Category Archives: Hot Off the Press

Early reviews & reviews of new books

Hot Off the Press: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueWhere I got it and why: I’d gone down to the library to stock up on comic books, but alas, all I could find was this book I’d put on my List because it won the Bord Gáis Irish Book Award…

Recommended? Dear god yes. This book is incredible.

Summary: graciously provided by Goodreads

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Review: Room is told entirely from Jack’s point of view, which is an absolute stroke of genius for a book that could otherwise so easily become a melodramatic mess. I don’t think I’ve ever read a five-year-old written so convincingly. Jack is smart, curious, devious, adorable — even I liked him, and I don’t usually care for children, fictional or otherwise. Oh, and Jack is brave, incredibly brave for carrying through his Ma’s escape plan while he still only vaguely understands that there is something to escape to or from.

I’m a little afraid of giving away too much of the plot, because I read this book in three large gulps (interrupted only by food and sleep) and I remember it largely as a glorious experience of discovery. Rather like being a five-year-old, actually. Not everything discovered is good, and certainly Jack doesn’t like it all (he’s not terribly fond of wind the first time he meets it), but it’s all thrilling.

My favorite thing about Room, though, was Ma. Although she has a name and I’m sure it’s mentioned in the text, Jack thinks of her just as Ma, and, with good reason, she’s thought of herself as Ma for the past five years – five years spent in awful captivity. She’s twenty-six, but the last time she was in the world she was nineteen and just going to college. Now she’s a mother and a victim and a survivor and a celebrity, and while she doesn’t handle it all perfectly or with absolute grace, she handles it, and I think that’s really the most important part. She handles it, and she’s amazing, and (not to spoil you or anything) she and Jack are going to be okay.

For a book with such a bleak premise, Room is really amazingly uplifting and optimistic. (I shy away from that horrible word “heartwarming,” but I think it’s that too.) Don’t mistake this for a Lifetime movie; it’s plenty gritty and awful in parts. But Room is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read at all.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue was published by Little, Brown & Company on September 13th, 2010. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

Hot Off the Press: Review of The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth BearWhere I got it and why: as an uncorrected proof from Tor Publishing in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys!

Recommended? Absolutely! Particularly if you’re a fan of vikings, wolves, or telepathic animal companion stories. And especially if you read Pern as a twelve-year-old and went back to it later, and found yourself looking at it and thinking, “I’m not sure this has been very thoroughly thought out.”

Summary: For once, I think the back cover copy is better than anything I can come up with, so here you go:

In Iskryne, the war against the Trollish invasion has been won, and the lands of men are safe again…at least for a while. Isolfr and his sister, the konigenwolf Viradechtis, have established their own wolfhaell. Viradechtis has taken two mates, and so the human pack has two war leaders. And in the way of the pack, they must come to terms with each other, must become brothers instead of rivals — for Viradechtis will not be gainsaid.

She may even be prescient.

A new danger comes to Iskryne. An army of men approaches, an army that wishes to conquer and rule. The giant trellwolves and their human brothers have never hunted men before. They will need to learn, if they are to defend their homes.

Review: The Tempering of Men is the sequel to A Companion to Wolves, which came out in 2007. It picks up right where Companion left off, at the end of the trellwars, and this is the story of how the wolfcarls and their intelligent wolfish brothers and sisters learn what to do with themselves now. The wolfhaellen were formed to keep men safe from the trolls of the north, but now that the trolls are gone, is there still a purpose to the wolf-and-human packs?

Where Companion was the story of Isolfr learning how to live as part of the pack and how to become the brother of a konigenwolf, a queen wolf, Tempering follows several different characters, all of them being drawn out of their comfortable place in the pack and into new roles. Vethulf and Skjaldwulf are Isolfr’s wolfjarls, the pack’s war-leaders, still learning how to rule together; Brokkolfr is one of the only survivors of his previous pack and is learning his place (and regaining his confidence) in his new one. Between the three of them you have a great range of characters, providing very different points of view on their changing world.

Skjaldwulf is my favorite, though. He’d been in training for a poet before he bonded to a wolf, and it still shows in his sense of the dramatic and his instinct for narrative; he knows he’s in a story, and he tells it as he goes along. He’s frighteningly smart and more ambitious than he gives himself credit for. Although his moment of glory is at the AllThing, my favorite scene was his conversation with the invading Rhean captain. Skjaldwulf is not willing to see his countrymen become vassals to a foreign empire — but he knows that such an outcome would not be all bad, either. His internal tension is enthralling to see.

The cultural details, both historical and invented, are just lovely — the politics of town and wolfhaell, and of the northern and southern alfs; the godsmen and sworn-sons and city jarls. This is a huge, wonderful, complicated world, and The Tempering of Men gives you plenty of opportunity to indulge in exploring it.

Aside from its individual merits, though – of which there are plenty – the Iskryne world is a breaking down and re-imagining of the telepathic animal companion fantasy. Tempering is a little less biting in its way thanCompanion – which introduced the open mating, or what happens when the wolf bitch you’ve been telepathically bonded to goes into heat and all the dogs are willing to fight over her. Iskryne is a wonderful fantasy world, but it’s a gritty one. That doesn’t mean it’s bleak – far from it. The wolves and their men love each other with a love that is adorable to see, and in many ways Tempering is a book about the men learning to love each other as well. (…Yes, in that way, too.)

I love both Bear and Monette’s work, and with The Tempering of Men, they are continuing to work wonderfully well together. (For more examples of their collaboration, check out their short story “Boojum” in the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology, or the many-author shared-world series Shadow Unit.) And if all goes well, there’s a third book in the Iskryne series scheduled for 2013, An Apprentice to Elves. Hurrah!

Series: Iskryne

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear will be published by Tor in August of 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, IndieBound, Barnes & Noble.

Hot Off the Press: Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleWhere I got it and why: From the library, as soon as I heard it was out. I love China Miéville.

Recommended? Absolutely. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Kraken – I adored Kraken – but like any good Miéville book, this positively blows the top off your head.

Summary: Avice Brenner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a small settlement tucked in the corner of a large alien city, out on the edge of known space. The aliens – the Hosts – can speak no lies, and know no symbolic language: everything they say must be true. When she was a girl, she was made into a simile, so that the Hosts could talk about things that are like the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. Then she became an immerser, a sailor of that vast unknown that allows travel between distant worlds. When she married a linguist, she went back home to Embassytown.

Now that she’s an immerser, she’s a person of some little importance. She makes friends with the Ambassadors, the only people who can speak with the Hosts. But when their colony’s home world sends out a new kind of Ambassador…well, they had no idea how badly it could go.

Review: Well, China Miéville’s done it again, yet another ridiculously original, mindbending book about the possibilities inherent in the things we use every day. This time it’s language: words and similes and metaphors, communication and understanding. And, ultimately, fiction, that miraculous act of telling truth with lies.

Embassytown reminded me much more of the Bas-Lag books than the newer this-world Kraken or The City & The City. Perhaps it’s just that it’s set on an alien world, with fantastical alien creatures, but I think it’s also that Embassytown is a little more allegorical than Miéville has been lately. This is not a criticism, by the way; it’s definitely not one of those annoying allegories that makes you roll your eyes and wonder what the point of all that was. No, this is more subtle, with lots of twisty turns and plenty of opportunities for alternative interpretations. But it’s hard not to start drawing parallels when you’ve got a story about a war started by political maneuvering by people who clearly had no idea at all about the situation on the ground.

There’s a time jump in the middle of the book that really threw me off, a section that skims over some fairly important events, but aside from that the pacing is excellent, with a nice long introduction to get you accustomed to the world and its people before it starts throwing things at your head. I found that the balance of exposition was just right – the narrative will go along cheerfully without you, letting you scramble to keep up with new characters and ideas, and just when you start to feel overloaded, there’s a chapter’s worth of explanation. This makes the first few chapters kind of tough going, but hold on, it will all make sense soon.

By the end of the book, I was reminded of a comment Jo Walton made on her reviews of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, that they were like Tolkein in that very few people will create a fantasy universe only to destroy the unique magic in it. Embassytown does something of the same thing, although in a very different way, and with very little patience for the melancholy that goes along with the way Tolkein does such things. The world changes in Embassytown, permanently and certainly, and no one really knows whether or not that’s a good thing. It is simply a thing that is.

Embassytown by China Miéville was published on May 17, 2011 by Del Ray. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

Hot Off the Press: Review of The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. Greenburg

The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. GreenburgWhere I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)

Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.

Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)

Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)

It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.

The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.

Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.

The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound

Hot Off the Press: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn Graphic NovelWhere I got it and why: as a free ebook from Net Galley, courtesy of IDW Press, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys! I read about this in Peter S. Beagle’s newsletter, but I was waiting for the trade to actually pick it up; the comic book store that is okay with girls is out of my way, and I prefer to collect trades anyway.

Recommended? Oh god yes. This is gorgeous. And if you’re not familiar with the story, this would be a fantastic introduction.

Review: When I was a kid, there was a movie rental place across the street from my grandmother’s house. You went in the door, down a couple of steps, and turned left into the children’s area. There, under the picture window, on the second shelf from the top, was where the VHS of The Last Unicorn lived. I adored that movie, and I’m sure I contributed substantially to the demise of that poor videocassette. When I was a little older, I discovered the book, and I loved it even more. This is one of my favorite stories, all about myth and meaning and magic, so of course I was thrilled when they announced a graphic novel adaptation, and I am overjoyed to tell you that it is not disappointing.

The art, of course, is the real draw for a Last Unicorn comic book, and it’s spectacular. It does seem to be a little bit inspired by the movies – there’s a strong resemblance in the art for many characters, particularly the side characters who show up and then vanish again. Schmendrick looks much more like his description in the book than he does in the movie, which I like, but Molly looks younger, which I don’t. I do like the way the unicorn is inked in a reddish sepia rather than the black of everything else; it makes her stand out and glow (which I think is another trick they used in the movie, now I think of it). And then when the Red Bull arrives! The chapter two cover featuring Mommy Fortuna is my favorite, though. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, and the drawing of her with all these little charms and tiny figures tied in her hair is perfection.

The script owes much more to the book than to the movie. It features several more episodes from the book that I miss in the movie – Arachne the spider in Mommy Fortuna’s carnival, Schmendrick’s history, the princess attempting to summon a unicorn before her wedding, and most importantly, the village of Hagsgate. (I will never understand why they left Hagsgate out of the movie and put the bosomy tree in. Hagsgate has plot relevance, but that tree! — never mind.) Plot-wise, it’s a fairly loyal adaptation. There are places, though, where scenes are incredibly rushed, and I almost wish Gillis had left out some bits entirely rather than put them in and have them feel clumsy and extraneous. (Said tree, for example – not bosomy this time, but still unnecessary.)

While the movie will always have a fond place in my heart, and the book will always be the most spectacular, this incarnation of The Last Unicorn is a perfectly respectable edition. The art is always good, and sometimes breathtaking, and while there are flaws in the script it does seem to grasp the point of the book a little bit better than the movie does, and to bring some of the quality of heartache to it that the book does so well. If you’re a fan of The Last Unicorn already you’ll want to buy the hardcover for your collection (I know I will); if you’re unfamiliar with it, this is a wonderful place to start.

The Last Unicorn, an adaptation of the Peter S. Beagle novel by Peter Gillis, illustrated by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon, was published in hardcover by IDW Press on January 25, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads,Indiebound, Publisher’s website

Hot Off the Press: Review of Rope of Thorns by Gemma Files

Where I got it and why: I read an egalley from NetGalley, courtesy of ChiZine press. (Thanks guys!) I leaped at the chance to read this, after reading the first book in the series earlier this year.

Recommended? Absolutely – if you’re okay with huge amounts of violence, foul language, heavy drinking, and M/M sex. (And that’s just one character…)

Review: Okay, this is another one of those books I love so much I don’t know if I can be coherent about, but I will try. I read the first book in Gemma Files’s Hexslinger Trilogy earlier this year, when I spotted it on the shelf at the library and was intrigued by the blurb’s promise of ex-Confederate gay western wizards, and I liked that one, but I *loved* Rope of Thorns.

It’s 1867, the American West, a world slightly different from our own. For one thing, it contains hexes – people who can work magic, frequently violent and nasty (both the magic and the hexes), who live in a constant state of hunger, drawing magic away from their environment and from any other hexes they run into. They tend to be solitary creatures. In Book of Tongues, we meet Asher Rook, a former preacher turned hex after he was hanged for assassinating his commanding officer in the tail end of the Civil War. Now he’s head of his own little outlaw gang, rampaging across the West, taking what they like and killing folk who get in their way. Rook’s lover is Chess Parteger, a gunman, queer and not ashamed of it, red-headed, flamboyant, and nasty. They’re joined by Ed Morrow, a Pinkerton detective, who’d been sent out by his boss to test out a device for identifying hexes before they become dangerous, but who gets sucked in to the gang a little more deeply than he’d expected. Oh yeah, and there’s an ancient Aztec goddess who’s trying to take over the world. She wants Rook as her consort, and she has…plans for Chess, her “little husband’s husband.”

Okay, I’m going to try to discuss Rope of Thorns without giving too many spoilers for the wonderful ending of Book of Tongues. Suffice it to say, Chess is none to happy about how that played out, and Rook is off with his goddess in the newly-built Hex City, while Chess is out for revenge and Morrow is either still following him around or trying to keep him in check.

I love Chess. He’s a wonderful character, full of fire and anger and passion. He changes a lot through the course of the books, but he’s mostly unconscious of it, and it only shows through when he’s called upon to act and does something that surprises even him. The characters overall are great: Ed Morrow still unsure of what he’s doing; Yancey, who rapidly becomes Chess’s female counterpart; Songbird and Pinkerton and the relentless Sheriff Love.

The worldbuilding is glorious too, so deeply believable it seems almost real, like the best of historically-set fantasy. Files’s hexes and gods fit perfectly into the mythology of the Old West that grows in the American psyche. Not just the old stereotypical Hollywood version, either – this series fits right into the modern bleak Western tradition. It reminds me of Deadwood, True Grit, Carnivale. (Lots of Carnivale, actually.) And Rope of Thorns introduces an Apache warrior I hope we see more of in the final book.

The thing I love most about these books is how *fun* they are. I mean, they’re fairly bleak, there’s an apocalypse in progress, and the body count is huge, but Chess is having so damn much fun you can’t help but get carried along with him. I can’t wait for the final book, A Tree of Bones.

Rope of Thorns came out in May – you should be able to find it on bookstore shelves, but if you can’t, order it. It’s worth it.
Book of Tongues came out in 2010.
If you’re interested in the series, I also recommend the author’s blog, where she’s currently discussing a lot of elements of the new book – no spoilers for the new one, but some spoilers for Book of Tongues.

Book of the Month: Steven Brust’s Iorich

I read…way too many books. Far too many for someone in graduate school. Far, far too many to write up detailed reviews for each one. But, since I do read so many books, and since readers advisory is one of those things the Internet was practically made for, I thought I’d institute a Book of the Month feature, where I highlight a book I read in the past month. I can’t promise they’ll all be new, and I can’t promise they’ll all be good, but I can certainly promise I will always have read at least one interesting book in a month.

Steven Brust – Iorich

Steven Brust - Iorich cover
Buy at IndieBound | Look up on WorldCat

This book is both new and good! Excellent, we’re off to a great start. Also, I love science fiction and fantasy in all forms. This will become apparent very soon, if it hasn’t already.

I’ve only been reading Brust’s Dragaera series for a couple of years — the first one I read in hardcover was Jhegaala — but the friend who got me hooked on the series has been reading them since Issola was new. If you’re not familiar with Brust, don’t be put off by the increasingly weird names, the books aren’t nearly as hard to understand as the titles are to pronounce. Your narrator is one Vlad Taltos, friend to the powerful, former assassin, now on the run from the organized crime of his world, a human in a world of Dragaerans. (Or Easterner in a world of humans — the Dragaerans call themselves human, you see.)

In many ways, the Dragaeran universe is a classic fantasy setup. Dragaerans are tall, imposing, live for a thousand years and more, and practice a complicated kind of sorcery. They’re ruled by an Empress, and have a complicated system of Houses and nobility. Our main characters (Vlad aside) are some of the most powerful figures in the Empire. This is definitely not your standard sword-and-sorcery adventure, though. Vlad is the first big difference: his no-nonsense, sarcastic narration was revolutionary when Jhereg came out in 1983 and is still one of the best and most entertaining parts of the series. (And when Vlad isn’t sarcastic enough for you, there’s his telepathic flying lizard Loiosh. If you like fantasy novels, you’re probably already on board with this. If you don’t know if you like fantasy novels, trust me, you’ll love Loiosh.)

The series is planned to include one book for each of the seventeen Dragaeran Houses, plus two additional, including one that has already been published. In publication order, then, these are: Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos (not a House), Phoenix, Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Dzur, Jhegaala, and Iorich. Each House has a particular defining characteristic, and this characteristic becomes the main theme for the book: Orca are merchants and businessmen, so the theme of Orca is economics; Dragons are generals, so Dragon is about a war. And so on. (Forthcoming: Tiassa, Lyorn, Hawk, Tsalmoth, Vallista, Chreotha, and a final book which may or may not be called The Last Contract. Fans spend a great deal of time trying to figure out just what the characteristics of these Houses are and thus what the plots of these books may entail.) There’s a depth of understanding in these books that also sets them apart from cookie-cutter fantasy, as Vlad comes to more fully understand the world he lives in and works to change himself. The character development can be subtle, since publication order is not the same as in-universe chronological order, but it’s immensely satisfying.

Finally: Iorich. Iorich stands for law and justice, and the House of Iorich serve as Justicers (judges) and advocates. In this book, one of Vlad’s old friends is arrested for the practice of Elder Sorcery, and he takes it upon himself to start up the legal proceedings. He hires Perisil, a tedious but extremely efficient Iorich, to deal with the official matters while Vlad talks to pretty much everyone he knows trying to understand why Aliera was arrested for something everyone knew she’d been doing for years. In between the arguments, secret meetings, and assassination attempts, the theme of the book is really justice — whether it’s possible to get any, and what it would mean if you did. Like all the hard questions, this one has no easy answers.

I loved Iorich, but I’m not positive it’d be the best place to start if you’re just getting into the series. If you’re into this kind of modern-language high-concept fantasy, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start, either — particularly if you’re aware that at least half of the “but that’s another story” references are still obscure even if you’ve read all the other books in the series. This is a big universe, and Brust certainly hasn’t told all the stories in it yet. For a gentler introduction, I’d suggest Jhereg, Taltos, or Dragon (although if you’re a fan of noir mysteries, Jhegaala has a lot of in-jokes for you). Once you’ve gotten through all those, and if you take to it anything like I do, that will only be a week or so, Brust’s other Dragaera books are Brokedown Palace, an Easterner story in the mode of a Hungarian fairy tale, and the Paarfi series, starting with The Phoenix Guards, which is a high-fantasy pastiche of The Three Musketeers.

See also:
The Lyorn Records, a fan-run wiki attempting to organize all the Dragaera information we have. Contains book summaries with spoilers.
The Dream Cafe, Steven Brust’s website, and Words, Words, Words, his blog.
Dragaera on Tor.com, a collection of reviews of the books by Jo Walton. May contain spoilers. (These reviews are much, much better than mine. If you’re interested, check them out — the first post contains no spoilers at all.)

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