The Gone Away World ★★★★

[Reread a year and a half later, and I actually like this book MORE than the first time. My major complaints then were that the surprise ending was too much of a surprise. But rereading it now, and knowing that surprise already, moved my focus from “Tell me what happened” to “tell me how and why and when and where ALL of it happened.” Which this book does, and does amazingly well. Already knowing the big twist made me focus on the actual storytelling. And what storytelling it is, beautiful and witty and enthralling. Yay.]

This is one of those reviews that is impossible to start. The book was intense, and well written, and wonderfully creative. But what could I possibly say that wouldn’t give everything away? This books almost *needs* to be experienced going into it blind.

It is written entirely in first person narrative, and the style is intensely personal. Instead of feeling like you’re just following the main character around seeing what he sees and hearing what he says, you know you are there, inside his head. Its one part stream of consciousness, and one part past-tense vivid reminiscence. The author writes ridiculously long run-on sentences, but in the sort of way where you don’t notice until you’re halfway down a paragraph and realize you’re just now finishing the thought that he started six lines ago. It grabs you, and holds your attention for several sentence worths of words. The book is also full of witty one-liners that make you giggle, or make you sad, or just make you apreciate words and all the varieties of things they can mean. And you want to share them as quotes, but you realize the moment you take them away from their surrounding context, they actually don’t mean the same thing anymore. They’re whole philosophies built into one sentence, but in fact they need the 500-some pages of background support to actually mean what you read.

The main character and Gonzo have been best friends since childhood. They are the perfect foils to eachother; One a man of action, the other a man of thought. Gonzo has a crazy idea, and he has to come up with the plan that wont get them both in trouble. They both study martial arts in childhood, from a silly wise old man who is most definitely not a secret ninja, definitely not. They go to the same college, and eventually somehow both end up in the special operations military, fighting a nonsense-war in a distant country. And then someone creates the Go-Away bomb and nothing in the world is the same anymore.

If this book has a flaw, it is that the climax has one of those mind-blowing revelations that’s supposed to be the BIG SURPRISE TWIST. And trust me, it IS a surprise twist, you don’t really see it coming. But as with most twists like that, the reader feels a bit cheated and used. 350 pages in, and you’ve been lying to me the whole time?! But I thought we were friends! And the other flaw with big twists, is that they never make one hundred percent logical sense. There are definitely plot holes where you go “wait, what about _____.” And I have to admit, one of the “great secrets” that you finally learn about is a little TOO overdramatic and silly. The only thing I could think of when I read it was that infamous moment: “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!”

The first three quarters of the book weren’t precisely slow, but they were excruciatingly detailed and very much thought out. The last quarter of the book is fast and dramatic in a jumping-out-of-a-plane sort of way, but where the parachute never opens, you just end up on the ground looking up at the sky and wishing you’d gotten that slow moment to actually look at what you were approaching and see the whole thing from a point of view where it actually all fits together.

And really, I think that’s all I can say about it. I refuse to actually give any details because I think it only makes sense when you read it, and maybe not even then. But its definitely not the sort of book you can describe to someone. If anyone out there has read it and wants to discuss it, I’d love to do that. Maybe you have some insights that fit the pieces of it together than the way in which I put them together, because I’m still seeing plot holes? Or maybe that’s the point, and its not supposed to make perfect sense….

Girl Genius Comparison ★★★

Well well, where to begin? Begin here. If you’ve never been introduced to the multiple Hugo Award-winning online web comic/graphic novel of Girl Genius then your life has been emptier than you knew. And its about to be more full and colorful and steampunk-adventure-filled than you could ever guess. I apologize in advance, its going to become difficult to leave your computer for the next few days. Possible side-effects when you reach the last page include symptoms of intense withdrawl, possible temporary depression followed by strange desires to build clock-work friends. And in one rare, but well documented case, plans to kidnap the writers with giant laser cannons and force them to write at gunpoint.

If you’ve read Girl Genius before, then you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been through the crushing defeat of hitting the “next page” button and having nothing happen. Of realizing you’re reading the most recent page, and nothing you can do can make the next chapter appear. Three pages a week just isn’t going to cut it, and life is never going to be the same again. Luckily, you can go back to the beginning and start all over again with Agatha H and the Airship City. Yes, thats right, the creators of Girl Genius have decided to go back and create a novelization of the story from the very beginning. Agatha H covers the first three volumes of Girl Genius.

Girl Genius tells the story of a girl named Agatha, and the desperate adventure she’s thrown into. Agatha’s world is one full of chaos, conflicting rulers, harsh empires, and complicated politics. A few people every year are born with “the spark.” This appears to be an intense drive, impossible to resist, to use mad science to create life from machinery. Sparks are often called “madboys” by the normal people, because while they have the brilliance to create, they don’t often have the will to control their creations. Most of them end up dead at the hands of their constructs, or at the hands of the locals when the constructs destroy whatever village it was born in. The few that aren’t killed locally are usually taken out by a neighboring Spark who feels their territory is being threatened.

Years ago, the populace was helped and saved by a group of heros and adventurers who happened to be some of the few sane sparks. They were led by a pair of brothers known as the Heterodyne Boys. The only problem is, the boys disappeared sixteen years ago when their home and families were destroyed by an unknown villain called merely “The Other.” Since then, most of the lands and smaller kingdoms have come under the control of the tyrant Baron Wulfenbach.

Agatha is a quiet girl, raised by her parents and uncle in the smaller but less anarchic city of Beetleburg. Her uncle left them 10 years ago, and since she came of age Agatha has been studying at the local Transylvania Polygnostic University. The only problem is, she’s not very good. Everything she builds just falls apart, and on the unlucky days does it with a ball of fire and smoke. She’s only merely an unrespected lab assistant on the day the Baron comes to inspect Beetleburg. Before she even really knows whats happening, the Baron has killed her teacher and protector, taken over the city, and her parents are missing. Mostly by accident, she is taken aboard the giant flying airship of Castle Wulfenbach, and only then does she really begin to learn about her family, and the world outside Beetleburg.

The original webcomic of Girl Genius is brightly colored and expertly drawn. (They publish high-quality physical volumes of them now, and they are well worth owning, even though you can read it for free online.) Its highly imaginative, filled with images of strange clockwork devices, expressive characters, and expansive cities and landscapes. The plot instantly draws you in with romance, and wonder, and silly science, and hilarious creatures. Agatha is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever read, especially in a graphic novel. Comics have been written for boys for so long that its about damn time someone wrote a female character that is not a side kick, or a love interest, or helpless, or just there to look good. She’s smart and smoking hot, and can kick all the boys butts with her use of science and her plain stubborn will-power. And they know it, and adore her for it.

If I have one problem with the Girl Genius comics its just that they are too complex and involved to read in a page-a-day format. I actually have to force myself to stop reading and checking up on it on a daily or even weekly basis. I enjoy the story much more when I actually ignore the website and every six months or so go read the newest volume. And sometimes I can’t help but reread the whole thing from the very beginning.

It was during this most recent reread that I found out they’d actually published a novelization of the first three volumes. Oh the wonder, oh the glory! Same loved story, but new and different and exciting format!

Well, I can’t possibly say I didn’t like it, because the Girl Genius story was there, and was just as good in its basic elements. But I feel like they didn’t utilize the power of the novel as well as they could have. The written version definitely has some of the back story explained that isn’t in the graphic novel. But I don’t feel that they translated the scenes from the comic very well. It was written very… descriptively. It felt more like they were just trying to describe everything they’d drawn, but copied over the dialogue nearly verbatim. It fell into the classic problem of telling the reader everything instead of showing us and letting us imagine some for ourselves.

I think if they had just accepted that capturing the visualization of the graphic novel was going to be impossible, and instead fleshed out the power of the words more it would have gone better. A book is just so different than a comic, you shouldn’t try to make them similar. Just work to the strengths of each of them. I would rather have seen more of the emotional changes in Agatha and gotten a glimpse inside her head as her life is being turned upside down, than just read another pale description of a room in the castle that I’ve already seen drawn in full technicolor. They could have gone so much more into the motivations and true personalities of all the characters, and instead spent time just describing everything around the characters.

The authors have mastered the creation of a brilliant plot and lovable characters, they’ve excelled at witty dialogue, their imagination is broader and more colorful than we could ever believe… But this novel is merely a “good first try.” I fully hope that they’ll keep trying, and that they realize there is room for improvment, because right now their writing style outside of the speach bubbles is rather juvenile. Keep trying guys, I know you can get there!

View all my reviews

Comparative Connie Willis

So I have a very mixed reaction to Connie Willis. I was first introduced to her writings about a year ago with “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I was amazed. It quickly became, and still is, one of my favorite books. I’ve reread it twice since then. Its a light-hearted story set about 50 years in an alternate future where time travel has been invented, but its pretty much useless to everyone because you can’t take anything from the past, you can take anything to the past, and its physically impossible to change the order of events. So the only people who use time travel are historians, who go back in time to study and record events in detail. Enter Ned and Verity, two scholars from Oxford, who find themselves together in the Victorian age. Ned is hiding from a rich patron of the history department who needs him to find an artifact from the past, and she wont take no for an answer. Verity is worried that she has somehow accidentally changed the future by saving the life of a cat. And so they’re thrown into a hilarious series of events that witness the first jumble sale, the ridiculousness rules of victorian love stories, and the ugliest statue ever to have been created. Willis also pays homage to a classic of the time, “Three Men in a Boat,” and her story is full of references to other literatures of the times, Alice in Wonderland, and the mystery novels that were just becoming popular and would eventually pave the way for Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. (Infact, it was this book that first got me reading the Lord Peter Wimsey series, for which I am eternally greatful.)

That December, Blackout and All Clear had just been released and I was ecstatic. It was that great feeling you get when you are introduced to an author, and you love them, and it turns out they’ve written tons of books you get to go catch up on, and they’re even writing more books, and you know you wont run out of things to read for a long time. So it was with happy anticipation that the day after Christmas I curled up under a blanket and opened Blackout….

One hundred pages later I was into the story, but not enthralled. Two hundred pages later, I was bored. Three hundred pages later, I was bored and annoyed. Eventually I made it to the end of Blackout, but I was not impressed. Why had this gloroius author failed me so badly? How could she do this, to me, personally?! Where were the silly time-travel hijinks? Where were the witty observations? The unlikely heros, the mystery to solve, the comedy of errors, all were missing! Sure, I expected more dramatic and serious book, it was set during World War I, there’s only so much comedy you can create. But I still expected a coherent and interesting plot. I’d read 512 pages, and the only thing that’d happened was to get three historians lost in London during the blitz. They coudln’t find the way out, and they couldn’t find eachother, and they spent every one of those pages saying “its ok, Mr. Dunworthy will find me eventually, all I have to do is this…” The reader has spent those 512 pages knowing that they’re all within a couple miles of eacother, and they’ve all almost run into eachother three or four times, but they’ve just narrowly missed eachother. A tragedy of errors you could call it. In a lighter book, it’d be amusing, but in this situation it just feels sad, and slow, and, well, annoying. And it sure doesn’t advance the plot at all.

I almost didn’t pick up All Clear, but in the end I decided to give Willis another chance. I rationalized it by saying she intended the story to follow the pace of the war. Long periods of boredom interspersed with terror and drama. Slow to start, full of hope in the beginning, eventually giving way to exaustion and despair. Well… Yes, that’s about how my emotions went during the readings of All Clear. Not because I felt worry for the characters, or was invested in the story. But just because I eventually resigned myself to the fact that nothing I wanted to happen was ever going to happen. I wont even mention the ending. I like to pretend that the final two chapters didn’t actually happen.

Now, nearly a year later, I finally picked up her previous novel “Doomsday Book.” I had sort of decided that “To Say Nothing of the Dog” was mostly a fluke, and I didn’t actually like Connie Willis at all. Yes, Doomsday Book had won all sorts of awards, and everyone loved it. But then again, Blackout and All Clear won all sorts of awards too… But I was bored, and it had been sitting on my shelf for awhile now, and I thought, why not, just one more try. And lo and behold I enjoyed it! Not with the same love I still feel for Dog, but it was a good book. I could see why people liked it. And then I realized, wait, it has the exact same plot as Blackout and All Clear… Lonely historian accidentally trapped during the beginning of the Black Plague in Englang. In danger, but unable to return. Circumstances in Oxford keeping them from rescuing her. Connie Willis just did the lazy author thing, she just rewrote Doomsday Book, made it three times as long (but didn’t actually add anything to the plot) and set it during a revered and honored time in history hoping to get more awards for it.

And it worked. Getting the awards for Blackout and All Clear, I mean. I still don’t believe the novels deserved them. I think she needed an editor to stand up to her, hand her a whole package of red pens, and tell her to get to work cutting out about 500 pages, and make it into one novel. Then, I might have enjoyed it.

I think Connie Willis sees that more books get awards for being heart-felt dramas than get for being light-hearted comedies. But her skills really truly lie in the happy endings, and she needs to realize that that doesn’t make a book less important. Her voice with Dog was amazing, and perfect. Her characters well-rounded, and likable, and believable. Definitely not the case with Blackout/All Clear, and even a little shakey on Doomsday. Its a lesson I wish all authors would learn.

More pages does not equal a better book! Dramas and tragedies are not automatically more important than happy endings and comedies. Silliness does not decrease the long-term value of a story!

The Way of Kings ★★★★

Normally, I’d tell you that if a book needs 1258 pages to tell a story, then that author has seriously overestimated the worth of his words. He needs a reality check, and an editor that will stand up to him. Any plot more than 400 pages long that can’t be broken down into a couple of volumes needs some serious work with a red pen. And a paper shredder. (More complexity /= a better story! But that’s a rant for another day)
Normally.
Normally, I’d also tell you that most “high fantasy” isn’t my thing. Its usually over dramatic, over written, and fairly generic. They’ve got elaborate mythologies and powerful magics, and are chock-full of logical fallacies and lord of the rings parallels.
Normally.

The Way of Kings seems to be one of the better exceptions.

In this epic tome of a novel, Brandon Sanderson has excelled at world building. His planet is one ravaged regularly by violet storms, which has created a whole ecosystem that seems to model creatures that live at the bottom of our oceans. At the slightest breeze, leaves curl up and withdraw into the branches of trees. The lightest of tremors or vibrations in the ground causes the grass to pull back into the stony earth. Soil is sparse, and crops difficult to grow in all but they most sheltered valleys.

Not only are the plants and animals molded by these “greatstorms” but the cultures of the people are too. Magic is done with the assistance of ancient devices that aren’t entirely understood, and strange gems that are pulled from the bodies of strange and terrible creatures. This planet is all full of creatures that are sort of physical manifestations of abstract concepts. These “creatures” are called spren. So if someone is injured, he attracts painspren. If an artist is inspired the air around him or her is filled with creationspren. Windspren, rotspren, gloryspren, alespren (seen only by drunk people, probably. Their existence has been theorized, but getting concrete proof is difficult since drunken notes are difficult to interpret.)

Much of the land is caught up in a war between two races of people, the Alethi and the Parshendi. The Alethi are a warrior race who find glory in battle and rank themselves according to their skill at fighting. Their society is broken up into two main divisions: the “lighteyes” are the higher society, Lord, Ladies the upper ranks of soliders, etc. “Darkeyes” are usually laborers, minor spear holders, and slaves. Very little is known about the Parshendi, except that they are accredited for assassinating the King six years before the main story.

The storyline follows three main characters (as well as a good number of secondary or one-shot characters). Kaladin is the son of a surgeon who has become a slave in the Alethi army (virtually a death sentence). He is paralyzed by the tragedies in his past, but still feels driven to save the lives of those around him. We flash back and forth between Kaladin’s childhood up to six years ago, and Kaladin’s life in the present time.

Shallan is a young girl who has never left her family estates, but must travel to a distant land so that she can talk her way into becoming the ward of a famous heretic and scholar. For she needs to steal the rare and magical device this scholar is studying and using to save her family from ruin.

Dalinar is a high-prince in the Alethi army. He was the brother of the past King, and now uncle to a young paranoid King convinced that someone is trying to assassinate him. Ever since his brother, the King, was killed, he’s started having strange visions during each highstorm. Visions that speak of a “True Desolation” approaching, and the need to “unite them all.” Dalinar is battling his growing dislike of all violence, with his need to support the current King and the war to keep his country together. His children think he’s probably going mad, he’s lost all the memories of his wife, his brother was brutally murdered, and a voice in his head is telling him that the world is coming to an end.

This book was 1258 pages long. One thousand, two hundred and fifty eight pages. Yeah… It took quite a lot of reading to get through it. Yes, it did drag a bit in the middle. And yet, I was impressed that with all that, I didn’t have to go back and remind myself what had happened three hundred pages ago. I didn’t have to sit there and create character diagrams just to remember who was who and where and what were they doing there again? For all its length, Sanderson kept the storyline very cohesive and memorable.

This book still holds many of the cliches I find annoying about most high fantasy. It has several unpronounceable names. Its title fills in the blanks “The _____ of/the _____.” It has swords that are six feet long, and deities of dubious character, and characters who believe they’re normal only to go out into the world and find out that they’re special and important and are going to save the world! And yet… It won me over somehow.

Sanderson also included fun sketches of various creatures that live on his planet, maps and diagrams of warzones and strange cities. They added a nice dimension to the story.

There is some great mystery going on of why the spren are the way they are, why the awesomely powerful shardblades were created by the ancient and unknowable Knights Radiant, why the highstorms only travel in one direction, why the Parshendi are driven to war with the Alethi, why the shattered plains are, well, shattered, why the voidbringers might be returning… Why why why and why can’t authors write any faster?

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing ★★★★

I am a fan of Jasper Fforde. And when I say I’m a fan, I mean I started reading his books in middle school. The Eyre Affair was the book I recommended to everyone. My family bought each new installment of the TN series the moment it came out. In highschool, we flew to England to be there for the very first Fforde Ffestival. We bought a whole new set of the TN series just to have the british covers, and so that Fforde could sign them. And when he came to our random unimportant city to do a book reading and signing, we saw him there too. And waved creepily from the back of the room when he asked if anyone had made it to the Ffestival. We are Jasper Fforde fans.

And yet, this book didn’t quite do it for me like his others. It was great, don’t get me wrong. Its still better than even the good sci-fi/fantasy I normally read. But I didn’t feel nearly the same connection to the characters that I’d become accustomed to. And while it was infinitely creative in the same way that Shades of Grey was, I felt it was a bit lacking in the intensity of its plot.

The “real” Thursday Next has gone missing, and the written Thursday has been thrown into the intrigues of the book world while trying to find her. In the process of which she gains a clock-work butler, meets the imaginary daughter of the real Thursday, promotes the Toast Marketing Board, and goes through the usual shenanigans with the cross genre taxis. And really, that’s all I can say about the plot. Not because I don’t want to give anything away (though I don’t!), but also because the plot wasn’t very involved or complicated by Fforde standards.

Mostly I felt that this novel was a chance for Fforde to show off his world-building skills. Which is great, I love the new wacky book world! It has his unique touch of slightly insane, completely illogical, but still possible to visually imagine and believe in!

This book was also chock full of the meta-references we’ve all come to love. I mean, who else could pull of writing a book, that’s set inside a book that we’ve already read, which is set inside other books that we’ve read! … And have it all actually sort of make sense! Sometimes though, it got to be a little much. I felt like he often broke narrative just for little reminders of Hey, you’re reading about the book world! Or Look how clever I am to think of this idea! Yes, yes, Jasper Fforde you are insanely clever. I admire you greatly! But don’t you think you could tell me a little more about this written Thursday Next? She’s not *our* Thursday, we know that, you’ve told us that, but you haven’t shown us that yet, not really. We can’t love her yet, because we just don’t know her!

I will give Jasper Fforde props for the ending. Since about page 10, when I realized that the title “One of our Thursdays is Missing” didn’t specify WHICH Thursday was missing, there were two things I desperately didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want it to turn out that the real Thursday was dead, and have the written Thursday become real and step right into our old Thursday’s shoes. I’m not sure I could have kept reading the series if that had happened. And secondly, I didn’t want it to turn out that the real Thursday had been mind-boggled into believing she was the written Thursday just to keep her safe from some other intrigue that was going on. And, Jasper Fforde, being the genius that he is, realized the readers might guess these things were possible! So what does he do? We take a little trip into psychological thriller, where characters try to convince our written Thursday that this is what’s happened. But of course, he never intended to cheat us in that way, and the real Thursday is found alive and well.

The American Heiress ★★

I admit, I enjoy the good fluffy romance novel every now and then. I like them because their purpose is generally to provide the easy happy ending we all want in life, to give us the same feel-good feeling of home cooked comfort food. Its the grown up version of a classic disney movie, it makes you believe in grown up fairy tales (though I admit, I still watch those too).

I didn’t enjoy this book because, from the description, I was expecting the usual historical romance plot. Up until the very end, I thought the girl would get the boy, the bad guy would be suitably punished, and everyone would be happy! Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that wasn’t really the case. Other aspects of genre were there in abundance. Looming gloomy English mansions were described in infinite detail. The wardrobes of all the female characters were vividly imagined, and fairly historically accurate. Every article of jewelry was given at least four adjectives.

The main character is a plucky American girl who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it: life away from her mother. She is the closest thing to American royalty that exists, the sole heir of one of the wealthiest families in New York. However, her mother wants the respect of the highest branches of society, and knows her daughter can buy it for her through marriage. She is determined for her daughter to marry into the House of Lords in England. Cora is perfectly fine with this plan, as long as it gets her away from her mother. Yes, the daughter’s name is “Cora Cash” … There’s some subtlety for you.

Mother and daughter therefore plan a trip to tour the counties of England, and pick out a husband. Of course, right before they leave Cora decides to beg her childhood best friend to marry her instead, so that she doesn’t have to spend months with her mother abroad. He (of course) says that he likes her well enough, but he wants to be a painter and go off to Paris to study with the masters and he must not allow anything to distract him from achieving his dream.

Oh well, not even barely miffed, Cora goes off to England, falls off a horse, lands practically in the lap of an impoverished English count who is desperate for some cash (pun intended) to brighten up his ancestral home. They are rather quickly engaged. And of course a battle of the in-laws ensues.

All the while, we are also following the story from the point of view of Cora’s maid, a girl of mixed blood from South Carolina, who is just glad she can find a job that lets her send home a little money to her mother. She finds that in England she’s only a second-class citizen only once because of her position as a maid, and not twice because of that and the color of her skin. She starts a passionate affair with the butler of Cora’s soon to be husband.

And of course, there appears to be some intrigue in the history of the Count. He was the perfect second son, frivolous and happy, until his father and older brother died within a year of each other. Now he is weighed down by a country estate he was never interested in, and the obligation to keep the family name respectable. He is also blessed with an overbearing mother who remarried a step higher in the social ladder the moment her first husband was cold. Needless to say, she is not enamored with his new wife.

Cora is having trouble fitting into the confusing and ever treacherous rules of English high society. She makes many mistakes, and is constantly humiliated by her staff and the various “friends” she’s made. Added to this, she doesn’t even know if her husband really loves her. But oh, look, here is her childhood friend who’s come to visit from Paris! Even though she’s been married for over a year, and now has a baby son to take care of, he’s decided to let her know that he was an idiot, and he really does love her. Rumors abound that her husband is having an affair, but he is there and will take her all away from it if only she would ask him to.

Ridiculously unrealistic and overly dramatic plot lines are standard operating procedure with this genre, but I think where I lost it was the lack of motive for many of the characters’ actions. So much of it was written as though the author was trying to incite emotion and drama into the story, but just didn’t quite get there. She has her characters going through the motions, reacting to the things that happened to them, but it just never felt fully formed. The motivations felt flat. The antagonists acted evil because they were evil. We were never shown why they had a grudge against somebody, or what their aim in ruining the lives of others was. They were there just because the author knew she needed to have tension in the story.

And maybe my beef with the end of the story is unfair. It was probably more realistic than any ending I would have preferred. I like gritty depressing realistic stories. And I like my fluffy fantastical romantic stories. But I just don’t like them mixed. That’s not to say no one should ever try to mix them, just that I don’t think this author succeeded this time. My personal preference rating: * Within its genre, compared to similar books: *** Will I read anything else by this author: unlikely, but then I probably wouldn’t have read this one in the first place, except that it was a goodreads advance copy.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation ★★★★

This book has everything one requires of a fluffy romance story. In fact, its a romance within a romance, simultaneously a story of post-revolution France and mondern day London. We follow an awkward woman researching a mysterious historical character, and a young girl desperate to join a famous league of spies and save her country. We’re given a charming and spunky heroine who surprises the daring and handsome hero with her intelligence and determination. Our hero is one part Robin Hood, one part Zorro and one part Indiana Jones, with a title and money to boot. What more could you possibly ask for? Steamy sex scenes in a garden in Paris? Got it. Spies and missions and sarcastic butlers? Got it. A modern day lord with a handsome face, a misanthropic attitude and library full of secret historical documents? Yep, that too. Historical accuracy? Well… who wants that anyways?

We first meet Eloise Kelly, a student of Harvard writing her dissertation on the history of English spies who helped the French noblemen during the revolution. She travels to London to further her research on the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian, both of whom’s real identities were eventually revealed and documented. However, her true interest lies in the Pink Carnation, who’s identity was never discovered. Disappointed by the lacky of any solid information about the Pink Carnation, she eventually reaches out to the descendants of the two known spies, hoping for a tie between the three. In this way, she meets the elderly Mrs. Arabella Selwick-Alderly, who just happens to have a trunk full of old letters and documents relating to her ancestor, The Purple Gentian.

Through letters and journals, Eloise dives into the story of Amy Balcourt, a half French half English girl whose parents were killed in the revolution and was raised in rural England. Amy has always wanted to revenge the death of her parents, and return to the land of her birth to join the league of spies led by the man known as The Purple Gentian. She wants to free France from Napoleon and restore the monarchy, and simultaneously save England from the invasion everyone knows must be coming.

She returns to Paris, now 20 years old, with her cousin Jane and their dragon of a chaperon. There she meets Richard Selwick, apparently a dandy working as an egyptologist for Napolean. She automatically detests him for what seems like a traitorous job, often comparing his actions to those of her dream man, The Purple Gentian. The get into many passionate arguments about the good of England and France, and while she despises his morals she just can’t help admiring his lips, and the shape of his hands. Oh, wait, could it possibly be? Richard IS the Purple Gentian, and working for Napolean is just his cover story! Insert comedy of errors including false identities, masks and capes, and coincidental meetings in libraries at midnight here.

All the while, Eloise is getting into arguments with the young nephew of her benefactor, who just happens to be the current Lord of Selwick Manor. He quite dislikes nosey academics, and seems determined to protect the secret of the Pink Carnation at all costs. He delivers an ultimatum, nothing Eloise learns can leave the circle of his family or become public knowledge in an academic paper. And while Eloise quite dislikes his high-handed and rude attitude, she can’t help admiring his fast smile and blonde hair….

Amy and Richard are of course eventually married, on a boat, by the captain/butler/actor Richard employs, as they escape from Paris after freeing Richard from the dungeous of the French Ministry of Police. Having run out of letters and journals, Eloise breathlessly inquires about what happens next, are there any more documents? Oh, well of course there are, but they’re over in Selwick Manor. She’ll just have to go spend a few days there, with the irritatingly handsom nephew…

This book is so fluffy a marshmallow is as heavy as a rock in comparison. That is not a criticism, I believe fluff has as much a place in literature as, well, actual literature. We need fluff sometimes, because we should never forget that it should be FUN to read, no matter how silly that fun sometimes is. This book was exceedingly fun to read. If you don’t like nonsensical fluff, this book is not for you.

(I really should post a description of my rating system at some point…)

A quote, for your enjoyment (must be read in as dramatic a voice as possible):

Delaroche strode on bandy legs to the door, clapped his hands together, and bellowed, “Prepare the iterrogation chamber!”
“The regular interrogation chamber, sir?” one guard ventured, keeping well on the other side of the stone door frame.
“Oh no.” Belaroche unleashed another of his humorless laughs. “Take him to the extra-special interrogation chamber!”

And that is all!

Mutant Message Down Under ★★

While I was right in that this book definitely wasn’t my norm, and while I may not have liked it in the end, it was definitely worth reading and stepping outside of my box for.

First, I’d like to preface this review by saying I know absolutely nothing about real aboriginal culture or history. I can’t possibly tell you what is fact and what is pure creation by the author. This book is apparently extremely controversial because while some people love it as the tale of a spiritual journey amongst a mysterious native population, other people say that the author didn’t accurately portray the culture truthfully, and was actually blatantly offensive.

I also have no idea if the author actually wanted this book to be taken as a mostly true story, or as just an extensive metaphor, a spiritual fable. It is written in the style of a memoire, and the author writes that it is based on real events, but it is shelved as fiction. Personally, I think that if any of it is actually “based in reality,” its really just an extrapolation of one night she spent camping in the desert and probably got a bit high. Wikipedia states that eventually she conceded that she made the story up, but… well… its wikipedia.

All of that said, I’m not going to evaluate this book on the intentions of its author, or the dubiousness of its origins, but only on the story and the message itself.

This is the story of a typical middle aged american woman who is on business in Australia teaching methods of holistic healing (she mentions acupuncture, therapeutic massage, etc). She is invited to a “meeting” by a native aborigine, and she thinks its her big moment. She thinks she’s going to be recognized for all the good work she’s done trying to help the lower-income mixed race young adults. At heart she is a city woman, and she sits on her high horse expecting to receive a pretty little plaque, a big thank you, and maybe a lunch buffet with some “authentic cuisine.”

Maybe predictable, she quickly finds out that true aboriginal culture isn’t anything like she expected. Still dressed in her business suit, heels and make-up she’s driven out to the edge of the desert, told to remove all her clothing, jewelry and belongings and instead put on a rag dress so that she can be cleansed. Which she does. They then burn all of it, tell her she’s going on a walk-about across Australia to “become one, and experience true beingness,” and promptly head out into the desert on foot. Which she does. She’s afraid and confused, but she follows them, and naively expects to back in the city by check out time at her hotel tomorrow.

What ensues is three months worth of ramblings, physically across the width of Australia, and mentally through various memories she has and spiritual realizations she comes to. It turns out that native aborigines can communicate telepathically, can heal broken bones overnight, and perform illusions to either disappear from sight, or to make one man look like 50 men. What is also mentions, and that I believe may actually be closer to the true culture, is that they can find water nearly anywhere within the desert, can eat just about anything, and have been using natural remedies that are completely unique and unknown to the rest of the world to cure various health problems that keep them surviving and able-bodied to an incredibly old age.

Eventually she finds out that she really is on her way to a meeting, of sorts. When she was born, a similar spirit was born in the exact same moment on the exact opposite side of the earth. She and her kindred spirit made plans to meet again in 50 years and share their experiences. It was her destiny that brought her here. A destiny that even a mysterious fortune teller in the tea-shop in the city told her, but that she just didn’t understand until this moment… Right. It turns out that her companion spirit is the tribal elder, and they share many different things about their cultures, finding similarities and differences in elaborate metaphors. My favorite one: “It seems Mutants [their names for non-aborigines] have something in their life called gravy. They know the truth, but it is buried under thickening and spices of convenience, materialism, insecurity and fear. They also have something in their lives called frosting. It seems to represent how they spend almost all the seconds of their existence in doing superficial, artificial, temporary, pleasant-tasting, nice-appearing projects, and spend very few actual seconds of their lives developing their eternal beingness.”

Eventually they share with her their true secret. The aborigines are leaving the world. When they die, they will become one with the world, they already are one with the world. But the mutant world holds no place for them anymore, so they have stopped having children. They need her to go out into the world, and take to the rest of the Mutants a message, teach them the things she has learned about being and oneness and the true intent of the universe. And so she does.

To be perfectly honest, this book was not for me. I found it over-written, and over-moralizing. It was a soap box of very little support, and distinctly unbalanced and prone to wobbling. I don’t entirely disagree with its message, as a culture we most definitely place too much emphasis on materialistic gain within the short frantic time-span of our own lives. But I believe that taken seriously, this is a fanaticism of the opposite extreme. Growth and change are good and necessary. As well as personal identity, ambition to create, and not to mention will to survive.

In the end, the main character gallops out of the outback on a higher horse than the one she rode in on (metaphorically of course, though she does describe her now calloused feet as “hooves” several times). She is distressed that the local Mutants she tells her story to seem uninterested in her grand philosophies of reincarnation and the one-ness of the universe. She encounters meanness and ugliness in the world that she hasn’t had to deal with in the last three months, but proves to herself that she has grown in “beingness” by not being hurt and instead blessing the person that wronged her. She makes her way home, to a family that wants to hear her story, and with a willingness to tell it to the world.

Basically, if I take this book too seriously, it bothers me very deeply. But if I take a step back, and instead look at the silliness of the adventure of it, at a woman in a situation she is utterly not prepared for but willing to take a go at, its not so bad. I think maybe this story would have been greatly improved if the author had not claimed it was based in reality from the beginning. If she had rather decided to create a completely fictional native culture on a completely fictional world, and instead focused on making the message a subtly built piece of art that didn’t have to worry about offending anyone on the planet we already live on, it might have actually held more meaning. Instead I just felt like she was bashing me in the head with a two by four carved with the message “you suck! aborigines rule!” … or maybe not quite that obviously violet. Maybe instead this book made me feel like I was walking down the street and a slightly graying middle aged new-age hippie is sitting under a tree. And she reaches out her hand, and tries to lure me close with “Come, come smoke pot with me and feel at one with the universe! Here, eat this worm, its good for you. The aborigines do it! They’re right about everything. They’re One. They are Beingness. They’re sooooooo smart and soooooo ancient. I remember this one time….”

In the Garden of Iden ★★★

Hands down, my favorite thing about this novel is its unique use of time travel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a devoted Doctor Who fan, but that sort of time travel puts holes in plots like swiss cheese. Personally, I like my time travel to be complex and flexible, but still hold true to a logical set of rules. In this, Kage Baker has definitely succeeded.

In some not too distant future, a group of scientists and business men get together to solve some mysteries, make some money, and in general try to improve the lot of humanity. To this end, they create time travel. An agent can go anywhere in the past, or their own present, but not into their future. And they discover that they can’t change anything about recorded history. “If history states that John Jones won a million dollars in the lottery on a certain day in the past, you can’t go back there and win the lottery instead. But you can make sure that John Jones is an agent of yours who will purchase the winning ticket and dutifully invest the proceeds for you.” They also discover that they can’t take anything out of the past, but that doesn’t stop them from rescuing famous paintings from their recorded destruction in the past, and hiding them until they can be miraculously “found” in the future. In this way, the company grows, and with each success grows more and more mysterious.

The company also goes back and time and chooses adaptable intelligent children to turn into immortal time traveling agents raised to do the company’s bidding. This is how we meet Mendoza, a poor girl who is born in medieval spain and rescued from certain death at the hands of the inquisition by the company. She is whisked off to a company “school” and spends the next 12 years going through the painful process of becoming a sort of cyborg immortal, and learning the entire history of humanity, through the twenty-fourth century.

She concentrates her studies in botany, and when she is 18 she graduates and receives her first assignment at the home of Sir Walter Iden, in England. It seems the he has a remarkable garden which contains whole species of plants that will soon be extinct. The company wants her to take specimens of each plant to preserve it for the benefit of the future. With her travel several other anthropologist immortals who are there to study the reaction of the locals to the religious upheaval as Queen Mary is at the peak of her protestant prosecution.

Mendoza’s character is rather contradictory. She has little love for humanity (she often refers to mortals as “murderous apes”) and yet she fully believes in her job to find and preserve rare plants for the betterment of humans in the future. She knows she is much superior as an immortal than she would have ever been as a human, yet she clearly dislikes and is angry with Joseph, the man who rescued her from the inquisition and is her mentor in her first assignment. At first she is repelled by Sir Walter’s secretary, but invariably ends up being drawn to him and his stauch refusal to denounce his faith.

As you can guess, involved relationships with mortals are not encouraged by the company. They put the secret of the company at risk, and even if all goes well the mortal will eventually die leaving the agent emotionally bereft. And as you can guess, Mendoza doesn’t care and falls wildly in love with the secretary, Nicholas. And guess what? All does NOT go well…

I would have rated this novel much higher except that it combined two of my least favorite things: First person narrative and heavy handed forshadowing. First person narrative is something that has to be done very very carefully to keep it from becoming…annoying. Characters either become whiny and unlikable, or all-knowing and unrealistically self-less. Its just too difficult to tell a whole story from only one point of view. And when you combine this with unsubtle forshadowing, you get fairly unreadable lines, like “if only I had known what was to befall us then!” and “That summer was so sweet and delightful we didn’t see the storm gathering…” For me, this sort of style does not build suspense, it just makes me want to give up reading the book.

And yet, I did not give up reading the book. I even went and picked up the sequel “Sky Coyote,” which I ended up enjoying much more than this one. “Sky Coyote” is told from the point of view of Joseph, the mentor, who I find is a much more interesting character.

Both books leave you wanting to know more about the motives of the company. Are the good or evil? Who is actually running it? How will Mendoza’s not-so-veiled suggestions of future chaos actually come to pass? There is obviously a conspiracy, but where will it lead? Despite a few stylistic annoyances, I think I will continue reading to find out. Next stop: “Mendoza in Hollywood.”

The Lathe Of Heaven ★★★

Before proceeding with this review, I have to admit something: I’ve never been a fan of Urusula K LeGuin. I know, I know, she’s written so many books, and won so many awards for them. She is considered one of the great feminist sci-fi writers, a collective which I should whole-heartedly support. I think its a prejudice that started in middle school when I read, and was disappointed with, A Wizard of Earthsea (which I haven’t read since then, and which I should probably go back and read again before I start disparaging it).

That said, the concept of this story, and the way in which le Guin approaches it, is fairly wonderful. Orr is a man living in a post, pre, and concurrant apocolyptic world, and he was born with a strange gift. Sometimes when he dreams, his dreams come true. His dreams actually alter the past, not the present or the future, so that when he awakes things around him have changed, but no one else notices because “they’ve always been that way.” Orr is not a man who likes to have that kind of power, he just wants it to go away. After turning to drugs to keep himself from dreaming, Orr is sentenced to Voluntary Theraputic Treatment and is introduced to a psychiatrist who specializes in dreaming. This doctor hypnotizes Orr in an attempt to get him to stop being afraid of his dreams, and by a function of being near Orr is taken along with him into the next “reality” and remembers the changes. The doctor sees this as an opportunity to make their world a better place to live, the only problem is, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Over the next few months, the doctor takes it upon himself to “fix” all the unhappiness in the world. The doctor orders Orr to dream of world peace, no more war in the middle east, and when Orr awakes planet Earth is united together… in a war against the aliens. As each session with the doctor creates a world that is less and less familiar, Orr begins to believe that the doctor is fundamentally damaging reality, but he has to overcome his own passive nature and take one vital step towards action to save the world from the excesses of the doctor.

I think my dislike of The Lathe of Heaven stems from the wordy pseudo-philosophical style in which it is written. “It was not standing there, Orr thought: not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be. It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing. It was there in the sense that in a dream one is somewhere.” Now, normally I’m a big fan of prosetry (writing that is half prose half poetry), but I believe that it has to serve a purpose. There has to be a point the author is trying to make. In this instance, it is strangely out of character for Orr to be thinking in such philosophical circles. Orr is described as being flat, completely mentally balanced, and passive to the extreme. The other characters do not think of him as stupid, but as being simple, direct, and usually saying exactly what he thinks. So this particular quote, and others like it, just feel like the author’s self-indulgence and love of her own writing style (and I know it when I see it, I’m often guilty of this flaw myself.) Just because a sentence is purely beautiful, well written and meaningful doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. And when a novella is barely 150 pages, every word has to count, every sentence has to contribute to the story as a whole, and not just be a way for the author to expound her own brilliance.

Le Guin also has the tendency to get a little bit “preachy” in The Lathe of Heaven. This is her chance to tell you some of what she thinks is wrong with the world, and how *not* to fix the problems. It tells you what le Guin herself is afraid of seeing in our society, and some of the societies Orr dreams up are pretty scary. This novel asks the reader to choose between race and gender issues versus uniformity, freedom versus control, what makes the perfect world?

When the ending comes, it is with a jumble of psychadelic abstract images. The reader is left knowing that le Guin believes there is no “lathe of heaven,” there is no tool that can create the perfect reality, utopia cannot be found by shaving away the things we don’t like. We are just pieces of the puzzle, we can’t see the whole image, we can just attempt to find where we fit as individuals. (And I forgive her; sometimes, as authors, we can’t help but throw in some prosetry, because we think it sounds pretty.)