Not dead, just busy…

Cover illustration for Fair Game by Patricia Briggs…too busy, for many months, to actually finish any non-school book. But not too busy to dork out at the first opportunity. Now I’m back, and, predictably, back with something trashy. Fair Game, the latest installment of Patricia Briggs’ off-shoot series, Alpha and Omega, falls somewhat short of the author’s usual standard–the funny, sexy fantasy for which she is so deservedly known–but it’s still more cleverly orchestrated and better written than the vast majority of the competition, and the ending promises a new and exciting future for the series.

In this installment, werewolves Anna and Charles find themselves partnering with the FBI (and a made-up paranormal governmental agency) to track a serial killer who has been targeting their kind. Their mission and their relationship are hampered by the fact that Charles is secretly haunted by ghosts–but not to worry–they can be dispelled via cell phone. Anna, meanwhile, is concerned because she and Charles haven’t had sex lately. Fortunately, midway through the novel, the couple go ahead and fuck in the woods in front of the FBI and a bunch of other werewolves, so that gets resolved, too. Happy endings all around. And, you know, they catch the killer and all.

Of course, there comes an inevitable moment when Charles has to save Anna. All the passion of their relationship is wound up with the desperate threat of loss. It’s sort of hilarious watching as Briggs tries to balance her deep-seated BDSM fantasies about domination and possessiveness with feminism. It’s not that these things are inherently incompatible. Rather, the author’s own internal tension is palpable in the work. Anna, like all Briggs’ female leads, walks a thin line between resilience and strength, luck and wit; her greatest asset is the fact that she is beloved of someone far more dangerous and far more deeply damaged than herself. It seems with each successive book some of the artifice and some of the craft is stripped away, and readers are brought closer and closer to whatever it is that lies at the core of all Briggs’ stories–perhaps the author herself, perhaps merely a question she asks. Or maybe I’ve just read too many of these things.

Weirdly, this book is packed (no pun intended) with references to popular SciFi–something I don’t recall from previous installments. The characters banter about zombies and Tolkien. It’s all very meta. Perhaps my favorite moment comes when a drunk cop rudely asks Anna whether she and Charles have sex as animals, and what its like. Anna, of course, doesn’t confirm or deny. I can only suppose people must have asked the author about it at comic-con or something, and she decided to taunt us.

Like River Marked before it, this is very much a series-building book, occupied more with getting the characters from one place to another than with telling us anymore about them–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Kicking off the Holiday Season with Patricia Briggs and Deanna Raybourn

Cover illustration for Wolfsbane by Patricia BriggsI started off November with the incredibly fabulous corn-ball extravaganza, Wolfsbane, by Patricia Briggs, the long unpublished squeal to the author’s 1993 flop, Masques (which I, incidentally, adore).

The novel opens with the main character, Aralorn, heading home to her family estate to attend her father’s funeral. Her morose but hot lover, Wolf, joins her at the family castle, and the two soon discover that her father is not in fact dead, but under the influence of a powerful spell that will kill him before long. The book follows Aralorn and Wolf and a small host of friends and family as they work to discover who is responsible for the attack and undo the spell. Their continued romance forms the major subplot of the book, occasionally superseding the mystery, so that it’s almost a toss up whether this is a fantasy-mystery novel with some elements of romance, or a romance novel with some elements of fantasy and mystery. So obviously that was enormously satisfying. (Did I mention my boyfriend has been out of town?)

Deanna Raybourn Julia GreyI followed that one up with the Lady Julia Grey Bundle for Kindle, a compendium of three slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothic mystery romances from Deanna Raybourn (no I don’t think it’s her real name either). Widowed in the first line of the first book, Lady Julia Grey proceeds to solve gruesome murders, ruminate on the depravity of human kind, fight with her prodigious family, and make out with brooding but hot private inquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. The mysteries pretty much weren’t, but the whole experience was completely enjoyable.

Cover illustration for Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna RaybournI’m now about 85% done with the newly released fourth book in the series, The Dark Road to Darjeeling, another winner. I’m guessing selling #4 at full price is the reason they bundled 1-3–and it worked, because I totally bought it. I don’t want to give away the mystery (not that the author hasn’t already done so) but in this one, there is an all black man-eating tiger.

I think a good rule of thumb is this: if the word “bane” appears in either the book title or any character name, the book is going to be

a) really fun, and
b) really embarrassing

When I’m done, I swear I’ll finish Super Sad True Love Story.

Um…so, like, blog or what?

I have been sick. I have addressed this issue by taking the world’s grossest vitamins and lying in bed reading eight (count them eight) Meg Cobot novels. That’s two whole series. Consecutively. I’m not even kidding.

What is it about illness that leaves you longing to read about 2000 pages of mindless crap about tall guys with great abs who fall inexplicably in love with obtuse and accident prone but otherwise average women, instead of, you know, Waverly (which is what I told people I was reading, when they asked–thank God (and my boyfriend) for the Kindle) or Skippy Dies, which I have seriously got to finish someday? Also, run-on sentences. The woman leaves us all babbling about guys asses in jeans and the complete unfairness of existence for, like, paragraphs on end. I’m even starting to write like Meg Cabot. Christ. How embarrassing.

But also, you know, if only. Because that woman is funny. And smart. And laughing all the way to the bank, probably. That hair cut in her author photo must have cost about $300, if you count in the highlights. And Harper isn’t exactly known for its air brushing.

Just for comparison, today, a bunch of third graders pointed out to me that I had eye liner up by my eyebrow (Although what they actually said say, “Ms Linds, do you have a black eye?”). At like, five in the afternoon. Which means I’d been going around like that all day. Guess I forgot the make-up remover last night. All of my neighbors and coworkers, and the people at Boulange, probably think I get beat. Plus, you know, the children.

The worst part is I can’t even legitimately argue that I’ve been using the excess brain power for writing, since my computer’s been out of commission for something like two weeks.

Funny story:

So, I’m sitting at the Church Street Cafe, typing away (on my novel no less), when all of a sudden a framed photo of an elderly Native American woman (I’m not even joking) jumps off the wall, right onto my table (and my shoulder) setting off a chain reaction that ends with a fresh 16 oz coffee flooding my key board.

That was a Tuesday. I spent the rest of the week waiting, hoping maybe some time to drain and the judicious application of a space heater might dry the thing out enough to, you know, at least flash me the screen of death or whatever. No such luck.

Those are some edits that are gone forever, let me tell you.

A week or so at the Apple Store seems to have resolved the issue, however. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing left that’s actually original to my computer at this point, except the power cord, since I had the screen replaced a while back due to a malfunction, and this most recent crisis resulted in a new case, keyboard, mouse, hard drive, optical drive, logic board, battery, and who knows what all.

I’m not saying I didn’t write all week. I’m just saying 20 notebook pages is like four and a half typed pages, which doesn’t exactly meet my goal…

But today was a good morning, writing-wise, at least. And there’s nothing to do, really, but move on, and hope my own characters don’t start to exhibit too strong a tendency toward angry make-out sessions and premature marriage proposals (i.e. an undue Cabot influence).

This Month in Recreational Reading: Deanna Raybourn and Francesca Lia Block

Although I do sometimes make fun Cover illustration for The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybournof Deanna Raybourn’s over-the-top Gothic stylings, I freely admit that I snapped up her latest, The Dark Inquiry, the day it was released and finished the thing in about a day and a half.

The mystery portion of the plot is not quite so dark as in previous installments–no elicit sex, no incest or mummy babies–no tigers even. The solution is, however, a bit more difficult to predict, largely because the investigation remains unfocused for much of the book, leaving readers uncertain of what to watch for, and because the author withholds a key piece of information about one of the characters until the heroine’s own moment of realization.

Raybourn has a gift for continuing the romantic storyline even after her hero and heroine have moved past the tortuous and drawn out will-they-won’t-they phase of the relationship–a very rare trait among writers if any genre. Her characters are married and ostensibly living happily ever after–but they still fight. And they fight about real things. Then they make up again, without necessarily resolving the underlying issues–almost like a real relationship. This underlying honest streak counterbalances the more ridiculous aspects of her work to some extent, making for surprisingly touching and serious moments in the midst of what is at heart escapist fiction for English majors.

Cover illustration for Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia BlockIs there an arty chick under 40 who doesn’t have a certain soft spot in her heart for Francesca Lia Block–especially the Weetzie Bat books?

The first new addition to the Dangerous Angels series since 1995, Necklace of Kisses picks up with Weetzie at 40. After 20 years together, Weetzie and Max have somehow managed to loose each other in a haze of work and depression. So, Weetzie packs a bag full of her favorite clothes and goes to stay a pink hotel where she meets a spectrum of eccentric artists and struggles to heal and to find herself again.

This follow-up focuses on the relationship between Weetzie and her Secret Agent Lover Man, but readers will be glad to see all their old favorites–Coyote, Dirk and Duck, Ping and Valentine, Raphael and Cherokee, Witch Baby and Angel Juan (my personal favorites), and even the evil Jane Mansfield-style witch Vixanne.

The story isn’t as compelling and original–or as cohesive–as many of Block’s other books. Indeed, echos of Weetzie and Max’s separation in Weetzie Bat (1989), the first book in the series, may give long-time readers a slight feeling of de ja vu. However, there is enough new material here to keep readers interested and engaged, and the conclusion of the novel is, as always, enormously satisfying. It’s a comfort to know that, even twenty years later, love and art still save the day.

No book reviews…

…although I am currently simultaneously reading Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray (semi-literary, charmingly whimsical, overly ironic book club-style fiction), Dark Inquiry, by Deanna Raybourn (total masturbatory fodder for female and gay male former English lit majors whose soul sucking office jobs leave them unwilling to expend the effort required for reading actual Victorian literature–why can’t I look away!?!), and The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy (a counter balancing work designed to keep me from imploding in a cloud of purple sparkles). I’ll let you guess which of these three titles I’m most likely to finish first.

In fact, until yesterday I haven’t really had much time for reading, what with packing up all my stuff, moving it to a new house and then (beginning) to unpack it again. After the long weekend certain rooms are starting to look semi-presentable (bathroom, bedroom) while others (kitchen, office) have a pretty long way to go.

I have not even begun unpacking my books, except for the poetry and plays (by far the smallest section) and the old notebooks which I shoved, unopened, into the shelves beneath to my desk. I am fairly positive there won’t be room for half the fiction. I sold several big shopping bags full of old stuff to Green Apple and abandoned another whole bag at Borderlands–but then I went ahead and spent all my store credit (and then some) on a collected Rilke, the newest William Trevor, and a bunch of greeting cards for assorted upcoming family holidays.

Oh well. Pictures to follow (as soon as things are a bit more organized).

Escapist Fiction Swallows June: Cory Doctorow and Emma Bull

Cover illustration for Little Brother by Cory DoctorowIn Little Brother, Cory Doctorow tells the story of Marcus, a 17-year-old San Franciscan computer wiz caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Marcus and his friends are picked up by Homeland Security and imprisoned, interrogated and terrorized for several days. After his release, Marcus sets out to take down the agency, protect the city’s rights of free speech, assembly, and privacy, and save his friend Darryl, missing since their arrest.

Little Brother is the first technophile novel I’ve actually semi-enjoyed (i.e. finished). It’s long-winded and a bit preachy and it seems to draw an inordinate amount of inspiration from Hackers and Season 2 of Jericho. And, like all techie writers, Doctorow spends easily half his word count explaining what things are and how they work, which, for the plot enthusiasts among his readers, isn’t exactly the best use of time and descriptive prowess.

Little Brother is, however, a fast, entertaining read, a great resource for reluctant readers, especially boys, and (within the limited world of YA fiction) it offers a valuable alternative perspective. Still, I’m left wondering–is there anything Neil Gainman won’t endorse these days?

Cover illustration for Bone Dance by Emma BullI’ve loved Emma Bull since I first moved to Berkeley and the fabulous gentleman in The Other Change of Hobbit recommended War for the Oaks, a book I have pressed on pretty much everyone I know who’s likely to enjoy a modern urban fantasy featuring a hot guy who dresses like Prince and long descriptions of the main’s character’s band. So, I’ve been slowly acquiring her books for a few years as they come in and out of print and show up from time to time in the Green Apple annex.

Bone Dance is, like most of Bull’s work, well written and skillfully developed, structurally complex, and completely, fascinatingly bizarre, but (alas!) secondary to her one book that’s actually famous. (Isn’t it usually the opposite?)

Set in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate change version of Minneapolis, Bone Dance is told from the perspective of Sparrow, a genderless media enthusiast and technologist with mysterious origins. Our hero makes a living hawking classic films to wealthy collectors and mixing for a local nightclub. The rest of the time, Sparrow just tries to act normal and keep acquaintances at as much distance as possible. But lately Sparrow has started loosing time–waking up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of the night before, running into strangers who seem to have a bone to pick, and getting truly creepy tarrot readings from the friendly neighborhood Vodou priestess. The whole thing is very mysterious, but it just may have something to do with the Horsemen–psychic warriors capable of possessing, or “riding,” other people (like a horse, get it?).

Bull doesn’t hold her readers’ hands. There’s not a single pronoun relating to Sparrow in the first 3/4 of the novel (this could not have been written in the third person); she throws slang around, names people and places without explaining who or what they are, and expects us to catch on. After a while, we do, becoming acclimated to the unusual linguistic structure and the odd mix of eclectic classic movie quotes, noir references, vodou magic, and body-snatcher-style possession.

Incidentally, this one also features an endorsement from Neil Gainman (yep, he’s a whore…)

This Month in Trashy Books

Cover illustration for River Marked by Patricia Briggs  I found myself seriously in need of some escapist fare this month, so I abandoned all pretense of reading actual literature and instead entertained myself with Patricia Briggs, Michelle Tea, and Deanna Rayborn.

As excited as I was for the March 1 release of River Marked, the 6th installment of Briggs’ uber-popular urban fantasy series staring Mercy Thompson, it took me quite a while to work my way threw this book. The story opens (inexplicably) when our heroine pays a visit to her friend Stephan and finds him doing less-then-well. From there, we move on to Mercy’s wedding to long-time love interest Adam, a planned elopement which turns into a surprise wedding and reception, followed by a sex-filled camping trip/honeymoon. It’s sweet and satisfying, but again, not especially relevant. This may serve the series as a whole, but it makes for a rather rambling and plot-less opening to this installment. The actual story begins about 20% of the way through the book, when couple discover a monster in the Columbia River.

Even though these are the books that have really put Briggs on the map, the series has just become too much for me…especially when I consider that all five volumes have supposedly taken place over the course of just 18 months. This poor character gets beaten and maimed almost to death in every book, not to mention raped and coerced in #4. I mean, how many bad things can happen to one woman in a year and a half?

Cover illustration for Rent Girl by Michelle TeaAs a follow-up to Valencia, I decided to check out Michele Tea’s Rent Girl, a collaborative graphic novel style memoir about the author’s years as a prostitute in Boston and, briefly, San Francisco. I loved the style and aesthetic of this book (even though a bizarre number of the illustrations were just pictures of Tea in various outfits, facing the viewer with this “let me tell you how it is” look on her face).

The prose was stylistically similar to Tea’s other work, but more focused on the topic at hand. The author spends little time discussing her own emotions, thought processes and even her own life outside work and the people she worked with. This book is interesting not because Tea offers compelling characters or a fully developed life story, but because she explains frankly and unabashedly what prostitution is like.

Overall, it was a good read, but not as absorbing as some of her other work.

After devouring the Julia Grey series back in November, I thought I’d check out Deanna Raybourn’s newest offering, The Dead Travel Fast, an atmospheric mystery/romance staring Theodora, an aspiring novelist who travels from Edinburgh to, yes, Transylvania to visit an old school friend. As the guest of her friend’s noble family, she meets all the characters you might expect–the darkly romantic and super hot count, his mistreated and ailing mother, the strangely hostile maid servant, and the friendly local physician–and stumbles into what may (or may not) be a series of supernatural murders.

I can no longer accuse this author of writing predictable mysteries. The conclusion to this one took me completely by surprise. Ann Radcliffe like, Raybourn creates a Gothic horror story, and then, challenges it with the most mundane explanation imaginable (given the circumstances). Personally, I find Julia Grey a more compelling character, but I enjoyed this novel.

New Year, New Whatever: Recent reads from Robin McKinley and April Lindner

Cover illustration for Sunshine by RobinMcKinleyOn the lighter side of the reading scale, I kicked off this month with cult hit Sunshine, from everybody’s favorite feminist fantasy author, Robin McKinley. I read (and adored) McKinley’s 80s classic The Blue Sword, as well as her slightly obsessive multiple re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) while still in high school, so I fully expected to love this book. Meh. It was okay. I’m going to try to sell it to Green Apple.

The story takes place in an alternative modern day America in which the various things that go bump in the night are all real, and the landscape has been ravaged by a recent inter-species war. The action begins when twenty-something baker and title character Sunshine is captured by vampires and offered up as a snack for a vampire prisoner, Constantine (no joke). Luckily her fellow prisoner refuses to eat her. When Sunshine’s latent magical abilities help her to escape, she decides to take Con with her as a sort of thanks-for-not-eating-me gesture. The two form a tight bond, and decide to face their captor together.

Cover illustration for Jane by April LindnerI’m a sucker (no pun) for modernizations of classic literature (“Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” how could you go wrong?), so I couldn’t quite resist this one. That, and this Jane goes to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence (woo!). It’s a fun read, and fully lives of up to the legacy of–well, new movies about old books, more or less.

Minus the Lowood school and TB, the plot is virtually identical to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, right down to the wife in the attic–sure, Mr. Rochester is a middle aged rock star and Jane has an neglectful mother rather than a hateful aunt, but same dif. Despite the parallel plot line, however, author April Linder has managed to strip the story of it’s pathos and urgency, leaving behind only a rather charming romance.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an enormously effective Gothic mystery and a compelling romance–but it’s also a novel about self-respect, strength of mind, character, faith, and (though its anachronistic to use the term) feminism. It’s that deeper, richer portion of the novel that gets lost in translation–along with a certain amount of the logic behind the story.

In this modernization the need for secrecy surrounding Mrs. Rochester’s mental illness is unconvincing, nor does it seem that she’s better off locked inside all the time, unable to see or interact with anyone but a drunk maid, than she would be at a high class institution. Likewise, Jane’s struggles in leaving Thornfield loose their significance, and River St. John’s offer lacks force.

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s possible to translate Jane Eyre into a modern-day American context. The stakes in the modern world just aren’t high enough. The major plot points cannot retain their original emotional significance in a culture without either a true aristocracy or a powerful homogeneous faith, where women have more equal rights and opportunities, where premarital sex and divorce are both common, and where insane asylums are no longer glorified prisons. The story might play better set in a society with more rules and a more formalized class structure, like India or Iran. To achieve the emotional effect of Jane Eyre in a modern-day American novel, you’d have to tell a very different story.

Cover image for Shiver by Maggie StiefvaterShiver, by Maggie Stiefvater is a truly horrendously bad teen paranormal romance. As child, Grace was attacked by the wolves who live in the woods behind her house, but saved just in time by a yellow-eyed wolf. Even years later Grace watches for the yellow-eyed wolf, and it seems that he is watching her, too. But after a local boy is attacked the town turns against their local wolf pack. Anxious for her wolves, Grace interrupts an impromptu hunt on her way home from school and unexpectedly runs into an injured naked guy. When she looks into his yellow eyes, she’s sure he’s her wolf.

Grace and her wolf, Sam, fall instantly and easily in love. Trouble is, these werewolves aren’t subject to the moon; they’re human in summer, animal in winter. And, eventually, they just stay wolves. Equally troubling, the boy everyone thought was dead has actually become a werewolf, and his reckless behavior is threatening to expose them all.

Among the most amusing atrocities in this terrible book are: (1) Sam’s completely awful teenage poetry sprinkled indiscriminately throughout, (2) The absolutely unapologetic sickeningly sentimental relationship between the lovers, and (3) the fact that no one in this small town seems to have noticed the huge group of dudes who all spend the summer together in a giant house right outside town (as someone who grew up in a town about this size, can I just say, this is not the kind of thing that would go unremarked).

Cover image for Linger by Maggie StiefvaterYes, I read the sequel. I know, I know. Someone told me it was better. She told me that after reading Shiver she thought “eh” but then read Linger and couldn’t wait for more.

This installment does include the excellent addition of Cole, an underage man-whore rock star werewolf with a substance problem and a dark past. It’s hard to go wrong with that. Sam’s poetry is if possible even worse, mostly because now he sings it (will he and Cole form a band in #3? one can only hope…) Also, in case the melodrama quotient wasn’t sufficient before, Grace may or may not be dying.

Cover image for Water Witch by Cynthia Felice and Connie WillisThis 1982 classic from Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice tells the story of Deza, the titular Water Witch , depicted in the somewhat terrifying cover illustration. Anastasia like, Deza impersonates a missing princess as part of a con, then realizes that she may actually be a princess after all. Good thing she’s already sleeping with the prince.