Literary Friday ~ Palimpsest

photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

“Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.”

Palimpsest is a one of those genre-defying, expectation-defying books. Not in that I expected it to be crap, and it was the best thing ever, but in that it’s a contemporary adventure, and a fantasy, with some very erotic writing (but nothing very graphic), and even after finishing it I’m not sure I understand it all.

I came to Catherynne M. Valente by way of SJ Tucker, and have already read the Fairyland series before starting this one. So my order is all kinds of reversed. This book, like the Fairyland series, bears Valente’s trademark creative whimsy and macabre writing. She makes very interesting visuals of beautiful and terrible things, lighthearted and deadly, and the end result is (for me) unsettling.

At its heart, this book touches on some very primal human things: the need for community, defensiveness of belief, sensing but not understanding things beyond ourselves, and the hope for something greater than our little human sufferings. But it does so with a twisting path of 4 primary characters, and a flip-flopping narrative (third person in ‘the real world’, first person omniscient in Palimpsest). The characters were very complex, but the only one I felt any inkling of understanding was Ludo, and not very much with that. Most of the characters in her stories are very selfish, all the time, and it makes me feel frustrated and alienated.

Overall, I would recommend this for fans of contemporary fantasy along the dark and unknowable bent. If you don’t get squicked out easily, if you assume everyone is self-centered, if you don’t mind not understand what the heck just happened, and if you can easily accept that sexual orientation, desires, and drive are as fluid as water for everyone, everywhere*, this is probably a book you’ll enjoy.

* Don’t get me wrong- I don’t mind titillating fiction, and the concept of a city that’s an STD is interesting, but the blithe acceptance of everyone that Palimpsest is worth a sort of immediate sexual desperation (especially considering everything we see of the city is dangerous, painful, and mean) didn’t sit well with me.
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Literary Friday ~ The Snowman

photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf. 

Hole suspects a link between a menacing letter he’s received and the disappearance of Jonas’s mother—and of perhaps a dozen other women, all of whom went missing on the day of a first snowfall. As his investigation deepens, something else emerges: he is becoming a pawn in an increasingly terrifying game whose rules are devised—and constantly revised—by the killer.

The Snowman is a contemporary, gritty detective novel that follows a serial killer’s gruesome crimes, and Inspector Harry Hole’s attempt to stop them. It was interesting to see crime drama from a non-American perspective. The story was both grittier in language and sexual references than most American stories I’ve read, and (interestingly, to me) featured a hero who wasn’t very heroic.

It isn’t just that Harry Hole is a (barely) recovering alcoholic, with poor social skills and good instincts. It’s that he doesn’t figure everything out. He makes mistakes- major ones, repeatedly. He follows the clues and his gut, and even when we the audience know he’s wrong…he’s still just an Inspector.  

And because I love realistically flawed characters, I was entertained (albeit frustrated) by his leaping to conclusions, missing clues, and general assumptions. I also got the distinct impression that Norway is tiny and not used to crime of any kind.  

If you enjoy creepy crime novels, especially serial killer novels that will have you guessing whodunnit until the last 5 chapters of the book or so, you’ll want to read this one. And you don’t need to be familiar with Nesbo’s other books to jump in, or understand Harry. 

But you probably shouldn’t read it on the first day of snow. 

Literary Friday ~ The Doctor’s Wife

photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

So begins The Doctor’s Wife, a stunning debut novel about four people and the cataclysmic intersection of their lives. Michael is a rising OB/GYN at a prominent private practice in Albany, New York; he also moonlights at a local women’s health clinic. But Annie, his wife, has become tired of her workaholic husband’s absences, and the soccer-mom lifestyle has worn thin. She begins a passionate love affair with bad-boy, fading celebrity painter Simon Haas—an affair that quickly goes awry when Simon’s wife Lydia, who is also the model upon whom he built his career, discovers the truth.
Abortion, local evangelism, marital disenchantment, and the rifts of social class: Brundage takes on the fault lines of our era with a deft hand.

Book Review of The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage

The Doctor’s Wife is a rare instance of DNF for me. I got halfway through the novel, and had to simply stop. Brundage’s writing style isn’t bad, although she seems fond of dropping cuss words into intellectual adult conservation for seemingly no reason, but the characters are ridiculously stupid. 

All four act like teenagers: no impulse control, wildly self-absorbed, manipulative, and sullen. In fact, none of the adults in this fictional town appear to have any ability to reasonably disagree with another human being, have an open mind or depth of personality, relate to anyone outside of the town….I kept expecting some sort of Stepford Wives scenario to unravel itself and explain this shallowness. 

In the end, it was just too hard for me to muster any desire to follow a trainwreck story about four adults that I roundly disliked in every way.

Literary Friday ~ Crewel

 photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to Goodreads:

Enter a tangled world of secrets and intrigue where a girl is in charge of other’s destinies, but not her own.
Sixteen-year-old Adelice Lewys has always been special. When her parents discover her gift—the ability to weave the very fabric of reality—they train her to hide it. For good reason, they don’t want her to become a Spinster — one of the elite, beautiful, and deadly women who determine what people eat, where they live, how many children they have, and even when they die.
Thrust into the opulent Western Coventry, Adelice will be tried, tested and tempted as she navigates the deadly politics at play behind its walls.  Now caught in a web of lies and forbidden romance, she must unravel the sinister truth behind her own unspeakable power.  Her world is hanging by a thread, and Adelice, alone, can decide to save it — or destroy it.

Crewel is a play on words, so I wanted to read it. Plus, the world-concept is rather cool, likening Fate to the threads on a loom. Very Clothos, Atropos, and Lachesis. 

Unfortunately, Albin misses the mark in so many aspects of the novel. Prepare yourself for the rant of the disappointed.

The larger concept- that time and memory and lives can be manipulated- is almost an incidental background concept, and I was distracted by my disbelief that women with this kind of power could be under the heel of a dozen men. Whom we never meet.

I mean, I’m all for dystopian society concepts and all, but don’t present me with a world in which women are downtrodden, manipulated, and treated as second-class citizens, and then prove them all to be idiot sheep who are passive, shallow, and all think alike.

Give me villains who are complex and justify their actions in chillingly understandable and relatable ways, not men who want to boff pretty women, speak like Snidely Whiplash, and all but twirl their mustaches.

Give me heroines whose journey isn’t about picking the obviously correct path, but about picking a path that is grey, trusting their own gut instinct that it’s the right one, and occasionally being wrong but soldiering on.

Give me romantic interests that aren’t special because they’re the lone non-asshole in the world of Bad Men, and have striking blue eyes, but because they have faith in our heroine even when she does not have faith in herself, and because they are autonomous but not cowed by an independent woman.

Don’t expect me to believe that our heroine has grown up in a world where women are treated that poorly, and manipulated, and kept down…and then make her sassy-mouthed (and only when the occasion warrants it). I don’t respect her for being witty (where would she learn this attitude? when does she ever display it? and why, when all it does is bring harm and no one she’s ever respected does this sort of thing?).

Also: Conflict that arises from characters (who are presented as intelligent) suddenly blaming our heroine (for something she obviously did not do), without ever questioning the truth, to the point of physical violence? Not believable. 

And what about our heroine never being plagued by grief over the death of her family? Never being analytical about what the hell those torturing her actually want? Not even asking “what do you want from me”? She’s very clearly not as witty as you want her to be, nor as realistic as I want her to be. 

In short (er…long), I did not enjoy Crewel and was cruelly disappointed at its shoddy world-building, especially given such a nifty concept. And also at its poor characterization and pandering to established YA tropes without having its own voice. Skip this one.

Literary Friday ~ A Matter of Days

 photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

On Day 56 of the pandemic called BluStar, sixteen-year-old Nadia’s mother dies, leaving her responsible for her younger brother Rabbit. They secretly received antivirus vaccines from their uncle, but most people weren’t as lucky. Their deceased father taught them to adapt and survive whatever comes their way. That’s their plan as they trek from Seattle to their grandfather’s survivalist compound in West Virginia. Using practical survival techniques, they make their way through a world of death and destruction until they encounter an injured dog; Zack, a street kid from Los Angeles; and other survivors who are seldom what they seem. Illness, infections, fatigue, and meager supplies have become a way of life. Still, it will be worth it once they arrive at the designated place on the map they have memorized. But what if no one is there to meet them?

A Matter of Days is a middle-grade story about surviving after a worldwide plague decimates the population. It’s not poorly written, but reading this as an adult was lackluster. 

A lot of the interesting details were glossed over, and the past tense narrative killed any sense of tension or suspense. It’s happy endings all around, with expected conflicts and one-dimensional explorations of emotion. 

Not bad, I suppose, if you’re 10 and have never considered what it would be like to live in a post-apocalyptic world. Otherwise, it just wasn’t very engaging.

Literary Friday ~ The Tenth Gift

 photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

“In an expensive London restaurant Julia Lovat receives a gift that will change her life. It appears to be a book of exquisite 17th-century embroidery patterns but on closer examination Julia finds it also contains faint diary entries. In these, Cat Tregenna, an embroideress, tells how she and others were stolen out of a Cornish church in 1625 by Muslim pirates and taken on a brutal voyage to Morocco to be auctioned off as slaves.

Captivated by this dramatic discovery, Julia sets off to North Africa to determine the authenticity of the book and to uncover more of Cat’s story. There, in the company of a charismatic Moroccan guide, amid the sultry heat, the spice markets, and exotic ruins, Julia discovers buried secrets. And in Morocco – just as Cat did before her – she loses her heart.

Almost 400 years apart, the stories of the two women converge in an extraordinary and haunting manner that will make readers wonder – is history fated to repeat itself? 

The Tenth Gift is a gorgeously drawn mixture of historical fiction, romance, and magical realism. It’s a novel about endings and beginnings, about taking risks, about making the best of pain and possibly ending up very happy. And also, it’s a novel about 1600’s Cornwall, Morocco, and piracy. So you KNOW I loved it.

I didn’t like Julia very much for the majority of the book. I don’t think you’re supposed to, honestly. But I envied her skill at embroidery (which I stink at- see below), and by the end of the book I was really proud of her for her openness and bravery. Catherine, on the other hand, I loved from the moment she was on the page.

The author does a beautiful job of making me want to visit Morocco (and maybe even Cornwall) with her vivid descriptions, and (I assume accurate) portrayal of cultural differences between Western Christians and Eastern Muslims. She also does a great job keeping characters grey- there are no flawless characters, nor mustache-twirling villains, here.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for lovers of fiction (contemporary, historic, or both), ensemble casts, seamless weaving of researched historical facts with fictional adventure, sweet romance, the romanticism of northern Africa, embroidery (or any fibre art), and magical realism.

Literary Friday ~ The Nightmare Affair

 photo ArtatHomeButton_zps18898da7.jpgSynopsis according to GoodReads:

Sixteen-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare. 
Literally.

Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy, is hard enough. But when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder.

Then Eli’s dream comes true.

Now Dusty has to follow the clues—both within Eli’s dreams and out of them—to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target. 

The Nightmare Affair is a pretty typical YA contemporary fantasy story. The main character, Dusty, is a typical sarcastic teenager. The mystery of the story is a typical, predictable mystery. The romance in the book is a typical YA girl-has-two-boys-to-choose-between trope. 

It’s a fun, quick read that isn’t anything terribly original (except the Night Mare concept, which was neat), but has some witty moments. My one complaint is Dusty’s constant, grating sarcasm (negativity is wearying, and defensive negativity aimed at people who are trying to support you isn’t endearingly hip, it’s churlish).

I’d recommend it for fans of lightweight YA, especially contemporary fantasy ones.