Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Nowhere But Home," by Liza Palmer

The Protagonist: Queen Elizabeth "Queenie" Wake. A shiftless chef whose temper has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count
Her Angst: When her latest termination leaves her with no job or home, she's forced to return to the insular, gossipy Texas small town of her childhood to regroup. The same town that was happy to tar her and her sister with the same slutty brush.

Secondary Cast:

Merry Carole: Queenie's sister, who remained in North Star after getting knocked up and abandoned at 17 by Wes, one of North Star's privileged sons. She runs a hair salon, and her son is quarterback of the football team.

Cal: Merry Carole's adorable and big-hearted 15-year-old son. He's earned the town's approval for his football skills, but struggles with how his loving mother is still slandered as the town whore.

Everett: Son of one of the ruling families of North Star, and the love of Queenie's life. However, he never acknowledged their relationship in public and chose to marry a girl from a "suitable" family instead. He still loves Queenie, but his oh-so-important "responsibilities" prevent him from making it public.

Laurel: North Star's resident Mean Girl and the woman Everett married (then divorced!) instead of Queenie. Has an understandable dislike of Queenie.

Whitney: Another Mean Girl who wound up marrying Wes. She has never stopped tormenting Merry Carole - for a secretly painful and personal reason.

Wes: A member of one of North Star's better families, he and Whitney seem like the perfect couple - although their mutual dark secret prevents them from being truly happy.

Piggy Peggy: A vicious and obsequious bully who runs the North Star gossip mill at the behest of Laurel and Whitney.

The Word: Reading Nowhere But Home was like eating a donut. Maybe a whole box of donuts - I scarfed my way through the warm, delicious sweetness, even though I knew while I was reading it that it wasn't very good. Even then, I couldn't quit until I licked the last trace of glaze off my fingers.

Queen Elizabeth Wake ("Queenie" for short) has spent the last ten years living out of a suitcase, moving from town to town, cooking at restaurant after restaurant, until her smart mouth gets her fired and she has to move on. She loses her latest job because she yelled at a customer who put ketchup on his eggs. A frustrated and defeated Queenie moves back in with her sister Merry Carole in their hometown of North Star, Texas, to get her bearings and rethink her future.

North Star holds nothing but bad memories for Queenie - as the daughters of the town slut, she and Merry Carole were labelled as little better than trash. For Queenie, the last straw came when the love of her life, North Star royalty Everett Coburn, chose to marry the girl his parents picked out rather than acknowledge their secret affair. Everett is still there when she returns - good news? He's divorced and still loves her. Bad news? He still wants to keep it on the down-low.

Nowhere But Home works, I think, because of a potent (if imperfectly-mixed) combination of past scandal, present drama, and climatic build-up. For instance, Queenie's sister Merry Carole finds herself in an awkward position when the illegitimate son the town shunned her for becomes North Star's star quarterback. Will the Church of Texas Football force townsfolk to accept Merry Carole again?

Or how about Queenie's new job? In order to pad her savings as she works things out, she accepts a gig at a local prison cooking last meals for death row inmates. In so doing, she regains her faith in southern comfort food (smoked brisket! Chicken fried steak!), even though she's never comfortable with who she's actually cooking for.

It's all juicy, fizzy drama. So what's the downside? Well, the writing isn't that exceptional - quite the opposite, actually. The writing is simple, workmanlike and often repetitive. You can't turn a page without a character flushing, dabbing at their mascara-black tears with a handkerchief, or collapsing into sobs at the drop of a hat.

As well, for all the deliciously tense build up Palmer develops with the multitude of secret sins bubbling beneath North Star's surface, the novel stumbles with the ultimate pay off. I felt a lot of the conflict resolved itself disappointingly easily. In fact, the majority of those Big Secret Reveals end with, "Oh that? Everyone's known for years!" Thanks, Small Town Hive Mind stereotype. Way to suck the wind out of a dramatic moment.

And finally - I couldn't sympathize very much with Queenie's love interest, Everett - the Poor Little Rich Boy whose family honour is just soooo important that he can't be with her in public. There's a revelation towards the end that sort of explains why he behaved that way towards Queenie as a teen, but it doesn't explain his preference for secrecy as an adult. His "be my secret mistress, boo hoo you don't understand my responsibilities" bit at the novel's start cast him down several pegs in my estimation, pegs he never really makes back. I kept hoping Queenie would toss him over and find someone better.

So the novel doesn't really stick the landing, and the writing (or at least the writing that doesn't involve lovingly-described fried Southern food) isn't anything to shake a stick at, but I suppose this is one of those novels where the addictively enjoyable journey is worth the sub-par destination.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

"Can't Hurry Love," by Molly O'Keefe

The Chick: Victoria Schulman. A penniless (and notorious) widow with a young son, she hopes to use the cattle ranch she's just inherited to rebuild their lives.
The Rub: After being an emotionally fragile failure all her life, does she have what it takes to follow through on her dreams?
Dream Casting: Sandra Bullock.

The Dude: Eli Turnbull. Generations ago, the cattle ranch used to belong to his family, until Victoria's ancestors took it away. He's grown up trying to follow through on the family grudge.
The Rub: He should hate Victoria for getting the land that should be his - but could she be worth giving up decades' worth of enmity?
Dream Casting: Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot:

Victoria: I know you wish this land was yours and not mine, but can we work together?

Eli: LOL NO. *sells cattle*

Victoria: Fine! You're fired!

Eli: ...I am strangely okay with that decision. We should make out some time.

Victoria: Sure! So long as you don't mind that I'm turning the ranch you wanted into a spa!

Eli: Wait what?

Victoria: And for the architect, I've hired the mother who abandoned you to the tender mercies of your drunk father when you were eight!


Victoria: And my cute fatherless boy also looks up to you!


Victoria's Bitchy City Friends: Hey did someone order Last Minute Antagonists?

Victoria: Eep.

Eli: Hot Cowboy to the Rescue!

Victoria: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Widow Heroine with Low Self-Esteeem
  • 1 Angry Cowboy
  • 1 Generations-Long Grudge
  • 1 Romance-Enabling Child
  • 3 Pregnant Mares
  • 1 Bad Mum Turned Good
  • 1 Secondary Romance (between Celeste and a hot Viking contractor!)
  • 1 Questionable Uncle
  • 3 Vicious Frenemies
The Word: I've discovered I haven't burned out on romance. I've just burned out on bad romance, on unoriginal romance, on so-so romance.

Because from the very first page of Molly O'Keefe's second novel, Can't Hurry Love, I fell right into the best parts of enjoying romance - the drama, the tension, the banter, the emotion, and the writing.

The sequel to Can't Buy Me Love (which is equally awesome sauce), this novel centres on Luc's achingly desperate sister Victoria. She was the leader of New York high society - until her husband committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his Bernie-Madoff-style embezzlement. Penniless, friendless, jobless, hopeless, Victoria crawled back to Texas with her young son in order to build a better life with the cattle ranch her father, Lyle Baker, left her in his will.

The only problem? She owns the ranch, but Eli Turnbull, the ranch foreman, was willed the cattle - and he's furious. After working under Lyle Baker for years, he expected to inherit the land that used to belong to his family before the Bakers bought it up. Having his ancestors' land pass into the hands of yet another Baker is just another log on the fire of the Turnbull/Baker feud so he repays the favour by selling the cattle - rendering Victoria's property useless (no cows = no income to support the ranch).

When Victoria confronts him on this, he impulsively kisses her and when he takes it too far, she fires him. Unfortunately, this does nothing to douse their passionate mutual attraction.

Both characters are so nuanced and real that their fears and insecurities bleed across the pages. I love me some drama, and O'Keefe dishes up the best kind - the drama that springs from vividly realized characters confronting powerful conflict. Victoria spent her life being abused, punished, and lied to by the people who were supposed to protect her, and she internalized it all. It's delicious to read her come into her own as she decides to turn her ranch into a first-class spa - but she has to struggle every step of the way against her instinctual mistrust in herself. Eli is a little more grounded - until the mother who abandoned him when he was eight years old shows up in his life again, hoping to rebuild the maternal bridge she burned, splinter by charred, damaged splinter.

The past is a weighty thing in Can't Hurry Love - almost physically weighty. Victoria's spent the last couple of years bowed near to breaking beneath the strain of her guilt and self-hatred. Eli, meanwhile, has struggled beneath the pressure of his family's anger. As Victoria decides to turn the ranch into a spa, and Eli uses his newfound freedom to pursue horse breeding, it looks like they might be able to leave their heavy baggage behind. But when they give into lust and engage in an affair, their fear of history repeating itself threatens their attempts to strengthen the relationship.

See what I mean? Drama. These are vibrant, visceral characters and Molly O'Keefe's gorgeous writing draws out their pain with lavish, layered brushstrokes. But it hurts so good.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"The Rook," by Daniel O'Malley

The Protagonist: Myfanwy Thomas. Possessed of paranormal body-altering powers, she works as a "Rook" for the Chequy - a secret organization bent on keeping Britain safe from magical threats.
Her Angst: This Myfanwy Thomas has absolutely no memory of who she is or was - thanks to a betrayal from someone in the Chequy. Is she capable of impersonating, well, herself, to find out who put a hit out on her?

The Secondary Cast:

Heretic: A friendly member of the Chequy court (Chevalier, to be exact) who can contort himself into impossible shapes.

Gestalt: Myfanwy's fellow Rook, who is a single soul born into four bodies and can operate each one independently and simultaneously. Not the easiest person to relate to.

Lady Farrier: The Lady of the Chequy, who can enter and control people through their dreams. She is the only one who knows of Myfanwy's amnesia, and she keeps it quiet to settle an old debt.

Grantchester: A Bishop of the Chequy who can emit gaseous chemicals from his pores. A swinging ladies' man and diplomat.

Alrich: The Chequy's other Bishop, who can only come out after sundown, is ridiculously gorgeous, and doesn't age. He's pretty much exactly what you think he is.

Eckhart: A former soldier who discovered his abilities in adulthood, he's a Chevalier of the Chequy and capable of manipulating metal into different forms.

Shantay: A Bishop from Croatoan (the US version of the Chequy), who can turn her body into metal and becomes an instant BFF with Myfanwy.

The Word: Reading has always been pleasant for me, but there have occasionally been times where, while I've enjoyed and appreciated what I've read, nothing has really connected with me in a way that makes me want to remember it and read it again and again.

I'm kind of grateful for my recent change of reviewing policy (i.e deciding to review only books that I've loved or hated - no more wasting time reviewing "blah" or "m'eh" books) because, well, there have been a lot of "m'eh" books lately. Most of them have been decent, but none of them really "grabbed" me. I miss being grabbed by books.

So it's always a pleasure to read something that absolutely abducts me from normal life so quickly and completely as Daniel O'Malley's The Rook.

At the start of the book, our heroine opens her eyes and finds herself surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. She has absolutely no memory of who she is. The only clue comes from two envelopes in the pocket of her coat, addressed to her and signed by - herself.

As it turns out, her name is Myfanwy (pronounced "Miffany") Thomas, someone stole her memories deliberately, and her previous self knew it was going to happen and prepared accordingly. As the new Myfanwy learns in the letters, she has two choices: she can go to the bank and open safety deposit box number one and find the money and instructions necessary to live the rest of her life anonymously and in comfort. Or she can open safety deposit box number two, find out more about who her body used to belong to, and impersonate the old Myfanwy long enough to find out who put a hit out on her.

After encountering more murderous glove-wearing goons and eliminating them with her just-discovered paranormal powers, Myfanwy chooses Box Number Two. And discovers the old Myfanwy belonged to a secret organization of super-powered people dedicated to protecting Britain from supernatural threats.


Oh, and someone within that organization (known as the Chequy) betrayed her. Neither Myfanwy knows who. Less awesome.

There is seriously so much to love about this book that I almost don't know where to start. Actually - let's start with Myfanwy. Both Myfanwys. Old Myfanwy leaves New Myfanwy a suitcase full of letters explaining her life, the people around her, and the inner working of the Chequy. Old Myfanwy's voice is still very much present in New Myfanwy's life - even if they don't always agree. Old Myfanwy was taken from her parents by the Chequy the moment her powers manifested - and developed serious issues as a result. She was extremely shy, preferred administration to fieldwork, hated using her powers, and was generally looked down upon by the rest of the Chequy as a disappointment.

Thanks to New Myfanwy having no memories of old experiences, she doesn't have the same anxieties and fears - and develops into a far more active, take-charge character, to the astonishment of her coworkers. The interplay between Old and New Myfanwy is fascinating and an excellent examination of how environment and experience can shape a person's personality.

But then there's also the super-secret, super-rich organization of the Chequy with its near infinite resources and the many talents of its employees. Myfanwy is an administrator, which gives her a detailed and hilarious point of view into how everything works - yes, we get the cool details about brute squads and incident containment, but we also get all the red tape, bureaucracy and other highly entertaining mundanities of running a super-secret superhero organization. So there's a lot of action and gruesome deaths - but also a lot of everyday problems like dealing with snarky rookies and awkward Christmas parties. The balance between the mundane and the absurd, the human and the superhuman, is perfect.

O'Malley never falls back on the stereotypical "super-strength, flight, invisibility" standard powers for the Chequy folks, either, instead going for the weird and interesting. My favourites are Myfanwy's ability to alter the bodily functions of others and Gestalt's ability to share a single mind and identity among four siblings.

While this novel can be found in the Fantasy section of your bookstore, this book succeeds by refusing to restrict itself to any one genre. It's got action - but also mystery, with the suspense of an impersonation thriller as Myfanwy struggles to fit in without revealing her amnesia. It's got hilariously awkward office humour, along with supernatural creatures, a dash of political commentary and a skinless Belgian in a fish tank.

The Rook is pretty much an all-you-can-eat literary buffet and I encourage you to dive in, face-first.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Ask the Passengers," by A.S. King

The Protagonist: Astrid Jones. As the outsider in a close-knit small-town, she's never been one of the crowd.
Her Angst: When she realizes she's in love with a girl, she fears becoming even more of an outcast.

Secondary Characters:

Kristina: Astrid's best friend, one of the most popular girls in Unity Valley, and a closet lesbian. While she pushes Astrid to be open about herself, she's more in love with the small-town limelight than she's let on.

Justin: Astrid's other best friend and Kristina's beard boyfriend. He and Kristina try to involve Astrid in more activities.

Dee: An open lesbian from another school district, she works with Astrid at a catering company and is love with her - although she wants to get more physical than Astrid is comfortable with.

Ellis: Astrid's little sister, who has totally glommed on to small-town life - including the bigoted aspects.

Astrid's Mum (because she's not worthy of a first name right now): A vain, superficial, gossip-obsessed agoraphobe who cares more about what other people think than how her daughters feel.

Astrid's Dad (ditto): A loser deadbeat who's decided he'd rather "secretly" smoke pot in the attic than be a parent to his kids.

Angst Checklist:
  • Sexuality
  • Peer Pressure
  • Small Town Values
  • Homophobia
  • Racism
  • The First Amendment Right to be a Homophobic Racist Holocaust Denier
  • Gossip
The Word: Although I'd been asked to read this as the March Book for the Forever Young Adult Book Club, this book had already been on my TBR for a while thanks to the feverishly positive reviews from several bloggers I respect. 

When Astrid was nine, she and her her family moved from New York City to Unity Valley - a small town that is small in All Of The Ways - including small-minded. In such a deeply-conservative town glued together by malicious gossip and dusty tradition, Astrid has never truly fit in - even without revealing the secret she's been hiding from everyone. 

And her family is useless - her little sister Ellis has firmly embedded herself in townie life and her superficial, unloving mother Claire is too busy attempting (and failing) to do the same thing to involve herself with Astrid's problems. Astrid's father, meanwhile, has decided to check out of being a father and husband by developing a drug habit. The last thing Astrid wants is to trust any of them with her secret - "tolerant" is how they want to be perceived, not how they really are. 

You see, Astrid's secret is that she is love with a girl - a feisty hockey player named Dee.

Astrid's not exactly scared of being gay - rather, she's scared of being shoved into the "Gay Box."  She's scared of having other people decide who she is and what that means before she has a chance to, which is why she still hasn't told her best friends Kristina and Justin, even though they've been each other's mutual beards as Unity Valley's Homecoming Couple for years. She's scared that "coming out" will irrevocably label and define her before she's really sure who and what she is. Does being in love with one girl make you gay? What if you don't feel this way forever? What if you change you mind? And shouldn't people care that there's more to you than who you're in love with? 

It's a fascinating argument that reminds me strongly of Openly Straight - only I think Ask the Passengers handles the angst of your identity being defined entirely by your sexuality in a much more nuanced way. A.S. King is a master at showing both sides of Astrid's insecurity - on the one hand, she's scared of people making decisions for her. On the other, she's just as terrified of making decisions for herself. 

She'd much rather coast along in limbo with her head down and let the cards fall where they may, but that's just a decision to not decide, and it comes with consequences the same as any other choice. So when Dee pressures Astrid to come out - I can see that she's pushing Astrid on something that should be Astrid's choice, but I also understand that Astrid's unwillingness to commit is hurtful. 

It's really a testament to A.S. King's characterization that Astrid never comes across as wishy-washy or passive as she slowly grows brave enough to decide to decide. Part of that, I think is Astrid's habit of "asking the passengers." To fight her own feelings of being unloved and judged, her favourite pastime is lying on the picnic table in her backyard and sending love to the passengers in the planes that pass by. Her attempt to fight indifference with intentional feelings of love says so much about her, especially when she silently sends love to her family even after they humiliate or ignore her. 

All in all, this was a thoroughly insightful book with an intriguing protagonist.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Sweet Disorder," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Phoebe Sparks. The widow of a freeman, whoever marries her inherits her husband's right to vote - which makes her a target for unscrupulous election agents.
The Rub: Despite her unwillingness to marry again, Phoebe's hands are tied when her sister is impregnated by a callous seducer. Phoebe will need to marry before the next election in order to preserve her sister's future.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Mr. Nicholas Dymond. Tired of the pitying looks from his zealously political family, he agrees to help his brother's campaign by finding a suitable Whig husband for the recalcitrant Mrs. Sparks.
The Rub: Nick's matchmatching hits a speed bump when he starts falling for Phoebe himself.
Dream Casting: Chris Evans.

The Plot:
Phoebe: Even though I'm poor, I refuse to marry again!

Helen: Oops! I'm pregnant!

Phoebe: DAMMIT.

Nick: Even though I'm rich and privileged, I'm going to stay in bed and angst!


Nick: DAMMIT. Well, Phoebe, I found you a sexy baker to marry!

Phoebe: We have sexy baker, we have a sexy baker. Can I get a sexy factory owner?

The Tories: We have a sexy factory owner with a motherless daughter!

Phoebe: You're going to have to up the ante, Nick.

Nick: Uh, uh, um... I HAVE ABS!

Phoebe: We've got abs, we've got abs, can anyone here beat Hot British Abs?

The Tories: Um, our candidate has Racism and White Privilege?

Phoebe: LOL NO. SOLD! To the Angsty Wounded Lord's Son with Abs!

Nick: Yay!

Helen: Except my Secret Baby has a dark past!

Phoebe: Welp.


*several fistfights, bribery attempts, and family shenanigans later*

Nick: Screw it! I'll dump my crazy family for you!

Phoebe: SOLD! To the Angsty Wounded Regular Dude with Abs!


Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Merry Widow Heroine with a Great Rack
  • 1 Bad Husband (Deceased)
  • 1 Surprisingly Decent Brother-In-Law
  • 1 Angsty Limp
  • 1 Scandalous Elopement
  • 2 Horrible Mums
  • 1 Little Sister in Trouble
  • 2 Lacklustre Romance Rivals
  • 1 Excellent Batch of Brown Bread Ice Cream
The Word: Rose Lerner is kind of like the Olympics. Sure, a book of hers only comes out once every two to four years - but when one does, I lose my everlovin' mind over it for two weeks. 

In the small town of Lively St. Lemeston, only freemen are allowed to vote in elections. Our heroine, Phoebe Sparks, is the widow of a freeman - which means whoever marries her acquires that freeman status, and thus the ability to vote. With such a close election coming up, both the Whigs and the Tories see Phoebe as the perfect way to guarantee a vote for their sides: by providing her with a husband. 

Nicholas Dymond, the older brother of Tony Dymond (the Whig candidate), is charged by their mother to interact with Phoebe and find a worthy (and Whig-loyal) husband for her. Feeling depressed and useless since his military-career-ending injury in Badajoz, Nick feels he should at least try to do this much for his ambitious and highly political family. The only problem? Phoebe Sparks, despite her impoverished status, has no desire to get married and repeat the experience she had with her first husband, a newspaper editor. 

Unfortunately, fate forces Phoebe's hand when her teenage sister Helen shows up on her doorstep - desperate, pregnant and unwilling to name the father. The only way Phoebe can acquire the resources necessary to provide for Helen's baby and protect her reputation is by marrying a political party's chosen husband in return for their protection. Nick promises to help her - for reasons that grow increasingly less political and more personal.

Rose Lerner once again provides a thoroughly entertaining and unerringly insightful romance rife with fascinating historical detail and unconventional situations. There is a sharp political divide between the Orange-and-Purples (Whigs) and Pink-and-Whites (Tories) in this town, and almost everyone has a political opinion one way or the other. Phoebe, although politically Whig, has to consider turning Tory if that party offers more security for her fallen sister, and her observations are thought-provoking - even as she worries about the compromises she's making.

Of course, the great thing about Rose Lerner is that not only does she give us great settings and unconventional situations, but she's a master at creating realistically flawed and nuanced characters. Both hero and heroine are Good People, who do Good Things - but they're not above feeling the occasional surge of resentment at having to sacrifice so much for a foolish sibling.

Phoebe is a strident, intelligent, passionate woman who's convinced, thanks to her manipulative mother and unhappy marriage, that such traits make her a shrew and unfit to be a wife. She's constantly struggling between her instinct to storm in and fix things and her fear of being perceived as a crass, interfering harridan. Despite her tendency to shoulder the blame for other people's unhappiness, she never comes across as a hapless martyr.

Nick, meanwhile, isn't just any ol' Angsty Loner Noble With a Limp from Romance Central Casting. His limp is a cunning physical metaphor for Nick's feelings of uselessness and inferiority as the apathetic black sheep in a family of flamboyantly political overachievers. Having grown up with campaigners and double-speak his entire life, he's instinctively trained to say what other people what to hear - and utterly unable to speak for himself.

The secondary cast is also stellar - including star-crossed lovers, racist Tories, gormless bakers, oily election agents, and two of the most brilliantly-characterized Bad Mothers I've ever encountered in romance.

As much as I joke about how I wished Rose Lerner wrote faster, it's worth the wait when each novel she writes invokes such a superb balance between romance, humour and history. Absolutely flawless.

Monday, February 24, 2014

"The Knife of Never Letting Go," by Patrick Ness

The Protagonist: Todd Prewitt. A boy on the verge of manhood, he lives in an all-male settlement where everyone's thoughts are audible to everyone else, an endless Noise.
His Angst: When Todd finds an unexpected spot of quiet in the Noise - and discovers that spot corresponds with a person, a girl, he and the mysterious female are forced to flee every truth he's ever known.

The Other Protagonist: Viola. A space colonist orphaned in a crash-landing, she discovers the new planet and its settlers aren't the paradise she expected.
Her Angst: Her gender and her immigrant status make her a target for the same people hunting Todd.

Angst Checklist:
  • Frontier Life
  • Misogyny
  • Poo, Todd
  • Privacy
  • Morality
  • Gender Relations
  • Religion
  • Murder
The Word: I'm usually a literal reader. I expect plots to make objective sense and I prefer characters who act in believable human ways, rather than as puppets for some larger artistic message or theme. It's the reason I've never really enjoyed Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon, where the characters are more symbolic than tangible.

However, I really enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go, despite the fact that the core concept of the series is blatantly implausible and the story is a minefield of plot holes. When read literally.

When read allegorically, however, it's a fascinating character study with truly empathetic characters, breakneck pacing, and satisfying tension. A bit like Pilgrim's Progress in space.

Todd Prewitt lives in a cursed, dreary hamlet known as Prentisstown. A long time ago, aliens known as Spackles dropped a germ on the human settlers that killed all the women and forced every man's thoughts out into the open. Every man's thoughts became audible to everyone else, coalescing into a constant, cacophonous Noise that the miserable inhabitants of Prentisstown have had to live with all this time.

However, while walking his dog, Manchee (whose thoughts are also audible - he's bit like Dug from Up), Todd comes across a spot of complete silence - an island of quiet in the sea of Noise. When his adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, read his discovery in his thoughts, the horrified pair pack him a bag and order him to flee Prentisstown before it's too late.

Prentisstown, it appears, has managed to hide a fair number of dangerous secrets despite the open book of everyone's thoughts and Todd's discovery of the Quiet makes him a target for Prentisstown's sinister mayor, Prentiss, as well as Aaron, Prentisstown's insane preacher. Todd discovers one of these secrets when he tracks down the Quiet and discovers it's a person. A girl. A girl whose thoughts he can't read at all. Todd and the girl, Viola, race towards Haven - a larger settlement that promises safety - all the while learning just how much history the men of Prentisstown have rewritten for their own benefit.

The Knife of Never Letting Go paints a fascinating picture of what it would be like to have absolutely no privacy, and how that affects and distorts personal morality. Being able to hear everyone's thoughts with no way to turn them off. Scratch that - to be able to hear all men's thoughts. As Todd and Viola discover - women don't produce Noise. Todd and Viola soon encounter other settlements whose inhabitants have come up with different ways to deal with the Noise and this new difference between men and women. The novel gallops along at an addictive, breakneck clip, using Todd's stream-of-consciousness narration to pull you deeper into the story.

And Todd is such an empathetic character. He's believed everything he's been told, he's been force-fed a certain idea of right and wrong, and then suddenly he's set adrift and has to make those decisions for himself. We, the reader, are put in the same position as Viola. We get to "read" all of his thoughts, all of his questions and observations about the world. As readers, we're used to this level of intimacy with a protagonist's thoughts, but when framed by the concept that every other character in the novel experiences this as well, it brings home how terrifying and bizarre it would really be to have complete access to another person's mind.

While talking about this during the February meeting of the Forever Young Adult Book Club, my FYA friend Mandy pointed out how the novel serves as a cunning metaphor for the age of social media. So many people are willing to spill every detail of their lives on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Vine, even when these instances of TMI can come back to haunt them years later. And as more and more interactions take place online, it's grown increasingly difficult for people to keep secrets in the electronic age, particularly if they're a prominent or famous person.

That being said, the novel's not perfect. There are lots of plot holes - there's really no explanation for how Todd never heard the town's secrets in their Noise over the years. As well, the novel's main antagonist, preacher Aaron, is a superficially evil whack-a-mole villain with zero motivation who pops up at random moments to move the plot.

But damn if I don't want to keep reading and find out what happens next!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

"Empire of Ivory," by Naomi Novik

The Protagonists:

Will Laurence: Captain of Temeraire - he's horrified to return to England to discover all of its dragons are sick or dying - and hopes the same doesn't happen to Temeraire.

Temeraire: Will's dragon, whose dreams of introducing freedom of expression to his scaled compatriots has to take a backseat to helping them recover from the mysterious illness.

Secondary Cast:

Admiral Jane Rowland: Leader of the aerial corps (and Laurence's companion-with-benefits), she's run ragged both by the dragons' health crisis and the effort needed to keep it a secret from Napoleon.

Mrs. Erasmus: The wife of a freedman preacher who travels with Laurence and Temeraire to Africa in order to spread the gospel - and winds up reuniting with the tribe she was kidnapped from.

Kefentse: A wrathful African dragon whose tribe was kidnapped by slavers who seeks vengeance on the white invaders.

The Plot: In this fourth entry in Naomi Novik's endlessly detailed and inventive historical fantasy series about dragons in the Napoleonic wars (here are books one, two, and three, Laurence and Temeraire return to England after fleeing France at the end of Black Powder War.  Upon landing, they discover why England failed to send the twenty dragons promised to the Continental war effort: England has no dragons to send.

A horrific plague has struck England's dragons (in a nice ironic twist, brought over on a Native American dragon from the New World), and they are dying by slow inches with no hope of recovery. Jane Rowland - now Admiral Rowland - is desperately trying to keep this information under wraps. Should knowledge of the plague reach France, Napoleon would not hesitate to launch a full-scale invasion.

Upon discovering that Temeraire is immune to the disease thanks to some medicine he received in the previous novel for what was thought to be a head cold, Laurence and Temeraire are ordered (along with six other valuable sick dragons) to set sail for Africa (where the medicine was made) to see if they can discover and reproduce a cure.

Much like the previous books in the series, Empire of Ivory has an over-arcing plot, but it approaches it with a series of amusing and detailed episodic scenes. This makes for a slower read than might be expected, but the levels of detail and social commentary more than make up for it. I have yet to encounter a novel with a more thorough worldbuliding than this one.

Inevitably, due to the book's major setting (coastal and interior Africa), the issue of slavery is an important theme in the novel. Laurence is devotedly anti-slavery, but England has not officially abolished it yet - and the politics, bureaucracies, and red tape involved in abolishing it are not easily explained to the more literal-minded British dragons - or to the extremely angry and vengeful African dragons they run into during their explorations.

Although the fantasy element of Novik's books is wonderful and scrupulously developed and explained, I love how she uses the relationship between humans and dragons to explore the social context of Napoleonic England - the use of women in warfare, the treatment of unwed mothers, the strained relationship between oblivious politicians and actual soldiers, and of course - the legality and politics of slavery. Laurence is an exceedingly decent chap - but he is the gentlemanly son of a peer, and he is constantly having to learn and adapt and rethink his priorities thanks to his discussions with Temeraire and the other members of the aerial corps.

That being said, it is a slow-moving, episodic book, but by now I'm pretty much used to it. I love the worldbuilding, I love the historical detail, I love the language - and I love Laurence and Temeraire.