Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Short version: I liked it. I don't actually remember the other Mission Impossible movies, so it's hard to compare. I'm assuming that means I liked this one best.

The mission was interesting enough. When their early plan to infiltrate the Kremlin goes terribly, terribly wrong and results in the shut-down of the IMF, the team has to carry out their main mission without backup. So all the spy gadgets I remember from past Mission Impossible movies aren't used here in quite the same way, or malfunction at the least convenient moments. Salt with Angelina Jolie (which did so many things right in its portrayal of an action-movie woman that I'm still amazed it got made) also started a great movement - women in action movies no longer have to run in heels. When someone takes off their stilletos before kicking your ass, you know they mean business.

Dubai was cool in Ghost Protocol (especially an epic dust storm that, oddly enough, brought me some moments of nostalgia), but the Indian scenes were colorful and swirly and awesome. I'm always heart-swooningly happy to see non-European countries featured in movies as places that aren't all about squalor and bloodlust.

A highlight for me was the BMW i8 Concept. I don't remember who drove it. I don't think it was part of a car chase. I do remember gasping and clutching at my chest, and angels playing harps up in the theater rafters. I love concept cars. It's like bringing chrome-and-glass science fiction to life. I'm assuming the version of this plug-in diesel hybrid that makes its way across the Atlantic will be very different. I sure would love to see this version at a car show, though.

The movie is worth seeing for the BMW alone, but I really think the story progression was entertaining. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol won't change your life (probably), but maybe action movies are taking a turn for the better, after hitting rock bottom with a certain 3-film action-movie franchise which also strongly features cars. I will confess that, since I went to see those other movies despite knowing the story would suck, I am indeed part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Random books: All British for Christmas week

Oops. I was going to post a version of this on Christmas eve, but life got in the way. I hope everyone spent Christmas (or the holiday season) the way they wanted to spend it, with the people they wanted to be with.

Books! More specifically, British books!

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas by Ariane Sherine
Genre: nonfiction

We read this collection for one of my book clubs. Many (if not most) of the comedians, philosophers, scientists, and authors who wrote chapters for it are English. Some entries are stellar, some I just skipped because I was falling asleep. As one would expect with any semi-random group, the authors are split about half and half between those who enjoy Christmas and those who don't.

My favorite chapter is "How To Escape From Christmas" by Andrew Mueller. People trying to opt out of Christmas dinners/shopping/decorating/craziness are usually either dismissed as Scrooges or immediately invited to the house of everyone with an extra chair, which means instead of guiltlessly sitting by the fire at home, you now have to delicately make your excuses, or lie to your thoughtful friends.

I LOVE Mueller's suggestion for getting out of this predictable discomfort - get on a plane late on December 24th that will be refueling in some conveniently non-Christian spot, and arrive in Australia on December 26th for beaches and sunshine. I think I'll try this next year.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: historical fiction/suspense

This one's going to take a while. And while it still has the big issue I can't ignore (solving everything using clues not mentioned before), it turns out Sherlock isn't boring at all. I'm really entertained by the character-in-print in a way I'm not by the popular-culture version of him.

For one thing, he doesn't instantly know everything. He doesn't know the earth orbits the sun, for instance, because the information is of absolutely no use to him. And once Watson told him, he resolved to instantly forget it, because "Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones." (A Study In Scarlet, Page 21). Specialization, folks. Sherlock said it first-ish.

I must admit I'm slogging through a WTF section right now about the misdeeds of a particular Mormon sect. But I'm hoping it'll eventually make its way back to 19th century London.

Unraveled by Courtney Milan
Genre: historical romance

Courtney Milan is my favorite romance author (I believe she's American; her characters are English, hence the inclusion in this post). I don't say that lightly, because the Romance genre is teeming with great writers who are routinely dismissed because they are often women who write about romance (men who write romance but call it something else, like Nicholas Sparks, get glowing reviews, accolades, and movies based on their books). Milan is not only an expert in Georgian/Regency/Victorian-era English law and law court decisions (and is (or was once) a lawyer in her day job), but she writes the most intriguing characters working through gut-twisting situations.

For instance! Unraveled is part of a series about three brothers. Their deranged mother abused them relentlessly. They couldn't go to anyone for help because their mother was the respected widow of the local lord, and very charitable, besides. She let their sister die because it was "God's will". She named them each for Bible verses. Not Biblical characters. VERSES. Of course they all go by shortened versions - Ash, Smite, and Mark.

When Ash takes off for India to make his fortune, their mother tries to kill Smite by starving him in the flooded cellar. Mark rescues him, and they run off, surviving on the streets of Bristol before their brother comes back and finds them. Ash is rich now, and determined to give his younger brothers everything he wanted and didn't have - an education at Eton, big houses, power. But Smite and Mark have now formed a bond that seems to exclude Ash, no matter what he tries. This is all backstory, but just think of what a skillful writer could do with characters with this sort of psychological damage.

Ash's story is Unveiled. He's set himself a mission to destroy the wealthy distant relation who refused to help them when they were in need. His love interest? The daughter of that family, who is equally determined to save her family from social and financial destruction.

Mark's story is Unclaimed. Mark is a sincere, funny, likeable guy who writes a hugely popular book on chastity. His love interest? A courtesan who's been hired by a political rival to take him down.

Smite's story is Unraveled. He is a dedicated magistrate. His love interest is a runner for the local crime boss.

Which brings me back to what I think is the oddest criticism made of romance novels. I don't hear complaints of fantasy for being stories where the hero always fulfills the quest. No one criticizes the police or detectives in suspense thrillers for always catching the bad guy. Why is the idea that two people are going to end up together at the end of the story so unpalatable? The question in genre stories is almost never If. It's How. And Courtney Milan is a master at the how. LOVE these books. Fiction doesn't get any better than this.

Kate: the Making of a Princess by Claudia Joseph
Genre: biography

Thirty pages in I was a little worried, because all I'd gotten was a detailed account of all her relatives who had suffered horrifying deaths in 19th century coal mines. But I'm in the WWII era now. It's a fascinating part of British history that's sobering and humanizing to me, because I tend to think of Britain as historically wreaking havoc on the rest of the world.

And that's last week's post!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Secrets in our world

I recently watched a Decoded episode about the Culper Ring, the spy network George Washington used to help the USA defeat the British during the Revolutionary War. The Culper Ring was made up of regular people like tavern keepers, farmers, tailors...and women. Their spymaster apparently realized women had the perfect cover, because no one ever suspected them of being anything other than the socially-agreed-upon obvious.

One of the female members of the ring, Anna Strong, used combinations of wet laundry hanging in the breeze to signal whether a contact had arrived, and which of six coves he was waiting in. Another woman, possibly from an aristocratic family, may have been crucial in discovering Benedict Arnold's plan to hand over West Point to the British.

Secret groups fascinate me. More than the excitement involved, it's the idea that what we're aware of is only the surface; that our world is so much more intricate and messed up than we think. The people involved do view the world differently than the rest of us, because they know things we don't. Talk about a unique viewpoint. In urban fantasy, that alternate world view often involves knowledge of magic. In Holly Black's book, it's tightly meshed with the history of organized crime.

White Cat by Holly Black

Genre urban fantasy

How it starts The last thing Cassel wants is attention, but he's doing a terrible job at keeping a low profile. He wakes up teetering on the edge of his prep school dorm roof, wearing only boxers. Calling for help draws a crowd. The camera phones come out. So do the jerks urging him to jump.

General Premise Cassel's the only regular person in a family of curse workers - people who can hurt you by touching you with a bare hand. Curse working is illegal, pushing those with the talent into being con artists or working for the mob. Unlike his family, Cassel's determined to be normal, but he's already haunted by the hazy memory of killing his best friend. When his brothers get drawn into a murky plot, Cassel realizes that in order to learn the truth about himself and his friend's death, he'll need to become the con artist he's never wanted to be.

Page 5 Quote

The last time I was in the headmistress's office, my grandfather was there with me to enroll me at the school. I remember watching him empty a crystal dish of peppermints into the pocket of his coat while Dean Wharton talked about what a fine young man I would be turned into. The crystal dish went into the opposite pocket.

Magic in our world

Holly Black does a masterful job at weaving curse magic into our history and politics. She did a ton of fascinating research into con men and the crime underworld, adding even more depth. This is one of a handful of books where I read to the end, turned right around and read the whole thing again.

There's also the brilliant ads for these books, showing awesome public service announcements against curse-working. I've read the second Curse Workers book, Red Glove, and am anxiously waiting for Black Heart, coming out next year.

A few other books that weave secret magic into our world:

Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan
Genre: historical fantasy

Queen Elizabeth I made a pact with the faerie queen, allowing her to gain the throne and lead a flourishing England. But every conflict in England's royal and political courts affects the Fae court underneath the streets of London, and thirty years after the pact, Elizabeth no longer seems to be toeing the line. When the faerie queen sends disgraced courtier Lune to redeem herself by secretly influencing Elizabeth's spymaster, Lune's task is complicated by Michael, a member of Elizabeth's court and protege of the spymaster, even as the secrets behind the two thrones pushes the world towards war.

This book led not only to my fascination with Tudor monarchs in general, Elizabeth I in particular, and the spymasters who foiled (or instigated) all sorts of plots around her, but was also my gateway to many more books about the Fae.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Genre: urban fantasy

Aislinn's grandmother has always warned her to keep it secret that she can see faeries - especially from the faeries. But the one now stalking Aislinn can't be ignored. He's the Summer King, and he's convinced Aislinn is the queen he's been searching nine centuries for. Unfortunately, his attention is endangering Aislinn's brand new relationship - and her life.

I wouldn't have picked this up if not for Midnight Never Come, but I'm so glad I did. I love the Wicked Lovely books and short stories. Not that the two are anything alike, other than the Fae elements. Midnight Never Come is very much political/historical suspense with strong fantasy aspects, while the Wicked Lovely books are dark love stories set against a backdrop of Fae courts.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
Genre: urban fantasy, historical

This book is a fascinating blend of recent Irish history and ancient folklore. Until I read Of Blood and Honey, I was far more familiar with the official English version of The Troubles than I was with the Irish account. Words can't express how impressed I was with this book. And Leicht is definitely not afraid to put her characters through hell. I'm not sure when the second book comes out, but you can see its gorgeous cover on Leicht's livejournal.

Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: urban fantasy

No faeries in this one, but the demons and magicians supply plenty of modern-day action, when we aren't being entertained by the two sets of siblings who are the main characters. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many times I've reread this series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Child narrators

Jason O'Mara and Stephen Lang
I watched the season finale of Terra Nova yesterday. Check out the original script of the pilot episode. Or better yet, this summary. It started out as a darker show. Less-admirable main family. Less "shiny" colony camp. No watered-down plot to attract a general audience. Harsher premise that was, IMO, harder to mess up with lame dialogue.

Still, they're doing many things right - a science fiction premise, lots of minority and female actors, and Stephen Lang looking even more kick-ass and science-fiction-y than he did in Avatar. And dinosaurs; don't forget those.

But there was a point where the little girl asked if she could shoot the gun if their camp was attacked. Her mother laughed and said no. Like every third line or so in Terra Nova, it struck me as a missed opportunity. I wasn't sure if we were supposed to be surprised that Zoe wanted to shoot the gun or defend her family or what. There's nothing remotely surprising about that. When girls are allowed to be themselves, some like dolls, some like guns, many like both, and most love their families. I had hoped they'd set up the question for a slightly more imaginative reaction from her mom.

Which (very loosely) leads me back to
The Rich Part of Life by Jim Kokoris

I'd forgotten how funny and poignant this book is, and in rereading it I never once got that deflating feeling of seeing a potentially great setup followed by the most predictable result, which is what Terra Nova has done all season (I'm still watching it, though - there's almost no science fiction on television, and beggars can't be choosers).

Quick recap from my earlier post on The Rich Part of Life:

Genre General fiction

How it starts Teddy's mother played the lottery for years before she died in a car accident. On a mournful whim, Teddy's father plays her lottery numbers - and wins $190 million. Eleven-year-old Teddy starts planning out what he wants to buy, beginning with two mountain bikes for himself and one for five-year-old Tommy, and a farm in Wisconsin.

General premise Teddy's father, a civil war historian, hasn't yet recovered from his wife's death, so Teddy takes care of little Tommy and keeps an eye on his dad. When they win the lottery, in swoop his uncle (a director of failed vampire movies), and his great-aunt (who constantly exclaims in Greek even though she's lived her entire life in Chicago). Everyone in the small town wants a share of the money. Since his father isn't around much, Teddy gets the requests, including those from a classmate who regularly writes his African penpal to ask for money; the school officials who want a new furnace; and the hot woman across the street, whose son has warned Teddy that if their parents sleep together, he's going to kick Teddy's ass.

(Ordinarily I'd consider this a spoiler, but it's mentioned in the official book description on Amazon, so I'll use it as a "good writing" example.) Once the family wins the lottery, people crawl out of the woodwork to ask for money - including Teddy's biological dad, a wife-abusing low-life. Teddy's recently learned his mother was in the process of divorcing his absent-minded-professor-dad when she died, and hadn't even known he had any father other than the professor. In the background, Teddy's professor-dad and uncle are frantically dealing with lawyers and phone calls, but no one actually tells Teddy what he needs to hear - the only father he's ever known wants to keep him.

Anyway, he has this conversation with his five-year-old brother, Tommy:

Page 252 Quote
After I finished and was getting in bed, Tommy asked me if I was still his brother. He was sitting on the floor, sucking his thumb and hugging his candy bag with his free arm, like a life preserver.
"Jerry Ryan says you're just a half-brother."

"I don't know," I said. Tommy's question made my heart drop. "I guess I'm your half-brother."

Tommy continued to suck his thumb, a sure sign that he was deep in thought.

"What half of you is my brother?" he asked.

Child narrators

This book surprised and amused me over and over. It's cringe-inducingly realistic - adults can be shameless in the presence of money, and so often kids say exactly what they shouldn't, and keep to themselves the things that need to be asked or said. Oh, and then there's the civil war battle re-enactment they get dragged into, where, God help us, the organization paid black actors to be the slaves (because, they said, they didn't have any black people in their organization). Oy.

I wonder how this book would be different if it came out today. Teddy might be older, to draw in the YA market. Or Uncle Frank, easily the snarkiest and most outrageous family member, might be the narrator. Actually, I don't know what sorts of things people who write literary fiction are told - most of my reading about what every writer has to do this week is in genre fiction.

I miss child narrators. I've read more than one agent blog that suggests burying the age of an under-21 narrator unless you're writing YA. I'm assuming thousands of writers have heard this advice, too, because I can't remember the last time I read a newly-published adult book narrated by a kid. Such a missed opportunity for unique viewpoint.

This is why I profile old books as well as new ones - some things are just different from anything being published today. Different, and sometimes better.

More child narrators:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Genre: YA-ish

I don't have much to say about this. It gets lots of attention, many people think it's a great book, and you probably read it in school.

I find Harper Lee herself really fascinating. Just one book? Apparently she wrote short stories before this one, and has some half-finished pieces she's abandoned because they weren't turning out like she wanted. I understand the success of her first book would be impossible to top, but still. Maybe she has a million stories stashed in her drawers that relatives will publish after her death and other writers will be outraged by because if she'd wanted them published she would have done it herself.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Genre: historical

Unlike the one above, this is a book I keep meaning to go back and reread, partly because of how I felt about it when I read it, but also because in reading the reviews I'm wondering if I would get even more out of it now. Is this school-reading, too? I think I read it on my own.

This coming-of-age story starts in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 20th century, and follows 11-year-old Francie Nolan as she grows up.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Genre: MG?

Technically this doesn't belong here, as I'm profiling books I think were meant for an adult audience, whether or not they're sold as YA or assigned in school. But Diary of a Wimpy Kid, about a boy navigating the pitfalls of middle school,  is entertaining at every age level. It's also managed to offend people who think kids should only read about people who change for the better. Oh, well. I think Greg is sharp, lazy, sarcastic, self-centered, and totally hilarious.

More child narrators?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Action sequence

I just saw
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
It was SO much better than the first one, I don't even know where to begin. The first one wasn't bad - visually stunning, though I could take or leave the story. This one is my kind of movie storytelling! A villain whose motivations make sense, women who don't wait around to be rescued, great characters playing off each other, gorgeous steampunky elements. This is worth seeing for the action sequences alone.

On the other hand, my husband, who was eager to see it, didn't think it was better than the first one, and thought everything in Game of Shadows had been played up to attract a specific subset of American movie-goers (I disagreed, but we're assimilated Americans from different continents, so we always come at such things from opposing viewpoints). YMMV.

I loved everything about it, except my biggest complaint about all the Sherlock Holmes stories I've tried - he always solves crimes based on things no one bothered to mention or focus on earlier in the story. But the awesome movie led me to look up a bunch of stuff.

First, Guy Ritchie. I've seen Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and half of Snatch - brilliant, but just too violent for me. That's something I really like about his Sherlock Holmes movies - as the violence is going on, you're hearing Holmes's clinical breakdown of the fight moves, like he's delivering a chess match play-by-play. It's used to better effect in Game of Shadows than in the first one, though explaining how might be a bit spoilery (I've seen the explanation in other reviews, though).

I also love what they've done with the, complicated relationship between Holmes and Watson. This movie wasn't written with the assumption that the entire audience would be straight males dragging along reluctant girlfriends who would rather be at a chick flick. There's no gratuituous female nudity (though there is one hilarious scene where we see more of Stephen Fry than I'd expected), and no weak romantic subplot, either. Actually, no romance at all. Just delightful give and take between Holmes and Watson.

After reading an interview where they asked Guy Ritchie about the "even more overt man-love" between Holmes and Watson, and his response that he got that from the books, I thought, "Hmm." I remember fighting my way through two chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles before giving up and immersing myself in The Elfstones of Shannara instead. I was also eleven years old. Which is not to say eleven-year-olds can't appreciate Sherlock Holmes. Just that at that age I wasn't likely to give a classic a chance to get interesting if it didn't grab me immediately. Incidentally, I'm even less likely to now, but my tastes have changed, somewhat.

I digress. I went looking for articles and found out that Holmes of the books was indeed a martial-arts-employing ass-kicker, something I'd assumed had been invented for the movies. And if that was true to canon, what else was?

So now I'm giving the Sherlock Holmes stories another shot. Maybe I'll get more out of them this time. I also plan to at least try every movie with a script written by Kieran and Michele Mulroney. This movie had so many great lines, though the only two I remember right now are "They spared every expense," and "satanic ponies" (which again, my husband doesn't think is funny at all, but which is so incongruous I can't stop smiling over it). The last script that interested me enough to look up the creator was Firefly. I'll blog about that once I get over it being canceled.

Here's a BBC article about how the story in the movie came together...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lottery winners

In writing a completely different post about this book, I realized I'd read other books about lottery winners. This is my favorite, though...

The Rich Part of Life by Jim Kokoris

Genre General fiction

How it starts Teddy's mother played the lottery for years before she was killed in a car accident. On a mournful whim, Teddy's father plays her lottery numbers - and wins $190 million. Eleven-year-old Teddy starts planning out what he wants to buy, beginning with two mountain bikes for himself and one for five-year-old Tommy, and a farm in Wisconsin.

General premise Teddy's father, a civil war historian, hasn't yet recovered from his wife's death, so Teddy takes care of little Tommy and keeps an eye on his dad. When they win the lottery, in swoop his uncle (a director of failed vampire movies), and his great-aunt (who constantly exclaims in Greek even though she's lived her entire life in Chicago). Everyone in the small town wants a share of the money. Since his father isn't around much, Teddy gets to relay the requests, including those from a classmate who regularly writes his African penpal to ask for money; the school officials who want a new furnace; and the hot woman across the street, whose son has warned Teddy that if their parents sleep together, he's going to kick Teddy's ass.

Page 12 Quote

"When did your wife die?" a reporter asked.
"A year ago. A year ago today actually. Yes, today."
"She's up in heaven though," Tommy said. "She's up in heaven and we're going to to pay some money to get her to come back."

Lottery winners

I've known people who won the diversity lottery, but not millions in cash - not that I can think of, anyway. Apparently more lottery winners are back in debt in a few years than go on to live a long life of luxury. This American Life had a piece about a guy whose job was buying the remaining annual payments off broke lottery winners so they could pay their current bills.

The Rich Part of Life isn't exactly a rags-to-riches story, and the lottery is mostly a catalyst for change. Teddy's dad is the only one in town unaffected by the money, since, except for his wife's death, he already has the life he wants. Because his father can't - or won't - pay attention, Teddy gets a lot of the attention his dad should be dealing with: the confusion (and scorn) because they haven't bought anything extravagant, the concerned questions when little Tommy starts acting up in school, and the plethora of outrageous requests that is the daily life of lottery winners.

I'll write about child narrators in a different post, because that's a fascinating part of this book and where the constant humor comes from.

Pot of Gold by Judith Michael
Genre: single title romance? Romantic suspense?

I haven't read Pot of Gold in years, but it also revolves around an introvert whose lottery win upends her life. Claire's biggest problem isn't managing the money or the requests for it, but the rich parasites who want to prey on her and lure in her gorgeous, underage daughter with fame, fashion and drugs.

Claire is a thirty-four-year-old woman, and not particularly stunning or take-charge. Kind of rare in this golden age of aggressive YA fiction. How often do you see a fully-dressed adult woman (including her face! Sort of) on a fiction cover these days?

Burn by Linda Howard
Genre: romantic suspense

Jenner has finally gotten used to her massive lottery win. But a vacation with her best friend turns into a nightmare when they're taken hostage by a group that doesn't seem interested in money.

Leaving aside the Stockholm Syndrome aspects, this was an interesting experience for me. I read a lot about finance in school and beyond. Seeing the same information over and over in articles and web clips always made me wonder if people really needed to hear such basic things about accounting and debt. Near the beginning of Burn, Jenner's fumbling with a phone book, trying to figure out under what she should look up a money manager. The scene was masterfully set up, and eye-opening. More knowledge is available to us now than at any other time in history. But only for those with access to it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Random Day: More of the currently-reading pile

I just finished a novella,
Once Upon A Winter's Eve by Tessa Dare
Genre: Regency romance

Violet's playing wallflower in the corner of an English ballroom when a gorgeous Frenchman stumbles in and falls at her feet. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, this is not a good thing. Even tied up and waiting for the soldiers stationed at the garrison, the man isn't harmless - he represents exactly the danger Violet left London to escape.

I love Tessa Dare, and I like the background premise of the Spindle Cove books. Spindle Cove is basically a retreat for young ladies in Regency England whose parents have decided they aren't quite normal - they're more interested in reading or geology than in needlework and dancing, or maybe they got caught up in scandal and need to disappear until the gossip dies down. [Un]fortunately, a garrison's just been stationed at the once-abandoned castle at Spindle Cove, and the regiment has a number of good-looking young men from appropriate (and not-so-appropriate) backgrounds. Interesting women and hot guys in uniform; what's not to like?

For Tessa Dare's titles that blew me away, I recommend the first books in her other two trilogies, Goddess of the Hunt and One Dance with a Duke.

I'm reading The Flinch by Julien Smith
No idea how to categorize this book. "Self-examination" doesn't quite cover it, but neither does anything else I can think of.

Published by The Domino Project, here's their description:

The idea is simple: your flinch mechanism can save your life. It shortcircuits the conscious mind and allows you to pull back and avoid danger faster than you can even imagine it’s there.

But what if danger is exactly what you need?

The basic gist is that what's stopping you from achieving more isn't know-how; it's pain-avoidance. The instincts humans developed to keep from being eaten by velociraptors (just kidding!) are now keeping us from public speaking and joining gyms and taking other uncomfortable risks that could vastly improve our lives.

So far, the book assumes you've only got first world problems, but considering it's e-book only, that's not an unreasonable assumption about its readership. The Flinch is free, and so far, worth reading.

Because I had book-club books to read, I haven't finished
Witch by Marie Brennan
Genre: fantasy

I'm as impressed with it as I was with Warrior. One of the fascinating concepts in these books is the idea of meeting yourself as the product of a different upbringing. A twin, no matter how similar, is a completely different person. A clone is exactly the same person with the same memories. This is different. What would it be like to have grown up as, say, a street urchin, and then met your other self who spent her life at elite schools? You'd understand your other self well enough to know what you would or wouldn't do in certain circumstances, and yet you don't know what has shaped the other you, and so can't actually predict which one of a few likely choices the other you would make. What would it be like, arguing with someone who understands you perfectly and vice versa, but doesn't actually know you?

Something else I love is that there's no romance element. There might be one later, but not so far. I don't mind romance at all, as evidenced by my love of Tessa Dare and other romance writers, but I've heard disturbing stories of female authors being pushed by agents/editors to include strong romance elements in any book with a female protagonist. The existence of Warrior and Witch means someone recognized great storytelling on its own, without trying to shape it to their idea of what the market wants. The market wants everything!

There's so much more I like about the Doppelganger books. Lots of unlikely choices and impossible situations for the characters. The religious and philosophical details of the politics they're dealing with. And the Hunters - I would happily read a hundred stories set in the Hunter schools. Love that concept.

I like how these books deal with devastating news, too - Mirei's life has been upended, and then she finds out that the only people she can trust without reservation are lost to her. They're both alive, but unavailable in any way that counts - no conveniently-plotted deaths here. No wiping out entire families or villages, only for everyone to move on emotionally unscathed. I mentioned this about Warrior, but I REALLY appreciate that Marie Brennan doesn't write easy deaths. The body count in fiction has been steadily rising IMO (even if you don't count "armies-of-thousands" deaths typical of epic fantasy, which is a whole other issue). I'm far more interested in having a wide variety of books available than in having my personal tastes indulged, but I'm really happy with agents/editors who market fantasy books not dripping with blood. In fact, I'm still waiting for high fantasy where no one dies. :)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Unusual IQ

Writing smart people is easy - just give them knowledge everyone else has to look up or figure out. But to write someone who's less smart than average, without making them TSTL or even just too slow to be interesting? That takes real skill.

Which brings us to...

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Genre fantasy

How it starts Master Jaffar's parrot is dead. He summons the captain of his guard, Asim, and tells him the bird might have been poisoned. Not knowing what else to do, Asim examines the dead bird to much mockery by the court poet.

General premise After hearing disturbing predictions from a fortune teller, Captain Asim, Scholar Dabir, and their master, Jaffar, rescue a man from armed pursuers. He dies midway through his warning of danger, leaving them with a dangerous artifact that's soon stolen from them. Jaffar sends Asim and Dabir to recover the treasure, and they find themselves embroiled in the peril and black magic of ambitious enemies.

Page 63 quote

"I cannot say much of the journey's first night, for I spent much of it hunched over the boat's side, heaving, and the rest of it lying under the boat's awning wondering when next I might. Between the wondering and the doing I groaned occasionally and for the first time in my life looked back fondly upon the time I was knocked unconscious from a blow to the helm and lay stunned in the dirt of the practice yard.

 ....I was awakened not by the sun....but by the twang of an oud. I opened my eyes a crack to find the cursed poet sitting beside me, an instrument to hand. His long wisp of a beard quivered as he grinned at me. I growled at him to go away, but instead he sang, plucking at the strings all the while."

Unusual IQ

As with all good books, this one does so many thing well - recreating 8th century Baghdad and the rich feel of Shaharazad's One Thousand and One Nights, the impressive characterization, and the bond of many years of friendship between Asim and Dabir. And Sabirah, Jaffar's brilliant young niece, navigating a world that restricts her freedom, but managing to get educated and have adventures anyway. Female characters by male fantasy writers are very hit or miss, but Jones did a great job with Sabirah.

I highlight Asim's less-than-average IQ because it's done so smartly. It's hard to explain. He's strong and apparently handsome, definitely street-smart enough to protect his master and himself. But he's surrounded by really sharp people, many of them scholars and intellectuals, and he's just slow enough that sometimes when he trusts his judgment above theirs, things go terribly, terribly wrong, and then we get to watch them work their way out of it, and it's just awesome. I also love how he always manages to talk things around in his own mind, so that instead of being the cause of their current dilemma, he's actually done everyone a favor.

I'm not the type to beat up on pseudo-medieval-European fantasy, because when it's done well it makes me so, so happy, but fantasy like this, set in the Middle East with its varying cultures and mythologies and history...well. We need more books like this. And those set in cultures drawn from South America, Africa, and Asia, too.

Other books with protagonists who are different from their peers, IQ-wise:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Genre: General fiction

Christopher has Asperger's syndrome. He knows all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7057, but he can't read people's expressions. He finds his neighbor's poodle in the yard with a pitchfork sticking out of its side, and after being accused of the murder, decides to find out who did it. In doing so, he learns other things - like the truth about his mother's death.

This book is chock-full of great moments and memorable quotes. Like on Page 3, when he finds the dog:

"I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk."

Or on Page 24, when he's talking to Mr. Jeavons, the school psychologist:

"Mr. Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy.

I said that I wasn't clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn't clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder. Or if you see someone's name and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a=1, b=2, etc.) and you add the number up in your head and find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby-Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167).

Mr. Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did. Then he asked if I didn't like things changing. And I said I wouldn't mind things changing if I became an astronaut, for example, which is one of the biggest changes you can imagine, apart from becoming a girl or dying."

Christopher thinks of everything in terms of numbers or logic or how definitions differ from the way people use words. The story is crafted so well that we immediately know how the people around him feel and what they think, even though he doesn't. I've read some award-winning books that left me feeling like someone stuck two dictionaries in a blender and presented us with the results. But this book was just...brilliant.

Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs
Genre: fantasy

Ward is a little different from the others I've talked about here. He's spent his life pretending to be less intelligent than he is, so his father won't accuse him of treachery and kill him. When his father dies and he becomes ruler, he learns the family secret about the power available to him from the ghost that isn't a ghost. But Ward's also played an idiot for so long that he's now a target for nobles who think he's incapable of ruling.

The Lion of Senet by Jennifer Fallon
Genre: fantasy

A brilliant mathematician calculated when the second sun would disappear, vital information for keeping the religious establishment in power. In the midst of war, he vanished without telling anyone when the Age of Darkness would begin. But High Priestess Belagren has found another gifted mathematician in seventeen-year-old Dirk Provin, and even though his mother is a political dissident who hates the High Priestess and everything she represents, Belagren's determined to have him.

This is probably my favorite fantasy of all time. It influenced my tastes so strongly that I no longer feel magic is a necessary element in fantasy, while I'm less likely to pick up a fantasy novel if it doesn't contain intrigue at high levels (politics or religion).

Dirk is just fascinating. If I recall correctly, Jennifer Fallon's premise for him was "How many bad things can a character do and still be sympathetic?" That surprised me, because even though he's thinking ten times faster than everyone around him, there's obvious logic in all his decisions and I was rooting for him the whole time. Dirk is my favorite male character under 30.

Other books with atypical-IQ protagonists?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Darrell K Sweet

I posted recently about cover art that drew me to purchase books. Darrell K. Sweet was one of the artists I mentioned, specifically the painter of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time covers. He died yesterday, a great loss for fantasy art, but so much more importantly, for his family and friends.

Read the tribute on Tor's web site (the publishers of Robert Jordan's books) and on Dragonmount (a WoT community web site). Take a look at their images of stunning paintings he created. Read the comments and see how many other people discovered new worlds in fantasy because they were enthralled by his art.

Mr. Sweet, you will be missed.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Random Day: early December reading

I'm pretty pleased with my books this week!

Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon
Genre: crossgenre fantasy/historical fiction

Lord John Grey is on a mission to track down spies and traitors threatening the Crown. He’s furious when his brother enlists Jamie Fraser to help him translate secret documents. Fraser, Scottish laird and prisoner of the English after the Jacobite Rising of 1745, has as much reason to hinder their cause as to help them. Also, things didn’t end well the last time Fraser and Grey met.
I finished Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner, and it didn't disappoint. I adore Lord John Grey himself (especially as a secondary character in the Outlander series), but must admit I've been ambivalent about the series on his own life. Unlike the Outlander books, the Lord John books are mysteries a la Sherlock Holmes (for lack of a better comparison), and they've always left me vaguely puzzled when I got to the end and couldn't figure out all the jumps made to solve whatever he'd been sent out to handle. I loved being steeped in Gabaldon's rich descriptions of the Georgian era, but the plots I could take or leave.

Until now. The Scottish Prisoner is by far my favorite of the Lord John books. It's also a bit more...I believe the term we use in the USA is "explicit"... than I recall the others being, but I doubt blushing's ever killed anyone, so I'll be all right. They're supposed to be standalones, but involve a lot of names, relationships, and backstory. Hard to say how difficult the background details are to keep straight, since I've read all the previous books.

Now I'm reading
The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu
Genre: Historical fiction

I'm not sure how I found this book. I may have clicked on an ad, or it might have been recommended on Goodreads or Amazon or something. The writing is so lush, the beginning so fairy-tale like, I thought I was reading something like Laini Taylor's Lips Touch.

It starts out with a dreamy girl sneaking out of her house against her parents' wishes, to consult the fortune teller in the woods just like all her friends have done. I was instantly enthralled.

And then someone mentioned the Nazis.

I'm still reading, but now I'm tense, with my shoulders hunched up around my ears, waiting for something horrible to happen. I went through a phase in high school where I read stacks of books about WWII. I got a good education in man's cruelty to man. It boggles the mind that people could do such horrible things to other people they knew, and have continued to do so, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Sudan, in Syria, everywhere. One person hurting another in secret is bad enough. Large groups hurting other large groups, out in the open...we should know better by now. We should be able to talk each other into doing the right thing. But we don't, and it's really depressing. So The Silence of Trees is gorgeously written, but I may finding it too sad to finish. We'll see.

One more book.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Genre: YA

I mentioned Lips Touch: Three Times, a book of short stories, magical in content and effect. But until I heard Laini read a short story at the Sirens Conference, I hadn't realized just how much her writing makes me swoon.

Sometimes you can feel how hard a writer worked to come up with a brilliant description or metaphor. But Laini's writing is so right and so effortless, which is of course incredibly hard to accomplish. For instance:

Page 29 He looked like an escapee from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Page 121 "There, there," he said, his voice ringing hollow of compassion. "He can't see it. It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry 'Monster!' and looked behind him."

Page 258 She had the dead eyes of a jihadist.

Laini looks like she belongs in one of her stories, with pink hair and a sweet smile. She spins magic and longing and anticipation into exquisite tales. It seems like an odd choice even to me, but I would describe her writing as "fearless". Such naked hope and unabashed wistfulness, building into either delight or crushing disappointment over and over, and no warning of which one's coming. I think the depth of longing her characters embody isn't something adults are comfortable admitting to feeling. Which is probably why her books touch us so deeply. And why her books are sold as YA.

For a proper review of the book, read Rachel Hanley's take.

So that's this week's selection. What are you reading?

Thursday, December 1, 2011


How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

I had a different book picked out for the "Most Heartbreaking" title, but I'll give it a shout-out at the end instead. This book snuck up on me - I read about a quarter of it and set it aside for almost a month. Not sure what made me pick it back up. I can't say I liked this book. "Like" is such a trite word to use for the wrenching experience I had. Especially since I might not have the strength to read it again. It was too hard on me. Maybe the same reason I haven't reread most of the books I'll mention here.

The basics...

Genre YA

How it starts Beatrice is holding a funeral for the new pet gerbil, Goebbels. Her mother, who had wanted to name him Peaches, calls Bea a robot because she's not crying.

Quote Location 132 - my Kindle version doesn't have page numbers; maybe they've updated since I bought it.

In Ithaca I'd listened to the radio to fall asleep - the Bob Decker Show out of Albany, full of late-night conspiracy talk about the pyramids, alien invasions, shadow people, 9/11, clairvoyant spies, the Kennedy assassination, and on and on. Somehow the paranoia in the callers' voices soothed me. I guess I found it reassuring to know I wasn't the only one who felt a vague, hard-to-define anxiety and was looking for something to pin it on.

General premise Bea's family moves all the time. Now they're in a small town for her senior year, where everyone has known everyone else since kindergarten. Bea tells herself she doesn't care, until she meets Jonathan, who everyone else calls Ghost Boy. He's pale and quiet and very white. The class held a funeral for him once, complete with eulogy about how much they would have missed him if he'd ever said or done anything memorable, and after that they'd jump like they'd seen a ghost every time he walked into the room. Turns out Jonathan actually had a twin brother who had been in a car crash with their mother. Shortly after Beatrice meets him, he finds out his father has been lying to him for years, and his brother is alive and in a home for the mentally disabled. Jonathan decides he's going to rescue his brother, and things spiral from there.


This book has a desperate beauty to the friendship between Bea and Jonathan. The focus is definitely friendship, with dysfunctional families a close second. I don't think the friendship was a healthy one for Bea, but having a healthy friendship with someone as emotionally scarred as Jonathan would probably be impossible.

The characters were so real and so peculiar, in ways that didn't feel designed for their audience (whether that's the readers or the other people in the book). I don't think I'd particularly like Bea and Jonathan, or the things they did together. But I can understand wholehearted glee at something you connect with that just sounds weird when you try to describe it to other people (like the late night radio show they listened to), or dreading what everyone else is convinced will thrill you, and proving yourself right (like dating the most popular boy). A lot of stories about "weird" teens make them sound like they're rebelling for rebelling's sake. And lots of kids do. But in this case, it genuinely felt like Bea and Jonathan were being true to themselves, and were okay with being different because what everyone else liked would make them miserable.

This book made me cry. It was heart-wrenching.

Other sad books:

Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb
Genre: fantasy

Fool's Fate was my original choice for this post. It's been so long since I read it, I don't even remember the plot, just the gut-punch of how it made me feel. The idea of reading it again to remind myself freaked me out a little. It's part of a much larger story starting with The Farseer Trilogy, where Fitz, an illegitimate son of the royal family, is raised almost from birth to be an assassin for the king.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Genre: Science fiction

Jared Dirac is a member of a unique military unit called the Ghost Brigades, created from the DNA of dead recruits and then seriously genetically enhanced. Unlike the others, Jared was cloned from a living person, Charles Boutin, who has defected to the enemy with secrets the Colonial Defense Force is desperate to keep. At first Jared seems like a failed experiment as he has none of Boutin's memories, but slowly they start to filter into his brain, creating conflict between the viewpoint he inherited with his DNA, and the soldier he has to be.
My second choice for this post. It made me so sad I actually reread it hoping I'd missed something. I hadn't. I think it's safe to say this is the only SF I've read that made me sob like someone died.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
Genre: historical fiction

Ralph Truitt places an ad for a "simple, honest" woman to be his wife, but the mysterious beauty who shows up is anything but. Her plan is to be a wealthy widow as soon as she can make it happen.

I think what made this book sad wasn't so much how it made me feel, as that the characters seemed to be living unhappy lives of their own making. Realistic and sad aren't necessarily synonymous, but both work as labels here.

Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Genre: fantasy

Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a suicidal homeless man and finds herself engulfed in an epic struggle between gods.

Probably the most satisfying sad book I've ever read. I can confidently say I didn't feel that way about the other books I've profiled. For the others, I might have been happier (and relieved) if the characters had made different decisions. With this one, the characters would have had to make a completely different but not necessarily better journey to end up with a happier story.

I'm almost afraid to ask about other sad books that work well. I'm not sure I could take any more right now...

Monday, November 28, 2011


Siblings aren't celebrated nearly enough. And when they are the focus of the story, rivalry comes up far more often than devotion. So, in honor of siblings with the kind of bone-deep love that fiction often assumes is only possible between young women and supernatural beings, or only runs one-way from mothers to their kids, I give you:

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

I've looked all over Sarah Rees Brennan's site and can't find the reference, but I believe she said Nick was supposed to be that hot, dangerous guy women are always falling for - except he's exactly what he seems. No heart of gold, no nice-guy-faking-gruff-exterior-to-hide-pain.

Nick is one of the most fascinating protagonists I've ever read. I think it would be more accurate to say Nick presents as a psychopath than that he is one. Like psychopaths, Nick lacks empathy, doesn't care what others think of him, and can be charming (in his case, seductive) when he feels like it. Unlike psychopaths, Nick never lies, and he doesn't make excuses for his actions.

The only person Nick cares about is his older brother Alan. And while Alan will do literally anything for Nick, he's a warm, friendly people-person, and so is often confused and disappointed by the way Nick chooses to show his love (usually by calling him stupid and fleeing at the first sign of affection). I'm not making this sound like the witty, heart-warming, amazing book that it is. Sarah Rees Brennan does a much better job with her characters than I do describing them.

This isn't the only sibling relationship in the book. There's also Mae and her younger brother Jamie. Unlike Nick and Alan, who take care of their mother and can barely make ends meet, Mae and Jamie have rich, busy, absent, divorced parents. When it comes to familial affection, all they have is each other.

Genre Urban fantasy

How it starts First lines:

The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.

Someone who could read that and not keep going has more willpower than I do!

General Premise Nick and Alan have spent their lives running from magicians who want the charm keeping their mother alive. When Mae and Jamie arrive on their doorstep looking for help, Nick wants to kick them out, but Alan's attempt to help leads to his being marked by a demon. Now the only way to save his life is to fight the magicians hunting them.

Ugh. I hate trying to summarize gorgeous books with a few sentences. This isn't consomme. You can't reduce books like this to something retaining the richness of the whole.


I'm all for messed-up relationships in fiction, but occasionally you want the conflict to be somewhere else. You want the character to have a solid bond with someone who has a well-rounded life of their own, not just a cardboard cutout whose death (or whatever) motivates the main character into action. Mae and Jamie are friends as well as siblings, and it makes you smile to see them interact and protect each other. Nick and Alan are just as witty and entertaining, but the dangerous lives they lead have resulted in personality quirks making for amazing characterization.

Two more books with a strong sibling bond:

The Millionaires by Brad Meltzer
Genre: suspense

As you can tell by the size of his name versus the title of the book, Brad Meltzer is pretty hot stuff. He's currently hosting a History Channel show called Decoded. It largely consists of him standing in front of a black background with sciency-looking symbols moving around on it, explaining the mystery-du-jour to us, while his team (an attorney, an engineer, and a historian) tracks down crackpots with "proof" for their conspiracy theories and tries to pretend they're taking these people seriously. I think the engineer has the hardest time with this pretense - she spends most of the meetings failing at faking that wide-eyed awe that the historian does so well. She totally has my sympathies, because I couldn't do it, either.

Still, they've done episodes on the missing White House cornerstone, the Spear of Destiny (the spear that pierced Jesus's side on the cross, which megalomaniacs like Justinian, Charlemagne, numerous emperors and popes, and Hitler have supposedly owned at one time or another), D.B. Cooper, and General Patton's death, among other things. I'm perfectly willing to sit through conspiracy theories if they come cloaked in histo-tainment.

I read The Millionaires in college, thought it was great, and forgot about it until years later when I found myself breathlessly listening to a book review on NPR. It was Brad Meltzer talking about Replay. I immediately rushed to Amazon to buy the book, but it was sold out (pretty rare for a twenty-year-old book), and thanks to the review, remained sold out for weeks. I didn't even know that many people listened to NPR!

As it turned out, the most fascinating things about Replay were the premise and what Meltzer managed to see in it. Yes, in case you haven't guessed, author Ken Grimwood is dead, so I don't think it will get back to him that I was a bit let-down by what he did with his fascinating premise - a 43-year-old man keeps dying of a heart attack, going back into his younger self and reliving his life. Because he knows what's coming, he makes different decisions each time, resulting in consequences he hadn't anticipated. He's also running out of time. Each repeat goes back less far than the one before it, but he keeps dying at 43, and now he's desperate to figure out how to change his future, not just his past.

None of this has anything to do with siblings! Back to The Millionaires. Oliver and Charlie are brothers working at the same private bank, Oliver as a junior partner, Charlie in the back office. Charlie has a chronic disease requiring expensive medication, which is why Oliver is still stuck at a job he should have moved on from long ago. When Oliver realizes he's being sabotaged by the senior partner he trusted most, he succumbs to Charlie's urging and commits the perfect crime - stealing money no one knew was there. But it turns out they weren't the only ones with that idea, and soon they're running from the bank, a private investigator, and shady secret service agents who not only want the money, but want them dead.

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern
Genre: YA

This book really surprised me. Long after I forgot what happens in it, the family dynamic stayed with me. Jessie was doing well in school, both parents were present and active in their kids' lives, and her older brother genuinely liked and cared about her, just like she did him. There's room for all kinds of books, of course, but I wish there were more like this. It's okay to like your parents. Siblings can be fascinating without being a menace.

Other books featuring great siblings?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Best Portal Story (and I mean that)...

So how do you decide what books to buy? When browsing a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, the first thing I'm drawn to is book covers. I've gleaned over the years that this is a terrible way to choose a book, but I can't help it.

Mostly two types of covers lure me in for a closer look. Traditional fantasy in the vein of:


These are by Matt Stawicki, Darrell Sweet, and Michael Whelan. I had originally (unintentionally) grabbed three books with covers by Michael Whelan. His art is gorgeous, but I hadn't realized I owned so many books he'd illustrated. In contrast, I also love Todd Lockwood's art, but apparently don't own any books with his covers.

I'm also drawn to what is often called literary fiction, which i prefer to call general fiction (or lit fic, which makes it sound more like a genre and less like a college course). covers like these:


Which brings me to why I picked up
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

 The cover was obviously general fiction,

but the name implied fantasy. So I read the back cover (not everyone does this, which intrigues me - how do you know whether to go further if you have no idea what the book's about?), and then I read the beginning (some people open to a random page in the middle to check out the writing. Maybe I'll try that one day, but since I usually buy books on Kindle, it's not likely).

Here's the first part of The Magicians:

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That's how things were now. The sidewalk wasn't quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn't have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.

I was hooked. I liked Quentin. And more to the point, I loved everything the infamous New York Times reviewer hated (I'm not linking to it because, really; why?). Not sure I could have been more furious about that review if I'd written The Magicians myself. A Narnia-style adventure with gritty realism and adult fears and dangers and disappointments? How could you not at least be curious?

Genre I'll go with urban fantasy, since a decent chunk of the book takes place in New York City.

How it starts Quentin and James arrive at their interview to find the Princeton alumnus dead. The paramedic who takes the body away is gorgeous but a bit odd, and insists on giving them envelopes with their names on them, supposedly found in the house. Because James refuses, Quentin accepts his own. This quickly leads to his taking the strangest exam of his life.

General premise Quentin is a math genius graduating from high school. He's also capable of performing magic, and because of that is accepted into an elite, secret college in upstate New York. But magic turns out to be far more sinister and dangerous than in the fairy tales he'd adored as a child.

Page 20 Quote

"Good afternoon," he said. "You would be Quentin Coldwater."

He spoke very correctly, as if he wished he had an English accent but wasn't quite pretentious enough to affect one. He had a mild, open face and thin blond hair.

"Yes sir." Quentin had never called an adult - or anybody else - sir in his life, but it suddenly felt appropriate.

"Welcome to Brakebills College," the man said. "I suppose you've heard of us?"

"Actually no," Quentin said.

"Well, you've been offered a Preliminary Examination here. Do you accept?"

Quentin didn't know what to say. This wasn't one of the questions he'd prepped for when he got up this morning.

"I don't know," he said, blinking. "I mean, I guess I'm not sure."

"Perfectly understandable response, but not an acceptable one, I'm afraid. I need a yes or a no. It's just for the Exam," he added helpfully.

Portal fiction

I've always loved portal stories. Alice in Wonderland. The Narnia books. The Mirror of Her Dreams. But usually they're aimed at children, or they're a thin excuse for the author to more easily describe a new world from the perspective of someone with our background, rather than through the eyes of a native who doesn't find it strange at all. The Magicians is the kind of book I'd always wanted to find - an adult transferred into an alternate universe, and not on a one-way trip.

Portal books aimed at adults are almost always time travel. Time travel's great, but I want more books where someone's entering an alternate world, not just a past one.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Genre: crossgenre fantasy/historical fiction

This is definitely time travel, but chosen in honor of the book I'm anxiously waiting for. It's 1945. Clair Randall, a WWII combat nurse, is in Scotland on a second honeymoon with her husband. While exploring, she walks through a standing stone and directly into a skirmish between a Scottish clan and an English army unit in 1743.

I must say the Outlander books are not for the faint of heart. Until fairly recently, fantasy tended to dress up war and old-timey goings-on with nice clothes and jeweled relics and people who swore at each other using quaint expressions. This book has everything they left out - gruesome battles, disease, rape, alarming superstition, and people with a horrifying lack of reverence for human life.

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson
 Genre: fantasy
Terisa Morgan lives in New York (hey, something else in common with The Magicians) in a fabulous apartment paid for by her neglectful-yet-overbearing father. When Geraden comes crashing through her wall-sized mirror looking for a champion to save his land, he insists she's the one he came to get.

The Search for Fierra by Stephen R Lawhead
Genre: Science fiction

I read this in my early teens, so it's been a while. Orion Treet is abducted at gunpoint and offered millions to chronicle the growth of a colony on another planet. But he goes through a wormhole and, instead of a new startup, finds a civilization that has developed its own history of hatred and deadly conflict over several millennia. Based on the time-travel aspect, I would consider this fantasy, but it know. Spaceships. Wormholes. Needle guns.

Any recommendations for adult portal books?