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?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Random Day!

My currently-reading stack:

I was reading a sample of a book with a highly promising premise. Now I'm depressed, because a guy in the book just described his own grin as quirky and lop-sided, in passing, without humor or irony. No, I won't tell you what book it was. No, I'm not reading the rest.

BUT, I have a truly funny book to recommend.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
Genre: memoir

I've never watched the American version of The Office (loved the British version), but the title and cover grabbed me, and it was worth it. Kaling talks about everything from being bullied by the popular Senagalese boy in her high school class to accidentally breaking her best friend's nose during a play, only to have the producer force them back on stage to perform the last ten minutes for the horrified audience. She describes a guy as being really cute, in a "hottest guy in AP-calculus kind of way." READ. THIS. BOOK.

I'm now reading
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Genre: memoir

(Yes, there does seem to be a theme to my Random Day - two makes a trend on the internet, right?) I can probably count all the episodes of Saturday Night Live I've seen on my fingers, and I've never watched 30 Rock (though I keep meaning to). But something about Tina Fey really appeals to me, so here we are.

Also reading
Witch by Marie Brennan
Genre: fantasy

 I loved Warrior, so I have high hopes for this.

The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon
Genre: crossgenre fantasy/historical fiction

I've checked Amazon every day for a month now to see if someone heard my prayers and moved up the release date (yes, I'm silly like that. Sometimes dreams do come true). It took me two years to buy Outlander after first hearing of it, and another year to actually finish the first chapter. And then I devoured it and the next six books over the following month or so (I believe the shortest one is around 800 pages, so this was no mean feat), barely pausing for showers, friends, or sleep. After that I read all the Lord John books, of which this is the fourth. Lord John Grey is my favorite character of all time, of any age or gender, in any medium. I'll be featuring the Outlander series in its own post at some point. Let me just say these books have everything I love in fiction - science, history, magic, great characters, messed-up relationships, humor and brilliance. Mmm, yes please.

So there they are: past, present, and much-anticipated future. What are you reading?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Best Unnamed Protagonist

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

First I'll gush about being a huge fan of Julian Fellowes' period piece, Downton Abbey. Television doesn't get any better than that. I've also read Snobs, though I haven't yet gotten around to watching Gosford Park. Maybe I will today. Anyway, all this to say I was already primed to love this book.

The basics...

Genre General Fiction

How it starts The narrator finds a letter from Damian Baxter among his bills and daily mail. It's a surprise because he hasn't spoken to Damian in forty years. It's also a surprise because he hates Damian.

Page 4 quote

I hasten to add that I wasn't offended by this unexpected delivery. Not in the least. It is always pleasant to hear from an old friend but at my age it is, if anything, more interesting to hear from an old enemy.
General premise Damian Baxter is dying. He wants to leave his five-million-pound fortune to a child he fathered almost forty years ago, but his only link to the child is an anonymous letter. Even though they haven't spoken since their dramatic falling out, he asks the only other person who knew all the women he'd slept with back then to track them down and discreetly figure out which of their children is his - including the woman both of them had been in love with. The book seamlessly goes back and forth between the modern-day search and the London Season of 1968, when Damian Baxter burst into the lives of the upper class kids these people had been, and changed them forever.

Nameless Narrator

This book does many things well. I'm highlighting this aspect because I started writing a review and only then realized I didn't know the narrator's name. It's the most impressively unobtrusive use of this style I've come across. I didn't miss the name at all.

More interesting are the questions Past Imperfect raises. Would you do a favor for the person who ruined your life? Why would having inherited money, a family crest, and a traceable lineage inherently make people "better" than those around them, even when it becomes clear those people can't survive in the modern world without a system that props them up - and the system's crumbling all around them? Does it ever do any good to tell an idiot that they're an idiot?

Another fascinating thing was the "bottom of the top" nature of the narrator's life. He had the pedigree allowing him access to the aristocracy, but just enough to be invited to the right parties when someone else had canceled, and he didn't have money or good looks to make up for that lack. He has quite a memorable bit to say about being young and ugly.
You may have friends without number, but when it comes to romance you have nothing to bargain with, nothing to sell. You are not to be shown off and flaunted, you are the last resort when there's no one left worth dancing with. When you are kissed, you do not turn into a prince. You are just a kissed toad and usually the kisser regrets it in the morning.
The narrator felt this lack keenly, though he assumed those outside of the aristocracy, looking in, didn't see it. It's like that conversation in Good Will Hunting, where Professor Lambeau tells Will that only a handful of people can tell the difference between the two of them, but he himself is one of them. I guess feeling like a fraud (or more kindly, a visitor within the group you want to belong to) is not unusual. I love stories about people who live in the overlap between two worlds and don't fully belong in either.

Anyway, the quest for Baxter's child isn't the most compelling thread running through the book. It's the narrator's reliving of his past; going back to see people who made up the upper echelon of his social world, and seeing how much they've changed. For both him and Baxter, the social structure has upended itself. While people he'd envied or pined after were now trying to hold their lives together (financially or emotionally, depending on the individual), he was now a fairly successful writer, and Damian had of course blown them all out of the water with his fortune. But there's so much more to life than financial success, and as his father warns him near the beginning,
You've been made to go back into your own past and compare it with your present. You've been forced to remember what you wanted from life at nineteen, forty years ago, before you knew what life was.... Eventually, in old age, almost everyone with any brains must comes to terms with the disappointment of life, but this is very early for you to have to make that discovery. You've been rendered discontented when it's too late, or nearly too late, to fix, but soon enough for you to have many years ahead to live with that discontent.
Two other books where the narrator isn't named:

Old School by Tobias Wolff, set in a boys' prep school in the 1960s. Good stuff. Wish we'd read this in high school instead of A Separate Peace (John Knowles is dead, so, coward that I am, I will express a less-than-glowing opinion of his book on the internet).

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I actually set aside this post while trying to summon up the motivation to go back and skim this book in order to write a summary. I read a lot of stuff in high school I have no real interest in revisiting. Fortunately, Sarah Rees Brennan did a fortuitously timely (and hilarious) recap of it on her blog recently.

Other nameless narrators?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

And the prize for Best Magic System goes to...

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Okay, you might quibble with the best magic system label. Hard to make that claim when I've barely made a dent in the available fantasy fiction. A quick search for fantasy on Amazon returned 62,806 results. Still. My blog, my space to use superlatives. Next time it'll be exclamation points.

First the basics…

Genre Fantasy

How it starts Fifteen year-old Kip is breaking the rules to scavenge on a battlefield when he stumbles over a dead soldier chained to a still-living prisoner. Before he dies, the prisoner warns Kip about a coming attack.

Page 6 quote
“Have you ever wondered why you were stuck in such a small life? Have you ever gotten the feeling, Kip, that you’re special?”

Kip said nothing. Yes, and yes.

“Do you know why you feel destined for something greater?”
“Why?” Kip asked, quiet, hopeful.

“Because you’re an arrogant little shit.”

General premise Kip’s village is attacked, and just before his mother dies, she gives him an exquisite dagger and tells him to avenge her. On the other side of the world, Gavin Guile, the most powerful drafter (or color magician) in the world, learns he has a son, and swoops in to save Kip from certain death. Now Gavin has to protect his new-found son from political enemies, placate his irate fiancĂ©, keep his other secret from coming out, and stop the lands from falling back into a world war. Kip has his own decision to make: obey his mother’s wishes and kill the father who abandoned them, or help his father save the lands from destruction.

Magic System

I could spend all day listing the things this book does well. Political and familial intrigue. Multiple points of view with well-defined voices and opposing goals. Fantasy world-building not of the typical pseudo-medieval-European bent (um, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Female characters who actually read like individuals and live in a world where their biggest problem is something other than fighting a male-dominated system. Characters you can sympathize with (or at least understand), whether or not you like them personally.

But the magic system's intricacy and its seamlessness with the world Brent Weeks created is just stunning. I read somewhere that he spent months coming up with his magic system and trying it out on his blog. I can certainly believe it. Weeks explains it best:

It makes sense to us that colors also bring along with them some emotional content. You simply feel different in a sterile white hospital room than you do in a red and yellow McDonald’s or in a totally pitch-black alley. Those things – instantly appealing to senses and categories that readers understand – drew me to the color magic.

When discussing how much magic in the fantasy genre has changed, Weeks had this to say about the magic system in The Lord of the Rings:

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings was about one super powerful ring whose power was to… make one person invisible. And with this power, Sauron was going to take over all of Middle Earth! Wait, what? But opposing him, there were elves and wizards who also had rings that gave them the ability to… light up their staves in dark places. Wait, what? We were told constantly that these characters were really, really powerful. And almost never saw it. However, Gandalf did have the power of falling really far.

Of course, he followed this up with a disclaimer about how much he loved LoTR so he wouldn’t get flamed, but I digress. Brent Weeks is funny and does brilliant world-building, and now I’m off to read his other books.

Before I go, two more books with great magic systems:
Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn
Genre: fantasy

Prince Rohan wants to be a peaceful, scholarly ruler. But he has just inherited the throne from his militaristic father, and with all the princedoms around him on the brink of war, he's considered the easy target. His new bride, Sioned, will go to any lengths to protect her husband, even doing the unthinkable and using her sunrunner powers as a weapon.

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier
Genre: magical realism? MG? no idea
Charlie (short for Charlotte) goes to a sports high school, and has a personal fairy, like most people she knows. Unlike Freedom's good-skin fairy, or Rochelle's clothes-shopping fairy (the perfect outfit's always on sale), fourteen-year-old Charlie has a parking fairy.
 I'm always being borrowed by Mom, or one of her sisters, or her best friend, or Jan, or Nana and Papa, or just about everyone in our neighborhood, whenever they're going to the doctor's, or grocery shopping, or anywhere that parking might be a problem. Every single day of my life someone asks me to get in their doxhead car. I hate cars. I hate drivers. I hate their little squeals of joy when they find a parking spot. But mostly I hate my benighted parking fairy.
Each chapter begins with stats: how many days since she's been in a car, the number of demerits she's racked up for being late now that she's trying to walk everywhere, the public service hours she's done to work off her demerits, how many times she's spoken to Steffan (the hot new guy with a get-away-with-anything fairy). But when Charlie teams up with Fiorenze (every-boy-will-like-you fairy) who is also on a quest to get rid of her fairy, she finds herself in far more trouble than before.

Other books with brilliant magic systems?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In the beginning...

Nothing makes me happier than a good story, except getting to gush about it. So that's what I'll do - talk about stories (usually books, occasionally movies or TV shows if they make the cut). I'll focus on an aspect of the story that impressed me. Of course, books I love impress me in all sorts of ways, so some stories will show up more than once. Not many. But it'll happen.

I'll start with a random day where I list what I'm reading now. First, two books I read earlier this week:

Warrior by Marie Brennan
Genre: fantasy

Miryo has just failed her initiation test. The urge to use her magic will overwhelm and kill her (along with innocent bystanders), unless she hunts down and kills her doppelganger, Mirage. Unfortunately for Miryo, Mirage has spent her life training as a hunter and fighter.

This book is teeming with good-book traits - women who fight and think and aren't primarily seeking or worrying about romance, a world that feels ancient, where the consequences of misremembered history are real and painful. Needless to say, I'll be giving this book its own post in the future.

Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn
Genre: YA science fiction

I'm just going to borrow the tag line here, because it's brilliant:

"When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep."

This book will also be getting its own post at some point, but in the meantime I highly recommend it.

And the book I'm currently reading:

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Genre: general fiction

I'll probably finish this in the next couple of hours. It's hurtling towards a point I'm desperately hoping it won't really end up, but we'll see. Exquisitely written. And certainly the first book I've read set in the admissions office of an ivy league school.

So there you have it. What are you reading?