Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Cover of Chime, featuring a white girl with platinum blonde hair. She wears an old-fashioned black dress and reclines within a bed of twigs that seem to embrace her.
Briony Larkin is a terrible, horrible person, and she’d like you to hang her right away, please. It's only as much as she deserves.

Why? She’d rather not get into it, seeing as how it’s horribly painful, but she supposes she really should. You need to hang her, but first you’d better understand why.

It’s the early 20th century, presumably before 1914 because nobody mentions the war. Briony is a young witch who lives in Swampsea with her parson father, her neuroatypical twin sister, Rose, and their new lodger, Eldric, whose father has decided it’d be best if his son lives with religious folk following his expulsion from university. Briony used to have a beloved stepmother, too, but she died a few months ago. The coroner ruled it suicide, but Briony is certain Stepmother was murdered.

Not that she can talk about it with anyone. Briony’s life is built of secrets. The secret of Stepmother’s death; of the terrible thing Briony did to Rose; of her relationship with the Old Ones who dwell in the swamp; of her past as a Wolf Girl; of her inability to be a real person, or to love anyone at all.

Briony isn’t a girl. Not really. She’s a witch and a monster and the cause of all her family’s woes.

Except there’s a dramatic difference between what Briony tells us about herself and what we observe in her. Part of it’s a bit of a cheat when you experience the audio instead of the prose edition, though. Had I, a first time prose reader, been charged with imagining Briony’s voice, I’d have taken her early declarations of inhumanity and used them to cast her as a flat speaker; someone who relates the truth without ever fully feeling it. I’m sure my mental delivery would’ve soon shifted in response to other textual clues, but the audiobook delivered a rather different experience. Susan Duerden’s impassioned performance immediately told me that Briony is not only an unreliable narrator (something I’d have assumed anyways, given my well-documented distrust for first person narrators), but also a possessed of deep emotional reserves.

It’s a hell of an auditory hook; a girl who claims to feel nothing, but whose voice tells us she feels everything.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Murchie Plus Books: August 16th to 22nd

The premise: I love my dog. I love books. I bring the two together by making my tiny and adorable dog pose with everything I read, barring the digital comics I read as single issues.

The photos: go live on Instagram as I edit them and appear here in digest form every Sunday.

Not pictured: STAR WARS #2 was great. Thanks for existing, STAR WARS.

(Yeah; my comics consumption is waaaaaaay down. More on that below.)

A hardcover copy of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August stands upright near the front of the frame. Its blue-tinted cover features the title picked out in bright dots of white. The I in Lives is the silhouette of a person. A sleek grey poodle, Murchie, sits some distance behind the book, his back to the viewer but his head twisted so he appears in profile.

An important thing about me: I fucking hate spending more than three days with a book. It's usually bearable if we're talking about a chunkster or something, but it's intolerable with a 400-pager. Barring boredom and/or especially dense prose, a book like that oughta take me three days at the absolute most.

Which brings us to THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST, an engaging and inventive novel I'm enjoying very much and have been reading since fucking Monday.

I'm a prickly person at the best of times, and I had one of those weeks where pretty well everything except Murchie pissed me off. (The little dude threw up on my comforter not once but twice, and I just rolled with it even as I absented myself from polite company so I wouldn't go apeshit on anyone for, like, chewing too loudly.) My reading speed was an important contributing factor. I require a steady diet of story1 or I get seventeen kinds of antsy.

But yeah. I'm enjoying HARRY AUGUST very much when I actually sit down with it, and I hope to hell I can actually finish it today.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

Cover of Fool's Quest, featuring a dark-haired white man in medievalesque leather armour. He wields an ax. Ghostly, feathered wings rise above his shoulders.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Before we go any further, I must inform you FOOL’S QUEST is a late-in-series novel. Specifically, it's the second book in the fifth subseries contained within Robin Hobb's wider Realm of the Elderlings series1 (just to keep things simple), so it’s not an ideal starting point. You must read FOOL’S ASSASSIN before this one, and I’d recommend you also go back and read the thirteen books that come before it.

Yep. Thirteen. I know that sounds like the world’s most involved homework assignment, but trust me when I say it’s some of the best homework you’ll ever get. Realm of the Elderlings ranks among my top three series2 for its memorable characters and epic sweep, and both qualities show to best effect when you see the whole thing laid out. Each subseries works well enough on its own, but the whole thing is so much better when you’ve followed the thread right from the beginning.

Since this is both a direct sequel and a late-in-series volume, we shall forgo the usual plot summary. All you really need to know is that FOOL’S QUEST begins immediately after the end of FOOL’S ASSASSIN and deals with what happens next.

And it takes its sweet time about it, which is less of an annoyance and more of an exercise in glorious tension. The reader knows something terrible has happened, but Fitz is still dealing with a completely different terrible thing. We all want to know when he’ll get the news, and how he’ll react, and what sort of fresh hell will break loose as a result, not to mention what all's going on with Bee while Fitz lurks around Buckkeep. (Bee and Fitz continue to share the narration here, as they did in FOOL'S ASSASSIN.) And the longer Hobb makes us wait for it, the higher the tension climbs.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Murchie Plus Books: August 9th to 15th

The premise: I love my dog. I love books. I bring the two together by photographing my tiny and adorable dog next to every book I read, barring the digital comics I get in single issue form.

The photos: go live on Instagram as I edit them and appear here in digest form every Sunday.

Not pictured: I finally finished my stack of FRUITS BASKET. My attention waned for a couple of volumes there, but it bounced back in a big way with 9. Look at all that emotional resonance coupled with adorability!

And, I finished FOOL'S QUEST, and it was amazing, and I have a lot of emotions. We'll probably talk about it in more detail on Tuesday. (Or you could scroll down to the footnotes for a sorta-related shipping discussion.)

I also read the third volume of MS MARVEL. Look at Kamala Khan, being all great and enthusiastic and keen to avoid hurting anyone as she pursues justice for all! I hurt my face, I grinned so hard at her. Nobody tell Kamala; I don't want her to feel bad.

A sleek grey poodle, Murchie, lays on his side on a red tapestry comforter. In front of him is a red-bordered iPod with the cover of China Rich Girlfriend on its screen. the cover features a vector-style drawing of a Chinese woman wearing a yellow dress with a short skirt and a long train. She leads two large white dogs on leashes against a blue background.

Wee Murchie has been sleeping a lot lately. I think the heat's getting to him.

Kevin Kwan's CRAZY RICH ASIANS wasn't quite the Jackie Collins-esque romp I'd hoped it would be, but it was still fun enough that I knew I'd read the sequel. So I jumped in as soon as I finished listening to BARRAYAR (which was great, by the way).

CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND is even more fun than its predecessor, assuming you're into stories about rich, entitled people doing terrible things that're simultaneously censured by the text and celebrated by the society to which these characters belong.

Okay, the text celebrates them too, but it's more concerned with our delight in their extravagance than it is in justifying anyone's poor behavior. It's great "rich people do decadent and/or awful things while ordinary people gawk at them" territory.

Like I said: it's fun. There are random half siblings, wedding-disruption schemes, and people who're like, "That poor boy only has $10 million a year. How does he even live????"

And there's this one character who builds herself a spa because she's totally addicted to spas and having her own is, like, better for the environment because she doesn't have to jet all over the world to use other peoples' facilities. Hello, carbon offset points!

But at the same time, her relatives bring ramen noodles with them to Paris because the food is such poor value for money, and they get housekeeping to hook them up with extra tiny shampoo bottles because who the hell wants to pay for shampoo? That shit is expensive, right?

Private Celine Dion concerts, on the other hand, are an excellent use of one's inheritance.

Basically, I'm having a blast with it. Y'all should read it if you're into salacious stuff. You probably want to read CRAZY RICH ASIANS first, though, since Kwan builds on a lot of the character dynamics he established there.

And hey, he adds footnotes this time around so non-Singaporean or -Chinese readers will get all the references. It's educational. You will learn things about various Chinese languages and the Asian economy, and also GAME OF THRONES.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Cover of The Philosopher Kings, featuring a round detail of Raphael's School of Athens. A number of white people in vaguely ancient clothes argue a point in front of a temple. The bulk of the cover is white.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS is the sequel to THE JUST CITY, Jo Walton’s novel of time-displaced philosophers doing Plato’s Republic with divine aid. It picks up about twenty years on and examines the fallout from Sokrates’s debate with Athene at the end of the previous book. You probably want to read THE JUST CITY first so you’ve got a good grounding in the premise and the characters, but there’s enough distance between the two books that I imagine a new reader could enter here if they were so inclined. I wouldn’t recommend it, since it’d mean cheating yourself out of the wonder that is THE JUST CITY, but it’s a thing you could do.

Like its predecessor, THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS employs three narrators: Apollo, who continues to increase his understanding of humanity as a father, civic leader, and recently bereaved husband; Arete, his daughter, who has lived her entire life in the remnant of the Just City with full awareness of her father’s divine nature and her own potential to become a Classical hero; and Maia, who remains a teacher and interrogator of philosophical concepts large and small.

Apollo and Arete’s stories work in concert as father and daughter undertake a journey to discover the truth behind a deadly art raid and their fragmented Republic’s missing colony. Maia’s mainly comprises flashbacks to the years after the Last Debate, giving us insight into the challenges cities and citizens alike faced during their restructuring efforts.

And of course, it’s all terribly interesting.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Murchie Plus Books: August 2nd to 8th

The premise: I love my dog. I love books. I bring the two together by posing my dog beside every book I read, barring the digital comics I get in single issue form.

The photos: go live on Instagram as I edit them and appear here in digest form every Sunday.

Not pictured: the first two issues of THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL hit Marvel Unlimited, so I dove in and fell in love. This book is so cute.

I also had a great time with STAR WARS #1 and the beginning of the Secret Invasion part of MIGHTY AVENGERS. I've been dancing around Secret Invasion for nearly a year now, so it's nice to finally get the core story.

On the manga front, I made it a bit further through my stack of FRUITS BASKET. It continues to move and delight me.

A fuzzy grey poodle, Murchie, lays on a red tapestry comforter, head raised. In front of him is a trade paperback copy of The Outside Circle. Its red cover features a black and white line drawing of a young First Nations man with his right hand pressed over his left arm, which is bleeding. He also has a prominent scar cross his nose.

I began the week with THE OUTSIDE CIRCLE, a comic written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and drawn by Kelly Mellings. It's deals with Canada's shameful history of destroying Aboriginal families and placing Aboriginal children in places like Residential Schools, where they endured terrible physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings demonstrate how this legacy plays out for one young Alberta man who enters a healing program as part of his prison sentence. While the transitions are sometimes choppy, the comic's core tells a deeply important story that pulls none of its punches. Characters speak of how the government's policies affect them on both a personal and communal level, and it is brutal.

If you're not Canadian want a sense of how brutal before you actually read the comic, be aware that South Africa got the idea for apartheid from how Canada handled affairs with our First Nations population.

Yeah. It's fucking terrible.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the story itself, seeing as how I'm a white Canadian, but I encourage you read it. It's important and it's powerful.

Remember, too: all this stuff is still going on. The last Residential School may've closed (in 1996, not even twenty years ago), but the effects will linger for generations and racism is rampant in Canada. I mean, we have over a thousand unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and our prime minister says it's "not a priority." He's that fucking flippant about it, and it's hardly the only issue First Nations people grapple with every single day.

We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves, and books like this one can play an important role in that.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Year With Marvel: One Year In

A blonde white woman, Captain Marvel, wears a determined expression on her face as she pulls on a red gauntlet-style glove.

It’s been a full year since I took advantage of Marvel Unlimited’s SDCC sale and dove down the comics rabbit hole.

And it’s been great.

My initial plan was to read as much as I possibly could during my discounted month, focusing on titles my library didn’t have, then cancel before I traveled over into Regular Price Land. I figured I’d stick to characters I already knew I loved, or who had been recommended to me; various X-Men, maybe, and the Runaways, and possibly the Guardians of the Galaxy so I’d be primed and ready for the movie.

So I gulped down RUNAWAYS (which I’ve gotta write about one of these days), and I read some solo X-titles, and I fell hard for HAWKEYE after Anastasia urged me to read it. But when it came time to explore the Guardians of the Galaxy, all my plans died an ignoble death.