-trodden path. Marcin Wrona took Frost’s other path, and while it hasn’t made all the difference – he is by far a good enough writer that a Celtic fantasy by him would undoubtedly be just lovely – it has made a difference. It’s a joy to be a tourist in a new land, to gawk at the mosaics and the fashions, to experience the sophistication and the barbarity, and to try to avoid seeing the bodies impaled on the hillsides.
on April 21, 2013
Excellent - really excellent. And as another reviewer said, the stupid one-star review needs balancing.
Blood in the Water
on April 23, 2013
I was charmed by this story. That's not a word used much anymore, charmed, but it applies. There was a surprising amount of character development in 8200 words, and I really enjoyed those characters: Lana had more depth than I expected, Seree was nicely rounded, and their father was terrific. I have a new favorite Smashwords author!
on April 23, 2013
This was - as others have said - short and sweet. Megan Derr can pack a lot into a short story - character development (even walk-on characters think they're the heroes of the story), backstory, and some really lovely writing. I loved it.
on April 23, 2013
Sweet *and* hot. I'd love to see more of this world!
on Oct. 17, 2013
Why do I keep doing this to myself? After some of the encounters I’ve had with self-published authors, not to mention the dreck I’ve read for Netgalley and LibraryThing giveaways and because I got it free on Ammie, why do I still do it?
I’m a masochist, and/or optimistic because of the very few real successes I’ve come across, I guess, and a sucker for a premise that sounds promising. (Also the chalice with the palace or the flagon with the dragon.) So I keep going back to the LibraryThing giveaways, and keep putting my name in.
I feel like I’ve said this about a thousand times (well, it’s probably only a few dozen): This could have been so much better. With objective editing, with a firm hand and White’s Elements of Style, this could have been quite good. As it is, it had some nice elements, but, though pretty short, was a terrible slog to finish. (I was sleepless, and perversely persevered. Sorry, looks like it’s going to be that kind of day.)
The story begins with a boy in a wheelchair who discovers that he can fly when he finds himself doing so to save the life of a little girl he’s just met. He can’t walk, but he can fly, and he begins a sort of disabled-Superman existence, wearing armor as he flits around the neighborhood stopping evil-doers. The armor is partly so his Clark Kent persona will not be known, partly to intimidate the truly stupid and cowardly bad guys he chases off, and partly in case anyone takes a shot at him – though this is one of the places I sighed over the book, because the reason knights stopped bothering with armor was that bullets went through it.
Another sigh I sighed over that armor is that he went from finding out he could fly to, within a very short span of time, flying about with an additional 80-odd pounds added to his weight, and had no problem adjusting. Right.
And still another sigh came because he started wearing the armor when he was twelve, and was still wearing it – after considerable growth and muscular development – at twenty. I guess he was sort of swimming in it at twelve; maybe he really strapped himself in.
The biggest armor-related sigh, though, was more of a groan, and it wasn’t so much over his armor as his sword. Or, rather, the sword’s sheath. You see, one day the main character receives a sword in the mail, a claymore. He decides to go out and fly around with it, to play with it. Someone begins shooting arrows at him (and a friend). Once the shooting stops, he decides to go pick up “a few stray arrows”. “Scooping up the arrows, he stashed them in his sheath with his sword.”
A few arrows.
He stashed them in his sheath.
With his sword.
Which is not the sword he usually wears with that armor, but, as I mentioned, a claymore: far larger than the blade he usually wears with the armor. There was no mention of switching out the scabbard. So the bloody sword shouldn’t have fit all by itself. The sword plus “a few… arrows”? I wanted to slap someone.
I don’t even know what to say about the fact that the main character can stand, and can leap, and more than hold his own in a swordfight – but he is confined to a wheelchair because he can’t walk. Eventually some sort of nonsensical wisp of an explanation shows up, but it’s not good enough by a long mark. Of course, once the boy figures out he can fly (there’s no learning curve – he just flies) he starts leaving his wheelchair at the bottom of the staircase and levitates up to his bedroom, and then proceeds to float about getting himself ready for bed and suchlike. Hitherto, a servant had always had to carry him up, help him bathe and dress, and put him to bed. Does anyone – his grandfather, the household full of servants they start out with – notice?
I’m tired of cutting writers slack over grammatical and punctuation errors. There’s no need for them. None. Especially when there are two writers involved, as here. If you can’t tell that this is a bad sentence:
(from the first page) “The maid, Sarah, with her strong Scottish burr, patted him on his shoulder”;
“His eyes trained up the landmark tree”
Or that the commas are completely unnecessary in these fragments:
“sparse, blond hair”; “giant, brown eyes”; “the ugly, brown, wooden chair”;
Or that this makes no sense:
“Thompton’s visage stepped back”;
If you’re going to commit unintentional funnies like “the freedom of this new discovery [that he could fly] made his soul take flight”; or having the boy clench his fists and then three paragraphs later clench his jaw;
If you’re going to set your book in 1894 and talk about “personal space” and other 20th-21st century concepts (I’ll allow “ok” in 1894, but I still growled) –
Then I have no desire to read your work, and you should be ashamed of asking me to, much less asking me to pay 2.99 for it on Amazon. (To be clear, I myself was not asked to pay for this; it was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway book, and therefore free to me.) If you can’t be bothered with internal logic and worldbuilding, I can’t muster up too much enthusiasm for your work. As I’ve said a thousand times (or maybe just a few dozen), there are literally millions of other books out there. You have to earn my time and money. If I had paid for this I would be peeved; as it is, I regret the time put into it.
Oh. Oh dear. I was going to end there, but I figured I’d better check my facts and make sure this book was indeed self-published. It’s not. In fact, the publisher has a page titled “Why Shouldn’t I Just Self-Publish?”, which includes this statement: “We provide a team of experienced people who will help you with editing, artwork, promotion, and be there when you have a question. Because of your team, you can concentrate MORE on writing and less on editing, marketing, and all the rest of the work.” Oh my God. I had originally given this two stars – it just lost a star because of that.
on Oct. 17, 2013
I won this novella through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways.
As the synopsis says, Tsurugu no Kiyomori is a sort of magic-using private eye, hired to protect a warlord’s new bride from a kitsune (often malicious fox spirit) they believe is near, and threatening. Kitsune can and often do take human shape in order to work mischief (and worse), and it could be anyone – or no one. And – again, as the synopsis says – a PI in ancient Japan doesn’t have the leeway a classic American gumshoe would, since a mistaken accusation against, say, the bride herself could end in very ugly, very painful, possibly very fatal results.
Tsurugu is partnered – against his will – with a warrior named Shishio Hitoshi, who makes up in grit and determination what he lacks in magic. They become a good team, until they aren’t any longer, and that’s the problem I had with this story. I’ll come back to that. It was well done, with several factors that made it both a very good and a very bad followup to Yamada Monogatari – there were surprising similarities (which is why it was both good and bad). I’m not in any way suggesting anything hinky about either book – just surprise at a superficial resemblance. This is a quick tale (wouldn’t it be fun to write stories about kitsune in sets of three? Three tales? Geddit??) which encompasses a pair of mysterious twins, a dog hunt (which was, I felt, an unnecessarily ugly scene, but at least it was not graphic or detailed), and a beautiful bride who may not be what she is supposed to be.
The twist in the tail tale was very much a surprise, and so was effective in that way – but it was so very close toThe kitsune Kuzunoha. Note the shadow of a fox...the end of the novella that I think I was still thinking “What … just happened here?” when I hit the last sentence. With the fast pace of the story, it felt like flying along on a bobsled, hitting a wall, and continuing to fly along without the benefit of the sled for a while until I came to a spinning stop several yards away. (This would be one of those rare times I wish I knew where to find a gif that would illustrate that better.) Once I stopped blinking in surprise, I think I was just unhappy about the whole thing. It was clever – I just didn’t like it.
But, to end this at least on a positive note, I do love kitsune. I love that the fox-as-trickster trope is as strong in Japan as it is in Native American lore. I love that the creatures can be malice personified or merely mischievous, can fall in love with human and be willing to kill anyone else. They’re a fascinating class of being, and it’s fun to see them as much as I have lately. And they have three tails – how cool is that?
Love and the Art of War
on Oct. 17, 2013
What a fun premise: Meek librarian discovers her beloved husband might be having an affair and reacts in the only way she is equipped for: signs up for a local seminar. However, though she signs up for "Mending Marriage or Decent Divorce" in 96F, she winds up in "The Warlord Way to Waging Profit" (or "China's Military Genius for Maximizing Management") in 96E. She starts to leave – but if she leaves, the class will not have enough students to continue; the professor works his wiles on her to convince her the class could be useful to her.
'Well, I'm trying to keep a family united, not all of China.'
Professor Baldwin took a deep breath. 'But all of Cathay isn't as important to you as that family.'
And she stays. And as the weeks go by, as the rest of the class applies the tenets of Sun Tzu to their business affairs and she does her best to apply them to her husband's affair, things change. Jane changes.
I love a good turn of phrase, and I'm as guilty as just about anyone of overusing metaphor and simile in my own writing. But Love and the Art of War takes it to a whole 'nother level. A hefty percentage of the lines in Love and the Art of War are witty – and, every now and then, perhaps a shade too witty. But the majority made me smile, either with my lips or in my head ("Joe's career at the BBC was still afloat, in a drowning-not-waving sort of way."), so I'm fine with living with the occasional over-reaching clunker.
At the heart of the book is books; I wanted more.
Books had saved Jane from the miseries of her own teenage years…
All the more precious to Jane then, when a tiny borrower, having tumbled to the promise of exiting the library with an armful of free picture books, queued between the DVD-toting teens and clucking pensioners.
At such moments, Jane whispered to Chris, 'One more little soul saved from the pixels.'
- ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ -
Rupert lived in a narrow book-lined house overlooking the heath. John Le Carre once lived nearby. Jane liked to pigeonhole London's nooks and crannies with the delicious knowledge that had she dared, she could knock on a particular author's front door and one of their characters would answer. You could even play the game on nearby Chalcot Square. Knock on Number 3 and Sylvia Plath's ghost peered through the front window. Stroll a few metres southward toward Frederick Forsyth's old digs and bump into the Jackal cleaning his gun in his dressing gown. London was full of authors, the dead ones commemorated by blue plaques for mere civilian readers, but still breathing for a librarian. The whole world around Jane shimmered with invisible dimensions, angles, and parallel realities created by writers.
I would have loved a lot more of that, and of Jane's integration of The Art of War into her life. It was brilliant, and I loved it. I loved the whole first half of the book.
What I didn't particularly want was the terrorism plot that began to gain more and more prominence in the story. It was a shift in the focus of the book that jangled, in discord, against the rest; it was as though a story that started out as a smart and funny and thoughtful rom-com suddenly wanted to be shelved in Action!Adventure! It all came together in the end – an end I didn't entirely expect, but was glad of – but it was rocky there for a little while.