Tag Archives: favourite writers

The Queen’s Dwarf, by Ella March Chase

Disclaimer: Ella March Chase is one of my favourite people on the planet. I call her my writer mom. Her daughter is one of my best friends and her grandchildren are my honorary nephews.

 

I don’t normally like the 17th and 18th century in English history. I’m not interested in the Stuarts or the Hanoverians.  I find the politicking tedious and annoying, and I find most of the major personalities involved self-absorbed to the point of evil. The literature of the time is verbose, preachy,  and over-reliant on contemporary references. The religious infighting makes me feel sick – I really hate the attitude of “I’m right because God says I’m right and if you don’t agree with me you must be destroyed” no matter who it’s coming from.

So, despite my adoration of the author, I was a bit hesitant about this particular book. Her earlier two books were a lot closer to my preferred time period (both set in the Tudor era, which is just at the edge of my particular interests). But this book sucked me in. I got interested in Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and in the interplay between France, England, and Spain during the first half of the 17th century. I got interested in the women at court, especially the Duchess of Buckingham (she was a Manners, so relatively local to where I am now) and Lucy Hay. I even got a bit interested in the rise of the Puritans.

The main character is Jeffrey Hudson, a small person (not technically a dwarf by today’s medical standards) who’s only about 18 inches tall. He’s from a family on the estates of the Duke of Buckingham, and is placed by the Duke into the menagerie of Queen Henrietta Maria. Buckingham intends Jeffrey as a spy against the queen  and her French court. Jeffrey’s mostly just trying to survive. He’s around and influential for quite a few major events – the queen’s pilgrimage to Tyburn, for example, which directly led to the banishment of her French ladies-in-waiting.

Chase weaves the history in with the story pretty seamlessly – so seamlessly that I would occasionally check Wikipedia to find out more of the background. (Which then, of course, led to the Wikipedia warren – I ultimately spent almost as much time reading about Henry of Navarre and Marie de Medici as I did about Jeffrey Hudson. ) She definitely did her research, and it shows.

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The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

This is the sequel to The Magicians, which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago. I compared it to Harry Potter meets Narnia, for grownups.  And I was really looking forward to the sequel – getting back into Fillory, finding out what happened with/to Julia, helping Quentin find direction and satisfaction with his life.

Well, we find out what happened with Julia. It’s really dark and disturbing, and she loses herself and her humanity and her ability to connect and relate to other people. Some of it is her own choice, sort of, as she chooses to pursue “underground” magical studies. Some of it is not, as unexpected consequences take her over. All of it is dark, with only occasional glimpses of light and sanity.

There’s a sort of implicit connection made in the book, especially in Julia’s story, between the underground study of magic and mental illness, especially depression. I don’t know if there’s a deliberate connection there -some sort of mysticism, irrationality granting access to a different realm, something like that – or if it’s just coincidental and implied. If it is deliberate, I’m just glad that i’ts not romanticized. Magic in this world is very cool, but it’s also presented as very difficult and dangerous – and the consequences of failure are devastating. It wouldn’t help to present it as glamorous.

Quentin also shows signs of ennui and depression – some of it is his general personality (he showed the same symptoms in The Magicians) and some of it is events – Alice’s death, etc. It makes me wonder whether the connection between magic and mental illness that is so prevalent in the underground (read: non-Brakebills) community is also a factor in the use of magic as a whole.

One o fthe disappointing things about  this book for me was the lack of adventures in Fillory. I find Fillory fascinating, in the same way that I find the actual world-building of Narnia fascinating (my two favourite Narnia books are Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, for the world creation and exploration), and I was looking forward to a kind of Dawn Treader-esque exploring tale, especially when the quest for the keys showed up. But instead Quentin keeps being dragged out of the situations that I’ve become invested in, and that he has. Because of this, I found the ending more frustratingly sad than poignant. Because I never got to see much of Quentin in Fillory – just his boredom and dissatisfaction – I never quite believed his desperation to get back.

The Magician King also throws in a lot of new levels to the magical world, and it’s a bit too much. I feel like the whole “Old Gods” story  and Julia’s story could have been expanded, the dragons could have been expanded, and more could have been shown of “normal” Fillory to increase the dramatic necessity of saving it/getting back to it. In some ways it felt like the second and third parts of a trilogy had been compressed into one, as if The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had been merged: cutting Hoth down to one or two scenes, skipping most of Dagobah and only telling us about the cave scene (including its significance), cutting right from Han encased in carbonite to rescuing him on Tatooine and then going straight to Endor and the second Death Star. It’s entirely possible that if the book had been extended, even turned into two volumes, I’d be saying that it was too long and padded. But I felt like there were things introduced that are presented as deep and important, but in a tell-not-show kind of way.

Luckily, Lev Grossman is a good enough writer, and I became invested in the world enough during The Magicians that I wanted to keep going and try to recapture it. It never quite made it back to the level of interest that The Magicians did, but there were still glimpses of what the world could be.

I highly doubt that there will be a third book in this world, because there aren’t really loose ends – not in the same way that The Magicians had loose ends. I almost wish there would be, because I still like what the world has, even if I found the execution less-than-perfect in this case. But a third book would either have to restart something or fill in the gaps between these two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Redshirts, by John Scalzi

One reason that I like reading John Scalzi’s blog and short stories (sad disclaimer: this is the first novel of his that I’ve read) is that he writes about things that he has a genuine interest and delight in, and that comes through so very clearly. He has fun putting words together, poking fun at the tropes and attitudes of anything he likes (mostly sci-fi, but also politics and other things).

Redshirts is exactly that kind of book. It’s a book for anyone who laments hand-wavy science, character inconsistencies, Captain Exposition, and ridiculous MacGuffins in their television shows. Anyone who’s ever said, “wait, wasn’t he near death just last week?” or “Didn’t he profess undying love to that other character the week before?” or sighed when a new character with an emotionally involved backstory comes on, because he’s going to die before the end of the episode.

I think it’s gained plenty of cultural traction, but just in case – redshirts are the extras, the bit players, usually on sci-fi shows who are in a story situation with regular cast members. To increase tension, someone has to die, or at least be severely injured. It’s not going to be one of the regular cast members. If the bit player has an emotional tie to a main character, or more lines than, “oh, no, it’s a <gurgle> *thud*”, they may last until the third act. Otherwise, they’re dead in the teaser. [Geek moment – in the original Star Trek, redshirts weren’t always wearing red shirts. There was a prevalence of redshirts, but the redshirt-type character was sometimes wearing a blue or a yellow shirt instead. Red shirts were security, so they were most often the tag-alongs, but science/engineering and medical personnel were not exempt from the redshirt phenomenon.]

What makes this book different – how it subverts the trope – is that it turns the probable redshirt characters into main characters who then become aware that their function is to provide temporary emotional impact for the “regulars”. So, of course, they try to change it. Nobody wants to be horribly killed simply as a plot device, after all. And the whole thing turns into a send-up and homage to Star Trek and all other space-set science fiction shows, with a brilliantly tight ending and three codas. One of the codas only just escapes being a cliche, but the other two are perfect. It’s science fiction, because it’s mostly set on a spaceship in the future, but more than that, it’s about science fiction, what we expect from it and what we’re willing to accept from it.

I do have complaints, though. Well, one complaint. I didn’t find the characters to be very full – they had backstories but not really personalities. I guess that can be seen as one of the points, but I did occasionally find it difficult to remember who was talking, to hear their voice in my head. Except Jenkins. Jenkins was awesome. I think that’s the only thing, though. The science is very hand-wavy, but it’s supposed to be. It’s very story-driven, and moves very quickly, and some stuff gets glossed over, but I think the only real thing I had a problem with was the characterisation.

I will be actively looking for more of Scalzi’s stuff in the future – beyond, of course, Whatever, which is one of my daily must-reads on Google Reader. If you like funny stuff, sci-fi themed stuff, etc., then you should too.

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Evil Machines, by Terry Jones

What if you had a telephone that related not what you spoke but what you thought? What if bicycles carried out bank robberies? What if an elevator took you where you needed to go instead of where you wanted to go?  That’s the premise of a just a few of the entries in Evil Machines, where most normally inanimate objects live up to the book’s title.

It starts off as a collection of short stories: a woman gets a truth-telling telephone; a department store elevator captures a New Mexican bandit; two motorbikes and a bicycle form a gang; a preacher’s car kidnaps people. About halfway through, though, a train takes a businessman on an unexpected journey and all of the stories start linking together. Instead of a collection of thematically linked short stories, the book becomes a novella with a few set-up chapters. Not to say it doesn’t work – it does – but it was a little bit jarring to expect a new story and instead get a new chapter.

The humor and sense of ridiculousness you’d expect from Terry Jones is all there. There were many laugh-out-loud moments for me (why is Swindon so funny?). It’s got a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it; most of the stories feel like they’re set in the 1960s or so, certainly not in the present day. There’s an attention to brand names, but they’re treated like proper names for the machines, not as a status detail (Steig Larsson, I’m looking at you). The writing, overall, is clear and quirky and quick.

I also want to give a shout-out to the publisher, because they’re a relatively new thing: Unbound. It’s kind of like Kickstarter for books, where you donate to the projects you want to see published and if the necessary funds are raised (if there’s enough demand) the book becomes a reality. Ultimately it may even be sold in high street stores – I got this one at Waterstones. And of course donators and supporters get their names in the acknowledgements. I think it’s awesome in many ways, not least because I now have a fun hardcover of Terry Jones stories.

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The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I was recommended this book by BrittanyBrittanyBrittany, who described it – as many of the reviews have – as “Harry Potter for grownups”. In some ways, that’s true, but it manages to get past that and become absolutely its own book, where the only thing it has in common with Rowling’s world is the existence of a magical school, and a group of friends who have to save the world.

But the major difference between The Magicians and Harry Potter is that Brakebills is a college, with college-age students and all the accompanying “freedom from parents” activities that go along with going to university and becoming an adult, while Hogwarts is a prep school, where the students grow up but are still very structured and regulated. There’s a lot of sex and drinking in this book, both at Brakebills as people negotiate their place in whatever social group they end up in and afterwards as a way to stave off the boredom of real life and as an effort for Quentin, the main character, to establish some sort of sense and meaning.

For much of his time before and at Brakebills, Quentin reminded me of myself. Not with the sex and the drinking – okay, maybe a little with the drinking – but with his general outlook and understanding of his situation. Quentin, like me, didn’t dream of a future beyond university, didn’t have a life goal outside of education. He could do, potentially, everything, and therefore ended up doing essentially nothing.

(I didn’t do nothing, but I have spent most of the last ten years not knowing what I was going to be working towards next. Because I can do almost anything, because I have so many potential choices, I find it difficult to focus on any one thing, constantly terrified that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on and I would really be happier and more satisfied if I went in this direction, but now I’ve spent so much time on this that I haven’t been able to do that…. and that’s how I end up with teaching experience but no teaching qualifications, a couple of years in mind-numbing retail, and a hard drive filled with lists of ideas, half-begun stories, and manuscripts waiting for revision….)

The part that rang most true for me was the description of the last semester at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice oscillate between a fierce desire to cling on to familiarity and eke every last experience and memory out of Luther   Brakebills, and a desperate chafing at the restrictions and requirements and an almost angry impatience to start their “real lives.” It’s the best, most accurate depiction of senioritis I’ve ever read.

But Brakebills is only the beginning, of course. There are other dimensions, other worlds, and eventually our group goes to visit one, a Narnia-type place without (as far as I know) the blatant Christian parallels. They fight, they die (or nearly die), and Quentin, at least, learns that you can either engage fully with the world or disengage fully from it – there are no half-measures if you want to survive.

There are only two loose ends for me in this book. The first one is not very significant, I think: what is Quentin’s Discipline? I don’t really think the answer to this is essential – it’s ultimately just another way to categorize and/or isolate people, after all. It strikes me as something only marginally more self-defining than your stated major in college. It may affect how you do things in the wider world, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what you do.

The second lose end is Julia, Quentin’s adolescent crush who failed the Brakebills entrance exam and the subsequent memory wipe. If she hadn’t reappeared, begging for help, I probably would have forgotten about her, as Quentin had nearly forgotten about her, as you tend to forget about high school friends whose life experiences end up so radically different from your own. But she did reappear, and her story wasn’t really resolved, so the niggling question of “what happened to Julia” persists. (I did look at a blurb about the sequel, The Magician King, and it seems she’ll reappear there.)

It’s a very, very good book. It is not Harry Potter (in fact, it takes a few pains to point out that fact) – it’s a book for adults and possibly young adults rather than children. I wouldn’t give it to a 13-year-old. I might to a 16-year-old, as long as I didn’t think it would horribly depress and discourage them. It was captivating, a tiny notch lower on my personal absorption scale than Ready Player One and The Name of the Wind – but only a tiny notch. I am already actively seeking a copy of The Magician King. (And Codex, by the same author but not in the same storyworld, looks very interesting as well….)

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Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

I loved Bel Canto. Absolutely adored it. I thought that its portrayal of the tensions of a hostage situation were incredibly nuanced, and its depiction of the emotional power of music was incredibly moving. I thought that her prose was very lyrical and flowed incredibly well.

State of Wonder struck me in much the same way. It’s not a hostage situation, there are no musicians (although there is a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that is fantastically portrayed), but the sense of taking us into an extreme situation and making it feel real, making us sympathise with all the different perspectives without necessarily taking a stand on the morality of any of them, is still there. As is the lyrical prose. It was a joy to read, to immerse myself in the words and the world that she has established.

It’s a complicated world, spanning Minnesota and Brazil and navigating the tricky issues of fertility, research ethics, and truth. Race (the main character is half-Indian, half-white; the doctors are with a native tribe in the Amazon basin) is explored but not one of the major issues of the book, refreshingly. More important are the culture clash issues, connected with but not reliant on race. How do you shift from a lab in Minnesota to a village in Brazil? How does a white woman doctor navigate the politics between tribes with languages she can’t even speak?

More importantly, how to you balance the demands of research funding (and funders) with the demands of the research itself, or the researchers? Who needs to be accountable to whom? And, because fertility is such an issue, there’s also the matter of who is responsible for whom?

The characters are all very complex – but understandable even if you don’t like them. Even Dr. Swenson, who does some pretty horrible and amoral things, is understandable. And she does some very horrible, amoral if not actually immoral things. She also seems to feel that everyone who doesn’t act and react the same way that she does is lacking, or inferior in some way.

Marina is also very understandable, partially because she’s the main character. But while I did understand her, and identify with her, and empathise with her, I did realise (on reflection) that she’s really quite passive. Almost everything that happens in the book happens to her; nothing really happens because of her. Even the action she does take is propelled by other people, and she carries it out with a sense of inevitability: she acts because she can’t NOT act.

But, then, who among us wouldn’t do the same? Who, on being faced with the fact of the death of a friend and colleague, wouldn’t help his grieving widow understand, especially when her request coincides with a near-demand from your boss that you finish his job and retrieve his possessions? Who, on being abruptly taken into a completely alien world and culture, wouldn’t sit back and observe the situation, at least at first, and especially if you were scientifically trained? It’s letting things happen, but it’s also what makes her human.

[Sidenote: I’m 99% sure that Marina is pregnant at the end. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?]

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