Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rosemary and Rue—Seanan McGuire

I managed to grab a pole and ease myself into the nearest empty seat before I fell, doing my best to keep my back away from the wall. It's rude to get blood on the seats. (185)
This was the main book for Vaginal Fantasy in September, and I HATED the alt—my thoughts on the alt, Darkfever, are here—so I'm really glad that I enjoyed this one so much. I'm currently on book eight in this series, and it just keeps getting better. (More of those reviews to follow.)

October "Toby" Day was on a mission from her liege to find his kidnapped wife and daughter when she was unexpectedly turned into a fish and left for dead. It would have been even weirder if Toby wasn't part of the fae world, although she is a changeling so she's not a pureblood fae. After fourteen years as a fish, her fiance and daughter have moved on without her, and so has the rest of the world; Toby decides to retreat from the fae world and work a normal mundane job at Safeway. But that plan goes remarkably off the rails when an old fae frenemy, Evening Winterrose, is murdered and as she was dying tied Toby up in an unbreakable oath to figure out who killed her. Now Toby, against her own better judgment, returns to the fae world and other places from her past to figure it out.

I LOVE this series, although this first book is definitely the weakest of them. I liked the tie-ins with Shakespeare—each of the books has a title that derives itself from Shakespeare, and a lot of the characters have names in common with Shakespeare's characters. I was compelled enough by the worldbuilding and by Toby's character, and her real-life issues—even though she's from faerie—that I kept reading while there were still problems with the writing and plot. The fact that Toby works in a Safeway, and then actually loses her job when she doesn't show up for work because she gets sucked into the mystery with Evening, was very real. I've read a lot of urban fantasy books, and fae characters who have regular jobs always seem to be able to keep them, even with long stretches where they're not showing up for those regular jobs. So it was nice to see that moment of reality.

I also thought the depression that Toby is experiencing, after spending fourteen years as a fish and losing basically everything about her life, was a relatable feature of her struggle. She does some incredibly self-destructive things, but I think that makes sense with what she's going through. (They discuss in later books how Toby is kind of on a passive suicide path, not really caring about what happens to her.) She also goes back to an incredibly unhealthy relationship, but I understood that compulsion as well. After all, if you've lost everything, I would imagine that it would feel very tempting to return to something familiar and comfortable, even if you know it's not good for you. I think this is especially true given even the little bit about Toby's past that we find out in this book, about her kind of transient childhood and her feeling of lack of belonging. I can understand how that would feel amplified after her ordeal as a fish, and make that longing for familiarity even stronger.

Even with the funk that she's in, I appreciate Toby's sense of humor and her sarcasm. Basically, I feel like I'm only some fae blood away from being Toby—or I wish that was the case, anyway, that I'm as clever and pithy as her.

For the most part, I actually liked that things weren't explicitly explained about the fae world. Sometimes that can be irking, not enough explanation, but I also think because so many of these concepts are familiar from other fantasy books, and/or easily searchable, it allows us to skip the long moments of exposition and data dumps that sometimes happen.

There were also little tidbits like the fact that Toby's cats are called Cagney and Lacey. Love that. I liked that it was set in the Bay Area, having recently spent a few years there myself.

And where can I get me a rose goblin? Because I need one.

As was discussed on the forum extensively, this book definitely suffered from first-book problems. The plot was quite circular, and you really never felt like you were gaining any ground. Particularly towards the end, Toby was getting almost fatally injured at least once a chapter, which just isn't sustainable.

One of McGuire's strengths, though—at least in my mind, because I like this style of writing—is that she'll drop a small (or large) mystery in your lap, and then won't resolve it until books later. There are definitely some seeds that are planted in this first book that are still waiting to be brought back, and I love it. I love a slow burn like that.

As previously mentioned, this is definitely not the best book in the series, but it introduced me to Toby and her fellows, so it will probably always hold a special place in my heart. I strongly recommend for anyone interested in faerie stories and/or urban fantasy.

Darkfever—Karen Marie Moning

"I suspect most kill themselves. Beautiful women rarely possess sufficient depth of character to survive without their pretty feathers. Strip them down and they crumble ."The look he gave me was judge, jury, and executioner. (102)
This book was the alt for Vaginal Fantasy in September—for which the theme was fae noir—and boy am I glad that it was not the main. Or that it was the only. Because I had a hard time getting through it. I think especially in comparison to how much I LOVED the main, Rosemary and Rue, it just fell disappointingly short. I'd also heard a lot of really great things about the series. But I just couldn't take it.

MacKayla Lane's sister is mysteriously murdered while studying in Ireland. When the police don't make any headway with the case, MacKayla travels to Ireland to take matters into her own hands. (Because she's a twenty something, spoiled, sheltered bartender from the American South, so obviously she's going to get more accomplished than the authorities. But don't worry: Mac is equipped with a vague voicemail that her sister left for her, so she's all set.) But when she gets to Ireland, Mac gets much more than she ever expected: she finds out that there is a whole fae world that actually exists, and that she has the ability to see beyond fae glamours. As a result, she meets a mysterious man called Jericho who owns a bookstore (swoon) and is kind of an asshole. (What a surprise. A mystery man who is an asshole, and thus irresistible. Never seen that before.) But he knows something about the fae, so Mac puts up with him as she journeys down the road to discovering her past and where her future might lead.

There were a couple of redeeming qualities about this book. I really liked the fae aspect, I loved the bookstore aspect, I liked the intrigue and the discovery of Mac's true past. I feel like there could have been enough there to keep me interested and bring me back for more in the series.

My one bone of contention was Mac, and since she's the main character, as well as the narrator, I just could not stand her. Beyond just that base level of irritation, there was something deeper there that I can't quite decipher. I've read books with protagonists that I didn't love or relate to in the past, but I've never had quite as visceral a reaction to Mac as I did in this case. I think maybe if she hadn't been the narrator, giving us "insights" into her own life and personality, I wouldn't have been quite so irked by her...maybe...

One of the first things Mac says, on page 5 in fact, is this: It was currently playing an old Louis Armstrong song—"What a Wonderful World." Born in a generation that thinks cynical and disenchanted is cool, sometimes I'm a little off the beaten track. Oh well. (5) Well aren't you just so cool for not being cool. Generally, when I hear a twenty-something describe themselves as "off the beaten track," it's like them telling me they're a unique little snowflake and SO different from everyone they know. (And I'm a twenty-something, so I've had a lot of peers like this.) Beyond that, we get literally no other glimpse of her being "off the beaten path" in relation to her "generational" peers, so basically this was added by the author as an attempt to give us a glimpse into Mac's personality and make her seem well-rounded, but just fell flat.

The same thing was true when Mac tells us that she's smart and reads a lot. Mac tells us this: Before the call, I had no use for a word like "demarcation," one of those fifty-cent words I knew only because I was an avid reader. (7) Other than this convenient explanation for her knowing what demarcation means, there is no other evidence to suggest that Mac is an "avid reader." Since I am actually an avid reader, I know the signs. Also, as an avid reader, I don't consider demarcation a "fifty-cent word." I feel like it's a pretty commonly known phrase.

That just set the stage for me not liking Mac from the beginning, and then she is completely self-obsessed. Now, I know a lot of people have an inclination to think about themselves or be materialistic, and I don't think these are necessary bad qualities; I am drastically not that way, probably because I have no fashion sense and feel uncomfortable in my body. But I can understand it. I think this is one of those cases where I might have given Mac more leeway if she hadn't been the narrator telling us these things about herself. Basically everything she said felt like a humblebrag to me. Here's the first example: I loved to eat. Fortunately, it doesn't show. I'm healthy through the bust and bottom, but slim through the waist and thighs. (6) I'm all for women being proud of their bodies. There's far too much body shaming that happens, and if you actually like yours then more power to you. I also think that the false modesty that a lot of women have is part of the same problem, so I'm not looking for that from Mac either. I guess this information just seems kind of unnecessary in the grand scheme of character development? Like, what do those sentences help me discover about Mac as a person? Nothing.

The shallowness of Mac focusing on her own appearance is a through line. She makes sure to remind the reader every chance that she gets that she's an attractive girl. Here are just a few examples:

  • With my figure, nobody could ever accuse me of not being womanly. (131)
  • The black linen trousers were a joke. I had a twenty-four-inch waist... (104)
  • I might never manage ugly, but at least I bordered on invisible. (170) — Honey, anyone can manage ugly. Have you seen Charlize Theron in Monster? That woman is beautiful and they made her hideous. Anything is possible.
  • "How many different ways do you think I can do my hair? I refuse to be a redhead. I draw the line there. As much as I like color, I have no desire to paint my head orange." (194) Well, redheads don't have orange hair, they have red hair. But sure, definitely insult them in an un-ironic way.
  • Me, I have a pretty face. (262)
I could go on about moments that made me completely despise this girl. And not because she's a villain or evil, but because she seems like an absolute contradiction in herself, with what we're "told" about her (by Mac herself, through the author, really) and what we see in action about her.

I might try to continue with the series, as some of the other Vaginal Fantasy folks in the forums said that Mac has some growth in later books, but it's going to take me a while to shore up enough patience to dive in for another journey with Mac.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Circle—Dave Eggers

"It's not that I'm not social. I'm social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing. It's not nourishing. It's like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You're not hungry, you don't need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you're pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it's equally addictive." (134)
A beautifully written and horrifying parable on the level of Orwell's 1984. This book was so good—and SO disturbing. Eggers taps into the current obsession with digital connection and amplifies it in a very 1984-esque way, showing us all a disturbing potential future. Like Orwell's dystopian future-telling story, it is perhaps most distressing because of its complete possibility; I could absolutely see us going down the path that Eggers creates in The Circle.

Mae Holland is hired by her best friend to work at The Circle, the ever-expanding internet company based in the Bay Area. (Sound familiar?) The Circle links everyone's online presence, banking and purchasing, for one profile, which is shared and transparent for everyone to view. Mae, with her wide-eyed idealism, is quickly drawn in by the romance of it all—and pulled into the cult-like mentality of privacy equaling lies and deception. As she opens up more of her life for public consumption, she grows more and more isolated from the people who matter in her life. But what she gains means more to her than what she loses, until any hint of the old Mae disappears altogether into the hive mind.

This was a bit too real for me, at points. The fight over right to privacy continues to be fought, especially with the increase in digital presence (as Eggers artfully takes advantage of) and the inability to ever escape or erase your digital past. Mae starts at The Circle full of idealism and the desire to succeed, especially since she basically got the job through a nepotistic channel when she was hired by her college best friend. Although some of the ways of The Circle seem strange and counterintuitive at first, Mae fairly quickly substitutes the general consensus and opinion for her own. For example, Mae starts out not being attached to her phone, and basically shamed for it. Mae's desire to succeed, however, propels her past even the employees who have been there longer, eventually pushing her to be the poster child for openness. She starts wearing a camera everywhere that she goes, for everything, because privacy is a crime—after all, you're keeping information that could be valuable to other people from them. This only backfires after the friend who had gotten her the job has some information revealed about her family—in the pursuit of transparency, of course—and spirals out of control.

Before she gets quite pulled into it, though, Mae is out kayaking in the Bay, and doesn't digitally document it. This conversation happens with some of the higher-ups:
"Oh, I've never brought a camera."
"But how do you identify all these birds?"
"I have this little guide. It's just a thing my ex-boyfriend gave me. It's a little foldable guide to local wildlife."
"So it's just a pamphlet or something?"
"Yeah, I mean, it's waterproof and —"Josiah exhaled loudly.
"I'm sorry," Mae said.
Josiah rolled his eyes. "No, I mean, this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper brochure, and that's where it ends. It ends with you. Like you're the only one that matters. But think if you'd been documenting. If you'd been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit—naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds are in the bay on that day. It's just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don't want to call it selfish but—" (187-188)
You can really see the change that she goes through to get to the point where her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, says the pullquote to Mae about disconnecting from her digital life and connecting with reality. He is trying to convince her to move away from the Dark Side (as I came to view The Circle) while she is trying to convince him that he needs to be more digitally involved. Even though we haven't quite descended into madness with our digital lives yet, it feels like such a possibility, something that could so easily start with the best of intentions and then take over, that you can feel Mercer's terror and outrage as Mae gets pulled further and further into the inner workings.

Even after one of the three founders of The Circle approaches Mae and tells her that things are getting out of control, that it needs to be shut down, it doesn't help snap her back to reality. (Spoiler: She actually turns him in to the other two creators and keeps him from derailing the company's trajectory.) It seems as though her desire for approval, along with her desire to succeed, have made her completely incapable of viewing the monster from the outside. And when you get right down to it, what is our digital/social media presence but a desperate cry for approval and acceptance?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Genesis—Dale Mayer

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I've had this book finished for a few weeks, but the schedule's been a bit crazy and it's taken me a while to put together a coherent and thoughtful response to it. Especially considering the nature of how I came to read it, namely a free copy from the author/publisher.

Let's start with the things that I really liked about this book. The premise and world were incredibly interesting, and the idea of the magic system was intriguing. Essentially, Genesis, the oldest of triplets, lives on a world called Glory. In a stunning turn of events, humans had completely destroyed planet Earth, and so had to look outside of their native planet for somewhere else to live; hence, their existence on Glory, and ostensibly other planets throughout the galaxy. (There was a casual mention that scientists were working to making Earth habitable again.) Glory has some sort of magic system that involves the use and movement of energy, which is a power that Genesis has in spades, and has been taught by her late grandmother. There are water pools underground that have some sort of healing qualities, although that's not really investigated. The spirit pets were adorable and worth reading it on their own, because now I desperately want one.

Okay, things I had issues with. This list is unfortunately a bit longer than the list of thing I loved. Overall, this book just felt so disjointed, and ultimately like nothing plot-wise really happened. It's the first in a trilogy—each one is about one of the triplets, which, don't even get me started on the triplets—but it doesn't feel as if there's anything to be resolved further in the trilogy because the conflict feels entirely manufactured. There was NO background on any of the characters, the world they live in, or the magic system that exists. While the snapshots that we see of each of these are enough to keep you reading, there is no explanation of any of them and how or why they work they way they do. Which leads to the feeling that there is no payoff. Why should I care about a character who seems to have come into existence three seconds before I started reading about their life? Further, the lack of development into the magic system, and the terminology and phrasing which makes it seem as though you should already know exactly how it works, leaves a reader feeling as though they've completely missed something.

Ultimately, the story ends up feeling like a poorly constructed vehicle for a love story. Perhaps if the love story itself had been more compelling, I could have forgiven the other issues I had with the book. Because we don't get much background on characters—if any at all—I have no investment in the relationship between Genesis and her ex-boyfriend. Further, the information that we do get is that they only "dated" for a week, over a year ago. Yet, they're still pining for each other. Now, I consider myself something of a romantic. But two people who were only together for a week, that relationship is not based on an undying love for each other—it's based on pure lust. That's fine, if you want to have a lust-based relationship in a book, I'm all for that. I love sexy times as much as the next person. But don't try to sell me mud and say it's ice cream...or some other saying that connotes the same thing. Just be up front about the nature of the relationship.

This gets incredibly frustrating when Genesis and Connor both refer to how he/she has "always" made them feel a certain way. Really? Always? Like, that whole week? Here are just a few examples: "He'd always had the power to move her, a sensuality that he never seemed to be aware of." "A look she'd always loved and thought she'd never see again." "She loved him so much. Always had." Emphasis was mine, but that was only three of the myriad examples. I just can't take something seriously when "always" refers to one week's worth of time.

There were moments of poor grammar and unrealistic, awkward, clunky dialogue. But I could have also forgiven those if the other redeeming features had been greater.

There was a lot of promise here, and I can only hope that the other books in the trilogy live up to that promise.