Review: Broken Homes (Peter Grant, #4)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: March 24 to April 3, 2014
Read count: 2

Just pre-ordered the next book (Foxglove Summer), 3 months in advance. No book series has ever motivated me to do that before. Since I like to read at a leisurely pace, I usually find myself falling way behind, and thus whatever book I want to read next can be found at libraries and used bookstores, usually a couple of decades years past their publication dates.

First off, that revelation at the end just as everything was falling to pieces, that was perfect timing. So perfect it left me a little winded tbqh. Well done, Mr. Aaronovitch. You’ve successfully made me jump out of my seat while waiting at the DMV. That’s no easy feat because it was the DMV, the whole place was packed, and I was standing.

This isn’t a review so much as just me using this space as a concept board. So onward with it already?

“Perfectly human monsters, everyone of them.”

Nightingale to Peter when asked whether or not serial killers were of the magical persuasion*. This line alone sums up the foundation of the book.

Strange things are still happening in and around London, although this time they’re stranger than the usual disturbances. The plot sort of picks up where the previous book left off, and familiar characters make brief appearances to help Peter and Lesley as they unravel a mystery that doesn’t look all that mysterious on the surface. We see the young and curious Abigail again, this time for extended periods of the plot. Sergeant Kumar of the underground turns up to hand over a crucial piece of the puzzle. The mysterious Zach also drops to hang out. Beverly Brook, whom I thought had been forgotten, and her River sisters make some appearances throughout and then they disappear again. And a couple more familiar faces who are too spoilery to mention.

There’s a good amount of self-deprecating humor and outright hilarious moments in this book, but all of it take a back seat to the perfect timing ending mentioned above. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, though it does leave a lot up in the air.

Unlike the previous three, I thought the title for this book lacked a sense of poetic mystery. Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground–oddly lyrical titles for urban fantasy mysteries, wouldn’t you say? And Foxglove Summer? Sounds sweet, if a bit twee. Even Midnight Riot (the US title for Rivers of London) promises mystery and an adventure. Broken Homes, in contrast, seems sad and straight-forward. Out of character compared to the rest of the series, and then that ending busted out of the rubble and now everything makes sense. I didn’t realize how well the title tied everything together until that very moment. And what an explosive ending that was. I’m still brooding over it.

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* * * * spoilers below * * * *

It wouldn’t be an Aaronovitch book without quotable moments. Here are some of my favorites:

Door bells are mysterious things

We heard a distant ringing noise that confused everyone until we recognised the Folly’s front door bell. We all exchanged looks until it was established that since I wasn’t intrinsically supernatural, a chief inspector or required to put on a mask before meeting the public I was nominated door opener in chief.

Peter Grant’s deep-seeded cop-ness showing through

It’s a police mantra that all members of the public are guilty of something, but some members of the public are more guilty than others.

[...]

I know trouble when it’s below the age of criminal responsibility, and while my first instinct was to arrest his parents on general principles, I gave him a cheery wave instead. He gave me a blankly suspicious look before whipping his head out of sight.

[...]

Everyone consents to the police. It’s just the operational priorities they argue about.

[...]

“That which does not kill us,” I said, “has to get up extra early in the morning if it wants to get us next time.”

[...]

He must have carefully calculated it against his own weight, but with mine added he feel dangerously fast. I made sure that I was the one right him down–thinking heavy thoughts.

Nightingale, contrary to popular beliefs, does have an exasperation point

“I don’t think he takes me as seriously as he should,” Nightingale told Dr. Walid. “He still slopes off to conduct illicit experiments whenever he thinks I’m not looking.” He looked at me. “What is your latest interest?”

“I’ve been looking at how long various materials retain vestigia,” I said.

“How do you measure the intensity of the vestigia?” asked Dr. Walid.

“He uses the dog,” said Nightingale.

Lesley scores some points in her favor

“They’re probably waiting for one of us to get freeze dried,” said Lesley, whose attitude towards taser deployment was that people with heart conditions, epilepsy and an aversion to electrocution should not embark upon breaches of the peace in the first place.

The infallible Zach of mysterious origins confirming what we’ve all suspected at one time or another

“My granddad said he was bonkers,” said Zach.

“Sherlock Holmes?” asked Lesley.

“Arthur Conan Doyle,” said Zach.

The strip vanished under the door of a garage sealed with a County Gard steel plate and another shiny padlock.

“You want to get this?” I asked Zach.

Zach pulled a pick from his jeans pocket and went to work. “Started seeing fairies and ghosts and talking to dead people,” he said still going on about Conan Doyle as the padlock came apart in his hands.

“But there are fairies and ghosts,” said Lesley. “I met them down the pub–you introduced me.”

“Yeah, but he used to see them when they weren’t there.” said Zach. “Which is practically the definition of bonkers.”

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* * * * HUGE spoilers below * * * *

* Of humans and monsters

I’m surprised in the time Peter spent under Nightingale’s tutelage–almost two years now–that the subject of serial killers and their possible connections to magic never came up and that the two of them never had a serious discussion about high-profile murder investigations that might or might not have involved magic or magical beings. These things would have been the first inquiries I’d bring up if I were in Peter’s place. I’d also bring up other high-profile unsolved mysteries. I’d want to know which cases were of the magical inclination and which were not, just to have an idea of what to expect in the future.

In Nightingale’s defense, high-profile cases that involved magic get buried quickly by the magical division of law enforcement and thus never make it to the media, as he explained early on in the book. In Peter’s defense, he’s always been a “fly by the seat of his pants” kind of investigator. So it probably never occurred to him to ask for briefings of past controversial investigations. He’s the type to figure things out as he goes along, as we see time and again. But for a character who has a background in architecture and extensive knowledge of London’s past and present history, it seems odd that Peter never showed any inclinations to dig further into the Folly.

Wizard-in-training extraordinaire

Peter Grant is still very much his snarky, smart-ass self, but there are signs that he’s grown up a lot with each book. Previous experiences and exposures to the strangeness of London have changed him; for the better, I think.  For one, his control of magic has improved to the point where he can actually control light, fire, water, and force fields without blowing anything or anyone up. For another, his characteristic sense of humor now has a slightly darker undertone. Memories from previous books that affected him deeply make their way into his every day life. I like that they’re brought up now and again, instead of being completely brushed aside and forgotten, in that self-assured style of most urban fantasies these days. I have a feeling Peter is headed toward a breaking point, and things are gonna get ugly really fast. Losing either Nightingale or Lesley will push him off the edge. Since it’s been established that Peter’s a special kind of magical being and his connection to London is only the tip of the iceberg, his breaking point could mean total destruction for London.

Questions about Molly of the Folly

If she doesn’t talk, how does she answer the phone or the door? How does she manage Nightingale’s other domestic affairs? There have been a few instances where she had to answer the phone or the door, but she does it off scene. Not knowing how she manages these things, for some reason, hadn’t bothered me until this book. And little these things tend to bother me quite a bit. It might have bothered me sooner had the previous three books not been so engaging. Aaronovitch has managed to use compelling storytelling skills as misdirection. Once again, well done. But I still like to know how Molly answers the phone or the door in her peculiar way.

Clever foreshadowing or just a red herring?

Lesley lost her whole face–her beautiful face, according to Peter–to magic and only magic can restore it to what it once had been, or so she thinks, as it was promised to her. Her betrayal adds a very interesting dimension to the current narrative. I think it gives her more personality, and strangely enough, I find her characterization much more compelling and sympathetic now that I’ve had time to think it over from her POV.

Throughout the series, Peter makes repeated references to Lesley’s face and how after all these months spent working close together he’s only just adjusting to the sight of it, both masked and unmasked. The details in each of his descriptions of Lesley are casual but succinct, enough to remind himself (and the reader) of the trauma from Rivers of London while coaching himself to simply deal with the scars–look at them, acknowledge them, get used to seeing them. These reminders were obvious foreshadowing leading to the taser incident. I should have recognized them for what they are–the foundation and reason for betrayal.

Which brings me to both Nightingale’s and Peter’s passing hints that Nightingale might not live through a head-on confrontation with the Faceless Creep. Which then brings me back to Peter’s breaking point.

There’s a whole lot of interesting development ahead, and I look forward to all of it.

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I’d like to thank Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy to enjoy.

Review: Sabriel (Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: April 17 to 18, 2014
Read Count: 2

“Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.”

The first time I read this book I did not like it and had to abandon it at page 25. Now after having finished the whole thing in less than 36 hours, I realized I hardly gave it a fighting chance and that wasn’t fair because it’s actually good. Garth Nix surprised me in that all the objections I had about Sabriel as a character are remedied later on in the book. I have never been bored enough with a book to abandon it only to like it a lot after a second try. The writing is much better than what we’ve come to know as YA fantasy. It has depth, vibrancy, and distinct style of narration that doesn’t weigh the story down–given the subject matter, you’d expect to be pounded over the head repeatedly with lectures on morality. Moreover, the world of Abhorsen and its characters are dark and ambiguous and violent, usual for YA which only makes it all that more interesting.

The story starts with a night of confusion and urgency, and then it moves on to the “present setting,” which I think might be post-WWII English countryside. Sabriel, the only daughter of a powerful mage called Abhorsen, grew up in a boarding school on the South side of the Wall, far away from all the violence and dark magic of her home in the Old Kingdom. She has some basic magical knowledge and is familiar with the ways of the dead, but has had very little training. One day, she receives news of her father in distress, and then later she finds out that he’s gone missing somewhere deep within the North, possibly at the center of magical and necromantic unrest. So Sabriel leaves school and makes her way North to her father’s house, hoping to retrace his footsteps to track him down.

The journey starts out as a quest, with a little adventure on the side, then soon turns into a mission to save the land from an invasion of death. Zombie apocalypse, you ask? Well… yeah, I suppose. A lot of side characters die and whole populations are wiped out over night. The body count is unusually high for a coming of age story, but then again, necromancy is a force to be reckoned with, so the body count makes sense.

After having lived a sheltered life, Sabriel finds herself drowning as the weight of the world is put on her shoulders. The journey takes her from her childhood home to the heart of the Old Kingdom, from innocent schoolgirl to powerful mage, from an unprepared apprentice to a walker among the dead. But she isn’t alone in her mission. She is aided by Mogget, an ancient mysterious being that takes the form of a sardonic white cat, and Touchstone, a not as ancient but equally mysterious displaced young man from the Old Kingdom. Together, they combine forces to search for Sabriel’s father and make a last stand against death.

The complex aspects of the world, various sectors of dark magics, and even each individual character are difficult to sum up without giving too much away. The reader learns about these things as Sabriel is made aware of them. Nix does a nice job of revealing story arcs, otherworldly forces, origin mythology, and other necessary information as the story progresses, and as Sabriel gradually becomes who she is meant to be, we see her characterization improve dramatically.

Last words from the Abhorsen

“Let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die.”

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The reason for my abandonment of the book has nothing to do with the book’s content or the writing. It was because I’d hit my quota of heroic fantasy for the year. At the time, I had just finished Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir Triad, a similar coming of age trilogy about dark magic and high fantasy, and while I really liked Flewelling’s trilogy, I was tired of adolescence and any story that had to do with finding oneself or finding one’s place in the world or both. Time was what I needed to take in this book and appreciate it for what it is–a standout among a sea of generic coming of age fantasies.

Review: Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: April 10 to 12, 2014
Read Count: 1

A whole lot of fun, an equal amount of creepy, and a pinch of wtf is going on here.

I’d never enjoyed reading a play, after having already seen it, as much as I enjoyed this one, and that’s saying something because I don’t usually read plays unless they’re assigned reading.

Highly recommended for people who like metafiction and mind games, as this is a story within a story pretending to be an imitation of a play for the purpose of carrying out the perfect murder. You’ll never guess who dies, who really dies, who’s behind it all, or why. Well, unless you’ve seen the play or read a couple of the reviews on the book page. Seriously, people, there’s a spoiler html script for a reason.

So, yeah, give this one a try. Hard copies might be hard to find, but I’m sure your local library has a few that haven’t been checked out in years.

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* * * * spoilers below * * * *

If you don’t mind spoilers and are in the mood for something funny, check out this Utah patron’s complaint of the play’s content (source). She had no idea she’d be subjected to such “debauchery.” Well, that’s what you get for not reading about the play before you bought the tickets.

The subject matter being contested is: the two male leads share a quick intimate scene and maybe a brief kiss, which all depends on the staging and directions of each performance. In this one particular performance, the director chose to include the kiss, but judging by this patron’s letter, you might be led to believe that there might have been full frontal nudity on the stage that night.

Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: April 3 to 8, 2014
Read Count: 1

If you happen to find this book in audio, don’t hesitate to listen. It’s hilarious. Bourdain is a man of many talents, and one of them is picking up slangs in different languages quickly and adapting to accents. Like I said, hilarious.

Things I learned from this book:

  1. Never order fish on a Monday
  2. Stay away from “specials” of the day
  3. Avoid rush hours and weekends
  4. Restaurant kitchens are war zones
  5. All you’ll ever need is a chef’s knife–just one, a sharp one
  6. Every time you eat out is an adventure and a risk
  7. 60% of people who go into the restaurant business end up failing
  8. The other 40% survive by sheer luck and good karma
  9. Don’t open a restaurant
  10. Good food = fresh, high quality ingredients + basic cooking skills

That last one is his personal favorite saying. There’s no room for pretension in good food. Well, his exact words are “there’s no room for pretentious assholes in my kitchen“–same difference. His back-to-basic take on food, at the time this book was written, was revolutionary. And it’s coming from an experienced gourmet chef too. The public was just shocked and amazed because this was around the time the “celebrity chef” was born (and how we all cringed while facepalming). So by taking a stand against all that blatant advertising and product placements, Bourdain got the public’s attention and he didn’t disappoint.

If you have ever worked in a restaurant, there isn’t anything in this book you don’t already know. You might recognize a few of the characters due to having worked with or screamed at or wished you could have stabbed at one time or another during your time as part of the kitchen staff. You might even see yourself in the book somewhere. The point is  the things in this book are an open secret. The term “restaurant secrets” is an oxymoron. Restaurant people talk a lot because that’s what happens when you share such a high stress environment and tight confining space that’s littered with sharp pointy blades. You talk and overshare to take the edge off. That’s the impression I got from this book, that it’s meant to be a snapshot of life in a restaurant kitchen.

What Bourdain did by writing a tell-all memoir about the life of a chef running a popular restaurant is nothing new. Lots of chefs before him have published similar books with similar contents detailing their childhoods, education, training, first jobs, first restaurants, rise to fame, etc etc, but none had the sense to tell it like it really is. How Bourdain writes is what sets him a part from the rest because he favors laying out the truth over romanticizing suffering. His writing style is subversive and inflammatory, of course, and offensive at times because it’s meant to drag myths surrounding the restaurant business out into the open and flaying them. The most popular myths is one we’re all familiar with, and that’s the idea of opening a restaurant for personal enjoyment.

Many people still carry this romantic notion of running their own restaurant. Some day, they say. Because I just love to entertain, they also say. Besides, it’ll be fun. Like throwing a party every single night. So romantic… until these people realize they have to do inventory, order food, prepare necessary items ahead of time, keep tight schedules in their heads, make sure food and supplies show up on time, make sure staff show up on time, make sure every table in the front is looked after, make sure vendors aren’t ripping them off, make sure the cooks aren’t trying to kill each other. Every single day. Not so much like a party now, is it? This is hard work. Romantics aren’t cut out for such work. If you’re gonna open a restaurant… don’t. Just don’t.

I think what really made this book a big seller were Bourdain’s detailed firsthand revelations of all the failed restaurants he worked in and witnessed in the past. The thing they all have in common? Lost of control. Bourdain’s CV is literally full of failed restaurants; some were once famous attractions, others never had a chance. He hadn’t been able to save any one of them.

His writing, like his presence on his travel shows, is strangely erratically honest. It’s the kind of honesty that you rarely see or hear anymore. It’s the kind of honesty you get from people who’ve been to rock bottom and stayed a while. It’s the kind of honesty you get from an addict, former addict in this case. The prose is bold yet within reason, vile yet heartfelt, punchy yet smooth, and oftentimes uncomfortable yet engaging, but it’s also sincere like the kind of honesty you can trust. It makes you believe he’s telling the absolute truth, that he wouldn’t hold back to save face or spare feelings. That’s just the kind of guy he is, the book seems to say.

There’s an ugly truth at the end of every one of his stories that make them more than just tales worth reminiscing over a pint. There’s pain, suffering, wisdom, blood, sweat, tears, hard liquor, cocaine, years of insomnia, crunchy aspirins, unemployment, the sights and sounds of reaching rock bottom in all of his stories. That’s as close to the truth as a memoir can get.

This one short sampling is all you need to judge Bourdain for yourself

“So who the hell, exactly, are these guys, the boys and girls in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn’t be too far off base. The business, as respected three-star chef Scott Bryan explains it, attracts ‘fringe elements’, people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong. Maybe they didn’t make it through high school, maybe they’re running away from something-be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here.”

I feel like this review needs to end on a positive note because this book wraps up with an unexpectedly positive yet realistic perspective that cooks and non-cooks can relate to, but I haven’t a clue what more to say.

Review: City of Bones (No, not that one)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: March 5 to 20, 2014
Read count: 2

Not the book everyone thinks of when they hear “City of Bones,” unfortunately. I have no idea what that one is about, but this one is actually about bones. Cities and wastelands littered with bones and sand and an ancient mystery tied to bones (among other things) and a lot of mysticism revolving around the usage of bones, hence the relevant title.

I think most readers would give this book a 3- to 4-star rating, but for me it’s nearly 5 stars. I rarely reread a book right away after finishing it the first time around–this book made me to that. I rarely wish books were longer–this book made me do that too. After finishing this book a second time, I wished it was part of a series. There’s still so much left that can span a continuous series. The easy pacing, engaging characterization, interesting plotting, and overall atmosphere of the story made it an very enjoyable read.

Without further ado, this is a post-apocalyptic semi-steampunk desert fantasy, which means it’s mostly fantasy with some interesting sci-fi parts.

As depicted on the front cover, the story takes place in a barren setting overrun by deserts and wastelands. The few cities left alive following a long-ago apocalypse are struggling to survive under a lot of strain–socially, economically, religiously, spiritually, morally, etc. It’s not clear when or how the apocalypse came about due to all records being destroyed, but it was probably some centuries ago.

The main story takes place in Charisat, the largest and wealthiest surviving city surrounded by the Waste, former oceans that have been turned into vast fiery desert pits. What’s special about Charisat is that it’s a multi-level (Tier) city and its citizens’ socio-economic statuses are tied to where they live on these Tiers, with the highest Tiers set aside for royalty, politicians, and religious figures; the middle Tiers are for merchants; and the lowest Tiers are for the poor, non-citizens, and other outcasts. More about Charisat below*.

Half of the adventure/mystery in this story is focused on digging into the past, discovering pieces of relics–ancient artifacts–and figuring out their actual functions. The belief is that all of these relics are small pieces of a huge system of some kind that the Ancients–people living before the apocalypse–made and used somehow. The only people believed to know how to use these machines were the Survivors–those who survived the apocalypse–but for some reason, these people did not pass on the knowledge to their descendants. They only left cryptic textbooks, strange notes, and weird drawings behind, as crazy ancestors tend to do. Hunting down these relics and bartering for them, or in some cases stealing them outright, is the other half of the adventure/mystery. And what’s an adventure without political and religious intrigue and a crazy cult chasing after the relic hunters? Of course time is as limited as water once everyone realizes that by piecing the relics together they begin to unravel the mystery of the apocalypse.

The relic hunters are: Khat, a not quite human non-citizen hiding in Charisat from a mysterious past; Sagai, also a non-citizen, relic scholar, and Khat’s partner in crime; and Elen, a young determined scholar mage (“Warder”) from the upper Tiers on a secret mission. Due to their extensive knowledge of history and valuable relics, Khat and Sagai are hired on (read: forced) to help Elen in her search. They don’t have much choice in the matter since they’re lower-Tiered immigrants who don’t want to offend the authorities or get kicked out of the city by refusing to help. Don’t worry, there’s no love triangle here, but things do become more tense as these three come closer to unraveling the mystery.

The setting is both fantastical and realistic. It’s a feat of imagination, but at the same time, the depictions borrow from familiar cultures and customs of the Middle East, such as veils and preservation of identity as a social status. The terrains and climates are distinctly that of a desert world, and details pertinent to both city and society (of Charisat) are casually slipped into narration and conversations to reinforce the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place that feels vaguely familiar. Dry heat, searing sand, scorching sun, burning paved roads, gleaming rooftops, billowing dust clouds–all minor details that add to the overall atmosphere of the story.

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* * * * spoilers below * * * *

What I really like about this story is that within the confines of the story Martha Wells is able to make a series of quick socially relevant commentary without weighing the story down or taking time away from the plot to get her point across. Some of the topics she brings up are immigration, citizenship, race, poverty, and these social problems are connected. Wells doesn’t burden the reader with confrontations of abject oppression. Instead, she shows it by casually slipping it into plot and characterization, like in Khat’s situation. He knows enough to stay away from the authorities, but when he’s hired to help them, he can’t refuse or he’d risk his life and safety. By helping them, he’s also risking his life and safety, but he’s guaranteed commission in return. That’s just one of the burden of being a non-citizen.

While Sagai may be a foreigner, he’s a human foreigner and therefore subjected to less discrimination than Khat, who is also a foreigner but not of human origins, but Khat still manages to live with these “short comings” by conducting his business according to his social parameters. His adaptation to life in Charisat is only a glimpse of the lower-Tiered experience, and his survival and hard-earned place on the Sixth Tier in the city are a testament to all the things he’s had to overcome to hang on to the Sixth Tier.

More on the social order of Charisat:

Citizens must fight to stay on their Tiers or risk being push down a Tier–and another Tier and so on. Those on the Seventh and Eight Tiers fear losing their places the most because, if or once they fall, they would be cast out of the city and forced to fend for themselves out in the Waste, where pirates and strange carnivorous creatures roam. As for non-citizens, they are relegated to the lower Tiers and only permitted to work, but not live, on upper Tiers.

There’s a great shortage of water and vegetation, and like all societies dependent on limited (precious) resources, water is sacred, but can also be used as commodity. Citizens’ socio-economic statuses also tie to their access to clean water, once again with the people on the higher Tiers receiving the cleanest water and the people on the lower Tiers having limited access to poor quality water.

The story starts out on the Fifth Tier, where everyday life is all right, not great but not terribly lacking either. Citizens on this Tier are stable and satisfied with their lots. Then the story moves to the Sixth Tier where Khat and Sagai live, and differences between the two Tiers are noticeable. The Sixth Tier is cramped, dusty, loud, stuffy, and hot, all signs of a slum, but as the story moves to the lower Tiers, we see that the Sixth Tier isn’t so bad because the Seventh and Eighth Tiers are actual slums in comparison. Everything smells of the sewers, living quarters are terrible, the water quality is even worse, and citizens and non-citizens face violence on an hourly basis. It is actually survival of the fittest–smartest, fastest, strongest, most ruthless, etc.

In contrast, when Khat gets the chance visit the upper Tiers during daytime, he’s astonished at how clear the atmosphere is, how clean the streets are, how there’s no stench wafting in the air and no trash clogging the gutters, and most importantly, how crystal clear the water is. The people on the upper Tiers have access to so much clean water, they don’t know what to do with it, so they build fountains in front of every building and clear, odorless water runs free. And there are no authorities around to guard it or charge for the use of it and no gangs or mobs fighting over control of it. Precious clean water is used as decorations and frivolous interior designs, and these upper Tier people don’t even give it much thought.

The economics of the relic trade market, as well as the illegal Silent (black) Market, in Charisat, which both Sagai and Khat are frequent visitors, is an interesting series of commentary on immigrant restrictions. Along that line, Khat’s family and homeland, the Enclave out in the Waste, are another interesting series of commentary. (Will have to return to these two things for a third reading.)

Some quotable moments:

Personal spaces

The Warder watched Khat’s fumbling attempts to wind the veil, then said grudgingly, “Let me do that.”

Khat hesitated. There were only a few people that he didn’t mind coming that close to him, and all of them lived in Netta’s house down on the Sixth Tier.

Power in play

In a way she did own Khat and everyone else in Charisat, or she would when she was Elector, since having absolute power over something was equal to ownership. But usually there were buffers between someone in Khat’s lowly position and that ownership; powerful Patricians, Trade Inspectors, even Warders, all had to be gotten over or around or through before to word of command actually got down to noncitizen krismen relic dealers on the Sixth Tier. Hearing it so plainly now, so personally, was like feeling the tug of a leash.

The privilege of power

Even Sagai at his most persuasive was only allowed to take out one volume at a time; he called trips to the booksellers tests of humility, and said it was the only place in the city where one paid for the privilege of being reminded that one was a foreigner and a resident of a lower tier, instead of getting it for free from strangers on the street.

Duty and snark

“Just tell him what I said; he’ll known you’re speaking the truth. Please,” [Elen] added more softly. “I can’t do this with a clear conscience unless I know you’ll tell the Master Warder what happened.”

“Why is a clear conscience necessary?” Sagai asked, not helpfully. “All it takes is a confused sense of duty and a disregard for personal survival.”

Water for execution

The water was unexpectedly cold, as if it came straight from Charisat’s artesian spring and was never warmed by passing through miles of pipes and cisterns. Some Patricians would pay any amount of minted gold for water this cool, and the Heir was wasting it by drowning people in it.

Worth saving?

Khat wondered what could possibly be going through his mind: after spending a thousand years in self-imposed exile, to suddenly be released into a world that must bear little resemblance to the one he had left behind. Khat cleared his throat and said, “Well, was it worth saving?”

Sevan turned, his face shadowed by the sun’s glare and said, “It has its own beauty, in a strange fashion. Perhaps it was worth it.”

Lastly, I always wanted to use this meme, but never had the chance until now. aliens-meme-image

Review: Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay, #1)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: February 23 to March 4, 2014
Read count: 1

I think Peter F. Hamilton said it best:

“A fast, exhilarating read [...] the kind of old-fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write anymore, of freebooting privateers making their haphazard way in a wondrous retro-future world.”

So, yeah, a lot of fun. That’s the best way I can describe the experience of reading this book. It’s fast-paced, high-octaned, unpredictable, and fun. The last ten chapters are un-put-down-able.

The Ketty Jay is a beloved cargo fighter craft belonging to an extremely unfortunate part-time pirate captain, Darian Frey. The story starts off on the wrong foot for Frey as he is captured and held at gunpoint due to a “small misunderstanding.” Unfortunately, things don’t get any better for Frey or his ragtag crew as the story progresses. They literally fly from one disaster to another, just barely skirting bullets and explosives enough to save themselves and the Ketty Jay.

As a captain, part-time pirate and full-time freelancer, Frey is terribly unfortunate. He’s being sought after by the authorities (Century Knights), various scorned thugs (that’s why he has to avoid certain cities and ports), and a relentless mercenary to whom he may or may not have personal ties. As much as Frey and his crew try to stay out of trouble and fly under the radar, trouble and the people looking for them always find them just in time. It’s a mess, but a fun mess.

On top of all of this, Frey and Co. are hired for a risky job only to be framed afterward. And so they go on the run. Again. Just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse they stumble on a conspiracy plot. Pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place, and the reason they were framed start making sense. It’s only when they set out to clear their names once and for all do they have luck and good timing on their side.

I still can’t believe this book isn’t on TV yet. It’s got all the elements of a rollicking drama: adventure, conspiracy, piracy, dodgy aircraft, dogfights, alchemy, necromancy, tortured characters, sly historical references, a whole world that still needs exploring, and of course, weird technology that comply with weird physics. On second thought, I’m glad it’s not on TV. The last time something like this was on TV it was canceled almost immediately.

A lot of reviewers compare Retribution Falls to Joss Whedon’s famously canceled TV show Firefly, and I can see how they made that connection because both are similar in tone, setting, and genre, but that’s where the similarities end because Retribution Falls is a balanced mix of science fiction and fantasy. The magical elements aren’t explored as much as the technological elements in this book, but they’re featured enough to show that both do exist, in their various forms and factions, in the world of the Ketty Jay. I don’t remember this world having a specific name, so I will refer to it as “the world of the Ketty Jay” since most of the action happens in and around the spacecraft.

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Not exactly steampunk, although it’s very similar in tone. The machines and weapons described are too intricate and advanced to be steampunk, and so far nothing in this book runs on steam. So there’s that. I think the supposed time period is best described as a Victorian version of a far off future. Victorian space opera, perhaps?

Chris Wooding is a surprisingly good prose writer. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. I mean I’m genuinely surprised by his skills–again, not meant to be backhanded. He’s good in a subtle kind of way that sneaks up on you when you find yourself invested in the story. Not many genre authors and even fewer steampunk authors are known for their prose prowess. Crafty plotters, cunning character writers, and technologically competent describers aren’t usually skilled prose writers. Not saying these authors don’t exist; just saying it’s not often you come across one when reading genre fiction. Wooding is an exception though. I went into this book expecting a fun action-packed story. What I got is exactly that and a lot more on the side.

Some quotes:

The moment I knew I’d like this book

“You just hypnotized a man with your tooth, Crake. Don’t talk to me about impossible.”

At least Frey is honest with himself

There was a wildness here that he found frightening. It was a jostling, stinking pandemonium of rotted teeth and leering faces. Danger surrounded them. He found he actually missed the specter of the militia. He liked his illegal doings to be conducted within the safety of an orderly civilization. Total lawlessness meant survival based on strength and cunning, and Frey didn’t have too much of either.

Pieces falling into place

But a craft was nothing without a crew to operate her and pilots to defend her. A craft was made up of people. The Ketty Jay was staffed with drunkards and drifters, all of them running from something–whether it be memories or enemies or the drudgery of a land-bound life–but since Yortland, they’d been running in the same direction. United by that common purpose, they’d begun to turn into something resembling a crew. And Frey had begun to turn into someone resembling a captain.

Goodbyes

He was tired. Tired of struggling against the grief and shame. Tired of living under the weight of one arrogant mistake, to think that he might summon one of the monsters of the aether and come away unscathed. Tired of trying to understand that awful twist of fortune that had led his niece to his sanctum on that particular night, instead of any other.

Leave her here, amid the ash and dust. If he didn’t wake her up no one ever would. Let her sleep, and perhaps she’d dream of better things.

Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: February 20 to March 2, 2014
Read count: 1

A moving journey about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and coming face to face with drastic cultural and social changes. Told through weaving prose and a believable voice, the narrative is similar to that of other fictional texts written about immigrant life, identity, and struggles. So not unlike the works of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The story is about young twin girls Saba and Mahtab Hafezi growing up in a fictional farming village in Iran. The girls have a special hobby which is forbidden under the new regime: they love to collect American pop culture and basically everything American. They clip magazine articles about life in America, secretly watch American sit-coms and movies, listen to rock music, and make up stories about how great it would be if they lived in America, instead of where they are now. They dream of a life in which they don’t have to live in hiding, the life they had before the revolution. In reality, under the new regime, life is difficult for everyone, but especially for women and girls.

One day, Saba and Mahtab, along with their mother, are separated. Saba stays behind with their father. She doesn’t remember much about that day or what happened afterward, and so she assumes her mother and sister must have gone to America and that she and her father will join them at a later time. During the separation, to escape from her day to day life, Saba imagines Mahtab living the life they’d always dreamed of somewhere in Middle America and doing normal average American things, like have friends, hang out with her friends, go to school, etc. Basically all the things Saba could not do in Iran. These daydreams and wishes keep her going, she believes, until the day she and Mahtab are reunited.

We’ve all read one too many of these fictional semi-autobiographical narratives to know that these stories, what with an oppressive regime looming in the background, don’t end well. So I will only say that Saba does get to go to America later on in the story, and she comes face to face with the reality of an America she never expected. To say any more would spoil the later parts of the book.

The focus on America and Americana might turn some people away from this story. Saba and Mahtab put everything American on a pedestal, and their obsession does become grating after a while. But due to their current circumstances, it’s understandable that they would put America, as shown on the media, in place of their escapism. Fictional America is a shining beacon of assumed freedom compared to the Khomeini government, whose intent was/is to crack down on Western influence and return Iran to an extremely conservative way of life.

A reader who’s having a hard time with this book should keep in mind that America, or the ideal image of America, seen through the eyes of an immigrant is vastly different from the America as seen by the people who live here.

Those turned off by Americana might want to tune back in because every day life in Iran, both before and after the revolution, is written beautifully and described in specific tangible details. The author Dina Nayeri is an Iranian immigrant, and much of content of this book is taken from her own life and experiences. She is influenced by both American and Persian music, so both are featured a lot throughout the story. It’s a good balance, and I find that the music enhances the events in the story. It’s like having an author-selected soundtrack to go along with the journey. Speak of which, an author-selected list of songs can be found here.

There are a couple of quotes I’d like to add, which I will as soon as I get the book back from a friend, assuming she isn’t going to keep it or lend it to another friend.

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I’d like to thank Heather Kirkpatrick of Riverhead Books and Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy.

Review: The Night Circus

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: October 16 to December 12, 2013
Read count: 1

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This book is one of the few that works better as an audiobook because it’s got lovely sentences that sound great when spoken aloud and fantastical sensory details that suck you into the world of the night circus. The downside is it’s kind of a chore to read on your own, as I found out. I started out reading and really liking it, but then lost interest somewhere in the middle and ended up finishing it via Jim Dale on audio. He’s amazing. Everyone who’s interested in this book should try it on audio.

Now for the hard part. I’ll try easing into it.

Once in a while you come across a book that you may or may not enjoy, but the experience of reading it teaches you something new about yourself. This book taught me that the older I get, the less patience I have for flowery prose and meandering story arcs (that take too long to lead nowhere…interesting). I think I outgrew purple prose when I realized, too often, they’re used more as a diversion than a device to draw the reader’s attention away from a weak story or revelation or, in this case, a lack of a magical battle to the death by two “worthy” opponents who are “madly” in love with each other. This is what disappointed me most about this story, that it took the route of a cheap cop-out/deus ex machina to resolve the “battle to the death” and unite the two love birds. Frankly speaking, I feel cheated though glad that I decided to borrow this book from the library instead of getting my own copy.

I don’t mean that in a terribly negative way. Nice prose is great. Nice prose is necessary (sometimes). Nice prose is always welcomed…as long as it doesn’t take up the whole story and/or isn’t used as a substitute for plot or character development.

This is my round-about way of saying I didn’t like this book as much as I could have, if that makes any sense. I feel as though I should like it more because it’s got all the qualifications of a book I would like. And that’s why, even though I find the overall story unsatisfying, I still can’t critique it directly…because it’s a lovely book. Also, if you look at its background, you’d be impressed that it started as a nanowrimo draft. From that to what it is now–what it has achieved now–is impressive. Extra credits for that, I suppose?

It’s a nice book though. Great as an autumn read.

Morgentern does have a way with language and a way to make you experience the story, rather than just reading it. Her descriptions of tactile sensations are just lovely. Everything is just lovely actually, from the writing to the world of the night circus to the mystery of magic.

Unfortunately, that’s my problem with it, that everything is too lovely and serves no other purpose than just being lovely. Things started to become grating when I realized the story was going nowhere due to a lack of further plot and character development. Even the intrigue of slight-of-hand and magic established earlier in the story lost its novelty.

The lovely things in the Night Circus kept building on each other and growing in loveliness, but the rest of the story couldn’t keep up. Actually, it stayed stagnant until the end. That annoyed me the most, the repetitiveness of how lovely and meandering the writing became without the depth of a fulfilling story. There was so much that could have been delved into, like Marco’s and Celia’s awful father figures and terrible childhoods.

This story could have been much more than what it is. It could have been much more than just lovely. It had a solid foundation to support a much richer, deeper dark fantasy in the style of Neil Gaiman or Alice Hoffman.

Which got me thinking. Maybe it would have been better as a short story.

Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: February 20 to 21, 2014
Read count: 1

This short story is exactly what the title says it’s about: talking to girls at a party. What sets it apart from other how-to-pick-up-girls guides is it doesn’t show how to pick up girls because it’s actually a story, and the girls are not like other girls. And by that, I don’t mean they’re not like other girls (click for further explanation).

As far as Gaiman short stories go, I like this one about as much as the others. It’s funny, smart, and unusual, like its forerunners. What’s different here is its purposefully stumbling awkward humor.

The year is 1970-something and the place is somewhere in the UK. Vic and Enn are two teenage boys experiencing a teenage rite of passage; they’re invited to a party and they’re determined to interact with girls. However, Enn is inexperienced and has no idea what to expect. So naturally he comes off as awkward and self-conscious (and hilarious but in that secondhand embarrassment kind of way). Vic, on the other hand, is a bit more of a smooth operator.

The girls are portrayed as exchange students, and the boys don’t doubt that for a minute because, like it’s been established, they’re inexperienced, but we, as more experienced worldly readers, know better. We pick up on the nuances and various moments between Enn and Vic and the girls that don’t seem quite right because they’re more awkward than the usual teenage awkwardness.

Half of the fun of this story is in the boys trying to figure out how to talk to these girls all the while figuring out they’re not like other girls. Literally.